As we are now single-digit shopping days from Xmas, the really big multiplex presents are arriving, whether they were on your wish list or not. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is the latest edition of the gift that won’t stop giving, even if this is supposed to be the last stop in this particular branch of the franchise—and even though some serious SW fans (and nobody is more serious than a SW fan) apparently have begun complaining that since Disney assumed control, it has become waaaay too much of a decreasingly-good thing. We’d argue it was never that good to begin with (and that the Disney era sure beats that lame prequel trilogy), but perhaps ’tis the season to keep such opinions to ourselves.
Then there is Cats, the enormously successful musical based on T.S. Eliot poems that has finally become a movie nearly 40 years after its stage premiere. Already a veteran of adapting wildly popular if mostly critically-reviled musical theater via Les Miserables, this latest from director Tom Hooper (The King’s Speech, The Danish Girl) has invited ridicule since production stills were first released of cast members like Judi Dench, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Ian McKellan and Taylor Swift in full kitty gear.
Onstage, Cats has by now grossed over $3 billion, so you’d think people would have fully expected actors in tights and kitty-cat makeup, just like in the show. But apparently not. As someone who found it instantly forgettable in its live incarnation, my only mild curiosity revolves around whether they’ve applied any further narrative spine to one of the most plot-free musical theater hits of recent decades. Will Cats: The Movie also be a hit? It better be: It cost nearly $100 million to produce, not counting marketing expenses.
Neither of the above-noted films were available to preview by deadline. We did, however, manage to catch a couple more adult-targeted major releases. The good news is that Bombshell is very good, which is somewhat surprising given that director Jay Roach is known mostly for broad comedies (Meet the Fockers, etc.). Neither have I been a huge fan of scenarist Charles Randolph’s work, including the crass yet Oscar-winning The Big Short. But this dramatization of the sexual harassment scandals that roiled Fox News not long ago, eventually leading to founder Roger Ailes (played here by John Lithgow) ouster, is punchy, pointed, and humorous in appropriate ways.
Yes, it does take a certain amount of bile-swallowing to accept a movie in which Megyn Kelly (as essayed by Charlize Theron) is our heroine. Her less appealing traits are duly somewhat scrubbed here, but this is a story about institutionalized sexism and sexualized bullying—things that can (and shouldn’t) happen to anyone, whether we otherwise find them nice or not. Nicole Kidman interprets fellow former Fox commentator Gretchen Carlson, while Margot Robbie plays a fictional composite of the kind of prime, cute young female at the bottom of her career ladder who apparently often found herself targeted by sexual harassment at Fox News. Though these women are sympathetically portrayed, you may perhaps be relieved to know that such figures as Jeanine Pirro (Alana Urbach), Kimberly Guilfoyle (Bree Condon) and Beth Ailes (Connie Britton) are not, getting exactly the treatment they deserve.
Bombshell is a well-acted and savvy portrait of how major fuel for the MeToo movement came from this least-likely of professional milieus, where an ultra-conservative old boys’ network still reigned supreme and accomplished women were still primarily valued (and hired) for their looks. It’s a scandal that could not have exploded in more deserving faces.
The bad news is another surprise. A Hidden Life was supposed to be Terrence Malick’s return to working with an actual script after the increasingly formless New Age nonsense of such recent films as To the Wonder, Knight of Cups and Song to Song tested even fanatical fans’ patience. It certainly has a serious historical subject in the story of Franz Jagerstatter (August Diehl), an Austrian farmer who was eventually imprisoned and worse for being a conscientious objector during WW2, even though he’d already completed his mandated military service.
It should be a compelling tale, yet from the get-go we’re right back in the shapeless, moonstruck recent Malick terrain of characters endlessly frolicking through fields. (Uh, don’t they have farmwork to do?) The camera is forever stopping to gaze at pretty clouds or the sun streaming through treetops as prattling voiceover narration ponders Life and God and Love and Stuff in bumper-sticker vacuities.
This movie is three hours long, and feels like ten. Malick has made some great films, but perhaps it’s time to admit that he is not a great thinker. Still beautiful, his movies have become blank—communications of spiritual rapture by someone who can’t articulate those feelings, let alone any religious philosophy, and who no longer bothers even gesturing towards narrative drive or character definition. There have been worse movies this year. Yet A Hidden Life may be 2019’s single most excruciatingly dull, repetitious, and unrewarding viewing experience.
A far less pretentious sense of the preciousness of everyday life can typically be found in the works of Agnes Varda, the beloved French filmmaker who died this year at age 90. Several local institutions are mounting tributes to her in coming months, starting with the Pacific Film Archive’s Agnes Varda: An Irresistible Force, which stretches from this Friday to Feb. 28.
First up are several showings of Varda by Agnes, the last (this one co-directed by Didier Rouget) of numerous charmingly personal documentaries in recent years that unexpectedly won her a more devoted international audience than all her prior dabblings in conventional narrative. Later the series will bring trailblazing Nouvelle Vague features (La Pointe Courte, Cleo from 5 to 7), 60s experiments (Le bonheur, Lions Love), 1977 feminist whimsy One Sings, The Other Doesn’t, 1985’s unusually stark drama Vagabond, the sensitive childhood portrait Jacquot (based on the life of her late husband and fellow director Jacques Demy), and more. More info here.
Elsewhere, this week brings the usual variety of holiday classics, with a mix at the Castro that encompasses the expected (It’s a Wonderful Life, The Nightmare Before Christmas) and the not-so-much (Die Hard, Night of the Comet). The Roxie is hosting three days of Miyazaki Mania featuring Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, My Neighbor Totoroand other anime classics.
They’re also opening the more seasonally-specific indie black comedy Lost Holiday. It’s a suburban Millennial version of Manhattan Murder Mystery that might alternately be called A Mumblecore Christmas. Kate Lyn Sheil and Thomas Matthews (who with brother Michael Kerry Matthews shares writing-directing chores here) play high school friends turned pushing-thirty besties, both back in ‘burbia outside D.C. for the Yuletide. With apparently little-to-no family obligations, they pretty much just party, until waylaid by what appears to be…well, a murder mystery, or something, that they ineptly play sleuth at.
Sometimes it’s hard to decide whether Lost Holiday is more funny than annoying, or vice versa. But in the end it is sufficiently goofy and unpredictable to be worth the trifling 75 minutes required. It provides variably amusing roles for talented actors including Keith Poulson, William Jackson Harper, Joshua Leonard and Isiah Whitlock Jr. It also has one great scene: A moment’s sweet revenge for every babysitter who’s ever encountered their former charge all grown up, and is horrified by the pseudo-adult douchebag that child has become. More info here.
For a bit of recent San Francisco history, you can travel to Marin to see the new documentary Chinatown Rising at the Rafael Film Center on Thurs/19. It portrays the rise of activist movements that began belatedly making that neighborhood a significant player in city politics (and beyond) from the mid-1960s onward. Info: https://rafaelfilm.cafilm.org/