Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Review: "Gunda"



"Gunda" is a very special film, and one that's difficult to review. As I set out to write this essay, I don't know if it'll be very short or rather long.

This Norwegian documentary is about life on a farm, centering in particular -- though hardly exclusively -- on a mother pig and her farrow of piglets. We watch them grow from tiny newborns to little scamps to big, burly shoats crashing into each other and causing delightful mayhem. They do other pig things like snooze contentedly in mud while the flies flicker around, a haze of buzzing they do not mind.

There is also a long stretch of "chicken cam" where we observe chickens, including an uppity one-legged fellow, following at their eye level or even from their perspective. And a sequence of cows who are caught running in slow motion, or regarding us from their grazing field without any particular interest in the camera.

And... that's it. That is the entire movie.

It is unspeakably beautiful, shot in luminous black-and-white by Egil Håskjold Larsen and Viktor Kossakovsky. I can only imagine the patience and artistry involved in setting up and manipulating their cameras, which often move in long, slow sweeps, tracking shots and pans. "Gunda" should be shown to all aspiring cinematography students. 

There are no humans, at all. Mankind and our clumsy intrusions are not seen or heard, except for the wheels of a tractor near the end. There is no voiceover or title cards; the movie is utterly wordless. People seem almost not to exist in this little world, though of course we know they must.

I see that Joaquin Phoenix served as an executive producer, so I'm thankful at least there was no reprise of his loopy Oscar speech about cow insemination.

(People sometimes ask what the role of an executive producer is on a movie, as some can have a half-dozen or more listed. The truth is no one really knows, because it means whatever the people involved want it to mean. Generally speaking, though, on smaller films like this it indicates somebody with a big profile has lent their name to help the movie get made or distributed. That's it. They had no active role in the creative process whatsoever. It is not unusual in Hollywood for the star of a small movie to never meet their executive producers, or possibly even know who they are until it comes out and they see the name on the credits along with everybody else.)

Like "Nanook of the North," "Gunda" is an exercise in pure cinema. It is a throwback, the original kind of documentary: just observation without a narrative structure. It does make me wonder why it has two people credited as screenwriters, Ainara Vera and Viktor Kosakovskiy, who also served as director.

Since they didn't know what would happen until they filmed it, how could they "write" the movie? If you're deciding how to assemble footage after the fact, that's the editing process, not creating a screenplay. Was there ever actually a real script for "Gunda," like a printed booklet of pages with everything that happens?

If there was, and it actually existed before they filmed the pigs and other critters, then it calls into the question the authenticity of what we're seeing.

The documentary genre certainly has come a long way, much of it recently, I deem, in the wrong way. So many are just partisan political tirades or "explorations" of a topic that the filmmakers had decided on the correct outcome before anything had been shot. A newer animal is last year's Oscar-nominated "The Mole Agent," which as near as I can figure is a documentary about the making of the documentary.

So I've written a fair amount of words about "Gunda" but not really told you want I think of it. Maybe it's because I'm having a hard time coalescing what I do think about it. 

Certainly, this is not the most entertaining 93 minutes you'll ever see. If you're not intimidated by a single shot of suckling piglets that goes on for six or seven minutes, their fuzzy little heads groping for the teat, then this may be an experience you can genuinely enjoy. 

If you don't have a lot of patience or aren't in the mood for something this slow-moving and placid, then I'd probably advise you to stay away. 

I don't ever read what other critics have to say about a movie before I review it, but I did see a pull-quote in the trailer that says, "This is a film to take a bath in," which I think is an awfully good description. My counterpoint would be, are you the type of person who thinks just sitting in a bath, doing nothing but staring at your toes, is a luxury or a dreadful bore?

I'm the sort of person who likes the idea of a bath, but every time I take one I lose patience after about four minutes.

One thing I can definitively say is this is exactly the sort of film that will play much better in a cinema than on your TV at home. Some movies just need the dark magic of a theater to wrap you up in the experience. "Gunda" requires your undivided attention and the indulgence of your time to be properly seen.

So we're at the end of this review and I see I landed on "long," as I'm writing this quickly and, as Mr. Twain famously once said, it takes more effort to write short. But aren't you impressed that I looked up "farrow," the proper term for a group of baby pigs?

Review: "Here Now"

“Here Now” is pretty corny and old-fashioned and rings closer to television than feature film. It’s also warmhearted, funny and entertaining with some melancholy stretches. It contains few surprises but gives you a lot more than you thought you’d walk away with.

Normally I’d probably give something like this a middling review, but I confess I have soft spot in my heart for Billy Crystal, who’s had a lovely career and was so great hosting the Oscars, back when they did that. He’s aged into grandpa roles gracefully, although if you look like Billy Crystal and not Harrison Ford, what choice do you really have?

He plays Charlie Berns, a legendary comedy writer, although “legendary” for comedy writers rarely means rich and famous. He’s had a few hit plays, a couple of memorable movies, a handful of books. Mostly he’s known as the senior writer on “This Just In,” a Saturday Night Live-esque live television show.

The set-up is that Charlie is suffering from a form of dementia that is robbing him of his ability to write and think clearly. But then he unexpectedly meets Emma, played by Tiffany Haddish, who has oodles of screen presence.

Charlie agreed to participate in a “have lunch with a celebrity” fundraiser, and is mortified to find out the winning bid was only $22, and she didn’t even bid herself but stole the ticket from her lousy ex-boyfriend. Despite this, and a memorable meal, they become close friends.

Perhaps lovers? you’re thinking, and that would be the most obvious movie thing to do, despite the 30-year age difference of the stars. I’ll just say that the film, which Crystal directed and co-wrote with Alan Zweibel based on his short story, dispenses with this choice without dismissing it as totally outside the realm of possibility.

To wit: this is the sort of movie where two people who are an unlikely romantic match have conversations about why they would be so terrible as a couple.

The humor is very broad Borsht Belt, the sort of thing where the actor winds up the pitch and puts it right down the plate, then takes a beat to let the joke sink in and be appreciated. Crystal’s timing is as sharp as ever, and he lands dozens of rat-a-tat zingers like an over-the-hill boxer who can still jab with the best of them.

Haddish plays on her star persona: a smart, brassy Black woman who knows who she is and will take guff from no one. Emma is a singer who performs anywhere she can, from subway stations to hole-in-the-wall clubs, but things are looking up for her band. This forms a crisis point when it becomes clear Charlie needs somebody to look after him, and his relationship with his kids is strained.

Laura Benanti and Penn Badgley play the children, busy professionals and parents themselves. The son is a little closer to him, playing regular tennis matches, but the daughter always seems to have furrowed brows and crossed elbows whenever she’s around.

The film is generally at its best in and around Charlie’s show, capturing the frantic, pirates-of-the-airwaves feel of the best of SNL, which Crystal was on for a minute back in the day. Max Gordon Moore plays Brad, Charlie’s former protégé who’s now running the show and has his back against the younger writers who think Charlie is old and out of touch.

That he is, and he doesn’t get as many sketches on the air as he used to. But Charlie has a good ear for the music of comedy and can’t stand it when the notes are played gracelessly. There’s a running gag about how Charlie can’t stand the way the big star of the show has a tendency to emphasize the wrong words and syllables. And there’s a nice sequence where Charlie takes a struggling young writer (Andrew Durand) under his wing.

There are also some gauzy, heart-tugging flashbacks to Charlie’s memories of his wife, Carrie (a pitch-perfect Louisa Krause), and some contretemps surrounding his granddaughter, Lindsay (Audrey Hsieh), who’s about to have her bat mitzvah and is having the usual teen conflicts with her mom, which threatens to widen the gulf Charlie already has with his daughter.

Crystal called in some favors with some old showbiz buddies who show up in cameos playing themselves including Sharon Stone, Kevin Kline, Bob Costas, Itzhak Perlman and Barry Levinson.

The stuff about dementia isn’t the strong suit of “Here Today” -- Crystal isn’t about to be confused with Anthony Hopkins -- but the onscreen vibe between him and Haddish is reassuring and has all the feels. The movie’s a little too long and a bit of a mess, but the sort of untidiness you see in a comfortable house you’re always up for a visit to.

Monday, May 3, 2021

Reeling Backward: Cast a Dark Shadow (1955)


Dirk Bogarde had a certain discreet charm that worked well for him as a British leading man. His enduring image on the screen is of a sleek, well-mannered gentleman of the upper crust, not very large, ramrod straight posture and almost always dressed nattily in a suit or uniform. He could be charming but also icy, and dare I say had a slightly androgynous quality, at least compared to other film actors of his era.

(By fairly reliable accounts he was gay and in a long-term relationship with another man for most of his life, and his failure to enter a show marriage of convenience like others hampered his Hollywood career.)

"Cast a Dark Shadow" is a British film noir that skillfully uses Bogarde's considerable qualities to maximum effect. It’s now out in a terrific new Blu-ray edition from Cohen Media.

He plays Edward Bare, a crafty young manipulator who uses older women for their fortunes. He contrives to kill his wife, Monica (Mona Washbourne), and stage it to look like an accident. He then marries Freda Jeffries (Margaret Lockwood), another wealthy widow, and intends to repeat the crime or otherwise squeeze her for the life of travel and ease he desires.

Dapper -- I don't think he ever appears without a tie, even at breakfast -- and with an impressively vertical pompadour, "Teddy" is slithery and charismatic. In a creepy narrative device, he continues to talk to his dead wife as if she were his conspirator and accomplice rather than victim. His pet name for her was "Moni," which in his soft Cockney accent sounds suspiciously close to "money."

Teddy is clever, and has a way of quickly intuiting the motives of others and bending them to his advantage. He appears always helpful and benevolent to every woman he meets, almost incapable of not flirting, though he is standoffish and borderline rude to other men -- especially Phillip Mortimer (Robert Flemyng), Moni's attorney who (rightfully) suspects that Teddy is after her fortune.

Although he spends so much effort thinking things through, Teddy is very much capable of outsmarting himself, as we'll see.

He seems content to go on living his quiet life with Moni, plying her with brandy and giving "magic carpet" rides by flipping through an album filled with pictures of foreign lands they'll never visit due to her health. (Washbourne was only in her early 50s when the film was made, though I get the sense her character is at least a decade older.) She gives him checks for his little amusements, including a Sunbeam Mk. III convertible he likes to dash around the countryside in, but he craves to be master of his own fate and fortune.

When Teddy hears that Moni plans to make a new will with Phillip, he tries to dissuade her, believing that if she dies with no will he will inherit everything. But he has it backward: she secretly made a will when they got married a year earlier that leaves her mansion to him but her wealth to her estranged sister, herself a widow living in Jamaica.

(So many rich widows!)

Moni intends to change the will to give him everything -- he's successfully devoted himself to her to the extent she genuinely adores him. Plus he claims to have a "wonky ticker" and expects to die before she does. Believing he stands to lose much of what he considers rightfully his, Teddy gets Moni drunk and stages an accident where she appears to have asphyxiated while trying to light the gas fireplace.

If he'd waited until the next day, Teddy would have everything he wanted. Instead, he is left house-rich but cash-poor, confiding that he couldn't write a check for 10 pounds, let alone a thousand. He even contrives to rob Moni's devoted maid, Emmie (Kathleen Harrison), convincing the simple-minded woman that the £200 left to her in the will was supposed to be a lump sum to take care of future wages.

Teddy scrapes together what he has to stake out a posh seaside resort, where he spots Freda and quickly moves in. She is almost the polar opposite of Moni: loud, brassy, lower-class and with a quirk for making inappropriate or crude jokes. But she is also self-confident and self-aware, and though she falls for Teddy and marries him, Freda insists on keeping a tight grasp on her money. She refuses to invest £2,000 in a little real estate investment he proposes to buy a plot next to the town church for a cinema.

"Pound for pound" is her oft-repeated mantra.

He is now in quite a spot. The inquest into Mona's death absolved him, but Philip is still snooping around and the potential to be caught remains. Hurriedly marrying and murdering another woman would look too suspicious. So he sets his eyes on another mark: Charlotte Young (Kay Walsh), yet another wealthy widow (!) who is looking to buy property nearby. 

Teddy, a former real estate agent, shows her around while pitching woo and dropping hints about making a mistake by marrying Freda. 

Here's the really crazy thing: Teddy makes no effort to hide this from his second wife, and in fact attempts to enlist her aid in the bamboozling. He essentially lets Freda know that he is exactly what everyone says he is, and if she won't festoon him with funds then he'll have to continue his little schemes to secure them. 

Freda puts up with all this, a clear-eyed calculation that she would rather have a snake in bed with her than slithering around the back door. There's even a scene where Teddy proposes moving into Moni's old locked-up bedroom and Freda adamantly refuses, saying didn't marry him "for companionship." This is about as close as the movies would get to acknowledging feminine lust in 1955.

Things go on from there, which I'll leave you to discover. The ending is a bit abrupt and stagey, though with some impressive pyrotechnics. There is one big twist involving Charlotte that I admit I did not see coming, and was impressed that Teddy did.

Directed by the great Lewis Gilbert ("Alfie"), "Cast a Dark Shadow" was written by John Cresswell, based on the play "Murder Mistaken" by Janet Green. The cinematography by Jack Asher is sumptuous, blindingly bright sunny scenes outdoors contrasted with inky pools of shadow and darkness inside. 

The sitting room where Moni perishes is the centerpiece of the movie, and Gilbert will stage Bogarde in tight closeup in the foreground, much of his face hidden, while other characters wait in the background trying to pierce his conniving, and possibly unhinged, mind. 

At 83 minutes, the movie hurries a little too quickly through its plot points for my taste. I would've liked to have more development with Freda, a strong and original female character who's just as interesting and confounding as Teddy. They make a curious pair, two twisted, dominant personalities constantly vying for the upper hand.

I could even envision a third act where the two of them pair up to deceive a succession of old biddies, partners in the art of lovemaking -- and crypt-keeping.

Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The Virtuoso


Something was bugging me all throughout watching "The Virtuoso." It's the tale of an assassin trying to reconcile the capricious brutalities of his life while pulling off an especially vexing job in which he's sent to a small town to kill someone -- but he doesn't know who.

Even though the film is engaging and full of plenty of suspense, I couldn't shake the vague feeling that what I was watching was not a movie. A large part of it has to do with the narration, which is done in second-person, present-tense form: "You are very careful. You know never to rush. You always take your time and do not be distracted," etc. 

At first what bothered me about the narration is that it's largely unnecessary. As our titular protagonist, a stern-looking fellow of middle years played by Anson Mount, assesses threats and undertakes risks, we can generally see his mind working clearly. For example, at one point he encounters a body in the trunk of a car, so we know that he knows that the person driving that vehicle isn't who they say they are.

Nevertheless, here comes the narrator to solemnly intone, "But if so-and-so is dead in the trunk, then who is the imposter inside the house?"

It's thudding and it's distracting. In movies it's best to lead your audience to where you want them to go, but don't spell it out for them. Show, don't tell. Less is more. It's better to let them be momentarily confused that always feel one step ahead of the characters. 

This is filmmaking 101 stuff. And director Nick Stagliano is not a newbie with three previous feature credits under his belt. Screenwriter James C. Wolf is a little greener, but they seem adept at pacing the plot it. So why the damn narrator?

It wasn't until the movie was nearly over I figured it out: it's a video game. Watching the movie is an equivalent experience to having your avatar go through the tricks and tumbles of a role-playing game, with the narrator helpfully providing clues and insights you might have missed. 

Should the virtuoso go here and talk to this woman? Or hang back and watch what unfolds? Should he start up his car, or will the taillights give away his position to the enemy? And so on.

It's too bad, because this invasive choose-your-own-adventure warbling keeps getting in the way of a perfectly serviceable story. 

The assassin lives in a shack in the woods, totally off the grid and cut off from all communication or human contact. He gets his assignments through notes in a private mail service box, and can pick and choose his jobs. 

Sometimes he gets a name, location, details, everything. Other times it's just a few clues, and he has to follow the breadcrumbs to find his mark. His only real connection is with his handler, an enigmatic fellow played by Anthony Hopkins. He's essentially an older version of the virtuoso, and even though they work together they circle each other like wary wolves, affection not giving all the way to trust.

You may wonder why a screen icon like Hopkins is doing in a little potboiler like this, and I can say with a lot of confidence that it's all because of one speech the handler gives in a graveyard scene. I'd bet a steak dinner Hopkins was flipping through that script thinking, "This guy doesn't really do much but sit at his desk and answer one of several phones in front of him," but got to that stem-winder speech and said, "I'll take the part!"

Turns out the handler was a soldier who served with the assassin's father, and has taken on a mentor role now that his old man is passed. Hopkins is frisky and a little scary as a man who knows the dark parts of man's heart, knows that duty requires wandering in there from time to time, but understands how to set it aside and move on to the next mission.

The virtuoso is having trouble with this because his last job went terribly bad, so he wants to jump back into the game so as not to stew over it. His next assignment is a doozie, and the handler suggests he pass on it, but he's resolved.

It involves going to a tiny, tiny town in the woods that seems to consist of just a motel and Rosie's Cafe, a roadside greasy spoon where he is to meet his quarry at exactly 5 o'clock. The hitch: he doesn't know who it is, other than it has something to do with "White Rivers."

He goes to the appointed place and finds several potential threats. There's an older loner (Eddie Marsan) in the corner who's carrying a concealed gun. A handsome dude with a wolf's smile (Richard Brake) who appears to be a boyfriend of a woman (Diora Baird). The assassin is trying to figure out who to kill when a sheriff's deputy (David Morse) strolls in to refuel with coffee and danish. Now what?

He subtly enlists the help of the waitress, Dixy (Abbie Cornish), Rosie's niece who is filling in while her aunt is sick. She takes one look at the steely virtuoso and recognizes a choice pick in an unlikely place, and comes on hard to him. He uses her attraction to his advantage, plumbing her for information to scope out the others. Things go from there.

It's a pretty neat setup, although I have to confess I figured out the twist pretty early on, and I'm guessing you will, too. Still, I was never bored watching it all play out.

Mount is an intriguing figure, a guy who has to practice smiling so he'll pass for a normal citizen. He's not a bad person at heart and the collateral damage that sometimes happens weighs heavily on him. Mount, who sort of resembles George Clooney's harder-hearted cousin, gives the virtuoso a sort of polite distant quality -- a gentlemen with a thousand-yard stare.

There's a lot to like about "The Virtuoso," which plays on the conventions of the killer-among-us shtick while offering enough originality to make it seem like not another cookie-cutter flick. I also appreciated that they didn't gift the assassin with otherworldly fighting skills a la Wick or Bourne, so when he gets into a scrape he gets as good as he gives.

If only they would've nixed that damnable "quest hints" narration...

Review: "The Mitchells vs. the Machines"

“The Mitchells vs. the Machines” is a pretty curious animal: a slick-looking CGI movie from a major animation studio (Sony) playing on the biggest streaming service (Netflix) that’s all about how people are letting technology interfere with their interpersonal relationships. It takes shots at Facebook, Apple, YouTube, Google and all the other big digital players.

This is pretty bold stuff. It’s like the Woman's Christian Temperance Union deciding to serve gin martinis at their next meeting to juice up attendance.

At one point the titular family is sitting around the dinner table and everybody’s nose is in their phone. (Chances are at least one of them is watching Netflix.) Dad has to beg them to make eye contact for 10 seconds before the strain does them in. Later they take on a literal army of evil robots let loose by our own increasing reliance on technological crutches… like the very ones you’ll probably use to watch this movie.

Holy conflicting signals, Batman!

Rather than shy away from the cognitive dissonance, director Mike Rianda and co-screenwriter Jeff Rowe gleefully embrace the crazy in a freewheeling, fast-paced story full of action, sharp wit and not a little pathos. It’s the best animated flick I’ve seen since “Wolfwalkers.”

The setup is that teen heroine Katie Mitchell (voice of Abbi Jacobson) is a queen of geek culture and an aspiring filmmaker. She has a popular YouTube channel for her shorts, a series starring the family’s barely-there pug, Monchi, as Cop Dog. She uses a mix of live action, filters and animation -- a style the movie mimics, so characters will have little emoticons pop over their heads and whatnot.

She’s jacked to move away to California to start film school and connect with her tribe of fellow weirdos. But there’s also the usual teen disconnect with her family, especially with her well-meaning but clueless dad, Rick (Danny McBride). He’s a technophobe who doesn’t understand Katie’s tools and wants her to have a backup in case filmmaking doesn’t work out. Recalling their close bond when she was little, Rick is hurt that Katie seems so eager to cut the ties that bind.

Her mom, Linda (Maya Rudolph), is a first-grade teacher and domestic goddess, handling the daily chaos and gently pushing Rick to reach out and connect. Younger brother Aaron (voiced by Rianda himself) is anxious and dinosaur-obsessed, and is worried about losing his closest (read: only) friend when Katie moves away.

Rick comes up with the (not so) brilliant idea of a cross-country road trip to reconnect, but it only seems to push them further away. The action sets in when the PAL mega-corporation, led by the callow young tech billionaire Mark “Totally Not Zuckerberg” Bowman (Eric Andre) introduces the next big technological leap: personal assistant robots to not just control all your communications and interactions, but make you breakfast and clean up the house while doing it.

Unfortunately, the old PAL operating system (Olivia Colman), represented as a emotive face within a phone, is none too pleased about being displaced, and soon takes over the system. Humans across the globe are scooped and placed into glowing blue pods to be shot off into the cold, dark reaches of unknown space -- but hey, we’ll still have Wifi!

With the help of a pair of captured robots who have incurred damage that renders them more human-like, the Mitchells set out to upload a backdoor shutdown program into the mainframe, dodging legions of enemies and multitudinous explosions. Their only weapons are Katie’s canny brain, Rick’s old-school crafty brain, and a can of whup-tush that gets unleashed by the unlikeliest member of the clan.

There’s lots of zany action to please kids as well as a few gross moments to draw titters. I was more lured toward the clever throwaway jokes, various side characters offering social commentary and surprisingly heartfelt rumination about the challenges of maintaining a father-daughter bond.

I’d prefer to watch a fun spectacle like “The Mitchells vs. the Machines” in a movie theater, but in this age of isolation we have to watch where and whenever we can. It’s still astounding that a movie that makes use of the technology it mocks could result in such a delightfully human story.

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Review: "Stowaway"



There’s a particular kind of movie, often a science fiction film, that has percolated up. The technological and situational challenges drive the emotional reactions, as astronauts or other extraordinary humans try to prevent catastrophic events with limited resources, time and capabilities.

“Apollo 13” is one of the earliest of this sort, and “Gravity,” “The Martian” and now “Stowaway” are its inheritors. They’re really procedurals in space -- trying to painstakingly assemble the pieces to the answer puzzle while certain mayhem is coming down at them, perhaps not imminently but inexorably.

(In a way, you could even argue the last two Avengers movies were space procedurals, with the focus on finding or hiding Infinity Stones to prevent the existential threat, represented as Thanos.)

Like the others, “Stowaway” is not long on characterization. We learn enough about the people we’re watching to understand where they come from and what motivates them, but not a lot of other background.

For example, star Anna Kendrick plays Zoe Levenson, who we know is 1) a doctor, who 2) went to Yale, and 3) initially applied to the Hyperion space program as a joke, and 4) that’s about it. The plot is what moves things along, with the actors finding little spaces to bring out the humanity. Kendrick gives her a sort of quiet, plucky charm -- geek girl as heroine.

Similarly, Toni Collette plays the commander of this mission to a future Mars colony, though I don’t think we ever even hear her name. (The credits give it as Marina Barnett.) She’s a veteran leading her third and last mission and is focused on tamping down miscues. Daniel Dae Kim is David Kim, a botanist who is married and follows the commander’s lead unquestioningly, until…

Michael Adams (Shamier Anderson) is the “until,” a launch engineer who somehow passed out on the ship before blastoff and was never detected. The problem is they only have enough stuff on board for three people, not four, and the CO2 exchanger thingamajig he was caught behind was damaged, so they’re all going to asphyxiate a few weeks before reaching Mars unless Michael… goes away.

The dilemma: find a way to fix the problem so everyone can live, or present Michael with the option of killing himself to save the crew.

Now, it seems pretty implausible that a NASA-like organization could misplace an entire person, what with their mile-long checklists and tracking devices and so on. But director Joe Penna, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ryan Morrison, focuses on the problem and brushes past how it was created.

There’s even a suggestion that maybe Michael’s stowaway status was not entirely accidental. He’s an aspiring astronaut himself, so is it possible he manipulated events to jump ahead of the line? There’s also the hint of attraction between him and Zoe, or at least a bond, so she pushes back against the commander’s plan to do away with him.

“Stowaway” has lots of potential story threads to pursue. For example, Michael is Black and blue-collar, whereas the crew is white and Asian and Ivy League. I kept waiting for some of the new awokening over racial justice to come to the fore -- after all, why should Michael be the one who has to sacrifice himself? Why is his life instantly assigned as less valuable than the others?

Other options present themselves, but every day that goes by with Michael breathing air leaves less margin of error for a solution to present itself. And that’s the sweet spot where the movie gradually, skillfully builds suspense.

One of the choices the filmmakers made that I really liked is for the audience not to witness any of the usual back-and-forth conversations with mission control. We just hear a little squawking over earpieces, so we have to make sense from just one side of the conversation. This heightens the claustrophobic feeling the crew is utterly alone, and their choices and mettle will decide their fate.

“Stowaway” isn’t an ‘exciting’ movie in the traditional sense. There aren’t a lot of action scenes, explosions, lasers, that kind stuff. Most of it is just people inside a cramped spaceship, dealing with impossible scenarios and agonizing over the consequences of their choices.

What would you do in such circumstances? And that’s why we watch.


Fearless Oscar predictions 2021



Will this be the lowest-rated Oscars telecast ever? Frankly, I don't care if it is.

Hurrah to the studios and filmmakers who still put their movies out in 2020 despite pandemic and shutdown and death and mayhem. Raspberries to those who fled the scene, endangering the entire industry because they didn't want to take a write-down on their flicks.

We needed the movies more than ever last year, not just as an escape or entertainment but to put a mirror up to our collective faces and stare at the blemishes there. Not everyone liked what they saw, nor should they.

So the Academy Awards nominees for last year are bereft of the big-budget blockbusters, superhero flicks, fast cars and slick spies, CGI showpieces and other high-profile flicks we're used to. But those movies also tend not to contend for the Oscars other than in some of the technical categories, so it won't really have much impact on who wins.

But it's likely that TV audiences won't tune in because their favorites aren't represented. Overall I think the quality of films up for contention is about what we'd see in a typical year, or at most a half-step below. 

For those who love cinema, there was plenty to celebrate. As is often the case, my favorite films -- "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," "Mank," "Wolfwalkers" and "Emma" were my first ranked four -- have not fared very well during the awards season. My fifth, "Nomadland," seems poised for a good showing, including an odds-on favorite to win Best Picture. I'll take it.

So let's get to my annual picks and predictions for the Oscars. As always, I provide my prediction of who will win, and my pick of who I think should win. And, in an act of pure puckishness, I cross out the names of some nominees who I deem undeserving and replace them with better candidates -- the dreaded "Chris Cross."

Best Picture

The Nominees: 
The Father
Judas and the Black Messiah
Promising Young Woman
Sound of Metal
The Trial of the Chicago 7

The Chatter: "Nomadland" has led the way for most of the awards season, and for good reason. It's a film of immense stillness and confidence, with another quietly spectacular performance for Frances McDormand. The title of filmdom's "greatest living actor" is unofficial and arbitrary, but for my money the mantle has passed from Meryl Streep to her.

Writer/director Chloé Zhao, in just her third feature film, has reached the heights of Hollywood filmmaking, and seems poised for a long and fruitful career. 

"Mank," an early favorite, has fallen badly, dismissed as stodgy old-school Hollywood filmmaking. (I'm stodgy and old-school, so I loved it.) "Promising Young Woman" has made a late charge, and though I'm not a fan of the movie I respect its audacity and originality. It appears to be the main stalking horse.

"Judas and the Black Messiah" has a chance as the film that best represented unrest about racial injustice happening around us. But I wouldn't be surprised if "The Trial of the Chicago 7" sneaks in. It's an "actor's movie," and they make up the biggest voting branch.

Prediction: "Nomadland"

Pick: "Mank"

Chris Cross: Nothing on the list of nominees I disliked, though I'll take "Emma," "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" and "The Personal History of David Copperfield" over "Minari," "Sound of Metal" or "Woman."

Best Actress

The Nominees: 
Viola Davis, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"
Andra Day, "The United States vs. Billie Holiday"
Vanessa Kirby, "Pieces of a Woman"
Frances McDormand, "Nomadland"
Carey Mulligan, "Promising Young Woman"

The Chatter:  This has been the hottest race of the awards season, with McDormand, Davis and Mulligan trading blows during the preliminary award contest. Davis won at the Screen Actors Guild Awards, so I think she's going to overtake McDormand, one past Oscar winner against another. The Oscars often give Best Actress to a film that wasn't even nominated for Best Picture, so there's much precedent for a Davis win. Mulligan will have her day.

Prediction: Davis

Pick: McDormand

Chris Cross: Let's kick Kirby to the curb in place of the captivating Anya Taylor-Joy from "Emma."

Best Actor

The Nominees: 
Riz Ahmed, "Sound of Metal"
Chadwick Boseman, "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom"
Anthony Hopkins, "The Father"
Gary Oldman, "Mank"
Steven Yeun, "Minari"

The Chatter: Fairly weak field this year. Boseman appears to be the sentimental favorite, and it's the Academy's last chance to honor the late icon. Wisely, they chose not to do it for the awful "Da 5 Bloods."

Hopkins and Oldman are past winners collecting more laurels just by being nominated. I thought Yeun was rather flat in a movie where the female characters outshone him. Ahmed was terrific in a tiny movie few people saw; as they say, "the nomination is his award."

Prediction: Boseman

Pick: Oldman

Chris Cross: I'll once again defend the much-ridiculed "The Call of the Wild" because it has one of Harrison Ford's best performances. Really. Go check it out, the CGI dog isn't as bad as they say. Goodbye, Yeun.

Best Supporting Actress

The Nominees: 
Maria Bakalova, "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm"
Glenn Close, "Hillbilly Elegy"
Olivia Colman, "The Father"
Amanda Seyfried, "Mank"
Yuh-Jung Youn, "Minari"

The Chatter: Really solid list, apart of the head-scratcher of Bakalova for the barely-watchable "Borat" sequel. Close, nominated a million times without winning, has a shot but Youn would see to be the favorite in a battle of the grandmas. I was very happy to see Seyfried make the list in a career-changing performance. Colman wowed me way more in "The Father" than she did for her best actress win (really a supporting) for "The Favourite."

Prediction: Youn

Pick: Close

Chris Cross: Nix to Bakalova and yay to Lily Collins in "Mank."

Best Supporting Actor

The Nominees: 
Sacha Baron Cohen, The Trial of the Chicago 7
Daniel Kaluuya, Judas and the Black Messiah
Leslie Odom, Jr., One Night in Miami
Paul Raci, Sound of Metal
LaKeith Stanfield, Judas and the Black Messiah

The Chatter: Typically one of the most competitive categories, rather limp this year. On the one hand, I'm thrilled that LaKeith Stanfield, one my favorite young film actors, got his first Oscar nomination. On the other, it's in the supporting category even though he's clearly the lead of "Judas." Worst, he'll compete against co-star Daniel Kaluuya, who appears poised to win. I can't even pick him because it's such an egregious example of category-hopping.

Sacha Baron Cohen was fine in a movie that's basically just a series of characters delivering speeches to each other. Raci is a strange pick, an unknown actor in a not particularly interesting role. Strange we're not hearing pushback about the two hearing actor playing deaf characters both getting nominated. Odom was fine but I thought Kingsley Ben-Adir as Malcolm X was the standout of "Miami."

Prediction: Kaluuya

Pick: Kaluuya

Chris Cross: Can't hear you Raci, talk less Cohen, wrong guy Odom. Instead let's invite Caleb Landry Jones from "The Outpost," Ben-Adir and Peter Capaldi for "The Personal History of David Copperfield."

Best Original Screenplay

The Nominees: 
"Judas and the Black Messiah," Will Berson, Shaka King, Keith Lucas & Kenny Lucas
"Minari," Lee Isaac Chung
"Promising Young Woman," Emerald Fennell
"Sound of Metal," Derek Cianfrance, Abraham Marder & Darius Marder
"The Trial of the Chicago 7," Aaron Sorkin

The Chatter: I would bet Fennell will win here, because the Academy loves to dole out screenwriting awards as consolation prizes or encouragement for up-and-coming filmmakers. 

I still can't believe David Fincher's "Mank," based on a screenplay written 20 years earlier by his deceased dad, Jack, was ignored. I guess screenwriters really don't get any credit.   

Prediction: "Promising Young Woman"

Pick: "Judas and the Black Messiah"

Chris Cross: I'll replace "Trial" with "Emma" and "Woman" with "The Personal History of David Copperfield," two lovely, vibrant adaptations of musty old British novels. Plus "Mank" for "Minari."

Best Adapted Screenplay

The Nominees: 
"Borat Subsequent Moviefilm," Peter Baynham, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jena Friedman, Anthony Hines, Lee Kern, Dan Mazer, Erica Rivinoja & Dan Swimer
"The Father," Christopher Hampton & Florian Zeller
"Nomadland," Chloé Zhao
"One Night in Miami," Kemp Powers
"The White Tiger," Ramin Bahrani

The Chatter: What the hell is up with the Borat love? It was so long and so not funny. Plus it has too many screenwriters to be taken seriously. But it tweaked the right politicians, so I guess it's golden.

Ironically, "Nomadland" is the favorite even though it seems like such an original, distinctive vision. Chloé Zhao came up with a fantastic character from a nonfiction book about modern nomads. The only other film that has a shot is "One Night in Miami."

Prediction: "Nomadland"

Pick: "Nomadland"

Chris Cross: Kaput, "Borat." Hooray, "The Outpost."

Best Director

The Nominees: 
Thomas Vinterberg, "Another Round"
Emerald Fennell, "Promising Young Woman"
David Fincher, "Mank"
Lee Isaac Chung, "Minari"
Chloé Zhao, "Nomadland"

The Chatter: Zhao looks to be as close to a lock as any contest this year, and deservedly so. A lot of people were surprised by Vinterberg making it onto the list, including me.

Prediction: Chloé Zhao

Pick: Chloé Zhao

Chris Cross: I'll keep Fincher and Zhao and say goodbye to the rest. Instead let's laud George C. Wolfe for "Ma Rainey," Autumn de Wilde for "Emma" and Regina King for "One Night in Miami."

Best Documentary Feature

The Nominees: 
Crip Camp
The Mole Agent
My Octopus Teacher

The Chatter: A strong year for docs but oddly none of my favorites, such as "Desert One," made the list. "Collective" was by far the best of this bunch.

 Prediction: "Collective"

Pick: "Collective"

Chris Cross: I'll take "The Painter and the Thief" and "Desert One" over "Time" and "The Mole Agent," which was pleasant but is basically a documentary about making this documentary.

Best Documentary Short

The Nominees: 
A Concerto Is a Conversation
Do Not Split
Hunger Ward
A Love Song for Latasha

The Chatter: Alas, I did not get to see any of the doc shorts this year, just ran out of time. 

Prediction: “A Love Song for Latasha”

Best Animated Feature

The Nominees: 
Over the Moon
A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon

The Chatter: We may be getting close to thinking about putting this category out of its misery. Instead of eliciting a wave of terrific animation, it's led to a lot of perfectly serviceable movies getting Oscar nominations. The Disney/Pixar film usually wins, though the Irish-produced "Wolfwalkers" is vastly superior.

Prediction: “Soul”

Pick: "Wolfwalkers"

Chris Cross: "Onward" and "Shaun the Sheep" don't deserve to be here, but I don't have anything to replace them with.

Best Animated Short

The Nominees: 
Genius Loci
If Anything Happens I Love You

The Chatter: Disney/Pixar always wins... but there isn't one this year!
Prediction: "If Anything Happens I Love You"

Pick: "If Anything Happens I Love You"

Best Live Action Short

The Nominees: 
Feeling Through
The Letter Room
The Present
Two Distant Strangers
White Eye

The Chatter: TERRIFIC slate of shorts this year.

Prediction: "Two Distant Strangers"  

Pick: "Two Distant Strangers"  

Best Foreign Language Film

The Nominees: 
Another Round
Better Days
The Man Who Sold His Skin
Quo Vadis, Aida?

The Chatter: I didn't see enough of these, but "Collective" was terrific. Since "Another Round" also scored a director nomination, it would seem to have an edge.

Prediction: "Another Round"

Pick: "Collective"

Best Cinematography

The Nominees: 
Judas and the Black Messiah
News of the World
The Trial of the Chicago 7

Prediction: "Mank"

Pick: "Nomadland"

Best Film Editing

The Nominees: 
The Father
Promising Young Woman
Sound of Metal
The Trial of the Chicago 7

Prediction: "Sound of Metal"

Pick: “The Father”

Best Sound

The Nominees: 
News of the World
Sound of Metal

The Chatter: The Academy has combined the categories of Sound Editing and Sound Mixing into a single award, mostly to avoid confusion because nobody really understood the difference, even the Academy voters. It makes sense although the two are really entirely different crafts done by separate teams. Obviously the movie all about aural loss and dissonance is the standout.

Prediction: "Sound of Metal"

Pick: "Sound of Metal"

Best Production Design

The Nominees: 
The Father
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom
News of the World

Prediction: “Mank"

Pick: “Mank"

Best Original Score

The Nominees: 
Da 5 Bloods
News of the World

Prediction: “Soul”

Pick: “Soul”

Best Song

The Nominees: 
“Husavik” from Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga
“Fight For You” from Judas and the Black Messiah
“lo Sì (Seen)” from The Life Ahead (La Vita Davanti a Se)
“Speak Now” from One Night in Miami
“Hear My Voice” from The Trial of the Chicago 7

Prediction: “Speak Now”

Pick: “Husavik”

Best Makeup and Hair

The Nominees: 
Hillbilly Elegy
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Prediction: "Ma Rainey"

Pick: "Ma Rainey"

Best Costume Design

The Nominees: 
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Prediction: "Ma Rainey"

Pick: "Emma"

Best Visual Effects

The Nominees: 
Love and Monsters
The Midnight Sky
The One and Only Ivan

The Chatter: God help us, "Tenet" is going to win more Oscars than "Mank."

Prediction: "Tenet"

Pick: “The Midnight Sky”