Sunday, March 18, 2018

Video review: "Downsizing"

If they gave out awards for most promising films that come out during the awards cycle and turn out to be a colossal disappointment, I’ve no doubt “Downsizing” would be a top contender to win.

Starring Oscar winners Matt Damon and Christoph Waltz, from director Alexander Payne (“The Descendants”) and frequent script collaborator Jim Taylor (“Sideways”), both Academy Award owners themselves, “Downsizing” looked to be a pointed satire about consumerism and American obsession with status.

Matt Damon plays ordinary schlep Paul Safranek, who volunteers to go through the process of “minimization” along with his wife, Audrey (Kristen Wiig). This is a relatively new procedure developed in Norway where humans are shrunk down by 99%, so they consume much less food, water and space, thus putting the planet on a stronger path to a stable environment.

Of course, that’s not how it’s sold to the public. It turns out that it pays to “get small” -- quite literally. Like a lot of middle-class Americans, Paul and Audrey are struggling to get by financially. But it turns out that little folks live like kings, because of some screwy economic calculations that are deliberately left a little fuzzy.

Go little, retire early and trade in your hovel for a McMansion! Sounds great, right?

Things go south quickly for Paul when (spoiler alert) Audrey gets cold feet right before the procedure, and he’s left lonely, divorced and working in a lowly call center for little folk. His next door neighbor, Dusan (Waltz), lives the high life filled with parties and connections.

Through him Paul meets Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau), a political activist-turned-maid who opens up his eyes to the economic inequity at the heart of the minimization racket. The haves live the life of luxury they don’t deserve, while people like Tran can’t even get a decent prosthetic for her missing leg.

(Accenting the split between the ultra-rich and those who serve them is always an odd ploy coming from mainstream Hollywood, where multimillionaires are waited on hand and foot by subsidence help. But let’s move on.)

Things get really strange when the story takes the trio to Norway, where we meet some of the scientists who first developed the breakthrough and are now having second thoughts.

The first act of “Downsizing” is fairly smart and filled with funny observations. But right at the point where Paul is abandoned by his spouse, the movie jumps completely off the tracks and never finds its way back.

Lesson: if you’re going to hire Kristen Wiig, don’t give her the boot 30 minutes into the film.

Video extras are a might slim, and are limited to the Blu-ray version: the DVD contains none. They consist of six making-of documentary shorts: “Working with Alexander,” “The Cast,” “A Visual Journey,” “A Matter of Perspective,” “That Smile” and “A Global Concern.”



Thursday, March 15, 2018

Review: "Tomb Raider"

 I hadn't even seen "Tomb Raider" yet and I was already sick of hearing about it.

How they translated the video game series into a rebooted film franchise for a new generation. About all the nifty stunts and set pieces. How tiny Swedish star Alicia Vikander worked out for months and subsisted on one of those fish-avocados-and-eggs diets in order to bulk up and get the prerequisite bumpy belly.

(I really don't know when in our popular culture bumpy bellies became a thing. It used to be you wanted to look trim and tight. Now we're supposed to want our stomachs to look rippled potato chips. Seems like a screwy contradiction, if you ask me.)

As a ciswhiteoldishmale, I've been reliably instructed that I'm not allowed to comment on women's bodies. Nuts to that. If you make a big-budget movie based on a game whose major appeal was a heroine who looked like a Victoria's Secret model, then her appearance is well within the bounds of discussion -- especially when it impacts how the film plays.

This is decidedly different take on Lara Croft than the Angelina Jolie movie from 2001. Say what you will about that movie, but Jolie seemed more than physically capable. Could take it, and dish it out, like any male action hero counterpart. In a word, she was tough.

Vikander, in a word, is frail. Even with the aforementioned buffing-up, her look is still more ballerina than badass. Her Lara gets her ass kicked a lot in the movie, almost entirely by male combatants (with the exception of a female sparring partner near the beginning, who also wipes the floor with her). And she emits a lot of girlish squeaks and dainty yelps in the process.

So it's a much more vulnerable version of the character. I guess the idea for director Roar Uthaug and screenwriters Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons was to have Lara more relatable. But the overall effect is to make her come across as weak.

Arriving in the footsteps of the physically and thematically muscular "Wonder Woman," this feels like something of a retreat.

Lara isn't even a real adventurer as the story opens, just an orphaned young woman working as a bicycle courier and doing a little kickboxing on the side. She's a sadgirl because her beloved daddy (Dominic West) disappeared mysteriously seven years ago, leaving her with regrets -- along with a massive fortune and estate, if only she'll sign the papers declaring him legally dead.

This she has refused to do, because... well, there is no good reason. Only movie people would toil, unable to even pay their gym fees, when there's billions at your beckoning.

Anyway, she discovers that father was secretly an Indiana Jones-type archeologist. When he went missing, he was working on the mystery of an ancient Japanese queen named Himiko, a sorceress who could kill with just a touch. Her tomb is shrouded in secrecy on a mystery island, and the elder Croft was trying to prevent an evil group called the Order of Trinity from finding it and exploiting her wretched powers.

In his death decree, daddy Croft instructs Lara to destroy all his research so as not to endanger the fate of the entire world. Instead, she carefully gathers it all up and books a ship so she can sail to the island and deliver it right to the bad guys.

This Lara Croft may be tight in the abs, but she's soft in the head.

Walton Goggins plays Vogel, the heavy leading a force of mercenaries and slave labor on the island. Unable to escape himself until he's completed his mission, Vogel stumbles about in a fog, occasionally shooting someone to make a point. Daniel Wu plays Lu Ren, the helpful ship captain who becomes Lara's henchman.

"Tomb Raider" is a decently entertaining movie, especially in the second half as they make their way into the tomb and encounter all sorts of nasty traps, tricks and puzzles. I never played any of the video games, but those who have tell me the film's plot follows the recent reboot of the game fairly faithfully.

I especially liked one river-born sequence, where Lara is in danger of being swept over a massive waterfall, and uses the carcass of a rotted B-17 bomber as her (rapidly deteriorating) lifeline.

I'm not sure we needed a wimpier version of Lara Croft, or indeed if we needed another film version of the video game at all. Energetic but unnecessary, it sits there like a giant meatball, simply existing.

Review: "7 Days in Entebbe"

It is a strange truism of history that we better remember the disasters than the victories. At least, on a smaller scale. The really huge successes like, say, the evacuation of Dunkirk spawn reams of books and even an Oscar-nominated film.

But the rescue of a hundred mostly Jewish hostages from terrorist hijackers? That sort of thing of thing tends to recede into the ocean of the collective consciousness.

I’ll admit I was not very aware of the Air France flight hijacking of 1976. True, I was a small child at the time. But it’s inarguable that it doesn’t have the sort of profile in the public record that the Munich Olympics kidnappings or the United Airlines Flight 93 hijacking on 9/11 do.

(Both examples got their own major motion picture adaptation, by the way.)

But Operation Thunderbolt, in which Israeli special forces mounted a daring rescue at Uganda’s largest airport, is one of those quiet watershed moments that deserves its own cinematic commemoration. It arrives in the form of the thoughtful and suspenseful “7 Days in Entebbe.”

The rescue became the model for the militaries of other nations, including the U.S., to study for successful operations of this type. It marked the moment when Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and other senior Israeli officials started to back away from their policy of never negotiating with their enemies.

The operation was also notable for the single Israeli soldier who was killed being the older brother of Benjamin Netanyahu, the current hard-line leader of Israel.

Director José Padilha and screenwriter Gregory Burke approach the historical events at eye level, showing us how the week transpired from the sides of the hostages, the airline pilots, the Israeli leaders mulling over whether to give into demands and the soldiers tasked with planning and executing a bold solution.

Perhaps controversially, they also include the terrorists in the equation, depicting them not as killing automatons, but human beings with doubts, convictions and complexities.

Daniel Brühl and Rosamund Pike are, in fact, the main characters as Wilfried Böse and Brigitte Kuhlmann, two German revolutionaries responsible for leading the actual hijacking of the flight from Tel Aviv, diverting it to Entebbe, Uganda.

They are doing this out of solidarity with Palestinians, and in fact the major demand of the terrorists was the release of 50 or so mostly PLO prisoners held by Israel. They fret about being viewed as Nazis, since roughly a third of the passengers are Jew -- especially if it becomes necessary to kill the hostages.

They wrestle with their conscious, especially after they arrive in Uganda and the Arabs take over, separating the Jews from the rest of the hostages, some of whom are released at the urging of Ugandan leader Idi Amin (a terrific Nonso Anozie), who collaborated with the terrorists.

In the Israeli corridors of power, Prime Minister Rabin (Lior Ashkenazi) vies with Defense Minister Shimon Peres (Eddie Marsan) over whether to negotiate with terrorists or attempt a rescue. It’s an interesting power play, as Peres urges the attack not only because he believes it’s the right thing to do, but also because its failure would likely push Rabin out of office.

“7 Days in Entebbe” is an often gripping movie that tells about a pivotal moment in time that’s been largely forgotten, and the very real people caught up in it -- both the tragedy and the triumph.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Review: "Love, Simon"

So here is the first truly great and important movie of the year, and no, it’s not the one about the guy in the black cat suit who thinks he’s so cool.

“Love, Simon” reminds me a lot of those John Hughes high school movies from the ‘80s. They seemed like pop confections at first glance, filled with love triangles and teen angst. But they had deeper themes going on just behind the surface, about how we all feel alienated and alone.

This movie is a little more conspicuous in its ambitions, starring Nick Robinson as Simon Spier, a high school senior who’s on the verge of coming out as gay. He gains the courage to do so after striking up an anonymous correspondence with another student who posted to their school’s message board, and over time finds himself falling for this unseen lover.

Very Cyrano de Bergerac.

Part of the fantasy is that Simon envisions different boys he encounters to be “Blue,” his pen pal’s pseudonym. Each leads to a dead end, which depresses Simon but also spurs him to the next romantic bloom.

Meanwhile, he finds himself unwittingly pushing away his three best friends: Leah (Katherine Langford), best pals since kindergarten; Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), an exuberant soccer star; and Abby (Alexandra Shipp), the new girl at school whom they’ve adopted into their little clique. Complicating things further are some unseen love lines between the foursome that will come into play.

It’s based on the novel, “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda” by Becky Albertalli -- which is a much better title -- adapted for the screen by Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker, and directed by Greg Berlanti.

“Love, Simon” wears the clothes of a high school comedy, and indeed it’s often a ferociously funny film. But it’s also wise and perceptive, treating its largely teen cast as imperfect individuals rather than idealized or contemptible caricatures.

One of the things I really admired about the movie is that almost everybody in it comes across as looking foolish at some point or another, but also has moments of nobility and grace. Even Martin, the socially inept heel who threatens to out Simon after intercepting his emails -- played with unnerving, offbeat charisma by Logan Miller -- gets a turn to be the cool kid.

Likewise, Simon’s dad is played by Josh Duhamel, a jokey, ex-jock type who we suspect wouldn’t be too receptive to having a gay son. They get a scene together that left puddles under my seat. Jennifer Garner is the mom, who’s more serious and centered.

Tony Hale turns up as Mr. Worth, the incredibly exuberant vice principal at the school, constantly forcing uncomfortable connections with students in between confiscating their cellphones. Yet he projects an aura of desperation beneath the punch lines, and we can easily envision what his own high school experience was like.

“Love, Simon” is a lovely movie because it accepts that everybody feels weird and awkward as a teenager, especially when we’re negotiating the first stumbling steps in the dance of love, and even more so when we find our affections flowing in a direction not always deemed socially acceptable.

Here’s a film that simply says it’s OK to be young and gay and in love... even if you don’t know exactly who you’re in love with just yet.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Reeling Backward: "The Outlaw" (1943)

As my friend and colleague Bob Bloom best put it, "The Outlaw" is a movie famous for two things -- and neither one of them has to do with the film's inherent attributes.

Literally the entire iconography of the movie lies with Jane Russell's ample bosom. The film was actually shot in 1941 but didn't get a released until 1943 after director/producer Howard Hughes tangled with the production code stewards. And even that theatrical run was only for one week, after Hughes ginned up a controversy to create demand for the movie, which the censors quickly shut down. It didn't actually see wide release until 1946, and became a box office smash.

I've always wondered how Russell felt about the hullabaloo from her first movie role. "The Outlaw" made her an overnight star and national sex symbol. Imagine having everyone in America looking at and thinking about your boobs. 

If you remember "The Aviator," you know that Hughes became obsessed with displaying Russell's breasts in the movie, even going so far as to invent a cantilevered bra with steel rods to push up her cleavage. Splashy posters showing her lying in hay with her shirt spread wide open -- and, in friskier versions, ripped into see-through holes -- instantly became part of the national popular culture.

That's why I was surprised to watch the film for the first time, and realize that moment never actually occurs in the movie. There is a scene in a barn, but she's never just lying there with a heaving chest. In fact, Russell's bust is actually fairly demure through most of the film's run time, though it gets a little more display toward the end.

What gives? How can a movie famous for one thing -- OK, two things -- not actually contain that which made it such a spectacle?

The answer is simpler than you'd think. Hughes' brassiere contraption was horribly uncomfortable, so Russell took it off a few minutes after first trying it on. She simply stuffed her own bra with tissue and told Hughes she was wearing his invention.

The garment now lies in a museum somewhere, a testament to Hughes' penchant for showmanship and flimflam. How delicious that the ultimate con man was conned by a stubborn starlet... and never even knew it.

Putting aside all the boobage lore, what we're left with is an incredibly trashy B-movie Western with solid production values. It's a complete mishmash of the historical record, less mythology than flight of fantasy.

In this story (screenplay by Jules Furthman), Pat Garrett and Doc Holliday are old rapscallion friends who become enemies after the intrusion of Billy the Kid. Now a sheriff, Garrett chases the pair around for awhile, as the old outlaw and the young one are constantly on the verge of drawing guns on each other. Garrett kills Doc after the latter refuses to draw on him, and then lets Billy go so he can ride off into the sunset with Russell's character, a tart named Rio.

Of course, in real life it was Garrett who pursued and killed Billy the Kid, notoriously shooting him dead while hiding in the shadows. And he and Holliday never even met, the movie witlessly transposing his famous friendship with Wyatt Earp for an invented one with Garrett.

"The Outlaw" was only the second of two movies Hughes ever directed, the first being the silent film about WWI pilots, "Hell's Angels." Whatever his gifts as an inventor and showman, the man had a pretty thumbless grasp for crafting scenes or getting halfway competent performances out of his cast.

According to Jane Russell's autobiography, Hughes never personally directed any of her scenes, leaving most of the on-set work to subordinates. Howard Hawks also reputedly lent a hand behind the camera.

Most of the movie was actually already in the can when Hughes brought in famed cinematographer Gregg Toland ("Citizen Kane") to replace the first DP, and it was reshot entirely. In between the film's initial production in 1941 and eventual wide release five years later, the actors were dragged back several times to reshoot scenes or add new ones, often to amp up the film's sexual overtones.

There are two implied rapes of Rio by Billy, played with comic ineptitude by Jack Beutel, who was also making his film debut. The barn scene where Russell supposedly splayed her chest is actually one where Rio attacks Billy for killing her brother. After overpowering her -- in a not entirely convincing fight scene, as the boyishly narrow-hipped Beutel was about the same size as Russell -- Billy lies on top of her as the scene fades to black.

The second instance is even more troublesome. After Rio nurses Billy back to health and they begin a tepid romance, the relationship turns sour after he believes she has betrayed him to Garrett. Contemptuously calling her "darling," they have this exchange in her bedroom:
Rio: "What are you waiting for? Go ahead."
Billy: "Say, that sounds real nice. I like to hear you ask for it. Keep it up. Beg some more."
Rio: "What would you like me to say?"
Billy: "Well, you might say, 'Please,' very sweetly."
Rio: (Scornfully) "Please."
Billy: (Approaching her menacingly) "Will you keep your eyes open?"
Rio: "Yes."
Billy: "Will you look right at me while I do it?"
(The pair trades intense looks as the music swells.)
In the parlance of Hollywood in that day, this would be read as Rio giving into Billy's smoldering manly manliness, rather than coerced sexual assault. In today's #MeToo lights, though, their up-and-down affair looks much less egalitarian.

 No matter how you want to read it, though, one has to admit it's one of the most overt references to the sex act you'll find in a Golden Age flick.

The film is almost saved by the presence of a pair of crafty veteran character actors for the other  main roles, Thomas Mitchell as Pat Garrett and Walter Huston as Doc Holliday. It seems clear the two were left to wing their own characterizations, and operate somewhat on autopilot.

Mitchell, best known as the bumbling Uncle Billy from "It's a Wonderful Life" and the drunken doctor from "Stagecoach," plays Garrett as a somewhat ridiculous figure, an outlaw-turned-lawman who pursues his new vocation with a cantankerous intensity underlining his desire to redeem his former life. A merely competent gunman, he knows he's outmatched on the draw by either Billy or Doc, and is left to use his wiles and subterfuge to gain the upper hand.

Huston, an engineer who turned to the stage and begat an entire filmmaking dynasty -- son John, grandkids Anjelica and Danny, great-grandson Jack -- is a mix of coyness and bombast as Doc. He has a favorite horse, a little roan named Red, that he and Billy are fighting over possession of for most of the movie.

There's clearly a part of him that sees himself in that young braggart, and wants to shape that. At the same time, Doc is a famous gunman facing the twilight of his career -- Huston was about 60 when the film was shot, his ample abdomen straining against twin holsters -- and isn't about to accept guff from any man.

The story is a confused litany of generic Western elements: faceless marauding Indians, subservient Mexicans, whipped-together posses and, of course, face-offs with pistols. I will say that the camera work is among the most convincing I've seen at depicting the speed at which gunslingers could clear their holsters.

"The Outlaw" has the rare distinction of being a film that's more exalted than it is remembered. People recall the controversy and nascent eroticism that made it famous. But they forget the squalid, grimy Western that lies beneath the timeless façade.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Video review: "The Shape of Water"

One of the best thing about Guillermo del Toro’s movies is they’re so difficult to cram into any box. Is it a horror film? Science fiction? Romance? Historical parable? Fairy tale? Musical comedy?

All of the above, I’d say. After its impressive win at the Academy Awards last week, “The Shape of Water” will surely go down as one of the kookiest Best Picture winners ever.

Sally Hawkins plays Elisa, a mute woman who works as a cleaning lady in a secret government laboratory circa the early 1960s. Her world is tightly bookended: the routine of her job, her friendship with Giles (Richard Jenkins), the gentle illustrator who lives next door, and another with Zelda (Octavia Spencer), who works with her in the dank underground facility.

One day, a strange aquatic man is brought into the lab, where he’s prodded and tortured like a curious science experiment. But Elisa befriends the creature, and even learns how to communicate with it using sign language. She discovers there is a gentleness behind his fearsome exterior, which is like a cross between the Creature from the Black Lagoon and a space alien.

Hawkins, Spencer and Jenkins all received acting nominations at the Oscars, and the movie could easily have gotten three more. Michael Stuhlbarg plays the chief scientist with conflicting impulses and loyalties; Michael Shannon is chilling as the military man running the operation, who sees the aquatic man as just another fish to be cut up; and Doug Jones, who elegantly plays the creature with the help of an elaborate costume and some CGI.

Perhaps the thing I liked best about “The Shape of Water” is that it manages to not only incorporate these six characters into the story, but it actually lets the audience follow each of them for a while, seeing how they became the people they are and how they will interact with each other, in commune or in conflict.

Bonus features are decent, but not great. They consist of five making-of documentary featurettes: “A Fairy Tale for Troubled Times,” “Anatomy of a Scene: Prologue,” “Anatomy of a Scene: The Dance,” “Shaping the Waves: A Conversation with James Jean” amd “Guillermo del Toro’s Master Class.”



Thursday, March 8, 2018

Review: "Gringo"

"Gringo" is a strange movie, and a hard one to review. I didn't particularly like it. Didn't particularly hate it, either. If there's a cinematic equivalent of eating a sustaining meal without ever really tasting your food, this is it.

I think it was going for a mix of comedy, action and intrigue, perhaps along the lines of "Midnight Run." Certainly, it did not achieve this.

The most notable thing about the movie is how forgettable it is... quite literally. I saw the film last night, got busy with other things, and forgot that I had to write this review.

Charlize Theron is pretty much the only thing interesting or compelling about it. She plays Elaine Markinson, the co-president of a shady pharmaceutical company that is developing a pill that copies the psychotropic effects of marijuana, while also playing footsie with the Mexican cartel on the side. There's a scene where they pitch the drug to an even bigger company, talking about how rapidly marijuana is becoming legalized.

I kept waiting for someone to ask why if pot is heading toward universal legality, anyone needs to buy a pill that simulates it?

Anyway, Elaine is a real piece of work, a land shark with absolutely no regard for others. Swims, eats, and f*cks, baby.

There's a pivotal scene where she berates herself for momentarily showing signs of basic humanity, which she interprets as weakness. A former beauty queen who enthusiastically wields sex as a weapon, Elaine divides the world into winners, and everybody else. "Guilt is for losers" is her mantra.

Her partner is Richard Rusk (Joel Edgerton), her gender opposite but spiritual mirror, so there's no surprise the two are carrying on an affair. Though the word "affair" connotes some sort of emotional connection, of which neither is capable. Richard is the type of guy who, when he's thirsty, doesn't bother asking his secretary to fetch him something, simply bellowing into the intercom, "I'm thirsty."

The ostensible main character is Harold Soyinka (David Oyelowo), a Nigerian immigrant who has discovered the American Dream isn't what it's cracked up to be. Married to a spendthrift (Thandie Newton, utterly wasted) who has driven them deep into debt, Harold is the quintessential white knight, a guy who believes that those who do good will find it returned to them.

Harold believes Richard is his friend, who gave him a job out of kindness. He couldn't be more wrong.

The running joke is that everybody in the movie is on some level out to get Harold. He's the patsy, the pushover, the naïf, the guy who's kept in the dark until it's time to pin something on him. Even one character, who shows up rather late in the game and whose mission is to save Harold, ends up trying to turn the screws to his advantage.

Harold has been making regular trips down to Mexico to oversee the company's operation there. Some inventory has turned up missing, which concerns him. He's also heard the company, Prometheon, may be swallowed up by a much larger competitor and he'll likely be out of work. Still, he soldiers on, doing good by everyone he interacts with -- even bringing Chicago barbecue to their head of security south of the border (Yul Vazquez).

What he doesn't know is Richard and Elaine have been secretly selling part of their stock to a Mexican drug lord. On the latest trip down south, things go awry, some blood is spilled and Harold is made wise to all those who have betrayed him.

Finally growing some moxie, Harold remembers the company has a kidnapping insurance policy for their executives, and hatches a scheme to blackmail them for $5 million. But it turns out Harold is worth more to them dead than a live, and soon it's all chase-chase and bang-bang.

Sitting on the sidelines of the story, without ever really providing a clear view of their role in it, are Amanda Seyfried and Harry Treadaway as Sunny and Miles, American tourists who have an ulterior purpose for their trip to Mexico.

Sharlto Copley turns up as a mercenary hired to rescue, then kill, Harold. He's recently had a change of heart and vocation in his own life, but we'll see if his newly kinder, gentler instincts will prevail.

Directed by Nash Edgerton (Joel's brother) from a script by Matthew Stone and Anthony Tambakis, "Gringo" is the sort of cinematic fodder that arrives in between behemoth releases, and is quickly crushed and forgotten. And probably deserves to be.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Review: "A Wrinkle in Time"

What an awful and disjointed mess.

I never read the popular children's novel by Madeleine L'Engle (or even knew it existed, for that matter). But any movie should be able to stand on its own from its source material, especially one aimed at a YA audience of 9- to 13-year-olds. Instead, we get a big-budget movie that requires a written program and screen subtitles just to approach basic comprehensibility.

Directed by Ava DuVernay ("Selma") from a screenplay by Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell, "A Wrinkle in Time" is the story of a brave, precocious girl who goes on spiritual and inter-dimensional trip across the universe in search of her long-lost father, a dreamer and voyager, who abandoned the family out of a sense of higher purpose.

(If that sounds like it has a more than passing resemblance to the plot of "Interstellar," that's because it does. One wonders if this movie could exist without that one, or that movie could exist without the book. But that's one for the philosophers and/or copyright lawyers to ponder.)

The film is getting most of its attention for the starring role of Oprah Winfrey as the chief of "the Missuses," odd interstellar beings easily identifiable by their pancake makeup, kooky elaborate costumes and bedazzled faces and hair. As Mrs. Which, Winfrey wears what appears to be a cross between a suit of armor and Cinderella's ballroom gown, jeweled eyebrows and an albino wig of sea foam swirls.

For most of her scenes, Mrs. Which materializes in an outlandishly outsized form, so she's literally towering above the other characters, delivering pronouncements from on high like a beneficent god-queen. I realize that's already how a large chunk of our population views Winfrey, so it will likely not seem out of place to them.

Though, in keeping with the broadcasting titan's self-love ethos, Mrs. Which admonishes one of her lessers that there is 'no such thing as the wrong size' -- which is something you can get away with saying if you are a billionaire who has literally been every size.

Her sisters/followers are Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling), who always seems a little dazed and is constantly reciting famous quotes -- with attribution! -- and Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), who appears to be the novice of the trio, having been assigned to help out Meg Murray (Storm Reid), the story's protagonist.

The Missuses actually disappear about halfway through the movie, leaving the kids in charge. Meg has become moody and angry in the four years since her dad vanished, claiming it's possible to bend space and time with the help of a Tesseract. It's unclear if this is a physical object or a term for using one's mind, since the act of wrinkling the cosmos is also used as a verb "to tesser."

Conjugate that, kiddies!

Her adopted 6-year-old brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), is supposed to be some kind of pint-sized science genius, although with his chirpy voice shouting most of his dialogue at parakeet octaves, I'll have to take the filmmakers' word that what he had to say was smart. He comes along for the trip, for reasons that remain unclear.

Even murkier are the motivations of Calvin (Levi Miller), a dreamy boy who's nice and supportive to everyone. His job is basically to just stand around and tell Meg how great she is. In most movies, Calvin and Meg would end up as a cute teen couple, but despite some moony looks passing back and forth, there's barely even a supportive hug.

Calvin is not so much a character as a Beta Male fantasy of what 12-year-old girls think the perfect boy is supposed to be like, at least until they get to high school and dump him for the football jock or the parking-lot pothead.

Anyway, they visit various fantastical-looking worlds filled with flying flowers and other CGI curiosities, and at one point Whatsit transforms into a flat, furry flying creature that looks like a vegan version of the critter from "The Neverending Story."

There's also some kind of evil force spreading across the universe, known simply as the It, which I thought we had all clearly established was an underground clown that either kills children or makes them have group sex with each other.

Zach Galifianakis turns up as the Happy Medium, who's some kind of lonely guru; Chris Pine is Meg's dad, sporting Hollywood hair that looks short but droops down past the cheekbones when it gets mussed; Gugu Mbatha-Raw is the mom, consigned to just looking smashing and doing nothing; and Michael Peña plays a guy on a beach who seems helpful but really has his mind on one thing, which either makes him the villain or every single teenage boy ever, who wouldn't be caught dead buying a ticket for this movie.

"A Wrinkle in Time" is like a safe acid trip for youngsters, full of color and music and powerful females and guys who know enough to get out of the way of the ladies.

Monday, March 5, 2018

#Oscars90 reaction

They started the 90th Academy Awards ceremony a half-hour earlier but still didn't wrap things up until nearly midnight. I'm an Oscars junkie, but four hours is just too damn long for an awards show. Suggested areas to cut:
  • Let the winners ramble in. But pare down the presenter banter. Especially when only about 50% of the jokes land. Think Harrison Ford: walk out, a line or two introducing the category, then reel off the nominees.
  • Any presenter who appears to be altered/nervous/insane/senile. Yeah, I'm lookin' at you, Wes Studi...
  • Full-on Best Song performances. I'd prefer a montage of the actual theatrical version of the song played against footage from its film. Maybe one minute each. This would have the benefit of eliminating horrendously off-key live performances by stars who don't sound so great when they're not in a recording studio getting 30 takes for each phrase. 
  • Gimmicky jokes that take 10+ minutes to execute, like having stars go next door to shoot hot dogs at "just folks" so they can be appropriately dazzled by having showbiz gods in their midst. 
Overall, I was pretty happy with how the awards played out. Not a whole lot of surprises... which is in of itself, something of a surprise. I was planning on at least one Mark Rylance-style out-of-the-blue win.

I managed to run the table in my predictions in the "major" categories (Pictures, Director, screenplays, all four acting awards) but didn't do so great among the more technical awards. I got 15 out of 24 categories correct, which is about my average.

Short films continue to be my bane, missing on all three. In my defense, these are notoriously hard to predict as they're usually not screened for general audiences, and there's little buzz about them in the run-up to the Oscars. There's also no preliminarily awards (SAG, Golden Globes) with short film categories to make it easier. As opposed to, say, the Director's Guild Award, which almost always predicts the Oscar winner.

As often seems to be the case, I had the luck of having my preferred film win in a category in which I predicted another movie to win. Thus I was very pleased to have my favorite of 2018, "Blade Runner 2049," walk away with two wins for Visual Effects and Cinematography. Roger Deakins, arguably the greatest living D.P., finally got an Oscar after 14 tries. And it wasn't just a "it's his turn" gimme: no other film approached the visual splendor of "Blade Runner 2049."

There were a handful of head-scratchers, though. I thought "The Silent Child" the weakest of the live-action shorts (thought it was still good). Similarly, I felt "Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405" to be the least deserving of the documentary shorts. "Remember Me" is a rather forgettable Best Song standard bearer. I still contend "Icarus" is a rather disjointed documentary.

As far as the speeches go, there were some good ones and some OK ones. No instant classics like Matthew McConaughey's stem-winder a while back, though Frances McDormand came closest. She was brave and angry and true and genuine. And she got millions of people to Google "inclusion rider," only to find very little available online. I bet there's a lot more information out there today.

In terms of the politics, I actually thought most of the ceremony hit a nice balance between indignation, humor and righteousness. Nothing too egregious. About the only bit I didn't care for was Emma Stone introducing the director nominees as "four women and Greta Gerwig," because that's deliberately denigrating four artists at the expense of another one. And that's with Gergwig as my preferred pick to win that category.

Speaking of which, I am disappointed that "Lady Bird," my #2 film of the year, got blanked on wins, though I wasn't surprised by it. I thought Gerwig had a shot at Original Screenplay, but the cultural impact of "Get Out" was bound to prevail. The one that truly hurts is Laurie Metcalf losing Supporting Actress to Allison Janney. Janney was fine in a broadly written comedic relief role. But Metcalf really got down in to the bones of her character.

A lot of people seem to favor Jimmy Kimmel as host, but I'm rather indifferent. I'd like him more of he stuck to zingers and stopped trying to do comedic set-pieces, like the theater visit or the jet ski giveaway. My take on emceeing is you're there to facilitate the ceremony, not try to recreate a version of your own thing on somebody else's dime. Personally, I'd give the job to Billy Crystal until they have to roll him out on a stretcher.

It'll be interesting to see how "The Shape of Water" holds up as a Best Picture winner. I adored it, but it's a very atypical pick for an Academy that tends to look stiff, serious historical pieces, with something like "The King's Speech" having the classic Oscar pedigree.

"Shape" is difficult to even pigeonhole -- is it a horror film? Fantasy? Romance? Comedy? Musical? Historical parable? A bit of all of them, I'd say, on top of being a magnificent exploration of not one but six or seven characters. The love for Guillermo Del Toro was palpable in that room, and I think it's genuine respect for an artist who makes movies unlike anybody else's.

(Well, let's see how that plagiarism lawsuit turns out...)

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Video review: "Thor: Ragnarok"

“Thor: Ragnarok” is the franchise’s full-flip dive into comedy mode, despite the storyline based on the fabled end-times apocalypse of the Norse gods. It’s rather an incongruous fit -- imagine a Biblical story set to the hilarious stylings of the Crucifixion -- but it’s hard to deny the sheer entertainment might of this movie.

Chris Hemsworth returns as the god of thunder, who’s brought low by the apparent death of his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), and the revival of his evil sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), from eons of well-deserved imprisonment.

In short order she defeats Thor and his occasionally-do-well brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston) -- destroying Thor’s mythic hammer in the process -- takes over their home world of Asgard and leaves the brothers banished to a far corner of the galaxy. They spend much of the movie trapped on the planet of Sakaar, where other civilizations dump their garbage, be it hazardous materials or underperforming life forms.

There the kooky Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum) holds reign, overseeing the gladiatorial games that form Sakaar’s chief form of entertainment. Thor is quickly conscripted into the arena, where he encounters an old pal in the form of the Hulk, who sporadically reverts to his milder human version, Dr. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo).

New characters include Tessa Thompson as a bounty hunter with a secret link to Asgard; Karl Urban as Skurge, Hela’s right-hand henchman; and Korg, a sweetly dim rock-like creature surviving in the gladiator ranks, who’s performed via voice and motion capture by Taika Waititi, who also directed the film.

(Korg’s scaly, rocky epidermis is so convincing, it becomes clear to me that all previous attempts to create the Thing in Fantastic Four projects must have been deliberately tanked.)

Of course, it’s all building up to another face-off with Hela, who coos and vamps like Greta Garbo given the full super-villain treatment.

With its fantastical science fiction backdrop and rain of funny one-liners, “Thor: Ragnarok” is a gleeful entry to the Marvel Comics Universe that doesn’t really make sense, or need to.

Bonus features are quite expansive. There is a director’s commentary track, deleted and extended scenes, gag reel, a new short film that gives clues to the Grandmaster’s life in exile, and featurettes focusing on the powerful female characters, the world of Sakaar, a tongue-in-cheek look at Korg and more.

Digital exclusives add more deleted scenes and “Evolution of Thor and Hulk’s Bromance,” which pretty much tells you all you need to know.



Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Fearless Oscar predictions 2018

2017 was a big year for small movies.

Most of my favorite pictures were independent films, several of them so tiny -- "Brigsby Bear," "Patti Cake$" -- they barely made a ripple in box office or cultural terms. And it's not just me: Only two of the nine movies nominated by the Academy Award for Best Picture were huge box office hits, "Dunkirk" and "Get Out," and neither seem to be in the running to win.

Personally, I'm not a big fan of Oscar years with one runaway favorite gobbling up most of the awards. The best overall film may not necessarily have the best performances, costumes or sound design. Give the statue to the people who actually deserve it most, I say.

Without further ado, here are my fearless Oscar predictions in all 24 categories. As in previous years, I provide my prediction of who will win, and my pick of who I think should win. And I will also cross out the names of some of the nominees who I think are undeserving, and replace them with better candidates -- the much-feared "Chris Cross."

Best Picture

The Nominees: 
“Call Me by Your Name”
“Darkest Hour”
“Get Out”
“Lady Bird”
“Phantom Thread”
“The Post”
“The Shape of Water”
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” 

The Chatter: This awards cycle has been all over the map, with "Three Billboards" an early favorite to win, "Lady Bird" faltering after a strong start and "The Shape of Water" making a late surge. "Dunkirk" and "The Post" have the classic Oscar pedigree -- splashy historical pieces -- but seem destined to be overlooked. "Get Out" has a populist puncher's chance.

The fact that "Three Billboards" didn't get a directing nomination likely dooms its chances, as only a handful of films have won Best Picture without their director also getting a nod. Also, there's been an odd backlash against the film because it allows the racist cop played by Sam Rockwell to find a measure of redemption.

My favorite film of the year, "Blade Runner 2049," didn't make the list, so I'll take my #2, "Lady Bird," with the pick. I think there's a slight chance it could slip in for a win, with the #MeToo movement lending credence to a film that's very much a women's story. But "Water" has made a strong showing in the preliminary awards, including the predictive Producers Guild Awards, and seems poised for a win.

For the Chris Cross, I liked "Get Out" and "Darkest Hour," but I can easily find strong nominees. The tiresome "Phantom Thread" will be forgotten within five years, when Daniel Day-Lewis unretires because he doesn't want to go out on such a sour note. 

Prediction: "The Shape of Water"

Pick: "Lady Bird"

Chris Cross: I'll replace "Darkest Hour," "Get Out," and "Phantom Thread" with "Blade Runner 2049," "The Florida Project" and "Maudie."

Best Actress

The Nominees: 
Sally Hawkins, “The Shape of Water”
Frances McDormand, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
Margot Robbie, “I, Tonya”
Saoirse Ronan, “Lady Bird”
Meryl Streep, “The Post”

The Chatter: Frances McDormand seems destined for a win -- indeed, this is the weird year where all four acting categories appear to be locked up tight. So that would point toward chances of at least one Mark Rylance-style upset.

I'm fine with with a win for McDormand, who is so strong and true, in a role that never softens her character's edges in a play for sympathy. If Sally Hawkins was nominated for "Maudie" instead of "The Shape of Water," she'd be my pick. She's still the stalking horse, with Saoirse Ronan having a puncher's chance.

Prediction: Frances McDormand

Pick: Frances McDormand

Chris Cross: I'll replace Margot Robbie with Danielle Mcdonald from the little-scene "Patti Cake$."

Best Actor

The Nominees: 
Timothée Chalamet, “Call Me by Your Name”
Daniel Day-Lewis, “Phantom Thread”
Daniel Kaluuya, “Get Out”
Gary Oldman, “Darkest Hour”
Denzel Washington, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”

The Chatter: I'm not a fan of this roster of nominees, with only seemingly certain winner Gary Oldman truly belonging here. There were so many stronger nominees out there. I liked Timothée Chalamet, but the movie takes almost 80 minutes to really get rolling and give him something to do. "Get Out" was buoyed more by the storytelling than Daniel Kaluuya's acting, which was fine but nothing extraordinary.

The nominations for Washington and Day-Lewis are classic Oscar favoritism for past winners, in films that audiences completely ignored. I'm pretty astonished that Sam Elliott got shut out for his career-capper in "The Hero."

Prediction: Gary Oldman

Pick: Gary Oldman

Chris Cross: I'll replace Chalamet, Day-Lewis, Kaluuya and Washington with Jake Gyllenhaal from "Stronger," Lakeith Stanfield from "Crown Heights," James Franco from "The Disaster Artist" and Elliott.

Best Supporting Actress

The Nominees: 
Mary J. Blige, “Mudbound”
Allison Janney, “I, Tonya”
Lesley Manville, “Phantom Thread”
Laurie Metcalf, “Lady Bird”
Octavia Spencer, “The Shape of Water”

The Chatter: Again, this award seems wrapped up with Allison Janney sweeping the preliminaries. That's a pity, because while she's certainly fine, it's pretty much a one-note comic relief role. Her hateful mother shows up occasionally, spouts insults and snappy one-liners, and exits stage right.

Laurie Metcalf is the obvious pick, also playing a seemingly troublesome mother to an uppity teen daughter in "Lady Bird." But she gets to show so many other notes and depths. A truly astonishing performance.

A bit of a weak category this year, so Mary J. Blige is the only one I'd knock out. She was fine, but none of the characters made a real impact on me from the overrated "Mudbound."

Prediction: Allison Janney

Pick: Laurie Metcalf

Chris Cross: I'll replace Blige with Holly Hunter from "The Big Sick."

Best Supporting Actor

The Nominees: 
Willem Dafoe, “The Florida Project”
Woody Harrelson, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
Richard Jenkins, “The Shape of Water”
Christopher Plummer, “All the Money in the World”
Sam Rockwell, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”

The Chatter: I was surprised and thrilled when Woody Harrelson got nominated along with is "Three Billboards" co-star Sam Rockwell, the likely winner. He hadn't appeared anywhere in the preliminary awards and hype, so I thought voters were sure to overlook his magnificent performance as the flawed, doomed police chief. If McDormand is the heart of that movie, Woody is the soul.

I liked Rockwell fine, but as written his part is 90% caricature, with a little bit of movement at the very end. His journey seems abrupt rather than experiential. 

You could easily have nominated most of the male cast from "The Shape of Water" here. I loved how that film explored the journeys of its supporting characters. People complained about Michael Stuhlbarg being left off this list for his performance as the dad in "Call Me By Your Name," but it was a pretty pedestrian role as scripted, with one lovely speech tacked on. His character is much richer in "Water."

If Rockwell doesn't win, Willem Dafoe could sneak in for his part as the motel manager in "The Florida Project." He's the cantankerous hero of the piece.

Prediction: Sam Rockwell

Pick: Tie between Willem Dafoe and Woody Harrelson

Chris Cross: Tough call in an always-busy category. I wish there were space for 15 nominees. I can't in good conscious knock out any of these fine actors, but I would've loved to have seen nods for:
  • Michael Stuhlbarg, "The Shape of Water"
  • Michael Shannon, "The Shape of Water"
  • Doug Jones, "The Shape of Water"
  • Peter Dinklage, "Three Billboards"
  • Nnamdi Asomugha, "Crown Heights" 
  • Mamoudou Athie, "Patti Cake$"
  • Ethan Hawke, “Maudie”
  • Tracy Letts, “Lady Bird”
  • Peter Mullan, “Tommy’s Honour”
  • Ray Romano, "The Big Sick"
  • Sebastian Stan, “I, Tonya”

Best Original Screenplay

The Nominees: 
“The Big Sick,” Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani
“Get Out,” Jordan Peele
“Lady Bird,” Greta Gerwig
“The Shape of Water,” Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Martin McDonagh

The Chatter: This one seems to be a battle between young newcomers: Greta Gerwig of "Lady Bird" and Jordan Peele of "Get Out." The Academy loves to use the screenplay categories to award fresh faces -- Ben Affleck and Matt Damon for "Good Will Hunting" being the classic example -- and here they're faced with not too but three choices to fit the bill, the third being "The Big Sick" written by a real-life married couple.

Plus, if we want to bring in political considerations, it's a contest between #MeToo and #OscarsSoWhite. Which sympathy chord will sound the loudest?

I think "Get Out" will win, largely due its huge box office and assertions that it touched the cultural zeitgeist like no other movie last year. I admired the movie but never really connected with its themes, which still remain jumbled to my mind's eye. (Rich, white liberals hate black people so much they secretly want to be them?)

Prediction: "Get Out"

Pick: "Lady Bird"

Chris Cross: I'll knock out "The Big Sick" and "Get Out" in favor of "Patti Cake$" and "Baby Driver."

Best Adapted Screenplay

The Nominees: 
“Call Me by Your Name,” James Ivory
“The Disaster Artist,” Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
“Logan,” Scott Frank & James Mangold and Michael Green
“Molly’s Game,” Aaron Sorkin
“Mudbound,” Virgil Williams and Dee Rees

The Chatter: An extraordinarily weak roster of nominees. "Mudbound" and "Call Me By Your Name" ramble on and on, "The Disaster Artist" never really gets past the joke of its lead performance, and "Molly's Game" feels like TV to me. I liked "Logan" well enough, but if you want to nominate a superhero script, how about "Wonder Woman?"

James Ivory seems the favorite, and at age 89 would become the Academy's oldest winner. For me, he seemed to be writing for quantity rather than quality. Too. Damn. Long.

Prediction: "Call Me By Your Name"

Pick: "Logan"

Chris Cross: My instinct is to replace the entire lineup, but I can only identify three worthy replacements: "Wonder Woman," "Blade Runner 2049" and "Stronger" for "Call Me," "Mudbound" and "Molly's Game."

Best Director

The Nominees: 
“Dunkirk,” Christopher Nolan
“Get Out,” Jordan Peele
“Lady Bird,” Greta Gerwig
“Phantom Thread,” Paul Thomas Anderson
“The Shape of Water,” Guillermo del Toro

The Chatter: Say what you will about the diversity of the Academy Awards. But if Guillermo del Toro wins Best Director as expected, that will mark five out of the last six years the statue has gone to a POC/minority.

For the kids, Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig, the nomination is the award. Lots of big OWM (old white male) names were excluded to get them their spots: Steven Spielberg, Martin McDonagh, Denis Villeneuve, Darren Aronofsky, Joe Wright; as well as some older female directors: Patty Jenkins, Kathryn Bigelow.

Gerwig is my pick. She spent a decade acting in indies, moving up to more mainstream films, apprenticing as a co-screenwriter, and steps into the director's chair with one of the most assured debuts I've ever seen. It's amazing how mature a work "Lady Bird" is, the sort of picture most directors spend a couple or three decades making movies to have a shot at.

I run hot and cold on del Toro, but "The Shape of Water" is probably my second favorite film of his after "Pan's Labyrinth." So I have no quarrel with him taking home of the statue as expected. He won the Director's Guild award, which has only failed to pick the winner on a handful of occasions.

Shockingly, this is the first time Christopher Nolan has been nominated as a director. He's widely regarded as one of the most important filmmakers of the last 20 years. So he has a shot to play the spoiler.

Prediction: Guillermo del Toro

Pick: Greta Gerwig

Chris Cross: Goodbye to Peele and Anderson; hello to Jenkins and Villeneuve.

Best Documentary Feature

The Nominees: 
“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail,” Steve James, Mark Mitten, Julie Goldman
“Faces Places,” JR, Agnès Varda, Rosalie Varda
“Icarus,” Bryan Fogel, Dan Cogan
“Last Men in Aleppo,” Feras Fayyad, Kareem Abeed, Soren Steen Jepersen
“Strong Island,” Yance Ford, Joslyn Barnes

The Chatter: A strong roster of nominees, with only the disjointed "Icarus" about Russian doping at the Olympics failing to make a strong impression on me. "Strong Island" made a very large impact, as a woman stares balefully into the camera and demands to know why her brother's killer has not been brought to justice after two decades.

The Academy has some pretty kooky procedures on what gets nominated in this category, so there's always a lot of outcry over snubs. Most people thought "Jane" was the front-runner. My favorite doc of the year was "Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992," which explores racial unrest in LA in the decade leading up to Rodney King. Both were overlooked.

"Faces Places," about two French artists touring the country, is the extremely rare documentary that's actually an upbeat people-pleaser, and many are predicting it to win.

Prediction: "Faces Places"

Pick: "Strong Island"

Chris Cross: Trade "Icarus" for "Let It Fall: Los Angeles 1982-1992."

Best Documentary Short

The Nominees: 
“Edith+Eddie,” Laura Checkoway, Thomas Lee Wright
“Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405,” Frank Stiefel
“Heroin(e),” Elaine McMillion Sheldon, Kerrin Sheldon“Knife Skills,” Thomas Lennon“Traffic Stop,” Kate Davis, David Heilbroner

The Chatter: Tough category to predict. My favorite was "Heroin(e)," which lionizes a trio of women fighting the epidemic of opiod deaths in their small town: the fire chief, the drug court judge and a faith-based shelter worker. My second pick is "Traffic Stop," about how a black woman's life was changed by a simple traffic violation that turned into a violent example of police brutality.

Prediction: "Heroin(e)"

Pick: "Traffic Stop"

Best Animated Feature

The Nominees: 
“The Boss Baby,” Tom McGrath, Ramsey Ann Naito
“The Breadwinner,” Nora Twomey, Anthony Leo
“Coco,” Lee Unkrich, Darla K. Anderson
“Ferdinand,” Carlos Saldanha
“Loving Vincent,” Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman, Sean Bobbitt, Ivan Mactaggart, Hugh Welchman

The Chatter: A weak year for animation, with the Pixar/Disney production destined, and deserving, to win. "Ferdinand" was a close second, and it's a pity more people didn't go see it. There's a chance "The Breadwinner," about a girl posing as a boy to support her family during the reign of the Taliban, could sneak in.

Prediction: "Coco"

Pick: "Coco"

Chris Cross: I don't have anything to replace it with, but "The Boss Baby" doesn't deserve to be here.

Best Animated Short

The Nominees: 
“Dear Basketball,” Glen Keane, Kobe Bryant
“Garden Party,” Victor Caire, Gabriel Grapperon
“Lou,” Dave Mullins, Dana Murray
“Negative Space,” Max Porter, Ru Kuwahata
“Revolting Rhymes,” Jakob Schuh, Jan Lachauer

The Chatter: The Disney/Pixar short pretty much always wins. "Dear Basketball" is a surprisingly emotive soliloquy by Kobe Bryant about his basketball career. 

Prediction: "Lou"

Pick: “Dear Basketball”

Best Live Action Short

The Nominees: 
“DeKalb Elementary,” Reed Van Dyk
“The Eleven O’Clock,” Derin Seale, Josh Lawson
“My Nephew Emmett,” Kevin Wilson, Jr.
“The Silent Child,” Chris Overton, Rachel Shenton
“Watu Wote/All of Us,” Katja Benrath, Tobias Rosen

The Chatter: A very good pick of five. If the Academy leans toward comedy, it'll go with "The Eleven O'Clock." But the Academy rarely leans toward comedy.

Prediction: "Watu Wote"

Pick:"My Nephew Emmett"

Best Foreign Language Film

The Nominees: 
“A Fantastic Woman” (Chile)
“The Insult” (Lebanon)
“Loveless” (Russia)
“On Body and Soul" (Hungary)
“The Square” (Sweden)

The Chatter: I'm not sure how Angelina Jolie's "First They Killed My Father" got left off this list. Ditto for the German "In the Fade," which many had considered the front-runner to win. Personally, I'm glad for the exclusion of "Thelma" and "BPM (Beats Per Minute)," both of which I thought egregiously overrated.

I think the transgender story of "A Fantastic Woman" will resonate with Academy voters. I liked it but wasn't blown away by it. I'll take the excellent "The Insult," the first nominee from Lebanon.

Prediction: "A Fantastic Woman"

Pick: "The Insult"

Chris Cross: Let's translate "Loveless" and "A Fantastic Woman" into "In the Fade" and "First They Killed My Father."

Best Cinematography

The Nominees: 
“Blade Runner 2049,” Roger Deakins
“Darkest Hour,” Bruno Delbonnel
“Dunkirk,” Hoyte van Hoytema
“Mudbound,” Rachel Morrison
“The Shape of Water,” Dan Laustsen

The Chatter: The most important of the "technical" awards, as the cinematographer often holds the most sway over the success of a film apart from the director, writer and (sometimes) lead performers.

This is the 14th Oscar nomination for Roger Deakins, and if there's any justice in the world he will finally take home the statue. "Blade Runner 2049" was easily the most visually arresting film of the year. You could snip out almost any single frame of it, blow it up and put it on the wall of a major museum, and it would not look out of place.

But justice rarely holds sway in this category, which tends to follow on the heels of the Best Picture winner. So expect Dan Laustsen of "The Shape of Water" to win. That's also a darkly gorgeous film, so its triumph wouldn't be a travesty on the order of, say, "Glory" winning over "The Abyss."

It's depressing and shocking that it took 90 years for the Academy to bestow its first cinematography nomination to a woman. It's even more troubling that it's the single most undeserving nominee here, "Mudbound," an ugly-looking picture that seemed like it was shot with the titular substance spread across the lens.

Prediction: Dan Laustsen

Pick: Roger Deakins

Chris Cross: Swap "Mudbound" for "Three Billboards," and hope for more female DPs to get the chance to do better work.

Best Film Editing

The Nominees: 
“Baby Driver,” Jonathan Amos, Paul Machliss
“Dunkirk,” Lee Smith
“I, Tonya,” Tatiana S. Riegel
“The Shape of Water,” Sidney Wolinsky
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Jon Gregory

The Chatter: I think "Dunkirk" will do very well in the technical categories, as it's a genuine spectacle largely shot with practical effects rather than CGI. Fast-paced action films tend to do better here than dramas, so it's curious that "Shape" and "Three Billboards" got nods over, say, "Wonder Woman" and "Logan." 

Prediction: "Dunkirk"

Pick: "Dunkirk"

Best Sound Editing

The Nominees: 
“Baby Driver,” Julian Slater
“Blade Runner 2049,” Mark Mangini, Theo Green
“Dunkirk,” Alex Gibson, Richard King
“The Shape of Water,” Nathan Robitaille, Nelson Ferreira
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” Ren Klyce, Matthew Wood

The Chatter: Time for my annual primer on sound editing vs. sound mixing: sound editors are responsible for selecting or creating all the sounds you hear in a production, while a sound mixer assembles it all together. Editors do most of their work during production, while mixing is a post-production role. Don't feel bad if you don't understand the difference; most Academy voters don't, either.

Prediction: "Dunkirk"

Pick: "Dunkirk"

Best Sound Mixing

The Nominees: 
“Baby Driver,” Mary H. Ellis, Julian Slater, Tim Cavagin
“Blade Runner 2049,” Mac Ruth, Ron Bartlett, Doug Hephill
“Dunkirk,” Mark Weingarten, Gregg Landaker, Gary A. Rizzo
“The Shape of Water,” Glen Gauthier, Christian Cooke, Brad Zoern
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” Stuart Wilson, Ren Klyce, David Parker, Michael Semanick

The Chatter: Same list of nominated films results in the same pick/prediction. 

Prediction: "Dunkirk"

Pick: "Dunkirk"

Best Production Design

The Nominees: 
“Beauty and the Beast,” Sarah Greenwood; Katie Spencer
“Blade Runner 2049,” Dennis Gassner, Alessandra Querzola
“Darkest Hour,” Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer
“Dunkirk,” Nathan Crowley, Gary Fettis
“The Shape of Water,” Paul D. Austerberry, Jeffrey A. Melvin, Shane Vieau

The Chatter: Another egregiously undervalued role is the production designer. Basically, anything you see onscreen that isn't an actor and their clothing, the production designer is responsible for creating. I'd call it a race between "Blade Runner 2049" and "Beauty and the Beast." Sequel trumps the remake.

Prediction: “Blade Runner 2049”

Pick: “Blade Runner 2049”

Best Original Score

The Nominees: 
“Dunkirk,” Hans Zimmer
“Phantom Thread,” Jonny Greenwood
“The Shape of Water,” Alexandre Desplat
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” John Williams
“Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Carter Burwell 

The Chatter: This award often follows the Best Picture winner, and in this case I think it's actually the most deserving. This is the gobsmacking 51st nomination for John Williams, who only needs eight more to tie the all-time leader, Walt Disney. 

Prediction: Alexandre Desplat

Pick: Alexandre Desplat

Chris Cross: Let's play over "Phantom Thread" to the sound of "A Ghost Story."

Best Song

The Nominees: 
“Mighty River” from “Mudbound,” Mary J. Blige
“Mystery of Love” from “Call Me by Your Name,” Sufjan Stevens
“Remember Me” from “Coco,” Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez
“Stand Up for Something” from “Marshall,” Diane Warren, Common
“This Is Me” from “The Greatest Showman,” Benj Pasek, Justin Paul

The Chatter: Blige is the only person to ever be nominated for both Best Song and an acting category, and I think the allure will be too much for Academy voters to resist. And it's actually a good song. I slightly prefer the Broadway-esque "This Is Me." 

Prediction: "Mighty River"

Pick: "This Is Me"

Chris Cross: X

Best Makeup and Hair

The Nominees: 
“Darkest Hour,” Kazuhiro Tsuji, David Malinowski, Lucy Sibbick
“Victoria and Abdul,” Daniel Phillips and Lou Sheppard
“Wonder,” Arjen Tuiten

The Chatter: How in the hell did "The Shape of Water" not get nominated here? A large part of that film's success was due to the humanity behind the outward appearance of Doug Jones as the aquatic man. I admired the facial transformation of Jacob Tremblay in "Wonder," but "Darkest Hour" reworked Gary Oldman from head to toe, and convincingly.

Prediction: "The Darkest Hour"

Pick: "The Darkest Hour"

Chris Cross: Aging Judi Dench is not much of a challenge; adieu to "Victoria and Abdul" and say hello to "The Shape of Water."

Best Costume Design

The Nominees: 
“Beauty and the Beast,” Jacqueline Durran
“Darkest Hour,” Jacqueline Durran
“Phantom Thread,” Mark Bridges
“The Shape of Water,” Luis Sequeira
“Victoria and Abdul,” Consolata Boyle

The Chatter: This is a category I always seem to get wrong. Clothes were very much at the center of the story for "Phantom Thread," so it might pull off a win. Judi Dench's magisterial outfits were stunning and complex. The bright colors of "Beauty and the Beast" have a real chance. Roll the dice.

Prediction: "Beauty and the Beast"

Pick: "Victoria and Abdul"

Best Visual Effects

The Nominees: 
“Blade Runner 2049,” John Nelson, Paul Lambert, Richard R. Hoover, Gerd Nefzer
“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Jonathan Fawkner, Dan Sudick
“Kong: Skull Island,” Stephen Rosenbaum, Jeff White, Scott Benza, Mike Meinardus
“Star Wars: The Last Jedi,”  Ben Morris, Mike Mulholland, Chris Corbould, Neal Scanlan
“War for the Planet of the Apes,” Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, Daniel Barrett, Joel Whist

The Chatter: My first instinct was to ask, "Where's 'Dunkirk?'" But then I remembered Nolan & Co. mostly used practical effects, which is an achievement unto itself. The simian flicks, "Kong" and "Apes," both underperformed at the box office, so they're probably out. Call it a coin toss between "Star Wars" and "Guardians." As I said I adore the look of "Blade Runner 2049," but it has a more painterly feel in a category dominated by action movies. 

Prediction: “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”

Pick: "Blade Runner 2049,"

Monday, February 26, 2018

Reeling Backward: "You Can't Take It With You" (1938)

One of the recurring themes of 1930s American movies was that rich people were awful while regular folks were celebrated as salts of the earth. It made sense to appeal to the masses during the Great Depression. Of course, these pictures were made by millionaire directors and millionaire stars working for multimillionaire studio heads, so I always try to take the egalitarian sentiment with a pound or two of salt.

"You Can't Take It With You" was the first movie Frank Capra made after a spat with Columbia Pictures that resulted in lawsuits and months of forced idleness. So it's not hard to see the greedy tycoon of the piece, Anthony P. Kirby, as a stand-in for notoriously hard-hearted Columbia mogul Harry Cohn. Screenwriter Robert Riskin adapted it from the popular play of the same name by George Kaufman and Moss Hart.

Kirby is played by Edward Arnold, a former leading man who wandered into supporting character territory as he grew older and stouter. It's an ensemble piece with no true main character, although the closest is Lionel Barrymore as "Grandpa" Vanderhof, an eccentric old coot who oversees a motley houseful of family members and drop-in visitors.

Vanderhof used to be a prospering businessman himself, but decided one day 35 years ago that he "wasn't having fun," and hasn't worked a day since. Everybody living in the house does whatever they like best, from dancing to playing xylophone to writing plays to making toys. It's a little unclear how the family hasn't fallen into indigence, as their sole income appears to be selling little candies.

Kirby wants to buy the Vanderhof house to complete the biggest deal of his career, which will make his company the largest arms dealer in the U.S. Somehow, not owning one small piece of property in a New York City neighborhood near the factory of his chief competitor will foil the entire plan.

(Capra's plots were often fanciful, bordering on nonsensical.)

Meanwhile, Kirby's son, Tony Jr. (James Stewart), and Vanderhof's granddaughter, Alice (Jean Arthur), have fallen in love and want to get married. Alice works for Tony at his father's company, where he's a vice president with an office and not much to do. So basically, he's macking on his secretary. Of course, nobody initially realizes that the patriarchs of their two clans are at odds.

For me, Kirby Sr. is the only truly interesting character in the movie. He's the only one that undergoes any kind of significant change over the course of the story's arc. Other people make decisions that change their status -- Tony Jr. winds up quitting his dad's company to pursue what today we would all solar power -- but they wind up the same people at the end of the movie as they were when it started.

The elder Kirby, on the other hand, is the one who sees the light. Grandpa Vanderhof plies him with his philosophy, which is that a man who has many friends is always rich, while one who pursues only power and wealth is inevitably poor. After being publicly embarrassed and watching his son walk out on him, Kirby has a change of heart and nixes the deal just as it's about to be signed.

Incidentally, the injury to Vanderhof's foot that requires him to use crutches the entire movie was not in the play. It was written into the script to assist Barrymore, whose arthritis had gotten so bad that he was turning down roles for which he was not sufficiently ambulatory. Though he could stand upright for short periods, Barrymore would use a wheelchair the rest of his life -- a state much similar to FDR, whom Barrymore loathed.

"You Can't Take It With You" is a lesser film in the Capra canon imho, but it was very well-received at the time. It was the top-grossing movie of 1938, was nominated for seven Oscars and won two, including Best Picture. Capra also picked up his third directing statue in the space of just four years.

Spring Byington was the only cast member to receive an Academy Award nomination, playing Alice's mother, Penny, who pours herself into creative endeavors as they strike her fancy. Once she was a very avid painter, but then a typewriter was delivered to the house by accident, and she's been cranking out plays -- every one of them unproduced, as near as we can tell -- ever since.

Mischa Auer plays a stentorian Russian, Potap Kolenkhov, who is ostensibly dancing instructor to Alice's little sister, Essie (Ann Miller, just 15 when the movie was shot), but really just comes around for the free meals. The Russian has an opinion about everything, and that opinion is always that, "It stinks" -- up to and including the skills of his student.

Dub Taylor plays Essie's husband, Ed, who plays the xylophone (as did Dub in real life, which is how the Alabama football player landed the role). Mary Forbes plays Kirby's wife, a classic snooty matronly type -- big bosom and even bigger head. Her conversion to the charms of the Vanderhof clan's goofy ways is still pending by the time the credits roll.

Donald Meek, a character actor whose look exactly matched his name, pops up as Poppins, an accounting drone whom Vanderhof recruits to leave behind his drudgery and come live with them, a few minutes after they've just met. He ensconces himself in the basement with Alice's father and uncle to practice light mad scientist stuff.

"You Can't Take It With You" is a fast-paced film with lots of one-liners and rapid-fire dialogue. You could practically classify it as a slamming-doors farce. It's amusing, charming and occasionally touching, though the Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur characters are throwaways in my view. The movie has to be regarded as one of the weaker Best Picture winners.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Video review: "Coco"

While otherwise a strong movie year, 2017 was notably lacking in outstanding animated films. “Coco” was easily the best of the lot, though I’d also give some love to the underappreciated “Ferdinand” and “Loving Vincent,” which was animation-by-painting.

Anthony Gonzalez voice-stars as Miguel, a young boy who lives to play music. Problem is, his entire family has a bad history with musicians, stemming back to his great-great grandmother banning tunes from the household after her troubadour husband walked out on them. So Miguel plays on the side, hoping to enter the big music contest in honor of Ernest de la Cruz (Benjamin Bratt), a late, great singer who’s basically the Elvis of Mexico.

On the holiday of Día de Muertos, a day of devotion to the deceased, Miguel finds himself trapped in the land of the dead, where status is determined by how well you are remembered. Ernesto is the prince of the city, while others like the hapless Hector, a bumbling charlatan voiced by Gael Garcia Bernal, eke out an existence on the edge of the magical city, in danger of being completely forgotten and fading away into nothingness.

The dead are represented as cool-looking skeletons with googly eyes, still wearing the clothes, hair and facial expressions they had in life. It can be a little creepy for younger children, but we soon take the denizens at face value and fall into adventure. Miguel has until the next day to lift the curse, or remain trapped among the dead forever.

Filled with fantastic colors, rousing music, a vivacious Latin cultural theme and a heartwarming tale about the importance of family, “Coco” is a sheer delight for all ages.

Bonus features are exquisite, though most come with the Blu-ray combo pack. The DVD version includes a feature-length commentary track by directed Lee Unkrich, co-director Adrian Molina and producer Darla K. Anderson, plus a featurette on Dante, Miguel’s dimwitted canine companion.

Upgrade to the Blu-ray and you add seven deleted scenes and 11 more featurettes, including a travelogue through Mexico, the exhaustive animation process, original animated pieces and more.



Thursday, February 22, 2018

Mini-review: "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool"

There's nothing more challenging that trying to review a movie nearly three months after you saw it, especially when it's added to the release schedule at the last minute. So all I have time and capacity for is a short review.

"Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool" has a premise that seems like pure Hollywood hooey: a faded film actress and Oscar winner, virtually forgotten in late middle age, takes up with an aspiring actor several decades her junior from the rough neighborhoods of England. But that actually was the romance between Gloria Grahame in the late 1970s, as recounted in the memoir of Peter Turner, and adapted into a feature film by director Paul McGuigan and screenwriter Matt Greenhalgh.

The film is a showcase for solid performances from Annette Bening and Jamie Bell. It's also a sensitive meditation on the power of love and loyalty.

Grahame was a major player in the 1950s, headlining in films like "The Bad and the Beautiful," "The Big Heat" and "The Naked Alibi," a favorite femme fatale. But she garnered a reputation for being difficult to work with and neurotic about her looks -- not to mention tawdry tabloid articles about her cheating on her second husband, Nicholas Ray, with his underage son, Anthony, who would go on to become her fourth husband.

The story takes up as she's eking out an existence on the British stage, and bumps into Peter, an unsophisticated wannabe. She's clearly in charge of every step of their relationship, including when it will begin and end, and the strange and wonderful reconciliation they find after her health starts to fail.

Vanessa Redgrave and Frances Barber turn up as Gloria's mother and sister, respectively, and their quietly savage undermining lets us understand how she became a bundle of barely stitched-up wounds. Julie Walters and Kenneth Cranham plays Peter's simple parents, who are bewildered by their son's tortuous romance with this odd, beguiling woman.

It doesn't add up to more than a portrait of unlikely romance, but "Film Stars Don't Die in Liverpool" is worthwhile if only to see Bening and Bell pour their souls into their performances.