Sunday, March 7, 2021

Winners of the 2021 Critics Choice awards


    Nomadland hit high notes as it took home four awards at Sunday's Critics Choice Awards. The Critics Choice Awards sometimes serve as a bellwether for the Oscars, but this is a strange year. Who knows? Maybe Oscar will chart its own course.
    Still, I suspect  that Nomadland now stands as the front-runner when it comes to best picture. 
    This year's race for best actress should be interesting. Andra Day, also a Critics Choice nominee, won the Golden Globe for her performance in The United States vs. Billie Holiday, but Carey Mulligan took home the Critics Choice award for Promising Young Woman
    On Oscar night, I wouldn't bet against Nomadland's Frances McDormand, another Critics Choice nominee for best actress. Nor would I rule out Viola Davis, also a Critics Choice nominee, for her performance in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom. 
   Oh well, lots of Oscar talk awaits.
   Meanwhile, here’s the list of this year’s Critics Choice winners. Full disclosure: I'm a voting member of the Critics Choice Association.

Best Picture

Best Director

Chloe Zhao, Nomadland


Chadwick Boseman -- Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 



Carey Mulligan – Promising Young Woman 



Daniel Kaluuya – Judas and the Black Messiah



Maria Bakalova – Borat Subsequent Moviefilm  



Alan Kim – Minari 



The Trial of the Chicago 7  



Emerald Fennell – Promising Young Woman 



ChloĆ© Zhao – Nomadland 



Joshua James Richards –  Nomadland



Donald Graham Burt, Jan Pascale – Mank  



Alan Baumgarten – The Trial of the Chicago 7  

Mikkel E. G. Nielsen – Sound of Metal 



Ann Roth – Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom  



Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom 






Palm Springs 






Speak Now – One Night in Miami  



Trent Reznor, Atticus Ross, and Jon Batiste – Soul 


Thursday, March 4, 2021

'Coming 2 America:' smiles more than laughs


    Zamunda -- the fictional African country that Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall called home in Coming to America -- tops my list of places I never thought merited a second visit.  The first movie was funny but didn't exactly leave a ton of unanswered questions.
    Coming 2 America emerges anyway and fans of the first movie probably will be happy that it has.
   A word on Murphy, who became a major movie star during the 1980s and 1990s, but fell off during the 21st Century when his movies often were less than dominant. Dolemite Is My Name (2019) received mostly positive reviews, but a Murphy movie no longer felt like a big-screen event.
    Still, Murphy has remained a revered star in the comedy universe and -- at least in my mind -- and Coming 2 America has the feel of what in non-Covid times would have been considered a major commercial statement.
    This time, it's back to Zamunda with only the briefest of stops in Queens, where Murphy and Hall don tons of makeup and reprise the characters who occupied the My T Sharp barbershop of the first installment. 
   Mostly, though, the movie flows in a less hilarious but generally palatable direction.
   In the original, Murphy's Prince Akeem came to America looking for  love. In the new movie, the borough of Queens heads to Africa, where Akeem's illegitimate son is groomed to take over the Zamundan throne. And, no, the prince didn't know he had a son and heir.
   Akeem's son Lavelle Junson (Jermaine Fowler) dominates much of the movie. A typical Queens resident, Lavelle is lured to Zamunda by the promise of wealth and power -- not to mention the urging of his rapacious mother (Leslie Jones), the woman with whom Prince Akeem had a long-forgotten encounter.
    Lavelle struggles to adapt to Zamundan ways, which require him to pass a series of tests to prove his nobility. An encounter with a lion proves the funniest of the new prince's trials. If he survives cutting the whiskers off a lion, he must be the real deal.
   There's also a question about whether Lavelle will marry the voluptuous daughter of rival King Izzi, played by  Wesley Snipes who demonstrated his flair for comedy in Dolemite. For Izzy, it's either unity via marriage or war.
   Tracy Morgan signs on as Uncle Reem, the Queens-based father figure in Lavelle's life. 
   And, of course, Hall returns as Semmi.
   Also back: Shari Headley as Queen Lisa, the love of Akeem's life and now the mother of his three daughters, one of whom (KiKi Layne) would be the next ruler of Zamunda were it not for the country's insistence that only males can ascend to the throne.
    James Earl Jones and John Amos also reprise roles from the first installment.
    I could go on, but you get the idea: The movie can feel stuffed to the breaking point in the way sequels sometimes do.
    Director Craig Brewer, who handled directing chores on Dolemite, mounts a slick, showy production that goes heavy on musical numbers and includes cameos from Morgan Freeman and Trevor Noah, as well as musical appearances by Gladys Knight and Salt-N-Pepa.
     OK, enough.
     Coming 2 America isn't fall-down funny, but it has an infectiously likable vibe that makes the movie pleasurable enough as it traverses safe comic ground. Maybe that's why Coming 2 America left  me with a smile and no sharp regrets about a second visit to Zamunda.

Another take on basketball dreams

Boogie, a Chinese-American kid growing up in Queens, NY, dreams of becoming a basketball star. In its outline -- Boogie -- sounds like every other movie that mixes sports and coming-of-age tropes in search of uplift. But Boogie distinguishes itself by setting its story in a multi-ethnic environment where the melting pot sometimes comes to a boil. Director Eddie Huang also infuses his movie with immigration aspiration -- not only of Boogie, a.k.a.,  Alfred Chin (Taylor Takahashi) -- but of his parents, a calculating Mom (Pamelyn Chee) and a single-minded Dad (Perry Yung). Early on, we learn that Boogie's parents want him to land a full college scholarship and then transition to the NBA. Highly competitive, Boogie finds a rival in Monk (Pop Smoke), a black basketball player with major skill and rep to match. Boogie's best friend (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.) tries to steady his volatile, self-absorbed pal. As if all that weren't enough, Huang adds a relationship in which Boogie falls for Eleanor (Taylour Paige), a young woman with a mind of her own.  Author of a popular memoir entitled Fresh Off the Boat, Huang falls short when it comes to telling a compelling sports story or delivering a heart-felt drama about cultural and parental pressures faced by a driven teenager. Boogie has a bit of both but not enough of either.

Wednesday, March 3, 2021

A beautifully realized animated story


    Disney's Raya and the Last Dragon stands as a beautifully rendered piece of animated storytelling. The movie leans heavily on action before delivering a message about overcoming risks involved in trusting people who might otherwise be considered foes. 
    The story centers on Raya (Kelly Marie Tran), a young woman who lives in a world that has been divided into five distinct territories. Raya's father dreams of uniting the planet's various factions into a harmoniously idyllic country named Kumandra.
    The movie's mythology involves dragons, an evil force called Druun, and thwarted attempts to secure global peace that often lead to battles. 
    Eventually, Raya establishes a connection with the last dragon, a winsome creature named Sisu (Awkwafina). When necessary, Sisu assumes human form, turning herself into a feisty older woman.
    A melding of south-east Asian cultures, Last Dragon has a generic quality when it comes to ethnicity, but directors Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada wisely employ a large ensemble of Asian actors to give voice to the characters.
    Screenwriters Adele Lim and Qui Nguyen seldom allow the movie’s  better angels to overwhelm the action, creating an on-going rivalry between Raya and Namaari (Gemma Chan), a young warrior woman and Raya's long-time enemy.
    Both women are trying to retrieve pieces of a gem that 6has the power to ward off the Druun, an inky floating cloud that turns living creatures into stone. 
    Dragons once kept people safe from the Druun, but the dragons -- save the one of the title -- have been turned to stone. Clearly, the Druun must be contained and, by the end, the movie makes it clear that cooperation can be more powerful tool than combat when it comes to keeping people safe. 
    All of this is leavened with typical humor and colorful characters who join Raya on her quest to recover pieces of the shattered gem: 
    Izaac Wang gives voice to a young chef who joins Raya's quest, along with an ogre-sized character named Tong (Benedict Wong), and a battling baby.
    There's also Tuk Tuk a large snail-like creature that can roll into a ball. Tuk Tuk serves as the vehicle that transports Raya through her many adventures.
   Although the story may be a bit complex for younger audiences, the plot proves easy enough to follow. The dialogue has more to do with 2021 than any mythical past, but Raya emerges as a visually imaginative and involving  piece of animated entertainment. 

'Chaos Walking:' A run might have been better


   First, a quick look at the world of Chaos Walking, a futuristic story about warring deep-space colonists that trips over one of its central conceits. In Chaos Walking, men can hear each other's thoughts, a power achieved upon arrival on this distant planet.
   Adapting a YA novel by Patrick Ness, director Doug Limon allows us to hear the thoughts of the male characters who live in the Prentisstown colony. Not only does the collective babble create confusion, it adds little by way of interest because so many of the thoughts we hear tend to be obvious or repetitive.
  Having been raised in Prentisstown, Todd (Tom Holland) only knows the world of men. The town's women all died shortly after Todd's birth: Todd has bought the official line, which insists the women were killed by the Spackle, the original residents of this unnamed planet.
   When we meet him, Todd mostly accepts the local philosophy, a kill-or-be-killed ethos that has turned Prentisstown into a grim dystopian outpost. Todd lives with his father Ben (Damian Bichir) and accepts the iron-fisted discipline of Prentisstown's mayor (Mads Mikkelsen). 
  Todd's world changes when Viola (Daisy Ridley) arrives on the planet after the crash of her spaceship during an interplanetary scouting mission dispatched by a larger vessel.
  Most of the story puts Todd and Viola on the run, as they try to find a way to signal Viola's mothership so that it won't leave her behind.
   Todd's dog Manchee tags along. Happily, there's no suggestion that anyone can read Manchee's thoughts or that Manchee can penetrate anyone else's mind. 
    Having never seen a woman before, Todd's thoughts often put him in an embarrassing position vis-a-vis Viola, who can hear his thoughts.  
    Men, by the way, can't hear women's thoughts, thus leading the movie toward a limp metaphor about gender differences: Transparent creatures that they are, men can't hear women. Some of the men are deeply opposed to any female intrusion into their private worlds.
   The supporting cast proves largely irrelevant. David Oyelowo portrays Aaron, a censorious preacher who occasionally pops up to orate. Cynthia Erivo's Hildy leans another colony, one that still has women and is far more peaceable than Prentisstown.
    Exoticism proves in short supply. The planet on which the movie takes place looks pretty much like Earth and the various encounters that Todd and Viola have with others aren't all that intriguing. The action (a white-water episode, for example) seems pretty familiar, as well.
     The chemistry between Holland and Ridley doesn't exactly sizzle, and Mikkelsen's low-key villainy breaks little new ground.
   Aside from the discovery of a vast, previously crashed ship, Chaos Walking lacks sci-fi scale. It almost feels as if the characters are playing at inhabiting a new planet without ever having left Earth.
   I've read that The Knife of Never Letting Go is the first in the Chaos Walking series.  My commercial instincts are extremely fallible, so take this with a grain of salt: It's difficult for me to imagine that more Chaos Walking movies loom.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Billie Eilish: up close and personal


So what do we know about Billie Eilish, the 19-year-old star who swept last year's Grammys, who began her career by recording in her parents' Los Angeles home with her song-writing brother Finneas and who catapulted to stardom? In my case, only that she's an award-winning phenom with a ton of fan appeal. Home-schooled and seldom walled off from her emotions, Eilish becomes the main attraction of the new documentary, Billie Eilish: The World's a Little Blurry. Good title because director R.J. Cutler takes us behind the scenes of a whirlwind life. Cutler films Eilish's mom and dad (Maggie Baird and Patrick O'Connell) and presents us with a portrait of an immensely talented teenager who, during the film, emerges as a star, claims emotional turf as the basis for her songs, breaks up with a boyfriend (a guy named "Q"), encounters fans, feels the exhausting frazzle of touring (in the US and Europe), suffers an episode of Tourette syndrome, injures her ankle, and flings herself with abandon across any number of stages. Yes, that’s a run-on sentence, but Eilish seems to be living a run-on life. Dancing on the edge of lost control (no, she never falls over), Eilish emerges as a singular creature, a young woman who once worried that her crush on Justin Bieber would ruin her for love. Who could live up to her imaginary relationship with Bieber, who eventually shows up in the film? Cutler follows Eilish's work on her debut album, When We Fall Asleep Where Do We Go. I’ll leave it to others to talk about Eilish's music and her attraction to dark subjects in songs such as All the Good Girls Go to Hell. In reviewing Eilish's first album, Jon Pareles of The New York Times wrote, "She doesn't play innocent or ingratiating, or flirtations, or perky, or cute. Instead, she's sullen, depressive, death-haunted, sly, analytical and confrontational, all without raising her voice." That seems a pretty good description of a young woman navigating the tensions that can arise between music making and celebrity. The movie winds up at the Grammys where Billie puts an exclamation point on her meteoric rise. At more than two hours in length, the movie feels long and a bit exhausting, but fans probably won't care. After watching the documentary, all I could think was, "OK, now to return my mind to ordinary programming."

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Andra Day makes a memorable Billie Holiday


   Normally, I wouldn't say that a movie is worth seeing because of one dynamic performance. But The United States vs. Billie Holiday, provides an exception. Not only does Andra Day embody the defiant elements of the iconic singer, she also sings in ways that do justice to Holiday without becoming a self-conscious imitation.
    The drug-addicted, government-persecuted Holiday didn't have an easy life and Day finds Holiday's pain, talent, and pluck, which likely all were related. 
   Director Lee Daniels (Precious) doesn't try for the swooning romance that marked Lady Sings the Blues, which featured Diana Ross and Billy Dee Williams, a movie I love for scenes between Ross and Richard Pryor, as a jazz pianist. 
   Watching The United States vs. Billie Holiday I got the feeling  that Daniels was trying to give the material the turbulent feeling of a life that bounced off a variety of men, musical opportunities,  and trouble with the FBI. 
     The approach may strike you as bleary and scattered or one that's attuned to the dizzy rhythms of a life that ended when Holiday was only 44 years old. Perhaps a bit of both.
    The movie's core connects to Holiday's performance of the song Strange Fruit, a mournful tune about lynchings in the South. The movie tells us that the FBI feared that the song might rouse protests that threatened white supremacy. 
    Daniels breezes through biographical information as he follows Holiday through the 1930s and 1940s and offers a flashback to Holiday's youth. Her mother worked in a brothel and tried to force Holiday into the trade before she reached her teen years.
   Working from a screenplay by Suzan-Lori Parks, Daniels sketches the many relationships that defined Holiday's love life.
   Trevante Rhodes portrays Jimmy Fletcher, an FBI agent who poses as an ardent fan and develops a complex, ambiguous (even mildly incomprehensible relationship) with Holiday. Rob Morgan portrays Billie's bully of a husband. Later she takes up with John Levy (Tone Bell), a club owner and manager who also takes advantage of her. 
   Garrett Hedlund appears as Harry Anslinger, the FBI Bureau of Narcotics agent who targeted Holiday.
   Some of the movie simply falters. A mostly useless framing device features an interviewer (Leslie Jordan) who's conducting an interview with Holiday that alternates between cloying empathy and trashy rants.
    Daniels showcases the famous Carnegie Hall concert that Holiday staged when she lost her Cabaret License and no longer could play New York's clubs.
    Sometimes the movie flings things at us and then races  forward. The screenplay briefly flirts with the idea that Holiday had an affair with Tallulah Bankhead (Natasha Lyonne), for example.
     Through it all, Holiday continues to sing Strange Fruit, a song written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish school teacher from the Bronx who, along with his wife, adopted the children of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg after the couple was executed for espionage.
     Authorship aside, had Holiday never sung Strange Fruit, we might never have heard much about it. And that brings us back to Day, whose performance outlasts the movie's flaws, excesses and indulgences. It's something to see.


Watching over the dead can be creepy


The distinguishing characteristic of The Vigil, a horror movie by  director Keith Thomas, involves its milieu. The movie takes place in the world of Hassidic Jewry, centering on a young man (Dave Davis) who has broken from his religious community. Davis’s Yakov gets drawn back to his roots when a rabbi (Menashe Lustig) offers him an unusual job. He must become a "shomer," one who keeps watch over a corpse to ward off evil spirits on the night before burial. Desperate for funds, Yakov accepts. In this case, the corpse belongs to Mr. Litvak (Ronald Cohen), a Holocaust survivor who had isolated himself from the religious community in which he lived. Davis's Yakov spends a harrowing night in Borough Park trying to ignore the corpse that lies beneath a sheet on a platform in the living room. Everything about the movie feels creepy: Litvak's weird widow (Lynn Cohen), the noises that begin unnerving Yakov, and, of course, a demon. We later learn that the demon became part of Litvak's life after a horrific event at Buchenwald. With Litvak gone, the demon needs fresh meat. That would be Yakov, vulnerable because he blames himself for the death of his younger brother at the hands of anti-Semites. Thomas keeps the special effects to a minimum in a movie that's more creepy than scary. Eerie yes, but The Vigil also can feel dull and self-conscious in its attempts to both benefit from and avoid standard horror tropes. 

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

A compelling journey inside an African prison

    In Night of the Kings, the inmates definitely have taken over the asylum.
    In this case, the asylum is a prison in Cote d'Ivoire (The Ivory Coast). It doesn't take long for director Philippe Lacote to let us know that La Maca is a place no one would want to land.
   Run by an ailing tyrant named Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu), the prison environment resembles a corrupt kingdom in which the prisoners become servants of the iron-fisted Blackbeard.
    The story begins when a new prisoner (Bakary Kone) arrives. Needing to buy time for himself and his throne, Blackbeard immediately targets Kone's character as a storyteller. He gives him the name Roman and tells him that must entertain the prisoners throughout the night of the Red Moon. If he tires or falls short before sunrise, it's curtains.
   The story's structure riffs on Scheherazade in One Thousand One Nights but emerges as a movie with a voice all its own.
   Night of the Kings operates on two levels. First, it's a scary look at a prison where the guards pay little attention to anything. Life is cheap and an atmosphere of threat hovers over everything.  Because Blackbeard's illness is terminal, various factions vie to take over when he finally dies.
   Then there's the story that Kone's character tells, a tale of a young street thief named Zama King. The story takes the shape of a time-shattering folk tale. The early part of Zama's story visits an ancient kingdom and the story's second half lodges in an impoverished section of Abidjan. 
   Lacote films the storytelling with particular attention to the increasingly involved audience, which chants, acts out sections of the drama, and generally becomes part of the story. 
    The actors bring a level of theatrical energy to the storytelling that might have been too much were it not so effective. It's not difficult to imagine Night of the Kings as a compelling piece of theater.
    Like its actors, the movie has a distinctly powerful presence you won't soon forget.