Quick Takes: Disenchanted and Spirited

OK, there are a lot of new Christmastime movies to watch, and usually I wait awhile to see them. But this time, I saw two of the most promoted ones early on. Here are my quick thoughts:

Disenchanted

My wife and I have a particular connection with the original film, which featured an apartment building just one block from where we lived for a while. This time around, a long shot included that very building, and many of the shots just outside of the Enchanted building (at Riverside and 116th Street) featured the same view of the Hudson River that we enjoyed.

It only made sense to have a sequel of that earlier successful film, and the filmmakers ticked off nearly every box—every box—of how to do a sequel, with limited success. In fact, it seems like the rule of “let’s do something different this time” was taken to an extreme

Instead of working her way through the various challenges of NYC, including the intrusion of fairy tale witches into the Big Apple, Giselle (Amy Adams) is now dissatisfied with her lot in life and wants more magic. The answer is a move to the suburbs, but not into a regular house, but into a castle-like structure that is as “normal suburb” as Mar-a-Lago. Continuing the 180-degree turns that the film embraces, the charming step-daughter is now a very attitudinal teen. Of course, she then (spoiler alert) undergoes her own 180-degree turn.

Giving away too much of the plot is both rude and pointless, as the film combines the real world of so-called suburbia with the fairy tale land of Giselle’s birth, Andalasia. There are three women, dominated by Malvina (a name that perhaps gives away a bit too much at the start), played by Maya Rudolph. Malvina has two sidekicks that complete the “three witches” trope.

The so-called “real world” and the fairy tale world of Andalasia collide in a rather messy ways, and the plot is all over the place. This time Broadway and film star Idina Menzel (Wicked, Frozen), who unaccountably was not given a song in Enchanted, gets her chance to sing (and belt). As a standalone song, it’s fine. But it doesn’t move anything forward other than ticking off the box of giving her a number.

Amy Adams, who apparently worked hard to regain her light soprano, sings beautifully, with a little help from singer-actress LC Powell on the high notes. (I had to look it up–I knew there was no way that Adams could hit those stratospheric notes.) She is delightful throughout, and when she has a certain personality struggle later in the film, she pulls it off like the excellent actress she is. Patrick Dempsey had very little to do, though they gave him about a dozen notes to sing this time.

Maya Rudolph, as she does a great deal of the time, acts in swirls around the character, never completely landing in the center. Her comic timing shows through at times, but is very underused (rather like Menzel not singing in the first film). As the daughter of a great singer (Minnie Riperton), Rudolph has a voice, and she used it well in a “Badder,” a duet with Adams that might be the highlight of the film.

Perhaps the shining light of the film, aside from Adams, is Gabriella Baldacchino as the step-daughter. After Giselle, she is the heart of the film, which develops slowly but surely as the film develops. This could be the beginning of a great career.

I love James Marsden in his comic mode, and am always impressed with his singing. I’m glad he was in the film, but he quickly disappears every time he shows up. He brightened the first film every time he showed up, and does the same thing here.

The music features songs by the legendary Alan Menken (The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Hercules, Tangled), so the songs are solidly built and entertaining, if not completely memorable. There is an awful lot of dancing, which doesn’t work as well on the small screens on which we have to watch the numbers. But they are well done and very energetic.

The film might be worth watching if you loved the first and want to see what happens to the characters. But while it throws everything but the kitchen sink into this sequel, the one thing this jam-packed film missed is charm.

Spirited

Spirited, a modern take on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, is another thing entirely. It’s definitely not for children, but it’s also not as crude as it could have been. But what it is is hilarious, inventive, and surprising. The film stars Ryan Reynolds and Will Ferrell, a comic combination that could have bombed but which completely works. The film also features Octavia Spencer as a (spoiler alert) love interest, Broadway star Patrick Page as Marley, and the voice of Tracy Morgan.

Ferrell, Reynolds, and Spencer all sing in the film, but none is really a singer. That doesn’t matter, as they all do well, obviously following every bit of coaching advice to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. They also “dance,” which is really stretching the word. The real dancers behind the leads are great, and have the same energy and verve of the dancers in Disenchanted. The leads keep moving, but there is nary a real choreographic move among them. Again, that doesn’t matter. Their moves and energy work.

Ferrell and Reynolds each individually pose a comic challenge, as they have different comedic styles, and their acting here combines whimsy with snark, a mixture rife with possibilities of failure. Can a world be created that allows them each to maximize their personal styles? Can that world contain them both working together at the top of their game? The answer is yes.

The plot is familiar if you know the story, but the film keeps taking unexpected turns (right up to the end!) that energize the film and offer delightful alternatives to the usual and predictable. All I would want to tell any reader is that Reynolds is the Scrooge character, and Ferrell is the main ghost. The rest is up for discovery. Ferrell gets the best line in the film, a line so funny we had to pause our viewing to allow for our full reaction. (You’ll know it when you get there).

The phrase that comes to mind in this umpteenth version of the main story is “a fresh take.” Again, this isn’t for kids. But for everyone else, it’s highly recommended.

[To my Christian friends and readers: The main plot of redemption is so very close to truth, but of course, falls into the “good works can redeem us” category. What Ferrell et al. are trying to do for their charges is what Jesus has already done for us. If you want to shout “But Jesus died to do just that!” at your TV, it would be understandable. But if you know you’re watching a version of “A Christmas Carol”, you already know what you’re getting into.]

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She Said

From l: Zoe Kazan, Carey Mulligan, Andre Braugher, and Patricia Clarkson in She Said

She Said is the “coulda-shoulda” disappointment of the Oscar movie season thus far. The story is still great—reporters, who have real lives outside of their work, dig into the rumors of sexual exploitation in Hollywood and end up bringing Hollywood mogul/sex offender Harvey Weinstein to justice. Some famous victims, e.g., Ashley Judd, actually play themselves, adding a certain frisson of excitement to the enterprise. The quest to get people to go on the record with their experiences with the Miramax owner is a key part of the suspense, and a central element of the plot. Plus it’s a tale where hard work and dedication actually pay off. Yet…it fails to do little more than lay out a story. It’s just OK, and not anywhere near as engaging or exciting as it coulda-shoulda been.

The strengths are the actors, many of whom work harder here than they should have to. Fortunately, the slightly more dominant of the two main reporter characters is played the (I believe) future Oscar winner Carey Mulligan (An Education, Promising Young Woman). Mulligan suggests depths of joy and pain almost effortlessly, and is the heart and center of the film. The other lead is Zoe Kazan (The Big Sick), who works as hard as Mulligan but fails to reach her heights (and depths). Patricia Clarkson, usually a strength in any film, seems to walk through her Streep-like role here. Andre Braugher brings his usual gravitas and adds a welcome jolt of authority to his role. As two of Weinstein’s victims, Jennifer Ehle and Angela Yeoh are particularly strong. But the standout of the supporting performances is Peter Friedman’s (“Succession”), one of those actors whose face we all recognize but we don’t know his name. His part is all contradictions and subtle slime, and might grab him a Supporting Actor nomination if it weren’t so uncomfortable to experience.

So what are the actors working so hard against? Two things: the script and the cinematography. The script is a solid grade B first draft that tends to just sit there telling us things, losing opportunity after opportunity to let us infer anything for ourselves. Great German director Ernst Lubitsch is known for his famous rule of 2 plus 2 equaling 4. He rightly claims that giving the viewer 2 plus 2 is the filmmaker’s job, and adding it up is the viewer’s job. Telling the viewer the answer is 4 is what is wrong with too many films, this one included. Just one example: it turns out that famous lawyer Gloria Allred’s daughter Lisa Bloom is somewhat ironically advising Weinstein legally. But instead of allowing us as viewers to taste the irony ourselves, we’re told right away that Bloom is Allred’s daughter, and later, there is a painfully obvious reference to the “feminist icon” Allred and the “shock, shock” that the daughter of the women defending half the high -sexual harassment cases in America is actually helping the bad guy, a sexual predator himself. The rest of the script is as generic and basic as that, usually telling us what something means, and then overly explaining (instead of allowing us to discover) what must happen next. That approach is solid (if boring) and helps keep things clear in the swirl of activity, but it fails to engage.

Unfortunately, the camerawork is similar. I remember being surprised when the film finally gave us a semi-emotional close-up during an important interview that gave the scene some punch and energy. There are a lot—a lot—of medium shots that keep everyone in view but end up keeping us at something of a distance throughout the film. Since the story includes the private lives and personal struggles of the reporters, there is an expectation that we are going to connect with the issues of post-partum depression, work-life balance that includes young children and husbands, and the growing personal connection between the two leads. But between the script and the cinematography, we see it all at a distance, and we observe rather than experience. 

The film unfortunately pales in comparison to two films that have similar story arcs, but do it so much better: the more recent Spotlight (2015) and the classic All the President’s Men (1976). As with She Said, these films have endings we already know but are nonetheless filled with suspense, emotional peaks, touching side stories, and flawed and believable central characters we find it easy to relate to. Some might call She Said’s approach cool and understated, and its central story can evoke strong and varied reactions to the specific case of Weinstein or the more general issues related to sexual coercion and power imbalances. If those maddening issues being addressed in a rather flat manner is enough, the film will work for the viewer. But therein lies the true disappointment here: A great and powerful story isn’t given the dramatic treatment it—and we–truly deserve.

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The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

In the wake of the death of the legendary Angela Lansbury, I thought I’d take another look at her third Oscar-nominated performance in the 1962 version of The Manchurian Candidate. It’s a film that disappeared for a while, so it’s lost a recognizability factor that other films produced in the early sixties still have. But this is one of the best of its kind, its kind being a paranoid thriller that gave birth to the genre that includes The Parallax View, Marathon Man, Blow-Up, Blow Out, and The Conversation.

The film is a great example of the taut early sixties, black-and-white films made by directors who began in television and moved into feature films, e.g., Sidney Lumet, Robert Altman, James Brooks, Ridley Scott, Edgar Wright, Joss Whedon, and of course, John Frankenheimer, the director of The Manchurian Candidate.

For those who haven’t seen it, suffice it to say that this is a film released at the height of the Cold War involving communists, the Soviet Union, China, left-wingers right-wingers, brainwashing, and American politics of the time. However, one cannot help but notice the similarities between then and now. Surprisingly, the film functions as a one-size-fits-all film for those looking for contemporary resonance; lefties and righties alike can claim the byzantine conspiracies and evil power-brokers as extensions of their own world-view. Yet even then, the questions arose over whether the real bad guys were the feared communists or the McCarthyite communist-hunters.

While the overall plot of the film makes sense, there is a lot that doesn’t, which is one of the reasons this film has lasted; the things we might not completely understand only serve to add to the head-swirling the film consistently delivers. Janet Leigh’s character comes out of nowhere and raises a lot more questions than answers, a series of confusions that works in the film. How did lead Laurence Harvey’s mother and stepfather ever get together, and how did she ever become the monster she became? The film refuses to tie up loose ends and answer every question, and even ends with only a response, not any kind of answer or explanation.

But what a ride this film is. The brainwashing sequence toward the beginning is the stuff of legend, and is equal parts cinematically thrilling and deeply distressing. We see a lot more gore these days, but what occurs here is as shocking as any jump-scare in a modern horror film, yet all the more brutal in contrast to its matter-of-fact presentation. As the film slowly unveils its varied conspiratorial threads, the tension mount incredibly until its climax, which is both satisfying and devastating.

The film gives Frank Sinatra top billing, and he has the more dramatic character of the two male leads. But the film’s storyline belongs to Laurence Harvey, who does numbed and deadened characters as well as anyone. Sinatra, at this point an Oscar-winning, Oscar-nominated, and greatly respected actor, leans into his sweaty, tortured, aging ex-serviceman who is caught between his own suffering and his desire to find out the truth behind it. There is no vanity in it, and his character’s angst is almost painful to watch at times. (Also, Sinatra engages in one of the first martial arts fights in an American film, something that comes off as surprising as any of the revelations of the film’s script.)

One note for those that have been as misinformed as I: This film was not banned after President Kennedy’s assassination the year after this film’s release. It is true that it was censored in several Eastern European countries and the Soviet Union for a time, and it was held back for a time by Sinatra in the 1970s, when he acquired the rights to it. But it first showed on television in 1965.

Frankenheimer’s style is clear and bracing, and has a surprising number of avant-garde touches that can be enjoyed. But he never slows down to indulge his own style or a performance; this is a film that moves. Frankenheimer wasn’t nominated for an Oscar, but was nominated for a Directors Guild of America award and a Golden Globe. The film was nominated for a BAFTA as well for the Best Film from Any Source. But the one towering performance is that of Angela Lansbury, who will erase all memories of her Oscar-nominated work in Gaslight in 1944, her Oscar-nominated work in The Picture of Dorian Gray the next year, Mrs. Potts in Beauty and the Beast, and of course, Jessica Fletcher in “Murder, She Wrote.” Here she is the smartest person in the room, cold as ice and as calculating as they come, with a relationship with her son that is twisted in more ways than one.  (To add to the discomfort, Lansbury, who often played older than she was, was only 36 to her movie son Laurence Harvey’s age of 33.) Lansbury lost her Oscar that year to Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker, which is understandable. But Lansbury’s performance is just as rich, if not as emotionally satisfying for the viewer. Keep your eye on her in every scene she is in, and you will see a master at work. She is brilliant and chilling.

Angela Lansbury and Laurence Harvey as mother and son in 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate.

As 1960’s Psycho was the originator of the modern horror film, 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate is the mother (word chosen carefully) of the modern political thriller, specifically of the paranoid variety. Yes, it was remade with great actors and color. But this is the one you want to see.

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Thor: Love and Thunder

Thor: Love and Thunder’s Natalie Portman and Chris Hemsworth

Thor: Love and Thunder is a film as disjointed as its name. It’s not so much a film as a patchwork of ideas, tones, and narrative directions that ultimately don’t add up. It also gives us a Thor we don’t need and really don’t want. And its obligatory diversity requirements are actually both cynical and funny.

This version of Thor’s story is an “everything but the kitchen sink” project with far too many people and ideas shoehorned in. First of all, what exactly is the story? Is this ultimately about Thor’s existential crisis (not an ideal journey for this particular superhero)? Is it hunting Gorr the God Butcher? Is this about saving the kids? Is it a romance between Thor and Jane? Or is it a film about (spoiler alert) the intrusion of cancer into the Marvel universe?

I don’t do typical reviewy type of recommendations  here, but I’ll make an exception. For the parents: This is not for young children. It’s not just about Chris Hemsworth’s bare behind, or the many, many times the words s*** or s***** are used. There are also some frightening moments that could be traumatic for younger ones, even those used to cartoon or superhero violence. It’s as if writer/director Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok and Jojo Rabbit) wanted to stretch the Thor mythology into cruder, more violent, or sillier territory instead of just comically expanding it, as he did with Ragnarok. The relative light touch in that film has been replaced by a heavier hand that has pulled many of the scenes so far away from the basic (relatively) serious mythology so as to disconnect from what we know and appreciate about that world. The film is goofy instead of funny, silly instead of witty, and we lose our sense of what our hero and his world are supposed to be.

I have a great respect for Hemsworth’s comic talents, which shone so brightly in Ragnarok. He’s clearly a trooper, and he gives the silly moments his best. But it’s not a good fit for his character, and this role does him no favors. Plus, he seemed tired at times, not in the fight sequences, but in the sillier dialogue set-ups. He’s made to look foolish at times—and while we appreciate a modicum of self-deprecation with this hero, too much of it simply unmoors him from who he is and who we love.

There are actually several movies in this film. There is the Guardians of the Galaxy movie, which constitutes the first part, makes almost no sense when you’re watching it, and is disconnected from what follows. Then there is a love story, which never really gels, and never really did. Bringing it (spoiler alert again) to a conclusion might not have been the best choice. Then the God Butcher comes up now and then and his activities need to be addressed. Then there is the parade of crazies, led by a nearly unrecognizable Christian Bale, actually doing a good job with a character—Gorr—whose motivations and strengths shouldn’t be given too much critical thought. There is also a bonkers Russell Crowe as Zeus. I never thought I’d see Russell Crowe flounce, so I can now both add that and cross that off my bucket list. Again, whole different worlds packed into one film.

Tessa Thompson is just “there” in the film and seems criminally underused; again, just seemed crammed in.  Natalie Portman never seemed an ideal fit for Jane, and it seems that she had to stand on a great number of boxes for her scenes with Hemsworth—quite distracting (she’s a full foot shorter than Chris). A lot has been made of her work to get her arms as buff as they are, but while commendable, strong arms don’t make a character, and her journey throughout the film doesn’t fully make sense. That’s not her fault. Portman can be a very good actress (Léon: The Professional, Jackie, Black Swan), but she also played Padmé, so there’s that. She does her best, but again, it doesn’t seem the best fit for either Jane or where the movie takes her.

Some films are worth it because you like spending time with the characters even if the plot doesn’t provide a great deal of interest (e.g., the Downton Abbey movies, and pretty much every French movie you might like). But this Thor, while being as likable as Hemsworth can make him, really isn’t the Thor we love watching. He’s lost focus, and is thrown around a plotline as convoluted as a pinball game. A little self-deprecation and irony work for his basic character, but it goes too far here. Opening up a genre or a franchise is risky business at all times, and yet Waititi hit it well with Ragnarok. But what worked there in slightly stretching the character and situations toward the comedic has stretched the myth all out of shape here. Thor the character has apparently lost his bearings at the beginning of the film, but he never really finds them, either personally or as part of a superhero franchise.

Lastly, the film follows the new Oscar Diversity rules to an extreme, but a safe one for business. There is one scene with two gay characters discussing reproduction, and then there is another scene with two “male” characters in a relationship. But the men aren’t human (so does that qualify?), and the scenes are easily excised for certain foreign markets. There isn’t a through-line in the film for these relationships, and the few scenes can be cut out in less than a minute with absolutely no loss to the film. All I could think of was how Lena Horne’s scenes were kept in old MGM musicals for exhibition in Northern theaters, but were easily cut out for showing in the South. For those concerned about Disney’s turn into wokeness, this is just token wokeness, which is even sillier.

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Jurassic World Dominion

(l to r) DeWanda Wise, Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Isabelle Sermon

So what do you get when you put together all the previous Jurassic movies, the James Bond movies, Alien, Aliens, all the Bourne films, all the Mission Impossible films, King Kong, The Good Earth, The Birds, a soupçon of Apocalypse Now and Wolverine? Something like Jurassic World Dominion, which, from my mouth to God’s ears, may be the last of the Jurassic films. It’s a dark film of nearly non-stop suspense moments that is clearly what director Colin Trevorrow (The Book of Henry, Jurassic World) was aiming for: a “science thriller.”

The wonder and simplicity of the original is gone. There is no breathtaking moment like the in-broad-daylight sighting of the dinosaurs which elevated the original to cult classic status. Instead, we get dangerous chase after chase, generally at night, with many animatronic dinosaurs bringing various degrees of threat. The only wonder is…well, that’s just too easy.

There isn’t really a plot, but several plots instead. There is something about an orphan (or is she?) being held be non-parents who want to protect her, but of course the bad guys want her. To amp up… something… that plotline is too closely paired with the “kidnapping” of a baby dino from its loving mother. Then there is the “what have we done with disturbing nature?” element, which includes a ridiculous speech by chaos expert Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum), who follows that speech with amusingly incoherent bits of sentences throughout the rest of the film.

Then there is the romantic drama of Owen and Claire (Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard), which finally at least resolves on some level. Then there are two action hero movies in the film. One stars Chris Pratt as Jason Bourne/James Bond/Ethan Hunt, and that’s a fun thread to watch. Howard is less fortunate, as she has moved beyond wearing heels while running to safety, but has run into becoming a strange combination of action hero and damsel in distress.

The other romantic coupling (spoiler alert) is between Jurassic Park originals Ellie Sattler and Alan Grant (Laura Dern and Sam Neill). Oscar winner Dern doesn’t seem to be given much direction, and tends to overact a bit. Neill fares better by staying low-key throughout. The inclusion of these two succeeds to some extent in connecting this action film to the franchise’s roots, but the challenge of putting their story in might have been one of the contributors to the film feeling so overly busy and cramped.

Then there is typical threat to the entire world posed by the big bad corporate company and its evil owner. (I honestly thought the set-up for this part of the film was a satire at first.) That thankless role is at least being played by Campbell Scott, who makes more of his character than is written on the page; his half-completed sentences and staccato body language provide a few of the film’s moments of enjoyment. Note: If the idea of insects becoming the size of crows and flying all around you makes you nervous, avoid this.

The franchise element of the film has guaranteed its financial success, but not its artistic success—or simply its ability to be thoroughly enjoyed. The movie is overstuffed and all over the place, and is only strung together by its action/thriller scenes, which become tiresome. There is, thankfully,  a moment or two when everyone catches their breath, but those are too few and too far between.

This film should prove to be a good move for a few, but not for everyone involved. Trevorrow may have a hit on his hands, but Hollywood should be careful how they use him; after all, he co-wrote and directed this thing. Pratt is probably the biggest winner here, as his acting is impressive, as is his work with creatures that really aren’t there. It’s a great step for him as he moves from humor to dramatic, a serious action film being a great segue to the next step of his career. Howard does fine, but this film doesn’t provide any more information on how best to use this actress.

Isabella Sermon as the young girl hits every note she should, and this should be a great steppingstone for her. Mamoudou Athie and DeWanda Wise do good work as well, with Athie perhaps being the most relatable figure in the film. French legend Omar Sy (Jurassic World, “Lupin,” X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Intouchables) brings gravitas and a sense of dignity and reality to his part, a much-needed contribution. I’m not sure if B.D. Wong’s appearance as Dr. Henry Wu is going to help or hurt, but Dichen Lachman, so good as Ms. Casey in TV’s “Severance,” here comes off as trying to do a Vanessa Kirby-type heartless Euro-criminal and not really succeeding.

There are some big names attached to the film, but they don’t seem to have helped much. Yes, Steven Spielberg is listed as one of the executive producers, but his touch isn’t to be found. There are a couple of moments like could fall into the Spielberg humor/danger category, but they are neither clever nor ironically funny enough. Music is from Michael Giacchino (Ratatouille, an Oscar for his score for Up), but is rather standard.

Plot lines do come together at the end with the suggestion that this will be the end of the franchise. In bringing several threads to a conclusion, that film is satisfying in that regard. And if you like practically non-stop action with more chases than the entire James Bond franchise, and you don’t mind every version of dinosaur and giant locust in the mix, then this is your film. Otherwise, don’t feel you need to be a completist.

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Elvis

Austin Butler as Elvis Presley

I’m normally not a fan of Baz Luhrmann’s films. I enjoyed (and still enjoy) Moulin Rouge!, where the director’s overheated energy worked well with the material. Not so much Romeo + Juliet, and especially not Australia and The Great Gatsby. (No one has made a successful film of that book yet.) But Elvis is something of a glorious mess, with very strong strengths and painful weaknesses. Fortunately, the director’s over-the-top style mostly works with the story here.

First of all, this is not a biopic. Huge portions of The King’s story are left out. There is no Ann-Margret, very little in the way of his Hollywood films, and nothing of his only Grammy-winning records, which were all in the “Inspirational” category. No, this is, for good or ill, a story seen through the lens of his manager, “Colonel” Tom Parker, played, for good or ill, by America’s favorite actor, Tom Hanks.

Seeing Elvis’s story through Parker’s lens doesn’t seem the best way to tell it, as Parker is a confusing character, played here as conniving and manipulative, but embodied by the actor with the kindest persona in the country. We’re not sure how we are supposed to feel about him, as his actions are generally deplorable and distancing while being delivered by a man we love and trust. Plus—and this is hard to say—Hanks is both miscast and unable to nail the character. His accent is wavering (Parker was Dutch), and while Parker is something of a force, he is not so much a real character here. Hanks is a wonderful actor in general, but he can’t do everything, and this may stand with his work in The Ladykillers as his biggest misstep. My guess is that he will up for an award for this performance, but it’s likely to be a Razzie.

Someone who will definitely be up for many awards, and may win several, is relative newcomer Austin Butler, who plays Elvis in the film. Some may remember him as Tex Watson in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, but this is his breakout role. Technically, the performance is amazing, as he channels not just the moves but the specific energy of Presley in his performances. That’s also Butler’s singing voice that we hear in the early songs of the singer’s career, and then it’s a combination of Butler and Presley. Even then, Butler’s lip-synching is near-perfect—something only a real singer can pull off.

But beyond that, Butler brings Elvis’s painful sensitivity when needed, as well as his tenderness and occasional harsh selfishness. When Parker stokes the flames of Elvis’s ambitions, we believe Butler. When Elvis speaks of being lonely, we also believe Butler. This is a dazzling performance, and Butler works as hard as Elvis ever did. Being a Luhrmann film, there are many quick and colorful montage sequences, each with Butler in a different outfit performing in different venues. The number of camera set-ups is astounding, and Butler gives his all even in the very short clips that make up these sequences.

A strength of the film, and perhaps its greatest contributing factor to the Elvis story, is the insistence on our understanding of where his musical influences lay. Gospel music (specifically of the classic Pentecostal variety) and African-American rhythm and blues were the elements that got married and produced an Elvis. If this sticks in our collective imaginations regarding The King, the film will have positively added to the legend.

Tom Hanks as Colonel Parker (l), and the Hanks we know (r).

The biggest flaw of the film is structural, with Parker’s perspective supposedly arranging and contextualizing what we see and hear. But with Elvis the man, and especially as delivered by Butler, the film wants to be about Elvis first. Instead, we get what feel like unwelcome interruptions from a man who exploited him, and a man we don’t quite understand (and we’re not even sure we want to). If the film were to be about Parker front and center, that would have been another film. But the film is Elvis, not Colonel Parker. So the structure works against the forces that are the legend himself and the strong central performance of Butler.

As usual with a Luhrmann film, there is glitz for miles, exhausting energy, and a superficiality that usually doesn’t serve the material, but does here. Don’t go expecting a real understanding of Elvis, and don’t expect subtlety when reductiveness and excess will do. (E.g., Elvis being the “white singer who sounded black” might be true, but the reality is more nuanced than that simple statement.) Be warned that there are number of inaccuracies in the film, such as his relationship with B.B. King, exactly why he went into the Army, and Parker’s reasons for wanting to keep Elvis in Las Vegas (just Google the idea). The film needs to keep things simple, if also simplistic, to keep things moving.

Catherine Martin (aka Mrs. Luhrmann) again provides flashy production design and costumes for the film, as she did (and was Academy Awarded for) with Moulin Rouge! and The Great Gatsby. It’s a sure thing she’ll be nominated again, and may well win. Both are beautiful, and perhaps more important in awards season, attention-getting. (That pink outfit Elvis wears early in the film may well go down in film history along that green dress Keira Knightley wears in Atonement).

When I first saw Moulin Rouge! in the theater, the first twenty minutes were so visually and aurally stimulating that I almost walked out. The film finally calmed down. Elvis does have its quiet moments here and there, but it really never calms down. It’s essentially a high-energy gloss on the life of a legend, and don’t go in expecting anything approaching documentary truth. It’s an Elvis amusement park ride, but except for Hanks and the character he plays, it’s a wild and enjoyable ride. And you can’t miss what Austin Butler does here. He alone is worth the price of admission.

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Top Gun: Maverick

It’s summertime, and folks have found a reason to go back to the movie theater. Apparently, what we needed were loud blockbuster remakes. Jurassic Park: Dominion, a film getting mixed reviews, was the second salvo, but the first, getting surprisingly good reviews, is Top Gun: Maverick, a 36-year-after-the-original sequel. (It was supposed to be released three years ago, but was delayed first by production difficulties and then by the pandemic.)

The film strikes a great balance between being a sequel that wants to both honor and build upon the 1986 original, and being a fun modern action film. Narratively, the film is built solidly on tensions between Iceman (Val Kilmer) and Tom Cruise’s Maverick, and on the complex love/hate feelings between Maverick and Rooster (Miles Teller), son of Anthony Edwards’ Goose, who died in the original. Add a love interest for Maverick in the person of Penny (a glowing Jennifer Connelly), and there is enough human interest to keep the film connected between the flying jets, testosterone exhibitions, and shirtless athletic games.

As an action film, the first is packed with fast-paced sequences of fighter jets flipping, flying, and shooting. The scenes are well edited, and the film keeps us focused on the purpose and meaning of the flying exercises—the mission they are practicing for. In fact, the film excels in using the mission as almost a McGuffin; we know what they are working toward and why, but the emphasis is strictly on the preparation, its challenges, and the actual dangers of the mission itself. The role of the “enemy” is downplayed, and the work required to get the job done is what is consistently highlighted. We never get lost in the energy of the action scenes, but are always reminded of the importance of focus, teamwork, and the ultimate goal of the mission. But it must be said that the film nearly goes overboard in presenting the obstacles. This is a film where you only think you’ve successfully overcome the obstacles when here comes another, and then another, and then another. If you don’t like action suspense, try another film.

Much ink has been spilled (as they used to say) on the Iceman/Maverick update and the Maverick/Goose/Rooster situation. The Kilmer/Cruise reunion is handled with sensitivity and care, and Kilmer comes out respected as a character and an actor. The Maverick/Rooster relationship is complicated by a plot complication from the past that is thrown in from nowhere, as if Rooster blaming Maverick for his father’s death doesn’t provide enough tension. It will come as no surprise that (spoiler alert), the film ultimately throws them together in a life-and-death scenario where they both come out alive and appreciative of each other.

This last aspect of the film is not just a nod to the plot of the first Top Gun, but a sign of maturing. Maverick becomes a literal father figure to Rooster here in a way Maverick couldn’t have done in the first film, where we are introduced to Rooster as a young boy. Of course, the quiet and touching conversation between Iceman and Maverick is another example. But perhaps the biggest grown-up move is the character of Penny and the actress chosen to play her, the Oscar-winning (A Beautiful Mind) whose presence adds stability and strength as well as beauty, romance, and occasional flirtatious repartee. (And there is the advantage that Connelly is the same height as Cruise—5’7”—not three inches taller, as was Kelly McGillis.) Penny is a grown woman of warmth, intelligence, and maturity, and as such brings out the evolving grown-up in Maverick, a welcome touch. Connelly has become a skilled actress of depth, which shades this film with more subtle tones than the first.

The screenplay is a model of tightness for an action film. There is nothing that happens that hasn’t been set up, and there is a good balance between the human relationships and the action sequences. There is a great deal owed to the Star Wars action scenes here, but that is to be expected when the mission is laid out and the geographic challenges are displayed.

The supporting cast is solid. The always-welcome Ed Harris pops in and then unfortunately disappears too soon. Jon Hamm brings the right level of authority to a one-note part. Glen Powell is impressive as the arrogant young flyer who makes no attempt to hide his self-confidence. The film bends over backward to move away from the first film’s whiteness, but no character or actor seems shoehorned in; they are all real people and are believable as pilots. And that brings us to Miles Teller, who does a fine job with what is the major male role after Maverick. But Teller is a bit of a mystery. He’s talented as an actor, is good looking enough (and like everyone else his age, ripped as could be in the film), and yet doesn’t seem to be able to break through yet to full stardom. He was very good in Whiplash and The Spectacular Now, and is solid everywhere else. But either he lacks something in front of the camera that I can’t pinpoint, or he just hasn’t found that right part yet—or perhaps he’ll have to grow into his breakthrough starring role.

We can say definitely now that Top Gun: Maverick is the post-pandemic film that brought the masses back into the movie theaters (and yes, this is the only way this should be seen). It’s loud, fast, fun, intelligently tied to its origin film, and emotional at the same time. That’s not necessarily my favorite kind of film, and I probably won’t be running out to see it again anytime soon. But for the kind of film it is, it does nearly everything right.

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Downton Abbey: A New Era

The Downton movies are comfort food, like a good chicken pot pie on a cold winter day. A New Era is no exception. There is nothing surprising, and there are no real shocks (except one minor but surprising action that was actually set up earlier but was still startling when it happened). Seeing the movie is simply a visit with old and familiar friends, friends who might have aged a few years, but are otherwise just the same.

Creator and screenwriter Julian Fellowes adds nothing new here, and actually heavily borrows something old. The film is subtitled “A New Era,” and that gives Fellowes the opportunity for new music and new intrusive inventions; once it was electricity, radio, and record players, and now it’s not only movies, but TALKING PICTURES! Instead of the King coming to Downton, we have two major events that shake things up. One is the arrival of a film crew to use the house as a movie set, and the other is a mysterious gifting of a villa in the south of France to Maggie Smith’s character, the Dowager Countess.

These two provide Fellowes with the only “original” elements of the film. The film crew provides energy and action, with the opportunity to give a few famous British actors several snarky lines about actors in general, which is moderately amusing, and the chance to have filming scenes interrupted by unknowing Downton staff, which is also moderately amusing. The French chateau subplot takes much of the Downton crowd to a hotter and more picturesque destination, providing jokes springing from the eternal British/French rivalry, ranging from the weather to differing national perspectives on life and love. This side trip provides the only elements of mystery here, which are twin concerns based on a “did they or didn’t they?” scenario and if they did, what that might mean for our male lead. Unlike most other films out today, the stakes are low, in spite of the film’s attempts to rachet up the drama.

The trip also provides Fellowes with the chance to sprinkle some late 1920’s dust on the generally staid proceedings. The music has changed to jazz, with the attendant change in dance. Record players abound. The clothing is jazz age. But thankfully, the live band singer has a very contemporary voice, which is much easier on modern years than the actual voices of the period (Bing Crosby excepted).

The most enjoyable parts of the experience include spending time with old friends that we know and generally love, with the added energy of seeing them a few years after our last film. Spoiler alert: couples are already married, the children are older, and the Countess’s sickness has progressed. Matthew Goode, who plays Lady Mary’s husband, couldn’t make it because of his work schedule, and he is missed. I half expected that he might get a day off and make a last-second appearance, but nay. Instead, we have Mary forming a possibly dangerous connection with the director of the film that invades Downton, who of course happens to be Hugh Dancy, therefore charismatic and good looking. This “will they or won’t they?” set-up mirrors the “did they or didn’t they?” scenario of the past with Violet, and adds to what little tension the film provides . (Spoiler alert: they won’t.)

Fellowes apparently spent most of his time with this script trying to get couples together. The Countess and her (possible) late lover are a source of concern and query. Tom Branson and Lucy, who got to kiss in the last movie, are now married. Daisy and Andy are happily married now. And to put the icing on the cake, Mr. Molesely (the ever-funny Kevin Doyle) and the completely rehabilitated Miss Baxter get engaged, with Mrs. Patmore and Sophie’s father (Mason) not far behind. A few of these set-ups are slam-banged into place, with nary a second of breathing room for either them or the viewer. But nothing comes close to the rushed gay romance that is awkwardly slammed into place, stretching believability on many angles.

Perhaps the biggest weakness for me is one that most will not find objectionable. But having written an unpublished book on Singin’ in the Rain, I found the heavy borrowing/stealing of its central dramatic ideas quite distracting. We have a striking blonde beauty who can’t speak well, a reluctance surprise (but really, not a surprise at all) speaker who can, and all of this coming at a time when film world is moving from silence to sound, endangering the careers of those with objectionable voices. I was honestly surprised at how much this film takes from Singin’, in spite of the classic being 70 years old this year.

The acting is uniformly good, as it generally is in a Downton episode. Jim Carter as Mr. Carson harrumphs more than usual, but that’s what we alike about him. Carter is half of an inside joke with his real-life wife Imelda Staunton (cousin Maud) in a hat shop this is cute for everyone, and worth a guffaw for those that know the real-life relationship.) Lady Mary is still that fascinating combination of sleek and edgy, and Phyllis Logan as Mrs. Hughes brings in the most affecting performance in her relatively short time on screen. But it is Hugh Bonneville who is the most surprising. He has a scene that reminded me of Tom Hanks’ great scene in Captain Phillips, when I immediately thought, “Wow, I didn’t know Hanks could do that” (it’s the scene near the end, and if you’ve seen it, you know what I mean). Bonneville has always been solid and very British, but has a standout scene here. Color me impressed.

But though every action is telegraphed way before it happens, and the mysteries of the film are rather low in terms of dramatic energy, this is still a fun romp for fans of the television series and the first film. The camera, let loose a bit in the last film, is quite freer here, and some of the camera movements are exhilarating. But the film and series have always been about the people. World events, such as the sinking of the Titanic, World War One, the 1919 influenza pandemic, etc. all play a back seat to the two driving forces: will the characters be OK, and can they keep Downton Abbey going?

Big spoiler alert ahead: this is the time when the Dowager finally dies, and her scene not only has a classic Downton balance of sorrow and humor, but she goes out with possibly the best dying line in movie history. It’s classic Dowager, and it will rank right up there with “Made it, Ma—top of the world!” and other classic last lines. Her dying words might make this film a classic.

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Everything Everywhere All at Once

This crazy/wonderful film is well described by its title, and brought to mind Run Lola Run, Shakespeare in Love, Dr. Strange, the last Spider-Man film, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, any number of Marx brothers films, and that amusement park ride that spins in circles while roughly throwing its passengers from one side of the seat to the other.

The film brims over with dizzying energy, almost too many themes, and top-notch performances. IIMDB describes the plot as “An aging Chinese immigrant is swept up in an insane adventure, where she alone can save the world by exploring other universes connecting with the lives she could have led.” That’s as good a description as any, but falls quite short of giving you an idea of this film, which can’t be “seen” as much as experienced.

Stephanie Hsu, the incredible Michelle Yeoh, and Ke Huy Quan in Everything Everywhere All at Once

The Run Lola Run comparison is because the film gives alternate life possibilities depending on the choices of the characters. The Dr. Strange and Spider-Man comparisons are because of the extended world/s of the multiverse, which gives writers/directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert the thread on which to hang any number of crazy side trips, some which work and some which don’t.

Thankfully, all of this is held together brilliantly by the legendary Michelle Yeoh (Crazy Rich Asians and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, among many others), who at this point in the year is my pick for Best Actress. That’s where a memory on Shakespeare in Love comes in. I remember reading an article that said that practically any skilled actress playing the part that won an Oscar for Gwyneth Paltrow could have been won by any other skilled young actress, because the part was so juicy. Here, Yeoh is playing so many different parts in so many different places that I lost count, but she maintains the heart of the central character in a way that takes us viewers into all of her experiences and alternate realities without getting lost. Yes, the film makes good use of Yeoh’s reputation as the queen of martial arts films, but her character is much more human than that, and much more relatable. It’s a stunning performance in that it’s not all over the place, but she rather miraculously keeps things grounded as her “realities” move all over the place.

Someone I’d present as a Best Supporting Actress possibility is Stephanie Hsu as the daughter. Hsu, currently being seen as Mei in “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” is in her early thirties but gets away with playing a teen here. She puts on a lot of hats, and dresses, and identities—much more than Yeoh—and much of the energy of the film comes from her character and her various expressions. Hsu burns through the film from beginning to end, and if Yeoh provides the solid center, Hsu pulls on the viewers and takes them on a series of wild rides.

A big surprise is the character of the husband, played by Ke Huy Quan (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Goonies). It would be a spoiler to describe why this performance is so good, but it’s a delightful surprise.

Then there is Jamie Lee Curtis in a performance you haven’t seen from her and would never have imagined (and quoting Forrest Gump, “that’s all I have to say about that.”

There are crude elements that are thrown in and which tend to cheapen the film here and there, and there is a family conflict between grandfather and granddaughter that is simultaneously something parents might want their children to avoid, and which also is borderline cliché, and at this point, a tired trope. And like a Marx Brothers film, there are a thousand things thrown against the wall, with only the majority sticking and leaving the rest quickly forgotten in the cinematic chaos. On the other hand, since this is a film where everything AND the kitchen sink has been thrown in, it was intriguing to see themes of connection, love, commitment, and the power and worth of kindness—something we rarely see in mainstream films, and which was unexpected in such a wild and crazy film.

It’s safe to say that you have never seen another film quite like this, even though I opened this with film comparisons. But nothing has ever contained this unique combination of elements. Many folks will want to see this more than once, and even that may not be quite enough. Come for the experience, but stay for some of the year’s best performances.

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2022 Oscar Thoughts and Predictions

Rumor has it we’re “back to normal” this year with everyone gathered in an auditorium, and with three—count ‘em!—hosts. The film world is still recovering from both COVID and the rise of streaming services with good films. This will likely be the year that a streaming service film will win Best Picture.

In their infinite wisdom, the Academy has decided to award some EIGHT categories before the ceremony that we usually get to see as part of the show, featuring clips of acceptances sprinkled throughout the show. This of course will shorten the show, but will deny the craftspeople in these categories their full moment in the sun. (The categories are hair and make-up, editing, sound, production design, original score, and the three short-film categories.) Probable Best Actress winner Jessica Chastain has announced that the is ready to skip the red carpet to witness those awards. The Academy really knows how to step in it…and usually “it” is of its own making. At least they have backed off from instituting “The Academy Award for Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film”. Quel horreur! Listen, Academy, I have some great ideas of shortening the show if you’d ever ask, suggestions that don’t leave anyone out.

Not really caring as much this year to get predictions right, I’ll be throwing in the occasional thought about the following categories if I have one. Let’s start with some of the “bumped” categories, sans the names of all the nominees:

Best Hair and Make-up: The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Like previous winner La Vie en Rose, the make-up and the story are so intermingled as to be inseparable.

Editing: Not sure here, as for some crazy reason, West Side Story wasn’t even nominated in this category. The winner might be The Power of the Dog, the presumed Best Picture winner until recently, but that’s a slow film, and Best Editing is sometimes interpreted as Most Edited Film. But I hope Tick, Tick…Boom! wins. Its editing was beautifully integrated into the music and the rhythms of the lead character’s creativity, which is why I think it might be overlooked because it was so seamless. Dear Academy, please don’t give it to Don’t Look Up, for so many reasons. Yes, I know it’s furiously edited and snarky at times, but please don’t….

Sound: Dune is expected to win a haul of technical awards, and will likely win here. In another year, it would have been West Side Story.

Production Design: See previous winner. And in another year, it would also have been West Side Story.

Original score: I loved what Jonny Greenwood did in The Power of the Dog, but Dune’s Hans Zimmer will likely win because it’s Dune and it’s Hans Zimmer.

Best Costume Design: See Production Design and the “in another year” sentence above.

Best Adapted Screenplay Nominees:

            CODA

            Drive My Car

            Dune

            The Lost Daughter

            The Power of the Dog

CODA has been getting a lot of love lately, but The Power of the Dog is my preference. Could be either one. Should be Jane Campion for The Power of the Dog—a great script.

Best Original Screenplay

            Belfast

            Don’t Look Up

            King Richard

            The Lost Daughter     

            The Worst Person in the World

Adam McKay (Don’t Look Up) has been a popular choice in the past, but see my thought on its editing above. Let’s give it to Belfast’s writer and director Kenneth Branagh, nominated eight times with no wins up to this point.

Best Animated Feature

This is a tough one to call. Encanto is quite popular, but Flee has the socio-political vote (though it will likely win in the Best Documentary category), and The Mitchells vs. the Machines has gotten the most critical praise. The lazy vote might give it to Encanto.

Best Documentary Feature

For sheer joy, it should be Summer of Soul, which includes politics with its never-before-seen footage of music (always an Academy favorite combination). But with no Holocaust films in the mix this year (a cynical observation but true), it will likely go to Flee.

Best Original Song

There is no “Let It Go” this year, though the folks behind Encanto’s “Dos Oruguitas” should have re-thought a bit and let “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” into the line-up. Who knew? But we have the beloved Beyoncé (“Be Alive”) up against 13-times-nominated-yet-hasn’t-won Diane Warren, who wrote “Somehow You Do,” a song few people know from Four Good Days, a film no one has seen. Should be interesting.

OK, let’s get into the top 7 awards.

Best International Feature (formerly Best Foreign Language Film)

Drive My Car

Flee

The Hand of God

Lunana: A Yak in the Classroom

The Worst Person in the World

I would be shocked if Drive My Car didn’t run away with this. It probably got the best reviews of any film this year, but it has the “let’s honor it but not give it the award” nominations in the Best Picture and Best Director Categories. The love for Flee will be covered (see above) in other categories, leaving Drive My Car the winner. The only spoiler could be The Worst Person in the World, which is peaking in its visibility, and is apparently loved by everyone who saw it.

Best Supporting Actor

Ciarán Hinds, Belfast

Troy Kotsur, CODA

Jesse Plemons, The Power of the Dog

J.K. Simmons, Being the Ricardos

Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Power of the Dog

This was supposed to be wrapped up for Kodi Smit-McPhee for his stellar work in The Power of the Dog, but CODA’s Troy Kotsur has come on strong lately. That puts a newcomer with a brilliant future up against a respected veteran in his breakout role in a feel-good film. With the rising support for CODA and Kotsur’s recent wins and acceptance speeches, I’ll give it to the veteran.

Best Supporting Actress

            Jessie Buckley, The Lost Daughter

            Ariana DeBose, West Side Story

            Judi Dench, Belfast

            Kirsten Dunst, The Power of the Dog

            Aunjanue Ellis, King Richard

The one lock of the night: Ariana DeBose for West Side Story. Film nerds will appreciate the symmetry, as DeBose’s co-star Rita Moreno won the same award for the same character 60 years ago (that’s not a typo). I have cynical thoughts about how this push for this award was handled in the media, but will get into trouble if I express them in writing.

Best Actor

Javier Bardem, Being the Ricardos

Benedict Cumberbatch, The Power of the Dog

Andrew Garfield, Tick, Tick…Boom!

Will Smith, King Richard

Denzel Washington, The Tragedy of Macbeth

This is the year that the Academy has decided to crown Will Smith for his work in King Richard. It’s a solid performance, and the always-likable Smith didn’t back away from the more negative aspects of the character—especially his occasional meanness, his crudeness, and his stubbornness. The Academy likes that as much as beautiful actresses going ugly. Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance in The Power of the Dog is actually richer and deeper, but it seems the Academy knows he’ll likely win this award in the future. Right now, it’s Will Smith coronation time.

Best Actress

Jessica Chastain, The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Olivia Colman, The Lost Daughter

Penélope Cruz, Parallel Mothers

Nicole Kidman, Being the Ricardos

Kristen Stewart, Spencer

This one is supposed to be up in the air, and it’s true that there is no obvious winner like DeBose or Smith. My money is on Jessica Chastain for The Eyes of Tammy Faye. Chastain has been nominated a couple of times before (The Help and Zero Dark Thirty) and is a well-respected actor among her peers. It feels like it’s her turn, especially with there being no clear consensus winner. Plus the nomination for Stewart is her reward, and the other three already have an Oscar.

Best Director

Paul Thomas Anderson, Licorice Pizza

Kenneth Branagh, Belfast

Jane Campion, The Power of the Dog

Ryusuke Hamaguchi, Drive My Car

Steven Spielberg, West Side Story

Definitely Jane Campion for The Power of the Dog. She was nominated way back in 1993 for her work on The Piano (she won that year’s Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen for it), her breakout film. She’s done interesting work in the meantime, but many thought The Piano would be her last great film. Not so. The Power of the Dog will be a classic, and this gives the Academy extra self-congratulation points for giving this award to a woman two years in a row. But the good news is that she deserves it.

Best Picture

Belfast

CODA

Don’t Look Up

Drive My Car

Dune

King Richard

Licorice Pizza

Nightmare Alley

The Power of the Dog

West Side Story

Up until last week, I would have thought The Power of the Dog was a lock. But CODA might be this year’s Green Book, a feel-good film that is just good enough to attract votes away from a dark but brilliant film. It’s won major awards recently, and has the self-congratulatory aspect voters love of featuring talented deaf actors in a story about deafness. It’s a well-done and enjoyable film. But it doesn’t compare to The Power of the Dog. We’ll see what mood the newly-enlarged and inclusive Academy is in this Sunday.

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