Rated R for drug content, language, some sexual material and violence
Peril and some violence including an accidental homicide
Date Released to Theaters:
February 5, 2021
If you could, if it was possible, would you smooth all of life’s rough spots? Would you remove all worry, all fear, all sadness, all pain? Would you want to live in a world of perpetual bliss?
That is the question raised provocatively but very imperfectly in “Bliss,” with Owen Wilson as greg, a gray-spirited low-level worker failing in a soul-killing dead-end job apologizing to customers who call tech support. Our own anxiety levels rise as we see him seemingly not aware of the pressure he is under. The boss wants to see him immediately. But instead of leaving his office, he talks on the phone — to a daughter reminding him of the details of her graduation and to a pharmacy that refuses refill his pain-killer prescription. We learn from this that his marriage is over due to failures on his part, that his promises are not reliable, that he has a drug problem, and that he is in trouble at work. And we see him obsessively drawing pictures of place and a woman he has never seen, like Richard Dreyfuss sculpting mashed potatoes in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.”
But then it turns out our assumptions and his may be wrong. We find ourselves in a blue-or-red-pill situation, “The Matrix” without the bullet time, or the bullets. After things go even more terribly wrong, Greg finds himself in a bar, where a mysterious woman named Isabel (Salma Hayek) tells him he is “real” in a way the others in the room are not. There may be another reality or, perhaps, just one real reality, which is not the one with the office and the phone calls.
SPOILER ALERT: I am going to have to spoil a few things in order to be able to talk about the movie, so if you do not want any spoilers, stop reading now, watch “Bliss,” and then if you want to know more about what I think about it, you can come back. Isabel does not give Greg the whole story. She just takes him to stay with her at a makeshift shelter in an area where homeless people camp out. It turns out she and Greg are not just part of but responsible for an experiment in re-calibration for people who have found the idyllic life of the future so blissful the only thing they have to complain about is the temperature of the pool water. It just might be that even in a world supposedly free from stress there still remain concerns (about the legitimacy and success of one’s research in absolute terms and in the way it is perceived by others). It may also be that worry and fear are inextricably linked to creativity, imagination, and an innate human inclination to problem solving and some notion of progress.
These are wonderful questions to explore and there are moments of real emotion in the film along with superb design work by Kasra Farahani (“Captain Marvel”). But the script gets tangled up in its own perameters of the world or worlds it creates. The internal logic of the storyline is inconsistent enough to undermine our connection to the characters and to the issues it raises. In case you’re looking around wondering which reality you’re in, my advice is to bet on the one with Bill Nye the Science Guy in it.
Parents should know that this movie includes strong language, peril, and an apparent accidental homicide.
Family discussion: Which reality would you chose and why? What would happen if all trouble, stress, and worry was removed from our lives?
If you like this, try: “The Matrix,” “The Black Box,” “Black Mirror,” and “Passion of Mind”
Reference to tragic death of a child, child abuse, mental illness
Date Released to Theaters:
February 5, 2021
A short story by Kurt Vonnegut was turned into a television film for PBS starring Christopher Walken as a shy man who only came alive when he was assigned a part in a play. Susan Sarandon played a woman who fell in love with him and they ended up happily inhabiting roles that kept their relationship exciting. I thought of that when I watched “The Right One,” about a young writer who is drawn to a man who seems to have a dozen different personalities.
Godfrey (Nick Thune) does not conform to the expectations of Bob (David Koechner), an executive sent to improve productivity at his office. But before Bob can begin to express any concerns, Godfrey completely wins him over through a shared dedication to the 90s garage band Blues Traveler. Bob is utterly disarmed. And we soon see why Godfrey is far and away the most successful salesman in his office by far, so successful that everyone overlooks his strange looks and behavior. Just as he did with Bob, he is able to connect to people, even over the phone, finding some link to make them feel comfortable, understood, and open to buying something. We might think of it as code-switching, shifting frames of reference and modes of speech to fit the audience. But this is an extreme version, so extreme that the “real” Godfrey, if there is one, is invisible.
Sara (Cleopatra Coleman) is struggling with writer’s block. Her brash and outspoken agent, Kelly (Iliza Shlesinger) is pushing her to finish a book she has not even started. At an art gallery opening, Sara sees Godfrey in two different personas, and she is intrigued enough to start writing about a character based on him.
And so, she begins to hang out with him, seeing him as an EDM DJ and dancing the tango him. He avoids her at first, but begins to invite her to join him. He thinks they are starting a friendship. She thinks he is material for her book.
Godfrey’s brother Shad (standout M.J. Kokolis) warns Sara to stay away from him, but she ignores him. Finally, Shad tells her something of Godfrey’s background. And Godfrey finds out what Sara is doing.
The script is cluttered and inconsistent in tone and in the quality of the performances. Thune and Coleman do not have a lot of chemistry. It does not have the heft to support its more emotional beats. But like its main character, it has a rakish, if amateurish charm.
Parents should know that this film has very strong language, crude sexual humor, and references to child abuse and neglect, mental illness, and a tragic death.
Family discussion: Which personality is the “real” Godfrey? If you were going to create different personas, what would they be? Should Sara have told Godfrey what she was doing?
If you like this, try: “Benny and Joon” and Thune’s “Dave Made a Maze”
When I interviewed John David Washington about “BlackKklansman,” he told me his dream was a film of “The Taming of the Shrew.” His new film, “Malcolm and Marie” could be an audition for that project and based on the results, someone should cast him and his co-star Zendaya right this minute and start filming it tomorrow.
There’s a lot wrong or maybe it is more accurate to say missing in “Malcolm and Marie,” but given the way it was made, it is remarkable how much is right and it is never less than watchable thanks to the palpable magnetism and chemistry of its two stars, who make up the entire cast. This was a pandemic project, made by writer/director Sam Levinson, as he and Zendaya were on hiatus from their “Euphoria” series due to COVID-19 restrictions. So, this film preserves the classical unities of time and space and action, not as a tribute to Aristotle’s Poetics but as a way to keep everyone safe. The cast and crew quarantined together and the entire film takes place in real time during one late evening in one beautiful beach house. It is filmed in gorgeous black and white by Marcell Rév. And it has a script that could have used a couple more drafts.
Malcolm (Washington) and Marie (Zendaya) come home from a big, glittery event in very different moods, so different that they do not at first notice what is happening with each other. Malcolm is proud, happy, relieved, and excited. He pours himself a drink, cranks up the music, starts to dance, and asks Marie to make some mac and cheese.
Marie boils the water and cuts the butter, but she is quiet, reflective, possibly seething underneath.
Malcolm is an up-and-coming film director and they have just come from the premiere of his latest, the story of a young woman struggling with drug addiction. The premiere was a triumph, the kind that may have moved him from up-and-coming to arrived. Following the screening, he was complimented by everyone, even “the white lady critic from the LA Times.” He is delighted with the reaction, but it stings that her compliment compared him to directors like Spike Lee and Barry Jenkins, all Black filmmakers, and not to, say, William Wyler, a white director from the 1940s and 50s. Marie is feeling left out, partly for reasons we will discover, but initially because in his speech at the reception, he thanked a lot of people, including the star of the film, but did not thank her. He apologized in the car on the way home, but it still bothers her.
The rest of the film is up and down and back and forth as they argue, make up, argue, make up, argue, and possibly make up again. There are elements of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” as their arguments strip away the boundaries enduring couples are careful to protect, but in this case there is no bewildered, meek, and tipsy other couple to perform for; there is just us. Washington and Zendaya are never less than utterly present, utterly vulnerable, and utterly in control of the constantly shifting moods, challenging and matching each other in every beat as characters and as performers. It is a wonder to watch.
And it is impossible not to be sympathetic to the movie’s failures because they are the faults of daring too much, when too many movies fail for the opposite reason. “Malcolm and Marie” tries to bring a lot into the world of these two people in two hours, with issues of race and culture and the relationship of the critic to the artist and who gets credit for what and when and probably also what art is for in the first place. A lot a lot a lot, all from two people talking. It is unlikely that it would have been made this way without the restrictions of a pandemic, including the claustrophobia of the entire crew quarantining together. What other conditions could create this work? How else could we explore these issues in this way? Think of other movies about two people talking. “My Dinner with Andre” was constructed, with everyone going home after a day of shooting, and “Before Sunrise” and “Columbus” had whole cities to explore.
“Malcolm and Marie” may end up as a footnote in what are sure to be long and rich careers for the filmmakers. But it is well worth seeing as an example of what can be done when it seems like nothing is possible, indeed what can be inspired by a moment that seems stuck. I came away hoping the characters go on together and looking forward to whatever Washington and Zendaya do next.
Parents should know that this movie includes very strong language, explicit sexual references and situations, tense confrontations, and discussions of drug addiction.
Family questions: Do your sympathies shift back and forth over the course of the movie? When? Why?
If you like this, try: “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “My Dinner with Andre” as well as other films from Washington and Zendaya and the works of William Wyler
Golden Globe Nominations 2021: Netflix, AppleTV+, Amazon and some Old Hollywood, Too
Posted on February 4, 2021 at 8:40 am
The Golden GLobes get a lot of attention because they have a big, glittery award show, but their nominations are not always consistent with the choices of critics and industry groups. They are decided by a small group of international journalists living in Los Angeles. This year’s nominees reflect our pandemic viewing, with streaming services getting the majority of nods, Netflix with 22 and Amazon with 7. They have been criticized already for overlooking outstanding Black performers and for some quirky choices like “Music,” and Jared Leto in “The Little Things.” The best news about the Golden Globes is that the show will be hosted by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. It won’t be the same without the chance to see the biggest stars of Hollywood and television getting tipsy during the broadcast, but it will still be a lot of fun.
BEST MOTION PICTURE – DRAMA
THE FATHER (Trademark Films; Sony Pictures Classics)