First Thoughts on 2023 Oscar Nominations

The 2023 Academy Award nominations came out today, and the first wave of published responses will be who got an unexpected nomination, and who got “snubbed,” a ridiculous phrase for an imprecise idea. My thoughts, however, turn to who got nominated, and what my thoughts are about the list, and about the possible winners. (Heads up: abbreviations abound for the film names.)

Best Picture

The list is locked in at 10 now, which is a marketing coup for the two or three that wouldn’t have made the list otherwise. Nothing looks like a lock at this point, which means that Top Gun: Maverick has a chance. (The Academy has made worse choices recently, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility.) Avatar: The Way of Water is there for technical reasons. Tár, which perhaps two dozen people have seen, and The Banshees of Inisherin, are there for artistic reasons. The Fabelmans won the Golden Globe for Best Picture, Drama, which certainly helps it here. My money at the moment is on either Top Gun: Maverick or Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Best Actor

I think this one is a lock for Brendan Fraser in The Whale. A great performance in an OK film is right up the Academy’s alley, and the combination of the gay theme (sorry, but that’s true) and the comeback for a respected actor is probably too big for anyone else to overcome. In another year, it would be Colin Farrell for Banshees. Austin Butler is a dark horse here for Elvis, and a division between Farrell and Fraser might give it to him (think 1950 and Judy Holliday (Born Yesterday) vs. Bette Davis (All About Eve) vs. Gloria Swanson (Sunset Boulevard), where Holliday emerged the winner).

Best Actress

This is between Cate Blanchett for Tár, giving a towering performance, and perhaps her best, and the legendary Michelle Yeoh, receiving a nomination for officially Everything Everywhere… and unofficially for her body of work. Tough choice for voters. Yeoh is loved, but Blanchett gives a performance for the ages. I was rooting for Yeoh to get a nomination back in April (https://film-prof.com/2022/04/21/everything-everywhere-all-at-once/) So I’m happy she’s being honored.

Best Supporting Actor

This one’s easy. It’s Ke Huy Quan for Everything Everywhere All at Once. It’s more “comeback-y” than even Fraser’s story, and his acceptance speeches steal your heart. No competition here. It might have been Brendan Gleeson in another year (Banshees), but he shares a nomination with the equally deserving Barry Keoghan in the same film. So Quan it is.

Best Supporting Actress

Again, a bit of a tough choice for some, with Jamie Lee Curtis winning her first nomination for Everything Everywhere. But like Gleeson and Keoghan, she shares a nomination with the talented Stephanie Hsu in the film. So it’s going to be Angela Bassett for Black Panther: Wakanda Forver, again for the performance and for her body of work. (And to reward Wakanda Forever, which came up short in the nominations.)

Best Animated Film

I’d be shocked it was anything other than Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio.

Best Director

A tough one this year. Perennial favorite Steven Spielberg won the Golden Globe for The Fabelmans, which might help him. But Martin McDonagh won a great deal of praise for Banshees, which won’t win Best Picture, so this could be a consolation prize. “The Daniels,” as they are known—Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert—may well be the winner/s for Everything Everywhere. My money is on them at the moment.

Best Adapted Screenplay

This could go in any direction. Writer/director Sarah Polley may win for Women Talking, as it also got a Best Picture nomination, and it would make up for her not receiving a Best Director nomination. My guess is that Academy will think her nomination is enough. Living probably won’t win, so it’s a toss-up between All Quiet on the Western Front, Top Gun, and Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. The “artiest” among this list include All Quiet and Women Talking, which might work in either film’s favor.

Best Original Screenplay

An initially easy one, but one that gets a little more complicated as you think about it. Banshees is a beloved script, but so is Everything Everywhere. The combination of Spielberg and Tony Kushner (who has undeservedly won before) might too potent to ignore for The Fabelmans. And Tár’s script is a sharp piece of work. I’m betting on either Banshees or Everything Everywhere.

Cinematography

I had assumed that Claudio Miranda was going to win for Top Gun: Maverick, but that’s clearly not going to happen. Today’s guess is All Quiet, but time will tell.

Best Film Editing

I would have given it to Top Gun in a second if it weren’t for Everything Everywhere, which I think will win.

Best Original Score

Making up for a dearth of nominations for Babylon, my guess is that this is the one Oscar this film will win.

Best Original Song

“Naatu Naatu” from RRR won the Golden Globe, and there was a great deal of self-congratulation by that group that will be absorbed  by the Academy crowd when the time comes. Awarding “foreign” films in categories like this makes the Academy proud of its inclusiveness. Unfortunately for them this year, that bumps right into “Lift Me Up” from Wakanda Forever, which won very few nominations. There is no big song this year like Titanic’s “My Heart Will Go On” this year. So it’s anyone’s guess. But a record might be set: Diane Warren received her 14th (!) nomination for songwriting for “Applause” from Tell It Like a Woman, and she will lose for the 14th time.

Best Visual Effects

It would normally be Avatar: The Way of Water, but All Quiet is getting a good deal of respect for its effects and how they are used.

Best Sound

In my mind today, it’s a toss-up between Elvis and Top Gun: Maverick. The former is about the sound created by a legend, and the latter is clean, bright, and shiny, with crisp and intelligent sound.

Best Costume Design

This could go to Babylon as a consolation prize. But Elvis, which was directed by Baz Luhrmann, has Luhrmann’s wife Catherine Martin as Costume Designer and Production Designer, awards she has won before for The Great Gatsby and Moulin Rouge! And Elvis’s costumes are large part of the visual appeal of the film.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Except for The Whale, all seem to have an equal chance. That’s All Quiet, The Batman, Wakanda Forever, and Elvis. Wakanda and Elvis are the most obvious, which might result in a win for one of them

Best Production Design

If it weren’t for Catherine Martin (see Costumes, above), I wouldn’t have thought of Elvis as a possible winner, but it’s too early to tell. Babylon perhaps has the MOST production design, which sometimes pulls in a win. We’ll have to see which way the wind blows here.

Best International Film

India might be regretting submitting Last Picture Show as its country’s submission here in the light of RRR’s success. (Think of the regret felt by folks for the song “Dos Oruguitas” from Encanto being submitted as best song just before “We Don’t Talk About Bruno” became a Number 1 hit.) So it’s between Argentina, 1985 (Argentina) and All Quiet on the Western Front (Germany). My best guess at the moment is All Quiet.

_________________________________________________________________________

Final Note: The Razzie nominations came out today as well. Probably the funniest nominations in this list of worsts belong to Tom Hanks:

Worst Actor for Disney’s Pinocchio (not to be confused with del Toro’s version!)

Worst Supporting Actor for Elvis (I can get behind this. See my thoughts at https://film-prof.com/2022/06/30/elvis/)

Worst Screen Couple for Elvis for “Tom Hanks and His Latex-Laden Face (and Ludicrous Accent)”

I love Tom Hanks (who doesn’t?). But the Razzie group is on the money here….

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Show People (1928)

Silent and early sound film star Marion Davies was a wonderful comedienne when given the chance, and perhaps there was no greater opportunity for her to show her talents than in 1928’s Show People, her last major role in a silent film. Of course, the argument is still going on that she was really like Susan Alexander, the sweet, slightly dumb, and only slightly talented “singer” who was Charles Foster Kane’s second wife in Citizen Kane (1941). As the film Mank ties to makes clear, Marion was not Susan. But Kane’s huge shadow over the world of film history has so associated Susan with Marion that Marion’s true talents may take a few more decades to find their place in people’s minds and film history books.

It wasn’t only Dorothy Comingore’s blistering performance as Susan that has cemented the wrong impression in people’s minds. There were three other circumstances that have conspired to keep Davies wrongly reimagined. One was the thisclose connection between Charles Foster Kane and William Randolph Hearst. Yes, a few red herrings were thrown in so that Orson Welles’ filmic creation was only 97.5% on the nose. But every adult in 1941 knew that Kane was Welles’ version of Hearst on the screen, and it was easy to make the leap to assume that Hearst’s mistress, Davies, was properly portrayed in all her lack of talent and ditsiness by Comingore.

Another was the reality of Davies’ life circumstance and rise to fame. Her lover and supporter was likely the most powerful man in America, as big a figure then as Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos are today. He and Davies were by far the most famous adulterous couple in the country, setting up home in Hollywood and at San Simeon in San Luis Obispo, with Mrs. Hearst firmly and permanently ensconced in New York City. (Hearst never divorced his wife and married Marion, even though they lived together for decades.) In spite of her fame as an actress, she was not always cast correctly, and every viewer knew where the money was coming from for Cosmopolitan Pictures, Hearst’s production company that majored in Davies’ career. No matter what she may have accomplished in her films, there were these huge shadows that always hung over her—Hearst himself, and her relationship with him.

The third factor that continues to muddy her reputation is her bad handling by Hearst in her film roles. It’s finally been widely conceded that the film roles that Hearst wanted for his lovely mistress—historic, dramatic costume pictures, didn’t serve her talents as well as the comic roles that she longed to play. But how talented was she comedically? Few have seen her best work these days, and perhaps the best demonstration of her talents is in a silent film—Show People. (Her first sound film, Marianne, is painfully bad on many levels, though Marion did very well in sound films, her stutter notwithstanding.) Show People is probably the one film that film historians should see to get a proper accounting of Davies’ skills.

If ever a silent film felt modern, it is Show People. It’s a straight-up satire with the cocky attitude of Singin’ in the Rain with some of the sauciness of Blazing Saddles. The story is simple and rife with comedic opportunities. Southern belle Peggy Pepper (Davies) comes to Hollywood with her father, assuming that her acting success in Savannah, Georgia will quickly translate to success as a dramatic actress. The rest is both obvious and meta at the same time. After trying her luck unsuccessfully as a dramatic star, she finds her true footing in silly screwball comedies, complete with pies in faces and plenty of tripping. Of course she meets a handsome young man along the way, someone unimpressed with stardom and who is just interested in Peggy for herself. Peggy loses her sense of self, becomes Patricia Pepoire, decides to live for “art,” and almost marries a narcissistic count who bears a close resemblance to John Gilbert, one of the biggest male stars of the time. Nothing unexpected happens, but it’s a joy to watch things play out as Peggy eventually comes to her senses.

Davies’ acting here is great. When Peggy tries “serious” acting, Davies lands a lovely bit of satire as she tries different facial expressions that reputedly express shock, love, anger, surprise, etc. She continues overacting “just so” throughout and gives a great comic performance. That is the first big comedy delight.

The second is all her famous friends that make cameos. Of course, most are unknown to most viewers these days, but these are not second-stringers by any stretch. According to IMDB, the following then-famous people appear in this order:

  • Dorothy Sebastian
  • Louella Parsons
  • Estelle Taylor
  • Claire Windsor
  • Eileen Pringle
  • Karl Dane
  • George K. Arthur
  • Leatrice Joy
  • Renée Adorée
  • Rod La Rocque
  • Mae Murray
  • John Gilbert
  • Norma Talmadge
  • Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.
  • William Hart

Then there are three other erformers that put the guest star conceit over the top. The first is Charles Chaplin, then the most famous person in the world, asking Pepper for her autograph. She doesn’t recognize him, and nearly dismisses him completely until her love interest forces her to give the autograph. As Chaplin gets into a car to ride off, she asks who “the little man” is. Her reaction is perfect. Later, Peggy has a scene with famous director King Vidor, who here plays…a director. Of course, he is also the director of Show People.

Then, my favorite and the most meta of all, there is a scene near the end when Pepper, decked out in her usual old-fashioned Southern belle dress, is on the studio lot when a car approaches, and a modern-looking, well-dressed star exits the car and walks off. Pepper asks who it is, and her companion explains that it’s Marion Davies. Peggy’s reaction, again, is priceless. There are also moments of imitation, when Marion effects the “bee-stung” smile of silent star and The Merry Widow lead Mae Murray. (TBH, the moment can be read today as a take on Gloria Swanson as well.)

The film is the flip and flippant side of What Price Hollywood? and the various A Star is Born films, with a learning curve and a happy ending. It’s not the plot that holds our interest; that’s as deliberately predictable and hackneyed as they come. What the silly plot holds is one of the most modern-feeling comic performances in a silent film, and one that film historians need to see to put Marion Davies in her rightful place.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Avatar: The Way of Water

Thirteen years after the record-breaking Avatar was released, we finally get the first of several sequels. I managed to see it under the best of (visual) circumstances, in our local IMAX theater. Yes, it’s stunning to the eye, and actually takes its time to occasionally luxuriate in its imaginary environment. There is nothing else out there like it in terms of creating its own filmic world, and Cameron deserves credit for that. There are some visual references to Terminator and Titanic (and even to Apocalypse Now), and perhaps more of Cameron’s previous work. That can be engaging, or off-putting, or not worth doing anything other than noting it. I chose the last option.

Cameron, never the best scriptwriter, tries to update the story for us and make it more relatable to a modern audience. He and his several other writers do it with many family-and-children related jokes, such as recognizable sibling rivalry, crude teenage speech, giving the middle finger, etc., even using the “Are we there yet?” question in one traveling scene that every parent has heard on a long trip. Yes, this is a basically a YA movie with great effects, and my guess is that the most appropriate audience for those looking beyond the visuals is that young adult audience. Nearly all of these additions can be called “cute,” but they tend to take the viewer out of the film.

I don’t like giving plot lines away, especially as I write more of an analysis than a review; I think plot developments should be discovered by the audience while they view the film. The original Avatar was Dances With Wolves on Pandora. This time it’s a chase/revenge film that drives the plot, which is an acceptable through-line in theory but which gets old rather quickly as it makes less and less sense as the film goes on. To keep momentum going as that plot-line gets thinner and thinner, we have a build-up of the usual big fight scenes and an increasing element of “this time it’s personal” added to the mayhem.

Hanging on to that through-line are many “we are family” and “family sticks together” moments and statements. This is about as deep as the film gets, and yet this theme is often contradicted by Jake Sully’s (Sam Worthington) own behavior. Sully treats his family as if he is still a military man, and any connection we might make with him as our lead and leader is consistently challenged by his lack of warmth and emotional support for his children. He keeps telling us that what a father primarily does is protect his family, but clearly, he only means it in the most superficial and physical sense.

A good deal of the film’s time is spent with Sully’s children, with the usual childish rivalries and reactions. They provide a number of funny moments, tense moments, and greatly add to the film’s running time. But considering that Jake is something of a jerk, and that we are robbed of any serious father-mother romantic time between Jake and Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) that might have helped round out his character, we’re torn between the plot’s insistence that he is the plot-driving central character and the fact that his kids are more interesting.

One new element was the young adult (really, mid-teenage) character of Spider (Jack Champion), who is Colonel Miles Quaritch’s (Stephen Lang) son, but who in his heart is an adopted member of the Sully family. Why he is there in the film and what he is supposed to contribute to the father/son themes of the film is beyond me. He acquits himself well and handles the dramatic challenges given him, and I am left to wonder if the sequels are going to make greater use of his character. He is personable and easily grabs the viewer’s sympathies, but his presence is often confusing.

And then there is the Job/Moby Dick-like side story of the Sully boy who communicates with the great fish. This pulls the film into a Disney direction that goes beyond the usual man-and-nature connections the film leans so heavily on.

Perhaps it’s because the film took so long to arrive on screens, but much of it feels dated. The pantheism that seemed at least different in 2009 now comes off as yesterday’s attempt at spirituality. The prayers to “Mother” seem just as retro. And the environmentalism and anti-colonialism (as well as the anti-capitalism) no longer supply the same energy and come off as a bit stale. Even the “I see you” aspect of the first film is repeated here in what seems perfunctory rather than earned.

What makes up for all that are the incredible visuals. Pandora and its environs are no longer new and surprising, but Cameron allows the film plenty of time to linger in its beauty. To many, those sequences may be the highlight of the film. The final sequences are textbook battle scenes, and they are stretched out to rather unbelievable effect. They bring much-needed dynamism to the last portion of the film, but it tends to bring the film into the Marvel/DC camp of “let’s end this thing with a knock-down, drag-out fight”. There are other imaginable endings.

While the first Avatar made a huge amount of money, it’s been noted that it had little long-range cultural impact. The same can be said of The Way of Water. It’s perhaps a little richer thematically than its predecessor, but it’s ultimately just as shallow.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.]

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment