WHITE NOISE (2022) – Bizarre Movie Lives Up to Its Title and Says Very Little

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I’m sure there’s an audience out there somewhere who will enjoy WHITE NOISE (2022).

To borrow a phrase from Woody Allen’s ANNIE HALL (1977), the rest of us are all due back on planet Earth.

WHITE NOISE is one bizarre movie.

Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, the man who gave us MARRIAGE STORY (2019), which I liked, WHITE NOISE is a story told in three parts, and none of them really work. Categorized as a comedy/drama/horror movie, and now available on Netflix, WHITE NOISE tells the story of a contemporary family in crisis. There’s the dad, college professor and Hitler expert Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig), and their myriad of children who all act like an updated version of THE BRADY BUNCH.

On the surface, things seem wonderful. Jack and Babette seem extremely happy and act like the perfect couple, but soon cracks in the armor emerge, and it starts when their daughter Denise (Raffey Cassidy) spies her mom popping a pill and then denying it. The dialogue in this early sequence is playful and thoughtful, but it’s not easy to follow, and that’s because everyone in this movie speaks like an academic. We later see Jack and his fellow university professors chatting around a table, and their conversation is both highbrow and irrelevant, and it dawned on me as the rest of the movie played out that every character in this film, even the kids, speak this way. It’s as if Baumbach took notes on everything his college professors said to him and turned it into dialogue for his characters. As a result, the dialogue throughout the movie is not realistic because most everyday people don’t speak this way. I could even buy Jack and Babette’s kids talking in this manner, but everybody in this film sounds the same. And frankly, their conversations are difficult to follow, as they seemingly offer one non sequitur after another.

The second part of the story, and the movie’s centerpiece, follows the plot point of a truck colliding with a train, which releases toxic chemicals into the air, and Jack and his family like the rest of his town are forced to evacuate. This scenario should have been a laugh out loud one, but once more, the dialogue gets in the way and the hoped-for laughter never comes.

And the final part of the story follows Jack’s attempts to learn the truth about why Babette is taking a mysterious drug. This last sequence is the worst sequence in the movie, and so while I was on board for two thirds of this one, trying to buy into it in spite of the dialogue, the end completely lost me and it became a labor to sit through till the end credits, which actually feature a neat choreographed number with people in a grocery store, which sadly, is the liveliest part of the entire movie, the end credits. But you have to sit through the two hour plus movie first.

Ultimately, the story is about people’s fear of death, fear of the idea that we are simply working our way towards oblivion, that no one gets off this planet alive. A thought-provoking theme to be sure, but what a terribly convoluted way to go about it. Woody Allen tackled death much more effectively in most of his movies.

The screenplay here by Baumbach, based on the book by Don DeLillo, is a labor to sit through. I couldn’t relate to any of the characters, mostly because they did not seem or speak like real people.

I usually enjoy Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig, and for the most part I enjoyed them here, especially during the film’s initial sequence. They are a likable couple, and their conversations are thoughtful and refreshing, but the longer the movie goes on, the weirder things get, and the less relatable they become. By film’s end, I didn’t care about either character.

Don Cheadle is also in the cast as Jack’s friend and fellow professor Murray, who wants to become an Elvis expert. Cheadle is fine, even though his storyline is a snooze.

I really thought I was going to like WHITE NOISE. It had an interesting premise, a talented writer/director at the helm, and a good cast. But all this promise was sunk by a story that turned out not to be that interesting, with dialogue that was unrealistic, and a central theme about the fear of death that was never dealt with heads on.

WHITE NOISE is supposed to be a story about a family that is distracted from the real things in life by all the white noise which the world throws at them. But ironically, the film ends up living up to its title. It ends up being simply background noise with nothing of merit to say.

I give it one and a half stars.

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RATING SYSTEM

Four stars- Excellent

Three stars- Very Good

Two stars- Fair

One star- Poor

Zero Stars- Awful

Movie Lists: SPIKE LEE MOVIES

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spike lee

Welcome back to MOVIE LISTS, the column where we look at— lists pertaining to movies. Duh!

Up today, it’s a look at the career of director Spike Lee, which of course is still going strong, so while this is an incomplete list, it’s still an important one because Spike Lee is an important filmmaker.

Now, I haven’t really seen enough Spike Lee movies to consider myself a true fan, but I’ve generally enjoyed his work, and his most recent movies have spoken to current racial tensions in ways that have really resonated, so Lee has been on my mind lately more than ever. And rightly so. Lee makes movies that make you pay attention.

Okay, here’s a partial list of Spike Lee’s 93 directorial credits:

JOE’S BED-STUY BARBERSHOP: WE CUT HEADS (1983)- Lee’s first directorial credit.

SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT (1986) – Spike Lee’s first legitimate hit, a comedy about a young woman and her three lovers. Well-received by critics upon its initial release. I was fortunate enough to see it when it first came out, as I was in my senior year at Boston University and saw it when it premiered as part of one of my film classes.

In addition to directing and writing the screenplay, Lee also appears in the movie as one of the boyfriends.

SCHOOL DAZE (1988) – Lee’s next film, a comedy/drama/musical about a fraternity pledge at a black college. Starring Laurence Fishburne and a young Giancarlo Esposito who would go on to star in a lot of Lee’s movies.

DO THE RIGHT THING (1989) – Powerful tale of race relations in Brooklyn. Starring Danny Aiello, John Turturro, and again, Giancarlo Esposito.

MO’ BETTER BLUES (1990) – again directed, written by, and starring Spike Lee, this one is the story of two jazz musicians played by Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes.

JUNGLE FEVER (1991) – Lee’s take on interracial relationships, starring Wesley Snipes and Annabella Sciorra.

MALCOLM X (1992) – probably my favorite Spike Lee movie. This riveting bio pic of African American leader Malcolm X also features one of my favorite performances by Denzel Washington of all time, in the lead role as Malcolm X.

CROOKLYN (1994) – a look at a black family in Brooklyn in 1973.

CLOCKERS (1995)- crime thriller about drug pushers and cops in Brooklyn, starring Harvey Keitel and Lee regular John Turturro.

GIRL 6 (1996) -comedy/drama about a struggling actress who turns to sex to make money.

GET ON THE BUS (1996) – chronicles a bus ride to Washington D.C. for the Million Man March.

HE GOT GAME (1998)- basketball player drama starring Denzel Washington.

SUMMER OF SAM (1999) -Lee’s take on the Son of Sam murders.

BAMBOOZLED (2000)- comedy drama about a frustrated African American writer who in a fit of frustration comes up with a blackface minstrel show only to see it become a hit.

25TH HOUR (2002) – drama about the last 24 hours of a convicted drug dealer, starring Edward Norton.

INSIDE MAN (2006) – Tense crime drama about negotiations over a hostage situation following a bank robbery, starring Denzel Washington, Clive Owen, and Jodie Foster.

MIRACLE AT ST. ANNA (2008) – World War II drama about a group of black soldiers who get trapped in a village.

RED HOOK SUMMER (2012) – drama about a boy who spends a summer with his deeply religious grandfather.

OLDBOY (2013) – weird action drama, a remake, about a man, played by Josh Brolin, held captive for twenty years who is then suddenly released, and he sets out to find answers to why this happened to him. This one just didn’t work for me.

DA SWEET BLOOD OF JESUS (2014) – thriller about a mysterious curse which results in a thirst for blood.

CHI-RAQ (2015) – modern day adaptation of a play by Aristophanes.

BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018) – the first Spike Lee film since MALCOLM X that I really, really enjoyed. Intriguing from start to finish, it tells the story of a black cop played by John David Washington who infiltrates the KKK but then needs the help of a fellow white cop played by Adam Driver to pull off the ruse. Thought-provokig throughout, it’s actually based on real events.

DA 5 BLOODS (2020)- Lee’s most recent film to date, and his first for Netflix. I actually enjoyed this one even more than BLACKKKLANSMAN, as its story of four black veterans of the Vietnam war who return to Vietnam in 2020 to reclaim the remains of their fallen platoon leader speaks to today’s modern day Black Lives Matter movement with a clarity that is seldom found in the movies. An outstanding movie that really speaks to the plight of the black male in the United States.

And there you have it, a brief, partial list of the movies of Spike Lee, one of the most influential film directors working today.

I hope you enjoyed this MOVIE LISTS column and will join me again next time when we look at another list pertaining to the movies.

As always, thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

MARRIAGE STORY (2019) – Painfully Authentic Depiction of Divorce

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marriage story

I finally caught up with MARRIAGE STORY (2019) the other night, the only 2019 Best Picture nominee that I had not seen before the Oscars aired last week.

I had heard that its depiction of divorce was depressingly realistic, and after finally having seen it,  I have to agree. MARRIAGE STORY gets the emotions right.

MARRIAGE STORY opens with a voice-over by Charlie (Adam Driver) describing all the reasons why he fell in love with his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), and these reasons play out in little vignettes shown on-screen. Then it’s Nicole’s turn as she describes why she fell in love with Charlie, again in a voice-over narration with the accompanying vignettes. It turns out these were written by Charlie and Nicole as part of their mediation process, and when Nicole refuses to read out loud what she wrote, she walks out of the mediation meeting, and thus MARRIAGE STORY begins.

Charlie runs a very successful theater group in New York City, he as the director, and Nicole as the lead actress, but Nicole has always longed to return to Los Angeles where her family lives, but Charlie has never been interested in that idea, which has caused Nicole stress over the years. When Nicole accepts a role in a TV pilot, she moves to LA with their eight year-old son Henry (Azhy Robertston), a move that Charlie believes is temporary.

But once there, Nicole hires divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern) who reminds Nicole that this process is about her getting what she wants and that there is no reason why she has to settle for things she doesn’t want, a la things that Charlie wants. When Charlie arrives in LA, he’s served the divorce papers, and he feels blindsided and betrayed by Nicole as he was under the impression that they were not going to hire lawyers, but Nicole makes it clear that she is unhappy and this is the only way she is going to get what she wants.

Charlie hires a more sensitive attorney Bert Spitz (Alan Alda), but after losing continually to Nora’s hardball tactics, he hires a tougher attorney, Jay Marotta (Ray Liotta) because as he tells Nicole, “I needed my own assh*le.”

As things get uglier and nastier, Nicole and Charlie have to deal with all their emotions even as they realize they don’t really want to hurt each other, in spite of the fact that their marriage is over and their divorce is imminent.

I really liked MARRIAGE STORY, even though watching it was a very uncomfortable experience.  As I said, it gets the emotions right. Through Nicole and Charlie, we witness the pain of watching one’s family and way of life disintegrate before one’s eyes, the frustration of suddenly being adversaries with the very person they’d been in love with, having to keep it together in front of their child, having to deal with their child’s emotions, but as a parent working alone. It makes them say things they simply don’t mean, as the whole ordeal gets inside their heads and changes them, scars them.

All of this is depicted very accurately in MARRIAGE STORY, as well as the sense that even while the divorce is happening, there’s the feeling that Nicole and Charlie don’t really want it to happen. That they love each other and don’t really want to hurt each other, but yet the marriage is over, and so there’s this weird mix of fighting for what you want and need vs. wanting on some level to keep that sense of family together even as the actual family is now separate.

So, kudos to writer/director Noah Baumbach for creating such a genuine portrait of divorce. The screenplay is outstanding.

As is the acting, especially by the two leads. Adam Driver continues to impress me as an actor. Sure, he plays Kylo Ren in the new STAR WARS movies, and he’s very good in the role, but he’s been better in other movies, in films like LOGAN LUCKY (2017) and BLACKKKLANSMAN (2018). His work here in MARRIAGE STORY is best of all.

Driver makes Charlie a self-absorbed character who is totally at home directing for the stage and perfectly content in that world, but it blinds him to the needs of his wife. He enjoys some powerful scenes, especially with Johansson, as their arguments are fiery and agonizing. Driver’s best moment comes when Charlie unleashes upon Nicole wishing her deader than dead, and then he just collapses, overcome with emotion, before apologizing for what he said.

Scarlett Johansson is just as good. As Nicole, she’s the one who seeks the divorce, but she’s also the one who needs the change, as Charlie is so stuck in his own world nothing she has said or done so far had been able to reach him. When she files for divorce, and Charlie tries to reconcile, in her eyes, it’s already too late. She believes if she goes back it’ll be the same, and she wants more for her life.

Johansson was equally as good as another mother Rosie in JOJO RABBIT (2019), which means 2019 was a pretty darn good year for Johansson.

Laura Dern won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role here as divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw. Dern is excellent, no question, although I thought both Florence Pugh in LITTLE WOMEN (2019) and Kathy Bates in RICHARD JEWELL (2019) gave better performances. That’s not to take anything away from Dern, who like Johansson, also enjoyed a stellar 2019. Dern was also in LITTLE WOMEN, as matriarch Marmee March, and she’s excellent in both films. In fact, these two performances are among Dern’s best ever. She’s been making movies for a long time, and so I for one was happy she won the Oscar. And I’m old enough to remember one of her earliest movies, SMOOTH TALK (1985), which I saw at the movies. She impressed me then and has continued to do so ever since.

But the main reason to see MARRIAGE STORY is to watch Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson performing at the top of their game. As good as the script is, MARRIAGE STORY ultimately works because of Driver and Johansson. They nail their roles, and the emotions that go along with them.

MARRIAGE STORY is not a fun movie, but it is an accurate one. Its depiction of divorce is painfully spot-on.

As such, it’s one of the finest dramas of 2019.

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