Thursday, February 23, 2017

Audacious Oscar picks and predictions 2017

Hollywood loves movies about Hollywood, and there hasn't been a film so in love with Los Angeles and filmmaking as "La La Land" in a long, long time.

At a time when many in show business and journalism are feeling threatened by the political establishment, I think that will be reflected in what Academy voters pick for his year's Oscar winners. They'll go for joy and light over dourness and darkness.

Expect lots of anti-POTUS speeches, no matter who does win.

The end result is "La La Land" appears poised for a runaway night, at a time the Academy Awards are expected be more diverse than ever. Most of the preliminary awards have gone its way, including the Producer's Guild of America and the Director's Guild of America, which are pretty predictive. Interestingly, "Hidden Figures" took the best feature prize in the Screen Actors Guild awards, and actors represent the largest voting bloc in the Academy.

I had presumed that "Moonlight" and, to a lesser extent, "Manchester by the Sea" were the other two main contenders. If there is a surprise Best Picture winner, I now think it'll be "Figures."

Also, make sure to go check out my podcast with Ed Johnson-Ott on this year's Oscar race.

I thought 2016 was a very good year in cinema. Not as outstanding as 2015, which I still contend will go down as one of the all-time greats. Still, I gave out my top score -- 5 Yaps, 4 stars or an "A," depending on where the review was appearing -- to five feature films. I usually have one or two, and I've had many a year where I awarded it to none.

I made a concerted effort to see all 64 films nominated for an Oscar this year. It's harder than it sounds (or should be), especially for documentaries and foreign language films. I'm down to just one, the animated feature "My Life is a Zucchini," though I hope to rectify that by the time this posts.

 OK, enough chatter. Let's get down to the picks and predictions. As always, not only will I tell you who think will win and who should win, I'll gleefully toss out some of the nominees in favor of more deserving ones, in the hallowed tradition I call the "Chris Cross."

Best Picture

It seems I already hashed out most of the intrigue in the Best Picture race above. (Note to self: Keep introductions shorter.)

 I liked "La La Land," "Moonlight," "Hidden Figures" and "Lion" -- they're all fine films with noble efforts behind them. I just don't think any of them are Best Picture material, let alone a runaway favorite like "La La Land."

As I wrote about it when it came out, it's kind of adorable but kind of inconsequential. I much preferred Damien Chazelle's previous feature, "Whiplash." But it has the benefit of being a movie to which no one objects.

"Moonlight" had an interesting three-act structure that got less interesting to me with each time lapse. "Hidden Figures" is a standard feel-good historical drama that hits its notes 1-2-3. "Lion" is an amazing true story that plays out like Dev Patel is showcasing Google Earth.

My favorite of the year is well known. "Hell or High Water" was the best film I saw last year, a new/old Western that took a lot of familiar material and made it seem vibrant and alive. The shunning of "The Birth of a Nation" based on the filmmaker's adjudicated innocence of rape charges while in college is a travesty that rivals last year's #OscarsSoWhite protests.  

Will Win: "La La Land"
Should Win: "Hell or High Water"  
Chris Cross: "The Birth of a Nation," "Everybody Wants Some!!," "A Monster Calls" and "Sing Street" replace "La La Land," "Moonlight," "Hidden Figures" and "Lion."


Chazelle has this one pretty well wrapped up. He's won every preliminary award that I'm aware of, and most of the critic groups, too. And it is a very well-directed film -- the compositions, the story structure, the performances all seem to flow from one filmmaker's vision.

For a musical, I think the music is pretty take-it-or-leave-it. Neither Ryan Gosling or Emma Stone can sing very well, even with the help of selective editing of many recording takes. Just don't have the pipes.

The surprise nominee here is Mel Gibson for "Hacksaw Ridge," the culmination of a career rehabilitation not many would have bet on just a few short years ago.

The obvious omission here is David Mackenzie for "Hell or High Water." Tough call, but I'll knock out "Arrival" for failing to engage on an emotional level. Also, Martin Scorsese gave us one of cinema's greatest contemplations on faith, but I don't think he made "Silence" for awards and kudos.

I'll give my "should win" pick to Kenneth Lonergan. "Manchester by the Sea" is a very difficult emotional thicket to wade through, to maintain an elegiac tone while also introducing surprising notes of humor.  

Will Win: Chazelle  
Should Win: Lonergan  
Chris Cross: Mackenzie and Scorsese replace
Denis Villeneuve("Arrival") and Gibson.

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

Academy voters have often used the screenplay category to reward a smaller film and/or an up-and-coming filmmaker. That's why I think the award will go to Barry Jenkins for "Moonlight." It tackles difficult topics of race and sexuality in a sensitive and probing way; the film's gentleness just oozes out of every pore.

"Arrival" won the WGA award in this category, so I figure it's the other top contender. For my money, I'll take August Wilson's adaptation of his own play, "Fences." I usually don't care for stage-to-screen pictures, but this one had spot-on pacing, dialogue and characterizations.

Both "Hidden Figures" and "Lion" could have been a lot less clichéd than they are. I would have loved to see nominations for "A Monster Calls" and "Deadpool."

Yes, that's right, an Oscar nomination for a screenplay based on a comic book. When it's the year's cleverest writing, you betcha.  

Will Win: Jenkins  
Should Win: Wilson  
Chris Cross: Patrick Ness, "A Monster Calls," and Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, "Deadpool" replace
Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi ("Hidden Figures")and
Luke Davies ("Lion").

Writing (Original Screenplay)

This one's between "La La Land" and "Manchester by the Sea." Normally I think Oscar voters would like to honor a smaller piece of work they found ambitious, but the tidal surge for "La La Land" will change things up.

"The Lobster" was quirky for quirk's sake. I liked a lot of things about "20th Century Women," but the pieces added up to less than the sum of its parts.

I'll take "The Birth of a Nation" and "Sing Street" instead. I also really liked "Everybody Wants Some!!," but I think that film works because of its freewheeling atmosphere and truly ensemble cast rather than anything written down on a page.  

Will Win: Damien Chazelle, "La La Land."  

Should Win: Taylor Sheridan, "Hell or High Water."

Chris Cross: Nate Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin, "The Birth of a Nation," and John Carney and Simon Carmody, "Sing Street" replace
Efthimis Filippou and Yorgos Lanthimos, "The Lobster,"and
Mike Mills, "20th Century Women."


Actress in a Leading Role

This one is a REAL toss-up. Early on it was shaping up as a career capper for great French star Isabelle Huppert for "Elle." The film's subject matter -- a woman who develops a relationship with her rapist -- is probably too strong for a lot of older Academy voters.

I think a lot of people will vote for Meryl Streep just because they want to see her continue her Trump feud from the biggest podium in the world. In the end, though, "Florence Foster Jenkins" is hardly one of her top performances.

My should-win pick would be Ruth Negga, who really had to carry the film "Loving" because her film counterpart is such a reserved, withdrawn guy. But she's too much of a newcomer to contend. On the flip side, Natalie Portman recently won the award and "Jackie" is not a particularly well-regarded picture.

So I'm predicting Emma Stone will win. She's a fine young actress and I'm sure the award will do a lot for her career. I don't really begrudge her.

There was a lot of talk about snubs for Amy Adams in "Arrival," but I hardly think it was her best work.

It was a terrific year for female lead performances. Usually there's a filler or two in this category, but there are many others you could have pointed to as deserving. My only regret is that Rebecca Hall didn't get more traction for her brilliant performance in "Christine," a deeply immersive portrait of a suicidal TV journalist.  

Will Win: Stone  
Should Win: Negga  
Chris Cross: Hall replaces


Actress in a Supporting Role

I'm not a fan of category-hopping, and that's exactly what Viola Davis is doing here. Her role in "Fences" is obviously a leading one. That's the way August Wilson wrote it. Indeed, when Denzel Washington and much of the same cast brought about the stage revival a few years ago, Davis was nominated for the Best Actress Tony, not Supporting.

 I don't blame Davis; it's the studio that pushed her as a supporting actress. And based on the preliminary awards, it appears the ruse will work.

I thought the best performance in this category was Naomie Harris in "Moonlight." Playing the crack-addicted mother, she gave the character such a depth of despair and resentment. And here's my favorite stat of the film year: Harris was on set for a grand total of three days. She did that. In three days.

Just amazing. Nicole Kidman was fine in "Lion" and Octavia Spencer was, too, in "Hidden Figures," but they were one- (maybe two-) note characters who represent more an ideal than a person.

Rachel Weisz gave four indelible performances in 2016: "The Light Between Oceans," "Denial," "The Lobster" and "Complete Unknown." The fact the Academy couldn't see fit to honor even one of the represents the year's truly egregious snub. So I'll give her two spots!  

Will Win: Davis  
Should Win: Harris  
Chris Cross: Felicity Jones, "A Monster Calls," Rachel Weisz, "The Light Between Oceans" and Rachel Weisz again, "The Lobster," replace
Kidman, Davisand


Actor in a Leading Role

This one had seemed to be Casey Affleck's to lose. His only real competition is Denzel Washington, who took the SAG award. Plus, it truly was the best performance by an actor this year.

Old allegations of sexual harassment have come back to haunt Affleck, so a lot or prognosticators are picking Washington. But I think Affleck will prevail.

I was glad to see Andrew Garfield get a nod for his sensitive portrayal of a deeply religious man willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for his faith in "Hacksaw Ridge" -- although he actually did a better job of doing the same thing in Martin Scorsese's criminally unseen "Silence."

 I was similarly pleased to see Viggo Mortensen receive a nod for "Captain Fantastic," a terrific little picture I'm hoping more people will seek out as a result of this accolade.

Ryan Gosling was fine, but c'mon -- this was the equivalent of seeing a pitcher's third-best pitch. Not a lot of heavy lifting there.

How about Ethan Hawke in the little-seen "Born to Be Blue"? Or Don Cheadle in "Miles Ahead"? Two great explorations of troubled jazz greats. I know that leaves me a spot shy; coin flip between Hawke and Cheadle.

 Will Win: Affleck  
Should Win: Affleck  
Chris Cross: Cheadle and Garfield for "Silence" replace
Gosling, "La La Land"and
Garfield, "Hacksaw Ridge."


Actor in a Supporting Role

This is usually one of the busiest categories. I could easily swap out this list of five actors for five more, and then go find another quintet that's deserving.

First, the bumps: Lucas Hedges had a breakout performance in "Manchester," but it was still surprising to see such a young actor get the nod over veteran performers like Ben Foster in "Hell or High Water" or Hugh Grant in "Florence Foster Jenkins."

I'd also nix Dev Patel for blatant category hopping. For cripes' sake, he's the star of the movie. His face is on all the posters. His character's name is the title. True, during the first half the character is played by another actor. But by any sane measure -- screen time, centrality to the story, lines of dialogue -- that's a leading performance.

Other potential nominees: Kevin Costner in "Hidden Figures;" Stephen Henderson, "Fences;" Tom Wilkinson or Timothy Spall from "Denial;" Aaron Taylor-Johnson, "Nocturnal Animals," etc.

 For my should-win, I'll take Michael Shannon from "Nocturnal," another twisty, edged performance from an actor who always surprises.  

Will Win: Mahershala Ali, "Moonlight" 
Should Win: Shannon  
Chris Cross: Foster and Spall for


Animated Feature

For once it appears the truly best animated feature is going to win over "whatever Disney / Pixar has nominated this year."

"Kubo and the Two Strings" was just a triumph in every way imaginable. The combination of stop-motion photography and CGI backgrounds and effects was seamless. A transporting movie that feels like an ancient Japanese parable.

I thought "Moana" was an imaginative take-off on the staid Disney princess genre, filled with wonderful music, animation, characters and themes. And turns out The Rock can sing!

"Zootopia" was good-not-great. I liked "The Red Turtle" but I think many will find it too minimalist. Still hoping to see the stop-motion "My Life as a Zucchini."

Bit of a weak year for animation. Not many saw "A Little Prince," which deserved a bigger audience.  

Will Win: "Kubo and the Two Strings"  
Should Win: "Kubo and the Two Strings"  
Chris Cross: "A Little Prince" replaces


Foreign Language Film

This category is bothersome because often the best foreign films don't even get considered for a nomination, because there are arcane rules about what movies get submitted from each country. My three favorite foreign language films this year were, in order, "Our Little Sister," "Dheepan" and "The Handmaiden," and none of them got in.

I've seen all five nominees -- and it took some doing to get a screener link for "Tanna," which is just a wonderful modern Romeo and Juliet type of story based on the experiences of a real native people. One of the flat-out most beautiful films of the year.

Of those nominated I'll pick "Land of Mine," a Dutch drama about young German soldiers (boys, really) forced to recover land mines from the beach by their captors after WWII. Great little piece of unknown history.

Predicting a winner is tough. "A Man Called Ove" is the sentimental choice. "The Salesman" might get the nod because of its Iranian origin and political climate; the filmmaker is boycotting the Oscar ceremony. Picking it would be a big statement by Academy voters.

Of those remaining, "Toni Erdmann," a weird and quirky German black comedy, has the highest profile, what with an American remake starring Kristen Wiig and Jack Nicholson just announced. So it has a shot to win.

I also liked "Neruda," a very non-traditional biopic of the writer/activist, but not enough to bump "Tanna."  

Will Win: "The Salesman"  
Should Win: "Land of Mine"  
Chris Cross: "Our Little Sister," "Dheepan" and "The Handmaiden" replace
"Toni Erdmann,""The Salesman"and
"A Man Called Ove."


Documentary Feature

A pretty good year for documentaries. Unfortunately, this list of five nominees doesn't even come close to representing the best work of 2016.

"O.J.: Made in America" seems to have this category locked up. It's a fine piece of work, though I would pick the un-nominated "Weiner" as my favorite of the year. But the simple truth is "O.J." is a television documentary miniseries. It was conceived as part of ESPN's "30 for 30" series. After nominal theatrical screenings, it aired on television over several nights -- with commercials. It was edited to include pauses for said commercials. It will be eligible for Emmy prizes next awards cycle.

In form and substance, it is indistinguishable from the work Ken Burns has been doing for decades. If this film wins an Oscar, then Burns should own at least four or five.

Of those nominated, I'll take "Life, Animated," an endearing tale of an autistic boy who learns to connect with the world through Disney animated films. It has a puncher's chance of beating "O.J."

"Fire at Sea" is an often dull look at the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean; it needed a good edit and to be a documentary short rather than a feature. "I Am Not Your Negro" is a rumination on race in America through the words of the late James Baldwin; it's solid but hardly Oscar-worthy. "13th" is a one-sided political screed that takes giant liberties with facts and history; I actually shut it off in anger at one point (though I did eventually watch the rest).

So many other good docs to choose from; I'll nix this entire list.  

Will Win: "O.J.: Made in America"  
Should Win: "Life, Animated"  
Chris Cross: "Author: the JT LeRoy Story," "The Invisible Patients," "Night School," "Weiner" and "Command and Control" replace
the entire field.


Documentary Short

First year I was able to see all of these. I was struck by how many of them, like "Fire at Sea" among the features, eschew traditional editing. There seems to be a deliberate aesthetic to embrace cinema verite style: Just let the cameras roll and let scenes run.

Problem is, many scenes don't deserve this screen time. They reach their natural point of cutting to the next informational/emotional progression, and then just... don't. The result is frustratingly paced movies sapped of strength.

Of those nominated, I'll take "Extremis," a journalistic exploration of wrenching end-of-life decisions by patients, their families and doctors. "Joe's Violin" is the sentimental pick, so it always has a chance with the Academy's large bloc of older voters.

 Three of the docs are about unrest in the Middle East and/or the resulting refugee crisis. Normally I would think that subject matter would appeal to Oscar voters, but there's a good chance they will end up splitting the vote. Of the trio, "The White Helmets" has the best shot.

Coin toss; oldsters rule.

Will Win: "Joe's Violin"  
Should Win: "Extremis"


Short Film (Animated)

This has essentially become the Disney/Pixar Award. I'm glad the animation giant uses short films to build up its younger talent, but there are a lot of other great films this year with deeper, richer themes. "Piper" has visual but not storytelling ambition.

Case in point: "Pear Cider and Cigarettes" is a masterful piece by Robert Valley based on his decades-long friendship with a troublesome character named Techno Stypes. It's visually arresting, using more of a motion-comics aesthetic than either traditional hand-drawn or computer-generated animation approaches.

 I also really liked "Pearl," a girl's reminiscence on music, her dad and his car.  

Will Win: "Piper"  
Should Win: "Pear Cider and Cigarettes"


Short Film (Live Action)

"Mindenki" ("Sing") was my favorite, a Hungarian drama about a school choir that approaches children at eye level. "Ennemis Intérieurs," a tense French film about an Arab man being interrogated for terrorist ties -- and my least favorite of the five -- will probably win.  

Will Win: "Ennemis Intérieurs"  
Should Win: "Mindenki"



Now we segue into the "minor" awards -- a term I hate but recognize. In a year where one film is seen as dominant, these other categories tend to get swept along in the stampede. It's a shame, because the Best Picture winner doesn't automatically have the best photography, or costumes, or sound, etc.

As a result, I think we're going to see a lot of the "down-list" awards go to "La La land." It is a legitimately amazing-looking film, though I'll take "Silence" for its lush Japanese compositions. The lack of a nod for "Hell or High Water" galls.  

Will Win: "La La Land"  
Should Win: "Silence"  
Chris Cross: "Hell or High Water" replaces


Costume Design

I did not like a lot of things about "Jackie," but it's the rare film where costumes are central to the story and characters. I also really liked the look of "Allied" -- I was lusting after Brad Pitt's three-piece suits.  

Will Win: "La La Land"  
Should Win: "Jackie"


Film Editing

Will Win: "La La Land"
Should Win: "Hacksaw Ridge"


Production Design

Will Win: "La La Land"  
Should Win: "La La Land"


Sound Mixing

Will Win: "La La Land"
Should Win: "Hacksaw Ridge"


Sound Editing

Will Win: "La La Land"  
Should Win: "Hacksaw Ridge"


Visual Effects

Here's one category "La La Land" can't win! Interesting to see "Kubo and the Two Strings" nominated here; you almost never see animated films get a nod in the technical categories.  

Will Win: "The Jungle Book"  
Should Win: "Doctor Strange"


Makeup and Hairstyling

Will Win: "Star Trek Beyond"  
Should Win: "Suicide Squad"


Music (Original Song)

I heard a lot of great songs this year. The best song from "Moana" didn't even get nominated: I much prefer the rolling, Polynesian-influenced "We Know the Way" to the main character's theme song. But there's no chance the dominant film, which is a musical, doesn't win Best Song.  

Will Win: "City Of Stars" from "La La Land"  
Should Win: "How Far I'll Go" from "Moana"


Music (Original Score)

A lot of people get musical score vs. song confused, especially in a musical. Justin Hurwitz worked on the music for "La La Land" for seven years. I personally prefer the moody, atonal music from "Jackie."  

Will Win: Justin Hurwitz, "La La Land"  
Should Win: Mica Levi, "Jackie"

Review: "A United Kingdom"

“A United Kingdom” is less a story of romantic love than love of country. Patriotism seems out of favor these days, or at least a little frightening in some of its recent incarnations. But this film, based on the real marriage between an African king and an English woman, shows us the noblest side of devotion to one’s people.

David Oyelowo gives a powerful, emotionally layered performance as Seretse Khama, the crown prince of Botswana, known in 1947 as Bechuanaland, a British protectorate. His father died when he was a small child, so his uncle Tshekedi (Vusi Kunene) has ruled as regent for the past two decades.

He’s all set to return home after completing his education studying the law in England, and take his rightful place on the throne. But then he falls for Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike), a humble clerk, and they determine to marry. This sets off an international brouhaha, as various forces react harshly to the wedding of a white woman and a black man.

Most notably, the South Africans are in the process of instituting apartheid, i.e. total separation of the races with the whites as the unquestioned masters. It wouldn’t do to have an interracial couple ruling the fragile nation on their northern border, and the British are too badly in need of their gold and uranium to risk upsetting the balance.

Director Amma Asante (“Belle”) and screenwriter Guy Hibbert (“Eye in the Sky”) rush us somewhat through the courtship and wedding. But that’s fine, because the film really kicks into high gear when they return to Africa. They’d counted on some resistance and even hatred, but are surprised when seemingly every party is moving against them.

A pair of British bureaucrats, played by Jack Davenport and Tom Felton in full pomp-and-snobbery mode, frustrate them at every turn while presenting a genteel face and even the façade of friendship. Meanwhile, Ruth must deal with the other women of the royal family, notably Seretse’s sister Naledi (Terry Pheto), who are offended that this lily-white woman has presented herself for the role as mother to their country.

The story follows the historical record, with some omissions and condensing of timelines. We move between the houses of British Parliament and the more democratically pure kgotlas of Bechuanaland, as men gather in the open air to hear the appeals of their leaders and vote their will.

Ultimately this is Seretse Khama’s story, a great man whose name is probably unknown to many on these shores. He was an early voice for equality between the races and independence for burgeoning countries.

Oyelowo also shows him to be a shrewd man who knew he had little real power other than what his tongue and example could bring. He and his wife are separated for long stretches as a ruse brings him to London so an exile can be imposed, then teased at being rescinded, just to keep the South Africans pacified.

“A United Kingdom” perhaps tugs a little too hard at the heartstrings at times -- Patrick Doyle’s syrupy musical score lends no favors. But it has the majesty of a true story told with conviction by a fine cast.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Review: "The Red Turtle"

An Oscar nominee for Best Animated Feature, “The Red Turtle” is deceptively simplistic.

The story is utterly wordless, the plot beyond spare. The hand-drawn animation uses only the barest of lines to render its characters and creatures. It’s more the way they move and hold themselves that lends them hidden depths.

Inured as we are to dazzling CG animation, at first this style may even appear prehistoric. In a fashion, it is -- in the way that fables seem stuck out of time.

A joint Japanese/Dutch production directed by Michael Dudok de Wit, from a screenplay he wrote with Pascale Ferran, “The Red Turtle” is more like a painting in motion than a traditional animated film.

It opens in black and white, an open, roiling sea where a man has become separated from his boat. He is marooned on an island; he finds ways to survive his isolation, but after a time he builds a raft to escape from it. Then a sudden primal bump smashes his crude craft of vine-lashed bamboo. He builds another. Same thing happens. He is mystified by what’s attacking him.

Eventually, it’s revealed to be a massive crimson sea turtle. It seems determined not to let him leave the island, and their conflict escalates. It’s not so much that the man hates the turtle, but resents it trapping him. Later, a woman comes into his life unexpectedly, and their lives are joined. Things go on from there.

There’s a hazy, dream-like quality to the animation, especially the backgrounds of ocean and sky. Despite running a scant 80 minutes, the film is contemplative and may strike some as slow.

The filmmakers and animators of “The Red Turtle” ask us to surrender ourselves to their imagery and natural sounds, occasionally accompanied by mournful music (by Laurent Perez del Mar), rather than being pushed and pulled by editing and actions.

Just relax, and breathe it in.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Video review: "Manchester by the Sea"

Sad movies have a place in our lives. Hollywood hasn’t been making a lot of them in recent years, so people don’t go to them when they do come out, and it becomes a chicken-or-the-egg thing.

The thinking goes that folks only go to the theater to be lifted up out of their workaday miseries.

Horsepucky. Sad movies can be indelible because they show us human beings at their lowest, and then how they find their way back toward the light. The best ones, I think, aren’t stories of total redemption, but lead their suffering characters at least to the crossroads where positive outcomes finally seem plausible, if far from certain.

(Think “Cast Away.” If Tom Hanks makes it off the island and gets back together with Helen Hunt, it becomes a fuzzy life-can-survive melodrama.)

“Manchester By the Sea” is one of the saddest and best movies of 2016. Casey Affleck gives the performance of his career as Lee Chandler, a surly Boston janitor who’s summoned back to his hometown after the death of his brother, Joe. The passing is sudden but not surprising, as Joe had been suffering from a serious heart condition.

However, Lee is stunned to find out that Joe has named him guardian of his son, Patrick (a terrific Lucas Hedges). This had never been discussed between the brothers. Joe has left an adequate financial dispensation for the 16-year-old to finish school and start his adult life. But emotionally, there’s almost nothing in the bank.

Once they were close when Patrick was a little kid, but something has happened in the intervening years. Whatever it was, it’s the sort of thing people don’t like to talk about. All we know is that Lee’s soul is etched with some kind of black mark, as surely as if there were a scarlet letter pinned to his chest.

Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan wisely makes his movie not about the thing that happened, but how people deal with it in the years that follow. We do not learn exactly what it was until fairly late in the movie, but at this point the whys and wherefores really aren’t all that important.

A terrific supporting cast hits all the right notes, including Michelle Williams as Lee’s ex-wife, C.J. Wilson as a caring friend of Joe’s and Gretchen Mol as Patrick’s mother, who turns up after a long absence. Of course, Lee immediately seizes upon her as a way out of his predicament.

It’s OK to feel sad. And it would be truly a pity to miss out on a film as good as this.

Bonus features are merely adequate, and are the same for DVD and Blu-ray editions. There are deleted scenes, a making-of featurette and a conversation with Lonergan.



Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Review: "Fist Fight"

So “Fist Fight” is based on a concept that doesn’t survive past its first minute: one high school teacher challenging another to a fight in the parking lot after school lets out.

Sure, it’s a comedy -- but even funny films owe us a certain amount of plausible rectitude.

By all rights, this movie should have died in its infancy. Deserved to be slapped down during the pitch meeting in the producer’s office. Flung objects would not have been unwarranted.

But they went ahead and wrote it, filmed it, edited it and put music to it, and pushed it out into theaters. And I had to watch it.

SO many questions…
  • What exactly does Mr. Strickland, the surly history teacher played by Ice Cube, think he’s going to accomplish by fighting his offender? He’s already lost his job for taking an axe to a student’s desk – while the student was still in it -- so is he just determined to end his day by getting arrested?
  • Maybe he knows something we don’t, because the law enforcement response to the impending fight is astonishingly tepid. The 9-1-1 operators even laugh about it.
  • Andy Campbell, the nerdy English teacher played by Charlie Day, spends the entire movie trying to get out of the fight we know is ultimately going to happen, using all sorts of schemes and contretemps. At one point he bribes a student with an expensive laptop to change his story to the principal (Dean Norris). Why doesn’t he just say, “Hey, I’m sick, going home” around lunchtime?
  • Why is it that news about the fight spreads through Roosevelt High School like wildfire, and then onto the Internet, even spawning YouTube videos and the hashtag #teacherfight, but none of the school administrators or Andy’s wife (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) ever hear about it?
I will admit to laughing now and then. Tracy Morgan gets a few as Freddie, the brash and utterly incompetent football coach. And I liked Jillian Bell as Holly, the no-boundaries teacher who openly desires hookups with her teenage charges, and takes meth -- but only before school, not during, she says when admonished by Andy.

“Because it’s a gateway?” she asks.

“Well, it’s the finish line,” he responds.

Other than that, it’s a chore to get through. Subplots involving Andy’s very pregnant wife a talent show competition with his daughter don’t provide much comedic ammo, though the latter ends with a shock.

Charlie Day’s motormouth nebbish routine is good at lighting up other movies (“Pacific Rim”), but a lot of that goes a short way. And Cube is just doing that familiar snarly ‘tude thing that has taken his film career a lot further than it deserved.

If there’s a lesson to be taken home from “Fist Fight,” it’s that sometimes you just have to stand up for yourself. Specifically, your right to buy a ticket to something else.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Reeling Backward: "The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings" (1976)

"The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings" is a notable watershed film, and not just for having one of the longest titles anyone has ever seen.

This 1976 drama/comedy highlighted largely forgotten portions of the history of cinema, baseball and the city of Indianapolis. For starters, it's one of the few modern mainstream movies you can point to in which every single major character is black. A few white people appear, but they're tiny supporting parts or backgrounders (often stepping forward to spew a racial epithet and then leave).

Even the villainous roles are filled by black actors, from the odious power-hungry team owner to the grim-faced goons he employs to keep the uppity players in line. 

Billy Dee Williams, James Earl Jones and Richard Pryor provide the star power, with the likes of Stan Shaw and Mabel King rounding out a strong supporting cast.

A lot of people know about Negro League baseball, but not how it ended. With the integration of the sport accelerating rapidly, the league largely ended as a competitive endeavor by the mid-1950s. Many operations continued as barnstorming entertainment spectacles, however, often featuring ex-Negro League stars like Satchel Paige.

Writer William Brashler based his novel on one such outfit, the Indianapolis Clowns. The  Clowns were the last surviving team of the Negro Leagues, and continued performing exhibition games until the mid-1980s. A young Hank Aaron played on the team before being called up to the big leagues. The Clowns operated as sort of a baseball version of the Harlem Globetrotters, doing tricks and jokes in between the baseball, fully living up to their name.

(If you're offended at the team moniker, remember that a lot of Negro League teams had overtly racial names: the Birmingham Black Barons, Atlanta Black Crackers, Winfield Devils, etc.)

Writing partners Hal Barwood and Matthew Robbins were brought in to turn the book into a script. They had just gotten their big break with "The Sugarland Express" for Steven Spielberg; other notable credits include "MacArthur" and the immortal "Dragonslayer."

Director John Badham started out in television, and this film marked his feature film directorial debut. The following year he made "Saturday Night Fever," and would go on to a busy career in the 1980s and '90s, including "Short Circuit," "WarGames," "Stakeout" and "Blue Thunder." Closing in on age 80, he's still busy in TV today, including directing a number of episodes of the series "Supernatural."

It should be noted the entire creative team was white guys, though Berry Gordy served as producer for the film, which was a joint production of his Motown Productions and Universal Pictures.

Set in 1939, the story is about a pair of Negro League stars who chafe at the onerous treatment of their team owners and resolve to start their own exhibition team, with all proceeds split equally amongst the members. Williams plays Bingo Long, a veteran star pitcher loosely based on Satchel Paige. He's in his prime but feels the pull of the years, and jumps at the chance to have something of their own.

The impetus is the latest assault by St. Louis Ebony Aces owner Sallison Potter (Ted Ross), a mortuary man who gives his players only slightly better treatment than the stiffs who come in his door. Rainbow (DeWayne Jessie), a young hitter, is knocked out cold by a beanball pitch and rendered unable to play or even speak. Potter collects $5 each from the pay of each player to buy the bus ticket home for Rainbow, without even so much as a thank-you or may-I.

Bingo's best friend is Leon Carter (Jones), a catcher and power hitter inspired by Josh Gibson. He's a bit older and a bit wiser, and first plants the seeds of this diamond field rebellion by quoting from W. E. B. Du Bois about controlling the means of production.

Before you know it, they're all piled into Bingo's fancified jalopy, with rainbow-colored uniforms and a two-stepping march worked up for the ride into each new town to draw a crowd and parade them to the baseball field. Walter Murchman (John McCurry) is also invited along even though all the other players hate him, because he has the second car they'll need to get around.

Other All-Stars include "Fat" Sam Popper (Leon Wagner), who's barely even pudgy by today's standards; Champ Chambers (Jophery C. Brown); Tony Burton as Isaac, a bald-headed player whose duties on his previous team included catering to the very personal demands of the female team owner; and "Esquire Joe" Calloway (Stan Shaw), a 19-year-old wunderkind they pick up along the road, who ends up being called up to a white farm team in the end.

Pryor has a supporting role as Charlie Snow, who straightens his hair and tries to pass himself off as a Cuban named Carlos Nevada, figuring he'll have a better shot at breaking into the white leagues that way. He serves mostly as comedic relief, including a bit where he attempts to lay a white prostitute and gets chased around the hotel Keystone Cops-style.

But Charlie/Carlos is laid low about halfway through when Potter's mercenaries corner him under the grandstand. The film is an interesting mix of laugh-a-thon hi jinks and more sobering sequences like this, where Carlos is mutilated with razor blades and the team has to sink all their funds into the doctor's bill to help him.

Probably the low/high point of the film's "message" portion is when the team seems to be falling apart, and Bingo has to put Rainbow on a bus home himself -- even temporarily adopting the harsh language and demeanor of their old slave master Potter.

Mabel King plays Bertha Dewitt, the aforementioned female owner and sexual powerhouse. She's an interesting character -- a mountain of a woman who's just as greedy and conniving as her fellows, but at least has sense enough to suggest enlisting Bingo Long's All-Stars to play their own teams, filling the stands rather than trying to destroy them. She acts as Potter's main adversary, continually trading insults about how fat and unattractive the other one is.

The actors employ a great deal of authentic vernacular in the movie, and I wonder how much of it is in the book/script and how much the cast themselves contributed. Even Leon, who's clearly presented as the cagiest and most learned of the All-Stars, says things like "I loves you and I's proud o' you." Jones and the other actors never try to play down to their characters, simply reflecting how black people spoke in the 1930s.

Even if, like me, you're not a baseball fan, there's a whole lot of the flavor of the game to be savored in "Bingo Long." Though the actors don't necessarily pass themselves off as accomplished pitchers or hitters, they're convincing enough for the close-ups. I love the scenes of the stands filled with black folks, stamping their feet, chattering and laying bets on each at-bat.

Bingo has a tradition before each home game of throwing to the first hitter without his team taking the field -- daring them to put wood to ball with no one there to field it. He makes a real show of it, doing a call-and-answer with the crowd: "Who... gonna hit... my... invite pitch?!?"

I'm truly glad I got to see "The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars & Motor Kings." It may not be the best film ever made, but it's one of those movies that enlightens while it entertains. Go catch it yourself.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Video review: "Arrival"

“Arrival” is a fine science fiction drama, more contemplative and imaginative than we usually see. But a Best Picture Oscar nominee? Please.

(In this regard it shares a lot of company, up to and including the runaway favorite, “La La Land.”)

Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a scientist specializing in languages. When giant black ebony space ships suddenly appear out of the sky, silently taking up station at random points around the globe, she’s brought in to try to communicate with the invaders.

The “heptapods” allow the humans into their ships once every 18 hours. We see some massive tentacles through a clear wall, but the only sounds they make are grunts and screeches that none of the other big brains can make sense of.

Louise, working with fellow egghead Ian (Jeremy Renner), try to use visual aids to make a breakthrough. Meanwhile, military leaders (including Forest Whitaker) are barking orders and international leaders are stoking fears, believing that the aliens came to provoke a war.

The pivotal role falls to Louise, who discovers that the extraterrestrials do not view time in the same linear line as humans.

I don’t mean to deplore “Arrival.” My chief criticism is that it’s a movie that works very much on an intellectual level and not so much on an emotional one. Most films go the other way, so it’s refreshing to see one aim more for the mind than the heart.

The truly best films, though – the kind nominated for Best Picture – should do both.

Bonus features are a bit lacking, especially if you buy the DVD edition, which contains none.

The Blu-ray comes with five making-of featurettes: “Xenolinguistincs: Understanding Arrival,” “Acoustic Signatures: The Sound Design,” “Eternal Recurrence: The Score,” “Nonlinear Thinking: The Editorial Process” and “Principles of Time, Memory & Language.”