Apparently the pandemic CAN be used as couples therapy.

(2021) Drama (Bleecker Street) James McAvoy, Sharon Horgan, Samuel Logan. Directed by Stephen Daldry and Justin Martin


The pandemic is, in some ways, a screenwriter’s dream. It is a situation everyone on the planet is affected by, something we all can relate to. As more and more movies come out set during lockdowns and quarantines, the question becomes whether we are exploring the topic too soon (as even now we are suffering through a surge in Delta variant cases) or whether what we have to say at this point is premature.

A brief rant before I commence – I have always found the trope of not naming the characters to be more pretentious than anything. Yes, I get that they are supposed to be “everymen” and “everywomen” for the sake of the narrative, but it’s more or less a cop-out these days. Give your characters names, and not just for the convenience of the critics either – it’s disrespectful to the audience. End rant.

An unnamed couple (grrr!), played by Horgan and McAvoy, are thrown together by the lockdown in England. They are an upper middle class couple who couldn’t be more different; he’s a conservative entrepreneur who doesn’t have much use for what he calls “the chattering class,” while she’s a progressive liberal who is an executive for a non-profit. But they have a young ten-year-old special needs kid named Artie (Logan) together, and – not for nothing – they hate each other’s guts. The only thing keeping them from going their separate ways is Artie.

The movie takes place from day one of the English lockdown into the spring of 2021. Things are divided into chapters which are delineated by what day of the lockdown it is, and how many deaths from COVID have been recorded in England by that date, which seems to be a not-so-veiled swipe at the Boris Johnson administration (it gets not-so-veiled during a Horgan monologue later in the movie).

Most of the dialogue is delivered at the camera, as if you’re a friend or relative on Zoom, and the couple are making their case for why the other one is the reason the marriage is in trouble. That is punctuated with often heart-rending monologues – in Horgan’s case, the absolutely horrific treatment her mother receives in a care home, while in McEvoy’s an encounter with an anti-masker that causes him to rethink things.

The acting here is superb. Given dialogue that is worthy of Aaron Sorkin. There is some snappy repartee and plenty of back-and-forth between the couple, who are often talking over each other in the way that couples do. That gives the film a kind of naturality that brings more authenticity to the movie than it otherwise might have. The screenplay was originally meant to be a stage play, but the practical complications of mounting a stage production during a pandemic led this to be turned into a movie, but it still retains some of its stage-y qualities. You don’t really notice them, however, because the acting and writing are both so damn good.

I’m not sure if this will end up being a time capsule of this period in history, or something that speaks to deeper truths in relationships. I tend to subscribe to the latter; there is a timelessness about the issues between the couple that are only framed by the pandemic rather than are caused by it. I was completely blown away by the emotional resonance that the film brought and recommend it thoroughly as one of the best movies of the year. If ever you needed an excuse to get out to the theaters, this movie is it.

REASONS TO SEE: Superior writing and direction. Natural performances from Morgan and McElroy, who is particularly impressive. A powerful, emotional time capsule of 2020-21.
REASONS TO AVOID: Not so sure using a pandemic as couples therapy is appropriate.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity throughout.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was shot in only ten days.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/29/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 68% positive reviews; Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scenes from a Marriage
The Fatal Raid

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

Thomas Horn tells Sandra Bullock he's old enough to take a bath by himself; she's skeptical on that score.

(2011) Drama (Warner Brothers) Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Thomas Horn, Viola Davis, Max von Sydow, John Goodman, Jeffrey Wright, Zoe Caldwell, Stephen McKinley Anderson, Hazelle Goodman, Adrian Martinez, Brooke Bloom, Stephanie Kutzuba. Directed by Stephen Daldry


Grief is an emotion we all must deal with at some point, but sometimes we must deal with it too soon. For the families who lost loved ones in 9-11, how does one explain to a child that a person flew a plane full of gasoline into a tower full of people and because of that their mommy or daddy are never coming home again? How does one cope with having to explain that while dealing with their own grief?

Oskar Schell (Horn) has a particularly close relationship with his dad Thomas (Hanks). Dad often sends Oskar on what he calls Reconnaissance Expeditions, kind of an elaborate scavenger hunt.  His dad may be a jeweler by trade but he’s a dreamer by nature – he tells his son that there once was a sixth borough of New York City that floated away years and years and years ago, never to return. His son believes him, just as he believes his Dad implicitly when he tells him that Central Park was once part of that fabled sixth borough.

Then Dad goes to a meeting one bright beautiful Tuesday morning in September 2001 on the 105th floor of the World Trade Center. He is still in there when the towers come down, molecules in the sky floating placidly in the dust and the debris. Oskar’s mom Linda (Bullock) and he must bury an empty casket since no body could be recovered; this upsets Oskar very much, so much so that he refuses to get dressed for the funeral (he attends in PJs and bathrobe), refuses to sit graveside (he remains in the limo with his grandmother (Caldwell).

A year after Oskar is still very much in pain. He is a brilliant kid with a logical and ordered mind; he can’t wrap his head around the “why” of 9-11. Nothing makes sense. Then, while rooting around in his dad’s things, he accidentally knocks over a vase which shatters, revealing a key in a small envelope with only the name “Black” neatly written on the envelope to give a clue as to where the key fits.

And as it’s a key and there must be a lock that it belongs to. Moreover, Oskar knowing his Dad’s penchants for subtle clues, believes that this is a quest he must undertake to hold onto his dad for just a little bit longer, the final words of the father to his son. Oskar will find the lock if it takes him the rest of his life.

He begins visiting everyone in the New York City phone book with the last name Black. There are 462 of them in the five boroughs and Oskar believes one of them has the lock that the key belongs to. They must. They have to. Otherwise the universe is truly a meaningless collision of random events and there is nothing ordered, nothing logical, just random chance.

Aiding him on his quest is the mute Renter (von Sydow) who is a boarder in his grandmother’s apartment. He is an old, sage gentlemen who seems to have demons of his own, but no voice. It isn’t ever clear if he can speak and chooses not to, but he does write notes and helpfully has the words “yes” and “no” inked on the palms of his hands.

His journey will take him throughout the five boroughs  and into a series of lives, some sweet and kindly, others not so much. His quest to keep his dad with him a little longer may well be the means in which Oskar will find a way back into living his own life.

Do bring a lot of tissue paper because you’re going to need it. Some of this is really hard to watch as you see a little boy’s pain, pain that he can’t even begin to cope with and his powerless mother taking the brunt of his rage because he has no other way to deal with this enormous loss. It’s truly heartbreaking.

However if you’re planning on seeing a Hanks-Bullock star-fest, you’ll be sorely disappointed. Hanks only appears in flashbacks, while Bullock is a kind of just there until the last reel when she delivers some of her best work since The Blind Side. You’re mostly going to get Horn and that’s a good and bad thing.

Horn is making his feature debut. He has some talent – he has some very emotional scenes and this role asks – no, demands – a great deal from him. In a way, I think it asks too much. He must carry the movie on his frail shoulders and for much of it he does, but there are times when it feels as if he’s acting and a role like this calls for feeling it and feeling it deep. Accomplished actors would have a hard time with that and Horn does a pretty good job all things considered. You really can’t ask more of a young actor than what Horn gives here.

Keep in mind that the role is of a child dealing with something adults generally have a hard time with. Oskar lashes out, develops quirks that may be infuriating at times – and to top it all off he’s kind of an insufferable know-it-all who isn’t very patient with people who can’t or won’t keep up with him. He isn’t always likable and that can be different to relate to for an audience.

Von Sydow, the iconic Swedish actor, acts entirely without dialogue and gives a magnificent performance, conveying his emotions with a twitch of the eyebrow here, a shrug of the shoulders there, and most of all with his eyes. It’s a masterful performance and while it hasn’t gotten much buzz for Supporting Actor consideration, it’s kind of a shame it hasn’t – he deserves it.

There are some moments that are over-the-top precious and try too hard to push our buttons. There are other moments that are incredibly moving and cathartic. Sometimes we learn to deal with our own pain by understanding the pain of others. This is one such opportunity.

REASONS TO GO:. A tremendous story of grief and love. Horn does his best with a difficult role. There are moments that are greatly affecting.

REASONS TO STAY: Oskar can be a handful and at times it’s hard to root for him because of his faults. The movie is maudlin in places. Not enough Hanks and Bullock.

FAMILY VALUES: The themes have a lot to do with grieving and loss; some children may find this distressing and disturbing. Some of the images are disturbing and there are some pretty foul words, some of it used by Oskar.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Thomas Horn won $30,000 as a champion on Jeopardy Kid’s Week.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/23/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 46/100. The reviews are mixed.


BIG APPLE LOVERS: The movie is filmed in locations all over New York City, including several that rarely make it onto the big screen.



The Reader

Kate Winslet ponders on just what Leonardo di Caprio is doing at that moment.

Kate Winslet ponders on just what Leonardo di Caprio is doing at that moment.

(Weinstein) Kate Winslet, Ralph Fiennes, David Kross, Lena Olin, Bruno Ganz, Alexandra Maria Lara, Vijessna Ferkic, Moritz Grove, Volker Bruch, Karoline Herfurth, Max Mauff, Burghart Klaubner, Jeanette Hain. Directed by Stephen Daldry.

“Pride goes before the fall” as the saying goes and it’s one of those truisms that is actually true. We will endure many humiliations and trials before we will allow our pride to get damaged, and sometimes that pride will get in the way of even the most basic survival instincts.

German barrister Michael Berg (Fiennes) is a successful man but a distant one who lives alone, divorced from his wife, and while not completely estranged from his college-aged daughter Brigitte (Hain), is not particularly close to her. In fact, he is truly close to nobody.

As a teenager (Kross), he gets ill coming home from school on the tram in postwar Germany. Hannah Schmitz (Winslet), a tram conductor who lives in the building where the sick and confused Berg ends up, cleans him up and makes sure he gets home all right.

After convalescing at home, the young man returns to the apartment of the conductor to express his gratitude, but soon finds himself attracted to the older woman who is at first amused by his obvious infatuation but after awhile is attracted to the awkward but sincere admirations, which soon leads to intimacy.

As the summer deepens, their passion grows exponentially, with Michael rushing to her apartment every day from the resort-like summer school/camp he and his friends are enrolled in. The attentions of a pretty teenaged girl named Sophie (Ferkic) aren’t even enough to swerve his attentions from Hannah, who soon grows fond of having Michael read aloud to her from various classics; Homer’s Odyssey, Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Chekov’s The Woman With the Little Dog.

While it is clear that Hannah isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier, she also seems haunted by something else, a terrible secret that she is keeping. Her behavior begins to grow erratic after a bicycle tour through the German countryside. Soon afterwards, even though she is being promoted at her place of employment, she flees as if being pursued by demons straight from the pits of Hell. In a way, she is. Nevertheless, Michael is devastated by her sudden departure.

Some years later when he is studying law at university, he is enrolled in a special seminar with but a few students studying under a revered professor (Ganz). They will be attending and observing a trial of Nazi prison guards, which will lead to the revelation of a secret from Hannah’s past that can be the undoing of her life. Only Michael knows the truth of her situation and is given the opportunity to save her, but in doing so he will strip away all her pride and perhaps destroy her completely.

By now it’s no secret that Winslet won an Oscar for her role as Hannah Schmitz, and you can certainly make a compelling case for her. Whether her performance was better than Meryl Streep’s in Doubt or Angelina Jolie’s in Changeling is a matter of opinion; for my money, she richly deserved the statue. Winslet’s performance is nuanced and layered. Her Hannah is a deeply flawed woman who is used to being obeyed, and yet often displays timid characteristics as well. Markedly sensuous, her relationship with the teenager, which would be statutory rape in this country, is displayed here starkly and without needless sentiment.

The larger problem I have with the film is that while this is Kate Winslet’s film, it is not Hannah Schultz’s story. While Fiennes is magnificent as usual, he has begun to develop a reputation of being a fine set-up man for great performances by his partners. Fine as Fiennes is, Kross is onscreen much more of the time and is quite frankly, less interesting. He is not nearly equal to the task of measuring up to Winslet’s performance and she winds up dominating the film to the point that we are drawn to her and therefore away from the main crux of the story.

However, if there are curses for any film to have, that’s not necessarily a bad one. The movie has is otherwise very well-made, recreating postwar Germany nicely. We get to see a country still suffering for the crimes of the Nazi regime; eager to make amends but just as eager to put those days behind it, divided in two by the triumphant superpowers and left to reacquire its own moral compass. At times, I found that more compelling than the inner struggle going on for Michael Berg as well as for Hannah Schmitz.

I have to say I was left curiously flat for a film that was so acclaimed. I can see the reasons The Reader is celebrated, and agree with most of them. However, the flaws were enough that I’m not giving it the kind of rating you’d associate with a film so honored during awards season. Hmmm…maybe pride really does go before the fall.

WHY RENT THIS: Kate Winslet won an Oscar – and deservedly so – for her performance. The depiction of postwar Germany is compelling, presenting a snapshot of a place and time not often glimpsed on film.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: David Kross not as strong or compelling a performer as Winslet, drawing attention away from the story where it was meant to be. The emotional detachment of the Michael Berg character makes it harder to identify with him, either as a teen or an adult.

FAMILY VALUES: Some very explicit sex sequences, rough language in places and certainly a great deal of adult situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Producers Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella both passed away before the movie was completed. Due to the extraordinary circumstances, the Academy allowed more than three producers names’ to be read as nominees during the broadcast of the 2009 Academy Awards show.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray disc contains several features that look at the difficulties of filming a movie in which the Holocaust is so central a theme in Germany, and how German cast and crew members felt about it.


TOMORROW: The Black Book