MCC Home Video Scorecard #19: The Oscars 2020 Best Picture Home Game

Marriage Story!

I was tempted to caption it myself, but…nah. Another time.

Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover: the recurring feature that’s more like a newsletter in which I’ve jotted down capsule-sized notes about Stuff I Recently Watched at home.

It’s Oscars season once again, which I began preparing for weeks ago after seeing film critics online buzzing back and forth about Netflix stepping up their game in the awards field. I watched three Netflix Originals back in December mostly because I was genuinely interested in them and partly because I knew they each stood a good chance of garnering some nominations, particularly in the Best Picture category. As it happens, two of the three made the list with ease, while the third one picked up three nods in other categories. A fourth Netflix Original is included in this entry for the opposite reason.

* Marriage Story: Noah Baumbach’s searing depiction of a formerly happy marriage falling to pieces, and of the subsequent divorce proceedings escalating from amicable to acrimonious, would’ve made my top three films of 2019 if I’d seen it in theaters. (Sorry, I make the rules.) Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are Charlie and Nicole, a theater director and an actress who’ve lived and worked together for years in New York City, where his plays garner acclaim and she’s well received in his plays…but he’s promised for years they would make time for her to pursue other acting opportunities, most of which are waiting for her in California. When he overreacts at how her career goals and several other actions don’t make him and his wants priority one…the end of the marriage begins. Soul-searching and high-strung emotions ensue, to say nothing of the newly legendary meme of Charlie punching his apartment wall.

I’ve written of my own 1996 divorce only once so far, but several elements unearthed memories that haven’t occurred to me in years. There’s the male believing everything is fine because he’s getting his way and not paying attention to the wife’s needs or any telltale warning signs. There’s the shock of separation and the stress of shuttling your mutually created and loved child back and forth from one residence to the other. There’s the way every seemingly little thing you do can alter others’ perception of you as a spouse and parent and affect the outcome. There’s that period of time when every conversation between sides is strained and always poised to explode if a raw nerve is struck hard enough.

And, as Driver perfectly captures in the one moment that ruined me most deeply, there’s that heartbreak when you realize “joint custody” is a pipe dream enjoyed by select few dissolved families and that the laws and the odds are overwhelmingly in favor of the dad becoming the non-custodial parent and never being allowed to live with your kid(s) seven days a week for the rest of their childhood. In rare instances that storyline can be changed, as would be the case for me years later. Charlie sees no such light at the end of his tunnel while his mild-mannered attorney Alan Alda is gently conveying that harsh lesson to him.

And oh, the divorce lawyers you’ll meet if you’re forced to go there. Mine was closer to Alda’s in temperament, though he could tell my ex and I were dumb, near-broke kids and negotiated accordingly. But a milquetoast Matlock isn’t everyone’s ideal legal representation. Ray Liotta, in the role he was born to play, is the kind of attack-dog attorney who knows the game, has seen it destroy many a client, and has no time for giving his clients reassuring pats on the shoulder because he believes you either get savage or be savaged. In the other corner is Laura Dern, the dream attorney who’s unshakable and unstoppable because years of facing off against guys like Liotta gave her plenty of practice…and yet, if she’s on your side, her heart is totally with you as she listens to you, sympathizes, and preps for her own special form of savagery.

Kramer vs. Kramer covered much of this territory first, but that was forty years ago. The subject was long overdue for a quality revisit. I disagree with anyone claiming the movie presents both sides even-handedly (one was clearly a bigger sinner in my book), but I enjoyed Baumbach’s style of long, unbroken takes (not the same thing as a tracking shot) and keeping conversations both naturalistic and only as long as they need to be. Of his previous films I’ve only seen Frances Ha (whose style has carried over in some ways to his partner Greta Gerwig’s films as well), but the rhythms and scars of Marriage Story leave me wanting more of his work…as long as they don’t all pick reopen my old wounds.

* The Irishman: MARTIN SCORSESE WAS MEAN TO THE WALT DISNEY CORPORATE MONOPOLY. NEGATIVE SEVEN THOUSAND STARS.

…well, with a margin of error of ±7,004 stars. I’m not a fully devoted Scorsese completist (I never cared for Mean Streets, watched Goodfellas 25 years too late to “get it”, and remain reluctant to ever touch Casino), but I was fascinated by his 3½-hour slow-burn epic of one average Joe’s post-WWII rise through the ranks of organized crime, which we learn exists outside NYC. There are scenes in Pennsylvania, Chicago, and even Nashville. Who knew. Tethered to his new career track is the history of the Teamsters, either the paragon of unions or the summation of all their sins depending on your personal experiences. (I get how they’ve become intrinsic de rigueur for certain lines of work, but I’ve never had to belong to one.) I had apparently not paid close attention to the trailer and had no idea Al Pacino was playing Jimmy Hoffa till he was introduced at the 45-minute mark. As shouting guys go, he was far less grating than Blind Shouty McShout from Scent of a Woman.

It’s a testimony to the narrative’s hypnotic thrall — even as the final forty minutes downshift to real-time cadence — that I honestly didn’t pay attention to the much-derided CG effects. I might notice more closely on a second viewing, but that isn’t likely to happen in this decade. That said, I love how it begins and ends with Frank Sheeran narrating in decrepit ignominy from his nursing home. I love how often he’s laid low by his own daughter’s potent glaring, judging him for his utter lack of conscience and horrified that he could ever think she’d be Daddy’s Little Girl to a brute like him. And I love Joe Pesci’s complete lack of shine-box epithets as he manages his enterprise reasonably in a low-key, peacefully evil fashion. Frankly, if your empire is running smoothly, you shouldn’t have to be a shouting guy. I’ve detested the hollow phrase “It is what it is” for a few years now (99 times out of 100 it can be replaced with “meh” and lose zero effect), but when Pesci employs it as final sentencing of Hoffa for his offenses, his matter-of-fact delivery is exactly how upper management at a professional company would sound when it’s some underling’s termination time.

Bonus points for bringing in Domenick Lombardozzi from The Wire as a lower associate, and for inviting Ray Romano to deliver a credible non-comedic performance as a Teamsters attorney who knows the game. I’m not sure if his blood pressure would be high enough to tackle either Ray Liotta or Laura Dern in court, but luckily for him he doesn’t have to.

* The Two Popes: I’m not remotely Catholic and have no stakes in the perpetuation of the Papacy (as strongly implied in one of MCC’s all-time most popular back-catalog entries), but I was curious to see the dream-cast duo of Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce imagining the transfer of power between Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis and the changing relationship between them in light of their vastly different views on any number of doctrines and issues. Friendly chats and tense duels across multiple languages (each deftly captioned and labeled) add up to an apt allegory for any given, long-running church that’s struggling to find balance between sacred traditions and uppity youngsters, or between its stodgy curmudgeons and its cutting-edge up-‘n’-comers, depends on which half of your particular congregation’s schism you’re standing among.

I didn’t come away with many deep thoughts on that one. I enjoyed two consummate pros going at it (clergymen and actors, on respective levels), and I had to marvel at all that extravagant Vatican architecture and wonder how many tithes it cost and how much suppression kept it going.

* 6 Underground: Looking for the total opposite of Oscars season? Netflix has you covered, too! Director Michael Bay, no longer compelled to bludgeon us with more Transformers dreck, comes alive in this frenetic, ludicrous, guilty thrill-coaster that teams him up with Rhett Reese and Paul Warnick the writers of both Deadpools and both Zombielands. Ryan Reynolds is a billionaire vigilante inventor who’s decided evil dictators worldwide are a cowardly, superstitious lot, and to instill fear in their hearts, instead of dressing up like a bat he hires his own mercenary squad to go take out the trash. Gunfights and car chases ensue, especially the latter — anyone who remembers the high body count of innocent civilians in the pursuits of John Frankenheimer’s Ronin may be doubly horrified at how many one-dimensional passersby are crushed and slaughtered as Our Antiheroes drive at top speeds through crowded, narrow Italian streets. That’s later followed up with the most gleefully destructive carnage ever shot at an unfinished skyscraper site, where there are loose girders flying everywhere.

Reynolds is as glibly Reynolds as he can be, albeit with one or two moments of self-reflection before he gets back to being Filthy Rich Smart Deadpool. Accomplices along the way include Melanie Laurent (Inglourious Basterds), Corey Hawkins (Walking Dead, Kong: Skull Island), Dave Franco (Now You See Me), Ben Hardy (Bohemian Rhapsody, X-Men: Apocalypse), lots of military hardware, numerous Eastern Hemisphere baddies, a few cheesecake shots, occasional stunning architecture, a super-magnetized ship, and an okay hit/miss percentage on their one-liners. It’s largely indefensible from most aesthetic or moral viewpoints, but it absolutely delivers what elderly New Yorker film critic Richard Brody described as a film “full of surprises and baseline astonishment” while warming up to slam another, extremely higher-profile film that he deemed far worse. That was harsh.

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