THB #249: Things I'm Loving
It’s been a very odd week. Quarterlies from Paramount and Warner Bros Discovery that just didn’t add up to very much (Disney, which will be more interesting, lands next week). A LOT of movies on my schedule… a couple new ones every day, which when not at a festival is a lot. It’s Los Angeles cold in Los Angeles (waking up to the high 40s), which is always weird, especially as it was in the 90s about 10 days ago. And some unexpected reunions with old friends in the industry… which is fun.
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I’m still in the middle of it, with 2 more screenings today, more tomorrow, and a couple of big ones on Monday and Tuesday.
But when people ask, “What do you love?,” this week, I find myself going small, not wide.
I love Samantha Morton in She Said. I have mixed feelings about the movie and watching two of my favorite actresses/favorite human beings in lead performances that really don’t get a lot of dramatic range to work through is frustrating. But Samantha Morton, who I have felt was the greatest silent actor of her era going back to the In America/Morvern Collar/Minority Report days delivers a stunning performance in She Said. She is playing the real life Zelda Perkins, who was dead center in the early Harvey Weinstein assaults, sitting almost still, with a use of her voice worthy of the greatest Shakepearians, taking us through a full emotional cycle of her character and her story. She not only captures Ms. Perkins - who I only know through on-camera appearances - but she brings all the rage, all the frustration, all the self-doubt, all the guilt, and all the committment to changing things… in just a few minutes on screen. There are a few “Beatrice Straight in Network” performances this year. For me, so far, this is #1.
Morton has been relegated to shows like The Walking Dead and The Serpent Queen in recent years… and she was great on those. But there is a context. I haven’t seen The Whale yet, somehow. But this performance, in minutes, reminds us that she should be seen as we see Mark Rylance or Ralph Fiennes or Tilda Swinton… an actor who can change everything in a moment through a sheer will of performance.
By the way… She Said has an amazing cast. Another actress who I think the world of, Jennifer Ehle, is also amazing. And I can’t emphasize enough, Kazan and Mulligan do everything you could ask of them as actors. I have mentioned this phenomenon I am noticing lately before… where the performances are perfect, but the context of the rest of the film seems to limit how deeply they can effect us.
I’m loving Brian Tyree Henry in Causeway, which is now on AppleTV+. I mentioned the performance in an Oscar column, but the film is now available on Apple and it is worth your time.
Henry is very much a movie star. There is something so powerful about how he connects with the audience by being, that it is easy to forget that he is acting. In Causeway, he plays a guy who might seem very familiar when you first meet him. But the performance gets deeper and deeper as the movie goes along and he is willing to expose himself emotionally to Jennifer Lawrence’s character. One of the things that is interesting about the movie as a whole is how director Lila Neugebauer (whose DP/30 interview will be up shortly) chose not to include certain things. This includes James’ character (BTH), who genuinely surprises the audience as the movie progresses in a way you rarely see in movies.
I’m posting my old sitdown with Mr. Henry from a few years ago, even though there is an embassing tech glitch in that the video card ran out after about 6 minutes. But this guy is fascinating and likable in so many ways we haven’t yet seen explored on camera.
I loved Sr. (spoken as “Senior”), the soon-to-be-on-Netflix documentary made by Chris Smith and Robert Downey, Jr. about The Father, Robert Downey, Sr. The film work of Senior in the 60s and 70s was part of the indie revolution and like the work of Mario Van Peebles dad Melvin Van Peebles, important and game-changing, but also wild and loose and very much about the moment in time. If Putney Swope isn’t ringing a bell for you, it rings a bell for a lot of people between 50 and 80.
In any case, the film is fascinating. Chris Smith is one of my favorite documentarians, going back to American Job/American Movie/American Home and The Yes Men. He made a feature that didn’t get the love it deserved. And then back to docs with Collapse, a lost treasure about a guy who predicted the 2008 crash. It started as an interview for another film and the guy was so interesting that it ended being a whole movie. Then he started his relationship with Netflix with Jim & Andy, Fyre, and 100 Ft Wave, and produced Tiger King to boot. Chris has an amazing gift for finding perspective in the midst of madness. My sense is that this was a lot of the job here.
And the truth is, the film is as much about Robert Downey, Jr. as it is about his father. There are a number of docs about the death of a father in the last few years, kicked off brilliantly by Kirsten Johnson’s Dick Johnson Is Dead. And as is appropriate, each is dominated by the child telling the story. Also approprately, these films do not turn into full features about the child. So you get a clear view of how Robert Downey, Jr. became the kind of thinker he is - influenced heavily by both his parents - and the most intimate view of his challenges with substances that he has ever allowed. But as I say, it doesn’t crash into that lane. (I hope that Jr. will go there someday. It’s none of our business, really, but with his verbal skills, I am sure that there are amaing insights to be offered to a world that still denies the intimate realities of being addicted.)
But the film doesn’t skimp on the truths of Sr.’s journey that he allows and/or can offer at the stage of his life in which they shot the doc. Back to Van Peebles, his films and plays were driven by a certain rage. (Do see Joe Angio’s amazing 2005 doc, How to Eat Your Watermelon in White Company (and Enjoy It), which doesn’t have the infliuence of his son Mario so much, but is very similar to Sr. in having the aging maestro atthe center and takes us through the journey of a life’s work.) Downey’s work seems to have been driven by a joy of life. Maybe the two are a story of entitlement in America and where it has been taking us for the last 60 years. But Downey does seem to be a relentless enthusiast. The film doesn’t avoid or linger on his mistakes, primarily a self-focus that kept him, amongst other things, from fully parenting. But one of the magic tricks of the movie is that in showing Jr.’s committment to parenting, it shows us what he wanted that he apparently didn’t get. This is defintely a doc that shows instead of tells. We, as an audience, need to do that work. And for me, that is something I love in movies… when they show me the respect of working at their highest intellegence and expect the same of me as an audience.
Love and amazement at the on-screen power of Jonathan Majors. I saw him in a coming movie the other day and had issues with the film, but every time the camera landed on Majors, it was like the anticipations of opening packages under the tree on Christmas morning (or Chanukah nights). Is he a young Brando about to explode into world conciousness with his role in the next Marvel cycle and as the “hero or villain” co-star of Creed III? Feeling more and more like it. He doesn’t act like Brando acted. His mysteries are uniquely his own. A quiet man with a massive swirling power inside, potentially unleashed at any time.
I thought Majors was great in The Last Black Man in San Francisco, but I didn’t see what some people did… the full magic. I got a better sense of it in person, out of character. But this guy has a presence that you can feel in seconds. Nothing he has done has harnessed the full range yet. Would kill to see him as Stanley Kowalski, Willie Lohman, or Archie Bunker. But the excitement is in seeing what he does moving forward. Some great director with some great script that takes him from the bottom to the top to the bottom again.
Enjoy him this year, folks. I truly think we are witnessing the beginning of something legendary.
I was going to write about Pinocchio in this column, but Sunday morning football is starting, so it will wait for another day this week.