Thursday, January 25, 2018

The final years of actress Gloria Grahame

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool but the movie, alas, does.

Peter Turner was a 26-year-old aspiring actor when he met Gloria Grahame in 1979. At the time, Grahame was a 55-year-old fading movie star appearing in a London production of Rain. The two began an affair that became the subject of a book by Turner, who, as a young man, was holding things together by working in a second-hand furniture store.

Grahame, who won a best-supporting-actress Oscar for her work in The Bad and The Beautiful (1952), was known mostly for playing the femme fatale in a variety of film noir movies. She died of cancer in 1981.

Of all the chapters in Grahame's life, the final one -- the subject of Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool -- struck me as the least interesting. I took a quick trip to Wikipedia to refresh see if I might be right.

I think I was. Grahame was married four times. Her marriage to director Nicolas Ray fell apart when Ray caught Grahame in bed with Anthony Ray, his 13-year-old son from a former marriage. Grahame later married the young man, who by the time of the wedding had arrived in his 20s. When her third husband, Cy Howard, discovered she had secretly married the younger Ray, he sued her for custody of their daughter.

And I haven't even mentioned Grahame's screen life, which placed her opposite Humphrey Bogart in the great but somewhat overlooked In a Lonely Place. She also worked with in director Fritz Lang's The Big Heat and a variety of other movies. Grahame eventually drifted into a career in episodic television. When things really collapsed, she headed to England. She became Turner's lover and friends with his Liverpool-based family; they took her in when she was dying from cancer.

In director Paul McGuigan's movie, Annette Bening plays Grahame. Jamie Bell portrays the devoted Turner, who at one point accompanies Grahame to Los Angeles and later to New York, but returns to England when Grahame gives him the cold shoulder. The actress had learned that her breast cancer had returned. As the movie has it, she didn’t want to involve Turner in a relationship. that had nowhere to go.

Bell does his best to convey a smitten young man whose patience eventually gives way to frustration, but who still spends time with Grahame when she takes up a brief residence with his parents (Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham) in Liverpool.

McGuigan employs flashbacks as he moves from Grahame's cancerous languor in Liverpool to the story of Grahame's relationship with Turner. But by dwelling on this May/December romance and Grahame's illness, McGuigan doesn't really do justice to Grahame's life.

The movie manages to spit some welcome venom when we meet Grahame's mother (Vanessa Redgrave) and her sister (Frances Barber). It's not enough to save the movie.

Bening doesn't look like Grahame but conveys some of the grit and resilience of a star who has lost her luster. Still, the mournful, sentimental Film Stars misfires, perhaps because -- in focusing on Turner's book -- it slices too much meat off the bone of Grahame's tumultuous life.

Bottling the air from holy sites

Writer/director Shady Srour stars in Holy Air, a satirical take on a Christian Arab Israeli who embarks on a ridiculous entrepreneurial venture, trying to sell air that he has bottled at the top of Mount Precipice, outside Nazareth. Unable to accept Jesus as the Messiah, some residents of Nazareth attempted to push him off the cliffs of Mount Precipice. Obviously, they failed. This holy site inspires Stour’s Adam to attempt to create a business that will allow him to support his wife (Laetitia Eido) and the child they’re expecting. Adam's sales pitch: He claims to be selling the very same air that the Virgin Mary breathed during the Annunciation. An ardent defender of female sexuality, Eido’s Lamia becomes part of the many vexations faced by Adam, who clearly loves her. Meanwhile, Adam’s equally beloved father (Tarek Copty) is dying of cancer in a local hospital. Obvious satire about the commercialization of religion can carry the movie so far, and the most interesting thing about Holy Air becomes its depiction of the lives of Arab Christians living in Israel. Adam, like other residents of Nazareth, deals with insane traffic jams, as well as with hordes of religious tourists and the hucksters who try to fleece them — not to mention those who seem to be aligned against the Arab/Christian minority; i.e., just about everyone.*
* Comment below is correct. Stupid mistake. I've corrected it but made it in the originally published review. Apologies and thanks to the reader who pointed out my error.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Some reactions to the Oscar nominations

With 13 nominations, The Shape of Water emerges as the front-runner in this year's Oscar race for best picture.
The 2018 Oscar nominations finally have arrived, beginning the march toward the merciful conclusion of what has become an annual ritual: the interminable awards season.

Many profess shock at Denzel Washington’s best actor nomination for his work in Roman J. Israel, Esq. Not me. Washington gave a great performance as a lawyer whose consciousness was stuck in the rebellious turmoil of the 1960s. Washington's Roman J. Israel lived a near-monastic life. Sadly, his unwavering moral commitments had lost their urgency. Unfortunately, Dan Gilroy’s screenplay ultimately let Washington down, but, at for a while at least, Roman J. Israel, Esq. threatened to be one of the most radically provocative movies of the year.

Of course, there were the usual snubs — if you want to see the elimination of James Franco from the best actor category as a snub. Some will argue that stories about sexual harassment undermined Franco’s chances to bid for Oscar gold, but the Academy never has been kind to comic performances. What else was Franco’s turn as failed filmmaker Tommy Wiseau in The Disaster Artist?

Early betting tagged Armie Hammer for a supporting actor nod for his work in Call Me By Your Name, but I wouldn’t call that a harsh snub. Supporting actor traditionally (and this year is no exception) qualifies as one of the strongest categories.

And while we’re on the subject of supporting actors. Sam Rockwell may win in this category, but Woody Harrelson’s performance in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was better. Both actors are nominated. To my way of thinking, it’s a lot more difficult to play a level-headed, decent man (Harrelson) than a dopey but bona fide racist (Rockwell’s character). And I say this as a long-time Rockwell fan.

Christopher Plummer showed up in the best supporting actor category for playing J. Paul Getty in All the Money in the World. Plummer replaced Kevin Spacey in well-publicized re-shoots that took place after a torrential wave of negative sexual harassment criticism broke over Spacey. Plummer may have been a last-minute addition, but he was the most memorable thing about director Ridley Scott’s thriller.

I was happy to see that Scott Frank, James Mangold and Michael Green were nominated for best adapted screenplay for their work on Logan, one of the darkest and best of last year’s comic-book crop.

Amid all the talk about women, minorities (black and Latino) in Hollywood, I hope that the nomination of Rachel Morrison (Mudbound) for best cinematography receives big-time notice and sets a trend. No woman ever has been nominated in this category. Alas, Morrison probably lose to Dan Laustsen in a Shape of Water sweep.

I wonder how director Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water) is adjusting to being a frontrunner. Shape of Water led the pack with 13 Oscar nominations and probably stands as the favorite to win the best picture award with del Toro taking best director. I'm one of those people who think that del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth was a much better and far more challenging film.

I found Martin McDonagh’s screenplay for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, to be a bit tin-eared, especially when it came to race, but he was nominated for best original screenplay. McDonagh also found himself caught in a typical Oscar situation: Three Billboards received a best-picture nod, but McDonagh was not nominated for best director.

Same thing happened to Steven Spielberg, whose The Post was nominated for best picture. No best-director nomination for Spielberg.

I’ve had friends and readers tell me that they found Dunkirk, which received eight nominations including Best Picture, confusing. Should we be surprised then that the movie was nominated for best editing? Maybe.

Will I have rooting interests on Oscar night?

I’ll certainly cross my fingers for Allison Janney in the best-supporting-actress category. She played Tonya Harding’s acid burn of a mother and made her work both biting and funny. I hope that Jordan Peele wins best original screenplay for Get Out and would be shocked, surprised and happy if Get Out managed to win best picture. It’s one of the nine nominees in that category.

I doubt whether Daniel Kaluuya, nominated for best actor for Get Out can beat Gary Oldman’s Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, but wouldn’t that be something?

I'll also be rooting that whoever gets to read the winner in the best-picture category names the right movie on the first go-round.

Oh well, it’s on to March 4 when all will be revealed and we promptly can put Oscar in the rearview mirror and get on with the more interesting business of immersing ourselves in movies.

And, yes, The Florida Project -- recognized only for Willem Dafoe's performance in the best supporting actor category -- remains my movie of the year, regardless of what the Academy chooses. My advice: Never let Oscar interfere with your own preferences.

For those of you who need one, here's the full list of nominees:

Best Picture
Call Me by Your Name
Darkest Hour
Get Out
Lady Bird
Phantom Thread
The Post
The Shape of Water
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Best Actor
Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out
Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name

Best Actress
Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Margo, Robbie, I, Tonya
Meryl Streep, The Post
Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water
Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird

Best Supporting Actor
Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World
Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water
Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project
Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Best Supporting Actress
Allison Janney, I, Tonya
Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird
Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread
Mary J. Blige, Mudbound
Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water

Best Director
Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
Greta Gerwig, Lady Bird
Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water
Jordan Peele, Get Out
Paul Thomas Anderson, Phantom Thread

Best Original Screenplay
Get Out, Jordan Peele
Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig
The Big Sick, Kumail Nanjiani, Emily V. Gordon
The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Martin McDonagh

Best Adapted Screenplay
Call Me by Your Name, James Ivory
Logan, Scott Frank, James Mangold, Michael Green
Molly's Game, Aaron Sorkin
Mudbound, Dee Rees, Virgil Williams
The Disaster Artist, Scott Neustadter, Michael H. Weber

Best Cinematography
Blade Runner 2049, Roger Deakins
Darkest Hour, Bruno Delbonnel
Dunkirk, Hoyte Van Hoytema
Mudbound, Rachel Morrison
The Shape of Water, Dan Laustsen

Best Costume Design
Beauty and the Beast, Jacqueline Durran
Darkest Hour, Jacqueline Durran
Phantom Thread, Mark Bridges
The Shape of Water, Luis Sequeira
Victoria & Abdul, Consolata Boyle

Best Sound Mixing
Baby Driver, Tim Cavagin, Mary H. Ellis, Julian Slater
Blade Runner 2049, Ron Bartlett, Doug Hemphill, Mac Ruth
Dunkirk, Gregg Landaker, Gary Rizzo, Mark Weingarten
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Michael Semanick, David Parker, Stuart Wilson, Ren Klyce
The Shape of Water, Christian T. Cooke, Glen Gauthier, Brad Zoern

Best Editing
Baby Driver, Paul Machliss, Jonathan Amos
Dunkirk, Lee Smith
I, Tonya, Tatiana S. Riegel
The Shape of Water, Sidney Wolinsky
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, John Gregory

Best Sound Editing
Baby Driver, Paul Machliss, Jonathan Amos
Dunkirk, Lee Smith
I, Tonya, Tatiana S. Riegel
The Shape of Water, Sidney Wolinsky
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, John Gregory

Best Visual Effects
Blade Runner 2049, John Nelson, Gerd Nefzer, Paul Lambert, Richard R. Hoover
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Jonathan Fawkner, Daniel Sudick
Kong: Skull Island, Stephen Rosenbaum, Jeff White, Scott Benza, Michael Meinardus
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Ben Morris, Michael Mulholland, Neal Scanlan, Chris Corbould
War for the Planet of the Apes, Joe Letteri, Daniel Barrett, Dan Lemmon, Joel Whist

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Darkest Hour, Kazuhiro Tsuji, David Malinowski, Lucy Sibbick
Victoria & Abdul, Daniel Phillips, Loulia Sheppard
Wonder, Arjen Tuiten

Best Original Song
The Mystery of Love, Call Me by Your Name, Sufjan Stevens
Stand Up for Something, Marshall, Common, Diane Warren
This is Me, The Greatest Showman, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul
Remember Me, Coco, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez
Mighty River, Mudbound, Raphael Saadiq, Mary J. Blige, Taura Stinson

Best Score
Dunkirk, Hans Zimmer
Phantom Thread, Jonny Greenwood
Star Wars: The Last Jedi, John Williams
The Shape of Water, Alexandre Desplat
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Carter Burwell

Best Animated Short Film
Dear Basketball, Glen Keane, Kobe Bryant
Garden Party, Victor Caire, Gabriel Grapperon
LOU, Dave Mullins, Dana Murray
Negative Space, Max Porter, Ru Kuwahata
Revolting Rhymes Part One, Jakob Schuh, Jan Lachauer

Best Live-Action Short
DeKalb Elementary, Reed Van Dyk
My Nephew Emmett, Kevin Wilson Jr.
The Eleven O'Clock, Derin Seale, Josh Lawson
The Silent Child, Chris Overton, Rachel Shenton
Watu Wote: All of us, Katja Benrath, Tobias Rosen

Best Documentary Short Subject
Edith+Eddie, Laura Checkoway, Thomas Lee Wright
Heaven is a traffic jam on the 405, Frank Stiefel
Heroin(e), Elaine McMillion Sheldon, Kerrin Sheldon
Knife Skills, Thomas Lennon
Traffic Stop, Kate Davis, David Heilbroner

Best Documentary
Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, Steve James, Mark Mitten, Julie Goldman
Faces Places, Agnès Varda, Rosalie Varda, JR
Icarus, Bryan Fogel, Dan Cogan
Last Men in Aleppo, Kareem Abeed, Soeren Steen Jespersen, Firas Fayyad
Strong Island, Yance Ford, Joslyn Barnes

Best Foreign Language Film
A Fantastic Woman
On Body and Soul
The Insult
The Square

Best Animated Feature
Loving Vincent
The Breadwinner,
The Boss Baby

Best Production Design
Beauty and the Beast, Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer
Blade Runner 2049, Dennis Gassner, Alessandra Querzola
Darkest Hour, Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer
Dunkirk, Nathan Crowley, Gary Fettis
The Shape of Water, Paul D. Austerberry, Shane Vieau, Jeffrey A. Melvin

Thursday, January 18, 2018

'12 Strong': action beats insight

Chris Hemsworth leads a Special Forces unit into the wilds of Afghanistan.

The best war movies generally take a position that gets us beyond strategy, tactics and reflexive expressions of heroism. Considering that, 12 Strong, the story of a Special Force unit that was the first to fight in Afghanistan after 9/11, falls far short of the best in its breed. Though based on a true story, the movie would have been right at home during any summer action-movie onslaught.

Chris Hemsworth, as Capt. Mitch Nelson, leads a group that includes Chief Warrant Officer Hal Spencer (Michael Shannon) and Sgt. First Class Sam Diller (Michael Pena). Trevante Rhodes, recently of Moonlight, also checks in as a sergeant, but proves no more distinctive than any of the other actors in this generically presented group.

When the picture opens, the newly retired Nelson wants to return to action; he can't sit idly by after his country undergoes an attack, which -- at the time -- seemed inconceivable. Sketchy scenes of the soldiers on the home-front are followed by scenes in which the GIs, newly arrived in Afghanistan, try to bond with locals and meet with CIA agents who already were engaged in combat.

As it turns out, Nelson's unit was assisted by forces from the Northern Alliance, in this case, led by General Dostum (Navid Negahban), a warlord who hated the Taliban but could be wary of Americans, as well.

The American soldiers were highly motivated but hadn't been trained for the kind of combat that Dostum knew well. Absent any other way to negotiate Afghanistan's rugged terrain, soldiers were asked to fight on horseback.

Still best known for playing Thor, Hemsworth gives the expected take-charge performance, but the movie doesn't get much from Shannon, who almost always leaves a mark.

The soldiers who fought in some of the world’s worst conditions unquestionably were brave. To make matters even more difficult, they were outnumbered 40 to one. When they wrested control of the city of Mazar-i-Sharif from the Taliban, they made military history.

But that doesn’t mean that their story — based on a book by Doug Stanton — transcends its bounty of action to give us new insights into the war in Afghanistan. Instead, 12 Strong celebrates the usual band-of-bros bravado as director Nicolai Fuglsig garnishes combat sequences with a generous helping of explosions.

For some that will be enough, but the movie fails to lay the groundwork for understanding why, some 17 years later, the war in Afghanistan still rages or what, in the long run, might constitute success in this besieged and battered country.

Denver critics pick the best of 2017

The 90th Academy Awards nominations will be announced Tuesday, Jan. 23. I suppose it's inevitable that this year's Oscars -- the broadcast at least -- will be dominated by #MeToo and #Timesup, continuing a trend of year-end ceremonies that have been dominated by issues about sexual assault and harassment. But before we learn who has been honored and who has been snubbed by Oscar, there's a bit of additional business to conclude; i.e., the announcement of the Denver Film Critics Association picks for the best of 2017. Most lists speak for themselves, so I'm going to offer this one without comment. Enjoy, and feel free to add your own choices.
Best Picture: Lady Bird
Best Director: Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk
Best Actor: Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
Best Actress: Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird
Best Supporting Actor: Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project"
Best Supporting Actress: Allison Janney, I, Tonya
Best Sci-Fi/Horror: Get Out
Best Animated Film: Coco
Best Comedy: The Big Sick
Best Original Screenplay: Get Out
Best Adapted Screenplay: Call Me By Your Name
Best Special Effects: War for the Planet of the Apes
Best Original Song: Remember Me, from Coco
Best Score: Dunkirk
Best Documentary: Faces Places
Best Foreign Language Film: Thelma

One big unhappy family

Michael Haneke's Happy End lacks the director's usual edge.

In movies such as Amour, The White Ribbon, Funny Games, Cache and The Piano Teacher, Austrian director Michael Haneke has established himself as one of the cinematic voices most committed to observing the brutal nature of nearly all human interaction. Haneke's movies can have so much edge, one often feels cut by them.

In Happy End, Haneke files down the edge a bit, but still clings to his less-than-optimistic views about society and its despicable perils.

This time, Haneke focuses on the Laurents, a wealthy French family living in the port city of Calais. Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), the family's patriarch, has fallen into physical and mental decline. His daughter Anne (Isabelle Huppert) has taken charge of the family’s construction company and is about to announce her engagement to a British businessman (Toby Jones) who's helping arrange a company-saving loan.

Anne’s son Pierre (Franz Rogowski) drinks too much, imbibing hostility along with his wine. Anne’s philandering brother, Thomas (Mathieu Kassovitz), works as a surgeon; Thomas’ daughter from a previous marriage, Eve (Fantine Harduin), has just moved in with her father. Eve's Mom became incapacitated from a drug overdose, a situation that creates discomfort because we know from early images that Eve has an interest in poisons.

Not surprisingly, the characters live behind curtains of self-absorption with Haneke introducing computer conversations and cell phone photography in an attempt to add one more element of alienation, as well to give the story some contemporary spin.

Unafraid to present his images in lengthy takes that defy contemporary pacing, Haneke again immerses us in a world in which the so-called civilized folks are vicious and the rest of society (notably a group of immigrants seen at the end) are innocent pawns. Same goes for poor Rachid (Hassam Ghancy) the family servant who lives in a house next to the large mansion where all of the Laurents reside.

Unlike some of Haneke’s work, Happy End can’t entirely escape dullness, even as its defiant characters work their cruel ways. Happy End is like a snake bite without enough venom as if the snake has become so desensitized by a cruel society that it wants nothing more than to be put out of its own misery.

President Obama's last year in office

Despite the implications of its title, The Final Year is not another addition to the apparently endless supply of apocalyptic Hollywood movies. It is, instead, a documentary about the final year in office of President Barak Obama's foreign policy team, notably John Kerry (Secretary of State), Samantha Powers (UN Ambassador) and Ben Rhodes (Deputy National Security Advisor). Obama appears from time-to-time, but director Greg Baker mostly concentrates on a trio of conscientious wonks who, during the course of the film, visit 21 countries. Although The Final Year takes an unapologetically positive view of those who populate it, the movie also reflects disagreements within the Obama administration about how to proceed in Syria, and it shows Rhodes dealing with flak about a derogatory comment he made about the White House press corps. Everyone in The Final Year is working under tremendous time pressure, knowing that the Obama presidency was drawing to a close -- and in a way none of them anticipated. The Final Year probably doesn't qualify as a great documentary, but its three principal characters, particularly Powers, are quite impressive. If you're among those who disdain the Trump presidency, this film may make you weep. I doubt whether anyone who doesn't fall into that category will be among those buying tickets.

A bland helping of down-home romance

Country rock superstar Liam Page (Alex Roe) spends most of Forever My Girl trying to reunite with the woman (Jessica Rothe) he left at the altar to pursue a life of debauched celebrity. Page returns to his hometown of St. Augustine, Louisiana, eight years after stranding Josie in the church presided over by his father (John Benjamin Hickey). Liam gains some motivation in his quest to recover his small-town roots when he learns that shortly after he split, Rothe's Josie gave birth to their daughter (Abby Ryder Fortson). Writer/director Bethany Ashton Wolf slogs along a formula path in a bland movie punctuated by ... er ... nothing worth talking about. Let's just say that Forever My Girl is to the world of country rock or even country music what karaoke is to accomplished performance. The movie is so drained of character, Louisiana even seems to have lost its humidity.

The road to catastrophe in Russia

Few issues are subject to as much debate as the impact that movies have on us. Are they simply entertainment? Do they influence the way we behave? Can they change values or inspire changes in behavior? The Road Movie isn’t likely to prompt deep conversations, but it's likely to leave little doubt about its impact. I’m betting that if see it, you’ll never want to venture onto a Russian highway. An assemblage of found footage, all of it taken from dash-cams, The Road Movie only can be watched with wide-eyed disbelief. You’ll see head-on collisions. You’ll see trucks tipping over. You’ll hear angry motorists cursing one another. You'll see a woman use a cigarette lighter to check on whether her gas tank has been filled. No, she's probably not a candidate for MENSA membership. You’ll wonder exactly why you’re subjecting yourself to a series of punishing images, some of them catastrophic. Did I mention the robbery or the guy who was carrying a sledgehammer? Maybe director Dimitri Kalashnikov latched onto a gimmick and pushed it as far as he could or maybe he hoped to provide a glimpse into dark corners of the Russian soul. If it's the latter, Kalashnikov has taken a route that by no means qualifies as scenic.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Critics' Choice Awards winners

The Shape of Water dominated the 23rd annual Critics' Choice Awards, taking home honors in four categories. The Critics' Choice Awards represent voting by The Broadcast Film Critics Association, of which I'm a member. Are the Critics' Choice Awards a bellwether for Oscar? They have been. This year? Who knows. The Golden Globe for best picture went to Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Maybe Oscar will surprise us and chart a course of its own. Lady Bird anyone?

So here's the list of those who received awards at Thursday night's ceremony.

Note: Unlike the Oscars, the Critics' Choice Awards include genre categories such as best comedy and best sci-fi/horror, a method that allows for a broader representation of the year's movies than a typical Oscar list.

BEST PICTURE – The Shape of Water
BEST ACTOR – Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
BEST ACTRESS – Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS – Allison Janney, I, Tonya
BEST YOUNG ACTOR/ACTRESS – Brooklynn Prince, The Florida Project
BEST ACTING ENSEMBLE – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
BEST DIRECTOR – Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY – James Ivory, Call Me By Your Name
BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY – Roger Deakins, Blade Runner 2049
BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN – Paul Denham Austerberry, Shane Vieau, Jeff Melvin, The Shape of Water
BEST EDITING (TIE) – Paul Machliss, Jonathan Amos, Baby Driver and Lee Smith, Dunkirk
BEST COSTUME DESIGN – Mark Bridges, Phantom Thread
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS – War for the Planet of the Apes
BEST COMEDY – The Big Sick
BEST ACTOR IN A COMEDY – James Franco, The Disaster Artist
BEST ACTRESS IN A COMEDY – Margot Robbie, I, Tonya
BEST SONG – Remember Me from Coco
BEST SCORE – Alexandre Desplat, The Shape of Water

He wants to control ... well ... everything

Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps play a challenging duet in director Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread, a movie about a tyrannical fashion designer.

In what he says is his last screen performance, Daniel Day-Lewis reunites with director Paul Thomas Anderson (Let There Be Blood) to play a fastidious clothing designer who plies his trade in London of the 1950s. Day-Lewis’ Reynolds Woodcock (I leave it to you to deconstruct the surname) dresses women in ways that tend to stamp them with an identity: his. He designs, measures and sews until every woman who wears one of his gowns becomes a perfect representation of one of his sought-after visions.

It’s impossible (and perhaps inadvisable) to watch Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread without considering Woodcock as the embodiment of a certain kind of meticulous artist. His creations can have flourish and sweep, but they are also marked by an attention to detail that goes beyond obsessive to touch the border of tyrannical.

For Woodcock, the dress eclipses the importance of the woman who wears it. He considers himself a visionary, but he works in the world of fashion where whim and shifting tastes can undo a reputation.

A bachelor when we meet him, Woodcock allows his sister (Lesley Manville) to keep his business on track. She’s a guardian and facilitator, the woman who takes care of all the details that Woodcock prefers to ignore. She knows that Woodcock requires space to create. A finely tuned instrument, he can be thrown off by the sound of toast that’s too noisily buttered or a vegetable that's not cooked to his exacting specifications.

Looking gaunt and composed with gray hair swept back to emphasize a steep brow, Day-Lewis takes the full measure of this unusual man, an artist for whom the external world poses constant threats to his powers of concentration.

In Phantom Thread, Anderson creates an intricately designed illusion: A small movie, Phantom Thread suggests big themes, even as it offers helpings of mischievous humor.

Initially, Anderson devotes the movie to establishing Woodcock’s world, a domain over which he exerts absolute control — until the arrival of Alma (Vicky Krieps), a waitress in a country restaurant where Woodcock happens to dine. Woodcock invites Alma to become one of his models.

Alma replaces Johanna (Camilla Rutherford), a model who became a little too demanding for Woodcock’s taste.
When Woodcock brings Alma to his home, he tells her that her imperfections — she cites her small breasts — are not problems, at all. She's the landscape on which the great Woodcock will create his next masterpiece.

Not surprisingly, Alma soon begins to test Woodcock’s patience. She may not be quite as manageable as Woodcock initially hoped. Krieps gives Alma an assertive edge, and it becomes clear that this relationship will take over the movie: Woodcock and Alma are locked in a kind of dance in which he tries to exert his control and she resists.

By this time, Alma is living in Woodcock’s home, working full-time as his model and muse. But she refuses to disappear when he’d prefer not to see her.

Now, as is the case with most movies, it falls to Anderson to make something out of all that he has set in motion — with restraint, wit, and the precision of an elegant camera. Even in a character study, the characters eventually must do something. Anderson must take the finely spun cloth of the movie and weave it into something whole and finished.

How you respond to Phantom Thread may depend on what you make of the twist that Anderson brings to the movie.
I’m prepared to listen to those who disagree, but, for me, as Phantom Thread began adding a twist to the atmosphere Anderson creates, the movie's spell was broken for me. Little more can be said without introducing spoilers, so I’ll simply say that Anderson eventually defines what either can be viewed as a perfect match or a relationship of intricately blended perversities.

The performances are all first rate. By now, we all have come to appreciate Day-Lewis’ ability to inhabit characters in ways that are thorough and commanding without being showy. Watch Day-Lewis create Woodcock's smile, easy yet tentative, almost as if the designer's face is engaged in a game only he understands. Like everyone else who values his work, I hope that Day-Lewis reconsiders his proposed retirement.

Krieps gives the movie’s most surprising -- and in a way -- most dominant performance. Alma's disregard for the high pretenses of art border on a form of bullying. She brings an insistent presence to Woodcock's carefully managed home.

Phantom Thread stands as an absorbing work that proves mildly unfulfilling, a beautifully designed garment that ultimately hangs in a rather small closet. Put another way, what builds novel-like expectations at the outset winds up feeling like a short story by the end.

But that doesn't mean I wouldn't encourage you to see it -- for Day-Lewis, for Krieps and Manville, and for Anderson's insistence on making movies suited only to his own singular taste.

The woes of a beleaguered commuter

Liam Neeson wields his considerable gravitas in another collaboration with Jaume Collet-Serra, who has directed Neeson in movies such as Run All Night, Non-Stop, and Unknown. Throw in the Taken movies — not part of the Collet-Serra/Neeson collection — and you have an entire genre based on Neeson’s ability to summon mega-helpings of determination. In the new and decidedly preposterous The Commuter, Neeson portrays a downtrodden suburbanite who makes the daily commute from his home in the New York burbs to Grand Central Station. Oh, and Neeson's Michael MacCauley also happens to be a former member of the NYPD who gave up police work to become an insurance agent. In what amounts to a super-contrivance, the screenplay loads the deck against Neeson's Michael. He and his wife (Elizabeth McGovern) lost most of their savings in the market debacle of 2008. Michael needs money to send his son to college but meets with another obstacle when he’s fired from the job he’s held for a decade. On the commute home, a dejected Michael encounters a stranger on a train (Vera Farmiga) who makes him an offer: $100,000 if he’ll find a person who’s not supposed to be on the train and relieve that person of a bag that contains something that someone desperately wants. Even in his frazzled state, it's difficult to believe Michael would agree, but he does and things get more complicated. The story becomes increasingly ridiculous as the movie, moving like the northbound on which its set, keeps running over its own credibility. Collet-Serra eventually stages some action and Neeson must employ some brawn as the movie builds toward a runaway train finale. Patrick Wilson signs on as Neeson’s former partner on the police force and Jonathan Banks plays one of Michael’s long-suffering fellow commuters, but Neeson holds center stage in a movie that whips up some decent action as Collet-Serra plies his skills in a confined location. But even Neeson’s seriousness can’t make sense out of a non-character in a movie that's derailed by a screenplay that feels generic and implausible.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

A great moment for journalism

The Post tells an important story and features a finely etched performance from Meryl Streep.
I can't imagine anyone who ever has worked at a newspaper not giving a big thumbs up to The Post, director Steven Spielberg's stirring take on a story about the Washington Post's struggle to become a major player in the news game while, at the same time, performing an important national service. The Post, the movie reminds us, grabbed its share of history when it published the Pentagon Papers in 1971.

"Wait," you say. Wasn't The New York Times the first newspaper to publish the Pentagon Papers?>

Yes, The Times was first, but The Post picked up the task after the Times was blocked by a court order from publishing any more of the 7,000-page secret document that proved that the government consistently lied about its "accomplishments" in Vietnam.

It probably takes a director such as Spielberg to take a straightforward approach to a complicated story that involves maneuvering by Post reporters and executives on any number of levels -- from the corporate to the logistical.

When the Post picked up the Pentagon Papers, it wasn't clear that the paper wasn't risking its own future. The company was about to go public so that it could obtain a much-needed infusion of capital. Some of the Post's attorneys argued that defying the government might scare off potential shareholders.

Spielberg's drama begins when Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) copies the Pentagon Papers with the idea of making them widely known. Ellsberg turned from a military analyst to a whistleblower after he heard Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood) lie to the press about how the US was faring in Vietnam.

Spielberg, who understands how to personalize a story, focuses on two characters: Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) and Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep).

Graham became the Post's publisher after her husband Phil committed suicide in 1963. She had great respect for the paper but hadn't fully grown into the role of publisher when the Pentagon Papers became available.

Hanks adds some growl to a variable Boston accent as Bradlee, but can't top Jason Robards' version of the much-admired newspaperman in All the President's Men. Still, he captures Bradlee's impatience with fools and his burning desire to kick the Post's reputation up a notch.

Streep gives the movie's best and most complicated performance. Graham was a close friend of McNamara, who implored her not to publish the Pentagon Papers. She traveled in the strata of Washington society geared toward steadying the ship, not rocking the boat. She values her friendships but ultimately understands that her duty is to the truth.

The Post certainly speaks to the current moment; the movie can be read as a reply to those who would tarnish journalism with "fake news" pejoratives. Spielberg throws a counterpunch that the country needs at the moment, a reminder that the press is an indispensable part of democracy.

Now, I should hasten to say that The Post can't equal All the President's Men, which had a sense of fervor that Spielberg's picture can't quite match, perhaps because its approach is so on-the-nose that the movie sometimes feels like an illustrated history augmented by currents of feminism (there weren't many women newspaper executives at the time) and journalistic jousting.

A large and credible supporting cast helps carry the story across the finish line. The movie features a particularly nice turn from Bob Odenkirk of Better Call Saul fame. Odenkirk plays Ben Bagdikian, the Post reporter who persuaded Ellsberg to give the Post copies of the Pentagon Papers: Bagdikian carried the papers to Washington in cardboard boxes on a commercial flight. He bought a seat for the boxes so they'd never be out of his sight.

Spielberg emphasizes the role journalism plays when everything that can be deemed "fake'' is coming not from newsmen but from those whom reporters doggedly cover.

Put another way: Chalk one up for every beleaguered journalist who has been reviled as a member of the media instead of appreciated for working hard to get as close to the truth as possible.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Tanya Harding's absurdly tilted life

Margot Robbie does stand-out work as a figure skater battling long odds, class prejudice, and her own demons.

Most movies about athletes build toward a big contest in which the main character either triumphs or, in rare cases, learns from a crushing defeat. By such measures, I, Tonya -- the story of disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding -- might be considered an anti-sports movie. It touches on subjects as diverse as class prejudice and the abuse of women, not to mention a criminal assault committed by a collection of bumbling fools.

I, Tonya also can be unexpectedly funny because director Craig Gillespie has given the movie a near-antic spirit that derives from a keen appreciation of the rank absurdity rippling through various layers of American society.

I, Tonya, of course, revolves around the 1994 episode in which Harding was blamed for a devastating attack on Nancy Kerrigan, the figure skater who became the anti-Harding. In the movie, responsibility for a ham-handed attempt at knee-capping falls to a goofball associate (Paul Walter Hauser) of Harding's abusive husband (Sebastian Stan).

According to the movie, Hauser's Shawn concocted a scheme in which a couple of hired thugs did Shawn's bidding. One of them took a retractable baton to Harding's knee in an attempt to keep her from participating in a National Competition prior to the Lillehammer Olympics of 1994.

Harding herself knew nothing about any of this, although she was vaguely aware that Stan's Gillooly was planning to send Kerrigan threatening letters to undermine her confidence, an idea he got after Harding herself received a death threat.

Working from a screenplay by Steven Rogers, Gillespie allows several of the characters to offer versions of Harding's story in faux interviews that help to give the movie some wobbly, cockeyed spin.

But I, Tonya isn't a lower-class Rashomon and it has less interest in anyone's guilt or innocence than in Harding's place as an outlier in the world of figure skating.

Harding had obvious skills, but she had to battle (often unsuccessfully) the notion that female figure skaters should be ice princesses, uncorrupted representations of purity and innocence. It's all hooey, of course: No one becomes a champion figure skater without the kind of single-minded self-absorption and drive that justifies long hours of training and sacrifice.

Harding's sometimes garish outfits and her working-class background overshadowed her skill with judges who were looking to promote not only talent but a "worthy" vision of American "girlhood."

Robbie’s performance captures both Harding’s defiance and vulnerability, as well as her belief in her own innocence. She sees herself as a woman constantly being abused by others and who has no interest in smoothing her rough edges.

It's not difficult to see some justification in Harding's viewpoint. Her husband physically abuses her. Stan's Jeff Gillooly displays a bit of rough charm, but Harding sticks with him long past the time when their love has passed any reasonable expiration date.

The biggest obstacle to Harding’s shaky confidence is her caustic, domineering mother, rendered in furious blasts of cigarette smoke by a terrific Allison Janney.

Janney’s LaVona, a waitress by trade, pushes and goads Harding, seldom missing a chance to belittle her daughter. Janney knows how to put comic spin into her work, peppering her dialogue with blistering sarcasm, some of it bitingly funny.

Robbie did some of the movie's skating, but stunt doubles presumably filled in when it became necessary to show Harding's triple axel, a difficult maneuver that she became the first American woman ever to execute.

Julianne Nicholson plays Tonya's coach, a woman who tries to help Tonya fit into an acceptable mold, and Bobby Cannavale does duty as a TV tabloid reporter, present only to suggest that Harding's story became fodder for a media that couldn't get enough of it.

The real Harding is tougher looking and physically more compact than Robbie, who made her first big splash in Wolf of Wall Street. But Robbie nails the pugnacious spirit of a young woman who has been kicked around plenty — by the authorities in her sport, by her mother, her husband and a voracious media that turned her into the butt of many cruel jokes.

I don’t know how to sort out my feelings about the real Harding, but Robbie and Janney are working at peak form, and I'll tell you this, as well: I, Tonya made me think about all the Tonyas in our culture, the ones who’ve never even gotten close to their 15 minutes of fame, who've never had their stories told and who somehow survive life’s battering, their fury undiminished.

Scars of hatred and the American West

Christian Bale portrays an embittered soldier in Hostiles.
Sometimes, in straining to grapple with deep issues, a film can show more strain than grapple. That struck me as the case with Hostiles, a Western that wants to explore the impact of genocidal behavior -- not so much on its Native American victims -- but on the US soldiers who fought the many battles that led to the near-destruction of the indigenous populations of the West.

From the outset, director Scott Cooper makes his position clear. He begins with a chilling DH Lawrence quote that serves a tone-setter for what's to follow: “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted," Lawrence wrote.

In the world Hostiles imagines, whites hate Native Americans and Native Americans return the favor, each group seeing the other as murderous savages. Of course, if victory has anything to do with savagery, the whites are the greater offenders.

Christian Bale plays Captain Joseph Blocker. A grizzled veteran of the so-called Indian wars, Blocker hates the Native Americans who have taken the scalps of many of his comrades in arms. Perhaps in an attempt to balance the scales, a visiting Eastern writer accuses Blocker of having taken more scalps than Sitting Bull.

But -- or so the argument goes -- for Blocker, killing is the job that he's sworn to do.

Blocker faces a challenge when he's ordered to escort a dying Cheyenne chief (Wes Studi) and his family from New Mexico to Montana. On orders from the president Benjamin Harrison, the Army must make it possible for the imprisoned Yellow Hawk to die on land that he calls home.

A staunch believer that Native American savagery knows few bounds, Blocker makes little attempt to conceal his disdain for Studi’s Yellow Hawk, a man who has killed his share of white men. Both men fought at Wounded Knee.

Not long after the journey begins, a woman whose family is massacred by Comanche warriors (Rosamund Pike) in the movie's brutal prologue, joins the group. Pike's Rosalie is stunned and bereft and Blocker treats her with a tenderness that suggests that he may not be quite as hard-hearted as we've been led to believe.

The movie’s major question becomes obvious from the start: Will Blocker come to some sort of appreciation for the fact that Yellow Hawk and his family are human beings, no less wounded and embittered than he? Both men are deeply scarred, but Yellow Hawk seems to have done a better job of carrying his burden.

Ben Foster turns up as a soldier whose wanton disregard for life makes him one of the movie’s only true savages. Blocker shows him no mercy, although Foster's character insists that, as soldiers, they are kindred spirits.

Cooper tries to add some complexity, distinguishing between various tribes. At one point, Yellow Hawk helps the soldiers fight off a group of vicious Comanches that he likens to rattlesnakes, vipers who will destroy whites and Native Americans alike.

I’m not sure Cooper knows how to resolve the gaping contradiction that occurs when racism and humanity begin to clash in the same characters. In addition, those who argue that the movie represents another attempt to use indigenous people to redeem a white character shouldn’t entirely be dismissed.

It’s difficult to shake the feeling that Cooper isn’t so much telling a story as he’s applying contemporary sensitivities to the nagging problem of how whites can resolve the undigested shame that results from the way the US has treated Native Americans. He turns the film into a kind of social laboratory that often strands its actors in self-conscious silences.

The characters in Hostiles are laconic and, to cite Lawrence, hard and isolate, but when it comes to articulating the movie's points, they also seem to speak in ways that hit too many points squarely on the nose. Whatever the case, Hostiles doesn’t quite find its way through the rough thematic course it sets for itself.

She has powers she can't control

There are few new stories, only new ways to tell them. That may be important to remember as you watch Norwegian director Joachim Trier's Thelma, a coming-of-age tale in which Thelma, a first-year college student played by Eili Harboe, learns about the power of sexual desire. Thelma's separation from her parents (Henrik Rafaelsen and Ellen Dorrit Petersen) creates the situation in which her emerging sexuality bumps against the walls of repression established by her religious mother and father. Trier's chilly style fills the screen with images that rattle Thelma and us along with her. Some of these images occur during the seizures Thelma begins to have. Doctors can't pinpoint any cause for Thelma's distress, which seems to be exacerbated by her burgeoning friendship and sexual attraction to another coed (Kaya Wilkins). Eerie and full of disturbing sights, Trier's movie proves engaging enough to squelch criticisms that might arise from a plot that many have compared, with some justification, to that of Carrie. Whatever you make of Thelma, it's difficult to ignore Trier's ability to unsettle an audience. Besides, Harboe ably suggests a woman on the precipice of terrifying discoveries. Together, Trier and Harboe create a state of sustained unease that penetrates nearly every frame of the movie, and Thelma becomes a movie that's not so much about telling a story as about creating a world that matches Thelma's interior life. Thelma grapples with a mysterious force that she hardly comprehends but must learn to accommodate. Is this force a psychological response to religious repression? Is it something real or something imagined? Can Thelma really make things happen in the world external to herself? Trier wisely leaves us looking for answers, giving Thelma a feeling of tantalizing ambiguity.