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.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Mini-review: "Happy End"

“Hi, we’re French and rich and awful, come spend two hours with us.”

That was my cheeky micro-review of "Happy End," the French drama starring Isabelle Huppert as the matriarch of a wealthy family of horrible people. I'm not really sure what master director/writer Michael Haneke ("Amour") was going for here. There doesn't seem to be any kind of coherent theme, other than everyone in the Laurent family is somehow damaged, spiteful and/or emotionally stunted.

Huppert's character heads up the large construction company that brings them their riches. Her wayward son, the heir apparent, is a drunk who doesn't want to work. Her brother is divorced and carrying on a sadomasochism-tinged affair behind the back of his new wife, while his daughter takes dangerous steps to catch his attention, including poisoning her own mother. The father is suffering from dementia and wants to die.

Meanwhile, an accident at a construction site results in a serious injury that threatens to bring their empire down.

You don't have to like the main character in a movie, but it helps to like at least one person in the movie. Sometimes the story can even be saggy, but to use the old critic's hoe, you enjoy spending time with those characters. Here, I enjoyed not spending time with these characters.

"Happy End" is a near-torturous meditation on hate, estrangement and suicide. After watching it, I finally identified with the family.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Video review: "The Florida Project"

Every serious film enthusiastic always has at least one favorite film that doesn’t make the short list of Best Picture Academy Award nominees. I’ve learned to take the exclusions in stride -- tastes vary, the pre-awards hype game is chaos incarnate, and the Oscar nomination formula is just this side of goat entrails and knucklebone dice in terms of decipherability.

So I wasn’t terribly disheartened when my favorite film of 2017, “Blade Runner: 2049,” didn’t get a Best Picture nod. The one that did really cut to the bone, though, was “The Florida Project.”

This magnificent little film, shot on a shoestring with mostly non-actors, had a vibrancy and an authenticity that leapt off the screen. There is essentially no real story, just the wandering camera as we fall a group of kids living in a garish, cheap motel in the backwaters surrounding Walt Disney World and the other, lesser tourist attractions near Orlando, Fla.

Life is seedy and tenuous here, but it holds an ocean of grace.

Brooklynn Kimberly Prince plays Moonee, the 6-year-old protagonist. She lives with her mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite), who resides in the neon-hued Magic Castle motel, working itinerantly at reselling cheap perfume to tourists, stripping, or selling her body, as opportunities arise. Moonee and the other children are left to roam on their own, getting into minor trouble like spitting on cars or hitting strangers up for change to buy ice cream.

Willem Dafoe, the only recognizable actor with a substantial part, shines as Bobby, the manager of the Magic Castle. People come and go, there’s always something to fix, and Bobby watches over the tide of humanity like a beneficent oversee. Bobby plays the part of the hardass, cracking down on illegal activity, especially prostitution, and chirping at the wayward kids. But any time he threatens to throw anybody out, things always seem to work out in the end.

Director Sean Baker (“Tangerine”), who co-wrote the script with Chris Bergoch, gives us a film that is unstructured in terms of narrative but is neatly sown together in its emotionality. Whenever we are tempted to judge the people we see, such as Halley’s erstwhile efforts as a mother, we are quickly reminded that these characters are doing the best with the scarce tools they have.

It’s a reminder that behind every land of dreams, there’s a grimy backlot where the support crew toil in unseen majesty.

Bonus materials are modest but insightful. They include “Under the Rainbow: Making The Florida Project,” a short documentary; bloopers and outtakes; and interviews with the cast and crew.



Thursday, February 15, 2018

Review: "Early Man"

I’ve always admired stop-motion animation in general and the British Aardman Animations films in particular -- “Chicken Run,” “Wallace & Gromit: Curse of the Were-Rabbit” and “Shaun the Sheep Movie” most recently in 2015. So it gives me little pleasure to report that the latest, “Early Man,” is a rather lackluster affair.

The story of cave men who discovered what we Yanks call soccer, it quite literally drops the rock… er, ball.

It seems our hirsute ancestors were inspired when a meteor landed somewhere around modern Manchester, snuffing out the dinosaurs to boot. The cave men began kicking the hot rock around, created a game around it, and even made drawings about their exploits.

Fast-forward a few thousand years, and a tribe of Stone Age types are still dwelling in the bucolic valley where the game of football (the everywhere-but-America kind) got started. Eddie Redmayne provides the voices of Dug, an excitable young man who urges the tribe to aim higher than just hunting rabbits -- perhaps even mammoths?

(Trigger warning for vegetarians.)

The Chief (Timothy Spall), a wise elderly man at the ripe old age of 32, cautions against high hopes. But when they’re suddenly invaded by some well-armed Bronze Age types and thrown out of their valley, it’s up to Dug to journey to the Roman-style city of their enemy and figure out a solution.

Curiously, the cavemen lost the tradition of football somewhere along the way, so Dug is amazed to discover the city’s entire culture is centered around games held in a giant arena. The home team, Real Bronzio, made up of tall Nordic types, is always the winner, playing at the whim of the nefarious Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston). He’s also the guy who booted Dug’s tribe out of their home so he could dig for ore there, and is amassing a fortune by charging admission to the mandatory games.

One of the movie’s better running jokes is that bronze is used for almost everything, from weapons to currency to housewares. “Have you got change for a dinner plate?” one old lady inquires at the arena gate.

Dug challenges Nooth’s team to a match, with the fate of the valley in the balance. If the cavemen lose, they’ll be forced to work in Nooth’s mines. (Which seems like something he could’ve enforced with or without the game.)

They start training under the tutelage of Goona (Maisie Williams), a city woman who takes a liking to the plight of the prehistoric folks. Plus, she’s always dreamed of booting in a goal of her own, since Real (pronounced REE-yal) Bronzio doesn’t allow women.

It’s a decently fun flick, at least intermittently, directed by Aardman veteran Nick Park from a script by Mark Burton and James Higginson. The cavemen don’t have much in the way of distinct personalities -- there’s the burly woman, the dumb one who puts everything in his mouth, etc.

The scene-stealer is Hognob (voiced by Park), an animal companion of Dug’s who appears to be a mix of boar, dog and sheep. I guess he forms the critter triumvirate with Gromit and Shaun.

If you’re thinking it’d be wacky for Hognob to get into the game, you won’t come away disappointed. Which is more than I can say for me.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Review: "Black Panther"


Pretty good, even.

But the superhero movie to end all superhero movies? C’mon.

“Black Panther” is an invigorating but hardly revolutionary entry into the Marvel Comics Universe, taking the African king who wears a (mostly) indestructible cat suit we saw in the last Avengers movie and draping a colorful backstory around him. Chadwick Boseman plays T’Challa, ruler of the fictional kingdom of Wakanda, in a calm and charismatic performance that foretells many happy returns for this character in future MCU movies.

Rather than a traditional origin story, we get the fall-from-grace saga: T’Challa assumes the throne after the death of his father, and with it the powers -- courtesy of a mysterious flower pod -- and costume of the Black Panther. But almost just as quickly, he finds his leadership in question and his very claim to the throne challenged.

Directed by Ryan Coogler (“Fruitvale Station”) from a script he co-wrote with Joe Robert Cole, “Black Panther” will resonate with some for its nods to the Black Power movement of the 1960s and its more recent echoes. White characters are few; when they do show their faces are derided as “colonialists;" and the taint of slavery is frequently brought up in describing the fate of black people, both in America and Africa.

But these aspects struck me -- a white kid from the suburbs -- as merely fashionable put-ons for the young and hip, flashy decorations over the familiar bones of superhero tropes.

T’Challa operates as a sort of royal James Bond who’s not just an agent of the coolest cloak-and-dagger outfit in the world, but is actually running the whole show. He’s even got his own Q-like gadgetmaster, in the form of his kid sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright), concocting playful new toys to augment his super-suit.

Wakanda is viewed as a poor third-world nation, but actually is the most technologically advanced people on Earth, helped by a vast store of vibranium that fell there in the form of a meteor long ago. The strongest substance in the universe -- but wait, I thought that was supposed to be admantium? -- vibranium has all sorts of cool abilities to absorb and transmit energies. This allows Black Panther not only to jump and scratch, but set off mini sonic explosions.

It seems a nasty mercenary named Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) stole a store of vibranium 25 years ago, and now it falls to T’Challa to bring him to justice. He’s helped by Okoye (Danai Gurira), the head of his personal guard, who are all very stern-looking, bald women, as well as Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), a Wakandian spy who also happens to be T’Challa’s ex.

The X-factor, who shows up rather late in the game, is Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger, an American former special ops soldier/assassin who at first appears to be working for Klaue, but turns out to have a very dark connection to Wakanda, which I’ll not spoil here.

Also turning up are Martin Freeman as a helpful, if naïve CIA agent; Angela Bassett as the queen mother; Forest Whitaker as the Wakanda high priest; Daniel Kaluuya as T’Challa’s best pal; Winston Duke as the head of a rival tribe; and Sterling K. Brown as another member of the royal family.

“Black Panther” certainly is one of the most visually sumptuous films in the MCU, with a pageant of bright costumes, stunning CGI technology and colorful vistas. The hidden Wakanda capital city looks like some glorious cross between “Blade Runner” and “Zootopia.”

I enjoyed the movie, but didn’t come close to being blown away by it. The hype machine has been cranked to 11 for this film, which turns out to be a low 7, at best.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Reeling Backward: "Valdez Is Coming" (1971)

Let's get one thing out of the way first: Burt Lancaster does not pass for Mexican, or even half-Mexican, even with the help of a deep tan and possibly the judicious application of brownface makeup.

One of the stupidest and most useless human endeavors is the imposition of modern sensibilities upon cultural material from years, decades or even centuries past. Of course people in 1971 didn't think about cultural appropriation the same way they do in 2018. Caucasian actors routinely played Latino, Arab, Asian and even African characters in Hollywood movies up until fairly recently in our cinematic history.

If John Wayne can play Genghis Khan and Laurence Oliver can play Othello, then I'm not going to get too worked up over Lancaster posing as an over-the-hill Mexican-American lawman.

He pulls off the accent pretty well, playing Bob Valdez, the constable of a small border town somewhere around the turn of the century. His authorities extend only to the "Mexican half" of the city, perhaps owing to his title of constable rather than sheriff (as many references to the film erroneously call him).

It's not even a full-time job, as Valdez supplements his income riding shotgun for a shipping company, and he travels to and fro riding a wagon rather than a horse. He's bordering on elderly, and doesn't even carry a six-shooter, the standard arm of the Western hero, but a two-barrel scattergun -- the weapon favored by those with failing eyes and shaky hands. Valdez shuffles about in an obsequious manner, and speaks to the wealthy whites who run things with shoulders stooped and hat in hand.

Valdez clearly doesn't like having to kowtow, but it's how he gets by in a land where his kind is dismissed as "greasers." At least, that is, until he finally gets pushed too far.

The story opens with an ugly scene, where a posse has trapped a man suspected of murder in a lonely shack, and a crowd of women and children has gathered to watch as the men playfully plug bullets into its bleached-out boards. The accused is a black man, so it seems the standoff will end either with a lynching or a hail of rifle rounds.

Valdez walks down to talk to the man in an attempt to deescalate the situation. But a hotheaded young sharpshooter named R. L. Davis (Richard Jordan), operating at the behest of Frank Tanner (Jon Cypher), the rich cattleman leading the posse, fires in the middle of Valdez' parlay with the accused, making him think the whole thing has been a ruse. Valdez is forced to kill the man, after which it becomes clear he was innocent after all.

To me, the most interesting part of this sequence is not all the manly strutting and pronunciations. It's the part where the holed-up man's wife, an Apache woman, blithely walks out of the house during the barrage to fetch a pail of water. R. L. repeatedly shoots near her to scare her off, but she doesn't even flinch.

Valdez decides to take up a collection as a gesture of goodwill to the widow, and the townsmen agree to put up $100 if Tanner will pay the other $100. Tanner angrily refuses, first having his men shoot at Valdez, in much the same way R. L. did at the Indiana squaw, and then resorting to crucifixation when he returns for another try. That's when Valdez snaps and vows revenge.

(Curiously, Valdez himself never offers to pitch in any of his own money toward the sum, even though he was mostly directly responsible for the murder.)

The rest of the movie follows a fairly traditional revenge/redemption cycle. Valdez takes up arms and his old uniform, revealing that he was a U.S. Cavalry soldier during the Indian wars. He stalks Tanner and his men, picking them off in ones and twos. His favored method is a Sharps rifle, a single-shot weapon notorious for its long-range accuracy.

"Valdez" was directed by Edwin Sherin in his feature film debut behind the camera. He would direct one other movie later in 1971 before turning to television, where he worked busily well into the 2000s. Screenwriters Roland Kibbee and David Rayfiel, adapting the novel by Elmore Leonard (unread by me), keep things taut and spare, with nary a spoken word or image that's not absolutely necessary to the plot.

Frank Silvera plays Diego, a humble Mexican farmer and Valdez' best (possibly only) friend, who helps him recover from his wounds and is made to pay for it by Tanner's gang. Héctor Elizondo turns up in one of his earliest screen roles as a lookout for Tanner's gang. Mason (Phil Brown) is the chief of the white aristocracy, notable for sharing a degree of respect with Valdez.

Barton Heyman plays El Segundo (literally, "The Second"), Tanner's right-hand man, who proves far cagier than his boss. He repeatedly urges Tanner to break off from pursuit of Valdez to go through with a lucrative sale of rifles to the Mexican army. Segundo would seem to be a standard Western henchman at first, but as more of his men perish he carefully weighs the loss of life against any possible benefit. He eventually gains the upper hand over Valdez, but not before developing a health reverence for the old man's skills.

The other major character is Gay Erin (Susan Clark), who is Tanner's consort and, at least at one point, his betrothed. The whole story has been set off by the murder of her husband, Tanner's friend. Tanner carries on the quest to find the killer mostly because many people believe Tanner himself killed him to get Gay.

She's a proud woman who seems to despise Tanner, and yet on some level embraces his dastardly nature because she think she deserves no better. About halfway through the movie, Valdez takes her captive and tries to use her as a bargaining chip for the $100. It's a classic fruitless quest, since the Apache woman has long departed to return to her people. Valdez treats Gay tenderly, but without any suggestion of romance.

Tanner himself is an interesting character. He cuts an imposing yet slightly comical figure, with hair and mustachio suggesting a resemblance to Colonel Custer. He revels in the power of having his own gang, enjoying giving orders to torture somebody who has bothered him: "Fix him like we did that other fellow." But in the end Tanner reveals a distaste for getting his own hands dirty.

"Valdez Is Coming" ends with an odd standoff, with no overt resolution. It would seem impossible that events play out in any way other than with Valdez' death, but you never know. It's a grim story of lost causes embraced and good intentions wasted. And maybe how we should treat the meek a little nicer.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Video review: "Wonder"

“Wonder” is a tender-hearted flick that makes no bones about being a tearjerker. Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson star as the parents of Auggie, a 10-year-old boy played by Jacob Tremblay who was born with severe facial defects.

He’s been more or less hiding out his whole life, being home-schooled by his mom or wearing an astronaut’s helmet in public to ward off stares and comments. But now he’s attending school for the first time, and this is the story of his entering a broader, scarier world.

The screenplay by Steve Conrad, Jack Thorne and Stephen Chbosky, who also directed, is a straightforward string of encounters. We know the teasing and taunting is going to come, but it’s no less painful when it does. Auggie soon finds a friend in a scholarship student (Noah Jupe), but the inevitable setback is just around the corner. Mandy Patinkin plays the wise and helpful school headmaster.

The movie, based on the best-selling novel by R.J. Palacio, also follows around Auggie’s older sister, Via (Izabela Vidovic), for a bit, and we get to see the family dynamic from her perspective. She loves her little brother, but it’s hard to be teenager when your sibling soaks up all of the grownups’ attention.

It may not be the most original movie to come down the pike, but “Wonder” is decorated with nice, crisp performances and an authentic human story that’s hard to resist. Three hankies, at least.

Bonus features are quite good. The DVD edition has a feature-length commentary track by Chbosky and Palacio, music video for “Brand New Eyes” and a featurette on the soundtrack.

Upgrade to the Blu-ray version, and you add two more featurettes, “A Child’s Sense of Wonder” and “What a Wonderful World,” plus a five-part making of documentary titled, “Summer of Fun.”



Thursday, February 8, 2018

Review: "The 15:17 to Paris"

You can appreciate a bold choice while still recognizing that it was the wrong one.

Such is the case with Clint Eastwood's "The 15:17 to Paris," a drama about a 2015 terrorist attack on a train that was thwarted by three young Americans, two of them military service members. After initially casting three actors to play the heroes, Eastwood did a sudden about-face and decided to use the actual men in the movie, recreating not only the attack but their journeys -- figurative and otherwise -- leading up to it.

That was mistake #1... and mistake #2.

Acting is one of those things people think anybody can do, until they try to do it. Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler and Alek Skarlatos are obviously fine young men, but it's often painful watching the movie and wading through their blank expressions, flat line delivery and emotional vacancy. Stone is the best of the bunch, which is to say he's ready for a walk-on role in a community college play.

How hard can it be to play yourself? Pretty difficult in a feature film, what with all the lights and equipment, long delays between setups and logistics of hitting your mark, etc. And of course, it's natural to want to behave like an idealized version of yourself, rather than the flawed, authentic person we all are.

The movie could survive the leaden performances -- the events are certainly compelling enough -- but mistake #2 proves even more fatal. In basing the story on the book the three men wrote (along with Jeff Stern), the film explores not just the events of that fateful day, but everything leading up to it: their childhood friendship, struggles to find purpose after high school, early military careers, etc.

On the surface, it seems like a logical move. Eastwood and screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal can't center an entire movie around an encounter that lasted a few minutes. And we have to get to know these three fellows in order to be invested in their story.

But the prologue ends up consuming two-thirds of the movie, which even at a scant 97 minutes often drags badly.

The deadliest stretch chronicles their trip across Europe prior to the fateful train ride, which has all the narrative cohesion of YouTube footage of a real twentysomething's unedited travelogue. They go to a pub in Germany, nightclub dancing in Amsterdam, eat at a riverside Venice cafe, make copious use of the selfie stick, etc. All the while, chatting amiably and aimlessly about where they should go and what they should do next.

Skarlatos, who joined the Army and was on leave from Afghanistan at the time, comes across as earnest and a little dizzy. Sadler is the charmer of the group, who as a kid got in trouble at their Christian school for spewing expletives at the teachers. Stone is a bit of a big doofus, kind and outgoing and a bit of a screw-up as an Air Force airman, washing out of school to be that branch's version of a medic.

Jenna Fischer and Judy Greer are more or less wasted as the single mothers of Skarlatos and Stone, respectively, showing for a few clashes with the awful school principal (Thomas Lennon) and then for the medal awarding ceremony at the end.

The movie finally hits its stride in the last half-hour. After brief flashes of the incident during the interminable wind-up, we see how the encounter with the terrorist (Ray Corasani) played out, in all its bizarre and bloody mayhem. The man had an AK-47, a pistol, blades and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. Dozens, if not hundreds would almost surely have been killed.

After overcoming and shooting another man who initially tried to stop him, the attacker was tackled by Stone and beaten to submission by the trio. It all plays out in the confined space of a train cabin, and in those few moments Eastwood reminds us of his magnificent ability as a director to depict violence while contemplating the repercussions of it.

Alas, I can't recommend one-third of a good movie. "The 15:17 to Paris" mostly goes to show that often the best way to enshrine history is to fake it... and leaving the boring parts out.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Review: "Dead Man's Line: The True Story of Tony Kiritsis"

The image that first grabs you is of two men walking in their shirtsleeves, which immediately sticks them out of place against everyone heavily bundled up in the bitter Indianapolis February.

Both are in their 40s, sporting bald spots and those hellacious sideburns that were popular in the late 1970s, like psychedelic pyramids rooted on their cheeks. One is short, dark-haired, burly, sleeves rolled up over thick, hairy forearms. The other is taller, with the wispy remains of what was probably once a fine blond head of hair, the collar of his business shirt popped up against the cold.

The shorter man walks closely behind, a sawed-off shotgun pressed up against the base of the other's skull. He is screaming expletives at the police and gawkers in downtown Indianapolis, while the other man seems haunted, resigned, almost calm.

They are strung together by a thin wire that binds the gunman's hand to the weapon, and the gun to his victim's neck. He calls it a "dead man's line" -- his nearly invisible assurance that if he dies, from a sniper's bullet or such, the gun will go off and end the other. The police, helpless, keep their distance.

This went on for 63 hours, as car salesman and erstwhile real estate developer Tony Kiritsis held mortgage company executive Richard Hall hostage in a dispute over a piece of land where Kiritsis wanted to build a grocery or other big store.

After a rambling one-hour "press conference" carried on local and national TV in which he was assured that he would not be prosecuted, received an apology from Hall's Meridian Mortgage company and a promissory note for $5 million, Kiritsis let Hall go and was promptly arrested -- but not before pumping off one blast out a nearby window to prove the shotgun had been loaded.

Despite being one of the most famous crimes in Indianapolis history, the Kiritsis hostage crisis has faded in memory since 1977, laughed off as one of the city's most bizarre incidents but never deeply explored. After being found not guilty by reason of insanity, Kiritsis was released in 1988 and lived out the rest of his years in quiet, never speaking about the incident. Hall also largely kept his mouth shut, until finally publishing a book about it last spring to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the event.

Now two local men, Alan Berry and Mark Enochs, both marketing writers by day, have given us the definitive history of the incident. Their splendid documentary, "Dead Man's Line: The True Story of Tony Kiritsis," will be released online on Feb. 8, available initially on Amazon and iTunes.

It's a painstaking recreation of the kidnapping from start to finish, as well as exploring Kiritsis' troubled life beforehand plus the resulting trial. Utilizing a treasure trove of news footage and photos -- much of it never seen before -- as well as exhaustive interviews with more than three dozen witnesses and participants, it puts the audience right into the fray with nail-biting intensity.

This is the sort of documentary that takes something that outwardly seemed ridiculous and tragic, and reveals it as the defining moment in two men's lives.

The Kiritsis that emerges from this portrait is a bundle of blue-collar contradictions. Braggadocios and foul-mouthed -- no doubt the wall-to-wall live coverage was the first time many heard the F-word spraying copiously from their TVs -- he also seems to have a comradely workingman's charm about him.

Friendly with many cops, he often singles one out for conversation or a quip in the midst of the crisis. When he's trying to make a point, he tends to drop the word "baby" into his sentences.

The list of interviewees is voluminous, but includes Indy Star/News journalists Jim Young and Skip Hess; Indianapolis Police Department detective Judd Green; hostage negotiator John Michael Grable; Marion County Deputy Prosecutor George Martz; Kiritsis attorneys Nile Stanton and John C. Ruckelshaus; Kiritsis' beloved brother Jimmie; jury foreman Greg Hach; plus assorted psychiatrists, profilers and officers of the court.

Some of the information contained in the film will no doubt come as a revelation even to contemporaries who remember the event clearly. Such as the IPD police chief carrying a handkerchief in his pocket during the press conference -- his signal to take Kiritsis out, even if it meant having Hall's brains blown out on live national television. Or that Kiritsis had pulled a similar stunt years before, holding his sister hostage for 2½ days in a family dispute over money.

We hear Fred Heckman, the respected news director of WIBC radio, regretting his role as Tony's principle mouthpiece over the airwaves. We get to listen to their conversations, both on the air and those recorded surreptitiously, as the "Walter Cronkite" of the Indianapolis airwaves attempted to keep Kiritsis calm and pliable.

One aspect that especially struck me was how the men were literally bound together the whole time. Because of their positions, Hall never got to see Kiritsis during the public standoff, except perhaps out of the corner of his eye. The whole time the cameras were rolling, he had to listen to the rantings of the man who repeatedly vowed to kill him if necessary, without being able to gaze into his eyes and judge the merit of those threats.

In this sense, Hall's dull, glazed expression makes sense -- he was forced to stand as unseeing witness to his own kidnapping.

The Kiritsis hostage crisis was a huge national story at the time, arriving just at the cusp of the modern information age, when camera crews could bring the news into our homes in seconds, not hours or days.

But it blew over quickly, certainly as the networks lost interest when blood failed to spill. Even some of the veteran local journalists admit it became old news quicker than it should have, with few enterprising inquirers to ask why and how such a scary, silly, sordid affair happened.

We no longer have to.

Review: Oscar-nominated Animated Shorts


7 minutes

This year’s entry from Pixar is a whimsical delight about a… creature? Spirit? … resides in the lost and found box at a school, working to return wayward items to the children who adore them. When a bully starts terrorizing the playground and stealing possessions, the creature -- comprised of lost jackets, shoes, books, and with two baseballs for eyes -- decides to extract a little revenge, and teach a lesson.


Dear Basketball

5 minutes

Here’s an unusual entry: Kobe Bryant wrote, produced and narrates this first-person ode to this first love, the game of basketball. With a musical score by John Williams and animated by Glen Keane, who also directs, it’s a surprisingly emotional testimony from a professional athlete about what he has given to sport, and what it has taken from him.


Garden Party

7 minutes

This hyper-realistic animated short follows the journey of a neon-green tree frog and a fat bullfrog through an unlikely landscape: a palatial mansion that has sat abandoned for some time, so the swimming pool has turned into a pond that nature has reclaimed. Not so much a coherent narrative as a showcase for amazing animation, with a gruesome twist. Inventive and macabre.


Negative Space

5 minutes

This dreamy stop-motion animated film examines a man’s relationship to his father as he mastered the art of packing a suitcase just right. I liked the surreal sojourn into an imaginary underwater realm where underwear and shirts swim like fishes. More of an idea than a complete movie, even a short one.


Revolting Rhymes

29 minutes

Roald Dahl’s books have been turned into a number of wonderful animated feature films, especially “James and the Giant Peach,” so here’s a short(ish) one. Wonderful voice work punctuates this fairy tale mashup of Snow White and Red Riding Hood, who in this telling are friends contesting with a trio of wolves, an evil stepmother and a greedy pig running the bank of Porkeley’s. Snow White steals the magic mirror so the dwarves (all ex-jockeys) can play the horses, while Red is more of a vigilante-style badass with a pistol tucked in her knickers.


Review: Oscar-nominated Live Action Shorts

DeKalb Elementary

20 minutes

It’s a normal day at a grade school in the suburbs. A woman (an amazing Tarra Riggs) is relieving the front desk worker for her lunch break when a man (Bo Mitchell) walks in, pulls out an AK-47 and commences a standoff with police. He’s a white man in a nearly all-black school, so are his motives racism? Terrorism? Suicide? He seems confused, not very intelligent, but not especially belligerent. This tense drama from writer/director Reed Van Dyk explores the story behind a real 911 call, which unfolds in a way we do not at all expect.


My Nephew Emmett

19 minutes

Writer/director Kevin Wilson Jr.’s  starkly beautiful film, shot in slanted half-light, examines the tragedy of Emmett Till from the perspective of his family in Money, Mississippi, where he was staying when the 14-year-old from Chicago was brutally lynched for reputedly whistling at a white woman in 1955. His gruesome death, more than anything, was the match that lit the fire of the civil rights movement. Till’s abduction from his great-uncle’s house in the dead of night is portrayed with nail-biting clarity, with a powerful performance by L. B. Williams as the uncle, Mose Wright. The chills will linger.


The Eleven O’clock

13 minutes

This amusing little Australian comedy short pits two men in an office who each claim to be a psychiatrist: Dr. Terry Phillips (Josh Lawson, also the writer) and Dr. Nathan Kline (Damon Herriman). He’s meeting a man who delusionally thinks he’s a psychiatrist, so each thinks the other is there to see him as a patient. An argument ensues. Things hit their high point when they conduct word association tests on each other, with each man assuming the other one’s prompt is actually the response to his own prompt. Unexpected, and fun.


The Silent Child

20 minutes

A young teacher named Joanne (Rachel Shenton, also the screenwriter) arrives at the home of a harried upper-class British family to instruct their 4-year-old deaf girl, Libby (Maisie Sly). Things go surpassingly well as she begins to learn sign language. But the mother, Sue (Rachel Fielding), feels shunted aside as the younger women quickly forms a bond with Libby that has escaped her. Tender, wise and sad.


Watu Wote

21 minutes

A young Christian woman is traveling along the border of Kenya and Somalia to care for her sick mother, in a region where Christians and Muslims often clash. She refuses to interact with the Muslim passengers of their bus, citing past tragedy in her own life. But when gunmen from the terrorist group Al-Shabaab rear their heads, suddenly a community exists where there wasn’t one before. Sharply told and authentic, based on real events.


Sunday, February 4, 2018

Video review: "Only the Brave"

It didn’t gain a lot of enthusiasm during its theatrical run, but “Only the Brave” is a sturdy, well-acted drama about the Granite Mountain Hotshots, an elite group of wildlife firefighters. They’re the sort of guys who run into a gigantic blaze threatening to overrun towns, while everyone else is fleeing the other way.

Josh Brolin plays Eric Marsh, the veteran leader of the Hotshots, and this may just be the finest performance of his career. Resembling Paul Bunyan mixed with Teddy Roosevelt and a little bit of hippie thrown in, Eric is a tough, strong leader who’s determined to see his band of upstarts attain the highest certification for fighting wildfires -- the first municipal outfit to attain that rank.

Eric reads the movements of a fire like an expert tracker stalking his prey, communing mystically with an enemy he strives to defeat.

Miles Teller plays Brenda McDonough, the newest recruit. He’s a junkie wastrel trying to turn his life around in the aftermath of an unexpected pregnancy by an ex-girlfriend. Eric sees some grit behind the younger man’s smirky façade, and takes a risk on him.

Jennifer Connelly plays Eric’s wife, and I was glad to see the Oscar winner given more to do in this Y-chromosome-heavy flick than just sit on the home front and pine for her man. There’s pain in the couple’s past we don’t expect to encounter.

Ol’ reliable Jeff Bridges turns up as a local businessman who uses his connections to help the Hotshots. Rounding out the cast are James Badge Dale, Andie MacDowell, Taylor Kitsch, Ben Hardy, Geoff Stults and Natalie Hall.

A very old-fashioned sort of filmmaking -- it’s essentially a war movie with fires swapped in for terrorists or Germans -- “Only the Brave” has heart, vitality and unexpected wisdom.

Bonus material includes deleted scenes, a feature-length commentary with Brolin and director Joseph Kosinski, a “Hold the Light” music video and three making-of featurettes.