C'mon C'mon a Small Masterpiece


C’MON C’MON (2021)

Directed by Mike Mills

A24, 108 minutes, R (language)





C’mon C’mon won a host independent film festival awards, yet few have seen it. Too bad; it is a masterful piece of work. I’m not one for forced sentimentality, especially the mainstream habit of using cute kids as cheap ploys to gain audience sympathy. C’mon C’mon features nine-year-old Jesse (Woody Norman), but the efforts of director/writer Mike Mills ring true because Mills based the script on his relationship with his own son.


Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) is a radio journalist/soundscape artist whose current project sends him around the country to record kids talking about the future, their hopes, fears, and what adults don’t get. Johnny is in Detroit where, as you might imagine, kids are more savvy about their expectations, but he’s about to be removed from his detached observer role. Johnny gets a phone call from his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffmann) in Los Angeles. She needs her aloof bachelor brother to watch Jesse, because she must go to Oakland to place her husband Paul (Scoot McNairy) in a facility. (Paul has long suffered from mental illness.)  She’s at her wits end and isn’t sympathetic to Johnny’s pleas that his work and travel schedule are too heavy.


Johnny’s guilt trip is the first leg of a journey that will take him and Jesse to New York, back to Los Angeles, on to New Orleans, and into new levels of awareness. He and Viv are also trying to recover from their mother’s death from dementia, plus Johnny has effectively shut down his emotions in an attempt to get over a breakup with his longtime girlfriend. None of this is a good foundation from which to build a relationship with a nephew he barely knows. Nor does it help that he lives in New York, nearly 2800 miles from his sister and her family. In all, he must also face the fact that he listens to kids talk, but often fails to hear what they are saying.


In (too) many movies, adults and children come to like each other through contrivances that are as phony as a sincere-sounding politician. This film takes its time to move from distrust to dislike to reluctant acceptance before any deeper bonding occurs. What would be a good way to start this venture? How about letting the kid mess with the recording equipment? Or take him on the road with you? Johnny is also able to draw on the interpersonal skills of his sound team, Fernando (Jaboukie Young-White) and Roxanne (Molly Webster)* to fill in his considerable emotional and attention gaps.


This is a beautiful film. The word “empathy” repeatedly appears in reviews and deservedly so. You probably don’t need me to tell you that Joaquin Phoenix is a terrific actor, but if you know him best for his role as the demented genius villain in Joker (2019), he will stagger you in C’mon C’mon. Physically he looks like Steve Bannon at his disheveled worst. He admittedly has better intentions than Bannon (who doesn’t?), but he’s not much more in touch with reality. Phoenix is so convincing when he drifts out of his depth and comfort zone that we shiver as if we are inside his skin. Ditto when we watch him literally get down to Jesse’s level while fossicking for connections or a way out an unsettling moment.


Watch for Woody Norman; this kid has chops. He’s 12 now, but plays nine-year-old Jesse as an enigmatic mix of precociousness and vulnerability. Kids can turn on a dime between engaged and enraged. When Jesse wants attention, he wants it now, not “in a minute.” Such situations don’t go down well in Midtown Manhattan. When Johnny doesn’t respond to him right away and an angry Jesse wanders off, their mutual panic is so palpable that once again we too feel it.


C’mon C’mon is in black and white, which adds to its verisimilitude. People live in color, but black and white provides the proper contrasting frame for Johnny, Jesse, Viv, and Paul. Each is in limbo between being and becoming with black-and-white hard edges defining their present, but the future remains foggy. Cinematographer Robbie Ryan and Mills know exactly when to zoom in to depict understanding and when to shake the camera for tension or pull it back for missed communications.


This small film is lovingly rendered at each critical moment. It is a statement of creative and artistic vision that leaves you feeling good, but not in a mawkish way. Nor is it a what-adults-learn-from-kids film, rather one in which they shape each other.


Rob Weir   


* Molly Webster is actually a radio journalist in real life.




The Locket is Dated and Dumb



Directed by John Brahm

RKO Pictures, 85 minutes, Not Rated.





I’m such a film noir fan that some of my friends tell me I like them all. Not so! Here is one you should avoid like a case of Lyme Disease. I’d be tempted to give it a single star except this might have high camp value among psychiatrists.


As shrinks like to say, it all started in childhood. Ten-year-old Nancy Monks (Sharyn Moffett) was a happy child, even though her mother (Helen Thimig) had to clean apartments to make ends meet. Nancy is given a locket by her playmate, the daughter of New York socialite Mrs. Willis (Katherine Emery). It turns out it’s an heirloom that Nancy must return, but she throws a wobbly when Willis accuses her of stealing it.


Nancy (Laraine Day) grows up to become a sultry seductress and kleptomaniac who winds men around her neck like a locket on a chain. Her first victim is Norman Clyde (Robert Mitchum), a struggling artist for whom Nancy solicits clients. When she steals and he no longer makes excuses for her lies, including framing a man for a murder she committed, she has him committed to an asylum.


Nancy divorces Norman, who shows up five years later in the office of Dr. Harry Blair (Brian Aherne), a Park Avenue psychiatrist, on the eve of the execution of the man Nancy framed. He spills the beans, but Blair, Nancy’s new fiancĂ©e, thinks Norman is still delusional and recommends pills and counseling. Instead, Norman smashes through a window and leaps to his death. The timeframe is unclear, but Nancy eventually divorces Harry as well.


After another uncertain period of time, we find Nancy about to marry John Willis (Gene Raymond), the very son of the woman who accused young Nancy of theft. (Was this intentional? The movie never tells us!) Blair arrives to warn Willis of Nancy’s treachery. Willis doesn’t believe him and goes ahead with the wedding. However, when Mrs. Willis gives her a post-wedding gift that just happens to be the very locket from decades ago, Nancy falls into a catatonic state and is institutionalized.


Oh dear!!! Can you say histrionic? The story is told in flashbacks and, to be fair, that was way cooler in 1946. Today, we’d call it a “device,” but not in a good way. Everything else about The Locket makes you wonder if script writer Sheridan Gibney was in need is some of Dr. Blair’s little white pills. About all that rings true is that we still like to pretend that when well-to-do people steal, we call it kleptomania, but it’s “theft” if it’s associated with the underclasses, aka/ the 99 percent.  


Where to begin? Do you buy the beefy Robert Mitchum as an avantgarde painter? He’s the kind of guy you expected to pick up a gun for a war movie or a cowboy picture. Maybe even the sort who would do a deodorant commercial about how a guy like he needs all the protection he can get. But with a sable paintbrush in hand? Nah! And he’s certainly not the kind who can be driven insane by a dame.


Continuing on the psychology side of the ledger, if Sigmund Freud hadn’t already been dead for seven years, this would have killed him. But given an era in which figures of authority were treated with utmost deference, wouldn’t a guy like Willis take Blair’s words seriously enough to at least pause his wedding plans? Or maybe this happens to you all the time. A psychiatrist shows up at your house and is the ex-spouse of your intended you never knew she had–let alone one before him–and you casually dismiss his words. I kind of get it; I might have been a more convincing physiatrist than Brian Aherne.   


I do give credit to Laraine Day for staying in character. She’s a forgotten figure, but was a respected actress during her heyday. What’s particularly compelling about her in The Locket is that she successfully plays against type. By this I mean she was more cut out for wholesome parts and comedic roles, not a sexy vamp.


Vamp and camp. That’s about it. The rest of The Locket has enough ham to make you order lumber to build a pigsty.


Rob Weir


Drive My Car is a Remarkable Film



Directed by Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Bitters End, 179 minutes, R (sex, nudity, language)

In Japanese, Korean, sign language, English, German, Tagalog, etc. (subtitles)

★★★★ 1/2




If you don’t like slow films, steer clear of Drive My Car. If, though, you fancy the artful and provocative, this one’s for you. Before you watch, brush up on your Chekhov as Uncle Vanya is central to the plot and mood.


Chekhov reveled in the inner turmoil of lives that silently go off the rail, often tragically so.

We meet Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a rising Japanese playwright, enjoying the carnal pleasures of his libidinous wife, Oto (Reika Kirishima), a TV writer who composes stories during sex. The two clearly love each other deeply, but we detect a pall of sadness before we learn why. Yusuke uses his work and red Saab 900 Turbo to fill an inner vacuum and Oto seeks human contract wherever she can find it. Yusuke knows to vacate the apartment when she’s in the sheets with a lover.


Move the clock ahead two years and Oto is dead, the victim of an aneurysm for which Yusuke feels guilty. In addition, he has glaucoma in one eye and must use drops to prevent losing his sight. It’s not the safest thing, but he drives to Hiroshima to become director-in-residence of a multilingual theatre company. (That’s why there are so many languages in the film; all the actors perform in their native tongues.) Yusuke intends to direct a production of Uncle Vanya, a project for which he is more confident than the actors ultimately chosen. He surprisingly casts Koji Takatsuki (Masaki Okada) for the part of Vanya, though he is too young for the part and we can tell he’s a slacker who is but half of what he should/could be. Is it a coincidence that he was one of Oto’s lovers?


Yusuke is withdrawn and, we surmise, not finished mourning. One condition of taking the residency is that he will stay on an island an hour from Hiroshima, presumably because he’s in no mood to fraternize any more than necessary. Nor is he happy that the theatre company’s insurance requires that he be given a driver. Yusuke can use his Saab if he wishes, but he must be chauffeured by the company’s chosen driver, a young woman named Misaki Watari (Toko Miura). She’s skillful, but also wears her attitude, troubled background, and sorrows on her sleeve. She and Yusuke will become acquainted–when he’s not endlessly rehearsing to his lines–during their daily commutes, but if you anticipate a love story, slow down!


Yusuke’s relationship with Misaki and the cast is reminiscent of Bob Fosse’s A Chorus Line in that everybody has a backstory that explains their personalities and behaviors. It is at this juncture that Drive My Car becomes a play within a play within a film. Some are as damaged as Yusuke or as kicked about as Misaki, but there’s also the charming and uplifting story of Lee Yoon-a (Park Yoo-rim), who is deaf and communicates via Korean sign language. Again, don’t skirt this film because it has subtitles; everyone is reliant upon them.


Circumstances will send Yusuke and Misaki on a marathon road trip to Hokkaido, where he must decide within 48 hours whether to play Vanya or cancel the production. Yusuke must also come to terms with grief that has mutated into selfishness and a misanthropic belief there is something unique about his pain.


If it sounds as if not much happens in Drive My Car, that is correct if by that you mean action or high drama. Victor Hugo observed, though, that “The ode lives upon the ideal, the epic upon the grandiose, and the drama upon the real.” This is to say that action films and scripted dramas can but offer vicarious thrills; the drama of everyday life seems like universal truth for the simple reason that it is.


Drive My Car won the best foreign film Oscar and three Palme d’Or prizes at Cannes. Watch this remarkable film to appreciate subtle acting that rings true and to revel in the superb cinematography of Hidetoshi Shinomiya. There are shots of both picturesque and bleak landscapes and you may be hard-pressed to decide which is the most affecting. Does Drive My Car need to be 179 minutes long? Probably not, but everything else about it is masterful.


Rob Weir