Monday, February 25, 2019

Oscars postmortem 2019

The 2019 Oscars telecast was a night of joy, inclusion and surprises. A lot of people who weren't expected to win or came from demographics that have traditionally been marginalized walked away with the prize. They spread the awards around, with no film winning more than four for "Bohemian Rhapsody."

You can see the full list of winners here.

My official Oscar predictions score: I got 11 out of 24 categories right. That's pretty low for me; I average around 15.

For at least half those I got wrong with the prediction, the film I wanted to win, did. I call that a victory.

In my defense, it was a notoriously difficult year to predict, with plenty of surprises. "Black Panther" dominated the "crew" categories. Rami Malek was the underdog for Best Actor but pulled it out due in part to a furious charm offensive.

Olivia Colman's win was the real shocker. I thought she was great, but it clearly was a supporting performance, just as Mahershala Ali's was a lead. Category-hopping is the new norm.

 Colman's victory, despite her charmingly flummoxed acceptance speech, almost certainly means Glenn Close never wins an Oscar. Think on that.

This year was historic for possibly the most diverse field of winners ever. Three out of the four acting winners were persons of color. We had first-ever wins for African-Americans in costumes and production design. Nine out of the last 10 best directors have been a woman, POC or foreign-born.

The expanded/younger/browner pool of Academy voters is showing dividends.

I see the "Green Book" haters are out in force this morning. That's fine. Some detractors have honest disagreements and good points to make. Some are willfully misreading the film's themes; others are projecting their own hangups and biases upon it. That's fine, too -- the loss is theirs.

It's true to say that the Academy has a long tradition of favoring uplifting, warm-hearted pictures over challenging ones. It is quite another thing to insist that represents irredeemable moral cowardice.

The Kevin Hart debacle has mostly served to remind us how superfluous the host role really is. Aside from the opening monologue, there really isn't much for him or her to do. I liked having lots of different celebrities onstage to introduce and present, though I don't know what business Serena Williams has as a presenter, GOAT tennis player (any gender) or not.

The "In Memoriam" feature always gets me, and this year was no exception. They seemed to be presenting the order chronologically, rather than by saving the biggies toward the end. Was happy to see William Goldman get a prominent slot (and a call-out by one of the presenters). Goodbye, Bill.

I don't understand the rationale in having Best Songs sung by people other than those who sang them in the movie. The contrast between most of the performances and the Lady Gaga/Bradley Cooper duet was just gigantic. It was the moment everyone will remember.

This is the difference between actors and stars.

I was happy to see "Roma," an indulgent bore, not take Best Picture -- though it did win for cinematography (mostly deservedly) and director. I fear this had less to do with love for "Green Book" as fear that bestowing the top prize on a streaming service movie would forever upend the theatrical exhibitor model. That day is coming, but it's thankfully not here yet.

The art of cinema is constantly changing, and new disruptors come to the fore to challenge the old ones. There was saying quoted during the night that I liked, "There are no waves; there is only the ocean." Despite its occasional storms, there's no more thrilling artistic landscape to navigate.

Reeling Backward: "Life of Brian" (1979)

Is there more to Monty Python movies than a pastiche of loony sketches? "Life of Brian" seemed to be their most ambitious attempt to make a movie with a coherent story and theme -- in this case, ridiculing the notion of organized religion.

The setup is that a fictional Jew, Brian Cohen, is born in the manger next to Jesus' and ends up living a parallel life in which he is mistaken for the messiah, vexed by a horde of worshipers and eventually strung up by the Romans for his trouble. Many people believe it to by the comedy troupe's best film, though I consider it their weakest.

I should add I still haven't caught up with their first, "And Now for Something Completely Different," though that was just a remake of sketches already aired on British television.

For that matter, defining exactly what belongs in and out of the Python filmography is not as easy as it sounds. If you exclude "Now," their 1982 concert movie and 2014 stage show, there's really only three feature films: this, "The Meaning of Life" and their (imho) apotheosis, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."

If you want to open up the definition, much of troupe member Terry Gilliam's early solo directorial efforts had a very distinct Python flavor and often featured fellow players, notably "Time Bandits," "Brazil" and "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen." Gilliam's one of my absolute favorite directors, so for me the humor of Python has no clear demarcation from his darkly absurdist fantasies.

And then there is "The Crimson Permanent Assurance," the 17-minute short film directed by Gilliam that opens "Meaning of Life," which for my money packs in the most Monty Python hilarity frame-for-frame.

There's a lot of good stuff in "Brian," though it works more as satire than as out-and-out comedy. The Romans are sent up with the easiest jokes: Pontius Pilate talks like Elmer Fudd, and his visiting friend, Biggus Dickus, sprays sibilant s's all over the place. The Jewish crowd, responding to Pilate's offer to release one prisoner from crucifixion as a gesture of goodwill, continually names starting with R or S to keep the party going.

It's interesting how times change. I also remember one of the biggest laughs in "The Princess Bride" is when the bishop opens the wedding scene: "Maiwwage is what bwings us togethaw today." I'm guessing it's only a matter of time before funny-sounding speech impediments go into the rapidly expanding chest of PC no-go zones for comedy.

The Jewish rebels are portrayed as penny-ante bureaucrats more concerned with activity than action. Calling themselves the People's Front of Judea, they throw about anarchist talk while never actually doing anything besides holding meetings and taking votes. In addition to the Romans they're also at odds with the various other factions, including the Judean People's Front, who eventually turn up and are equally unhelpful.

You know the Python shtick: the six members, who all co-write their material -- Gilliam, John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Eric Idle, Michael Palin and Terry Jones (who also directs) -- each play multiple parts, without even bothering to try to hide the fact. They use chirpy voices, various accents of the British isles and even changes of gender to swap things up. The most notable drag player is Jones, who uses a signature screeching caterwaul to play matronly figures, in this case mother of Brian (Chapman).

One female character, a rebel named Judith, is played by an actual woman, Sue Jones-Davies. I suspect this is because of her frontal nude scene after bedding Brian (who also flashes his front naughty bits) and confronting his mother. I don't think even the Python fellows thought they could fake that.

Speaking of blurring gender lines, one member of the PFJ suddenly announces that he wants to be known as a woman from now on, and after some initial confusion, the others accept this openly. It may be the very first positive portrayal of a transgender person in mainstream film.

For me the best part of "Life of Brian" is when he first gains followers -- which he does after running from the Romans by hiding in a lineup of street prophets spouting off their various philosophies to the masses. Brian repeats some stuff he heard Jesus say in the Sermon on the Mount. Soon his newfound apostles are following him everywhere, mistaking his every word or action for heaven-sent wisdom and/or miracles, including when he loses a sandal. They pick up the smelly relic and declare it an artifact. One enterprising woman advocates for using a gourd as their holy symbol instead.

As Brian, Chapman is a nervous, kvetching would-be messiah, constantly wondering why people are so mad for their faith, or to crush another's. He spends much of the movie with his eyes bugged out and mouth set in a rictus of anguish.

Chapman was an interesting figure who died very young at age 48. He was openly gay in the early 1970s, which was unheard of for a public figure, let alone a private one. Chapman had a long struggle with alcohol but, worried that he couldn't play the lead in "Brian" while drinking, gave it up shortly before production began. He never imbibed again.

"The Life of Brian" seems to argue not just against religion in general, but on the vagaries of morality. People who do ill are rewarded, and those who behave nobly befall horrid fates.

For example, during the march to crucifixion with Brian and other convicts, one spectator bravely steps forward to help one of them as he stumbles under the weight of his cross. The condemned man immediately skedaddles off to freedom, while the helper is forced back into line with the rest and ultimately crucified.

In typical English stiff-upper-lip form, he barely complains.

Similarly, when Brian's name is read after (eventually) being pardoned by Pilate, another fellow pretends to be Brian as a joke, which leads to all the other crucified men proclaiming that "I'm Brian!" in a send-up of the end of "Spartacus." Still, the jokester is the one freed, even after revealing the gag, while the real Brian remains.

"Life of Brian" is a classic example of a better idea for a movie than the one they actually made. In general I'm a Python fan, but here I'm their cinematic Judas.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Review: "The Remarkable Life of John Weld"

Not too many people can say they were a Hollywood stuntman and screenwriter, newspaper reporter and publisher, a novelist and a serial ladies' man who nonetheless remained married to the same woman for 66 years.

But that's the tale of John Weld, told with zest and empathy in the documentary, "The Remarkable Life of John Wild." He survived his ship sinking after a mid-ocean collision as well as an actual duel -- brought on by his tendency to woo married women, including the one he stayed with the rest of his life.

Though this movie doesn't have the grandest scope or the highest production values -- the recreation of the ship disaster is borderline hokey -- director Gabe Torres and writer Rob Lihani paint a vivid portrait of Weld in just 76 minutes of running time. They make the daring choice to use recreations for most of the tale using actors, so it plays more like a historical drama than a dry documentary.

There are still interviews and reminisces with family members, historians and showbiz experts to provide the sense of an authoritative biography. But the feeling you most get from watching this movie is that Weld's loved ones got together and decided others ought to know him as they did.

Weld was certainly not a household name, either for his Hollywood career or his writing. Still, he published 11 books and ran his own small California newspaper for a time. While making movies in the 1920s he was a stand-in or stuntman for the likes of Tom Mix and John Barrymore.

Some of the most hair-raising sequences are recreations of filmmaking from the silent era, when there was virtually no such thing as safety nets or protocols. Weld did things like dive 135 feet from an ocean cliff or plunge into a raging river while wearing a dress and wig.

One of his earliest books recaptured his daring days, and he was actually brought back to Los Angeles from his New York reporter job to take a stab at turning it into a screenplay. After a number of failed attempts -- including the studio's suggestion they make his character a woman -- he gave up.

I lost count of how many romances Weld had -- often with wealthy women or wives of rich men. He suffered two divorces at a young age after impetuous marriages that didn't last long, and seems to have decided at some point that he could have his milk without buying the cow.

Nick Tag plays Weld for most of the movie, and he has a rather Jimmy Stewart thing going on -- thin, handsome face, piercing blue eyes and an aw-shucks kind of charm. Claire Adams plays Gigi, the young married starlet he fell hard for and eventually wed for good. They shared a life of adventure together despite remaining childless, as the movie skims through -- rather too quickly -- their lives post-1940.

Darren Kendrick and Varda Appleton take over the roles for the framing sequence set around the sinking ship in the 1960s. Magnus Warmsley plays Weld as a boy.

Probably the most gleefully entertaining sequence is the duel. Living in Paris in the 1920s, Weld hobnobbed with other writers including James Joyce and caroused healthily with the feminine sex. When a French count (Orion Barnes) with whose wife he was canoodling has her followed by detectives, this results in the duel with rapiers.

Weld at first takes the whole affair as a joke, until the count starts trying earnestly to stab him through the chest. Fortunately, he had learned some swordplay during his stunt days, and the event plays out in a surprisingly convivial way.

John Weld is not the kind of person who normally gets a movie made about him. He did indeed have a remarkable life, though not the sort that produces the newsworthy tales or celebrity most associated with biographical documentaries. But it's a story of perseverance and adventure, a man who take life as it came and made the most of every chance he got. Few can claim as much.

Video review: "Ralph Breaks the Internet"

First off: Why isn’t it “Ralph Wrecks the Internet?” You’d think a simple callback to the last Disney animated film would be an obvious choice, as we’re bringing back arcade game villain-turned-huggable-hero Ralph for another adventure.

Maybe some wonk in the marketing department said “breaks” would test better. Perhaps if they’d concentrated on coming up with a little more coherent narrative, this wouldn’t have been a mildly disappointing sequel.

The idea here is that Ralph (voice of John C. Reilly) and tiny tot racing demon Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) find themselves leaving their staid little arcade for a trip into the wild, wild internet. It seems the wheel o Vanellope’s game has broken and if they don’t find a replacement one on eBay, she’s going to get permanently unplugged.

Their adventures are fun and colorful, at least at first. All the various Web power players -- Google, SnapChat, etc. -- are represented as their own power hubs that human avatars come to for information and entertainment. They get a little help from one of those pop-up ad barkers, and also from some (initially mean) denizens of an online racing game.

The “Ralph” sequel puts the sidekick character behind the wheel, as it’s really more Vanellope’s story than Ralph’s. The theme is about how people constantly grow and evolve, and sometimes that can mean trouble for their relationships. In this case, Vanellope has grown tired of playing the same game over and over, while Ralph is a creature of habit.

It’s kind of the same thing they did with “Cars 2” by putting Mater to the front -- the difference being it wasn’t the “Lightning McQueen” franchise.

What’s in a name? Apparently, a lot.

Bonus features are quite good, including a hefty making-of documentary. My favorite bonus is “Surfing for Easter Eggs,” which lets you see all the little in-jokes and pop culture references spread heavily throughout the movie.

There are also five deleted scenes, music videos, and features on the music and pretend viral videos.



Thursday, February 21, 2019

Review: "Everybody Knows"

What a strange thing it is to see a bride and groom launching their lives together and not smile. Yet here is an entire village, gazing upon wedded bliss and offering little but blank faces -- a few scowls, even.

That's an early scene in "Everybody Knows," a family drama/thriller set in a provincial town outside Madrid. Penelope Cruz plays Laura, who left her home decades ago to marry and live in Argentina. Javier Bardem is Paco, her old flame who now runs a vineyard on land her family used to own.

Laura's sister (Inma Cuesta) holds her wedding in the village church, the sort of idyllic scene we've glimpsed in a thousand movies -- the couple having rice thrown at them, everybody crying and cheering, a spectacle of pure joy. Yet writer/director Asghar Farhadi points his camera away to the townsfolk, who are not happy to witness this.

Ostensibly the story is about a kidnapping as Laura's teen daughter, Irene (Carla Campra), disappears from her bed after the reception. But really the film is about the tension rife within this seemingly idyllic place -- the secrets, the resentments, the hidden motivations that everyone seems to bear.

Farhadi ("The Salesman") uses the crime as the springboard to an exploration of this family and community. It's the sort of place where people embrace life exuberantly, drinking and dancing in abandon. Yet there's layer upon layer of rot underneath, and all it takes is one event like this to expose the maggot-infested core.

Allies become suspects, the truth is twisted and leveraged, and eventually we reach a point of total paranoia. Virtually any character in the story could be behind the kidnapping.

There is much curiosity about the absence of Laura's husband, Alejandro (Ricardo Darín), who stayed behind for work. He is known as a well-to-do businessman who made a sizeable donation to the church for repairs some years back. The local priest actually pauses the wedding ceremony to praise his generosity -- while musing if there couldn't be more forthcoming.

It seems this sentiment is decidedly non-secular, too.

The patriarch of the clan was once virtually the lord of this village, but he lost his riches due to drink and gambling, yet still thinks everyone should defer to him. Laura's older sister and her husband are very involved in the search, but they run a hotel that's barely paying enough to cover the loan. The list goes on.

The brother-in-law brings in a retired police detective friend to help, and soon fingers are being pointed all around.

Paco appears very happy with his wife, Bea (Bárbara Lennie), yet it seems clear to everyone that there's still something between he and Laura. When Alejandro finally shows up, his behavior creates new presumptions while dashing existing ones.

This is a very smart film, yet we never feel like we're being played for suckers. Farhadi nudges us rather than manipulates. The movie seems less interested in resolving what happens to Irene than seeing how her disappearance causes all the adults to reexamine the comfortable lives they've fallen into.

Gripping and yet very human, "Everybody Knows" is a whodunit that cares more about the how and why.

Fearless Oscar predictions 2019

Well, I can at least guarantee you that none of these predictions will be played during the commercial break.

I'm not sure whats up at the ol' Academy of Motion Pictures Arts & Sciences lately. They've grown rather flip-floppy. A while back they announced they would add another category for best popular film -- a brazen attempt to curry mainstream favor by giving out nominations to blockbuster hits. Quickly dubbed the "Black Panther Award," it was wisely withdrawn.

Then Kevin Hart was tapped as host, then he wasn't, then maybe he was again, and now there will be no host at all.

Finally, barely more than a week out from the festivities, the Academy said they planned to give out four awards during the commercial breaks -- including cinematography. Ludicrous. Outside of the director and screenwriter, the director of photography is (not really) arguably the most important member of the creative team.

Again, wiser heads prevailed... begging the question of where they were to begin with.

So here are 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 a tradition I think is unrivaled for pure chutzpah, I cross out the names of some nominees who I deem undeserving and replace them with better candidates -- the dreaded (and desperately in need of a © mark) "Chris Cross."

Best Picture

The Nominees: 
“Black Panther”
“Bohemian Rhapsody”
“The Favourite”
“Green Book”
“A Star Is Born”

The Chatter: I'm sad to say this year has become a "Roma" train, and nothing's going to slow it down. Three top rivals -- "A Star Is Born," "Green Book" and "Bohemian Rhapsody" -- have all faced backlash campaigns.

For "Star," I think there's an anti-Lady Gaga resentment out there. Hollywood likes for stars to stay in their lane. Don't try to be the biggest singer in the world and a movie star, too, goes the thinking.

"Rhapsody" exaggerated the extent to which the members of Queen were estranged from each other and moved up the year when Freddie Mercury found out he had AIDS. Pretty standard historical fudging, by Hollywood standards.

The criticism of "Green Book" is less coherent. First it was a "magical Negro movie," then it was a "white savior movie," then director Peter Farrelly got #MeToo'd for showing his wang on the sets of his gross-out comedies in the '90s, then co-star Viggo Mortensen said the n-word during the press tour, then the co-screenwriter (the real-life son of Viggo's character) retweeted something he wasn't supposed to, then Don Shirley's family resented the movie's implication they weren't very close. (Hint: Shirley said so himself.)

It was my favorite movie of the year, and I'm confused and vexed by the attacks on it. The film is like an actual screen -- people are projecting their own biases and distortions on it instead of judging the movie for what it is. It's the ultimate irony for a story all about individuals growing beyond their own bubble.

My thoughts on "Roma" are known -- it's the sort of movie critics and other filmmakers love and audiences have to endure. The first hour is pure death, and the character of the maid never gets any kind of interior.

Still, if there's a stalking horse, it's "Green Book." The film's treatment has been so unfair, there's a bit of a backlash building against the backlash. Plus industry people are a bit worried about giving their top prize to a streaming service movie that got a barely-there theatrical run.

"Vice" is an unabashed hatchet job that tries to steal the M.O. of "The Big Short" but forgets to be funny. "Black Panther" is, at best, the third-best superhero movie of 2018. “BlacKkKlansman” is Spike Lee's best movie in a decade but doesn't deserve a spot alongside "Malcolm X" and "Do the Right Thing." Lots of better choices out there.

Prediction: "Roma"

Pick: "Green Book"

Chris Cross: I'll replace "Vice," "BlacKkKlansman," "Roma" and "Black Panther" with "The Hate U Give," "Avengers: Infinity War," "The Wife" and "Cold War."

Best Actress

The Nominees: 
Yalitza Aparicio, “Roma”
Glenn Close, “The Wife”
Olivia Colman, “The Favourite”
Lady Gaga, “A Star Is Born”
Melissa McCarthy, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

The Chatter: I'm glad to say Glenn Close has this thing locked up, as she should. The Best Actress award has historically favored young ingenues, whereas Best Actor has a tradition of "it's his time." This year Hollywood is aching to give glory to an actress who's been very good for a very long time, nominated for six Oscars prior without winning.

Plus, she's simply the best. "The Wife" is a masterful performance, one mask inside another.

Lady Gaga was solid, deserves the nomination but not the award. It's hard to believe the most famous person in the world as a nobody, and she convinced me. Melissa McCarthy was terrific in a career-changing turn few people actually saw.

I'm embarrassed by the inclusion of Olivia Colman and Yalitza Aparicio. The former, because it's clearly a supporting performance and this rampant category-hopping has got to stop somewhere. The latter, because she's a non-actress and it shows.

Prediction: Glenn Close

Pick: Glenn Close

Chris Cross: I'll replace Yalitza Aparicio and Olivia Colman with Rachel Weisz -- from "Disobedience," not "The Favourite" -- and Nicole Kidman from "Destroyer."

Best Actor

The Nominees: 
Christian Bale, “Vice”
Bradley Cooper, “A Star Is Born”
Willem Dafoe, “At Eternity’s Gate”
Rami Malek, “Bohemian Rhapsody”
Viggo Mortensen, “Green Book”

The Chatter: This one appears to be Christian Bale's to lose, and I'm fine with that despite my overall distaste for "Vice." It's such a mesmerizing transformation that after a few minutes you don't even question that it's Dick Cheney. The look, the speech, the mannerisms -- spot on.

Plus, Hollywood loves nothing more than to demonize a Republican.

Personally I'll take Bradley Cooper. I thought he gave a very subtle, heartfelt performance as a man who everyone thought had it all, but felt empty and lost inside. A close third would be Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury -- someone I would've called inimitable until Malek did it. He's been courting aggressively on the awards circuit, so he could sneak in with a win.

Mortensen was great, though Mahershala Ali was a co-equal lead -- I think relegating him to the supporting category is part of the grievance against "Green Book." I was glad to see Willem Dafoe sneak in for the tiny, lovely "At Eternity's Gate."

Hard to knock anyone out of a very deserving field, though I would've liked to see Ethan Hawke recognized for "First Reformed." He's in the midst of the richest part of his acting career, though in smaller films few people see.

Prediction: Christian Bale

Pick: Bradley Cooper

Chris Cross: I'll replace Dafoe with Hawke. I'd also like to see Jason Clarke from "Chappaquiddick," but I can't find a spot for him.

Best Supporting Actress

The Nominees: 
Amy Adams, “Vice”
Marina de Tavira, “Roma”
Regina King, “If Beale Street Could Talk”
Emma Stone, “The Favourite”
Rachel Weisz, “The Favourite”

The Chatter: The ridiculousness of having Emma Stone, the main character in "The Favourite," in this category is galling. You could make an argument that Weisz is a supporting performance -- I'd swing against it, but it's a reasonable position. But calling Stone's character anything other than the protagonist is a strike against credulity.

But it's become a favored tactic, campaigning for the lower category for a better shot at winning, and one that's worked. See: Viola Davis in "Fences."

Regina King will win, and deserves to. She's the best thing about "If Beale Street Could Talk," a gorgeous film whose two main characters don't really connect with the audience.

Prediction: Regina King

Pick: Regina King

Chris Cross: I'll replace Amy Adams and Marina de Tavira with Nicole Kidman from "Boy Erased" and Olivia Colman, putting her where she belongs.

Best Supporting Actor

The Nominees: 
Mahershala Ali, “Green Book”
Adam Driver, “BlacKkKlansman”
Sam Elliott, “A Star Is Born”
Richard E. Grant, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
Sam Rockwell, “Vice”

The Chatter: Historically this has been one of the most competitive categories, but the field is a little thin this year. Mahershala Ali has nearly run the table on the preliminary awards and seems slated for another win. I still think it's a leading performance, but he was put here because the studio doesn't want him to compete with his co-star, Mortensen.

Richard E. Grant was also very good, so I'd dub him the closest competition. I'll take him as my pick as the best of the actual supporting performances. I'm a big Sam Elliott fan and think he got screwed last year for "The Hero," but he only really has one substantive scene in "A Star Is Born."

The one nomination here that really rubs me the wrong way is Sam Rockwell. He was doing a "Saturday Night Live"-level impersonation of George W. Bush, played for broad laughs. Steve Carell had a much meatier part, and made the most of it, in the same movie.

Ironically, the one actor I really wanted to see here was Jonah Hill. He's received a couple of nominations I don't think he deserved, and then he pulled out a real humdinger in a non-comedic role in "Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot." Can't wait to see what he does next.

Prediction: Mahershala Ali

Pick: Richard E. Grant

Chris Cross: I'll replace Mahershala Ali, Sam Rockwell and Sam Elliott with Jonah Hill, Steve Carell and Russell Hornsby from "The Hate U Give."

Best Original Screenplay

The Nominees: 
“The Favourite,” Deborah Davis, Tony McNamara
“First Reformed,” Paul Schrader
“Green Book,” Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, Peter Farrelly
“Roma,” Alfonso Cuarón
“Vice,” Adam McKay

The Chatter: This category could go any which way. Typically original screenplay has been used to recognize a small film by up-and-comers. None of the nominees really fit that mold. "Eighth Grade" would be a prototypical winner, and took the Writers Guild Award, but it's not even nominated here.

If you can believe it, this is the first Oscar nomination for the 72-year-old Schrader, the scribe behind "Taxi Driver," "Raging Bull" and other iconic films. I'd love to see him win, but "First Reformed" is a pretty out-there choice. The last act probably seems bonkers on paper, but I think it rings emotionally true.

Nick Vallelonga of "Green Book" has been tainted for retweeting Trump, so that's out. Cuarón is going to win at least three Oscars already -- Best Picture, Best Foreign Language film and Best Director -- so Academy voters will be tempted to spread the love. Plus, there's about a page-and-a-half of actual story there.

"The Favourite" would be the safest choice, a period costume drama. But it has a lesbian angle, so that will be enough to make it an edgy choice. I think it's 9/10ths of a great script that failed to stick the landing. It doesn't end, it just stops.

Prediction: "The Favourite"

Pick: "First Reformed"

Chris Cross: I'll replace "Vice" and "Roma" with "Chappaquiddick" and "Sorry to Bother You."

Best Adapted Screenplay

The Nominees: 
“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” Joel Coen , Ethan Coen
“BlacKkKlansman,” Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, Spike Lee
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty
“If Beale Street Could Talk,” Barry Jenkins
“A Star Is Born,” Eric Roth, Bradley Cooper, Will Fetters

The Chatter: "Can You Ever Forgive Me?" was a surprise winner at the WGAs, so it's got a shot. It's a terrific tale -- the blackest sort of comedy. I think people like "Beale Street" but recognize it's not as good as "Moonlight."

There seems to be a real effort to praise Spike Lee. He's not going to win best director so people want to see him win somewhere else. He's been in the wilderness for the last 20 years after a strong career start, so I think he has a good shot.

Normally I'd say "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs" has the Netflix taint, but it doesn't seem to be hurting "Roma."

For my pick it comes down to "Forgive Me" and "A Star Is Born." I could swing either way, so let's.

Prediction: "BlacKkKlansman"

Pick: "A Star Is Born"

Chris Cross: I'll replace "The Ballad of Buster Scruggs," "BlacKkKlansman" and "If Beale Street Could Talk" with "The Wife," "The Hate U Give" and "Love, Simon."

Best Director

The Nominees: 
Spike Lee, “BlacKkKlansman”
Pawel Pawlikowski, “Cold War”
Yorgos Lanthimos, “The Favourite”
Alfonso Cuarón, “Roma”
Adam McKay, “Vice”

The Chatter: I've pointed this out in other venues, but if Cuarón wins as expected, it would mark nine out of the last 10 times the best director award has been a person of color, a woman or a foreign-born person. Take that, diversity mavens.

Cuarón has run the table on the other awards, including the Directors Guild Award, which is so predictive it's easier to count the number of times the DGA winner didn't take the Oscar than did.

I'm not a big fan of this field. I loved seeing my favorite foreign language film, "Cold War," being recognized here and in cinematography. But I wouldn't have kicked out Bradley Cooper for his slot.

Yorgos Lanthimos, the king of kooky auteur projects, was brought in as a hired hand for "The Favourite" and mostly contained his penchant for excesses, other than a few fish-eye lens shots. McKay's "Vice" never could see around the writer/director's bile to tell a real story.

For my money, the best directed movie of the year was Debra Granik's "Leave No Trace," a film of pure stillness and empathy.

Prediction: Alfonso Cuarón

Pick: Pawel Pawlikowski

Chris Cross: Screw it. I'll kick the whole field and swap them out with Peter Farrelly for "Green Book," Bryan Singer (and the guy who finished the film) for "Bohemian Rhapsody," George Tillman Jr. for "The Hate U Give," Debra Granik for "Leave No Trace" and Bradley Cooper for "A Star Is Born."

Best Documentary Feature

The Nominees: 
“Free Solo,” Jimmy Chin, Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi
“Hale County This Morning, This Evening,” RaMell Ross
“Minding the Gap,” Bing Liu
“Of Fathers and Sons,” Talal Derki
“RBG,” Betsy West, Julie Cohen

The Chatter: I haven't seen "Hale County" or "Of Fathers and Sons." "RBG" was my favorite doc. I also really liked "Shirkers." Despite the outcry, I don't mind seeing "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" left off this list -- like Mr. Rogers and his show, I found it nice, and a little dull. "Free Solo" has a strong shot to win, though I found it hard to connect with its subject, a witless man/child who risks his life for no reason.

Prediction: "RBG"

Pick: "RBG"

Chris Cross: Trade the rambling "Minding the Gap" for "Shirkers."

Best Documentary Short

The Nominees: 
“Black Sheep,” Ed Perkins
“End Game,” Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman
“Lifeboat,” Skye Fitzgerald
“A Night at the Garden,” Marshall Curry
“Period. End of Sentence.,” Rayka Zehtabchi

The Chatter: I didn't get to see any of these this year. The only one I hear buzz about is "Black Sheep."

Prediction: "Black Sheep"

Best Animated Feature

The Nominees: 
“Incredibles 2,” Brad Bird
“Isle of Dogs,” Wes Anderson
“Mirai,” Mamoru Hosoda
“Ralph Breaks the Internet,” Rich Moore, Phil Johnston
“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman

The Chatter: Could this be the year the non-Disney or -Pixar film actually wins? They've taken the prize 10 out of the last 11 years and their two entries are both subpar sequels.

The animated feature game has been lackluster for a few years now. They really struggle to fill out this category with five worthy nominees.

Prediction: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”

Pick: "Isle of Dogs"

Chris Cross: I don't have replacements, but neither "Ralph Breaks the Internet" or "Incredibles 2" deserves to be here.

Best Animated Short

The Nominees: 
“Animal Behaviour,” Alison Snowden, David Fine
“Bao,” Domee Shi
“Late Afternoon,” Louise Bagnall
“One Small Step,” Andrew Chesworth, Bobby Pontillas
“Weekends,” Trevor Jimenez

The Chatter:Disney/Pixar almost always runs the table in this category.
Prediction: "Bao"

Pick: “One Small Step"

Best Live Action Short

The Nominees: 
“Detainment,” Vincent Lambe
“Fauve,” Jeremy Comte
“Marguerite,” Marianne Farley
“Madre,” Rodrigo Sorogoyen
“Skin,” Guy Nattiv

Prediction: "Madre"


Best Foreign Language Film

The Nominees: 
“Capernaum” (Lebanon)
“Cold War” (Poland)
“Never Look Away” (Germany)
“Roma” (Mexico)
“Shoplifters” (Japan)

The Chatter: Other than ordained winner "Roma," this is actually a really good list. "Cold War" is my favorite but I also adored "Shoplifters" and "Capernaum." There's a slight chance "Cold War" could win since "Roma" is going to collect bigger prizes.

Prediction: "Roma"

Pick: "Cold War"

Chris Cross: Let's translate "Roma" into "Let the Sunshine In."

Best Cinematography

The Nominees: 
“Cold War,” Lukasz Zal
“The Favourite,” Robbie Ryan
“Never Look Away,” Caleb Deschanel
“Roma,” Alfonso Cuarón
“A Star Is Born,” Matthew Libatique

The Chatter:  I won't deny the extraordinary beauty of "Roma," despite how I feel about it. Interesting to have four foreign films, including three foreign language ones, out of five.

Prediction: "Roma"

Pick: "Cold War"

Chris Cross: I'll stand pat with this list.

Best Film Editing

The Nominees: 
“BlacKkKlansman,” Barry Alexander Brown
“Bohemian Rhapsody,” John Ottman
“Green Book,” Patrick J. Don Vito
“The Favourite,” Yorgos Mavropsaridis
“Vice,” Hank Corwin

The Chatter: It's interesting that Alfonso Cuarón didn't get nominated here, since he edits his own films and previously won an Oscar for "Gravity." But there really isn't much editing in "Roma," which largely consists of long, panning shots.

Tough call here. None of these are action-oriented films that get a chance to show off fancy editing.

Prediction: "Vice"

Pick: “Bohemian Rhapsody”

Best Sound Editing

The Nominees: 
“Black Panther,” Benjamin A. Burtt, Steve Boeddeker
“Bohemian Rhapsody,” John Warhurst
“First Man,” Ai-Ling Lee, Mildred Iatrou Morgan
“A Quiet Place,” Ethan Van der Ryn, Erik Aadahl
“Roma,” Sergio Diaz, Skip Lievsay

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: "First Man"

Pick: "Bohemian Rhapsody"

Best Sound Mixing

The Nominees: 
“Black Panther”
“Bohemian Rhapsody”
“First Man”
“A Star Is Born”

Prediction: "Bohemian Rhapsody"

Pick: "Bohemian Rhapsody"

Best Production Design

The Nominees: 
“Black Panther,” Hannah Beachler
“First Man,” Nathan Crowley, Kathy Lucas
“The Favourite,” Fiona Crombie, Alice Felton
“Mary Poppins Returns,” John Myhre, Gordon Sim
“Roma,” Eugenio Caballero, Bárbara Enrı́quez

The Chatter: This category often comes down to science fiction vs. costume drama, and the latter usually wins.

Prediction: “The Favourite"

Pick: “Mary Poppins Returns"

Best Original Score

The Nominees: 
“BlacKkKlansman,” Terence Blanchard
“Black Panther,” Ludwig Goransson
“If Beale Street Could Talk,” Nicholas Britell
“Isle of Dogs,” Alexandre Desplat
“Mary Poppins Returns,” Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman

The Chatter: I loved the weird, moving, atonal score for "If Beale Street Could Talk." I think Alexandre Desplat gets nominated every year; he's the new John Williams.

Prediction: “If Beale Street Could Talk”

Pick: “If Beale Street Could Talk”

Best Song

The Nominees: 
“All The Stars” from “Black Panther” by Kendrick Lamar, SZA
“I’ll Fight” from “RBG” by Diane Warren, Jennifer Hudson
“The Place Where Lost Things Go” from “Mary Poppins Returns” by Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman
“Shallow” from “A Star Is Born” by Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando, Andrew Wyatt and Benjamin Rice
“When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings” from “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” by David Rawlings and Gillian Welch

The Chatter: The cowboy song from "Buster Scruggs" is oddly the most singable of the bunch. Lady Gaga seems destined to notch another letter on the way to her EGOT.

Prediction: "Shallow"

Pick: "Shallow"

Best Makeup and Hair

The Nominees: 
“Mary Queen of Scots”

The Chatter: This usually goes to the biggest physical transformation, especially turning a lean, beautiful person into an old, fat one. Odd that "Stan & Ollie" didn't get a nod; John C. Reilly's transformation was at least as impressive as Christian Bale's, and he didn't even gain weight for the role.

Prediction: "Vice"

Pick: "Vice"

Chris Cross: Only three nominees here so no need to cross anyone out to add "Stan & Ollie."

Best Costume Design

The Nominees: 
“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs,” Mary Zophres
“Black Panther,” Ruth E. Carter
“The Favourite,” Sandy Powell
“Mary Poppins Returns,” Sandy Powell
“Mary Queen of Scots,” Alexandra Byrne

Prediction: "The Favourite"

Pick: "Mary Queen of Scots"

Best Visual Effects

The Nominees: 
“Avengers: Infinity War”
“Christopher Robin”
“First Man”
“Ready Player One”
“Solo: A Star Wars Story”

The Chatter: The best superhero flick of the year will get its due.

Prediction: “Avengers: Infinity War”

Pick: “Avengers: Infinity War”

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Review: "How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World"

One of the hardest lessons in life to absorb is that everything has a beginning, a middle and an end -- especially the last part.

Knowing when to close the door on a thing is a test many of us fail, especially when it has been something that has brought joy and meaning to our life. A relationship, a job, a creative partnership -- often we hold on longer than we should, and thereby taint the last chapter of the journey.

The “How to Train Your Dragon” series has quietly been one of -- if not the -- finest animated franchises in cinematic history. It caps that stature by definitively wrapping things up with a satisfying finale that draws a closed circle on a saga about striving beyond our limitations.

Starting with the smart and sensitive 2010 movie based on the books by Cressida Cowell about a teen Viking who befriends the dragons that have been plaguing his village for generations, the “Dragon” tale has sprawled across three feature films, four short films and eight seasons of a TV series, first on Cartoon Network and then moving to Netflix.

All this, in less than a decade.

Film-to-television crossovers are often notoriously bad, but “Dragons: Race to the Edge” and its earlier incarnation was notable for actually expanding its world without diminishing it -- not to mention retaining almost the entire original voice cast, something virtually unprecedented.

My two sons literally grew up on “Dragon” stories. At first, young Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) was a scrawny, ostracized teen seen by most as a pale copy of his father, the mighty chieftain Stoick (Gerard Butler). In “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,” he’s a wiser, cagier -- though only slightly less scrawny -- leader who others look to for confidence.

He still often lacks it in himself. Fortunately, Astrid (America Ferrera), the fiercest warrior in the island village of Berk, is there to buck him and back him. She’s not ready to commit to marriage, though, despite the urging of the townsfolk. These include blacksmith/sage Gobber (Craig Ferguson) and Hiccup’s mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett).

If you watched the TV show, you know that Hiccup and his crew have been waging a running war with trappers looking to force the dragons into slavery. Their success, though, has left Berk literally teeming with reptilian fire-breathers from nook to cranny. Something’s got to give.

The villain this time around is Grimmel the Grisly (delightfully voiced by F. Murray Abraham), a cagey old dragon hunter who uses poison to snare and control dragons. He’s got a foursome of nasty acid-spewing deathgrippers at his beck and call.

Grimmel has his sights set on Toothless, the lone remaining night fury dragon who allied himself with Hiccup even though the boy crippled him with one of his many contraptions. Hiccup lost a leg in the first movie, so both use prosthetic devices and are codependent on each other in order to fly.

When a female white night fury is revealed -- quickly dubbed a “light fury” -- it offers the potential for some dragon romance, but also a threat to the status quo. To escape Grimmel and his ilk once and for all, Hiccup revolves to find the mythical waterfall at the end of the world his father talked about, a portal to the world where  all dragons supposedly come from.

“Hidden World” is a bit more action-centric than its two movie predecessors, with plenty of exciting mid-air battles, non-bloody melee and pyrotechnic conflagrations. But writer/director Dean DeBlois, who’s helmed all three films, makes plenty of time for contemplation and character-building.

I’m sorry to see the “How to Train Your Dragon” series go. What a ride it’s been. But I’m delighted the creators knew that it’s better to leave too early than too late.

Sunday, February 17, 2019

Video review: "A Star Is Born"

The luster of “A Star Is Born” has faded somewhat since it opened in theaters, going from box office hit and surefire Oscar favorite to something of the ignored cousin in the awards season.

Everybody likes it, but not enough to actually win the gold.

Lady Gaga in particular has been blanked in most of the high-profile awards for her role as Ally, a plucky nobody who goes from dive bar crooner to pop star sensation in record time. I thought she was very good in the role, a real-life contender for “most famous person in the world” believably portraying someone who’s gobsmacked by her sudden fame.

But for me, Bradley Cooper quietly steals the show as Jackson Maine, the boozy country/rock singer who gives Ally a rocket ride to fame, only to see their relationship suffer when her rising star eclipses his fading one. There’s an unspoken ache to his performance that I found just riveting.

This is the fourth time this story has been told, with iterations in the 1930s, ‘50s and ‘70s prior to this one. (I’ve only seen the first.)

That lends the movie an ageless quality, yet it also felt very fresh and urgent to these eyes. What I took away from the experience is a more nuanced look at fame than we usually see in the movies. Regular folks hear about the substance abuse and mental health problems of celebrities and wished they could be so cursed with wealth and stature.

But Cooper, who directed and co-wrote the script with Eric Roth and Will Fetters, gives us an insider’s look at how normal life becomes warped by fame into an upside-down, inside-out travail that would crush most people.

With terrific songs (most written or co-written by Gaga), a pair of standout lead performances and a stellar supporting turn by Sam Elliott as Jackson’s older brother, “A Star Is Born” is a prime example that even though Hollywood constantly repeats itself, it can still provide indelible experiences along the way.

Video extras are decent, and decidedly music-heavy. This includes music videos of four songs -- “Shallow,” “Always Remember Us This Way,” “Look What I Found” and “I’ll Never Love Again” -- as well as jam sessions of three more: “Baby What You Want Me To Do,” “Midnight Special” and “Is That Alright.”

There’s also a making-of documentary, “The Road to Stardom.”



Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Review: "Isn't It Romantic"

“It’s like the Matrix for lonely women!”

“Isn’t It Romantic” is a snarky, fairly smart sendup of the romantic comedy genre that still manages to gleefully indulge in every trope and cliché.

Rebel Wilson plays an unappreciated girl who gets conked on the head and wakes up in a romcom fantasy world, where New York City is a happy place that doesn’t smell like doo-doo. Every man she meets looks her in the eye and offers compliments, and at any moment a musical number is in danger of breaking out.

It’s like hell, and she can’t wait to escape.

Wilson has a lot going for her as a star. She’s been playing sidekick roles for about a decade now, and starting to get into a bit of a typecast as the chubby girl who likes to party and get sassy. Now she finally has a chance to break out as the main attraction, and employ her real Australian accent to boot.

She plays Natalie, a young architect who feels ignored in every aspect of her life. She’s got a crummy apartment and a standoffish neighbor, she’s derided and/or ignored at work and feels like no man is willing to give her the time of day because she’s not model-thin and girly.

“They don’t make movies about girls like us,” Nat’s mom chides in a flashback where she’s relishing Julia Roberts in “Pretty Woman.”

Of course, just a few cubicles away sits Josh (Adam Devine), a goofy but loveable guy who would, quite obviously, love to get her attention. But Nat has “friend-zoned” him because part of her can’t accept the fact that a man could adore her. Even having her assistant/best pal (Betty Gilpin) point this out doesn’t convince her.

When a guy flirts with her on the subway, Nat can’t believe her luck. Turns out he was just luring her out onto the platform to rob her, and after a scuffle receives a helluva concussion. When she wakes up, the whole world is changed: every man she meets is gorgeous and attentive. Every street is lined with flowers. Her apartment is suddenly five times as big and chic. Even her dog looks like it’s had a bath and several months of obedience training.

She’s nearly run over by the limo of Blake (Liam Hemsworth), the gorgeous billionaire who she made a design pitch to the previous day, though he blew her off as the coffee girl. Suddenly he’s entranced by Nat, calling her “beguiling” -- over and over again -- and somehow has even acquired his own Aussie accent in the meantime.

They soon begin a torrid affair, but alas! Because romcoms are always rated PG-13, there’s no sex since as soon as they start to get busy it cuts to the next morning. She can’t even curse her frustration because every swear word gets bleeped out by car horns, alarm buzzers, etc.

Meanwhile, Josh finds himself romanced by a gorgeous swimsuit model/yoga ambassador (Priyanka Chopra). And her next-door neighbor has morphed into a swishy gay sidekick (a terrific Brandon Scott Jones) who seems to have no life of his own other than showing up everywhere to support his favorite girl.

“Isn’t It Romantic” bends the satire as far as it can go without popping the bubble of the fact that the prime audience for this movie is those who love romcoms. It’s the sort film movie that has just enough ambition to make fun of a thing while also reveling in being it.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Reeling Backward: "Starship Troopers" (1997)

As a teen I really loved "Robocop" and Robert Heinlein's classic science fiction book, "Starship Troopers," so I remember being very excited when it was the announced that Paul Verhoeven, the director of the former, was tackling a screen adaptation of the latter along with screenwriter Edward Neumeier.

Then the movie came out and I (along with not a few others) thought it a total piece of garbage.

It was an expensive flop and, along with the failure of "Showgirls" two years earlier, knocked Verhoeven off the A-list of directors after a decade-long run noted for pushing Hollywood's boundaries for violence and nudity. He's since returned to his roots of European art films ("Black Book," "Elle") and I think we're all better for it.

Turns out the project was not actually launched with the Heinlein book in mind. A spec script called "Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine" had a lot of similarities to the Heinlein novel -- perhaps too many to be a coincidence -- so the studio bought the rights to the book and the script was rewritten combining elements from both.

Verhoeven hated the book and even confessed he was never able to finish reading it. It's been controversial since Heinlein published it in 1959 because of its embrace of an overtly militaristic, and some would even argue fascist, future. In the novel only those who have served in the military, aka Federal Service, are eligible to become "citizens," endowed with full status and the right to vote. Things like extreme corporal punishment (whipping, etc.) and preemptive attacks are looked upon favorably.

I was particularly dismayed that the power suits worn by the intergalactic soldiers in the book were jettisoned. These allowed them to make leaps of tremendous distance and even drop mini-nuclear bombs, essentially turning each of them into a low-grade Iron Man. Instead the movie just has regular field infantry with body armor and machine guns, not terribly different from what the modern U.S. Army wears.

It's understandable why the filmmakers did this. It would have made the $105 million budget, already bloated for its time, even bigger and forced them to hide all their beautiful actors behind helmets and armor. It does make you wonder, though, how hundreds of years into the future humanity has managed to conquer space travel but still relies on an M-16 clone.

In this vision humanity has been united in their opposition to the "bugs" -- insect-like aliens that fly toward Earth on massive meteors. So far all the experts have regarded them as mindless drones, though in the course of the story we discover otherwise.

(I still wish somebody could've come up with a better moniker than "brain bug.")

I have no doubt in my mind that 1979's "Alien" and other films were inspired by the book, and in turn those movies helped shape the chitinous, bulb-headed look of the "Starship Trooper" bugs.
Seeing the movie for the first time in two decades provides a moment for reassessment. I still don't think it's a very good flick. But it's interesting how much of the social satire of "Robocop" carried over into this movie, especially the cringe-worthy TV newscasts, as well as its prescience about how digital communication would come to dominate our society.

There are a number of fake ads to join the military spread or updates on the war spread throughout the movie, always ending with the query of, "Do you want to know more?" It's quite possible that "Starship Troopers" was the very first cultural artifact to envision clickbait. There's also video conferencing, tablet computers and other tech that we now take for granted.

Verhoeven, who knew something of actual Nazism, made what is essentially a spoof of both fascist tendencies and science fiction. It goes through the motions of celebrating these soldiers blasting aliens apart while at the same time making the entire undertaking seem utterly preposterous. Of course, the irony flew right over the heads of many who saw it. 

The movie's essential weaknesses, though, remain. It has a cast of gorgeous, then-unknown actors who are given a bunch of ridiculous dialogue to say, which they issue with varying degrees of sniggering and/or woodenness. It's notable that of all of them, only Neil Patrick Harris as psychic/intelligence officer Carl was the only one to break out into a high-profile career.

Perhaps that's unkind; showbiz is fickle and anyone who can continue to work as an actor for decades already sits toward the top of a very steep heap.

Denise Richards (as ambitious hotshot pilot Carmen Ibanez), Dina Meyer (sexually aggressive tomboy soldier Dizzy Flores), Jake Busey (goofy fiddle-playing comrade Ace Levy), Seth Gilliam (bully-turned-lackey Sugar Watkins) and Patrick Muldoon (full-of-himself antagonist and competitor for Carmen's affection Zander Barcalow) have all enjoyed busy careers doing TV, voice work, video games and B-movies.

Gilliam might contest Harris' crown for top alumnus, going on to play the formerly fraidy-cat preacher in "The Walking Dead" and a prime role on "The Wire," aka the GOAT TV series.

And, of course, Clancy Brown and Michael Ironside were already grizzled veterans playing crusty officers who whip the kids into line as, respectively, Private-nee-Sergeant Zim and Rasczak, the recruits' former high school history teacher and wartime leader of the howling Rasczak's Roughnecks. Brown and Ironside are both science fiction/horror immortals.

At the top in terms of billing but at the bottom of the totem pole talent-wise sits sad Casper Van Dien as protagonist Johnny Rico. It seems clear Van Dien was chosen more for his looks than any innate acting ability. His Rico is so clean-cut and sharp-featured that he practically seems molded out of plastic.

Imagine James Dean, but with good posture and straight from an aggressive barber. (Indeed, Van Dien had just played Dean in a television movie.)

As a main character Johnny is a total zero. He joins the Mobile Infantry because that's what Carmen wants, only to find them separated when she has the math scores to make it into the Federation Fleet, essentially the Navy of this story. They eventually rejoin, though now separated by the enmity between the military branches. "M.I. does the dying. Fleet just does the flying!" Johnny says, echoing a common refrain.

It should be noted that the book and the movie posit all the youngsters as coming from Buenos Aries, and I don't think there's a legitimate Latino in the bunch.

The special effects looked cheap even in 1997, and are comically outdated now. The nascent CGI for the bugs isn't awful, just stiff and superficial-looking, but the space travel stuff was already at least two decades past its prime.

Of course, Verhoeven opted for his usual all-you-can-stand buffet of gore and violence, with literal rivers of viscera -- human and alien -- splashed across the screen.

Interestingly, probably the most talked-about scene at the time was not any of the many bloody battles but the coed shower shared by the M.I. recruits. It's a throwaway scene of little value other than to show off the bodies of the actors. According to lore the cast refused to film it unless Verhoeven would also get nude, and he readily complied.

"Robocop" actually predated this with its police locker room shared by both men and women, with the gals nonchalantly showing their upper-body wares. "Troopers" goes one better with a fully nude open-air shower room where everybody enjoys a comradely chat about their budding military careers while sudsing up their nethers. The camera is carefully framed not to show too much, and the whole thing is so goofy and jovial that it turns into a (literal) ass-slapping yuk-fest.

I'm not sure how such a scene would play today, with our fretting over who's using which public restroom and some feminist insistence on an omnipresent threat of rape. Beyond the leering voyeurism of the scene, though, it contains a hopeful message about the genders being able to relate to each other as true equals without the burden of always-on sexual dynamics -- a future I fear will remain a pipe dream.

Twenty-plus years on, "Starship Troopers" still plays as an ill-thought bit of escapist gore porn, but with a subtext of social satire and insight that I perhaps didn't appreciate then. I'll say this: the movie has more ambition than I had credited.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

Video review: "Bohemian Rhapsody"

Is “Bohemian Rhapsody” too entertaining of a movie to win Academy Awards? We’ll find out in a couple of weeks, but I think people have been overlooking the film’s excellence precisely because it’s such a crowd-pleaser.

The film has been up and down in the awards race. I don’t believe it’ll win the Oscar for best picture, but it deserves at least stalking horse status. Rami Malek is a revelation playing Queen frontman Freddie Mercury, who had the voice and strut to make people stand up and take notice.

Directed (mostly) by Bryan Singer from a screenplay from Anthony McCarten, “Bohemian Rhapsody” is more than your standard rock ‘n’ roll biopic. It takes us on a journey with Freddie and bandmates Brian May (Gwilym Lee), Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy) and John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) as they quickly rise from college bar band to one of the premier pop acts of the 1970s.

The story primarily focuses on Mercury’s tale, a buck-toothed foreign kid who had a hard time assimilating into British culture -- especially as he became more aware of his attraction toward other men. He had a years-long relationship with a woman, Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), that provided the sort of stability he needed but did not satisfy his romantic urges.

And the rest of the band does not get lost in the story. They push back against Freddie’s egomaniacal behavior and artistic impetuousness. They have lives and relationships of their own going on in the background.

Mostly this film is a celebration of one of the greatest bands in popular culture -- what it took to get to the top, and why that sort of success is so rare. It may not take home Oscar gold, but “Bohemian Rhapsody” is one of the best films of 2018.

Video extras are a little disappointing. There are three documentary shorts: “Rami Malek: Becoming Freddie,” “The Look and Sound of Queen” and “Recreating Live Aid.” There is also complete footage of their famous Live Aid performance in 1985, which marked a return to glory for Queen.



Friday, February 8, 2019

Oscar-nominated shorts films -- live action


Two French ragamuffins of about age 12 are horsing around at an industrial site -- plunking rocks off pipelines, climbing on dilapidated trains, etc. They play a running game: first one to make the other laugh wins a point. Things take a fateful turn when they flee from workmen into a massive, filthy but hauntingly beautiful dump site. A little too pleased with its own visual spectacle, but there’s a good story in there.


“Marguerite” is about a relationship not often depicted cinematically – an elderly person suffering from physical or mental handicaps and the caregiver who supports them. Beatrice Picard plays the title character, a woman who has severe diabetes and possibly dementia. Sandrine Bisson is Rachel, the home healthcare worker who comes every day to bathe and feed her. They start to open up about their love lives, past and present, which brings about a moment that will feel like a healing moment to some, or crossing over of a critical line.


Troy is a kid of about 7 who seems to have a good life -- a mom and dad who love him, good friends. Problem is his people are racist white trash. When his father and his buddies beat a black man nearly to death in a grocery store parking lot for no reason, it sets off a spiral of revenge and resentment, with Troy’s counterpart as the victim’s son. A troubling tale of how hate regenerates itself.


A Spanish woman and her mother are scurrying around her apartment, snapping at each other. They get a call from her 6-year-old son, Ivan: he is all alone on a beach in France, and his father (estranged from the family) has left him there. The tension mounts as they try to find help, or even discover exactly where he is, as the boy's phone battery slowly dies. Fraught and human.


This often-riveting drama looks at the true story of two English boys who were accused of kidnapping and murdering a smaller lad. Recreated from witnesses and recordings by the police, they at first deny everything, from petty crimes committed at the mall to even encountering the victim. But a cascade of lies comes tumbling down, revealing an underbelly of violence behind angelic faces.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

Review: "What Men Want"

I’m not sure if you’d dub “What Men Want” a sequel, a remake or a reboot of “What Women Want” from nearly 20 years ago. Let’s call it a spiritual inheritor.

It’s about a successful, not-particularly-nice person who gets conked on the head and finds themselves able to hear the thoughts of the opposite sex, which leads to lots of zany hijinks but also helps them become a better person.

The first film was a huge hit but wasn’t well-liked by critics, and I suspect this one won’t be, either. But it’s got heart, laughs and more than a little sass.

Taraji P. Henson plays Ali, a hard-charging sports agent at the powerhouse Atlanta firm of SWM. Anticipating being named partner, she leases a Porsche to flaunt her success. (Like anyone who’s spent time in The ATL, I chuckled at the scene showing her driving downtown at rush hour with absolutely zero traffic. Talk about Hollywood fantasies!)

But she doesn’t get the gig, as she’s again passed over in favor of some lunkhead young dude. It’s a boys’ club, and they’ll let her play but not take home the trophy.

“You do great in your lane, so why don’t you stay in your lane?” her smarmy boss (Brian Bosworth) says.

As she’s raging against the injustices of her environment, we also learn that Ali is not a very well-rounded person. She treats her assistant, adorable gay dweeb Brandon (Josh Brener), like dirt. When she seduces a gorgeous bartender named Will (Aldis Hodge), we even learn that she’s pretty lousy in bed.

Redemption lies in the person of Jamal Barry (Shane Paul McGhie), who will soon be the #1 NBA pick for the hometown Hawks. Land Jamal, Ali’s boss offers, and she’ll get her prize. But that also means negotiating around Jamal’s unbalanced control-freak father, Joe “Dolla” Barry, played by Tracy Morgan in a portrayal that is totally not a sendup of LaVar Ball.

The cast is rounded out by Jason Jones and Max Greenfield as adversarial fellow agents; Tamala Jones, Phoebe Robinson and Wendi McLendon-Covey as Ali’s lady crew; Pete Davidson as a donut-pushing office denizen; Erykah Badu as Sister, the kooky psychic/weed dealer who gives Ali the tea that sparks her newfound power; and various sports celebrity cameos by the likes of Lisa Leslie, Shaquille O’Neal, Grant Hill, Karl-Anthony Towns and Mark Cuban.

Richard Roundtree also turns up in a nice, sensitive role as Ali’s patient father.

There’s a lot of things to like about “What Men Want.” Henson oozes a sort of anxious charisma playing a woman who’s never slowed down enough to consider whether she’s making a positive impact on those around her. There’s some good snaps in the dialogue, and a crazy wedding scene that looks like something out of a reality show meltdown.

The movie isn’t terribly insightful about the differences between the genders. And the mostly-male creative team strives mightily to clean up men’s thoughts from the cesspool I’d guess they’d really be.

My guess is what men want most is for women to never find out just how gross we are on the inside.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Review: Oscar nominated short animated films

One Small Step

Wow, this little space story will get your right in the heart. Told wordlessly with simple animation, it’s the tale of a daughter and her father. Knowing her love of space and science, the dad encourages her with astronaut boots and helmet. As the years pass she grows into a determined young woman who keeps him at arm’s length. A tailor, he expresses his love through food and repairing her shoes. Timeless and evocative.


This ambitious Pixar short caused some controversy when it came out due its portrait of a sensitive subject – a mother’s cloying relationship to her son. Upset about continually being pushed away, she creates a surrogate in the form of a dumpling that comes to life. But the same dynamic grows between them, a young man anxious to cut the apron strings and a mother whose love can sometimes be an intrusive burden.

Late Afternoon

Yes, another short film about the relationship between parent and child. In this case it’s the tale of Emily, an old woman living with dementia. With the assistance of her helper, Kate, she spends the afternoon flitting in and out of the past, recalling her childhood playing on the beach, trying to catch a train, taking a bike ride, etc. Earnest and exquisite


A little boy spends weekends with his dad in his heartstring-pulling look at a fractured family. Things are fun and cool at dad’s: he lives in the city, is into video games and Japanese samurai stuff. Meanwhile, mom’s place is dull and she’s studying to be an accountant. But as time passes the boy comes to see the value in both parents’ environments, as well as the shortcomings.

Animal Behavior

Points for being the one short that’s not about the animator working out their parental hang-ups. A bird, a cat, a leech, a pig and a praying mantis are having a group therapy session with Dr. Clement, a dog psychiatrist. They’ve each got issues -- the leech has abandonment issues, the mantis has a tendency to kill her boyfriends -- but then an angry ape shows up and things really get wooly and wild. Fun, funny and smart.

Review: "The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part"

There’s a moment that arrives for each of us when we first truly feel old.

Maybe it’s flailing at some athletic endeavor that barely made you break a sweat back in the day. Or it’s a cultural disconnect, when you realize you not only don’t like the music that’s popular right now, but you can’t even name a top artist or song.

For me it was 2014’s “The Lego Movie.” My then-3-year-old found it to be wonderfully zippy, colorful and fun. Although I liked the film, I spent most of it mentally shouting, “Please slow down, this movie is going way too fast for me to follow!!”

Though it’s more palatable on subsequent viewings -- especially on video where you can pause and rewind -- the movie throws so much visual and verbal information at you at once, it can be an overwhelming experience for us past-young folks.

The sequel, “The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part,” doubles down on the blazing incomprehensibility. My son, now 8, declares it even better than the original. My eyes and brain, now five years older, had an even harder time keeping pace.

Though there are certainly some enjoyable sections and throwaway jokes aimed at adults, this is a movie strictly for the kids.

The story picks up exactly where the last left off. If you’ll recall, the LEGO figurines were acting out a version of the playtime of a human father and son, in a very “Toy Story” kind of way. Dad finally learned to let go and allow his son to mess up his elaborate LEGO sets, but since he was letting him play with the stuff it was only fair to bring in his kid sister, too.

Turns out the siblings (Jadon Sand and Brooklynn Prince) did not get along. The utopian LEGO wonderland created by the fall of Lord Business has morphed into a Mad Max-like wasteland dubbed “Apocalypseburg” in which the sullen inhabits fight off near-daily invasions by cutesy aliens courtesy of sister’s more bedazzled imagination.

Emmet (voice of Chris Pratt), the everyman hero whose quest was all about finding out whether he was special -- hint: we all are -- is now seen as hopelessly out of touch. Even his lady friend, Lucy/Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), tells him he needs to grow up and get grimmer. Batman (Will Arnett) is their new savior since he’s already sufficiently dark and brooding.

The trio and a few other key team members -- robot/pirate MetalBeard (Nick Offerman), spaceship-obsessed Benny (Charlie Day) and bipolar unicorn/feline Unikitty (Alison Brie) -- are whisked away to the Systar System where they must face off with their counterparts. But it turns out their leader, shapeshifting Queen Watevra Wa-Nabi (say it out loud), voiced by Tiffany Haddish, is proposing an alliance.

Another newcomer is Rex Dangervest, a dashing adventurer also voiced by Pratt who gives Emmet advice about growing up and being more manly. The joke is that Rex is a mash-up of Pratt’s other big-screen roles as a raptor trainer, space hero and cowboy.

There are a few fun musical sequences, with a new earworm to replace the “Everything Is Awesome” song from the last movie, which also gets a somewhat moody reprise. Haddish gets her own tune, and turns out to be surprisingly more mellifluous than you’d think based on her comedy persona.

“The LEGO Movie 2” is pretty much more of the same. If you’ve seen any of the other LEGO movies you know what you’re getting, and that your kids will undoubtedly like it, and you’ll feel a little dazed after watching it. Take heart that this will be them someday.