Thurgood Marshall was the first lawyer working for the NAACP to defend people falsely accused of a crime because of their race. You may know him as the first African-American Supreme Court Justice, and this is one of the career-defining cases that set him upon that path.
The (true) story: Connecticut socialite Eleanor Strubing appeared on a highway in Westchester County, New York, soaked, beaten, and scared one night in December 1940. She claimed her chauffeur had raped her four times, kidnapped her, forced her to write a ransom note for $5,000 and then threw her off a bridge. Papers called her accused assailant the “Negro chauffeur” or “colored servant” but his name was Joseph Spell, and he claimed he was innocent. Lucky for him, his case caught the attention of the NAACP and Marshall was dispatched to try his case. Only he couldn’t; the racist judge wouldn’t let him on the grounds that he was “from out of town” so Marshall had to team with another lawyer and somehow stay silent through the infuriating trial.
Thurgood Marshall probably deserves a legitimate biopic, but this isn’t it. Its narrative is tight, keeping its eye on this single court case. The rest of his accomplishments are relegated to title cards at the end. That’s not really a complaint, but it does somewhat reduce a great man to a courtroom drama. But his greatness is communicated well by a self-possessed and commanding Chadwick Boseman in the lead role. He’s starred in a number of impressive biopics – what does this guy have to do to break through? Josh Gad plays the lawyer assisting him, Dan Stevens opposing counsel, James Cromwell the judge, and Kate Hudson as the woman pressing charges. And most interestingly, it’s Sterling K. Brown as the man who stands accused. Audiences will know him from This is Us, or else The People Vs OJ Simpson: American Crime Story. Even if Spell is innocent, Brown’s still playing against type, and it’s a great move.
All the pieces fall into place and it’s a perfectly solid movie. But for bearing the simple title ‘Marshall’ I expected it to be a little wider in scope – and having been baited with this little bit, I’m disappointed it wasn’t.
My bullshit meter was flashing big red lights when I read Netflix’s description of the Kate Hudson film, A Little Bit of Heaven: she plays a “woman who has everything – including cancer.” Hell yes I was wary, but it seemed like it would be light enough that my head cold could deal with it, so I gave it a go. It was actually a little bit of hell.
I mean, first, kudos for giving Kate Hudson ass cancer. Well, that came out wrong. But you know what I mean: usually a pretty blonde will linger with some glamorous kind of cancer that makes you pale but otherwise untouched. Colon cancer is a mother fucker. I mean, you wouldn’t know it from the movie. She even keeps all her hair! But she does get to suffer the indignity of the old camera up the wazoo trick, and has to admit to cute guys that she’s bleeding in her poop. So that’s kind of wonderful. A laugh riot, if you will. At least that’s what they’re striving for. In reality, the movie’s quite tone deaf.
They try really hard to make Marley (Hudson) an edgy, new kind of female character, one that doesn’t need love to be happy. Except of course it’s her dying wish. And of course her oncologist happens to be dreamy Gael Garcia Bernal. But there are even worse travesties than this afoot. First, as she lays dying, Marley talks to “God” (Whoopi Goldberg), who apparently is in the business of granting 3 wishes, like a genie. Even more egregious is Peter Dinklage, who pops up as a little person hooker whose nickname is – you guessed it – A Little Bit of Heaven. Because when the jokes about butt cancer dry up, why not make a joke out of someone’s sexuality? Ugh.
But just when you’re about to really give in to this sexy romcom -slash-terminal cancer hilarity, director Nicole Kassall shoves a funnel down your throat to make sure your overdose on sentimentality is complete. It’s the kind of movie that has you wishing Kate Hudson would just die already.
Rock The Kasbah: a has-been (never was?) agent (Billy Murray) decides to cash in on his one remaining client (Zooey Deschanel) and have her tour the USO circuit in Afghanistan. A panic attack has her taking off with his cash and passport, which means he’s stuck in the middle east with his thumb up his ass. He meets a number of expats – Scott Caan and Danny McBride are war profiteers, Kate Hudson is a very profitable hooker, and Bruce Willis is “Bombay Brian” – but none are overly helpful (unless you count being hog-tied in a Marilyn Monroe wig, which I don’t) and some are down right exploitative. But then he comes across big talent (Leem Lubany) in a small cave in Kabul, and convinces her to seek fame and fortune on Afghan Star (their American Idol). The only problem: women in her culture are forbidden to sing, or to even remove the face covering that would allow her to do so. Critics are savaging this as a one-note performance and I suppose they’re right. I kinda loved it though. I love Bill Murray, and I liked Kate Hudson very much in this too. I wish we could have seen more of Deschanel but Lubany was such an interesting discovery I couldn’t help but root for her.
Our Brand is Crisis: Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton play fictionalized versions of American political analysts brought in to help rival parties during a Bolivian presidential election (based on a true story and a documentary of the same name). This movie goes straight to a cynic’s heart, not even bothering to pretend that politics are remotely about doing good or making change, or that elections are the will of the people. They have no respect for the electorate they manipulate so easily. I’m not always crazy about Bullock but she’s better in this than I’ve seen her before. Her talents are harnessed effectively, her comedic timing not wasted on idiotic movies nobody would ever watch if it wasn’t for cross-Atlantic flights (and this role was converted for her – it was originally intended for man). That said, there’s a little something lacking in Our Brand is Crisis. It’s not biting enough. You can’t make a political satire and then go limp.
Burnt: the Assholes were busy dancing with Dan Aykroyd so we passed our screener tickets along to a couple of conscripted assholes, Justin and Ben. When I asked Justin what he thought about the movie, about a nasty chef played by Bradley Cooper, he said “It was good.” So what do you think? Does he have what it takes to become a permanent Asshole? When prodded for further detail, he called it “decent”, which in a way is a win because half of all of Justin’s movie reviews consist of him making the retching throw up sound, but it’s also a loss because what he means is: it’s fine. If you’re curious to see Cooper play an asshole, then rent it when it comes out on DVD, but don’t waste your money on this one.
I’m watching Almost Famous and I know you don’t need to be sold on it. It’s terrific. But sometimes, between viewings, you forget how terrific. I’m just eleven minutes in, at the part when the sister, played by Zooey Deschanel, leaves and she bequeaths her record collection to her little brother. He flips through those albums (actual saved albums of director Cameron Crowe) and dreams are born. Just watching him discover music that will open up his world wakes something up inside me, like the infinite possibility of childhood. Like you could fall in love with anything, any time.
Philip Seymour Hoffman gives a great performance; this is the first time I’ve watched a movie of his since his passing and really felt his loss. Frances McDormand can’t help but be excellent. Patrick Fugit and Kate Hudson give star-making performances (even all this time later, seeing him on screen in Gone Girl still prompted the whisper, isn’t that the kid from Almost Famous?). Rainn Wilson, Jay Baruchel, Nick Swarsdon, Eric Stonestreet and Mitch Hedberg all make “before they were stars” appearances, solidifying Crowe’s casting genius.
Almost Famous had triple the music budget of the average movie, and it was worth every penny. Peter Frampton was onboard to write music for the movie’s fictional band, Stillwater. But ultimately this movie hits home for a lot of us because it’s about discovery. Do you remember the first album you ever bought? Listening to a track obsessively? Memorizing lyrics? Calling in to your favourite radio station? Pouring over the liner notes? Music is the gateway to our growing up, and to witness William naive and wide-eyed bumping up against the most cynical of industries is a little like watching ourselves encounter the big bad world for the first time.