Thursday, January 30, 2020

A revenge saga that fails to kill

In a more reasonable world, there would be a national contest to determine whether anyone can find a way to care about the plot of The Rhythm Section, a senseless thriller about a woman who sets out to avenge the death of her family.

Blake Lively portrays Stephanie Patrick, a promising young woman who abandons her work at Oxford when she loses her parents and siblings in a plane crash. More than grief-stricken, Stephanie loses her moral bearings, sinking into a life of prostitution and heroin use.

As for Stephanie's family, they're not only killed in a plane crash, they're rendered lifeless in flashbacks that director Reed Morano uses to remind us of the familial bliss that Stephanie has lost.

Not to worry. A reporter (Keith Proctor) arrives at Stephanie's seedy digs to tell her that this was no normal plane crash, but one engineered by an Islamic terrorist.

What's a girl to do? In a sub-par movie such as Rhythm Section, she decides to take revenge, seeking out a former M16 agent (Jude Law) to help her learn the assassin's trade.

Killing is easy, Law's character says. The hard part? Living with it.

Adapted from a novel by Mark Burnell, who also wrote the screenplay, the movie plays as if it consists of little more than story beats cobbled together without much concern for either credibility or involvement.

Murky motivations substitute for intrigue when Stephanie goes to work for Marc Serra (Sterling K. Brown), an ex-CIA agent who wants her to hunt down the people involved in the bombing.

Stranded by a lifeless screenplay, Law had the good sense to hide behind a beard and look as grim as possible. Lively approaches a physical role by inserting streams of grunting realism into her many bruising fights.

Lest any base is left untouched, the movie travels to London, Tangier and Marseilles in search of excitement, including (what else?) a frenzied car chase.

Perhaps to add faux complexity, the screenplay finds Stephanie hemming and hawing about how much she wants to hone her skills. Is there any form of killing she won't try?

Efforts at nuance aside, Rhythm Section fails as either a satisfying helping of revenge or a drama about a female character kicking down the doors of a formerly male preserve. Does a franchise loom? That may have been the hope, but -- for my money -- Rhythm Section offers no reason we should want to see any of these characters again.

It’s time to consider short films

Taken individually, the short films in this year's Oscar program are all refreshingly concise; i.e., no more than 40 minutes in length. But the only way these shorts can be seen is in packages, five films in each serving. Although this kind of presentation is unavoidable, the approach can be frustrating.

Watching five films in succession leaves little time to digest what you've seen. No sooner has one film finished than you're asked to involve yourself in another. I think this hurts high-impact films, particularly those in the documentary-shorts category.

The short documentary In the Absence, for example, examines a series of inept decisions that made the Sewol ferry disaster of 2014 even worse. You'll recall that 300 people died in that Korean ferry accident. High school students on a field trip made up the bulk of the casualties. Watching Absence in the same program as the charming Walk Run Cha-Cha can make your head spin.

Even in the animated category, wild tonal shifts can be found as one film gives way to another. Memorable, director Bruno Collet's touching look at a painter suffering from Alzheimer's bumps up against Matthew A. Cherry's Hair Love, a story about an African-American father struggling to master the art of combing his daughter's hair. Hair Love, by the way, might be the most buoyant of the animated shorts, although it, too, strikes some serious notes.

Of course, there's a flip side to what I'm saying. These packages of Oscar-nominated short films provide a window into an astonishing range of approaches and interests. Shorts also constitute one of the few areas where you can be reasonably sure that filmmakers are following their interests rather than the usual commercial imperatives.

And in a moment when few features run less than two hours, shorts also remind us that brevity needn't be an obstacle to telling a meaningful story.

Animated Shorts

This year's animated shorts stuck me as less self-consciously arty than those of previous years, although they often traverse difficult emotional terrain. Siqi Song's Sister can be viewed as a companion piece of Nanfu Wang's documentary One Child Nation. Song explores the impact of China's one-child policy on a boy who imagines what his life might have been had he had a sister.

Director Daria Kascheeva's Daughter employs stop-action animation to create a story about a woman who remembers her difficult relationship with her father while he lies on his deathbed. Kashcheeva sculpts her characters from paper mache, a technique that gives the movie a heavy, somber feeling that perfectly fits its subject.

I already mentioned Hair Love and Memorable, so I'll move to Kitbull, an entry from Rosana Sullivan who has worked for Pixar; Sullivan introduces us to a scraggly stray cat who befriends an abused pit bull, an unlikely friendship that carries obvious metaphoric weight.

I've always found it difficult to predict winners in the shorts category, so I'm not going to try, although I'll tell you that my favorite is Collet's Memorable, which depicts an artist losing touch with his two principal loves, his wife and his art.

Live-Action Shorts
As I watched Saria -- a recreation of a real-life story -- I had to remind myself that I wasn't watching a documentary. This speaks to the film's power. Director Bryan Buckley doesn't flinch from a difficult topic and the ending of his film packs a horrific wallop.

Belgium's A Sister, directed by Delphine Girard, almost instantly becomes an exercise in high tension. A woman who has been kidnapped tricks her abductor into allowing her to call her sister to check in on her daughter. Instead of phoning her sister, she reaches a police emergency operator who plays along and tries to save the woman.

Marshall Curry's The Neighbors' Window begins as if it's going to be a kinky study of voyeurism. Initially attracted to watching a couple's lovemaking, a New York husband and wife continue to observe the lives of two people occupying the apartment across the street from them. The story increasingly focuses on the prying wife -- a mother dealing with three small children -- who becomes obsessed with what she sees the couple's freedom. You may be able to guess where Curry's story is headed, but the movie succinctly makes its point. And, no, the moral of the tale has nothing to do with the wisdom of buying curtains.

Directed by Meryam Joobeur and Maria Gracia Turgeon, Brotherhood takes us to Tunisia for a story about tensions between a father and a son, a young man who left home to join fighters in Syria. The son returns with a pregnant young woman who's hidden by a niqab and who he introduces as his wife. Faced with terrible unemployment, many of Tunisia's young men left for Syria and, as is the case here, many came to regret their decision. The relationship between the returning son and his brothers proves touching as the story builds toward a tragic conclusion that left me with questions about precisely what the filmmakers were trying to say.

Yves Piat and Damien Megherbi may have made the category's prohibitive favorite, the amusing NEFTA Football Club, which also takes place in Tunisia. While playing in the desert, two brothers discover a lost donkey that's wandering about wearing a set of earphones. We'll later learn what the earphones are about, but the story reveals its first twist when the older brother realizes that the donkey is carrying bags full of drugs. Could this be a gateway to a huge windfall? Obstacles and various O. Henry-like turns make the film instructive and entertaining.

Documentary Shorts

Ever heard of Resignation Syndrome? I hadn't, but I learned about it while watching John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson's Life Overtakes Me, the moving story of eastern European children who fall into catatonic states as a way avoiding tensions resulting from constant threats of deportation from Sweden, the country to which their parents have fled.

In Laura Nix's Walk Run Cha-Cha, we meet a Vietnamese couple that arrived in the U.S. 40 years ago. Paul and Millie Cao talk about leaving Vietnam, being reunited in the US and living lives built around work and family. After raising their kids and meeting their responsibilities, Paul and Millie take up dancing. Finally, they feel a measure of true personal freedom.

As mentioned earlier, Yi Seung-Jun's In the Absence explores the tragic story of a ferry accident. I'd say that Jun's film has more emotional punch than the others in this category, which rounds out with Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan's St. Louis Superman and Carol Dysinger's Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (if you're a girl).

St. Louis Superman introduces us to Bruce Franks, a father and rapper who runs for a spot in the Missouri State legislature after the shooting that roiled Ferguson, Mo., in 2014.

In Learning to Skateboard, Dysinger tells the story of an Afghan program that uses skateboarding to help instill confidence in girls who also receive instruction in reading and math, sometimes against the wishes of parents who either fear for their daughters safety or have tradition-bound ideas about what girls should be doing with their time.

If you have the time, you’d do well to see all three programs. You’ll be informed and entertained, but you’ll also be helping to support a form of cinematic expression that’s a vital part of film culture. You'll also notice that unlike some of the other Oscar categories, women are well-represented.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Cast lifts familiar British gangster movie

Director Guy Ritchie may not be breaking new ground in The Gentlemen, but his actors provide the movie with some juice.
If the year were 1999 instead of 2020, director Guy Ritchie’s The Gentlemen might have seemed more inventive. Ritchie, you'll recall, made his cinematic bones with 1998’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, a fresh-feeling foray into a netherworld occupied by British gangsters.

In this outing, Ritchie again goes gangster but the verve that once defined Ritchie's style now feels a little proforma, something on the order of the difference between an arranged marriage and a spontaneous love affair.

After striking out with King Arthur (2017), it’s not surprising that Ritchie sought comfortable ground — and, to be fair, The Gentlemen derives a fair measure of entertainment from a spot-on cast.

Notable among a large ensemble is Hugh Grant, playing a sleazy, gay private detective with traces of cockney in his accent. Colin Farrell adds more color as Coach, a character who trains boxers and occasionally dips into the dark arts required to settle matters in the criminal world.

Add an unflappable Charlie Hunnam to the mix. Hunnam rides shotgun to Matthew McConaughey, who plays Mickey, a pot czar who pays off fading aristocrats for the privilege of building vast underground grow houses on their property.

Now another American (Jeremy Strong) wants to buy Mickey's vast empire so that he can reap illegal gains and be ready to capitalize when marijuana goes legit. Tired of life in the fast lane, Mickey may be willing to sell.

A Chinese gangster named Dry Eye (Henry Golding) also would like to purchase Mickey’s business, an ambition that sets off fireworks, notably a raid on one of Mickey’s mammoth facilities.

To add structural pizazz, Ritchie frames the story by having Grant’s character try to extort money from Hunnam’s character, using a screenplay to convince Ray to pay up. The screenplay gambit proves a bit much, even in a movie that's not afraid to display its cinematic self-consciousness.

True to its title, The Gentlemen is mostly an all-guys affair, although the dashing Mickey has a greyhound sleek wife (Michelle Dockery) who runs a garage staffed by many female mechanics. Mickey, we're told, relies on her judgment.

It takes time to get all the characters straight and to fully appreciate The Gentlemen, you need a taste for a narrative that hopscotches through the proceedings, sometimes creating confusion. You also may find yourself wondering whether any of these characters possibly could exist outside a Guy Ritchie movie.

Still, there’s pleasure in watching actors sink into juicy roles as we wait to see who among these felons will emerge as the king of the gangster jungle. In January, that may as good as we get.

Cage uncaged in weirdly amusing thriller

Color Out of Space pits an isolated family against a force from outer space.
Director Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space might have been another mediocre horror film and, I suppose, parts of it still deserve that description. In adapting a story by H.P. Lovecraft, Stanley introduces us to a family living in rural isolation.

But Stanley smartly uses Lovecraft’s story as a launching pad for another memorable Nicolas Cage performance and as an opportunity to serve up a heaping helping of weirdness. Now the undisputed champion of over-the-top crescendos, Cage appears at his terrifying, comic best.

Cage plays Nathan Gardner, the father of a family which includes a teenage son (Brendan Meyer) and a younger son (Julian Hilliard).

The rural life doesn't seem to be doing any of the Gardners much good. Daughter Lavinia (Madeleine Arthur) dabbles in witchcraft. As she recovers from cancer surgery, Mom (Joely Richardson) battles the balky Internet connection that threatens to sink her investment-advisory business.

The already skewed family life of the Gardners is further upset when a mysterious flaming object lands in their yard. The object emits an eerie glow that may be a threatening alien life form. Plants begin to turn colors and various misfortunes befall the members of Nathan’s family. Deviations from the norm further compound: An insect the size of a football appears. The youngest son starts having conversations with characters no one else sees.

Stanley works with juxtapositions that border on the absurd: Lavinia’s witchy aspirations, dad’s preoccupation with the alpacas that he’s purchased as a possible source of revenue and the arrival of a very sincere hydrologist (Elliot Knight) who’s surveying the area.

The only other person living on Nathanial’s property is a squatter (Tommy Chong), an aging hippie who plays the role of deranged profit.

Cage — who’s playing a character who defies definition from the start -- eventually made me wonder if he weren’t using his performance to comment on the sheer insanity of what we’re watching. I decided he wasn't.

Most times, if you have questions about what an actor might be doing, you feel frustrated and deflated. In Cage's case, this uncertainty is precisely where he lives. He doesn't try to get laughs with a line reading; he just says the line and it comes out funny. In this case, he's playing a character who tries to normalize the most bizarre of occurrences, but with barely concealed undercurrents of madness that could, at any moment, tilt toward violence.

Stanely has fun with the movie's images, notably color settling over rural landscapes like a fog, some version of pink, I think. And, yes, blood and gore are given their due.

You can attach larger meanings to all of this if you want, an assault on the naive values of self-sufficiency and middle-class escapism, perhaps. But I chose to take Color Out of Space as a bizarre entertainment that gave me the creeps and made me laugh.

Stanley, by the way, hasn’t made a film since 1996’s Island of Dr. Moreau, a film on which he was replaced by John Frankenheimer. Stanley’s story is documented in a 2014 documentary called Lost Soul: The Doomed Journey of Richard Stanley’s Island of Dr. Moreau. I haven’t seen it but plan to seek it out.

Stanley’s career aside, Color Out of Space makes for one of those irresistibly strange movies that leave your head buzzing. When you exit the theater, the world may look a little weirder than when you arrived. That's a form of success.

Kids and cops clash in a Parisian suburb

Les Miserables focuses the pressure cooker of immigrant life..
All aspiring artists hear it, the injunction that urges them to begin with what they know.

Like most advice, there’s nothing sacrosanct about it, but in the case of French director Ladj Ly, familiarity with his subject (the hard life in the commune of Montfermeil outside Paris) gives his version of Les Miserables plenty of gritty authenticity.

The movie begins in jubilation. A kid from the neighborhood (Issa Perica) wraps himself in a Tricolor cape and gathers his pals for a trip into the heart of Paris. It’s the day in 2018 when the French win the World Cup and Ly’s camera captures the pure exaltation of fans celebrating a longed-for victory. At that point, the kids are French through and through.

But as children of African immigrants that status won’t survive. Set during a single day, Les Miserables revolves around tense interactions between three cops (Alexis Manenti, Djibril Zonga, and Damien Bonnard), the kids we saw in the opening scenes and other figures in the neighborhood. These include the district’s mayor (Steve Tientcheu), a man who keeps order, as well as various members of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organization that tries to guide the kids toward the local mosque.

The cops approach their work with distinctly different attitudes. The worst of them is Manenti’s Chris, a police officer who happily accepts the name he’s been given by residents of the neighborhood he patrols: The call him “The Pink Pig.” Often arbitrary and cruel, Chris justifies his behavior by blaming it on the mean streets he patrols. He sees his cruelty as a necessity, not a choice. Zonga’s Gwada isn’t as narrow-minded as Chris, but he goes along with the program.

Bonnard plays a newcomer on his first day on the job. Chris demeans him with the nickname Greaser and does his best to exert his authority over the newbie. It quickly becomes apparent that Bonnard’s Stephane will act as the movie’s conscience, as well as the audience’s entry point into a rough-and-tumble world where the police are viewed as a clear enemy and where the neighborhood has its own rules, most of them ignored by the kids.

A kid with big eyeglasses (Al-Hassan Ly) serves as a witness to the various episodes that make up the movie: He shoots video of the neighborhood with a drone that captures the incident that will bring the movie to a violent boiling point.

More turmoil results when Issa steals a lion cub from a circus run by gypsies. The cops of the anti-crime squad try to find the lion to stave off a war between the gypsies and the gangs of Montfermeil.

As I said at the outset, Ly knows this terrain. He grew up in the Montfermeil area and drew on his experiences to make his movie, and we often feel his anger at the way these immigrants have been marginalized. The pressures squeezing a hot-house neighborhood — a creation of prejudice on the part of the larger society — becomes the movie’s real subject.

American audiences familiar with gritty street-level drama may find the movie a bit familiar, but there’s no escaping Ly’s conclusion: Those relegated to France’s banlieues are living in pressure cookers. We all know how the metaphor works. When pressure cookers overheat, they tend to explode.

Friday, January 17, 2020

A quirky story about young outcasts

Set in 1977, Troop Zero tries (boy does it ever) to uphold the rights of young outcasts to claim their place in the world, maybe even in the entire universe. Directors Bert & Bertie, a British directing team, build their story around Christmas Flint (Mckenna Grace), a girl who’s an outsider in the small town of Wiggly, Georgia. Christmas's widowed dad (Jim Gaffigan) plies his trade as an attorney, losing most of his cases and seldom being paid for his efforts. Gaffigan’s Ramsey Flint expects his assistant (Viola Davis) to look after his daughter, a task she approaches responsibly but not happily. The plot begins when Christmas makes friends with a girl who formerly bullied her (Milan Ray). She then assembles a group of girls to join the Birdies, scouts who are vying to see which of them will win a chance to record a message that NASA will send into space. The local Scout Master (Allison Janney) reluctantly accepts Christmas's crew as Birdies, labeling them Troop Zero. Lest boys feel left out, Birdie Troop Zero includes Christmas's best friend, Joseph (Charlie Shotwell). Of course, a group of by-the-book Birdies demeans the outcasts. The young actors do well enough and Davis’s portrayal suggests unexpected complexities for a movie that seems to want to be quirky and endearing at the same time. Christmas’s individuality takes a strange form: She’s a bed wetter, which the movie tries (weirdly, I think) to turn into a gesture of assertive defiance set to the tune of David Bowie's Space Oddity. A real emotional issue (grief over a lost mother) rises to the surface at the end, but an over-commitment to quirkiness can make Troop Zero feel like a song played out of tune.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Older but still bad boys at heart

Will Smith and Martin Lawrence deliver for viewers who like these kinds of formula jobs.
Bad Boys for Life includes a late-picture plot twist so preposterous and far-fetched that it practically wraps itself in immunity from criticism. It's as if the filmmakers are saying, "Hey, you've come this far, might as well go along with the rest."

With this third in the Bad Boy series, which began in 1995 and continued with a sequel in 2003, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence attempt to reclaim box-office potency and prove that buddy movies, even in re-treaded form, are as much big-screen staple as corn is to American agriculture.

Director Michael Bay, at the helm for the first two movies, cedes directing chores to Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, a duo that lives in Belgium. They approach the challenge with something approaching cheerful brio.

Now, it needs to be said at the outset that any movie that looks for its juice from Mexican drug cartels, which Bad Boys for Life does, already feels a trifle old hat. But Arbi and Fallah don’t seem to care. For them, it's pedal to the metal and full speed ahead.

The directors must have known that they’ve been charged with ensuring, as many critics previously have noted, that thair movie includes ample amounts of bullets and banter, both of which they ladle out in over-sized helpings.

On the way out of a preview screening, an audience member described the movie as “fun.” That's what movies such as Bad Boys for Life are supposed to provide — fun with bloodshed or maybe it's the reverse, bloodshed with fun.

To be fair, Bad Boys for Life does provide some fun. The banter between Will Smith’s Mike and Martin Lawrence’s Marcus ranges from funny to routine. Smith, of course, plays the serious cop; Lawrence provides the comic relief as a Miami detective who wants to retire, particularly after a mysterious assassin riddles Mike with bullets in the movie’s early going.

Though badly wounded, Mike makes a miraculous recovery. He then decides that he must find the motorcycle-riding murderer who gunned him down in the street. Of course, he wants Marcus to join him.

No, says Marcus, who insists on hanging up his badge so that he can watch his infant grandson grow up. Besides, when Mike was hovering near death in the hospital, Marcus promised God that he wouldn’t commit any more violent acts if Mike pulled through.

Will Marcus finally relent? What do you think?

A wary police captain (Joe Pantoliano) half-heartedly tells Mike not to investigate his own case, but even he knows that Mike won't listen. In movies such as this, no one gets in the way of the formula.

That doesn't mean the filmmakers can't accessorize. The screenplay surrounds Mike and Marcus with a kind of tech-savvy IM Force led by Miami cop played by Paola Nunez. She and Mike once had a thing.

As it turns out, the plot against Mike has been authored by the vicious widow (Kate del Castillo) of a drug lord who Mike helped bring down. The widow insists that her equally brutal and maniacally focused son (Jacob Scipio) make Mike suffer before killing him.

If you have no taste for this kind of mayhem, Bad Boys for Life gives you no reason to expand your window of tolerance.

If, on the other hand, you're up for a well-oiled big-screen machine that gives Smith a chance to mix dead-pan seriousness with a bit of charm and eventually makes room for Lawrence to find his way to some real laughs, you could do worse.

Bad Boys for Life provides the expected jokes about aging, but a teaser that runs during the film’s end credits suggests that we take the title seriously. Smith and Lawrence may be in it for the duration.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Sisters separated by treachery and deceit

The Brazilian film Invisible Life tells its story in bold, emotional strokes.
Although it occasionally surrenders to melodrama, Invisible Life remains solidly grounded in the reality of daily life in Rio de Janeiro. Setting his story in the 1950s, director Karim Ainouz follows the lives of two sisters, each suffering because of a tyrannical father.

Though united in spirit, the sisters are tragically separated when Guida (Julia Stockler), the wild-child sister, runs off with a Greek sailor, a choice that sends her life into decline. The more sedate Euridice (Carol Duarte) wants to study classical piano in Austria and has little interest in unleashing her sexuality.

The fates of both sisters are determined by their father (Antonio Fonesca), a baker who disowns Guida when she returns to Rio pregnant. He refuses to accept a daughter who will bring him a "bastard grandchild."

Fonesca's Manoel also pushes Euridice into a loveless conventional marriage.

Ainouz takes his time developing the story but makes a point of allowing bursts of energy to break the movie's surface, Euridice wildly dancing at her wedding, for example. A less-than-erotic encounter between the bride and groom follows the celebration.

Even though Guida returns to Rio, her father never tells Euridice that her sister has come back to Brazil. He also lies to Guida, telling her that Euridice lives in Europe where she's pursuing a career as a pianist.

Although they're living in the same city, the sisters never meet; they almost encounter each other at a restaurant at one point, but they remain apart -- each assuming the other is living the life she dreamt of as a young woman.

Euridice plods unhappily through married life. For her part, Guida finds a home in one of Brazil's lower-class neighborhoods. She cares for her son and creates a kind of impromptu family with some of the residents.

The movie eventually deals with the lie that has separated the sisters. No fair saying more, but you probably can guess that the story will not resolve happily. In all, Invisible Life makes for a moving look at a bond that endures despite out-dated rules and a father's uncompromising rigidity.

In her last film, Agnes Varda reviews her art

I'm guessing that when Agnes Varda, who died last March at the age of 90, began assembling Varda by Varda, she might have sensed that she was writing her own obituary. The result: a biography of a creative life.

That's not to say that there's anything morbid, self-congratulatory or nostalgic about Varda's movie. Varda by Varda turns out to be a catalog of an artist's process of invention -- not in any self-serving way, but in a manner that underscores Varda's commitment to an idea: Creation should be shared. Her final movie can be taken as an act of generosity. She had things to tell us.

At times, Varda can be seen talking to audiences as if to underscore that she's not interested in solitary reflection. As always, Varda insists on engagement.

Varda uses clips from many of her films, analyzing them and explaining how they developed. Among the features she discusses: Cleo from 5 to 7 and Vagabond.

We learn that Varda's later documentary work tended to rely on streamlined, simplified production methods, sometimes only the director and a small video camera that she operated. Varda followed her eye where it took her, often capitalizing on serendipitous moments that found her camera.

In her last decade, Varda branched out from filmmaking to become what she calls a "visual artist." Her installations can be whimsical or sharp -- or both. They make you understand that only death could have halted Varda’s voracious interest in the world around her, in things that can be seen or touched and, above all, captured with a camera. Even in old age, Varda's eyes remained open to new possibilities.

As an artist, she never stopped growing.

Monday, January 13, 2020

The 2020 Oscar nominations have arrived. Feel free to cheer, carp or complain.

Oscar has spoken.

The 2020 nominations are in, effectively trumping all other awards that have been given out thus far. Let’s be real: If Brad Pitt wins an Oscar as best supporting actor for his work in Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, the Oscar probably will occupy a higher place on his mantel than the Golden Globe he already has won, presuming, of course, that Pitt's home includes a mantel.

You get the point: When it comes to awards, Oscar remains the big boy on the block.

For many, my use of the words “bog boy” should be telling. The 2020 edition didn’t prove to be a banner year for women or for diversity. No women directors were nominated in a year when many expected Greta Gerwig to receive a nomination for her direction of Little Women.

Gerwig did receive a nomination in the best-adapted screenplay category and Little Women also received a best-picture nod.

Meanwhile, re: additional outrage over the fact that no women were nominated in the best director category. The woman who most belonged on that list is probably someone most Academy voters never considered. Australian director Jennifer Kent’s Nightingale was not only one of the year’s best movies, but it offered a devastating critique of British colonialism.

Of course, there were other snubs. Jennifer Lopez didn’t receive a supporting actress nomination for her work in Hustlers. Should she have taken Kathy Bates’ place on that list? Bates was nominated for playing Richard Jewel’s mother in Richard Jewel. I'd have opted for Zhao Shuzehen, who played the grandmother in The Farewell.

The list of best-supporting actor nominees is strong, but I would have put Jamie Foxx (Just Mercy) ahead of Tom Hanks (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood). And, no, that doesn’t mean I didn’t admire Hanks’ performance. It just means I thought that as an innocent man on death row, Foxx went places that were difficult to reach. Heartbreak without sentiment.

But (and I can’t believe I’m about to say this) the biggest acting affront was the omission of Adam Sandler from the best-actor list. I understand that Uncut Gems isn’t a movie for everyone. It’s tough, profane and relentless. But it’s difficult to imagine anyone but Sandler holding the movie together. As a jeweler looking for a big score, Sandler sustained his character’s manic energy from beginning to end.

I was surprised that Todd Phillips (Joker) turned up on the best director list. But as one of the dissenting critics who admired Joker, I wasn’t disappointed. Phillips made an anti-comic book movie out of a comic-book character. He did it with ominous atmospherics and, of course, Joaquin Phoenix’s bravura turn as Joker.

Nominated in the best-actor category, Phoenix emerges as the presumed favorite. Joker's 11 nominations topped the list.

Notably, two actresses on this year’s best-actress list gave performances that carried their movies: Renee Zellweger as Judy Garland in Judy and Cynthia Erevo as Harriet Tubman in Harriet. Both actresses were the best part of their respective movies.

As for best actor, I was mildly surprised to see Jonathan Pryce (Two Popes) on the list. Pryce played Jorge Bergoglio, the Argentine cardinal en route to becoming Pope Francis. Granted Pryce plays the softer of the two characters, but Anthony Hopkins (nominated for best supporting actor in the same movie) blew Pryce off the screen, sneakily at first and later with quiet assurance.

I'd have included Robert DeNiro for his performance as Frank Sheeran in The Irishman.

So let’s sum up with a complete list of nominees and with my customary reminder that Oscar is ... well ... Oscar and doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with which movies and performances deserve to be enshrined in the most important hall of fame of all: our own big-screen memories.

Best Picture
Ford v Ferrari
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Little Women
Marriage Story
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Best Actress
Cynthia Erivo, Harriet
Scarlett Johansson, Marriage Story
Saoirse Ronan, Little Women
Charlize Theron, Bombshell
Renée Zellweger, Judy

Best Actor
Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory
Leonardo DiCaprio, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Adam Driver, Marriage Story
Joaquin Phoenix, Joker
Jonathan Pryce, The Two Popes

Actress in a Supporting Role
Kathy Bates, Richard Jewell
Laura Dern, Marriage Story
Scarlett Johansson, Jojo Rabbit
Florence Pugh, Little Women
Margot Robbie, Bombshell

Best Director
Bong Joon Ho, Parasite
Sam Mendes, 1917
Todd Phillips, Joker
Martin Scorsese, The Irishman
Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Best Adapted Screenplay
The Irishman, Steven Zaillian
Jojo Rabbit, Taika Waititi
Joker, Todd Phillips & Scott Silver
Little Women, Greta Gerwig
The Two Popes, Anthony McCarten

Best Original Screenplay
1917, Sam Mendes & Krysty Wilson-Cairns
Knives Out, Rian Johnson
Marriage Story, Noah Baumbach
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino
Parasite, Bong Joon Ho & Jin Won Han

Best International Film
Corpus Christi (Poland)
Honeyland (North Macedonia)
Les Misérables (France)
Pain and Glory (Spain)
Parasite (South Korea)

Best Documentary Feature
American Factory
The Cave
The Edge of Democracy
For Sama

Animated Feature
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
I Lost My Body
Missing Link
Toy Story 4

Production Design
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Film Editing
Ford v Ferrari
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit

1917, Roger Deakins
The Irishman, Rodrigo Prieto
Joker, Lawrence Sher
The Lighthouse, Jarin Blaschke
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Robert Richardson

Visual Effects
Avengers: Endgame
The Irishman
The Lion King
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Costume Design
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Little Women
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Sound Mixing
Ad Astra
Ford v Ferrari
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Sound Editing
Ford v Ferrari
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

Original Song
"I Can't Let You Throw Yourself Away," Toy Story 4
"(I'm Gonna) Love Me Again," Rocketman
"I'm Standing With You," Breakthrough
"Into the Unknown," Frozen II
"Stand Up," Harriet

Original Score
Joker, Hildur Gudnadóttir
Little Women, Alexandre Desplat
Marriage Story, Randy Newman
1917, Thomas Newman
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, John Williams

Makeup and Hairstyling
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil

Live-Action Short Film
Nefta Football Club
The Neighbors' Window
A Sister

Animated Short Film
Dcera (Daughter)
Hair Love
Sister, Siqi Song

Documentary Short Subject
In the Absence
Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl)
Life Overtakes Me
St. Louis Superman
Walk Run Cha-Cha

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Critics' Choice goes to 'Once Upon a Time'

Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood won four awards at the Critics Choice Association's 25 annual Critics' Choice Awards, the most of any 2020 nominee. In addition to best original screenplay, best-supporting actor and best production design, director Quentin Tarantino's movie took top honors for best picture.

As a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association, I vote in the movie segment of the Critics' Choice awards, which also honor outstanding work in television.

In this compressed awards season, it's notable that the Critics' Choice Awards were given out on Sunday, the night before the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was slated to announce 2020's Oscar nominees. Stay tuned.

Here, though, are this year's Critics' Choice winners:

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood

Joaquin Phoenix – Joker

Renée Zellweger – Judy

Brad Pitt – Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood

Laura Dern – Marriage Story

Bong Joon Ho – Parasite
Sam Mendes – 1917

Quentin Tarantino – Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood

Greta Gerwig – Little Women

Roger Deakins – 1917

Barbara Ling, Nancy Haigh – Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood

Lee Smith – 1917

Ruth E. Carter – Dolemite Is My Name

Bombshell (Lionsgate)

Avengers: Endgame

Toy Story 4

Roman Griffin Davis -- Jo Jo Rabbit

Avengers: Endgame

Dolemite Is My Name



Glasgow (No Place Like Home) – Wild Rose
I’m Gonna (Love Me Again) – Rocketman

Hildur Guðnadóttir – Joker

And, if you like numbers, here are totals for movies that won more than one award:

Best Picture
Best Supporting Actor – Brad Pitt
Best Original Screenplay – Quentin Tarantino
Best Production Design – Barbara Ling, Nancy Haigh

1917 – three awards
Best Director – Sam Mendes (Tie)
Best Cinematography – Roger Deakins
Best Editing – Lee Smith

Best Visual Effects
Best Action Movie

Best Costume Design – Ruth E. Carter
Best Comedy

JOKER – two
Best Actor – Joaquin Phoenix
Best Score – Hildur Guðnadóttir

Best Director – Bong Joon Ho (Tie)
Best Foreign Language Film

Friday, January 10, 2020

A celebration of a famed choreographer

Criticism requires a broad range of literacy in a staggering variety of fields. Few critics cross enough lines to claim anything resembling super-literacy. I certainly don't. And most film critics seem to confine their cross-referential range to novels, television, popular culture, maybe theater and music, and, heaven help us, comic books. Of course, I'm referring only to the critics I know or those I read.

I begin this way in talking about Cunningham, a documentary about choreographer Merce Cunningham because I need to confess a woeful lack of knowledge about dance, modern or otherwise. Although Cunningham, who died at the age of 90 in 2009, was widely acknowledged as a choreographic genius, he is not in my pantheon of cultural icons. Blame my ignorance or cut me some slack because no one can be well-versed in everything.

So what do I have to say about Cunningham, a documentary about this acclaimed choreographer, his dances and his status in the art world? Take a look at the photograph displayed above this review. Dancers are poised against a background designed by painter Robert Rauschenberg. The photograph captures a moment from Cunningman's Summerspace and suggests an imagination rich in color, movement and dramatic suggestion. The picture makes you eager to see the moment that follows.

I've only seen Cunningham in 2D, but I was grateful to director Alla Kovgan for not making a straight-ahead documentary. (A 3D version has been shown in some markets, but is not available in Denver.)

Instead, Kovgan mixes archival material, snippets of interviews (including with Cunningham) and most important, portions of filmed segments from past companies juxtaposed with the work of contemporary dancers. The dances -- although seen only in pieces -- cover the years 1942 through 1972.

Cunningham evidently did not believe that people should dance to music but that movement should be its own art. Some of the movements, almost contortions, seem to require muscles tuned to impossible levels of endurance.

At the same time that Cunningham championed the purity of dance, much of his work was done in collaboration with cutting-edge contemporary visual artists and musicians, Andy Warhol and John Cage, to cite two examples. Importantly, Cunningham was at the epicenter of an especially fertile American art moment, a time when the walls separating one art from another were beginning to crack.

The contemporary versions of Cunningham's dances spread over a variety of settings: a Manhattan rooftop, a subway tunnel, a forest. One can only imagine the difficulties encountered by the movie's gifted director of photography, Mko Malkhasyan.

If you're well versed in Cunningham's work, I probably have nothing to tell you except that Cunningham displays as much visual imagination as the choreographer brought to dance. If you're less-informed about Cunningham, this documentary would make a good place to start catching up.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

‘Underwater’ plumbs the depths of movie junk

Kirsten Stewart races about in a thriller that can’t freshen a familiar formula.
Much of Underwater takes place ... er ... underwater. Now, we’re not talking azure waters where fish display themselves in glorious technicolor. No, we’re talking the forbidding darkness of bottom dwellers; i.e., ocean depths as great as nine miles.

In this water-logged adventure, both characters and the camera grope to find legible images to support what apparently was intended as an exercise in breathtaking excitement.

You’ve probably read that Underwater is another Alien knockoff, a movie about a desperate crew that tries to survive the destruction of its deep-sea diving station and an attack by a monster, glimpsed mostly in quick cuts, but eventually revealed to have razor-sharp teeth. I’m waiting for a monster that torments its victims by gumming them to death.

Is the sea taking revenge for man’s insistence on exploiting its bountiful resources or is this an opportunity to see Kristen Stewart — her close-cropped hair, dyed blond — race about in her underwear, much as Sigourney Weaver did toward the end of Alien.

A knockoff? Maybe. But director William Eubank should have watched Alien more closely. Rather than building toward deadly encounters, he races through them, dulling any chance of providing tension that lives up to the movie’s pounding score.

Underwater demonstrates only minimal interest in characterization as the survivors of this deep-sea disaster pick their way through the rubble in hopes of reaching evacuation vehicles. We're left to wonder which members of this small group have a chance of surviving.

As you might expect, the script could have been written on the back of a napkin, but in this case, one that had been used to sop up a wine spill that made it seem as if all the story beats had run together.

To further burden the actors, they’re often asked to wear industrial-strength diving outfits that obscure their humanity and make them look as if they might have been at home in some misbegotten helping of 1950s sci/if.

Amid images so dimly lit, it’s not always easy to tell what we’re watching, we meet the crew members who accompany Stewart’s Norah on her survival quest. These include the outfit’s captain (Vincent Cassel) and the resident wise-ass (T.J. Miller), as well as another woman (Jessica Henwick) who also will scurry about in her underwear before the movie ends.

Employing an editing style that turns the movie’s images into a kind of visual shrapnel doesn’t help sustain interest. Massive amounts of CGI probably were required to create this underwater environment. The end result for me: a glub and a half.

‘Like a Boss’ is like a comedy — only less so

Tiffany Haddish and Rose Byrne team in a comedy of low risk and little imagination.
I worry about Tiffany Haddish. Since her hilarious movie breakthrough in 2017's Girls Trip, Haddish's career has — to use the vernacular — blown up. In addition to the new comedy Like a Boss, Haddish has several movies on tap, not to mention Black Mitzvah, a Netflix comedy special that’s currently playing.

So what troubles me? Just this: I hope that the movies can find a better fit for Hasddish than the wearying January release that I’m about to review. She’s funny. She can command the screen and she has acting chops. She deserves a showcase that transcends sub-sitcom level screenwriting.

I wouldn’t call Like a Boss a personal setback for Haddish, but — to put it bluntly — there’s a reason why the movie is slipping into theaters in January, a time of low big-screen expectations as awards expectation focuses on last year's releases.

As the first movie I've seen in 2020, Like a Boss sank me into a New Year’s funk. Here is a movie in which neither cast nor audience is being asked to go anyplace worth going, a waste.

Directed by Miguel Arteta, Like a Boss tells the story of two women: Haddish’s Mia and Rose Byrne’s Mel. Friends since middle school, the two women share a house and run a make-up company with two employees: Billy Porter and Jennifer Coolidge. Dubbed Mia and Mel, their company is on the verge of hitting the financial skids. Could an acquisition offer by a major cosmetics firm be the godsend they need?

Her hair died red, Salma Hayek portrays Claire Luna, the brash head of the cosmetics company. A ruthless entrepreneur, the cartoonish Luna obviously can’t be trusted. She walks through her lavish offices carrying a golf club, presumably in case a need to smash something should arise.

The script contrives to have the eager-to-please Mel and the fiercely independent Mia turn on one another as they try to figure out how to work for the dictatorial Luna, who threatens to take over their company and kick the both of them to the curb.

As high-concept premises go, this one’s built on shaky scaffolding that turns the movie into a low-grade formula job in which the only real energy comes from Haddish’s often ribald one-liners. Both Haddish and Byrne try their hands at physical comedy but the movie’s display of comic imagination operates at dismal levels. Witness the inclusion of a passé karaoke scene, jokes about pot, jokes about the male and female nether regions and a gag about an overly seasoned Mexican dish.

The actresses seem to be straining to bring comic life to the material. They're game, but no amount of make-up can cover the screenplay’s witless inadequacies.

Mel and Mia are committed to helping women bring out their inner glow, an ironic message for a movie that has no inner glow of its own and which is built around two characters who have been conceived by filmmakers who were unwilling to take even the slightest of risks with them.

So fingers crossed for Haddish going forward. Rose, of course, has her strengths. But the talented Haddish has no need for a sidekick and Like a Boss has even less reason to command much attention.

Bob's Cinema Diary: 1/10/20 -- Three Christs and Song of Names

Three Christs
Three Christs focuses on a psychiatrist who in the 1950s studied three paranoid schizophrenics, each of whom believed that he was Jesus. Although Three Christs derives from a true story, the movie winds up feeling contrived and unconvincing. A miscast Richard Gere portrays Dr. Alan Stone, a psychiatrist who in the picture's early going arrives at a Michigan state hospital to conduct his study. Peter Dinklage, Walton Goggins and Bradley Whitford portray Dr. Stone’s patients, men who have convinced themselves that they are the true Christ. Stone isolates the trio of faux Christs from other patients to determine if they can get along with one another. Stone wonders: If one Jesus is confronted with another, would one of them have to admit that he's deluded. Everyone, of course, knows that the New Testament tells the story of a single Jesus. Director Jon Avnet needed a villain. The closest he comes is Dr. Orbis (Kevin Pollack), the psychiatrist who heads the hospital and who seems to value procedural correctness over sensitive treatment. Charlotte Hope plays Becky, the young woman who becomes Dr. Stone’s research assistant. Julianna Margulies appears as Stone’s wife, a character who adds little to the story. Of the three Christs, Dinklage gives the most interesting performance. Eloquent and nearly regal in bearing, his Canadian-born Joseph Cassel thinks that he should be sent to England. Tragedy looms as Avnet presents Stone as a man who sides with his patients in a way that the hospital establishment mostly mistrusts. He's adamant in his opposition to electroshock therapy, for example. Beneath all the drama, we find a romanticized notion about how the patients help to cure the doctor of his heretofore unacknowledged delusions. The point seems forced, a notion more accepted than discovered by a movie that flirts with intriguing issues but feels like it might have benefited from the intensifying claustrophobia of the stage.

The Song of Names

Based on a novel by classical music critic Norman Lebrecht, The Song of Names aims for high seriousness but fades from the screen without making the expected impact. The story centers on a gifted Jewish violinist who's played at various ages by Luke Doyle, Jonah Hauer-King and Clive Owen. Sent to England from Poland to escape the Nazis, young Dovidl is raised by an English family that goes to great lengths to respect his Jewish heritage. After a rocky start, the supremely confident Dovidl makes friends with Martin, the son of the man who agrees to shelter Dovidl while nurturing the youngster's musical talents. As the two age, Martin develops a belief in Dovidl and promotes his career. On the eve an important concert, the now-grown Dovidl vanishes. After 35 years, Martin (played as an adult by Tim Roth) tries to find his former friend. Director Francois Girard uses Dovidl's disappearance as a source of mystery while the movie shifts between the war and post-war years and the 1980s. Little catches fire with Dovidl's story becoming secondary to Martin's search. The result: A movie that tries to deal with the Holocaust, musical genius and personal transformation fails to plumb any of those areas with sufficient depth. The historical backdrop and the music provide a bit of elevation, but the movie strikes only a minor chord.

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

When bigotry makes a mockery of truth

Just Mercy tells the real-life story of an Alabama black man who's wrongly sentenced to death.
If Just Mercy, director Destin Daniel Cretton>'s big-screen adaptation of Bryan Stevenson's book of the same name, doesn't move you, I'm not sure what could.

Just Mercy qualifies as the straightforward story about a persistent, Harvard educated attorney (Michael B. Jordan) who moves to Alabama in the 1980s to head a project devoted to representing inmates on death row, as well as others who can't afford legal help.

One of the attorney's clients (Jamie Foxx) has been sentenced to death despite a jury's determination that he deserved life in prison. A shoddy defense completed the frame-up. Foxx's Walter McMillan - a.k.a. Johnny D -- was accused of killing a teenage white girl and the white community in Monroeville — the town where Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird -- hungered for someone to punish.

Just Mercy may not brim with groundbreaking insights about racism but it makes us feel the sting of injustice with performances that embody so much determination, pain and emotional truth that the movie rises above anything that might be deemed routine.

Cretton (Short Term 12) charts a course that explores the deep humanity of black Americans who have been wronged by a system that's rigged against them. As Foxx's character says at one point, he was born into a society that regarded him as guilty at birth.

Jordan (of Creed and Black Panther fame) can dominate a scene if he chooses. Here, he avoids any pyrotechnics in playing a young Harvard Law grad who isn't entirely sure of himself but who has decided that there's little point in being a lawyer if the fight for justice isn't at the heart of his practice.

Jordan's Bryan Stevenson can't always approach his work dispassionately. As a young black man, he not only wants to fight injustice; he feels the weight of it. He arrives in Monroe County where Eva Ansley (Brie Larson) has been working as operations director of the Equal Justice Initiative. Although she's not a lawyer, Ansley devotes herself to doing everything in her power to facilitate Stevenson's work.

The movie's themes are embodied in a cast that revolves around Jordan. As a death-row inmate, Foxx can be imposing in his mistrust of the system and tender in the way he helps to calm a fellow inmate (a terrific Rob Morgan) on the eve of his execution.

In some ways, Richardson's story resonates more powerfully than Johnny D's. A Vietnam veteran, Richardson was responsible for a woman's death. He can't escape the burden of his guilt. At the same time, it's clear that this victim of war-related post-traumatic stress doesn't belong on death row. As one inmate puts it, he should be hospitalized.

It's heartbreaking to hear Richardson say that the way people treat him on the day of his execution -- asking if there's anything they can do to help -- is the nicest anyone's been to him in his entire life. When the guards lead him out of his cell, he politely asks permission to say goodbye to his friends, fellow inmates on death row.

It's difficult to imagine a more convincing portrait of a man who has been battered and beaten by the world and by the torment of knowing that he veered out of control.

For his part, Foxx completely inhabits the role of a man who knows he's innocent but who also understands that no one cares. When truth doesn’t matter, cynicism is the inevitable result. Tough and guarded, Walter has adjusted to death row in the only way possible: He expects nothing from anyone.

It falls to Tim Blake Nelson to give a key performance as the convict whose false testimony condemned Johnny D. His face contorted from burns experienced as a kid in foster care, Nelson's account of how he was coerced into lying in court proves chilling.

Cretton chronicles the legal maneuvering required to try to win a new trial for Johnny D. But it's the clearly expressed human toll taken by a corrupted system that creates the movie’s emotional engagement. Cretton allows the movie's ending to go on too long, but even that can't dull the heartbreak of a story about bonds formed by people -- who in a more just world -- never would have met.