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Catching Up Reviews: PRIDE (***½), THE JUDGE (**), and LOVE IS STRANGE (***)

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I don’t really have a good reason for not tackling these sooner. My reasons for not publishing in several days I have already explained. But I suppose none of these films really inspire a great deal of commentary. You’ve got a very good film, a fairly bad one, and a good film that mostly stands on the strength of its acting. Pride actually comes pretty close to being a great film, and The Judge is bad in some rather complex ways, but these aren’t great thought-provoking films like The Hourglass Sanatorium. They’re the kind of films which just sort of fill out the year.

Spoilers for all three.

Pride is set in 1984, when the striking coal miners of Great Britain stood against the notoriously inflexible PM, Margaret Thatcher. Gay rights activist Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer), arguing that the gays and miners have a common enemy in Thatcher, founds LGSM–Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners–an organization to collect money for the strikers. It is decided that the members of LGSM should visit a mining community so as to lend their aid, and the Welsh village of Onllwyn is chosen.

The community is divided on the matter; village leader Dai Donovan (Paddy Considine) and many of the village board members are quite accepting and enthusiastic, while others are given to homophobia. Ultimately, the village is mostly won over, but the strike grinds on and ultimately, the reactionary elements in Onllwyn are able to put an end to the LGSM’s efforts. The strike ultimately fails, but at a gay pride march the following year, hundreds of miners arrive, the National Union of Mineworkers having decided to make support for gay rights a key part of their platform. We learn that the NUM’s support was instrumental in passing gay rights legislation in the following years.

Pride is, to put it plainly, a crowd-pleaser. Its rapid pace, bright sense of humor, extensive soundtrack of 80s favorites, and heartwarming finale all add to this. It’s a sweet, good-hearted film, the kind that puts a smile on your face. It’s the kind of film one could rank **** based just on its good intentions and good spirits. But there’s a problem.

The film as a whole lacks focus. That the story tries to avoid a plotted feel is fine, but there’s really nothing like a main character–which is particularly problematic because an audience-surrogate character, Joe (George MacKay), has been invented, a closeted young man, in training to be a chef, who tells his parents he is taking regional training while he and the LGSM are in Onllwyn. Of course, he’s found out, of course there’s a crisis (wherein his parents try to encourage him to stay closeted), and of course in the end he stands up to them and embraces his identity. But Joe is the focus of the film too infrequently to really justify the invention of the character.

A film full of joy and human kindness. ()

A film full of joy and human kindness. (Source)

That’s hardly MacKay’s fault (he’s actually pretty good–he reminds me of a young Michael Crawford), but it weakens the film, especially in the remembering. Mark (a real historical figure) is simply the more dynamic character, and Schnetzer invests him with the charisma of a born leader, while accommodating a few moments of haunted reflection as he realizes that he has developed AIDS. And while most of the other activists are a fairly indistinct ensemble, Faye Marsay, as the plucky lesbian Steph, is immensely likable, and there’s a sweet scene with her and MacKay as they reflect on how, were they heterosexual, they would fall in love. Oh, and Dominic West is pretty great as a weary actor-activist who seems jaded and beyond it all, yet never wants to miss a moment of the action.

But the film is thoroughly stolen by the inhabitants of Onllwyn, and it’s not hard to see why. Imelda Staunton is lovingly tough and sweetly raunchy as a community leader who takes nothing from anyone; Bill Nighy, as a village elder with a secret, initially seems pleasantly doddering, but the inner strength shines through. Considine is reliably affable, Jessica Gunning is winning as Siân James, a housewife who would later become a PM, and the whole ensemble is most satisfactory.

As noted, Stephen Bereseford’s script suffers from a lack of focus, but its individual scenes–a dance lesson in the Onllwyn town hall, a touching, subtle coming-out, the ladies of Onllwyn revelling in a cache of gay porn–are vibrantly friendly. And Matthew Warchus’ direction doesn’t totally sort out the occasional muddle, but he keeps things exciting for the full two hours (honestly, this should have been a miniseries). The period detail is spot-on, and the soundtrack is smartly chosen. It’s an easy film to pick apart, and yet it succeeds so well at lifting spirits (without being cheap about it) that it’s just as easy to forgive. Score: 85/100

The Judge, on paper, promised to be something like an old-fashioned Hollywood melodrama. That its director was previously responsible for Wedding Crashers, Fred Claus, and The Change-Up was not a total red flag to me; after all, Peter Berg went from the execrable Battleship to the respectable Lone Survivor. Plus, The Judge bore a hell of a cast–Roberts Downey Jr. and Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Billy Bob Thornton, Vincent D’Onofrio–and was given a plum October release date. The trailer looked corny, but corny isn’t always a bad thing. I hoped it’d be more Douglas Sirk than…well, name any one of a hundred cookie-cutter studio journeymen.

But while I shouldn’t have been surprised by its badness, I was surprised by the variety of its badness. The Judge is the kind of film where you keep on asking yourself how the filmmakers thought they would get away with it, because…let’s just run down some of the film’s greatest offenses:

  • The whole plot hinges around a son (Downey Jr.) defending his father (Duvall) in court. Now, I’m no legal expert, and I’m guessing representing one’s own relatives is not explicitly forbidden (or would the filmmakers commit a factual gaffe that profound?), but I have to imagine it’s strongly discouraged. Yet it never seems to be much of an issue, even though…well, I’ll get to that in a second.
  • We have a character (Jeremy Strong), who is mentally handicapped and uses an 8mm camera as a means of documenting the world (and, this being a legal film, he manages to record some vital evidence). Of course, his mental abilities are played both for laughs and pathos; this is pretty off-putting, but it’s not uncharted territory for Hollywood. The 8mm camera, though…this film is set in 2014 (or ’13, but who gives a fuck). 2014. And no one just gives this guy a digital camera? Duvall is happy to keep paying what must be considerable fees for film and development?
  • Downey Jr.’s character has an old girlfriend, the one who got away (Farmiga), who has a college-age daughter (Leighton Meester). Downey Jr. and Meester first meet up, him unaware of her parentage, and they end up making out. For a good deal of the film, it’s implied that she is actually his daughter (he, of course, Left His Home Behind and hasn’t been back in years), but at the end, Farmiga reveals that she’s not his daughter…just his niece.
    • This has absolutely fuck-all to do with anything, the filmmakers just wanted to throw in some incest. Do I really need to say anything more?
  • The film begins with Downey Jr. straight-up peeing on a rival lawyer and features repeated scenes of nervous vomiting and a scene of explicit incontinence. Because this is the director of The Change-Up.
  • Thomas Newman’s score is utterly generic, inappropriately bombastic (as I recall), and, to quote myself, “so bland, I would say it was meant as a parody, except A. the film isn’t one, and B. that still leaves you with a bland score.”
  • It’s 141 minutes long, which is 20 minutes longer than it had any reason to be.
  • At one point, Downey Jr. is being chided by his soon-to-be-ex-wife, and the camera stays on his face as the music swells and drowns out her voice for a few seconds. It’s not only goofy and pointless, it also paints the ex-wife as a shrewish nag, which given Downey Jr.’s own failings, seems rather mean-spirited.
  • It uses cancer as a plot device. I’m not even saying I’m taking offense at that, just…people do suffer diseases other than cancer, you know.
  • Farmiga, D’Onofrio, and Thornton especially all have thankless, one-dimensional roles; Farmiga is the Girl He Left Behind, D’Onofrio is the Brother Whose Dreams He Shattered and Left Behind, and Thornton is the Evilly Competent Lawyer.
How they got suckered into this, I don't know. ()

How they got suckered into this, I don’t know. (Source)

And the last, most unsettling point, requires me to set the scene. Duvall is an old judge–the morally upright, snarky kind. Downey Jr. is his son, a slick big-city lawyer who never met a loophole he didn’t like. Years earlier, Duvall faced the case of a young man who had (as I recall), beaten his pregnant girlfriend. Duvall, deciding that he was genuinely repentant, gave him a lenient sentence. After his release, however, the young man murders his girlfriend, and is sent to prison, only being released on parole some years later. One night, he encounters Duvall at the store, shortly after the death of Duvall’s wife, and says “Your wife and my girlfriend’s grave are near each other. Won’t have to walk far to piss on both.” He leaves on foot, and Duvall soon leaves in his car.

After driving in the opposite direction of the miscreant for a bit, Duvall turns around (as the store’s security-camera footage proves) and–well, Duvall, who’s been secretly battling cancer and undergoing chemotherapy, suffers from mental lapses, and does not remember hitting the man, but the man is found dead, and blood is found on Duvall’s car. As Downey is cross-examining Duvall, he asks him why he went easy on the man in the first place–Duvall says he was thinking of Downey, who was something of a wild child at the time and seemed to be heading down a bad path.

So, essentially, murder is all right if other person was an asshole? Yes, the deceased (his name is Mark Blackwell if you care) was a murderer, but the criminal justice system (of which Duvall is seemingly an unswerving devotee) released him. And as far as we know, his only post-release crime was making a rather nasty comment. Of course, Duvall doesn’t remember hitting the guy (and is adamant on that point), so he gets seven years for manslaughter and is released after a year or so because of his rapidly failing health. He dies while fishing with Downey. And it ends with Downey considering leaving the big city behind and returning to his hometown to take his father’s place.

I mean…what were they going for here? Is it trying to say that small towns are better and more genuine than The Big City? Because the town here doesn’t seem all that great. Is it making a case for old school legal eagles like Duvall? Who, you know, basically commits premeditated vehicular homicide, his failure to remember the actual impact being his only defense–and who has a personal argument with his son, who’s also his lawyer, in the middle of a fucking murder trial? In court?

I know, I know, I’m overthinking what was probably meant to be an old-fashioned legal drama. The problem is, it’s not a great legal drama, and it’s not that good at being old-fashioned. There’s one scene that manages to achieve what they were going for: as a tornado bears down on the town, Downey, Duvall and family take refuge in the basement, but tensions soon flare, and Duvall runs back up into the main house, pursued by Downey, where they have a heated argument, their moods matching the storm. It’s the one part of the film that seems to really deliver the melodramatic goods.

I might as well add that Downey and Duvall do give good performances. Both have done much better, before and (hopefully) after, but they give the lacking material their best shot.

Ultimately, I’ll repeat what I’ve said elsewhere: The Judge clearly wanted to be something. But it’s not much of anything. Score: 54/100

Love is Strange is, basically, Make Way for Tomorrow for the 2010s. Make Way for Tomorrow was an excellent film, and at times Love is Strange is too. But it suffers from a diffuse script, too many characters and plot elements which go nowhere, and (arguably) an unnecessarily sad ending. The performances, though, pull it through.

Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina) have been a couple for decades, and may finally get married. However, George soon loses his job at a Catholic high school because of his marriage (when he had assumed that there would be no problems), and Ben being long retired, their financial situation soon forces them to give up their Manhattan apartment, and move in with others–Ben with his nephew Elliot¹ (Darren Burrows), his wife Kate (Marisa Tomei), and their teenage son, Joey (Charlie Tahan). George moves in with a couple of their neighbors (one of the lapses in the script is that George’s situation is not well-delineated), and continues to give private music lessons while seeking affordable housing for him and Ben.

Ben’s presence proves a strain on his family; he shares a room with Joey, who resents what he sees an intrusion on his privacy, and his chatty nature proves distracting for Kate, who works from home. Elliot is often absent, which doesn’t help matters. And then Joey’s friend Vlad (Eric Tabach) adds another wrinkle to the situation; Kate and Elliot question his level of influence on Joey, and a situation with stolen library books makes matters worse–though Ben decides to paint Vlad (the first painting he’s done in some time), which seemingly goes all right, though Ben later injures himself in a fall.

George, meanwhile, feels lonely and out of place (his new roommates hold frequent parties and get-togethers), and his efforts to find a new home have proved fruitless. A chance encounter at one of these parties leads him to a new, affordable apartment, and he and the ailing-but-recovering Ben seem all set to move in together. We then cut to Joey visiting George, where we learn that Ben has passed away (why is never made clear), and he gives George Ben’s final painting. Joey then goes off to see his new girlfriend, whom Ben had motivated him to approach.

Two great actors giving two fine performances. It's too bad the film wasn't a little sharper. ()

Two great actors giving two fine performances. It’s too bad the film wasn’t a little sharper. (Source)

Now, Love is Strange is clearly not going for a tight, pared-down narrative, and that’s fine. It’s a character piece, first and foremost, and when it just focuses on its characters, it’s quite good. Take the post-wedding scene where Ben and George are regaling their guests with songs and listening to heartfelt testimonies from family and friends–it’s sweet and charming. But the parts of the film that try to build up the drama, or try and develop the characters outside the core half-dozen, falter. The most glaring example is the whole stolen-books subplot–it not only takes an exceedingly long time to figure out what’s going on (and even then, not really), but it has nothing to do with anything. Everyone goes on with their lives as if it never happened. Vlad vanishes from the film (and the film seems to be trying to fake us out as to the nature of Joey and Vlad’s friendship), but that’s about it.

But there’s also the matter of George’s new roommates, who are introduced as part of a crowd and are never developed as characters to any meaningful degree. There’s Ben’s eccentric cousin Mindy (I think; Christina Kirk), who appears in a couple of scenes to be wacky, New Age-y, and offer a potential destination for Ben and George. She disappears from the film after a conversation with Kate which adds up to nothing. And for me, there’s the matter of Ben’s death, which comes out of nowhere, takes place off-screen, and isn’t supported by the scene that precedes it. It just feels like gratuitous tragedy.

Again, it’s the performances that really carry it. Lithgow is wonderful; charming, heartfelt, witty, ultimately tragic–he nails perfectly the slightly oblivious talkativeness that, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, can be the most aggravating thing on Earth. But you don’t want to say that to a man like Ben. And Molina captures George’s weariness and frustration, as well as his underlying good nature and abiding love for Ben (aside from one early scene which didn’t quite come off). Lithgow and Molina don’t get as much screen-time together as one might hope, but they ultimately prove a most affecting pair.

And the supporting cast is no slouch; Tomei in particular brings Kate’s dilemma to awkward life. And Tahan is quite good as well; we believe that he is irritable and resentful of Ben’s constant presence, yet loves him underneath it all. Ira Sachs’ direction is fine (Christos Voudouris’ cinematography is actually quite good), and his script, co-written with Mauricio Zacharias, has scenes that really do work. Unfortunately, it also feels messy and at times underdeveloped. (And the Kansan in me balked when the suggestion that Ben and George live with relatives in the country was immediately shot down.)

Love is Strange has been much acclaimed (much acclaimed), and so to me it’s a shame that I can only champion it with reservations. Lithgow and Molina are great, and there are moments which ring painfully true. But it’s a good deal less than sum of its parts, because it tries to capture too much of the messy unpredictability of life. 75/100

¹Thanks, Wikipedia!

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2 thoughts on “Catching Up Reviews: PRIDE (***½), THE JUDGE (**), and LOVE IS STRANGE (***)

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  2. Pingback: THE HATEFUL EIGHT Trailer & Thoughts, Plus Some Bonuses Because I’m a Nice Guy | If you want the gravy...

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