Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Dinklage gives 'Cyrano' wit, heart, and bite

   Some characters never vanish. Consider Cyrano de Bergerac. The witty, eloquent outsider has been pining for Roxanne  since Edmond Rostand's play debuted in 1897. 
   Feelings of inadequacy keep Cyrano from confessing his love for Roxanne. Instead, he tries to win her for Christian, a handsome soldier who lacks the necessary poetic skills for inspired wooing. Cyrano writes beautiful letters for Christian.
    A variety of versions of Rostand’s play have made it to the screen. Steve Martin appeared in Roxanne (1987) and Gerard Depardieu proved memorable in Cyrano de Bergerac, a 1990 French version. A 1950 entry starring Jose Ferrer and Mala Powers -- the first one I saw -- occasionally turns up on TV.
     Typically,  Cyrano believes that his large nose excludes him from harvesting the fruits of love.  He lives in a world in which appearances matter.
    In director Joe Wright’s addition to the de Bergerac canon, Peter Dinklage makes a smart, cocky Cyrano who believes that his diminutive stature (not his nose) overrules his consummate wit and intelligence -- not to mention his skill with a sword.
      Cyrano, therefore, demurs when it comes to courting the beautiful, brilliant Roxanne (Haley Bennett) -- albeit not without a measure of resentment.    
       The first requirement of  any production of Cyrano: The actor who plays Cyrano must be good. 
     Dinklage proves a worthy Cyrano. An opening scene in which Cyrano banishes a bad actor from the stage brims with gusto and imagination, giving Dinklage the entrance the character deserves.
     Not surprisingly, Wright hasn't neglected the movie's looks. Period trappings are gorgeously rendered and cinematographer  Seamus McGarvey floods the screen with color. 
       All good, but Cyrano is also a musical based on a stage production written by Erica Schmidt, who also wrote the screenplay for the movie.
       Yes, a musical. I didn't mention it earlier because I've hardly thought about the music since I saw the movie.
       The tunes by Bryce and Aaron Dessner (lyrics by Matt Berninger and Carin Besser) can feel almost prosaic, unlike what we might expect to hear in 17th Century France. Perhaps this is because the lyrics are tailored for actors who aren't all singers. Maybe the music had more impact when performed live on stage.
     Whatever the case, the actors sketch their characters with ease and flair. It's the performances not the music that stick.
     Bennett creates a vibrant Roxanne,  a woman of beauty and wit. Ben Mendelsohn earns his villainous stripes as the conniving Duke De Guiche. Kelvin Harrison Jr. winningly portrays a clueless, handsome, and, ultimately, noble Christian.
    Bashir Salahuddin plays Cyrano's friend and confidant, a comrade who appreciates Cyrano's gifts.
     Like its main character, the story endures. It's not for nothing that it has been re-told so many times. Even with its farcical moments and darker turns, Cyrano always retains some charm. 
     So, if you’re looking for a single reason to see Cyrano, try this: Dinklage's portrayal -- angry, rueful, and sad -- is bound to earn him a well-deserved Oscar nomination. 
     The music may not burn its way into memory, but Dinklage gives Cyrano a taste of bitterness that stings.

Friday, December 24, 2021

My 10 best movies of 2021

     Year-end lists never have been of much interest to me. It would take a brave critic to return to a decade’s worth of such lists and see how many of those 100 movies still occupy a special place in memory.
      The Covid years (no, I never thought I’d be talking about Covid in plural years) have been even stranger than usual because it hasn’t always been possible to keep up with a flood of streaming opportunities. 
       Anyway, I’m going to make quick work of this year’s list. I think it’s best for readers to use lists as springboards for making their own judgments or as a guide to catching up with movies they may have missed.
       So, here’s my list. Feel free to contribute your own in the comments section.

1. Power of the Dog
The more you think about director Jane Campion's The Power of the Dog the less you may want to call it a Western. Set in Montana in 1925, the movie boasts big vistas, horses, cattle, and grit. But Campion upends expectations with a story steeped in mysterious menace. She also obtains remarkable performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Jesse Plemons, Kodi Smit-McPhee, and Kirsten Dunst. It's possible and also correct to view Power of the Dog as a mediation on western myths fostered by relentless machismo but the forces at work seem deeper and more primal — so does the filmmaking.

2. Drive My Car
Sometimes, the shape of a life can be determined by something that goes unsaid or issues that remain confronted. It's not easy to write a single sentence that captures the complexity of director Ryusuke Hamaguchi's story about a theater director who's staging a production of Uncle Vanya in Hiroshima. Themes of grief, avoidance and regret emerge as Hamaguchi allows the movie's purposes and ideas gradually to emerge. I love movies in which the meaning of events change and expand as the story progresses. Drive My Car is that kind of experience. It doesn’t explain; it unwinds.

3. Summer of Soul
This documentary takes place during the summer of 1969 in Harlem and features a series of concerts that became known as the Black Woodstock. If you were alive when much of this music emerged from artists as diverse as Stevie Wonder, Sly Stone and Mahalia Jackson, the movie likely will blow summer breezes of memory through your mind, much of it with an irresistible beat. Musician Quest Love directs this invaluable tribute to a cultural moment full of optimism, outrage, and, yes, joy.

4. Passing

Rebecca Hall makes her directorial debut with an adaptation of a novel set in the 1920s. Two childhood friends (Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga) meet in Manhattan. One of them has been passing as white. Hall’s black-and-white imagery tightly frames a story that deals with racism and also with Harlem's cultural life among middle-class Blacks. Anchored by two fine performances and a strong supporting cast, Passing deals offers some of the year's most beautifully realized performances. Volatile issues are contained by tightly focused images: The movie feels both concentrated and deep.

5. Azor

A Swiss banker and his wife travel to Argentina in 1980. The bank's previous man in Argentina mysteriously vanished. Now, the banker wants to reassure the bank's clients that their money is safe -- which also means that their well-heeled way of living can be sustained. A terrific examination of the way a political climate of menace impacts even those living in a gated, affluent world. You very likely won't see the movie's ending coming as director Andreas Fontana deals subtly but provocatively with ethical issues.

6. The Lost Daughter

Olivia Colman
gives a compelling performance as an older professor 
recalling her conflicted life as a mother. Jessie Buckley energizes the movie as the younger version of Colman's character, a woman who feels most alive in work, sex, and other assertions of independence. Still, she can't shake her guilt about what she regards as her maternal failings. Maggie Gyllenhaal makes her directorial debut with this brave adaptation of an Elena Ferrante novel. 

7. The Green Knight

Don't look for knights in shining armor in director David Lowery's story about severe challenges faced by Gawain (Dev Patel), who aspires to become part of King Arthur’s retinue. The catch: Whatever he does to the Green Knight, a character we meet early on, will happen to him a year later. Effectively, Gawain chases his own fate. Scene-by-scene Green Knight becomes increasingly strange. Lowry's eerie atmospherics tend to wash away the movie's confusions as Lowry moves toward a severe and bracing conclusion.

8. West Side Story
I was a West Side Story skeptic. I saw no reason why Steven Spielberg or anyone else for that matter would want to have another go at a 1961 movie that was honored in its day. Working with playwright Tony Kushner, Spielberg updates the story in mostly in effective ways and West Side story emerges as a fresh, visually dynamic version of a classic musical that bowed on Broadway in 1957. The New York Philharmonic almost turns Leonard Bernstein’s great score into another character. The movie didn’t impress at the box office and has been the subject of controversy about stereotyping — but over time, I think West Side Story will hold up as a fine example of a Broadway musical transferred to the screen by one of our most talented filmmakers.

9. Cruella

Emma Thompson and Emma Stone create sharply drawn characters in a lavishly designed production that boasts witty costumes and plenty of flair. Director Craig Gillespie gives the movie a fashion-world insiders' kick that the 1961 animated version lacked. Gillespie honors Disney's past but takes the story of 1961's 101 Dalmatians to entertaining new levels. Who’d have though it possible? Another movie about fashionistas that’s dressed for fun.

10. Parallel Mothers

Director Pedro Almodovar focuses on two women (Penelope Cruz and Milena Smit) who, by chance, become roommates in a hospital maternity wing. Almodovar employs a major contrivance that, for an instant, makes us fear the movie will follow a formulaic path. If you know Almodovar's work, there's no reason to worry. Rather than yielding to the demands of contrived comedy, Almodovar tells a serious story about the meaning of motherhood. He also allows the story to touch on the generational perils of forgetting past horrors.

Honorable mentions: CODA, Pig, Wife of a Spy, Old Henry, and The Tragedy of Macbeth

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

A stark and powerful 'Macbeth'


   The Tragedy of Macbeth is a film from a Coen brother.
    I put it that way because director Joel Coen takes on  Shakespeare with The Tragedy of Macbeth and, yes, it feels weird to talk about a film with the name Coen attached without following with the word "brothers."
    The result of Joel Coen's solo effort is visually striking, intense, and bursting with fury.
     Employing an old-time aspect ratio and cutting through dark swaths with paths of white light, Coen simplifies the movie’s environment while simultaneously amping up its power.
     He opts for minimal but suggestive design. A castle still feels like a castle — albeit one you might find in an Ingmar Bergman film.
     I begin there because what stayed with me about Coen’s movie was its atmosphere and visual poetry, the way Coen married Shakespeare and back-and-white imagery of cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel.
    Coen and his team allow Macbeth to strike its own pose. And I don't mean "pose" in a pejorative sense, I mean it the sense of a movie that has the power of a starkly drawn silhouette.
    Coen isn’t trying to make Macbeth feel “real;” he bends cinematic convention to allow Shakespeare’s story and language a place where tragedy gathers force.
    A grizzled Denzel Washington provides the centerpiece of the drama. Washington doesn’t underline the play's great monologues  ("Tomorrow, tomorrow, and tomorrow"). You won’t catch him orating; he delivers the dialogue as if it were his own speech.
    Washington's performance brims with emotional undercurrents, perhaps driven by the guilt that accrues to Macbeth as a result of killing his king (Brendan Gleeson) and then slaughtering rivals and their families. He even turns on his best friend and ally Banquo, a fine Bertie Carvel.
    Lady Macbeth (Frances McDormand) encourages Macbeth in his murderous ways, prompted by the king’s announcement that he plans to make his son Malcolm (Harry Melling) his successor. 
    Washington makes Macbeth's attitude less a matter of naked ambition than of reaction to a slight: Macbeth, who looks ready for an AARP membership, fought tirelessly for the king and never got his proper reward. If his anger has a modern equivalent, it's getting passed over for a promotion someone thought he had earned.
    All the actors rise to the occasion. Corey Hawkins makes a fine Macduff, perhaps the best and most human of the characters.
    Coen does a wonderful job with a bizarre and unforgettable performance from Kathryn Hunter as the witch who offers her prediction: Macbeth will be Thane of Cawdor and then king. Coen suggests the presence of Shakespeare's three witches by using a reflecting pool and adding ominous circling crows. 
   Hunter's performance is haunting enough to take the place of a half dozen witches, had Shakespeare wanted to increase their number.
   Coen’s Macbeth seldom finds itself idling and, thanks to a pared-down text, moves quickly toward a conclusion in which he makes it clear that, for him, Macbeth speaks loudly about dark forces that can be unleashed but seldom controlled.  
   This Macbeth screams when it needs to scream.

A writer's journey begins at a bar


    Some thoughts after watching The Tender Bar, the big-screen adaptation of JR Moehringer's 2005 memoir about growing up in Manhasset, NY: I'll get to a review of the movie in a bit, but I left s preview screening with two thoughts I couldn’t shake.
   First, Ben Affleck is getting better and better as an actor. He was terrific as the flamboyant Pierre d'Alencon in The Last Duel and equally good as a beer-soaked alcoholic in The Way Back, the story of a high school basketball coach wobbling toward redemption.
   In The Tender Bar, Affleck scores again as Uncle Charlie, a bartender who schools his nephew JR, the story's ostensible main character, in a variety of arts -- thinking, reading, drinking, and the behavior of men.
   A bachelor and barroom philosopher, Uncle Charle proves vital to young JR's survival -- and also to the movie's.
    Observation two: I wish I could say that George Clooney was getting more interesting as a director.
   Clooney started with the brilliant Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) and followed with the solid Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) but his Midnight Sky (2020) foundered (at least in my view) and The Tender Bar, with a screenplay by William Monahan (The Departed), doesn’t meet expectations, either.
  Moehringer, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist, wrote a well-received memoir but the movie feels cut from pieces of variable interest. 
   Played by Daniel Ranieri as a nine-year-old boy and as a young man by Tye Sheridan, JR wants to be a writer but the movie never persuades us that we should care whether he achieves his goal. 
  It's not JR's dream that made his book enjoyable; it was his practice of the writer's art, which he brought into play when dealing with the bar -- named the Dickens. Uncle Charlie presided over the Dickens and its  cast of oddball characters who gathered for fun, solace, and moments of commemoration.
   On screen, the story becomes a collection of episodes joined by several themes: The absentee father, the devoted Mom, and JR's initiation into the world of love. None of these land with much force.
   JR's biological father (Max Martini) is barely a presence in his life. He's a New York disc jockey who JR's family calls "The Voice." Abusive and prone to drink, he's hated by JR's mom (a warm Lily Rabe). 
    Rabe's Dorothy has one dream for young JR. He'll attend either Harvard or Yale. He's going to get a first-rate education.
    JR, by the way, attends Yale, where -- in the movie version -- he tells friends that he wants to be a writer. He also meets a young woman (Briana Middleton), a biracial student whose snooty architect parents make it clear they have little use for someone of JR's low breeding.
   The movie works overtime trying to establish JR's working-class bona fides; he may be a Yalie, but he's more a graduate of the bar and of his unruly family than of the prestigious university. 
   Christopher Lloyd portrays JR's grandfather, a grump who comes through for JR when it counts.
   The picture loses focus as JR steps into the "real" world, landing a job as a copy boy at the New York Times and trying to figure out next steps.
    Sheridan may be stuck with a thankless job. If JR entertained as a writer; Sheridan can't entertain by telling us he wants to be a writer.
   The story weakens whenever Uncle Charlie isn't around and feels far more comfortable with scenes in the bar than anywhere else.
   Enough. The Tender Bar generates neither antagonism nor deep affection. Put another way: If you haven’t read the book, you’d do well to start there.

Friday, December 17, 2021

Blood, sweat -- but no tears for her


   If you believe that the best and brightest of today's youth have been trained for ruthless competition in a world of diminishing resources, The Novice may have a particular resonance for you. 
   But even if you don't take the movie as a statement about the corrosive effect of competition on young people, you'll find a compelling movie set in an environment unfamiliar to most of us, competitive collegiate rowing.
   Isabelle Fuhrman plays Alex Dall, a freshman at what seems to be a fine university. But simply getting a first-rate education isn't enough for Dall.
   Like a person possessed, she's compelled to fling herself against walls. She's majoring in physics, which she calls her "worst" subject. She joins the rowing team with no prior experience being part of a crew. 
    First-time director Lauren Hadaway makes it clear that Dall refuses to accept limits. It's as if a constant loop spins in her restless mind, "I will not be stopped. I will not be stopped."  
    If Dall lacks a natural gift for something, she'll push through. She'll outwork everyone else. And she'll punish herself when she falls short of her expectations. 
    Along with other young rowers, she works out on rowing machines, soaking herself in sweat as she resists her body's call for mercy.
    Hadaway avoids the cliches that could have toppled the movie. She doesn't vilify Dall's coaches. Jonathan Cherry and Kate Drummond play the adults who train the team and set standards, but they also see Dall heading toward an edge. 
They know that making the varsity as a freshman seems like everything to Dall but that it's really a sliver of a life still very much in the making.
    Hadaway emphasizes the brutal efforts of Dall's training regimen and also captures the quiet of early-morning sessions of solo rowing. Dall must be at the boathouse at 5:30 a.m. if she wants to practice on her own.
   The Novice mostly focuses on Dall but also shows a relationship Dall begins with her physics teaching assistant (Dilone). Dilone's Dani can't break through Dall's grueling determination. 
    Fuhrman's uncompromising performance leaves you wrung out. Dall's the kid for whom the will to succeed looks like the nightmare of a hopeless obsessive to everyone else. An unwavering expression of  cinematic commitment, The Novice takes us inside Dall's madly driven life and doesn't look away.

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Theater, life -- and the things not said

     Movies can be driven as much by what's not said as by the words characters speak. That's true of Drive My Car, a complex, challenging movie from Japanese director Ryusuke Hamaguchi.
    Hamaguchi focuses on an actor (Hidetoshi Nishijima) who's asked to direct a production of Uncle Vanya in which the actors don't speak the same languages or don't speak at all.  
    One actress signs her role. The play is presented with supertitles but the actors -- many speaking different languages -- must somehow find their way to unity on stage.
     Before all that, we meet Nishijima's Yusuke who’s living with his wife Oto  (Reika Kirishima). Oto writes for television. The couple seems happy, two well-matched artists. 
    Oto, we learn, has an unusual habit: She tells Yusuke stories that occur to her at the moment of climax during love making. Oto  promptly forgets the stories but Yusuke remembers them.
    Oto often develops screenplays from what Yusuke tells her about her orgasmic outbursts.
   Working from a novel by Haruki Murakami, Hamaguchi shows the couple's artistic dependency. They complete one another -- or so it seems. 
   For her part, Oto records dialogue from plays on which Yusuke is working. He listens to them in his vintage red Saab. He drives and contemplates how to approach his work. Her voice opens his imagination.
   Initially, it may seem as if Hamaguchi wants to tell another story about a marriage that hits a rough spot. When Yusuke returns home early from a trip that was canceled, he finds Oto making love to another man. 
    He quietly closes the door and leaves, a retreat that goes a long way toward defining his approach to life's messier moments.
    Much of the movie centers on the production of Uncle Vanya that Yusuke rehearses at a cultural center in Hiroshima. A driver (Toko Miura) chauffeurs him in to rehearsals in his own car -- after she overcomes his initial objections. 
   It's not easy for Yusuke to allow someone else drive his car; his life seems to be based on sustaining a balance that he works hard to preserve. In the isolated quiet of the car, he can think. 
   Intrigue among the cast develops -- but without much drum-beating. One of the actors (Masaki Okada) made his mark in TV but lost career momentum after a personal disgrace. Yusuke casts Okada's 's Koji as Vanya, a role he's too young to play. Could it be a act of spite?
  You'll know why I ask this question when you see the movie. Know, though, that Koji once acted in one of Oto's productions. He has both fondness and respect for her, probably more.
   Drive My Car expands as we watch, creating an intriguing dynamic between Chekhov's play and Yusuku's unfolding story. Events we thought we understood take on new meanings as the film unwinds and the characters (and, of course, the actors who play them) take us way beyond surface impressions.
   Three hours long, Drive My Car proves that an emotionally rich movie needn't hurry or slam us over the head. It's a masterly creation from a director who knows how to plumb the depths of his characters' broken hearts.

A slow and overlong 'Nightmare Alley'

     It’s no surprise that director Guillermo del Toro has remade Nightmare Alley,  a 1947 noir movie starring Tyrone Power in a role intended to challenge the actor's glamor-boy image. 
     The material, from a 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham,  seems well-suited for Guillermo (Pan's Labyrinth and The Shape of Water), a director who often draws in dark, bizarre strokes.
     Beginning in the world of low-rent carnivals,  the 1947 movie delved into the world of fraud and exploitation, spreading its story across two environments, one seedy, the other more decorous. The leap suggested that greed and ambition knew no borders.
    More than 70 years later, del Toro has taken the original 111-minute movie and turned it into a 140-minute trip into sideshow culture.
    The difference in length can be taken as emblematic of the way that cult or noir creations have muscled their way into the mainstream. Black-and-white photography turns to color in the hands of cinematographer Dan Lausten, and following his usual bent, del Toro creates images that are both detailed and bizarre.
    De Toro gives his movies their own worlds and Nightmare Alley is no exception -- which is not to say that the movie can be taken as an unalloyed success. More on that later.
    The story twists its way through a variety of complications. Lost and on the run, Stan Carlisle (BradleyCooper) stumbles into a carnival presided over by Clem Hoatley (Willem Dafoe). Hoatley specializes in displaying deformed fetuses he preserves in alcohol. His favorite: a three-eyed baby he calls Enoch. 
     Stan learns the carnival trade when he meets Pete Krumbein (David Strathairn) and his wife Zeena (Toni Collette). Zeena quickly seduces Stan, who immediately senses opportunity in a special code Pete devised to create the illusion of mind-reading.
     Money and fame, the twin engines of American dreaming, loom.
     Needing a helpmate for his career, Stan takes up with Molly (Rooney Mara), a carnival worker with a grotesque occupation. She makes her living surviving electrocutions as part of the carnival’s sideshow repertoire.  
     Mary falls for Stan’s charms and the two head for Chicago. Stan ignores the warnings of strongman Bruno (Ron Perlman) who sees himself as Mary's protector. Bruno threatens harm should Mary be hurt.
     Unfazed, Stan trades his carney clothes for a tuxedo; he headlines a popular nightclub act as a premier mentalist.
    One of the movie’s running themes centers sin and hellfire or their metaphoric equivalents as found in 1930s America. 
     Consider “the Geek,” the most desperate of souls, a pitiful fellow who carnie bosses steer into the lowliest of employments, hooking them with drink and addictive drugs. A filthy caged man, the Geek bites the heads off live chickens, an act shown by del Toro but never seen in the original
    The Geek becomes a symbol of condemnation; he represents the hideous fate of sinners and Stan provides plenty of reason for us to consider him a sinner.
    In Chicago, the movie adopts a new look, displaying fabulous Art Deco interiors and upscale hotel rooms where Stan and Mary are living the good life. It also begins to drag — albeit with a bright spot.
    Stan encounters Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett), a sophisticated Chicago therapist who tapes her sessions with her clients. Stand suggests a partnership in which the tapes will help him bilk the wealthy, notably a rich man (Richard Jenkins) who’s guilt-ridden about the death of his wife.
    Note: Is there anything Blanchett can’t do. She makes a great femme fatale.
    You needn’t be a mind reader to see where all of this is headed, but the film has less to do with story than with ambiance, seedy carnival life juxtaposed against the sleek world to which Stan aspires. Cooper makes it clear that Stan's ambition quickly can slide into desperation.
    Del Toro’s screenplay gives Stan a motivational backstory but it allows scenes to play out to the point where impatience sets in. 
    Now, I’m going to get to the hub of things, belatedly I suppose, probably because I respect del Toro's talent and commitment to cinema. 
   Nightmare Alley limps its way through a story that needed to move quickly, vanquishing the opportunity for second thoughts or over-evaluation.
    At times, del Toro’s images seem frozen in their dark beauty. Del Toro has made a noir movie in which ugliness is aestheticized. A carnival becomes a lurid dreamscape and the Deco interiors of Chicago are airless, so highly designed they can feel sterile.
     Slow and dawn-out, Del Toro's version sometimes suffocates under the director's lavish treatment. Nightmare Alley is less a neo-noir outing than a brilliant display of lighting and production design. 
    Noir had the high-contrast sheen of lurid pulp. Del Toro’s version inflates the atmosphere and deflates the movie as a result. By the end, he almost turns Nightmare Alley into something I wouldn't have thought possible, noir as coffee-table book.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

A haunting, complex look at motherhood


    Count me among those who consider Olivia Colman indispensable.
    Colman has played Queen Elizabeth in The Crown and has taken on a variety of other characters in a growing body of work.
    If you can think of a time when Colman’s performance missed the mark, leave a comment. I can’t.
    Colman stars in The Lost Daughter, a film in which actress Maggie Gyllenhaal makes her directorial debut.
    Adapted from a novel by Elena Ferrante — best known for My Brilliant Friend — Lost Daughter establishes itself as a fearless exploration of motherhood with all its deep affections and charged resentments.
   Colman’s performance skillfully embodies the movie's themes without ever asking for sympathy. She creates a character who can be chilly and difficult, an academic capable of insight and cruelty.
   Slowly and in carefully calibrated fashion, Gyllenhaal moves through the story — although not without leaving disturbing traces of an irresolvable conflict. The Lost Daughter isn’t about resolving conflict; it’s about learning to live with it — or not.
    We soon discover that Leda has taken what appears to be a working vacation. She’s gone to a small Italian beach town, ostensibly to concentrate on her work.
    Inevitably, she meets other tourists, as well as a handyman (Ed Harris) and the local bartender (Paul Mescal). 
    An uneasy relationship develops between Leda and Nina (Dakota Johnson), a wife and mother who has traveled to Italy with a small family group from Queens, New York. Nina begins to fixate on Leda as a possible role model.
    Leda shows the ferocity of her independence when, on the beach, she denies a request by Nina to move her beach chair so that her family can spread out a bit. Leda's refusal intrigues Nina, who’s having her own issues with the demands of motherhood.
     At one point, Nina’s young daughter is lost along with her favorite doll. Leda finds the girl, calming the girl’s frantic mother. Leda also finds the doll, which becomes the centerpiece of a revealing and provocative turn.
     Leda's most important relationship may be one she can’t dodge, the connection to her youthful self. Leda’s younger days are seen in flashbacks in which an impressive Jessie Buckley portrays Leda as a young mother who’s constantly being distracted by two demanding daughters. She can't get any work done at home.
   In these flashbacks, Gyllenhaal presents a small but telling portrait of a marriage under stress. Leda’s husband (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) tends to his own career and disappoints his wife in bed.
   At an academic conference, Leda begins an affair with a colleague (Peter Sarsgaard) who greatly admires her ability to translate poetry.
   Work, independence, and sex provide Leda with much-needed fulfillment— but also leave her grappling with guilt about maternal insufficiencies. She reveals herself when she tells Nina that children can be a “crushing responsibility.” Underline the word “crushing.”
    You can spend productive time unpacking the symbolic importance of dolls in the movie but, in broadest terms, they suggest a side of womanhood that Leda both needs and disdains.
    Presented in a plain, unadorned style in which the flashbacks sometimes feel abruptly inserted, The Lost Daughter stands as a courageously truthful depiction of a struggle many women face but which seldom receives on-screen. 
    The movie doesn't indulge in simple or even complicated solutions; it's a challenging look at what it means for Leda to face the consequences of choices that haunt her. 
     Only an actress of Colman's caliber could make this work.

'Spider-Man' takes a big step forward

    Everyone who cares about Spider-Man movies probably will have heard about some of the movie’s big “surprises” before they see it. Still, I’m not going to say much about major reveals except to note that they help get this third Tom-Holland edition on track.
     I wouldn’t call Spider-Man: No Way Home great but it marks a significant improvement over recent editions and creates a bit of nostalgia with visits from previous villains, notably Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), and  Electro (Jamie Foxx). 
    For a while, it seems as if you need a scorecard to keep track of the legion of baddies who turn up, although Molina seems to receive more attention as part of a major sequence on a bridge.
    Welcome back, Doc Ock.
    As for other returnees: Marisa Tomei reprises her role as May Parker, Peter Parker’s aunt. Zendaya and Jacob Batalon return as Parker’s high school pals, one a girlfriend, the other an eager confidant.
   Benedict Cumberbatch shows up as Dr. Strange, the character charged with setting the plot in motion.
   Here's how it works: In the last installment, Spider-Man’s identity was exposed by Mysterio. Spidey must now find a way to restore Peter Parker’s anonymity. 
   To get the job done, Dr. Strange casts a spell. Like many purported cure-alls, Dr. Strange's magic has a weird side effect: It brings characters from the multi-verse into Parker’s life, hence the arrival of all those villains from other dimensions or, if you’re more pragmatic, other movies. 
    Director Jon Watts, who guided Holland's two previous journeys into SpiderWorld, does a serviceable job with the action, which is plentiful and noisy and at one point, evokes woozy memories of Inception.
    If you’re looking for a comic-book story that’s upheld by unassailable logic, No Way Home may disappoint. Instead, the movie tries to ponder a big question: Is evil irredeemable? Better yet, the movie’s conclusion stirs as much emotion as the material allows. 
    Peter Parker isn’t the most assured of superheroes. How could he be? He and his teen pals —Zendaya’s MJ and Batalon’s Ned —are high school seniors who fret over not being admitted to MIT. Even their "safety schools" reject them because Peter Parker (now known to all as Spider-Man) has been getting clobbered by a TV loudmouth (J.K. Simmons). They're victims of guilt by association.
     Heaven forbid, these kids might have to try a community college.
    Oh well, say this: In going backward to acknowledge several generations of movies, Spider-Man takes a welcome step forward.
    Perhaps that's what matters most when it comes to a franchise.

Swan Song sings an edgeless tune

    In Swan Song, Mahershala Ali plays a dying man who has been  given the opportunity to be replaced by a clone. If Ali's Cameron opts for cloning, his wife (Naomi Harris) and young son (Dax Rey) won't know that he passed away. For them, life will continue seamlessly. 
  To pull off the switch, Cameron, an artist by trade, must conceal his medical condition from his wife. The cloning will be performed under the direction of Dr. Scott (Glenn Close) who conducts her business in a stylishly modern house in the middle of nowhere. 
   While under Dr. Scott's supervision, Cameron meets Kate (Awkwafina), another patient who has agreed to be cloned.
   Cameron is partly motivated by his wife's history. She only recently recovered from a period of crippling grief after the death of her twin brother. 
    Nothing, of course, is as simple as it initially sounds: Cameron finds it difficult to cede his life to a clone, a creation he meets as the movie progresses. 
    This raises another ethical issue: If Cameron decides to return to his life and tell his family that he's dying, the clone (named Jack until the day completely inhabits Cameron's life) will be "terminated." 
   Unfortunately, director Benjamin Cleary's debut feature can't get much beyond its central question, which (in a richer movie) might have been sufficient.
    Flashbacks are used to develop the relationship between Cameron and Harris's Poppy, giving Ali and Harris the opportunity to play a love duet — with some difficulties, of course.
     Even if you buy the idea that clones could become undetectable substitutes for humans, the movie can feel anemic. Cleary creates a version of the future that’s sanitized, sleek, and decidedly upscale. A hollow, edgeless feeling opens the door to for a flood of end-of-picture tear-jerking.
   Despite its fine performances, Swan Song can feel like the clone of what might have been a better, more genuinely affecting movie.

Monday, December 13, 2021

27th Annual Critics Choice Awards Nominees

   The Critics Choice Association Monday (Dec. 13) announced its nominees for the 27th annual Critics Choice Awards in film. The winners will be announced on CW and TBS networks on Sunday, Jan. 6. Check local listings for times.
   Two movies -- Belfast and West Side Story -- lead the list with 11 nominations each. Of other movies in the the best-picture category, Dune and The Power of the Dog landed 10 nominations each. Licorice Pizza and Nightmare Alley followed with eight nominations apiece. 
    As a member the Critics Choice Association I offer the list as a warm-up for awards season and because the CCA represents a broad-base of working critics that traditionally have been good predictors of Academy Awards.
   As always, I encourage you to compare and contrast the list with your own. 




Don’t Look Up


King Richard

Licorice Pizza

Nightmare Alley

The Power of the Dog

tick, tick…Boom!

West Side Story



Nicolas Cage – Pig

Benedict Cumberbatch – The Power of the Dog

Peter Dinklage – Cyrano

Andrew Garfield – tick, tick…Boom!

Will Smith – King Richard

Denzel Washington – The Tragedy of Macbeth



Jessica Chastain – The Eyes of Tammy Faye

Olivia Colman – The Lost Daughter

Lady Gaga – House of Gucci

Alana Haim – Licorice Pizza

Nicole Kidman – Being the Ricardos

Kristen Stewart – Spencer



Jamie Dornan – Belfast

Ciarán Hinds – Belfast

Troy Kotsur – CODA

Jared Leto – House of Gucci

J.K. Simmons – Being the Ricardos

Kodi Smit-McPhee – The Power of the Dog



Caitríona Balfe – Belfast

Ariana DeBose – West Side Story

Ann Dowd – Mass

Kirsten Dunst – The Power of the Dog

Aunjanue Ellis – King Richard

Rita Moreno – West Side Story



Jude Hill – Belfast

Cooper Hoffman – Licorice Pizza

Emilia Jones – CODA

Woody Norman – C’mon C’mon

Saniyya Sidney – King Richard

Rachel Zegler – West Side Story




Don’t Look Up

The Harder They Fall

Licorice Pizza

The Power of the Dog

West Side Story



Paul Thomas Anderson – Licorice Pizza

Kenneth Branagh – Belfast

Jane Campion – The Power of the Dog

Guillermo del Toro – Nightmare Alley

Steven Spielberg – West Side Story

Denis Villeneuve – Dune



Paul Thomas Anderson – Licorice Pizza

Zach Baylin – King Richard

Kenneth Branagh – Belfast

Adam McKay, David Sirota – Don’t Look Up

Aaron Sorkin – Being the Ricardos



Jane Campion – The Power of the Dog

Maggie Gyllenhaal – The Lost Daughter

Siân Heder – CODA

Tony Kushner – West Side Story

Jon Spaihts, Denis Villeneuve, Eric Roth – Dune



Bruno Delbonnel – The Tragedy of Macbeth

Greig Fraser – Dune

Janusz Kaminski – West Side Story

Dan Laustsen – Nightmare Alley

Ari Wegner – The Power of the Dog

Haris Zambarloukos – Belfast



Jim Clay, Claire Nia Richards – Belfast

Tamara Deverell, Shane Vieau – Nightmare Alley

Adam Stockhausen, Rena DeAngelo – The French Dispatch

Adam Stockhausen, Rena DeAngelo – West Side Story

Patrice Vermette, Zsuzsanna Sipos – Dune



Sarah Broshar and Michael Kahn – West Side Story

Úna Ní Dhonghaíle – Belfast

Andy Jurgensen – Licorice Pizza

Peter Sciberras – The Power of the Dog

Joe Walker – Dune



Jenny Beavan – Cruella

Luis Sequeira – Nightmare Alley

Paul Tazewell – West Side Story

Jacqueline West, Robert Morgan – Dune

Janty Yates – House of Gucci





The Eyes of Tammy Faye

House of Gucci

Nightmare Alley




The Matrix Resurrections

Nightmare Alley

No Time to Die

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings



Barb & Star Go to Vista Del Mar

Don’t Look Up

Free Guy

The French Dispatch

Licorice Pizza






The Mitchells vs the Machines

Raya and the Last Dragon



A Hero

Drive My Car


The Hand of God

The Worst Person in the World



Be Alive – King Richard

Dos Oruguitas – Encanto

Guns Go Bang – The Harder They Fall

Just Look Up – Don’t Look Up

No Time to Die – No Time to Die



Nicholas Britell – Don’t Look Up

Jonny Greenwood – The Power of the Dog

Jonny Greenwood – Spencer

Nathan Johnson – Nightmare Alley

Hans Zimmer – Dune



Friday, December 10, 2021

A fading porn star returns to Texas

     Director Sean Baker has made movies that explore parts of American life Hollywood usually neglects. 
    Tangerine, a 2015 movie shot entirely on iPhonesdealt with transgender life on the fringes of Los Angeles. The Florida Project (2017) followed a six-year-old girl who lived in a motel with her mother and, at least for me, represents the film in which Baker’s interests and his aesthetic approach were most successfully blended.
   In Red Rocket, Baker tells the story of a fading porn star (Simon Rex) who returns to his hometown on Texas’s Gulf Coast. Desperate and broke, Rex’s Mikey gloms onto his estranged wife and former co-star (Bree Elrod) and her flinty mother (Brenda Deiss).
   Mikey isn’t about to abandon his dreams. He believes he can re-lignite his award-winning porn career by moving behind the camera. He has confidence in his eye for talent. And why not? Wasn’t he the winner of an industry award in the oral sex category? He sees himself as a star-maker.
    Mikey tries to build up a stake by selling pot for a woman (Judy Hill), who lives with her son (Marlon Lambert) and her tough associate (Brittany Rodriguez), a young woman whose face seems never to have been bothered by a smile.
    He also befriends a neighbor (Ethan Darbone) who idolizes him.
    Baker spends screen-time capital establishing the milieu in which Mikey finds himself, along with characters mostly played by non-professionals. He makes frequent stops at the Donut Hole, a shop where he first meets a 17-year-old worker he calls “Strawberry” (Suzanna Son). 
    Mikey immediately senses Strawberry’s porn star potential and courts her with his charm, dubious offers to help with her SATs, and lots of sex, amplified by one of Rex’s major assets. You can guess which.
    Much of the story is played for humor. Sans car and funds, Rex must ride around Texas City on a bicycle. His massive self-delusion is fueled by irrepressible energy that he channels into non-stop verbal barrages.
   An editor once told me on a particularly rumpled day that I looked like I was running even when I was standing still. The same goes for Rex, who moves through his days with Road Runner speed, often spewing his own hype. 
    Bake makes no judgments about Mikey’s career and Strawberry is no naive innocent. We know that Mikey has no qualms about ruining her life but she’s fired by some of the same desire to escape the stultifications of small-town life that drove him. She's sexually eager.
   And despite all his maneuvering, Mikey seldom seems entirely contemptible. He’s still got his youthful zeal.
   So what does Baker do with all of this? That’s the film’s problem. Despite its humor and observational ease when it comes to its characters and their location, the movie must at some point find a way to wrap things up. About three quarters of the way through Red Rocket’s  two-hours and eight minutes, the movie begins to feel long.
    No fair telling more about what happens in the final going. but the movie wraps things up in ways that feel abrupt. Still, Baker makes good use of Rex’s ability to spin his way into a role that spills chaos all over the screen.