Thursday, April 29, 2021

No remorse, not much credibility either


The only rooting interest  I found in Tom Clancy's Without Remorse, the latest  thriller based on (what else?) a Clancy novel, was  Michael B. Jordan. A fine young actor, Jordan probably could benefit from becoming the key figure in another franchise, adding diversity to the group of actors who have played Clancy heroes. Other than that, Without Remorse clocks in as a brutal thriller in which Jordan plays John Clark, a Navy SEAL who feels betrayed by his government and possibly by a CIA agent (Jamie Bell).  The notion that the true patriot finds himself in opposition to both foreign enemies and a conniving US government laces through all of Without Remorse, which also features Guy Pearce as the Secretary of Defense and Jodie Turner-Smith (Queen & Slim) as no-nonsense SEAL commander who understands Clark's fury. After being misled about the Syria-based mission that opens the movie, Clark's real suffering begins: When a team of assassins tries to murder him in his suburban home, his pregnant wife is killed. Though wounded, Clark kills most of  the assassins. One (Brett Gelman) escapes. Sent to prison, Clark makes a deal that springs him, becoming the rogue who seeks vengeance -- with help from his military friends. Many bullets are fired as director Stefano Sollima delivers a by-the-numbers thriller that may please action fans but can’t shake the feeling that it rolled off the Clancy assembly line. A recall may not be necessary but a sequel would require significant improvement.

A house with a creepy secret

 Fresh from her Oscar-nominated turn as Marion Davies in Mank, Amanda Seyfried turns up as a troubled spouse in Things Heard & Seen, a movie that takes a stab at serious horror but can't puncture the  fog of cliches that settles over it.
    Adapted from a novel by Elizabeth Brundage, the story follows Seyfried's Catherine Clarie when she accompanies her husband (James Norton) to a small college in upstate New York in the 1980s. 
     Having just earned his doctorate, Norton's George makes a big impression on the head of his department (F. Murray Abraham), an academic with a keen interest in the spiritually oriented philosophy of Emanuel Swedenborg. Abraham's character also conducts seances. 
     Hey, somebody has to believe in ghosts,  otherwise a major part of the movie would qualify as an exploration of clinical insanity, which — come to think of it — might have been more intriguing.
     Perhaps to abet the movie's spiritual/paranormal flirtations, George professes an interest in George Inness, a 19th Century  American painter and devotee of Swedenborg with a talent for creating eerie landscapes.
    It doesn't take long before the fishy stuff begins. 
    Catherine abandoned her career restoring art to support George's professional life. Instead of expressing his gratitude, George gaslights her.
    Annoyingly affable, George barely conceals his dark side. He blames his wife's mounting unease on her eating disorder, a serious subject the movie irresponsibly neglects. 
   The isolated house into which George moves his wife and four-year-old daughter (Ana Sophia Heger) has a secret history, and the supporting cast suggests other avenues of exploration that mostly fizzle.
   Another couple (James Urbaniak and Rhea Seehorn) become part of the new arrivals' social network. George does waste much time before diving into hanky-panky, starting an affair with a young woman (Natalia Dyer) who works at a local stable.
    Alex Neustaedter portrays a handy man who works on the Claire home; he knows the secrets of the house and is sympathetic to Catherine. 
    Directors Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini rely on at least one unforgivably convenient plot development and, most unfortunately, aren't always able to draw a clear enough line between what might deemed ghostly and what's just plain goofy.

Movie about a hitman misses badly

 It's almost a rule. An actor or actress wins an Oscar and the next time we see him or her in a movie it's a dud. In the depressingly dreary  VirtuosoAnthony Hopkins, recent winner of the best actor Oscar for his work in The Father, plays a mysterious Vietnam vet called The Mentor. During a scene set in a cemetery, Hopkins talks about his character's Vietnam experiences, delivering a monologue that sounds as if Hannibal Lecter is auditioning for the role of Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. Listening to The Mentor describe a massacre of civilians in which he participated becomes a self-conscious aria of Hopkins' speak. Hopkins isn't the main event in director Nick Stagliano's misfire. Anson Mount portrays the assassin who takes his assignments from the Mentor. After an early picture job results in some disastrous collateral damage, the assassin is sent to a small town to kill someone identified only as White Rivers. He arrives at a diner where he scopes out the clientele and meets a waitress (Abbie Cornish) who seems attracted to him. Throughout what seems intended as a guessing game about who’s trying to kill whom, the assassin talks to himself in what becomes the movie's monotonous narration. He blandly recites dialogue that sounds as if it had been lifted from Assassination for Dummies. He reminds himself that he's a professional. He emphasizes the need for perfection and precision. He should have reminded himself to inject some life into a movie that's pretty much DOA.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Bob's Cinema Diary: 4/30/'21 -- 'Outside Story,' 'Percy vs. Goliath' and 'Four Good Days’'

A word on Cinema Diary. You may wonder why some movies receive full reviews and others show up in this abbreviated format. Lots of reasons. Some of the involve the number of movies being released in a given week. Eight this week, for example. Some of the reasons for the Diary relate to when I've seen a particular movie and how many more movies I need to watch prior to the weekend.
At the same time, honesty compels me to say that the directors and actors who made these films didn't make them to be regarded as secondary efforts. I don't. At the same time, I've yet to find a way to cope with weeks that are flooded with new movies.

The Outside Story 

Movies don't get much more streamlined than Outside Story, a look at a man (Brian Tyree Henry) who locks himself out of his Brooklyn apartment, interacts with his neighbors, and wonders whether he should have broken up with his girlfriend (Sonequa Marin Green). Henry's Charles seems to be a nice guy, a film editor who specializes in assembling visual obituaries of celebrities. The key to the movie involves Henry's performance as a stressed-out but nice New Yorker who has encounters with a cop (Sunita Mani), a neighborhood kid (Olivia Edward), and an older woman (Lynda Gravatt) whose husband recently died. Director Casimir Nozkowski, who also wrote the screenplay, has a nice feeling for the idiosyncrasies of neighborhood relationships but he can't prevent the material from feeling a bit thin. Henry, currently on view in Godzilla vs. Kong, holds the movie together. Although the movie contains some conflict, the stakes feel pretty low -- which can be viewed as a blessing or a severe limitation or perhaps a bit of both.

Percy Vs Goliath

After seeing Christopher Walken miscast as an Irish farmer in Wild Mountain Thyme, I was dubious about Percy Vs Goliath, the story of a Canadian farmer who takes on the Monsanto in a prolonged court battle over patent rights involving canola seeds. But damn if Walken doesn't pull it off, doing credible work as Percy Schmeiser, a farmer who inadvertently planted Monsanto GMO seeds that had blown onto his property from a neighbor's farm. The result:  a prolonged suit. Roberta Maxwell portrays Schmeiser's wife Louise. Zach Braff signs on as the small-town lawyer who represents Schmeiser, and Christina Ricci appears as an environmental activist who encourages Schmeiser to challenge Monsanto. She also helps him take is story global with a visit to India. The story of a little man fighting a major corporation isn't exactly fresh but director Clark Johnson does a good job presenting complicated issues as Schmeiser's case makes its way to the Canadian Supreme Court. 

Four Good Days

Familiarity may not always breed contempt, but it can breed fatigue when it comes to movies. Glenn Close and Mila Kunis play mother and daughter in an addiction drama about a young woman (Kunis) nearly ruined by drugs. Kunis' Molly wants to make another stab at kicking her habit so she asks her mother, Close's Deb, to take her in. This time she really means it -- or so she says. Director Rodrigo Garcia doesn't skimp on realism: Kunis has been given rotting teeth and a distressingly scrawny look. Deb blames Molly's addiction on the doctors who prescribed an Oxycontin regimen after a skiing injury. Since then, Deb has left her husband (Joshua Leonard) and her two kids. The title stems from the offer Molly receives from a detox doctor: If she can stay clean for four days, he'll give her a shot that will keep her from getting high on heroin. If she takes the shot before her system has been cleansed, she could die from its effects. Close and Kunis deliver strong performances but the movie can't escape the dogged quality of the storytelling.  It's difficult not to feel a bit guilty about wanting a fresh charge from an addiction movie, particularly one based on a true story. Still, we feel a bit like Deb feels when Molly shows up at her door after 14 failed attempts at rehab. What? You want us to go down this movie road again?

Tuesday, April 27, 2021

A filmmaker takes another run at a classic


    First a bit of background:
    Alfred Doblin's 1929 novel Berlin Alexanderplatz was made into a movie in 1931. In 1980, the novel became the basis for a 15-hour series on German television. Directed by Rainer Werner Fassbinder, the 1980 version found its way into American art houses (remember those?) where it earned strong reviews and a committed audience. 
    Now comes an updated version from director Burhan Qurbani, a German filmmaker of Afghan descent.
    Clearly, anyone daring enough to update and adapt a highly regarded novel about the last days of the Weimar Republic can't be faulted for lack of ambition.
    But how to do it?
   To create contemporary urgency, Qurbani sets the story in the present, focusing on African immigrants in Berlin while boldly  trumpeting some of the novel's major themes -- sin and redemption, among them.
    At three hours in length, Qurbani's movie presents audiences with a considerable challenge. Not everyone will be willing to buy into Qurbani's efforts to capture something essential about life in Germany today, and those who do will find a movie that's not entirely successful.
    Qurbani tells the story of Francis (Welket Bungue), an immigrant who arrives in Germany after a harrowing boat trip on which his girlfriend drowns. 
    Dislocated  from his native Guinea Bissau, Francis hooks up with Reinhold (Albrecht Schuch), a perverse gangster with a twisted arm and an ominous way of leaning into those with whom he engages, as if he were holding a drink that he might at any moment spill.
   One of literature and cinema's great creeps, Reinhold operates a drug ring that employs immigrants. He works for an uber-gangster named Pums (Joachim Krol). 
    Gradually, Francis sinks into Reinhold's world. A womanizer who says he's sickened by his conquests as soon as he beds them, Reinhold fobs off his "leftovers" on Francis. 
     Qurbani adds an overlay of narration that's delivered by Mieze (Jella Hasse), a prostitute with whom Francis eventually becomes involved. Both Francis and Mieze imagine a future in which they can purify themselves of the corruption in which they're mired. 
     Qurbani infuses many of his images with a febrile undertow and he's not shy about having Mieze ruminate about the movie's themes. Her narration spells them out in what amounts to the dramatic equivalent of boldface.
   Another woman (Annabelle Mandeng) tries to establish a relationship with Francis but that doesn't work out. Mandeng's Eva runs a nightclub, scene of more debauchery and abandon. 
    No one will accuse Qurbani's movie of being uneventful. Before the story ends, Francis is pushed out of a speeding car by Reinhold. He loses an arm. But Reinhold is nothing if not persistent: He won't let go of Francis. He wants Francis to recognize that, at heart, he and Reinhold are the same.
   As with many immigrant stories, acceptance becomes a major issue. Reinhold calls Francis "Franz," suggesting that he has gained a measure of admittance into the larger society. Francis deludes himself, at one point proclaiming that he is Germany, a man with a German girlfriend and a German car.
     Throughout the movie's five chapters, Francis keeps vowing to be good but he continually falls prey to his weaknesses as well as to circumstances. 
     If Qurbani was trying for a mix of seriousness and lurid melodrama, the blend feels off, a plunge from one overheated scene to the next as relationships mutate on the city's margins.
     Yet, the film isn't entirely dismissible. Qurbani gives the material strong undercurrents of desire and cruelty. He obtains  striking performances from Bungue and Schuch and you can practically feel him trying to grab hold of something major.
     It’s almost as if the movie has adopted Francis’ mantra; it keeps promising to be good before collapsing into formless decadence, losing itself and possibly an audience along with it.

Refugees stuck in a strange “Limbo’

    Being stuck in the middle of nowhere strikes me as bad. Being stuck in the middle of nowhere and having no idea whether you'll ever leave is even worse, a state in which life goes into  suspended animation. 
   Such is the backdrop for Limbo, a sometimes sad, sometimes whimsical comedy about refugees who've been sent to a Scottish island to await further disposition.
   Director Ben Sharrock builds his story around Omar (Amir El-Masry), a Syrian refugee who hopes that he'll be granted the political asylum that will allow him to emigrate to London.
    A musician by trade, Omar carries his grandfather's stringed oud in a large case that accompanies him everywhere, a double-edged symbol of both his creative possibilities and an inescapable past. 
    Omar, who refuses to play, lives in a house with an Afghani refugee (Vikash Bhai) and two West Africans (Ola Orebiyi and Kwabena Ansah). Bhai creates the most memorable of the movie’s supporting characters, a strangely optimistic fellow who wants to become Omar's agent. 
    To fight off boredom, the men watch endless episodes of Friends. No reflection on Friends, but at this point, the show isn't exactly on the cutting edge. 
    Omar visits the island's only phone booth to check in with his mother and to receive reports about the older brother who remained in Syria to fight with the rebels.
     Sharrock appreciates the preposterousness of the situation. He begins with a scene in which a group of refugees receives ridiculous lessons in cultural awareness.
     The instructor (Sidse Babett Knudsen) tries to teach the men the difference between appropriate and inappropriate behavior when it comes to women.  Bemused and neglected, these men have little need of instructions that caution them against grabbing a dancer partner's rear end.
    Sharrock wisely refuses to stereotype the island's permanent residents. A local youth (Lewis Gribben) initially seems hostile but, like many others, proves more good-natured than he  seems. The locals can be as confused as the refugees.
    None of this is to say that Sharrock takes the plight of refugees lightly and the movie includes tragic events that don’t quite fit into Sharrock’s deadpan mix -- but that doesn’t keep Limbo from striking unusual notes as it observers its characters' agonizingly thwarted lives.

A cartoon with crushed heads

    I never played the Mortal Kombat game and never will. 
   So there’s no point in my talking about whether the 2021 Mortal Kombat movie offers any of the rewards of the game — if the venerable old pursuit offered any rewards at all. 
    But as I watched Mortal Kombat, it struck me that the movie cannot be viewed as a typical live-action feature. Movies such as this stake their claim in the realm of cartoons. If you find genre identification helpful, you might want to think of Mortal Kombat  as part of the movie stream that can be classified as sub-comic book. 
    The violence is exaggerated beyond traditional cartoon standards and director Simon McQuoid and his cohorts include profanities that you’d never find in the older generation of cartoons. But I don’t know how else to see the crushing violence, faux portentousness of the dialogue, the irrelevance of the plot, or the staggering inflation of the performances as anything but flagrant examples of cartoon caricature.
    Appreciation here requires that you smile (I did) when a good-guy combatant slices off one of the arms of an evil four-armed opponent or when another combatant uses his metal hands to smash the head of an a foe in the motion used squishing unfortunate flies.
    Typical of this inflated genre a supposedly mythic battle rages between good and evil and plenty of characters with exotic names participate: Lord Raiden, Sonya Blade, Scorpion, and Bi-Han, also known as Sub-Zero. 
    As his name inelegantly suggests, Sub-Zero encases his opposition in ice, but these character could be called almost anything. Fire Belcher, for example, remains unclaimed.
    The fights in Mortal Kombat are plentiful if undistinguished. Each of the “good” characters develops a kind of superpower, throwing flaming fire balls or casting laser-like eye beams as the filmmakers accelerate toward a final smackdown.
    But here’s the thingIf you watch the movie on HBO Max, you can tune in at any point. It will be clear which of the battlers are good and which are evil, even if you don’t know who they are or why they're fighting. 
    Not much effort has gone into developing a plot because any such effort would be wasteful. It may be spelled with a “K,” but the point of the movie is combat.
    You would lose nothing by approaching the movie as an overblown  sampler in which the Earth World,  Outworld and heaven knows what other worlds clash, creating a clangor not unlike what we might expect from a drunk beating on kettle drums.
    And, yes, these oppositional forces have been battling for eons. What? You think control of all these worlds could be decided in a single lifetime?
    I know of no criteria by which Mortal Kombat could be judged a good movie. But, then, as I said, Mortal Kombat recuses itself from even being considered in such terms. It’s a cartoon — albeit one that spouts geysers of blood while playing host to hordes of repulsive villains.
    It’s all par for today's movie course, I suppose, but I can’t help wondering whether anyone remembers a time when the cartoons preceded the feature, when they weren't the main event. 
     Not likely, I think. 

Monday, April 26, 2021

One last comment on Oscar


    Re: Anthony Hopkins' surprising best actor win for his work in The Father.
    It's certainly arguable that Hopkins gave the best performance of five nominees that included Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal), Gary Oldman (Mank), Steven Yeun (Minari), and, of course, Chadwick Boseman (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom). 
    In any other year, I might have leaned toward Hopkins myself, although -- to be clear -- I'm not a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
     Both courage and talent are required for an 83-year-old actor to portray a man whose life is vanishing in a haze of dementia.
     On top of that, Hopkins' character was named Anthony, which makes it difficult not to wonder whether the character might have struck Hopkins as a preview of his own coming attractions. 
    The loneliness Hopkins captured by the film's end was nearly unbearable and he carried a bigger burden than Boseman, who was part of a terrific ensemble.
     But this wasn't any other year.
     The voting members of the Academy missed a hell of an opportunity to add a beautiful exclamation point to this year's Oscars.
    Boseman had played heroic black men such as Jackie Robinson (42) and Thurgood Marshall (Marshall) but in Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, he made a major departure, pushing aside previous work, including any resemblance to his ennobled performance as T'Challa in Black Panther. 
    Boseman unleashed deep pain and fury as Levee, a rebellious cornet player with a shocking backstory. 
    Writing in the New York Times, A. O. Scott pointed out that Boseman had given a performance against which all future actors who played Levee would be judged.
    The point: Giving Boseman an Oscar for his work in the film adaptation of August Wilson's play would not have represented any kind of sentimental compromise.
    But even if voters thought Hopkins gave the better of the two performances, they still should have voted for Boseman, who never will have a chance at another Oscar. 
    Hopkins already won an Oscar for his portrayal of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Boseman was slighted for not receiving an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of singer James Brown in Get On Up (2014).
   Before I saw Get On Up, I wouldn't have believed that the actor who played Jackie Robinson could transform himself into James Brown. He did.
    Boseman's death last August wasn't just an untimely passing of a gifted young actor: It was cause for shared grief among moviegoers. We'd never know where Boseman's talents could have lead him.
    An Oscar for Boseman in no way would have slighted any of the other nominees. It should have happened.
   Unfortunately, it didn't.  The voters made a mistake that can't be corrected. I feel bad for Hopkins, a great actor who had nothing to do with the outcome, and for Boseman's fans and family, and that kind of sadness is the last thing I expected to take away from this year's Oscars.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

A dull evening at a train station with Oscar

        In a culminating surpriseAnthony Hopkins won best actor for his performance in The Father at the 93rd Academy Awards
      Hopkins, who wasn't at the ceremonies, succeeded in making  the horrors of dementia all too real but I was disappointed that the Academy failed to honor front-runner Chadwick Boseman (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom). 
      Wasn't Boseman's triumph supposed to provide the show's most emotional moment? Hopkins already won a best-actor Oscar for Silence of the Lambs (1991and has been nominated six times. Boseman, who died last August, won't be getting another chance. He should already have won an Oscar for playing James Brown in 2014's Get on Up.
      Emotion and star power seemed in short supply. A small audience of nominees and significant others gathered in Los Angeles' Union Station, sitting at tables that looked as if they had been borrowed from a Denny's. 
      Instead of feeling intimate, the evening felt diminished. 
      Opened with presence and flair by Regina King, the show quickly began a downhill slide. Under the guidance of filmmaker Steven Soderbergh, the Oscar show was a mostly tasteful dud. 
      Too many of the presenters were asked to go film school rather than old school, delivering the kind of lectures about film that might have been the last thing an already disinterested audience needed to hear.
       There were few highlights. Among them:
       Danial Kaluuya, who won the best supporting actor Oscar for playing Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah, pushed his unsuspecting mother into WTF consternation when he tried to celebrate the miracle of life by reminding the audience that his mother and father had had sex and .... well ... here he was 32-plus years later receiving an Oscar.
        Cynics might point out that the conjugal efforts of most mothers and fathers have produced less "miraculous" results.
        Glenn Close provided Oscar's second most compelling moment. Snubbed again for playing a grandma in Hillbilly Elegy, Close rose and shook her booty to Da Butt,  a pop hit that was part of the sound track for Spike Lee's School Daze (1988).
        Close's wiggly-jiggly turn took place during a game (really) in which several actors were asked to guess the Oscar status of three songs played by the evening's DJ, Questlove.  
         Had the tunes been nominated for an Oscar, ignored entirely, or awarded a gold statue?
        Though silly and superfluous, the game featured comedian Lil Rel Howry, who injected a shot of life into the overall  somnambulance. 
       Given everyone's pandemic fatigue, more humor would have been welcome.
        Close's Oscar snubs, by the way, are now officially at epic levels: This year marks eight nominations without a win.
        Frances McDormand, who won best actress, said her talent was a sword. She unsheathed it when she howled like a  wolf in the acceptance speeches accompanying Nomadland's win as best picture.
        Yuh-Jung Youn's acceptance speech for best supporting actress for Minari charmed the audience. Youn wryly commented that it was nice finally to meet Brad Pitt, who served as one of the movie's executive producers. She thanked her two sons for making her go out and work. 
         The 73-year-old Youn is the first Korean to win an acting Oscar and the only one of this year's nominees to acknowledge that competition among artists is generally pointless.
        Danish director Thomas Vinterberg accepted the award for best international feature for Another Round by noting that his daughter was killed in a car accident shortly after filming began. She was 19 and had been slated to appear in the film.
         Soderbergh took a non-traditional approach that made you wonder whether he understood that the evening is supposed to build toward a climax. The best director award was announced before the show had reached the half way mark. The best picture award preceded the awards for best actor and actress. 
        Soderbergh shuffled the deck in other ways that seemed to serve no purpose aside from creating confusion.
         And who would have thought that we'd miss the orchestra that typically tries to silence those who rattle on in their acceptance speeches. Many of the speeches felt interminable, making me wish that DJ Questlove, who took the place of an orchestra, had dropped the needle.
           Tyler Perry, winner of the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, beseeched viewers to refuse hate. 
           In keeping with the spirit of Perry's request, I'll refrain from saying I hated this year's show. Most of it wasn't worth the expenditure of adrenalin it would take to get that worked up.
          Oh well, if they gave frequent flyer miles for displayed cleavage, the evening's female attendees could have joined forces and acquired a record-setting open-ended ticket.

Friday, April 23, 2021

Half-hearted Oscar predictions for 2021


   Oscar predictions usually are accompanied by speculation about why the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences behaves as it does. It's nearly impossible to write these kinds of stories without generalizing about what might be called "Hollywood-think."
    An example: Nomadland will win best picture because it deals with social issues without proposing any  solution that might divide audiences. 
     I'm going to refrain from Oscar bloviation this year, mostly because it was such an odd year that no one will be surprised if there are real surprises, say Glenn Close — after seven previous nominations — finally winning an Oscar for playing an irascible grandma in Hillbilly Elegy. Perhaps Time, a terrific documentary about the injustices of unreasonably long prison sentences will win best documentary feature.
    But, for me, the truth is simpler: I don't much care who or what wins. 
    I'm encouraged to see a year of diversity in terms of race, ethnicity and women, but if Minari beats Nomadland or somehow The Father were to pull off the upset of upsets and win best-picture, I won't be gnashing my teeth or raising a drink in celebration.
    And, as I usually do, let me offer a reminder. Interest in the Oscars isn’t the same as interest in movies. Diversified or not, the Oscars are an industry affair. Movies remain an unclassifiable product of so many different talents and circumstances that they defy any kind of unified-theory thinking.
    Meanwhile, ask yourself this question: How many of the seven nominees for best picture — Minari, Nomadland, Judas and the Black Messiah, Promising Young Woman, Sound of Metal,  The Father, and Trial of the Chicago Seven  — have you seen?
     And of the ones that you have seen, which are you still thinking or talking about them — assuming you’re lucky enough to have someone with whom to talk during the pandemic. 
     Oscar can have career significance for performers and directors, business and status implications for distributors, and can, though not always, reflect something about the cultural environment from whence the winners sprang. 
      But, no, I'm not really looking forward to the Oscar telecast. I’ll watch more out of sense of duty than anything else, although it will be interesting to see whether the producer of this year’s show, director Steven Soderbergh, will be able to stem the tide of fleeing viewers and waning interest. 
     The 93rd edition of the Oscars, by the way, will be broadcast on ABC Sunday, April 25, beginning at 8 p.m. ET.

So, sans commentary, here are my predictions:
Best Picture: Nomadland
Best Actor: Chadwick Boseman, Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
Best Actress: Francis McDormand, Nomadland
Best Supporting Actor: Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah
Best Supporting Actress: Yuh-jung Youn, Minari
Best Director: Chloe Zhao, Nomadland
Best Adapted Screenplay: Nomadland
Best Original Screenplay: Promising Young Woman
Best Animated Feature: Soul
Best cinematography: Nomadland
Best International Feature: Another Round
Best Documentary: My Octopus Teacher

A final note: 
Winners of The Independent Spirit Awards for 2021 were announced on April 22.
Best Picture: Nomadland
Best Director: Chloe Zhao, Nomadland
Best Female Performance: Carey Mulligan, A Promising Young Woman
Best Male Performance: Riz Ahmed, Sound of Metal

    It’s entirely possible that Oscar will follow the same path. All of the above Independent Spirit winners also have been nominated for Oscars. 
    There are at least two ways to look at the closing gap between so-called “independent spirit” and Hollywood. One is to applaud the Academy’s increased tolerance for movies that break the formula mold. 
    Another (and the one toward which I lean) is to view the narrowing of the gap as alarming, a loss of vital tension between indie and mainstream filmmaking.
    If you’re old enough, you’ll remember a time when film festival programmers didn’t bask in the glow of their own perspicuity at being among the first to board the Oscar train.
    If you think of indie filmmakers as prophets standing outside the gates of the Hollywood palace, condemning the Hollywood kings for what they see as their corruption, you’ll begin to understand what I mean.
    Lines on cultural maps are never easy to draw.  No passports or inoculations are required to cross the borders that separate the counterculture from the mainstream and sometimes movies can live comfortably with dual citizenship, which is true of most of this year’s nominees for best picture.
   But let's remember that creative tension pushes both the X and Y components of the cultural equation, perhaps leading to different outcomes on the other side of the equal sign. 
    The indie world certainly helped increase pressure on the Hollywood establishment to diversify in terms of race, gender, and ethnicity. Without those pressures the so-called mainstream (if there still is such a thing) never would have moved.
    I admit to some fuzziness in my thinking here, so I offer this addendum to my Oscar predictions with no small amount of trepidation.
    Still, I wonder what it means for all of us when the terms culture and counterculture are drained of all meaning, when “independent” and “mainstream” lose all distinction. 
    Who’s left to stand outside the palace gates, screaming that artistic borders must be stretched? What push of creative insistence keeps the whole enterprise from going down the drain? Have the murmuring rumbles of eclecticism replaced the invigorating shock of breakthrough
    And if we even had such a breakthrough who among us would recognize it?

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Survival choices on a voyage to Mars

            Stowaway, the latest space adventure from Netflix launches another flight to Mars, the planet where NASA just flew a robotic helicopter and where Elon Musk wants to start a colony.
               When it comes to Mars, maybe it's time to stop fictionalizing and watching the news. Still, Mars remains a prime destination for movies that need a deep-space destination.
        Operating in what seems to be the relatively near future, Stowaway mercifully avoids any sign of acid-drooling aliens, but slow pacing and a quartet of less-than-fascinating characters keep the movie from turning into the gripping survival story that must have been intended.
   The title tells you this is no ordinary voyage. A construction engineer trapped in the ship’s innards becomes an inadvertent stowaway on a three-person trip to Mars, a problem that can be described as a "mega-oops," to employ the scientific term for such catastrophes.
    When the equipment that cleans the ship's air of carbon dioxide is rendered non-functional,  the crew is threatened by a looming shortage of oxygen. Three people might make it Mars. Four? No way.
   Director Joe Penna plunges a diversified cast (Toni Collette, Anna Kendrick, Daniel Dae Kim, and Shamier Anderson) into the most severe of ethical problems. Must one of them die so that the others can complete the already battered mission?
   The spaceship Hyperion generates its own gravity, which means the actors don’t need to spend the entire movie floating around — not literally at least. But they are left somewhat adrift by a script in which character depth seems in almost as short supply as sunlight.
   Collette portrays Marina, the commander of the flight. Kim plays David, the science officer charged with maintaining algae that will be used to test possibilities for colonization of Mars. Kendrick appears as Zoe, the ship’s cheerful doctor, and Anderson plays the title character,  a man who, as it turns out, is less a stowaway than a victim of a mistake the movie doesn’t adequately explain.
    Most of the characters can be described with a word or two: Marina, responsible. David, realistic. Zoe, humane; and Anderson, unhinged. 
    Not everything computes. Anderson's Michael worries about the needy sister he’s left on Earth for what promises to be two difficult years. But wait. The company that's paying for this trip will take care of the sister -- all expenses paid.
    This raises a question: Why did the screenplay give Michael a sister in the first place? Isn't learning that you'll unexpectedly be leaving everything you know and love for two years enough cause for anxiety.
   Credit Penna and production designer Marco Bittner Rosser with creating a realistic shipboard environment, as well as a convincing EVA episode (of course, there’s one) that shows off the ship’s exterior.
   Though interesting to ponder, the movie’s central issue doesn’t  translate into an exiting one-hour and 56-minute movie,  and Stowaway misses its mark as either brainy sci-fi or a visceral space adventure. 
   Members of the Hyperion crew face a horrible choice. Deciding how to deal with it may be working on the their guts, but that doesn't mean it's working on ours.

A calm splash through choppy waters

      He’s single but wants to be a father. She needs money so that she can go back to school. A $15,000 payday helps her decide to become the surrogate that carries his baby.  The non-couple attend counseling and follow the recommended procedures for surrogacy but have difficulty defining boundaries.
     That’s about all you need to know about the plot of Together Together, a comedy starring Ed Helms and Patti Harrison. Director Nikole Beckwith packs lots of potentially fractious issues into her movie but wisely avoids beating us over the head with any of them.
    Still best known for his work in The Hangover movies, Helms always has struck me as an actor whose great distinction involves looking entirely average, something on the order of the  neighbor who owns all the nifty tools you might want to borrow but never will buy. 
     In this outing, Helms distances himself from brash comedy and creates a real character, a fastidious, determined, sometimes annoying app developer who's determined to become a father.
     Harrison adds the movie's charm, bringing wit to the role of a woman who works as a barista but clearly aspires to something more
    For much of Together Together’s 90-minute running time, Helms and Harrison engage in awkward conversations as they struggle to find the appropriate level of intimacy for a surrogate and an expectant father. 
     Some of the gaps between Helms' Matt and Harrisons' Anna are generational. He's 46; she's a 20something. 
    Matt gets testy when Harrison’s Anna has sex during the early days of the pregnancy. He fusses about her diet as she casually charts what she believes to be a safe course.  You half get the feeling that if Matt could become pregnant, he would.
     Beckwith's screenplay provides a bit of backstory.  Anna hasn't spoken to her parents in years. His parents (Nora Dunn and Fred Melamed) don't quite understand their son's decision, but don’t play much of a role in the story.
   Romance isn't on Beckwith's mind. Matt and Anna get to know each other in halting tentative ways that seem realistic enough for strangers who are sharing an intimate and highly personal experience.
    Matt and Anna share a bond based on mutual appreciation. They become friends, but it’s unclear whether they will or should become anything more. 
     Essentially, a two-hander, the movie adds a few supporting characters, notably a young gay man (Julio Torres), a fellow employee at the cafe where Anna works as a barista. Tig Notaro appears as the therapist with whom Matt and Anna periodically meet. Sufe Bradshaw has a nice turn as the unflappable technician who performs ultrasounds on Anna.
    Generally pleasing, Together Together scores a low-key victory. Matt and Anna may not always know how to relate to one another or to the situation they're in, but there's nothing insincere about them -- a rarity in movies.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Reflections on the death of Bertrand Tavernier

   I’m waiting.
   For the end of the pandemic? Of course. For a society in which every police officer tries to diffuse tension without reaching for a weapon? That, too. 
    Along these lines, I admit that my wishes for the movies have diminished. During more than 40 years of reviewing, hope — that most essential of critical elixirs — has dimmed.
    Of course, good and even great movies still find their way to viewers. Talented, dedicated people continue to reinvigorate the movies. But those of us who once believed in the primacy and unparalleled intimacy of this form of artistry and storytelling, who applauded the rise of the great national cinemas, and who continually discovered directors whose work we couldn’t wait to see and digest, well ... times just ain’t what they used to be.
    The reasons for all of this have been made clear elsewhere and I needn’t elaborate them here, but I can’t help but think that missing the excitement movies once generated isn’t simply a matter of old-fart nostalgia for the idealized enthusiasms of youth. 
     About that youth: The movies had always been a preoccupation for many of us, but in the late 1960s and throughout much of the 1970s, they seemed to be talking in a new way, telling us that the way we saw the world wasn't entirely crazy. We felt that something almost magical had happened; suddenly, the movies belonged to us -- or at least we thought they did.
    We also felt as if we were helping to create "cinema culture" -- by appreciating it, thinking about it, reading about it, arguing about it, and  creating a language of common references. And, yes, that culture included lots of junk, although we thought we better than to conflate enjoyable junk with the best the movies had to offer.
    In short, we went to the movies -- at least once a week and sometimes more if we could play hooky from whatever jobs we happened to have by weaseling an extra hour for lunch.
    In a time defined by deracination and fragmentation of nearly everything, it has become almost impossible even to find a suitable definition for the word “culture.” 
    Talking about “cinema culture,” for example, might be more a wish than a reality. 
    Somewhere in your work life, you’ve probably encountered discussions of “corporate culture.” Yes, we know what it means, but — at the same time — the notion that business values and workplace standards can be thought of as “culture,” tends to push the word into the world of money, success, group behavior and ambition.
    All of this brings me to the recent death last month of Bertrand Tavernier, 79, the French director and irreplaceable champion of film history, not only saddened me but left me feeling that the ranks of those who care about and protect film culture have suffered an irreparable loss. 
   It will be more difficult now to hope.
   One of my treasured experiences was listening to Tavernier talk about the films of the pioneering Lumiere brothers. Tavernier persuasively argued that the Lumiere films (the 1896 on-coming train that supposedly shocked viewers out of their seats, for example) were not simply the result of pointing a camera and shooting “ordinary” life. They were, Tavernier argued,  considered constructions of the screen’s earliest film narratives.
   Tavernier began as a film critic. He had an enviably empathic yet sharp view of the cinema. I’ll never know as much as he did. I say this less as an admission of the considerable limits of my knowledge than as a tribute to his. 
   Many years ago, I saw Tavernier’s A Sunday in the Country (1984) at the Telluride Film Festival. Like many of Tavernier’s films, it was neither shockingly adventurous nor norm shattering. Tavernier told a story about an artist gathering with his family on a picturesque Sunday while also assaying family relationships on the eve of World War I. 
   No, it wasn’t a groundbreaking movie, but it was so beautifully realized that when it concluded, I turned to the person next to me, hoping to find a moment of shared affirmation. She was an older woman who had, as I remember, been married to a cinematographer. 
   We exchanged a look of acknowledgement: We had shared something neither of us ever would forget, deep satisfaction and regard for a movie. 
    Nothing further needed to be said. The moment was perfect. Words might have destroyed its exquisite delicacy. I never saw that woman again.
     I interviewed him twice, heard him speak on several occasions, and admired his work and his mind, but I can't say I knew Tavernier. I did know that he loved and lived movies.
     There are all kinds of movie love. I’m sure you know people who insist on telling you how much they love movies. They do, of course. Taking them to task for not loving the way you do is bit like criticizing a friend's choice of a spouse, a display of blatantly poor taste.
     But for me, Tavernier serves as a model of real movie love, a love that finds its expression by situating itself in the evolving chain of visual storytelling, a love that made Tavernier the kind of filmmaker about whom one often could say his work was "beautifully realized."
      Tavernier had many accomplishments. I wish I had been able to tell him that among them -- and by no means among the most significant -- was teaching me something about what it means to find satisfaction in a movie and how to appreciate the rare and beautiful moment in which it occurs.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Freeman wasted in a dismal thriller


  Dismal and misbegotten, Vanquish begins as if it wants to tell the story of a corrupt former police commissioner (Morgan Freeman) who resides in an alarmingly modern home and who must live out his remaining days in a wheelchair as the result of a shooting.
    But writer/director George Gallo has other things in mind. As it turns out, the movie's most important character is played by Ruby Rose.  She's Victoria, a former assassin who Freeman's Damon helped to get out of jail.
    Not surprisingly, Victoria wants to begin a steadier, less-lethal life, mostly for the sake of her young daughter.
   Damon insists that before Victoria can start anew, she must “hit” a series of targets. So, he kidnaps her daughter, refusing to release the child until Victoria completes her tasks.
    Damon uses body cameras to watch Victoria at work. He also presides over a ring of corrupt police officers who have enriched him and themselves.
    In style and atmospherics, Vanquish tries be sleek, modern, and wearily cynical, an ode to a female warrior who uses her foul trade to free herself from it.   
     But forget all that, Vanquish is what a late acquaintance who happened to be a highly skilled collector used for items he rejected.
    "Crapola,'' he would say, a word not recognized in many cinema-study course, but still ... 
    Anyway, let’s shift gears: 
    Years ago, Pauline Kael wondered whether Freeman hadn’t become American’s greatest actor.   
   Beginning with his appearance as a New York pimp in Street Smart (1987), it was clear that Freeman had a rare gift for mercurial mood shifts, as well as a charismatic presence that could be used to suggest either imminent danger or comforting consolation.
   His deep, mellow voice could convey trust and reliability in commercials and also was put to use in Driving Miss Daisy (let’s skip the discussion about the retrograde nature of the material) and even in Million Dollar Baby, a movie that earned him a best supporting actor Oscar.
   Every actor's career is a mixture of choice, chance and any number of other variables over which the actor has little or no control. 
    At 83, Freeman deserves a signature role that puts his talent to full use, that lets him soar. And we need it as much as he does, which is another way of saying the movies need it, too.
   Perhaps Hate to See You Go, a movie about an aging blues musician that IMDb lists as in pre-production, will give Freeman that role, one that long will be remembered after Vanquish has disappeared.

Celebrating the work of an American original


     It's nothing short of awe-inspiring to realize that Bill Traylor, who died in 1949 at the age of 95, was born in enslavement and, during the course of his life, made use of the materials around him to establish himself as an important American artist.
    Traylor mostly worked as a share cropper but he also drew, developing a unique style that influenced many of the artists who would follow in his wake -- even, in my estimation, the now-venerated Jean-Michel Basquiat.
    A white artist names Charles Shannon "discovered' Traylor in 1939 when he saw him creating his art on a Montgomery, Ala. street, often drawing on pieces of cardboard. 
    But recognition for Traylor occurred mostly after he passed away, and in 2018, the Smithsonian honored Traylor with a major retrospective.  
     Director Jeffrey Wolf introduces us to Traylor's deceptively simple style, to the interpretive flashes that distinguish his work and to its historical importance as one man's chronicle of life in the Jim Crow South.
    Interviews abound -- talks with Traylor's grandchildren among them. But Wolf also allows Traylor's work to speak for itself.
    Writing in The New Yorker in 2018, Peter Schjedahal offered this appraisal: "Traylor's style has about it both something very old, like prehistoric cave paintings, and something spanking new. Songlike rhythms, evoking the time's jazz and blues, and a feel for scale, in how forms relate to the space that contains them, give the majestic presence to even the smallest of images. Taylor's pictures stamp themselves on your eye and mind."
    Wolf's documentary allows that stamping to continue, doing justice to both Traylor's life and his art, which --at least at some junctures -- became indistinguishable.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Catching Up: 'Slalom' and 'City of Lies'

Considering the onslaught of new releases in theaters and on streaming outlets, it's almost impossible to keep up. So, from time-to-time, I'll be running a feature called Catching Up. In it, I'll take a look at movies that I didn't review at the time of their release.

Lyz (Noee Abita) is a 15-year-old who's training to be a competitive skier. To advance her career, she attends a rigorous training facility in the French Alps. Lyz quickly develops under the tutelage of the school's ski instructor (Jeremie Renier). Director Charlene Favier carefully depicts the relationship between Lyz and a tough trainer who believes Lyz has championship potential. Renier's Fred takes a keen interest in Lyz's physical attributes: everything from weight to menstrual cycles. It's part of what he deems necessary to develop a high-caliber skier, and he goes about his work with business-like efficiency. Lyz's confidence grows but her relationship with Fred shifts. His interest in her eventually becomes sexual, allowing Favier to explore the dynamics of a relationship based partly on power.  The older Fred draws young Lyz into his world, inviting her to stay at his quarters and using the word "we" when he refers to her achievements. Favier's dizzying camera follows Lyz through her event -- the slalom -- but the heart of the story lies in showing how a relationship between student and mentor can be perverted. Credit Abita with a performance that embodies Lyz’s ambition, as well as her confusion when a coach betrays her trust.

City of Lies

Johnny Depp and Forest Whitaker headline City of Lies, a police procedural that takes yet another look at the murders of rap artist Christopher Wallace (Notorious B.I.G.) and Tupac Shakur. The movie has been around since 2018 and just now is finding its way into release. Working form a book by journalist Randall Sullivan, director Brad Furman tells a story about corruption and cover-up in the Los Angeles Police Department. Depp portrays Russell Poole, a former detective who can't abandon his obsession with Wallace's murder. Whitaker plays the journalist who prods Poole to share his story, which Theo movie presents in sometimes confusing fashion. Poole finds himself at odds with the LAPD because he believes corrupt members of the department were involved in Wallace's murder. Much of the dialogue between Depp and Whitaker amounts to exposition -- albeit delivered in the language of the streets. Furman begins the story when a white undercover cop (Shea Whigham) shoots a man, later identified as an undercover cop,   during a road rage incident.  All of this takes place against a backdrop tainted by the Rodney King beating and the LAPD’s Rampart scandal. Whitaker does what he can to create a character of interest opposite Depp's equally solid portrayal of a loner whose path to the truth has been blocked at nearly every turn. Overall, City of Lies seems more intent on wallowing in LA grit than in finding a powerful through-line for its two stars and the large cast that surrounds them.