Thursday, March 30, 2023

A near-wordless attempt at horror


    She lives alone on an island off the Cornwall coast. She seems to have few responsibilities other than taking temperature readings of the ground, observing rare flowers, and dropping a stone down an abandoned mine shaft. 
   Each day, the isolated character of the movie Enys Men records her findings in a notebook, capping off the numbers with an abbreviated statement that summarizes her life: "No change." 
   Even by minimalist standards, the movie seems strangely sparse. 
   Stripping the film of nearly all dialogue, director Mark Jenkin seems to be trying for a psycho/spectral horror film, an effort I found laudable but wanting in its result.
  Jenkin provides little context for a movie that takes place in 1973. We know the year because the character known only as "The Volunteer" (Mary Woodvine) marks it in the journal of records she keeps. 
  The Volunteer has a shortwave radio with which she can talk to the mainland. Mostly it delivers an eerie stream of static.
   At one point, lichens jeopardize the flowers the Volunteer observes. They also begin to grow on her body, as well. 
  Various figures from the island's past (a drowned boat crew, for example) appear. Remnants of prior activity, notably mining, crop up, as well.
  Those familiar with horror may expect Jenkin to deliver a climactic event or expository revelation. He offers neither, preferring to immerse viewers in the movie's evocative moods.
  Short by current standards (one hour and 31 minutes), the movie's repetitions can induce a bit of boredom, as well as a feeling for madness born of isolation. 
  Cheers to Jenkin for trying what struck me as a cinematic experiment, but to my eyes, Enys Men didn't quite arrive at its destination, whatever that might have been. 

Film, kids and attempted authenticity


The French film The Worst Ones raises questions about how far filmmakers should go in trying for authenticity, particularly when their work involves young people. Directors Lise Akoka and Romane Gueret cast real kids for a movie about a filmmaker (Johan Heldenbergh) who's trying to capture life among teenagers in the Picasso neighborhood of a town in northern France.  Forget Paris glamor; this town is full of housing projects and folks who’ll never be living upscale lives. Heldenbergh's Gabriel wants to make a tough film called Pissing in the North Wind. He's looking for the kind of teens who cause trouble. As it turns out, the film is less interested in the town’s teenagers than in the director's ideas about who they are. Independent and assertive, the director wants to show that Lily (Mallory Wanecque) is pregnant. She's not. Ryan (Timeo Mahaut) is asked to scowl and fight. He can’t suppress his smile. Jessy (Loic Pech), a real-life wise-ass, is pushed into a love scene. Melina Vanderplancke's Maylis doesn't like the idea of being on camera. The movie’s young cast gets to you,  and The Worst Ones' film-within-a-film approach proves more revealing than gimmicky.

Wednesday, March 29, 2023

A British romcom relies on fresh faces

    Refreshingly young, full of trendy banter, and respectful of romcom conventions, Rye Lane proves itself to be one of the year's happiest movies. 
    Directed in a peppy upbeat style by Raine Allen-Miller, Rye Lane brings new British faces to a movie revolving around a South London neighborhood. Rye Lane, by the way, is the area's colorful main drag. 
   Newcomers David Jonsson (as Dom) and Vivian Oparah (as Yas) star as two 20somethings who recently experienced breakups. 
   Sad and weepy, Dom acts as if he'll never regain his confidence. Bubbly and spirited, Yas takes the opposite approach, viewing the world as an ongoing adventure, an open book with pages she’s eager to turn.
   Based on an opposites-attract paradigm, the movie brings Dom and Yas together for a chance encounter in the bathroom of a pub. The two then spend a day together. True to form, Dom gradually yields to Yas's impulsive verve. 
  As Dom warms up, the banter that emerges from a screenplay by Nathon Byron and Tom Melia proves amusing and seldom (thank heaven) annoyingly glib. It's wonderful to see two young actors having a great time bouncing lines off each other. 
   As the film unfolds, both Dom and Yas encounter their former lovers (Malcolm Atobrah and Karene Peter) in scenes that add genuine helpings of comedy to the romcom equation. 
   Better yet, the Caribbean/British vibe of the neighborhood functions as a welcoming third character.
   The music is catchy with tracks from Stormzy, Musical Mob, Roy Davis Jr., and Blake Lab Beats featuring Ghetto Boy. I'd never heard of these British HipHoppers, but their contribution constitutes another plus.
   Still, none of the movie’s nicely employed trappings would have mattered had Jonsson and Oparah not been perfectly cast.
  They engage. They charm. And they help turn Rye Lane into an hour and 22 minutes of amiable fun.

Guess what? ‘Dungeons & Dragons’ isn’t bad


   Any review of a movie with Dungeons & Dragons in its title should begin with a personal statement about the famous game. Here's mine: I couldn't care less about a role-play game that has captivated so many since its release in 1974.
  After reading that a second Dungeons & Dragons movie was on the horizon (the first was released in 2000), I wondered whether the game still could command interest.
  Or maybe it was me. Maybe I was out of touch; maybe Dungeons & Dragons hadn't become a pop-cultural relic.
  Judging by the audience at a preview screening of Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves, the game still has plenty of devotees, the kind who show up at screenings wearing costumes and who are well attuned to the intricacies of D&D. 
  OK, that's my confession. Dungeons mania aside, a movie should, like a mythological dragon, breathe its own fire. That's how I approached Honor Among Thieves. 
   I can't say I loved every minute of Honor Among Thieves, but I found myself watching a reasonably entertaining movie that features a well-cast Chris Pine in a lead role and gives him Michelle Rodriguez as a tough sidekick and Hugh Grant as a villainous foe. 
   The rest of the cast proves equally able. Sophia Willis augments the team as a shapeshifter with a very useful set of skills. Justice Smith portrays Simon, an endearing sorcerer who has yet to develop full confidence in his conjuring powers.
   The plot begins with Pine's Edgin and Rodriguez's Holga escaping from prison where they're serving time for theft. Edgin wants to reunite with his young daughter (Chloe Coleman), a girl who has fallen under the sway of Grant's Forge Fitzwilliam, once a member of the felonious gang to which Edgin and Holga belong.
   An aggressively amiable chiseler, Forge tries to convince Coleman's Kira that he has her best interests at heart. Edgin is a self-centered thief who has no genuine concern for his daughter. Why else would he leave her in Forge's care? So goes Forge's spin on the story.
   But what of Kira's mom? Oops. I mean her late mom.
   Edgin’s to-do list includes another item: He wants to revive his deceased wife (Georgia Landers), a task that requires possession of the Tablet of Reawakening. Good luck finding that, not to mention a helmet that has its own important powers.
   The world Dungeons creates includes a lot more complexities but there's no point turning a review into an annotated glossary of Dungeons lore, which I couldn't do anyway.
   Know, though, that a character called Xenk (Rege-Jean Page) eventually joins the group. Sincere and literal to a fault, Xenk can't  understand irony, a trait the movie rightly plays for laughs. In the end, the joke's on us, though. Xenk proves a worthy fellow.
   The screenplay by Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley, and Michael Gilio presents its characters with an on-going series of challenges, some accompanied by nice effects work and action that’s neatly staged by co-directors Goldstein and Daley.
  Honor Among Thieves probably isn't destined to make my top-10 list of 2023 movies, but much its two-hour and 14 minutes passed easily. Besides, the actors, notably Pine and Rodriguez, gave the movie enough heart, grit and humor, to ward off negative vibes.
   What else can you ask from a movie that takes its cue from a game that's nearly 50 years old?

A tough woman in a tough world


   What does it mean to be "with" a movie? For me, it means that from beginning to end, I'm totally absorbed by what's happening on screen.
    I definitely was "with" A Thousand and Onethe story of a mother (Teyana Taylor) who rescues her young son (Aaron Kinglsey Adetola) from foster care. The movie isn’t without imperfections but A Thousand and One overcomes them with emotional power and a fiercely compelling lead performance.
  A singer, choreographer, and actor, Taylor plays Inez de la Paz, a woman we meet when she's released from New York's notorious Rikers Island. Inez hits the streets of Harlem but soon makes an effort to see the six-year-old son she had to abandon when she was sentenced. 
   Without a hint of sappiness, Inez walks out of foster care with the boy. She then begins the difficult task of establishing life with a kid, a task she must accomplish without much help.
    The catch: Because she took the boy without permission, Inez has opened herself to charges of kidnapping.
   Director A.V. Rockwell, who also wrote the movie's screenplay, sets us up for a life-on-the-run urban adventure but the movie's better than that. To her credit, Rockwell has her eye on the long haul, with all its hardships, setbacks, and small triumphs.
  Mostly set in the 1990s, the story extends over a 15-year-period and casts two additional actors to play Inez’s son Terry. Aven Courtney portrays Terry at 13. Josiah Cross takes over when Terry turns 17.
   Because authorities are looking for Inez, she creates a new identity for Terry. She enrolls him in school, gives him plenty of love (some of it tough), and guides him to the point where he's on the verge of applying for college. 
   When it's time to apply for college, Terry needs documentation that Inez can't provide without exposing what she's done.
   Rockwell fleshes out the portrait she paints of a struggling mom with scenes built around a long-standing romantic relationship between Inez and Lucky (a terrific Will Catlett). 
   Lucky moves in with Inez after his release from prison, but doesn't always stick around. He denies being Terry's father but slowly connects with the boy and shares some tender moments when Terry hits his teen years.
   That's a mark of the movie's depth. Lucky may be flawed but we realize he’s trying to hang onto his humanity.
    The story takes place when police crack downs on crime were followed by gentrifying moves aimed at transforming Harlem. Neither Terry nor Inez can escape the cruel consequences of these trends.
   A shocking end-of-movie reveal throws the story out of whack -- in a good way. We’re reminded that what we think we know isn't always true. Before the movie's done, Rockwell not only surprises, she enriches the web of motivation from which Inez operates.
   Rockwell’s bold direction matches Taylor’s vivid performance, ensuring that A Thousand and One packs a wallop.

Thursday, March 23, 2023

Problems? This movie has lots of them


Heavy-handed and melodramatic,  A Good Person stars Florence Pugh as happy fiancee Allison,  a woman who's behind the wheel when her fiancé's sister and her husband are killed in a terrible crash. The sister happened to be the daughter of an alcoholic former policeman (Morgan Freeman) who’s left to care for Ryan (Celeste O'Connor), his teenage granddaughter. As contrivance would have it, Freeman’s Daniel, who's been sober for years, and Pugh’s Allison meet at an AA meeting when Allison decides it’s time to quit the opioids that numb her post-accident guilt and pain. Allison tries to bolt but Daniel encourages her to stay, and the two develop an unlikely, if sometimes strained, relationship. Chinaza Uche plays Daniel's son, the fiancé Allison dumped after the accident. He's estranged from his father. For added quirk and ham-handed metaphor-making, Daniel is a model train enthusiast whose hobby allows him to control the world he builds for his trains. Life, he recognizes, isn't so easily tamed. Writer/director Zach Braff 's overheated drama can't be saved by its cast or by sincere concerns about forgiveness, perhaps because the screenplay checks off an encumbering list of problems, including drug addiction, careless driving, alcoholism, child abuse, and teen sex. The result: A misfire of a movie that tries to stuff  its two-hour and five-minute running time with more issues than you'd need to stock an eight-part series. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

‘Wick’ as crazy as ever. No, crazier


      John Wick: Chapter 4 is one wild movie, a two-hour and 49-minute stream of action that makes a virtue of excess.
     If you’re familiar with WickWorld, you know that action means violence, executed with guns, knives, nunchucks and anything else that can be weaponized — cars and motorcycles included.
     Director Chad Stahelski ably threads a plot through the real draw, a slew of action set pieces.
     You either like this sort or thing or you don’t. If you do, Chapter 4 delivers. Sure, Stahelski pushes the violence to the point at which logic evaporates. But style, invention and skill keep the bloody bounty from curdling into exploitation. 
     Considering how much physical effort Reeves expends during Wick's globe-hopping endeavors, it’s a wonder the actor still is able to walk —much less ignite the engine that drives Wick's fighting fury.
      About those set pieces:
      A dizzyingly impressive battle sprawls its way through a Berlin nightclub where Wick confronts Killa (Scott Adkins), a hulk of a man with golden teeth who looks as if he might have been resurrected from an early Bond movie. 
       In another set piece, drivers race against the flow of traffic at an Arc de Triomphe roundabout. It’s funny and, yes, crazy,  a near-cartoonish blur of motion punctuated by staccato bursts of gun fire
       A climactic sequence takes on Sisyphean dimensions as antagonists fight on the steps leading to Paris's Sacre Coeur.
       The story? Oh yeah, that.
       A fiendish villain called the Marquis (Bill Skarsgard) hires hitmen to put Wick out of commission. 
       These include Tracker (Shamier Anderson),  an assassin who travels with his beloved but brutal German shepherd, and Caine (Donny Yen),  a blind warrior brought into the game when the Marquis threatens his daughter.
       Hiroyuki Sanada operates a swank Osaka hotel that provides safe-house refuge for assassins who serve a mysterious organization known as The Table.
       The cast roster also includes  returnees Laurence Fishburne, as the Bowery king, and Ian McShane, as the sly operator of New York City's safe house. 
      Is the movie too long? Of course it is,  but then again it’s too much of everything. 
       That's the Wick way. Again evoking memories of bygone Hong Kong action movies, Chapter 4 brings commitment to its ceaseless battling and avoids the worst label you can apply to any sequel. This is no pandering cash grab.  
       Stahelski ups the ante with each successive set piece, thus proving you can give audiences what they want without cheating or insulting them in the bargain.

Sally Hawkins dominates 'Lost King'

      Director Stephen Frears has made groundbreaking movies (My Beautiful Launderette) and movies that haven’t matched his best work (Victoria & Abdul). Now comes The Lost King, a movie based on a screenplay be Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope
      Lost King may not be a landmark work for Frears, who's now 81, but a memorable performance by Sally Hawkins keeps the movie on track.
     The Lost King tells the story of Philippa Langley, the woman who instigated the real-life effort to discover the remains of King Richard III. If you recall the news stories from 2012, Richard’s bones were discovered in the parking lot of a social services office in Leicester. The less-than-majestic setting turned the discovery into irresistible headlines fodder.
      But the movie is more about Philippa than the king Shakespeare vilified. At the outset, a downtrodden Philippa is passed over for a promotion at work. A bit harried by her two young sons, she's   separated from her husband (Coogan). A new love interest hasn't kept him from remaining part of Philippa's life.
     Hawkins mixes insecurity and assertion as Philippa embraces a quest that few others take seriously, including representatives of the academic establishment she eventually encounters.
     The screenplay tells us Philippa’s interest was sparked by a production of Richard III. She was taken with the performance of the actor (Harry Lloyd) who played Shakespeare’s fabled hunchback.
    As the movie develops, Philippa begins seeing Lloyd as Richard everywhere she goes. I’m not sure we needed visual assistance to understand Philippa’s obsession. Hawkins makes Philippa’s undaunted commitment clear enough -- sans hallucinations.
    Before launching her project, Philippa joins a branch of the Richard III Society,  a group that harbors a contingent of Richard nerds, some of whom claim that Richard was neither a hunchback nor the ambitious murderer of Shakespeare’s play. He was, they insist, a rightful king, England's last Plantagenet monarch.
   Philippa's work picks up speed after she convinces an archaeologist (Mark Addy) to join her search, but her instincts prevail over his more measured approach. 
   Eventually, hypocritical institutions try to cash on Philippa's work but Frears sticks to the point: Sometimes, it takes an obsessive outlier to push a cause to its satisfying conclusion. Philippa did that for Richard; Hawkins does it for the movie.

Friday, March 17, 2023

A dreary true-crime story


You can't say they didn't try. Whoever assembled Boston Strangler -- a movie about reporters covering a famous case of the 1960s -- hired a first-rate cast. Kiera Knightley and Carrie Coon team as reporters for the Boston Record American. Knightley's Loretta McLaughlin rises from lifestyle obscurity to become an ace crime reporter. She was the first journalist to report that a string of 13 horrific murders were connected. Coons portrays Jean Cole, a veteran journalist who already had broken into the male-dominated ranks of “hard” news. The two give fine performances, although the movie tilts more toward McLaughlin, showing snippets of her home life. Chris Cooper, as the paper’s editor, and Alessandro Nivola, as a detective working the case, add heft. Writer/director Matt Ruskin conveys some of the ambiguity about the case’s resolution. Tagged as The Strangler, Albert DeSalvo (David Dastmalchian) became known as killer but was positively linked to only one of the 13 murders. Attempts to tell the story of a woman battling for a bigger journalistic role are conjoined with a dreary narrative that also dips into police bungling. For the most part, Ruskin proceeds in a prosaic fashion that tends to drag. What feels like a dutiful approach to storytelling often robs the movie of opportunities to sizzle.

Thursday, March 16, 2023

A teen copes with disabled parents

   What happens when the intellectually gifted child of intellectually disabled parents must adjust to adolescence?
    Wildflower attempts to answer that question by focusing on the life of Bea (Kiernan Shipka), a high school senior who’s understandably fearful about leaving her parents untended. 
    Oddly and perhaps needlessly the movie opens with Bea hospitalized in a coma from which she offers intermittent narration of a story that unfolds mostly in flashback.
    Director Matt Smuckler presumably wanted to create suspense about how Bea arrived in her unconscious state. We’ll eventually learn.
    Bea’s parents (Samantha Hyde and Dash Mihok) are presented as big-hearted, loving devotees of Jesus, who express their faith without  self-consciousness. 
   Hyde’s Sharon was born with her disability; Mihok’s Derek, the more capable of the two, suffered brain damage when, as a child, he was hit by a drunk driver. 
   Jean Smart (as Sharon’s mother) and Jacki Weaver (as Derek’s mom) are a bit underutilized as bickering in-laws. 
   As the proceedings advance, Smuckler increasingly focuses on Bea’s adolescence: relationships with her first boyfriend (Charlie Plummer) and her best friend (Kannon Omachi), another outlier.
    The more the story concentrates on Bea, the more it flirts with teen-movie cliche. A snooty high school girl must receive her comeuppance. Bea excels at track. Bumps arise on the romance road.
   The main question: Should Bea apply to colleges or remain home to care for her parents?
  Not much is done to flesh out the character roster. Reid Scott plays the over-protective husband of Bea’s equally over-protective sister (Alexandra Daddario). An inquisitive social worker (Erika Alexander) doesn’t add a lot.
 Unfortunately, the story tilts away from some of its richest potential. The movie might have benefited from showing us more about how Sharon and Derek struggle to live as they wish.
   Wildflower eventually gets serious but this might be a case in which a mix of comedy and drama sometimes cheats one at the expense of the other.


Monday, March 13, 2023

Oscar show drags. Some speeches, lively. Did the relevance meter move? The jury is out.


   Sunday’s Oscars were generally sedate — if not sedated. 
  Sure there were some animated acceptance speeches (Jamie Lee Curtis, Ke Huy Quan, and Michelle Yeoh to name a few). But in these post-slap days, a general sigh of relief seemed to greet the proceedings, which leaned heavily into promotions from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
 The Academy seems to want us to believe that Hollywood can control itself while moving toward real inclusion. What to believe?
  One thing: The more movies change (if they really do), the duller the Oscar show becomes? The ascendancy of Asian artists was taken as a sign of progress. I hope so, but here's another thought about that:
— I’ll believe in Hollywood’s commitment to inclusion when someone casts Michelle Yeoh to play a character such as Lydia Tar, the brilliantly offensive conductor played by Cate Blanchett in Tar.  I’m not being snide. It didn't occur to me until  last night but I think Yeoh would have been an amazing choice.
— You can’t honor one without offending another. Come on Academy. You didn’t give Angela Bassett an Oscar for her performance as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It. (Holly Hunter won in 1994 for The Piano). You had the perfect opportunity to make  up for an epic overlook and blew it.
— And, for the record, I thought Jamie Lee Curtis was hilarious in Every Award ... Thing Every Where All at Once.
-- A trailer for Disney's Little Mermaid during the Oscars? Weren't the Oscars promotional enough already?
— Before you decide that movies have experienced a sea change with the awarding of a best director Oscar to the team of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (Everything Everywhere) wait until you see their next movie.
— If Guillermo del Toro, who an Oscar for his Pinocchio, is right about animated films being part of cinema, then more them should get up from the children's table.
— If  you were able to conduct interviews with ordinary moviegoers at the average multiplex, how many could name two movies in which  best actress nominee Andrea Riseborough appeared?  Hint: Amsterdam and Please Baby Please.
—  Quick, a show of hands. How many of you saw, To Leslie? 
—  Tar? No Oscars? Really, none?
—  Ditto for The Banshees of Inisheren.
--    Ditto for Elvis.
—  Jimmy Kimmel should ever ask Malala another question. The whole bit -- faux questions for celebs -- was a dud anyway.
— Is showing leg now a mandatory part of women’s high fashion? Are two legs (Florence Pugh) better than one — in the fashion sense, of course?
-- No will accuse Lady Gaga of overdressing. She wore a T-shirt, torn jeans, and no make-up for her performance of the Oscar-nominated song, Hold My Hand. Un-Gaga in one sense, but very Gaga (I do what I want) in another. I liked it.
 — I can’t think of anything David Byrne has done that I haven't liked … but wait ….This is a  Life, the nominated song from Everything Everywhere, might be the exception.
-- When there are multiple recipients of an Oscar, none of them should be played off the stage for wanting to speak.
— I was happy to see Sarah Polley looking happy for winning an Oscar for best adapted screenplay (Women Talking).
— I hate to break it you boys and girls, but contrary to a popular Oscar sentiment most dreams don’t come true.
  -- And finally, if I never see another pair of hot dog fingers, it will be too soon.
   Enough. TGIO, I say. Thank Goodness It’s Over — at least for another year.

Friday, March 10, 2023

An adled foray into academia


Michael Shannon embodies the uncertainties of a confused man  in A Little White Lie, a comedy about literary pretensions in the academic world. Director Michael Maren, who also wrong the screenplay, concocts a story about a New York janitor who's mistaken for a mysterious novelist who wrote one highly acclaimed book before vanishing from the publishing scene. Both novelist and janitor have the same name, do the mixup seems plausible. Desperate to save a literary festival at a small California college, the festival's organizer (Kate Hudson) invites Shannon's character to headline the event. Shannon's Shriver attends; the rest of the attendees take his baffled quality as a form of genius. The great author must be tolerated. Don Johnson portrays a professor who has seen better days. Shannon' role that turns him into a man without a core identity but with flickers of conscience that impedes his ability to carry out a con. Hudson gives a lively performance and Johnson makes the most of a small role. The ending adds an unusual, if not entirely convincing twist to the proceedings. The movie plays with ideas about identity and the perils of early literary success but isn't witty enough to be an intellectual head-spinner of a movie. A short speech that Shannon gives during a forum on art and reality should be clipped from the movie and preserved as a beautiful piece of work in an otherwise negligible effort.

It's Oscar time again. How much do you care?

Everything Everywhere All At Once seems to be the frontrunner for best picture.
    Host Jimmy Kimmel no doubt will make jokes about The Slap. One upset will elicit gasps, as will at least one presenter’s choice of clothing. 
    Brendan Gleeson will go home without an Oscar despite being one of the best actors on the entire list of male nominees. Gleeson is nominated for best supporting actor for his imposing performance in The Banshees of Inisherin. 

   To be honest, I'm not especially excited about this year's awards. The nominated pictures are mostly worthy but the Oscars seem to mean a good deal more to those who've been nominated and to the distributors of their films than to those of us who watch. 

   I won’t admire Michelle Yeoh any less if she happens to lose in the best actress category to Cate Blanchett.  Similarly, if Yeoh wins, I won’t waste any time feeling sorry for Blanchett. 

   I wasn’t a fan of The Fabelmans, Steven Spielberg’s semi-autobigographical movie, but if it scores a surprise win as best picture, I will spend no time crying in my beer.

   Bill Nighy (Living) and Paul Mescal (Aftersun) are terrific actors and Nighy is now bordering on lifetime achievement terrain. Both are nominated for best actor and, if the oddsmakers are right, they'll lose to Austin Butler for his performance in Elvis

   I’m rooting for Colin Farrell, who has become one of the screen’s more adventurous actors. 

    I cast no shade on Jamie Lee Curtis for her hilarious work in Everything Everywhere All At Once. She's the favorite in the best supporting actress category. But I don’t see how the Academy can bypass Angela Bassett who brought a sense of regal grandeur and dignity to Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. 

   This year’s field represents a variety of approaches to movies -- from sci-fi fantasy to hard-core action to smart drama. This kind of range either can be seen as refreshingly positive or as an indication that Hollywood has no idea what it’s doing. 

   Perhaps both things are true.

   And a reminder:  Caring about the Academy Awards isn’t the same as caring about movies or, without being too grandiose about it, film culture or, in cases where appropriate, film art. All of those categories can but don’t necessarily overlap with Oscar. 

   Here, with the usual tentativeness and with some annotated reservations, are my predictions in some of the major categories:*

Best Picture

Everything Everywhere All At Once

Best Director

Daniel Dwan and Daniel Scheinert, Everything Everywhere All at Once*

*The dark horse in this category is Steven Spielberg. A victory for Spielberg would be a way of honoring "old"  Hollywood in a year of idiosyncratic fare. 

Best Actor

Austin Butler, Elvis*

*I wouldn't be surprised, though, if Brendan Fraser wins for his performance in The Whale. 

Best Actress

Cate Blanchett, Tar*

*Look, Michelle Yeoh is just as likely to win for her work in Everything Everywhere All At Once, but until Everything Everywhere began its awards ascent, Blanchett was considered a shoo-in.

Best Supporting Actor

Ke Huy Quan, Everything Everywhere All at Once

Best supporting actress

Angela Bassett, Black Panther Wakanda Forever*

*I've read speculation about Kerry Condon, who did stand-out work in Banshees of Inishirin. I suppose that if Bassett and Jamie Lee Curtis, many people's projected winner in this category, cancel each other out, Condon has a shot.

Best Original Screenplay

The Banshees of Inishirn 

Best Adapted Screenplay

Women Talking

Best Animated Film

Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio

Best International Film

All Quiet on the Western Front 

Thursday, March 9, 2023

YAs and Mozart? Hey, the music's good


    The Magic Flute, Mozart's acclaimed opera, has gone YA.
    Director Florian Sigl creates a hybrid production that combines a fanciful effects-laden production of Mozart's opera with a tale about kids at an elite boarding school for budding musicians.
    Jack Wolfe, seen in Netflix's Shadow and Bone series, plays 17-year-old Tim, an aspiring singer who's sent to a prestigious Mozart academy. The stern Dr. Longbow (F. Murray Abraham) presides over the school, sort of a Hogwarts for musical prodigies.
    Sigl splits the film into intertwining parts. One involves the life of the school and plays like a typical teen movie. In the movie's more fantastical segments, Tim travels through a magic portal and winds up in Mozart's opera.
    As Prince Tamino, he wanders the opera's enchanted landscapes with the mischievous Papageno (Iwan Rheon). The two must survive various tests to subdue the Queen of the Night (Sabine Devielhe) and find true love, Tamino with Princess Pamina (Asha Banks) and Papageno with Papagena (Stefi Celma)
   Sarastro (Morris Robinson) opposes The Queen of Night; he poses the tests and gives the proceedings a heavy bass voice. 
    For me, the FX-dominated world in which the opera unfolds beat the boarding school environment,  a place to touch on many usual teen concerns.
    Then there's this: The movie may work as an introduction to Mozart for tweens and teens. Otherwise, it seems unclear for whom the movie was made.
     The singing, by the way, is in English, as is the rest of the movie.  It's hardly surprising that the music is good.

It aims to be killer comedy. Sorry, no

Netflix's Grace and Frankie has gone a long way toward establishing Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda as an on-screen duo. Tomlin and Fonda also joined forces (along with Sally Field) in the recent 80 for Brady. Haven't had enough? You're in luck. Fonda and Tomlin return in director Peter Weitz's Moving On, a movie in which they play college pals who reunite at the funeral of another college friend. Tomlin, as a lesbian cello player living in an assisted living facility, and Fonda, as a widow who abandoned her dreams, work with ease but the screenplay has trouble accommodating both the story's serious and comic elements. Fonda's Claire wants to avenge a decades-old incident with the husband (Malcolm McDowell) of the woman whose funeral she's attending. At the wake, she tells McDowell's Howard that she plans to kill him, not exactly the stuff of sympathy cards. Tomlin doles out acerbic remarks and hard-hitting doses of truth as Claire plots her vengeance. Serious attempts at dealing with the problems of aging (loneliness, abandoned pursuits, and physical infirmity) might have made for a better movie than the quasi comic elements revolving around Claire's vengeful intentions.  We eventually learn why Claire has remained so angry but the revelation proves too weighty for a comedy.  The point: If comedy is hard, dark comedy is even harder. With Richard Roundtree, who -- judging by his work here as one of Clarie's former husbands -- should be employed more.

Wednesday, March 8, 2023

The hard life of a nine-year-old girl


Made in Irish Gaelic with subtitles, The Quiet Girl introduces us to a poor Irish family. Dad (Michael Patric) squanders the family's resources with a gambling habit. A weary Mom (Kate Nic Chonaonaigh) has trouble coping with a growing brood and is pregnant again. The kids go to school wearing dirty clothes. Out of this desperation, nine-year-old Cait (Catherine Clinch) is sent to live with one of Mom’s cousins and her husband (Carrie Crowley and Andrew Bennett). Unlike Cait’s family, her new caretakers seem to be living reasonably well. Although it takes time for Bennett’s character to soften, Cait finally learns something about how adults can love and nurture children. For the first time, she’s living in an environment that’s not emotionally impoverished.  Cait’s "new" family has had to cope with a deep grief of its own and the movie, like its characters, knows something about muted sorrow. Director Colm Bairead adapts a short story by Claire Keegan to beautiful effect. Blanching the story of melodrama, Bairead creates deep feeling for Cait’s loneliness and the natural inability of a nine-year-old to grasp a complicated situation. A quietly moving piece of Irish cinema, The Quiet Girl doesn’t wear its heart on its sleeve, but it sure as hell has one.


'Champions' is no slam-dunk

     Woody Harrelson plays a basketball coach with a bad temper in Champions, a movie in which Harrelson's Marcus falls from coaching grace, drives while under the influence, and winds up sentenced to community service. His assignment: coaching a team of developmentally disabled youngsters.
     Unlike in basketball games, no clear winner emerges in a movie that wobbles across familiar terrain. Director Bobby Farrelly remakes the Spanish film Campeones to mixed results. Echoes of The Bad News Bears and a variety of other underdog movies ring throughout. 
     Teaching the kids, who seem to enjoy goofy behavior, can be difficult: One of them (Bradley Edens) insists on shooting the ball backward over his head. He never makes a shot but considers himself a master at the art of celebration.
    The young players aren't highly skilled but one of them (Joshua Felder) had a shot at collegiate ball until he suffered a brain injury in a car accident. Felder's Darius could help the team. He refuses to play. Can Marcus change his mind? 
    Madison Tevlin plays Cosentino, the sole female member of the team and one of the more spirited young actors.
    Modest and minimally amusing, the movie introduces a bit of romance when Marcus realizes that a woman (Kaitlin Olson) he once slept with is the older sister of one of the players (Kevin Iannucci) on his happily inept team. 
   In addition to Harrelson, two other adults have notable roles: An underutilized Ernie Hudson plays the college basketball coach who fires assistant coach Marcus for bad behavior, thus getting the story started.
    Adopting a social worker's knowing but compassionate demeanor, Cheech Marin portrays Julio, the head of the community center where the team -- known as The Friends -- practices.
    A predictable story arc dribbles toward the inevitable big game while Marcus learns to set aside his bitterness and become a mensch and Iannucci's character struggles to convince his sister to allow him to move into a group home.
  In  the past, Farrelly has worked with his brother Peter on movies such as There's Something About Mary, Dumb and Dumber, and Shallow Hall.  That resume should let you know that Champions doesn't tug too hard on the heartstrings. I guess that's good.
  But the movie's various elements -- from raunchy teen humor to the conspicuous shattering of stereotypes -- don't cohere into a winning whole. Unlike more satisfying formula jobs,  Champions takes its shot only to watch the ball bounce off the rim.

Friday, March 3, 2023

All dressed up with nowhere new to go


   In Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre, Jason Statham joins director Guy Ritchie for a spy/caper movie that feels as if a lot of ingredients were thrown into a blender in the hope that a movie would emerge. It didn’t. Not really.
  Adopting the seriousness of a man who might have just lost his best friend, Stratham plays Orson Fortune, a mercenary who operates outside official channels. You know the drill. Orson fights the good fight but remains his own man. 
  Ritchie has been creating visual razzle-dazzle ever since his breakthrough with Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, some 24 years ago. This time, he offers a less frenzied movie. We’re talking comparatively, of course.
   The story kicks off when (Cary Elwes), as a suave fellow who recruits espionage crews, enlists Orson to locate a weapon that has found its way onto the market.
   British intelligence -- represented by a character played by Eddie Marsan -- doesn't know what the object is. That's the job: Find out what's for sale and make sure it doesn't fall into the wrong hands. 
   Joining Fortune are Aubrey Plaza (as a sexy tech whiz) and Bugzy Malone (as a sharpshooter).  Both are underutilized.
    It doesn't take long for Fortune to encounter Greg Simmonds (Hugh Grant), a sleazy arms dealer with tons of money. Sounding as if he's channeling Michael Caine's accent, Grant seems to be having more fun than anyone else in the movie. 
   Josh Hartnett joins in as Danny, a movie star who's supposed to help infiltrate the operation run by the star-struck Simmonds. That could happen, right?
    If you see Operation Fortune, it's probably best to give up on coherence and enjoy Grant's happy scenery chewing in a movie that sometimes plays like an off-the-rack helping of Bond. 
     Ritchie's too skilled totally to hit bottom, even with a movie that slides over what feels like old ground. Ritchie makes good use of luxe locations and (thank goodness) doesn't seem to be taking himself seriously.
     Most of the characters, by the way, are very well dressed.
     Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not recommending Operation Fortune; I’m talking about how to approach the movie if you happen to give it a try — now or in its non-theatrical afterlife.

Thursday, March 2, 2023

Creed faces a fierce opponent from his past


When Creed III opens, Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) is living a luxurious retired life in Los Angeles. The former heavyweight champ spends time with his wife (Tessa Thompson) and daughter (Mila Davis-Kent). He also runs a gym where he trains promising young boxers.
   Life is good for Adonis but no one would want to watch a movie about a boxer who leads a well-adjusted and productive life outside the ring.
   Enter Damien (Jonathan Majors), a buddy from the days when Adonis was a street kid. Damien also had a promising future as a boxer but got busted for a using a gun in a fight. Adonis was with him and blames himself for escaping without consequences. Damien did 18 years in the slammer.
   Damien clearly has an agenda, and the guilt-ridden Adonis believes he can't escape a psychological debt acquired during his adolescence.
    We see some of Adonis's youth in flashbacks in which he’s played by Thaddeus James Mixson Jr. He and young Damien (Spence Moore II) once were bros.
    It’s payback time and Damien now wants Creed to arrange a title fight for him. 
   Jordan, who also directs, offers an efficient Creed sequel, banishing nuance in favor of plot points that land like punches. As Damien’s fortunes build, he remains a character Majors portrays with menacing force. 
    Currently on view in Ant-Man: Quntumania, Majors gives Damien an impacted brutality that's emphasized by his crouched fighting style. The movie's most vividly drawn character, Damien's a vengeful man driven to threats of violence against Adonis and his family.
    The only way to stop him? See a counselor who specializes in mediating emotionally charged disputes?
    Nah. Creed must come out retirement and try to recapture the title Damien has won, improbably for a guy who's a bit long in the tooth to be making a big-time professional debut.
    A showdown looms.
   Jordan stages the big fight with more oomph than realism. This, after all, isn’t Raging Bull; it’s an attempt to continue the life of a character, who, thus far, has carried two movies over a profitable finish line.  
   Absent from all of this is Sylvester Stallone, who has a producing credit. The oddball teaming of Stallone and Jordan in previous movies added something that Creed III lacks, an appropriately corny connection to the original Rocky movies.
  Still, Jordan and Masters energize the movie -- with a bit of help, of course. Phylicia Rashad signs on as Adonis’s mother and Wood Harris plays the trainer who warns Adonis against taking on Damien in the first place.
  Screenwriters Keenan Coogler and Zach Baylin use Adonis’s daughter and his ailing mother to soften Creed's dramatic muscle flexing.
  Adonis’s daughter is deaf and the movie features signing between mom and daughter and dad and daughter.
  Mom, too, has experienced a hearing loss. She's had to adjust her musical career, a secondary storyline that gives her a parallel problem to Adonis's woes, accepting new personal expectations.
    Enough. Creed III doesn't always make it easy to suspend disbelief nor does the movie work as a pure fable about underdog  triumphs. To me, Jordan's Creed seldom seemed like anything but a winner.
    Creed III occupies its own world. Maybe that's sufficient. I'd give Creed III a pass but I wouldn’t be sorry if Jordan were to hang up the gloves and devote his considerable talents to other endeavors. 
     At the same time, I wouldn’t bet against Creed IV.
    Successful movie franchises are difficult to resist -- for the folks who make them and for audiences that never seem to tire of return trips.

Does she know where she belongs?


   In director Davy Chou's Return to Seoul we meet a young woman with a Korean/French background (Park Ji-min) who was adapted as a baby and raised in France.
   At age 25, Freddie returns to Korea without a clear agenda but soon learns of an agency that can help locate her biological parents. No guarantees. The parents may not be willing to meet with her.
   That sounds like the setup for a conventional movie that takes its main character on a tearful journey of reconciliation.
   But Chou has other things in mind. To begin with, he builds  his movie around a character who is not especially likable, thus accepting a degree of risk more conventional filmmakers might avoid.
  Chou tells Freddie’s story over the course of eight years, jumping through time and dividing his movie into segments. Freddie lives through various phases of an evolution that has no clear destination.
   Early on, Freddie makes it clear to a young woman she meets upon her arrival (Guka Han) in Seoul that she has little interest in honoring Korean traditions. At a social gathering at a restaurant, she flaunts propriety, confronting a group of strangers with her daring and aggression, inserting herself into their evening of drinking.
   When Freddie meets her biological father (Oh Kwang-rok), she shows little interest in establishing the connection her guilty-ridden dad craves. 
  Oh’s character gives the movie a desperately sorrowful core; a heavy drinker, he's mired in remorse about having given up a daughter during a particularly difficult time. He now has a wife and children but can’t accept Freddie’s indifference.
   Giving us barely enough time to adjust, Chou again leaps ahead by two years. Freddie presumably has remained in Korea, where she spends her time club hopping.    
   She also meets with an older French man (Louis-Do de Lencquesaing) who hires her as a sales person for his company, which happens to deal in armaments, a trade of dubious morality.
   In another episode years later, Freddie returns to Korea with her French boyfriend (Yoann Zimmer). He accompanies her to a dinner with her father and an aunt (Kim Sun-young) who serves as a translator.
   The boyfriend tries to be supportive. It doesn’t take long for Freddie to kick him to the curb, dispensing with him with a snap of the fingers. She understands how quickly stability can be undermined and perhaps even takes willful pleasure in asserting control, even if through cruelty.
   You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t mentioned Freddie’s biological mother.  You'll have to see the movie to know why.
    Do we ever warm up to Freddie? Not really. She remains frustratingly separate from those she encounters and from us, as well.
  That makes Return to Seoul a movie about dislocation, anger and living through a puzzle where the pieces never seem to fit together. 
   Contrarily to expectation, Freddie may not be trying to find some kind of inner harmony. Instead, she's driven by needs, emotions, and sometimes by defensive postures that have become part of the strategy with which she approaches the world.
  That’s another way of saying we don’t have to like Freddie — only to find her intriguing and, more important, challenging.