Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Review: "Seberg"

Jean Seberg was an "It Girl" before we really had a name for that. She was a struggling American actress who went overseas and became an overnight success in the French New Wave, with an iconic role in "Breathless."

With her short pixie blonde haircut and torrent of real-life affairs and marriages, Seberg was also on the bleeding edge of the sexual revolution. Her career stalled in the late 1960s and early '70s, and by 1979 she was dead at the age of 40 in an apparent suicide.

Her story has largely been forgotten, but the biopic "Seberg" gives us a fuller telling, including the reason for her disgrace: a vicious and deliberate campaign by the FBI to discredit Seberg for her alliance with the Black Panthers, including her relationship with leader Hakim Jamal.

Kristen Stewart plays Seberg in a nuanced role that reflects her long, slow slide into paranoia and dispiritedness. At the start of the story she is so powerful and independent, driving her expensive sports car into hostile black neighborhoods without any fear of reprisal. She is in command of her own choices.

By the end, she has been withered down to a fearful, spiteful creature who feels very much at the mercy of circumstances beyond her control.

Anthony Mackie plays Jamal, and their early romance -- while both are married -- is quite torrid and erotic. There's one red-hot scene where they practice her acting lines with a real gun as Seberg casually flaunts her body to him: part enticement, part declaration of her sole ownership of her womanhood.

Otto Preminger picked Seberg from obscurity as a teenager to star in "Saint Joan," a traumatic experience both emotionally and physically. She learned to move past her victimhood, using men as they seek to use her.

But then the feds get their hooks into her, for really the slimmest of reasons. It was their (illegal) practice in those days to infiltrate and discredit upstart political organizations that threatened the status quo. Their surveillance of Jamal reveals their affair, and FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (never seen but felt) seeks to use it to sow dissention among the Panthers.

Jack O'Connell plays Jack Solomon, the young FBI agent put in charge of the case. At first he sees it as part of the job, but comes to resist the hard tactics against a woman choosing her own causes and associations. He eventually takes steps to warn her, though they are not accepted for obvious reasons.

Vince Vaughn plays the mercenary partner, drinking hard and caring little about anything except following orders. His ethos is simple: do the job, reap the rewards. Colm Meaney plays a higher-up who has to crack the whip on Solomon's waffling.

Zazie Beetz plays Dorothy Jamal, Hakim's wife, who can accept a certain amount of philandering from her revolutionary spouse but draws the line at a famous white (in her eyes) dilettante. The women's eventual clash is bone-deep in its impact.

It's a well-acted movie, a slow-burn dramatic thriller than some may need time to warm up to. Director Benedict Andrews and screenwriters Anna Waterhouse and Joe Shrapnel opt for mood and lingering moments over move-the-ball plotting.

My main complaint about the film is it becomes too much the story of a G-man's conflict about participating in a starlet's destruction than the psychological terror she is experiencing. The movie needed to keep the focus on Seberg with Solomon as a tertiary character, but instead the middle section in particular almost feels like "The Lives of Others."

The revelation of the campaign against Seberg was actually revealed by the FBI literally days after her death, and figured into Congressional investigations of the time. her memory was pretty well mislaid after that, until now.

A disclaimer: I saw "Seberg" almost three months ago during the busy runup to the awards cycle. I didn't have time to rewatch it before writing this review, so my recollection for details may have frayed though I think my emotional memory is solid enough to write about it. Do with this information as you will.

Review: "Emma"

“If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more.”
                    --George Knightley

I confess I do not have anything more than a hazy recollection of 1996’s “Emma” starring Gwyneth Paltrow, the second major film adaptation of Jane Austen’s iconic novel. Many saw it as a cinematic watershed, but its inability to last long in memory is a generally good indicator of my disagreement.

The third, nearly a quarter-century later and starring Anya Taylor-Joy as the intrepid Emma Woodhouse, surely will.

This is a sumptuous, mature and vibrant telling that cleaves quite closely to Austen’s novel. The book concerns itself with the trivialities of 1800s British aristocracy, and yet the movie has such a depth of feeling that it seems about the most important of things: love, trust, family, fellowship.

I am astonished to learn that director Autumn de Wilde and screenwriter Eleanor Catton are both rookies making their feature film debuts. (Though de Wilde is a veteran of music videos.) This feels like the sort of confident, authentic work of people completing their dozenth movie, not their first.

At the center is Taylor-Joy, who announced herself with authority while still a teenager in “The Witch.” With her preternaturally wide, wise eyes and soft but direct voice, she is very much the picture of a pampered and privileged young noblewoman of countless blessings -- “handsome, clever and rich,” in Austen’s introduction.

Emma is sort of a kindlier version of Glenn Close’s carnivorous marquis from “Dangerous Liaisons,” a self-appointed matchmaker and string-puller. Instead of the intrigue of the Paris royal court we have the pastoral affairs of the town of Highbury where Emma plies her trade. She loves to make marriages while eschewing the notion mightily herself.

She lives with her father (Bill Nighy), a widower who is constantly terrified of chilly drafts and boring parties. He’s a stiff and a snob, but in a charmingly retiring way. Their constant companion is their neighbor, George Knightley (Johnny Flynn), who came into his considerable inheritance at a young age. He and Emma enjoy a friendly sibling-type rivalry, cattily exchanging barbs and remonstrations.

Flynn’s Mr. Knightley is fetching in a rough, scarred sort of way, and pokes fun at his more dandy-ish colleagues who drive a carriage 17 miles to London and back for a haircut. Flynn is briefly nude in an early scene for no reason I can detect, and if it were not for this the movie would not even warrant its mild PG rating.

As the story opens, Emma successfully fends off a marriage proposal from country squire Robert Martin (Conor Swindells) for the hand of her best friend, Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), an orphan of low station but pure heart. Instead she intends to match Harriet with the obsequious local vicar, Mr. Elton (Josh O’Connor), but finds her interpretation of the lines of affection at cross ends.

Two figures are much talked about but do not actually arrive until nearly midway through the movie, shaking up the state of Highbury’s gossiping and hobnobbing. Frank Churchill (Callum Turner) is the son of Emma’s former governess’ new husband, and is thought quite handsome and charming, especially by himself. Jane Fairfax is another orphan of little means but is well-educated and accomplished, provoking Emma’s seething jealousy.

If you don’t recall the book or previous movies, I won’t spoil the fun of the various romantic intrigues, as unexpected assignations occur and fleeting exchanges of manners are misinterpreted as testaments of undying love. It’s all so very British.

Yes, it seems quite frivolous at first. But the cast and crew invest great import and emotion into their words and deeds. Here is a lovely, musical film that shows us the difference between wealth and gentility, and between romance and true affection.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Reeling Backward: "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" (2008)

No, we're not reeling back very far this week. The fifth installment of the Indiana Jones chronicle was supposed to come out in 2020, but has been pushed back to the following year. That gives us a chance to look back on the mightily controversial previous one, 2008's "Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull."

It seems like it's been forever since that film, but if the schedule holds it will have only been 13 years since the last Indy movie, whereas it was 19 years between 1989's "The Last Crusade" and "Skull."

This seems like a good time to ruminate on the passage of time in film franchises and the aging process of actors.

There were a whole bunch of old jokes about the movie and in the movie, as star Harrison Ford was in his mid-60s when "Skull" was made. (The original trilogy roughly covered his 40s.) Pop culture was inundated with quips about him being the same age as Sean Connery was when he played Indiana Jones' doddering old dad in "Crusade."

In point of fact: Ford was several years older than Connery was, since in actuality the two actors are merely 12 years apart in age.

Ford will be 78 or 79 as they wrap up shooting of the sixth Indy movie, whose title is still a secret. Since all the movies have roughly tracked with the actor's actual age at the time they were made, it would seem the new one will be set in the 1970s.

Thanks to "The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles," the underrated TV series that ran from 1989 to 1993 (plus a few made-for-TV movies that were later re-edited into more serial episodes), the character's birth year is firmly established as 1899. Easy for me to remember, as it's also my paternal grandfather's.

George Hall played "Old Indy," the contemporaneous "host" of the TV show, who then would have been in his 90s. Notably, by then Indy had lost his right eye and wore a patch beneath wire-rim glasses. I'll be interested to see if this injury is explained in the new movie, sort of the way Ford's real-life chin scar was added into "The Last Crusade."

Astounding fact: When he stars in the next movie Ford will be older than Hall was when he played Old Indy.

Seeing "Skull" for the first time in many years, I was struck how frail Ford already appears to be in the action scenes. He actually moves around pretty well, including some jumps and swings he apparently executed himself. He even wriggles feet-first through a small opening between the cargo area of a truck and its cabin, looking relatively spry.

No, it's the punches where this Indy pulls his.

Old-school stunts have been a calling card of the Indiana Jones series, including plenty of fistfights. Punches are always accompanied by a signature sound effect that sounds more like a whiplash than the collision of flesh and bone.

Here we get the same aural crack while Ford's punching arms appear to be moving in slow motion. Indy's enemies -- the Russians this time -- still fly around the screen like they've been struck by a charging bull. The result is the fight scenes seem comically fake.

In general Indy subcontracts most of the heavy fighting to the greaser teenage character, Mutt Williams, in what is seen as Shia LaBeouf's breakout into adult roles. Of course (half-hearted spoiler warning here), about halfway through the movie it's revealed that Mutt is the son of Indy and his long-lost (or mislaid) lady love, Marian Ravenwood (Karen Allen, eternally radiant).

It's Mutt who takes on Irina Spalko, the sword-carrying scientist/kook played by Cate Blanchett in a torrid Ukranian accent that's just begging for a "moose and squirrel" reference. They duel with blades while each standing in the back of vehicles speeding through the Amazonian jungle in one of the film's signature scenes.

Spalko and Indy never exchange more than a few harsh words. Oh, I think she slaps him once.

Mutt first appears wearing EXACTLY the same outfit Marlon Brando did in "The Wild One," right down to the motorcycle and skewed riding cap. Once he and Indy start talking and he references his mother, I think most people guessed at his progeny. When Marian turns up as his mom, the cat's out of the bag and we're just waiting for the reveal to arrive. Mutt and Indy look nothing alike though there is a resemblance to Marian.

From this point on the movie (intentionally) becomes a hammy family sitcom, as the three exchange quips -- "Honey," "Daddy-O," "Junior" -- while fighting the rooskies and, in Mutt's case, literally swinging with the monkeys.

Ford's Indy has definitely mellowed at this point. He's not as excitable or egotistic. I enjoyed the part where they get caught in quicksand and Indy begins patiently explaining the difference between quicksand and a dry sandpit, emphasizing the difference in viscosity.

He's more pedantic professor than grim grave-robber these days.

Perhaps my favorite moment in the film is soon after meeting Mutt, when Indy tosses a line about having known "a lot of Marys" in his lifetime, and the young man leaps from the table, ready to fight a perceived insult of his mother. The Indiana Jones from "Raiders" or "Temple of Doom" would've quickly taken up the challenge, warranted or no.

Instead, he holds his place, looking directly but softly into the younger man's eyes. "You don't have to get sore all the time to prove how tough you are. Sit down. Please, sit down."

Pat Roach, the hulking wrestler who was Indy's punch-pal in the first three movies, had died in 2004 so Igor Jijikine was recruited to play the muscleman antagonist in this movie. He and Indy actually exchange a few good hits before the Russian is eaten alive by giant Amazonian ants. The CGI in this scene was attacked as hoky, but I think it still looks pretty good and certainly was fine compared to contemporary films.

With regard to the two biggest knocks against KotCS:

Yes, the "nuke the fridge" bit is ridiculous. Even if the blast didn't kill him the impact from traveling a few miles like being shot from a cannon would've. But plausibility has not been a hallmark of Indiana Jones movies.

I mean, in "Temple of Doom" an evil shaman reached into a dude's chest and pulled his heart out. Or take the scene where they're flying along in a mine cart, jump across a huge chasm and land exactly on the skinny rail lines on the opposite side.

Gimme the algorithms on that actually happening, perfesser.

On the space aliens revelation, I'm actually 100% fine with that. The film is set in the late 1950s, and Steven Spielberg and George Lucas explicitly said at the outset they wanted to do a science fiction  Indiana Jones flick. I mean, we see the incredibly elongated skull about halfway through the movie -- did you think thiswas going to end anywhere other than (not so) little spacemen?

Again, the first movies involved 1) the Lost Ark of the Covenant, 2) Evil demon magic, and 3) the actual frickin' Holy Grail. To those who loudly pshawed at lead fridges and aliens, I pshaw right back.

I'm genuinely curious what the forthcoming -- and, I've got to think, last -- Indiana Jones movie will hold. I can't imagine they'll try to present Indy as still being capable of even the scaled-down feats of KotCS. We've already heard Mutt won't be back, so is Indy going to recruit another stand-in for the boldest stunts?

They're also not going to kill him off, not without upsetting the established canon that has Indy living until at least the 1990s. There was a lot of talk a few years back about rebooting the franchise with Chris Pratt or someone else starring. The reaction was overwhelmingly negative, and perhaps even provided the final push needed for a fifth one starring Ford to get made.

Ford has joked about wanting to kill off all of his iconic characters, and he finally succeeded with two of them, Han Solo and Rick Deckard, just within the past few years. Curiously, he has never expressed similar thoughts about Indiana Jones, and in fact has been quite vocal about wanting to bring him back.

Indy's already older than his dad, so to speak, and is even senior to the eldest version of the character ever depicted. Whither Dr. Jones? Only time can tell, and how much can truly be left?

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Video review: "Knives Out"

"Knives Out" is a supremely entertaining movie, though it's not hard to discern what it's all about: poking fun at the conventions of the Agatha Christie-style murder/mystery while wantonly indulging in every single trope inherent to the drama.

It ended up earning writer/director Rian Johnson, late of the much-maligned "The Last Jedi" entry in the Star Wars saga, an Academy Award for his original screenplay. It is indeed an intricate instrument of misdirection and humor, pointing the audience this way and yanking them that way, while forcing us to look here when we should be looking there.

It's a fun movie with a "big twist" that you know is coming, though still devilishly difficult to guess. It's the sort of flick you walk out of theater overhearing somebody loudly proclaim, "I saw it coming all along!", and know he's a dirty liar.

It's the prototypical "mansion with a dead guy and a bunch of suspects" setup. The uber-wealthy Thrombey clan has just encountered the death of patriarch Harlan (Christopher Plummer), a famous mystery novelist, under suspicious circumstances. It appears he took his own life, but is this really true?

 Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) is the Southern-fried private investigator on the case. Certainly there is not shortage of people with sufficient motive to see Harlan dead. This includes:
  • Walt (Michael Shannon), who oversees his dad's publishing company and has tried for years to get him to sell his work for movies and whatnot
  • Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), the hard-bitten daughter who insists she's an independent success but is burdened with a lout husband, Richard (Don Johnson) and a peculiar son with Nazi-ish tendencies.
  • Joni (Toni Collette), the New Age-y daughter-in-law who puts off an aura of self-confidence but is always hard up for cash
  • Hugh (Chris Evans), the cad playboy grandson who recently had a loud falling out with Harlan, and seems to always be disappearing and reappearing at opportune moments
Other characters floating around the story are the police detective (Lakeith Stanfield) who outsources most of the detecting to Blanc; Katherine Langford as one of the nicer grandchildren; and Marta (Ana de Armas), Harlan's caretaker who was much closer to him than any of his own children.

Far be it from me to give anything away. All I will say is that "Knives Out" is that rare movie that seems to dare the audience to guess where it's going, but always manages to stay a few steps ahead.

I wouldn't call this one of the best movies of 2019, as some have. In the end it's a fun, clever movie that exists to be fun and clever. Is that really such a bad thing?

Video extras are quite comprehensive. Johnson provides a feature-length commentary track along with his director of photography, Steve Yedlin, and actor Noah Segan, who has a rather small part. Johnson also provides his own "In-Theatre" commentary and stars in his own featurette, "Planning the Perfect Murder."

Additionally there are two deleted scenes with commentary, a Q&A with director and cast, some marketing photos and "Meet the Thrombeys" viral ads, and "Making a Murder," an eight-part making-of documentary.



Friday, February 21, 2020

Review: "The Call of the Wild"

No, the CGI dog isn’t that great. Is it terrible? It certainly didn’t play well in the trailers for “The Call of the Wild.” And people have enjoyed dunking on the movie for the weird dynamic of using a human actor in green spandex to act out the part of a giant canine, which animators then digitally painted over.

But you know what? It actually doesn’t matter that much. The CGI may be a bit jarring at first next to a bunch of humans, but by 10 minutes in it didn’t bother me anymore. It’s probably not much worse than the critters in “The Lion King” from last year, the difference being there were no humans to foul up the juxtaposition.

I went into “The Call of the Wild” not expecting much. Honestly, I only went because my boys saw the trailer during “Sonic the Hedgehog” and insisted they wanted to see it. Pick them up from school, a little Chick fil-A, a boys’ night out and momma gets some well-earned solo time.

So I was surprised to find myself increasingly engaged in the story of Buck, the spoiled dog who is shipped off to Alaska for a life of adventure and peril in Jack London’s iconic novel. By the time he’s dog-napped from a comfortable existence as the pet of a wealthy judge and winds up part of a dog sled team, the animation issue had already slid away.

As good as the first half is, the second is pretty spectacular. Harrison Ford only shows up a couple of times during the early going, and in fact at first I was worried he was only going to be a bit player.
But his character, John Thornton, and Buck reunite around the 40-minute mark and the rest of the way it’s all about their relationship.

This is truly one of Ford’s most sensitive and soulful performances. I know that may sound strange for a dog movie, but it is so. There’s no steely hint of the action hero he was for so many decades, or the rapscallion charm of Indy or Han. It’s a truly vulnerable performance you can’t get out of a younger actor.

His John Thornton is a man steeped in regret, who has come to Alaska to make one last attempt at finding meaning in a life that has fallen into shambles. His son, who always dreamed of going on an adventure in the hinterlands, passed away and it eventually doomed his marriage. He spends his days in a tent on a hill outside town, drinking and stewing.

It is not an exaggeration to say that John probably wouldn’t have lived much longer without meeting Buck.

They leave the prospecting village, where Buck had been part of the mail delivery team, and go off for that adventure. It’s not too difficult to see that John is substituting the dog for the son he lost. But it gives him purpose and drive again.

As you may remember from childhood readings, Buck falls in with a pack of timber wolves, and spends more and more of his time away from John. The man is old and wise enough not to resent this, seeing it less as a fraying of bonds as the natural evolution of a pup who must eventually leave one family and start one of his own.

The movie, directed by Chris Sanders (“Lilo & Stitch”) from a screenplay by Michael Green, follows the first part of the novel fairly well but departs in significant ways in the second. There are no other prospector partners for John, no attacks and reprisals on savage Indians (with not-terribly-concealed racial animus).

The search for gold is wholly dispensed with as a worthy endeavor; John and Buck travel to the edge of the world and find the mythical “lost cabin” that supposedly marks the way to a fortune of gold, and in fact they quickly find large nuggets of the stuff in the nearby river. But John uses it as pieces on a chess board or stuffs it into his pockets like lost buttons.

Dan Stevens plays Hal, the villain of the piece who does covet gold for its own end. If there’s a quibble to be had with the movie, it’s the sneering cartoonishness of this character, as he’s written and played. John and Buck encounter him early in the story, and Hal forms a hatred for them that seems far out of proportion to any offense they gave.

They may as well have named him Snidely and given him extravagant mustachios to twirl.

But, like the animation that brings Buck to life, this weakness quickly recedes in importance. The heart and soul of this movie is the bond between man and dog, and how two who are lost find a semblance of home in each other’s companionship.

There’s a wonderful stillness to this movie that we don’t see much at the cinema anymore. I reveled in scenes of Buck and John just encountering a beautiful vista, and simply stopping for a moment to take it all in. At 100 minutes, this is the rare movie that neither tarries nor feels like it’s in too much of a hurry.

I went to “The Call of the Wild” to kill time, and came away genuinely moved, and rejuvenated.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Video review: "Jojo Rabbit"

I’ve been reading anonymous testimonials from Oscar voters who said they wouldn’t even watch “Jojo Rabbit” because they found the premise offensive. With the proviso that they should do their job, it is a tough subject matter, especially when you just blurt it out:

In Nazi Germany, a young boy struggles to make his way after his father goes missing in the war, substituting in his imaginary best friend, Adolf Hitler.

Yeah, I know. Doesn’t exactly sound like the setup for a great comedy, does it?

Give “Jojo” a try, because it’s a terrific movie with wonderful performances -- including Scarlett Johansson as the mother, who deservedly got an Oscar nomination out of it.

Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) struggles to fit in with the other kids in the Hitler Youth club. Sam Rockwell and Rebel Wilson play hilariously inept/cynical instructors putting the kids through the motions. Jojo gets blown up by a hand grenade during training, suffering scars to his face that make him even more self-conscious.

His only real solace is talking to Hitler, played by Taika Waititi, who also wrote and directed the film. Hitler is sympathetic and helpful, but there’s also a clear note of manipulation to their interactions.

Things grow more complicated when Jojo discovers Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), a slightly older Jewish girl, living in a hidden space in their house. He’s old enough to realize this means his mom, Rosie, is hiding her there and that if he turned the girl in his family would be broken up. So they slowly start to interact, with the start of a friendship and maybe even an adolescent romance growingt there.

Yes, “Jojo Rabbit” has a little bit of a “quirky for quirky’s sake” vibe to it. But it’s weirdly entertaining, and despite the jokes we find ourselves growing quite attached to these characters.

It may seem strange to feel something for German Nazis, but this is a dark comedy that finds a little bit of humanity in everyone. 

Bonus features include outtakes, three deleted sense, a feature-length commentary track by Waititi and a making-of documentary, “Inside Jojo.”



Thursday, February 13, 2020

Review: "The Photograph"

I've been a fan of LaKeith Stanfield since I saw him in his first movie, "Short Term 12." I think he's one of the finest young actors working in film today, though he's mostly had small parts in big films or big parts in small films. Most people would probably recognize him as the crazy neighbor in "Get Out."

I'm less familiar with Issa Rae, other than I thought she was about the only good thing going on in last year's execrable "Little." She has natural screen presence and solid comedic timing.

So I was excited to see them together in a romantic drama, "The Photograph." It's a fairly standard new-love sort of story, in which two wounded people meet, fall in love and then contend with challenges to their young relationship.

But writer/director Stella Meghie lends the story a certain kind of slow-burn soulfulness. We spend a lot of time in extreme close-up shots with this couple, almost like we're being enveloped in their embrace.

He plays Michael Block, a writer for the fictional Republic magazine. It's one of those quasi-intellectual New York publications where reporters apparently work on a single story for a couple of months. He recently broke up with his girlfriend, Tessa (never seen), and is contemplating a move to work for the Associated Press in London.

She is Mae, the daughter of a semi-famous photographer, Christina Eames, who has just died. She's the assistant curator for a museum in Queens that apparently pays well enough for her to afford a lavish, sprawling penthouse apartment in the Big Apple.

Mae's relationship with her mom was strained by her dedication to work, and is making her way through a long letter her mother left for her -- with another one she's supposed to give to her father.

They connect through the way every journalist finds love in the movies: by sleeping with a source. While interviewing a fisherman in New Orleans, Isaac (Rob Morgan), Michael comes across photographs by Christina, is intrigued by them and looks up Mae, who is organizing an exhibit of her mother's work.

He asks her out, and things go from there -- including a rendezvous in Louisiana that kicks things into another gear.

(Seriously, Hollywood: having sex with your sources is kind of a big no-no in journalism. Like, end-your-career kinda stuff.)

The story slips back and forth in time, as we witness the new romance begin to bloom and watch as an old one between Isaac and Christina founders. They are played in the flashback sequences by Y'lan Noel and Chante Adams, respectively, and their onscreen chemistry is just electric.

Lil Rel Howery plays Kyle, Michael's older brother, who offers ribbing advice and an example (cautionary tale?) of stable family life. Kelvin Harrison Jr. is Andy, a younger colleague of Michael's who looks up to him, and Chelsea Peretti plays Sara, their passive-aggressive boss.

Mae and Michael are both in the process of discovering things about themselves, and about each other. Mae wonders if she will have the same trouble maintaining deep relationships her mom did. Michael questions if he's capable of staying in one place and sinking down roots.

Some may find it an odd comparison, but tonally this movie reminded me a lot of "The Notebook," and not just because of the Southern setting. It's a movie about the joy of falling in love but also leavened with a sense of regret and loss. We hope good things will happen to these people, knowing that hearts break at least as often as they leap.

At the center is Stanfield and Rae. They're both beautiful in an offbeat sort of way, him with his slouching charm and her with a smile that could easily turn into a frown or a boisterous laugh. We enjoy just sitting back and watching them go.

"The Photograph" isn't the fastest-paced romance, but sometimes it pays to slow down and just bask in the moment.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Oscars postmortem 2020

It was a historic night at the Oscars, though not a particularly great one if you think the best films should prevail. C'est la vie.

"Parasite" became the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture, and also the first Cannes Palme d'Or winner to also take the Academy Award in 65 years, the last one being "Marty."

It's pretty rare for my favorite movie to win Best Picture, so I'm used to disappointment. I liked "Parasite" but it didn't make my top 10 or even my list of also-rans. I found it intellectually interesting but not very emotionally engaging. None of the characters really stood out to me.

Oddly, the maid is the only person I found myself somewhat identifying with. It seemed like it borrowed too obviously from other movies, particularly "Shoplifters" and Kurosawa's "High and Low," and the Tarantino-esque bloodletting ending pretty well lost me.

Lack of competition

Still, in an overall weak year for films there wasn't really a strong frontrunner to oppose it. Even though "1917" won most of the key preliminary awards, including the usually predictive Director's Guild prize, I think the groundswell of support for picking a foreign film swept people up.

I hear a lot of people calling for this to be the start of a trend, with more foreign films vying in categories beyond the International Feature. "Cinema is the global language," yada yada.

Honestly, I hope not. Aside from truly exceptional films from abroad, the Academy Awards have always explicitly been part and parcel of the Hollywood industry.

As I've said before, whenever people complain about foreign films not winning more Oscars, I ask them to remind of all the American films that won a slew of prizes at the Korean/Spanish/Swedish/whatever film awards. There's nothing wrong with being an institution primarily aimed at celebrating work from a particular country or language.

Nobody complains when the BAFTAs always go to British movies.

(Notably, Cannes and many other film festivals that give out coveted awards are explicitly international by design.)

I've noticed more and more foreign films creeping into the short film, documentary and animated categories in recent years, to the point of dominating them. Only one out of five documentary features and live action shorts were set in America, and as it turned out they both won.

I guess nativism is fine for those "smaller" categories.

I think "1917" was hurt by not having any acting nominations. Actors make up the largest bloc of Academy voters, and they love movies with meaty parts. Casting a couple of unknowns who were as much stuntmen as thespians undoubtedly diminished its chances, even with a few name actors in bit parts.

Playing footsie with QT

So it fell to "Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood" to take up the slack, and I think in the end people recognized it as a wonderful-looking movie with some nice performances and a haphazard train wreck of a script. But I lost track of how many times Quentin Tarantino drew praise from the stage, even by people who weren't in his movie.

It's the oldest story in the world: young, rebellious upstart becomes part of the institution. Strange the way he's beloved in the #MeToo age, given the fetishistic way he divides up women's bodies into subjects for his leering gaze. In an age focused on giving women their voices, here's a guy who literally resurrected a starlet so he could render her wordless.

Bong Joon Ho paid homage to both Tarantino and Scorsese in his acceptance speech, and then seemed to realize he couldn't leave out the other two guys, so he slipped in some half-hearted praise.

It was definitely a spread-the-love around night, with the four for "Parasite" leading the parade. All four favorites in the acting categories won, which is a little boring. Usually when you go into the ceremony with four locks, it means there's going to be one upset.

My money was on Renee Zellweger, who ended up winning for "Judy," a perfectly fine but not great movie. That's actually a not uncommon occurrence for someone to win Best Actor or Actress without their film receiving any other nominations.

I honestly don't pay much attention to the speeches -- that's when I'm tweeting out my responses to the award -- though I couldn't help zero on Joaquin Phoenix's utterly kooky and cryptic callout for... not stealing baby cows' milk, or something. It's not too often you hear an Oscar speech that talks about artificial insemination.

Look, dude, eat what you want and I'll do the same.

The utterly placid "Toy Story 4" won animated feature, thus securing this as the Disney/Pixar award even when they produce substandard fare. Thus it goes that the "How to Train Your Dragon" saga comes to a close with zero Oscar wins, losing to a Mouse House movie every time. How depressing.

In terms of predictions scorecard, I was right on 20 out of 24, which is pretty good for me. I think my best ever was 21. I missed on musical score, best picture, best director and sound editing. I actually got all the short film categories right, which is usually where I run astray.

So we pull the shroud over 2019, a slightly subpar movie year imho. Many of my favorites didn't even rate nominations, which isn't all that unusual. In the scramble to find foreign films to honor, a lot of terrific homegrown ones like "Harriet," "Late Night" and "The Last Black Man in San Francisco" were overlooked.

Reeling Backward: "The Longest Yard" (1974)

"The Longest Yard" became an iconic sports comedy without being especially funny or having particularly good gridiron action. It was remade several times around the globe, including a 2005 version starring Adam Sandler in which Burt Reynolds switched from the lead in the original to the grizzled old coach.

I haven't seen the newer one, and based on my viewing of the 1974 version and my general aversion to Adam Sandler comedies, I don't plan to.

It's a classic underdog story, in this case a bunch of inmates at an unnamed Florida prison who are enlisted to take on their guards, who play on a semi-pro team that's the pride and joy of the egotistical warden. They're supposed to just give the guards a tune-up for their upcoming season, but of course they have to go all out for the win.

Their leader is Paul Crewe (Reynolds), a former NFL quarterback who had his career cut short for shaving points. He hasn't touched a ball in a few years but is blackmailed by the warden into putting together a team.

The film, directed by Robert Aldrich ("The Dirty Dozen") from an original script by Tracy Keenan Wynn, is tonally weird. It never gets overly dark but there's some fairly abusive behavior by the guards and one horrific scene where an inmate is burned to death. But then we're supposed to laugh a few minutes later at all the male-bonding hijinks.

It pretty well ignores the darker aspects of prison life like gangs, drugs and rape. The biggest inter-prisoner conflict is racial as the black inmates segregate themselves from the whites, refusing to join Crewe's team at first. There are no Latinos to be seen and one token American Indian named, tellingly, as "The Indian."

As a protagonist Crewe seems more like an amalgam of traits than a coherent, well-defined character. I think the film would've been improved by giving us more of a glimpse of his life prior to the start of the story, where he's the boy toy of a wealthy woman, Melissa (Anitra Ford). He obviously loathes himself and the low state he's fallen to, essentially a hustler who sells his body for status and security.

I would've loved to have seen something about how he was doing exactly the same thing as a football player, but socioeconomic analysis is not in the mix.

In the opening scene Crewe lies sleeping while Melissa, wearing a skimpy negligee, tries to wake him for sex. He hautily refuses, throwing her off of him, and their encounter escalates in violence as he goes to leave, ending their relationship. Crewe eventually responds to her slaps and scratches by squeezing his hand over her face and then throwing her onto the ground. Despite her taunting, it plays as mean-spirited misogyny now.

He steals her Maserati -- actually a Citroën SM, a well-made but spectacularly ugly European import -- leads police on the sort of wild smash-up chase that became a hallmark of Reynolds movies, drives the car into the bay and later drunkenly assaults a couple of officers. Somehow this results in a sentence of just 18 months with parole.

Unfortunately, Warden Hazen (Eddie Albert) threatens to find ways to extend Crewe's sentence and make his time as miserable as possible. He's assigned to the swamp reclamation crew, which basically consists of just shoveling out muck and then slopping it back in. The other prisoners target him as "Golden Boy," contemptuous of someone who had it all as a pro quarterback and cheated his way out of the game.

Eventually he forms a bond with a few, notably Caretaker (James Hampton), the apple pie-faced hustler who can get you anything inside the prison, from drugs to getting laid... with an actual woman! Michael Conrad plays Nate Scarboro, an older NFL veteran who is recruited as coach. Nothing is ever whispered about either man's life or how they ended up in prison.

The middle section of the movie is the standard "putting the team together" sequence, much like "The Dirty Dozen," where men are briefly featured as they join the team, and then their struggles coming together as teammates.

Unfortunately, the movie introduces guys and then almost immediately shunts them to the collective background. We meet Samson (Richard Kiel), a super-strong giant with a bit of a glass jaw, who continues to stand out simply because of being 7'2". But Sonny (Sonny Shroyer), a simple-minded hayseed, gets lost in the shuffle, as do most of the others.

Even Shokner (Robert Tessier), the bald-headed murderer feared by every man in the prison, is given a lavish introduction and then quickly becomes just another piece of beef in a football helmet. Crewe and Caretaker talk about how Shokner knows karate, so we keep expecting him to pull some chock-socky moves on the gridiron that never arrive.

The film was notable for using a lot of real former football players, including from the NFL, Canadian leagues and big-name college programs. These include Mike Henry, Joe Kapp, Ernie Wheelwright and Sonny Sixkiller. The most notable was Green Bay Packers legend Ray Nitschke as Bogdanski, the most fearsome player on the Guardsmen team.

In perhaps the film's signature moment, and certainly one of its genuinely funniest, Crew intentionally hurls the ball into Bogdanski's crotch in retaliation for his dirty play, leaving him stunned and woozy. Then for good measure, they do it again on the following play.

Stern-faced Ed Lauter plays Wilhelm Knauer, the guard captain and leader of their team. He beats Crewe to a pulp on a couple of occasions, but ultimately comes to respect him in the end. John Steadman is Pop, the prototypical elderly prisoner who serves as a warning beacon to Crewe. Harry Caesar plays Granville, an older African-American who is the first black man to sign onto the team and becomes its soul.

Charles Tyner is Unger, the uber-creepy prisoner who takes an unhealthy like to Crewe, then tries to kill him when his advances are rejected. (This is close as the movie comes to addressing sexual relationships between male prisoners.) Alas, Caretaker instead becomes the unintended victim of Unger's light bulb arson trap.

Bernadette Peters turns up briefly as the warden's secretary, sporting a truly magnificent bouffant of blonde hair. She acts very surly and distant but later solicits sex from Crew in exchange for access to the guards' medical records and practice films. This time, the transactional nature of sex doesn't seem to bother him.

The last third of the movie is the game itself, filmed mostly in long shots from the sidelines peppered with close-ups in the huddle or when Crewe is calling audibles. Aldrich occasionally mixes in some split-screen, sometimes with three or even four images in the frame, but they're cropped poorly and not very effective.

In general I think you'd get a better game on contemporaneous TV, even with 1974 technology.

In my opinion, "The Longest Yard" isn't a particularly standout role for Reynolds, who found overnight success with 1972's "Deliverance" after struggling for 15 years in television and low-budget movies -- describing himself as a "well-known unknown."

"The Longest Yard" along with "White Lightning," "Gator" and culminating with "Smokey and the Bandit" solidified Reynolds' star persona: the cackling, macho scamp who always seems to be operating just on either side of the law. The keening, high-pitched laughter that would become his aural trademark is heard several times throughout "Yard."

By 2020 Reynolds is now firmly in the dim past of America's cultural memory, but for a good dozen years or so he represented the apogee of male sex symbol. Dark and brooding looks tempered with an easy smile and twinkle in the eye made him a hot commodity at the box office and in pop culture.

His nude centerfold in Cosmopolitan in 1972 was perhaps one of the unwittingly greatest PR moves in Hollywood history, though he later said he regretted it. His generously hirsute torso seems practically bestial compared to the denuded times in which we now live. Thick and muscular in "Deliverance," his body is appropriately more wasted in here, befitting a character who probably only exercised regularly when he was getting a paycheck for it.

With the arrival of shaved, 'roided-up figures like Schwarzenegger and Stallone in the mid-1980s, Reynolds' day as an A-lister was effectively done.

So "The Longest Yard" isn't a deep character study, a laugh-out-loud comedy or a good football movie. I liked a lot of the ingredients that went into it but not how they were assembled. If I knew nothing about the film's history I would guess it was a pretty average-ish flick that was soon forgotten.

This movie is like the nobody in high school who become a multimillionaire, but nobody can really figure out why.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Video review: "Ford v Ferrari"

Sports movies are seldom big hits, and car racing movies in particular have historically been seen as box office poison. Even rarer still is for such films to receive praise from their peers in the form of industry awards.

“Ford v Ferrari” is that exceptional success story, a truly terrific racing movie that sold a lot of tickets and got four Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. It’s certainly one of my favorite movies of 2019.

One of the reasons this film is so enjoyable is that while the racing scenes are directed very well by James Mangold, they’re not the heart of the movie. That’s the relationship between Caroll Shelby (Matt Damon), an ex-racer and struggling designer, and stubborn British driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale).

These are very different men, at least upon first glance. Shelby is an affable cowboy/gearhead who’s a natural leader. He knows when to stand tall and when to compromise, which he knows he must do in accepting the lead of Ford Motor Company’s nascent racing team. Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) wants to show up his nemesis, Enzo Ferrari, who has dominated the 24 Hours of Le Mans, winning seven of the last eight races.

On the other side of the coin is Miles, who is an independent-minded purist. All he wants is to run the best race possible in the best car he can pull together – which he often does, by himself, with spare parts. He has to be convinced – pushed, literally – to accept the job of lead driver for Ford.

In the end, these two men forged an everlasting bond while accomplishing one of the greatest feats in sports history… even if it’s one most people have never heard of before.

Remember when the Americans beat the Soviet Union in hockey at the Olympics? The Russians were mere pikers when it came to dominating their sport like the Italians had Le Mans.

The screenplay by Jason Keller, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth is tight as a snare drum, despite the 2½-hour running time. Terrific supporting performances bolster the tale, including Caitriona Balfe, Ray McKinnon, Josh Lucas and Jon Bernthal.

The script didn’t get an Oscar nomination, which seems like an oversight, while Bale getting snubbed in the Best Supporting Actor category will go down as one of the Academy’s bigger flubs. “Ford v Ferrari” goes as fast and as far as any speed flick ever has.

There aren’t a lot of video extras, but what they have is substantive. There’s a pre-visualization of the race sequences used to map out the action beforehand; “The 24 Hour Le Mans: Recreating the Course” featurette, which looks at how archival footage was used to reconstruct the track; and “Bringing The Rivalry to Life,” a one-hour documentary on the making of the film.



Friday, February 7, 2020

Fearless Oscar picks and predictions 2020

I'd say 2019 was a slightly below-average movie year. I saw three I'd deem excellent, another handful of bordering-on-great ones and then a bunch of merely goods. Drops off pretty hard after that.

We entered the awards season with no clear front-runners, though a consensus has definitely emerged, especially in the acting a categories. "Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood," "1917" and "Parasite" appear to be the major contenders to take the biggest prizes.

The usual yipping about diversity, but as I've always said the Oscars are a reflection of the filmmaking business. What goes in the front is what you get out the back. So the movies that get made are too white and male, resulting in a slate of nominees that follow.

Trying to pump up decent but hardly outstanding fare like "The Farewell" doesn't help the case.

The biggest area of complaint is five men nominated for director, with Greta Gerwig held up as the woman who got screwed. I do think several of those nominees don't deserve a nod, but Gerwig's utterly safe, conventional "Little Women" -- after the ravishingly original and bravura "Ladybird" -- just doesn't rate.

So here are my picks and predictions for this year's Academy Awards. As always I pick the film I think will win, and the one I think should win (of those nominated). And I cross off some unwarranted nominees in favor of some more deserving ones: the dreaded-but-delicious Chris Cross.

Best Picture

The Nominees: 
"Ford v Ferrari"
"The Irishman"
"Jojo Rabbit"
"Little Women"
"Marriage Story"
"Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood"

The Chatter: As soon as I saw "1917" in late November I said it would be a serious Best Picture Contender. It has all the classic "Oscar pedigree" ingredients: period picture, antiwar, British, great costumes and production design, made by people who previously had Oscar wins or nods. The Producer's Guild gave it its award, which is usually a good predictor.

"Parasite" is the main stalker, as it would be the first foreign language film to ever win the top award. ("The Artist" from 2011 is not counted, even though it was French, because it was an ersatz silent picture.) In the end, I think the voters will feel winning the foreign award will be enough. After all, there aren't any American films winning Korea's top film award, are there?

Hollywood loves movies about itself, and OUaTiH has been much stronger than anyone expected. But "Parasite" won the Screen Actors Guild Award and they're the largest voting bloc, so I'm guessing the voting will be split and leave enough room for "1917" to narrowly win.

A few months ago everyone thought Martin Scorsese's "The Irishman" would be an awards juggernaut, then it came out (barely) in theaters and most people recognized it as an overlong buffet of warmed-over gangster tropes. "Jojo Rabbit" and "Joker" are a little too weird/dark for Oscar voters.

I'm happy that "Ford v Ferrari" got a nod. It's the best sports flick in awhile, and they tend not to get much Oscar love. My two favorite movies were "Late Night" and "Harriet," though I recognize I'm an outlier on those.

Prediction: "1917"

Pick: "Ford v Ferrari"

Chris Cross: Out go "Little Women," "Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood" and "Parasite." All fine films but not without obvious failings or flaws. In go "Late Night," "Harriet" and "The Last Black Man in San Francisco."

Best Director

The Nominees: 
Bong Joon Ho, "Parasite"
Martin Scorsese, "The Irishman"
Todd Phillips, "Joker"
Sam Mendes, "1917"
Quentin Tarantino, "Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood"

The Chatter: Despite the outcry over all men getting nominated, director has actually been the most diverse award in terms of recent winners. Nine of the last 10 who took the prize were people of color, women or non-Americans. Being a white Yank dude may help get you nominated, but not take home the prize.

This one's a tough call. Sam Mendes won the Director's Guild Award, which historically has been the most predictive prize for the Oscars. But I think Bong Joon Ho has got a lot of juice. Plus, concerns about diversity may prompt voters to go for the one non-Caucasian nominee.

Usually when I make daring picks I get burned. Let's go the safer route with Mendes.

Personally, I'll throw out the entire lot except Mendes. People tend to downplay the "one shot" aspect of "1917," but it's hard to pull that off logistically and still have it work artistically. And it does.

I did not see a better-directed film last year than "Portrait of Lady on Fire," so Céline Sciamma would be my pick if she were nominated. And let's get the people in the chair for "Marriage Story," "Harriet" and "Ford v Ferrari," too.

Prediction: Sam Mendes

Pick: Sam Mendes

Chris Cross: Noah Baumbach, Kasi Lemmons, James Mangold and Céline Sciamma replace Bong Joon Ho, Martin Scorsese, Todd Phillips and Quentin Tarantino. If I could add a sixth, it would be Jordan Peele for "Us."

Best Actress

The Nominees: 
Cynthia Erivo, "Harriet"
Scarlett Johansson, "Marriage Story"
Saoirse Ronan, "Little Women"
Charlize Theron, "Bombshell"
Renée Zellweger, "Judy"

The Chatter: I'm not really sure what happened with this year's acting categories. A couple of months ago it looked absolutely wide open in all four races. Now the same quartet has run the table at every single major award leading up to the Academy Awards.

Historically, that means one of them is going to be a surprise. But since I can't fathom which one it will be, I'm going with the safe predictions.

Lead actress was a very competitive category this year. Hard to strike any of the women here as they are all well-deserving of the nominations.

One of the biggest perceived snubs was Lupita Nyong'o for "Us." I get why it happened: horror is not a genre that gets attention from Oscar voters. And some found her strange, eerie voice used for the dual character funny (or offensive, bizarrely). But I thought it was next-level work for her.

The one that really kills me was Emma Thompson not getting nominated for "Late Night." Again, I get it -- it's from a streaming studio, it got little media buzz, it's a comedy, albeit a dark one. But it was a fierce and uncompromising portrayal of a complex older woman, which is not something we see a lot at the movies.

Of those nominated I'll take Erivo with Theron as a close second. I loved "Harriet;" I think it's a lot more nuanced and interesting than people give it credit for. Theron's transformation into Megyn Kelly was so convincing it was almost unsettling. 

Zellweger has this thing locked up. Hollywood loves movies about itself, and it loves comeback stories, and "Judy" has both.

Prediction: Zellweger

Pick: Erivo

Chris Cross: I want Thompson and Nyong'o in badly, tough call on who to knock out; I'll go with Ronan and Zellweger.

Best Supporting Actress

The Nominees: 

Kathy Bates, “Richard Jewell”
Laura Dern, “Marriage Story”
Scarlett Johansson, “Jojo Rabbit”
Florence Pugh, “Little Women”
Margot Robbie, “Bombshell”

The Chatter: As strong as Best Actress was, the supporting category was a little limp this year. I liked all the nominees, though for me Johansson was the standout. It's the perfect sort of supporting role: distinctive, memorable, yet utterly in service to the story and the journey of the main character. 

Being a double nominee is not really a good thing, as no one's ever won both awards and usually they end up losing both as perhaps a backlash against their good fortune. 

People are complaining this is a lifetime achievement award for Laura Dern, and I'm actually fine with that. It's long been a tradition in the men's categories to honor an outstanding body of work by giving them an award for something other than their finest performance -- see Newman, Paul, for "The Color of Money" -- so I don't see any reason against doing it for the women. 

Dern is only 52 years old but has been around seemingly forever doing consistently fine work. And she's Hollywood royalty, daughter of Diane Ladd and Bruce Dern. Between the three of them they have eight Oscar nominations, and this would be the first win for the clan.

Not a lot of standout contenders to knock any of these ladies out. They're calling Noémie Merlant a supporting actress for the wonderful "Portrait of a Lady on Fire," though really it's a co-lead. 

Kathy Bates is another pro who always shows up and does great work, but her nomination for "Richard Jewell" was really based on just one or two substantive scenes. Aka the Ruby Dee Effect.

Prediction: Dern

Pick: Johansson

Chris Cross: Merlant for Bates

Best Actor

The Nominees: 
Antonio Banderas, "Pain and Glory"
Leonardo DiCaprio, "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood"
Adam Driver, "Marriage Story"
Joaquin Phoenix, "Joker"
Jonathan Pryce, "The Two Popes"

The Chatter: Usually this is a busy category, but I thought it not so competitive this year. I was very happy to see Banderas get in for the underrated "Pain and Glory." His career has been so marked by machismo and a vibrant masculinity, so I loved seeing him play a rather passive character, wounded both physically and emotionally.

Phoenix is a shoe-in to win in the sort of big, showy, dark performance that tends to do very well in this category. This is his fourth nomination without winning and he's probably had at least a couple other times he should have been.

Like Matthew McConaughey, there's very much a sense that "it's his time."

It's telling as the comic book genre reaches middle age that no one's ever been nominated for playing a hero but two people will have now won for playing villains -- and the same one, at that.

Adam Driver was terrific, and has grown so much as an actor. I remember first seeing him as the lunkhead boyfriend in an early episode of "Girls" and didn't think too much. A very layered, authentic performance in "Marriage Story." Speaking of time: His will come.

Pryce was terrific, despite using another actor for the flashback sequence and somebody else's voice for the Spanish lines. "Just Mercy" may just be the most overlooked movie of the season, so let's get some love for Michael B. Jordan. I didn't really see DiCaprio having to work very hard in that role, other than that one acting-within-acting scene.

Prediction: Phoenix

Pick: Driver

Chris Cross: Michael B. Jordan replaces DiCaprio.

Best Supporting Actor

The Nominees: 
Tom Hanks, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”
Anthony Hopkins, “The Two Popes”
Al Pacino, “The Irishman”
Joe Pesci, “The Irishman”
Brad Pitt, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

The Chatter: This is historically one of the toughest categories to break into with many worthy nominees, and this year is no exception.

I hate that Brad Pitt is going to win for playing himself. Stroll in, take your shirt off, be the coolest motherf*cker in the room. And that horseshit scene with Bruce Lee still rankles.

Similarly, Tom Hanks didn't play Fred Rogers; he played Tom Hanks playing Fred Rogers. Like David Oyelowo in "Selma," Hanks makes the odd choice of playing a historical figure whose iconography is closely related to their voice/speech, and not sounding anything like them. 

Pacino gets nominated for playing the blustery firecracker and Pesci gets nominated for playing the close-to-the-vest chessmaster, in basically a trade of their signature styles. Pacino was a hoot but I'm bewildered by the praise for Pesci, who I thought was very flat.

Hopkins is the best of the lot here, but in all honesty I can easily come up with five better. Christian Bale getting snubbed for "Ford v Ferrari" feels like highway robbery.

Prediction: Pitt

Pick: Hopkins

Chris Cross: Bale, Jamie Foxx, Shia LaBeouf ("Honey Boy"), Rob Morgan and Tim Blake Nelson replaces the entire board. Yes, I'm aware that's three from one film, "Just Mercy." Kills me that even with a five-swap I can't make room for Marc Maron ("Sword of Trust") or Jon Lithgow ("Bombshell").

Animated Feature

The Nominees: 
“How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World”
“I Lost My Body”
“Missing Link”
"Toy Story 4" 

The Chatter: Terribly weak category again this year. I can't even remember the last time I thought there was more than a couple of deserving nominees. "How to Train Your Dragon" concluded a decade-long run with three feature films, a handful of shorts and eight seasons of a TV show. The GOAT animation franchise.

But "Toy Story 4" will win, because the Disney/Pixar film always wins.

Even Laika, the stop-motion studio that's made fantastic films like "Kubo and the Two Strings," had a substandard entry with the listless "Missing Link." Even "Frozen 2" didn't get nominated.

I like the idea of "Klaus," an old-school hand-drawn feature, more than the movie they actually made. "I Lost My Body" went over my head.

Prediction: "Toy Story 4"

Pick: "Dragon"

Chris Cross: I'll throw out "Missing Link," "Toy Story 4" and "I Lost My Body," but I don't have anything to replace them with. They just don't deserve to be here.

Best International Feature Film

The Nominees: 
“Corpus Christi”
“Les Miserables”
“Pain and Glory”

The Chatter: "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" is my pick, but it wasn't even eligible under the Academy's arcane rules for International Feature, as the former Foreign Language Feature is now called.

Every year I lament that I didn't get to see enough foreign movies, though I did better this year. The only one I'd knock off is "Honeyland," for categorical reasons rather than artistic merit. I think it's weird to be nominated as both best documentary and alongside fictional features. 

"Parasite" has a mortal lock on this category, and while I liked it I don't see it as the dazzlingly brilliant and original tale others do. Superficially and thematically it's very similar to the previous year's "Shoplifters," which I thought much more emotionally gripping, along with shades of Akira Kurosawa's "High and Low."

I saw "Corpus Christi" very late in the season and was dazzled by it. "Pain and Glory" would be second; it isn't among Pedro Almodovar's best, but it's autobiographical and touching.

Prediction: "Parasite"

Pick: "Corpus Chisti"

Chris Cross: "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" for "Honeyland"

Best Documentary Feature

The Nominees: 
"American Factory"
"The Cave"
"The Edge of Democracy"
"For Sama"

The Chatter: I saw a lot of great docs in 2019, none better than "One Child Nation." It took a subject you though you already knew, China's prohibition against multiple children, and dove deep into a much richer and darker story. 

It's interesting that "The Cave" and "For Sama" look at the same plight in Syria with slightly different angles. I liked "Sama" but in the end it's more difficult to do journalistic reportage on a bunch of people than just turn the camera on yourself.

I am outwardly suspicious of the veracity of "Honeyland." I won't belabor the subject here but it seems like they went well beyond recreation of events -- a commonly used tactic in documentary filmmaking, though most people don't know it -- to outright scripting of a narrative. It's pretty rare that real events play out like a three-act William Faulkner novel. 

"American Factory" will probably win because it has the Obamas' name attached to it. Though their involvement was more tertiary than is generally perceived; their production company didn't even form until a couple of years after the footage was shot.

"The Edge of Democracy" is actually the most traditional and best documentary here, exploring a complex foreign subject in a way understandable to American lunkheads like me.

Prediction: "American Factory"

Pick: "The Edge of Democracy"

Chris Cross: "One Child Nation" replaces "Honeyland"

Best Adapted Screenplay

The Nominees: 
“The Irishman,” Steven Zaillian
“Jojo Rabbit,” Taika Waititi
“Joker,” Todd Phillips, Scott Silver
“Little Women,” Greta Gerwig
“The Two Popes,” Anthony McCarten

The Chatter: I'll take "Jojo Rabbit" as the clear best in a weak field. It also won the Writers Guild Award, though that's not a terribly accurate indicator of the winner. I'd say Gerwig has a good chance at an upset here, buoyed in part by the perceived snub of her in the directing category.

The Academy has a long history of using the screenplay awards as a consolation prize, so picking "Jojo" to win is a bit risky.

Personally, I think the script for "Little Women" is the weakest piece in its puzzle. The parallel timelines, which pretty well represent the only divergence from seven (!) previous film adaptations, tended to leave people feeling confused or, in my case, distracted.

"Just Mercy" again deserves some love.

Prediction: "Jojo Rabbit"

Pick: "Jojo Rabbit"

Chris Cross: "Just Mercy" replaces "Little Women."

Best Original Screenplay

The Nominees: 
“Knives Out,” Rian Johnson
“Marriage Story,” Noah Baumbach
“1917,” Sam Mendes and Krysty Wilson-Cairns
“Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood,” Quentin Tarantino
“Parasite,” Bong Joon-ho, Jin Won Han

The Chatter: Other than "Marriage Story," the Academy got a lot wrong here. 

I liked "1917" a lot but the direction, cinematography and music are what carried it, not the story. It seems like you could write out everything that "happens" in the movie in a couple dozen pages.

Also liked "Knives Out" but I guess to me it seems overly obvious in what it's doing -- mocking the conventions of the mystery whodunit genre while indulging in every last one of its tropes. A fun but forgettable movie.

I would guess that workaday screenwriters (who don't direct or produce) seethe whenever Tarantino gets lauded for his scripts. He has a great nose for individual scenes but little ability at connecting them into lucid, satisfying narrative arcs. OUaTiH is borderline incoherent, and might still win if "Parasite" doesn't.

One of my complaints about "Parasite" is it didn't have one single likable, or at least identifiable character in the movie. They all felt like constructs to me. 

"Marriage Story" is very much an "actors' movie" with a lot of long dialogue scenes. But the characters are also very well-realized on the page, and in all that dialogue there's not one false moment.

I'm fine with booting the rest of the nominees in exchange for films from my top 10 list.

Prediction: "Parasite"

Pick: "Marriage Story"

Chris Cross: "Late Night," "Harriet," "Ford v Ferrari" and "The Last Black Man in San Francisco" replace "Knives Out," "1917," "OUaTiH" and "Parasite."


The Nominees: 
“The Irishman,” Rodrigo Prieto
“Joker,” Lawrence Sher
“The Lighthouse,” Jarin Blaschke
“1917,” Roger Deakins
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Robert Richardson

The Chatter: The most important aspect of a film's success after the direction, writing and acting is usually how it was shot. This is especially true with "1917" and its highly touted, or disregarded, "one single shot" aesthetic. 

Say what you will, this was an incredibly difficult undertaking, and Roger Deakins is liable to win his second Oscar in three years after being overlooked for a half-century or so. The only thing I can even compare it to is "Days of Heaven," which was shot entirely in the "golden hour" before sunset. 

The other nominees are solid, but I have to find a spot for the most beautiful-looking film of the year.

Prediction: 1917

Pick: 1917

Chris Cross: "Portrait of a Lady on Fire" for "The Irishman."

Best Film Editing

The Nominees: 
“Ford v Ferrari,” Michael McCusker, Andrew Buckland
“The Irishman,” Thelma Schoonmaker
“Jojo Rabbit,” Tom Eagles
“Joker,” Jeff Groth
“Parasite,” Jinmo Yang

The Chatter: I'm hoping "Ford v Ferrari" will do well in the other "technical" awards, since it is a work of tremendous craftsmanship. It's hard to tell the story of a car race in a way that translates both logistically and emotionally, and certain that was the case here.

Normally the Best Picture favorite is heavily favored to run these categories, but it's hard to argue "1917" had the best editing since there hardly is any. (For the record, I counted 10 hidden edits.)

No other big blockbusters like "Star Wars" or superheroes contending here, so the only real competition is probably Schoonmaker, a master of the trade who's been around forever.

Prediction: "Ford v Ferrari"

Pick: "Ford v Ferrari"

Chris Cross: "Avengers: Endgame" for "Parasite"

Best Sound Editing

The Nominees: 
“Ford v Ferrari,” Don Sylvester
“Joker,” Alan Robert Murray
“1917,” Oliver Tarney, Rachel Tate
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Wylie Stateman
“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” Matthew Wood, David Acord

The Chatter: Time for my annual primer on the difference between sounding editing and mixing, which not even most Academy voters seem to really understand.

Despite the name, sound editing involves the actual production or recording of a sound on set or on location. Sound mixing is a post-production process by which those sounds are brought together, modified and blended to create the non-music soundscape.

There's actually a movement afoot to combine these two categories, which seems insane since they are done at completely different times and often by different teams. It's not like hair and makeup, which are generally performed simultaneously by a contiguous team of people.

Tough call here, but the sound in "1917" was pivotal as there were long sequences with no dialogue and often not even music.

Prediction: "1917"

Pick: "Ford v Ferrari"

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

Sound Mixing

The Nominees: 
“Ad Astra”
“Ford v Ferrari”
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”

Prediction: "1917"
Pick: "Ford v Ferrari"
Chris Cross: Ditto, standing pat.

Production Design

The Nominees: 
“The Irishman,” Bob Shaw and Regina Graves
“Jojo Rabbit,” Ra Vincent and Nora Sopkova
“1917,” Dennis Gassner and Lee Sandales
“Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood,” Barbara Ling and Nancy Haigh
“Parasite,” Lee Ha-Jun and Cho Won Woo, Han Ga Ram, and Cho Hee

The Chatter: I feel like the nerd standing in the back of the room spouting, "Akshually, production design is critical to the final result of a motion picture" when it comes to these down-ticket categories. But it's true! Production design encompasses the sets, backgrounds, vehicles, props -- basically, everything you see onscreen that's not an actor or creature.

A lot of great work here among these nominees, all of which are period pieces except "Parasite." One area where that film genuinely succeeded was in the labyrinthine sense of nightmarish space in the two houses.

I think OUaTiH will prevail because it was a bright, colorful depiction of a dark era in American and showbiz history. And Hollywood loves seeing itself looking good.

I'll take "1917" as my take. In a bit of a flier I'll take the little-seen "The Last Black Man in San Francisco," which probably had a teeny fraction of the production design budget of these other films but reflected a very specific place, both physically and spiritually.

Prediction: "Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood"

Pick: "1917"

Chris Cross: "The Last Black Man in San Francisco" replaces "The Irishman."

Original Score

The Nominees: 
“Joker,” Hildur Guðnadóttir
“Little Women,” Alexandre Desplat
“Marriage Story,” Randy Newman
“1917,” Thomas Newman
“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” John Williams

The Chatter: I seem to be outside the mainstream in believing that the best musical scores are often the ones you don't even notice. With rare exception, if you're sitting in a movie theater thinking, "Wow, that's great music!", then the composer has failed.

For instance, Hildur Guðnadóttir's excellent score for "Joker" doesn't really have a distinct melody you can put your finger on -- it's a somber tone poem of mood and layers of disquiet.

"1917" appears to be the favorite here, and it's a terrific score that largely drives the action in a film with little dialogue for long stretches.

I love John Williams but I'm not sure how he keeps getting nominations for doing variations on the same score he wrote more than 40 years ago.

In case you're wondering, yes, Thomas Newman and Randy Newman are related; they're cousins.

In general I've loved Alexandre Desplat's scores, but I found his one for "Little Women" overly cloying and distracting. Once again, please go rent "The Last Black Man in San Francisco."

Prediction: "1917"

Pick: "1917"

Chris Cross: "The Last Black Man in San Francisco" replaces "Little Women."

Original Song

The Nominees: 
“I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away,” “Toy Story 4”
“I’m Gonna Love Me Again,” “Rocketman”
“I’m Standing With You,” “Breakthrough”
“Into the Unknown,” “Frozen 2”
“Stand Up,” “Harriet”

The Chatter: Elton John seems to have this locked up. I think if his song from "Rocketman" came out back in his heyday, it'd be a B-sider that no one would even remember.

To me it's crazy that Cynthia Erivo's song from "Harriet" isn't the runaway favorite.

I didn't think "Wild Rose" was a better than good movie, but Jessie Buckley's singing of "Glasgow" was rapturous. 

Prediction: “I’m Gonna Love Me Again”

Pick: "Stand Up"

Chris Cross: "Glasgow (No Place Like Home)," "Wild Rose" for "I'm Gonna Love Me Again."

Makeup and Hair

The Nominees: 
“Maleficent: Mistress of Evil”

The Chatter: "Bombshell" would seemingly have to win, right? It transformed Charlize Theron, who doesn't even really look much like Megyn Kelly, into an unnerving carbon copy. And Nicole Kidman into a very good fasciilimle of Gretchen Carlson.

OK, Jon Lithgow didn't look very much like Roger Stone. But he looked very different from Jon Lithgow.

Zellweger is actually older than Judy Garland was when she died, but they had to age her up considerably to play the part. I guess the latest version of the Joker makeup was fine. "Maleficent" would be the only real competition here.

I'm not even sure what "1917" is doing on this list, as there didn't seem to be anything out of the ordinary, other than that one scene where a soldier turns frighteningly pale in moments.

Prediction: "Bombshell"

Pick: "Bombshell"

Chris Cross: "Just Mercy" replaces "1917."

Costume Design

The Nominees: 
"The Irishman," Sandy Powell, Christopher Peterson
"Jojo Rabbit," Mayes C. Rubeo
"Joker,” Mark Bridges
"Little Women,” Jacqueline Durran
"Once Upon a Time in Hollywood," Arianne Phillips

The Chatter: "Little Women" appears to be the strong favorite here, and indeed the March women had fantastic, beautiful clothes in every scene. Those poor, utterly destitute March women in their sprawling home with tables piled high with food prepared by their live-in maid. So wretched, they were.

Brad Pitt's spark-plug-T-and-Hawaiian-shirt combo became an instant classic in OUaTiH, but is that enough for an Oscar? And I've seen Scorsese's "murderous goombahs in killer suits" shtick before.

I'd actually argue that of the five nominees, costumes were must central to the storytelling in "Jojo Rabbit." The mother's shoes become a totem of the boy's lost innocence.

Ridiculous that "Dolemite Is My Name" isn't on this last -- and the favorite to win.

Prediction: "Little Women"

Pick: "Jojo Rabbit"

Chris Cross: "Dolemite Is My Name" for "The Irishman."

Visual Effects

The Nominees: 
“Avengers Endgame”
“The Irishman”
“The Lion King”
“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker”

The Chatter: I'm throwing a dart on this one. I'm not sure how "Avengers: Endgame" is not the favorite here; people complain the superhero movies are all special effects and then don't want to reward them for that work.

It's not actually all that common for the Best Picture winner/favorite to be nominated in this category, so I'll take a guess that "1917" wins in the wake of its other awards.

I guess the animal CGI in "The Lion King" was very good, but the whole thing was such a cynical enterprise that I struggle to grant it credit.

I'm astonished "The Irishman" made this list since virtually no one thought the de-aging effects were very good. Whereas everyone thought the racing in "Ford v Ferrari" was very authentic.

Prediction: "1917"

Pick: "Avengers: Endgame"

Chris Cross: "Ford v Ferrari" knocks out "The Irishman."

Best Documentary Short Subject

The Nominees: 
“In the Absence,” Yi Seung-Jun and Gary Byung-Seok Kam
“Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone,” Carol Dysinger
“Life Overtakes Me,” Kristine Samuelson and John Haptas
“St. Louis Superman,” Smriti Mundhra and Sami Khan
“Walk Run Cha-Cha,” Laura Nix

The Chatter: Always a tough category to predict. I still haven't seen all of them so I'll hold off on a pick for now and update when I do.

Prediction: “Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You're a Girl)”

Pick: *

Best Live Action Short Film

The Nominees: 
“Brotherhood,” Meryam Joobeur
“Nefta Football Club,” Yves Piat
“The Neighbors’ Window,” Marshall Curry
“Saria,” Bryan Buckley
“A Sister,” Delphine Girard

The Chatter: Very strong slate of nominees this year. If it were possible for actors to get nominations for short films, Maria Dizzia deserves one for "The Neighbors' Window."

Prediction: "The Neighbors' Window"

Pick: "The Neighbors' Window"

Animated Short

The Nominees: 
“Dcera,” Daria Kashcheeva
“Hair Love,” Matthew A. Cherry
“Kitbull,” Rosana Sullivan
“Memorable,” Bruno Collet
“Sister,” Siqi Song

The Chatter: A Disney/Pixar film always wins this category. Always.

"Kitbull" is nine minutes of perfection. All the feelz.

Technically, both it and "Hair Love" are products of the Pixar machine, but only the latter played in front of an animated feature film.

Prediction: "Hair Love"

Pick: "Kitbull"