Wednesday, April 28, 2021

The Virtuoso


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: "The Mitchells vs. the Machines"

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

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

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

Holy conflicting signals, Batman!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Review: "Stowaway"



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Fearless Oscar predictions 2021



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Picture

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

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

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

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

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

Prediction: "Nomadland"

Pick: "Mank"

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

Best Actress

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

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

Prediction: Davis

Pick: McDormand

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

Best Actor

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

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

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

Prediction: Boseman

Pick: Oldman

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

Best Supporting Actress

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

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

Prediction: Youn

Pick: Close

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

Best Supporting Actor

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

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

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

Prediction: Kaluuya

Pick: Kaluuya

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

Best Original Screenplay

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

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

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

Prediction: "Promising Young Woman"

Pick: "Judas and the Black Messiah"

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

Best Adapted Screenplay

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

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

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

Prediction: "Nomadland"

Pick: "Nomadland"

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

Best Director

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

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

Prediction: Chloé Zhao

Pick: Chloé Zhao

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

Best Documentary Feature

The Nominees: 
Crip Camp
The Mole Agent
My Octopus Teacher

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

 Prediction: "Collective"

Pick: "Collective"

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

Best Documentary Short

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

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

Prediction: “A Love Song for Latasha”

Best Animated Feature

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

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

Prediction: “Soul”

Pick: "Wolfwalkers"

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

Best Animated Short

The Nominees: 
Genius Loci
If Anything Happens I Love You

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

Pick: "If Anything Happens I Love You"

Best Live Action Short

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

The Chatter: TERRIFIC slate of shorts this year.

Prediction: "Two Distant Strangers"  

Pick: "Two Distant Strangers"  

Best Foreign Language Film

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

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

Prediction: "Another Round"

Pick: "Collective"

Best Cinematography

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

Prediction: "Mank"

Pick: "Nomadland"

Best Film Editing

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

Prediction: "Sound of Metal"

Pick: “The Father”

Best Sound

The Nominees: 
News of the World
Sound of Metal

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

Prediction: "Sound of Metal"

Pick: "Sound of Metal"

Best Production Design

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

Prediction: “Mank"

Pick: “Mank"

Best Original Score

The Nominees: 
Da 5 Bloods
News of the World

Prediction: “Soul”

Pick: “Soul”

Best Song

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

Prediction: “Speak Now”

Pick: “Husavik”

Best Makeup and Hair

The Nominees: 
Hillbilly Elegy
Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Prediction: "Ma Rainey"

Pick: "Ma Rainey"

Best Costume Design

The Nominees: 
Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Prediction: "Ma Rainey"

Pick: "Emma"

Best Visual Effects

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

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

Prediction: "Tenet"

Pick: “The Midnight Sky”

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Review: "Together Together"

"Together Together" is a sensitive and fairly smart take on modern relationships that at first seems like a fairly predictable flick that gradually gets deeper and more interesting. Writer/director Nikole Beckwith sets us up for the obvious plot movements and then surprises us by continually disdaining the easy or most obvious path.

I guess you'd call it a comedy, and the presence of Ed Helms as one of the two main characters underscores that. He's doing a variation on his Andy Bernard character from "The Office," a well-meaning but rather clueless dude who needs some tutoring in basic human interactions. 

He plays Matt, a 45-ish well-to-do app creator who wants to have his own baby but hasn't found the right woman. He settles on a service that connects people like him -- though usually couples -- with young women who will serve as their surrogates and carry the baby they can't. Through this he meets Anna (Patti Harrison), a 26-year-old barista who agrees to fill the role. She's implanted with an embryo created with Matt's sperm and a (anonymous) donor's egg.

The story is that they are supposed to keep things distant and businesslike but find themselves drawn to each other. Matt has an entire book from the surrogate service that gives careful instruction about how to keep things professional, including dictums that he should not ask her about her personal life, or even what she's doing with the money he is paying her. 

Anna sees it as a way to make a hunk of money and go back to college to finish her bachelor's degree and pursue a master's, having graduated late from high school because -- wait for it -- she had a baby and put it up for adoption as a teenager. She wants to be cool and above it all but keeps getting roped in by Matt, who's rather glommy in a harmless, awkward sort of way.

We get the clear sense that if Anna just told Matt to eff off and not talk to her until it was time to give birth, he'd go along with it... but be miserable. He wants to be involved in every step of the pregnancy.

Part of their business arrangement is that they talk to a therapist, played by comedienne Tig Nataro, who I would never have thought of as a therapist but seems perfect in the role. They share candy and talk after sessions, which turns into coffee, then lunch, and so on.

Matt is pretty much alone in life, so he doesn't really know how to keep boundaries with Anna. He drops by her coffee shop with "pregnancy tea" or new shoes, and trades icy stares with Jules (Julio Torres), her acerbic, gay coworker. 

One of the best running jokes is that Matt created the app "Loner," which is like Tinder in that you scroll through pictures of strangers but never actually connect with them in any way. Jules is a fervent user, acknowledging it's a tool for lonely people to feel connected without the expectations of sex or dating.

Matt and Anna soon are having deep, intimate conversations with each other, the sort of things you only share with a best friend or lover. Will they become lovers? I'm not going to say, because that's really the heart of the movie lies: Can two such different people in a strange arrangement truly create a lasting bond that will endure past the baby's birth? And what form will it take?

This is a movie about asking questions, not providing easy answers.

There's plenty of nice, soft humor and insightful moments. They actually talk about the optics of what the two of them dating would look like, with the comparison to Woody Allen's on- and off-screen relationships as an icky benchmark. They name the baby bump "Lamp," since Anna doesn't want to know its gender and Matt agrees to not learn this himself, since he knows he'd blurt it out.

I liked how the movie has strong, distinct supporting characters, even small walk-on parts like the ultrasound technician (a terrific Sufe Bradshaw) who Matt and Anna see at various stages in the pregnancy. Officially sworn to not insert herself into their relationship, she does so in a subtle yet commanding way.

"I know everything, I'm just not allowed to say it."

Nora Dunn and Fred Melamed turn up for a few scenes as Matt's parents, supportive but exhausting. They hold a baby shower which is really Matt's party, and Anna has to be on display as the surrogate, as invisible as a maid until someone wants to feel the tummy, which is everyone. 

I think the movie's weakness is Helm's performance. With a puckish smile or twinkly eye, he seems to continually look to english every moment into the comedy zone, whether it belongs there or not. It's his groove and he strives to stay in it. I've seen him do straight roles quite well such as in the criminally unseen "Chappaquiddick," and I wish Beckwith had nudged him to go a little deeper and not always chase the laugh.

The movie also needed to spend a little more time exploring Anna's backstory. She has a great scene where she talks about her fractured relationship with her parents, who never forgave her for having a baby as a child and then giving it away. Other than a voice message from her mom, the film doesn't pull at that tantalizing story thread any further.

Still, I can report I was never bored during "Together Together" and finished with a feeling of warmth for two people who mean well but don't always say or do the perfect thing. Who among us does?

Monday, April 19, 2021

Reeling Backward: "Machine Gun McCain" (1969)


"Machine Gun McCain" is an interesting, though rather nasty, emblem of its time.

It's an Italian mob picture shot to seem like an American one set in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, with a few scenic layovers in San Fran. It stars John Cassavetes as the titular figure, a seasoned criminal who has just been released from prison after 12 years to take part in a casino heist. He spends most of the movie furiously treating everyone like crap, including his own son and every woman he encounters, resulting in one of the most hard-bitten screen antiheroes of this era.

 Imagine Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name mixed up with Charles Bronson's Paul Kersey from the "Death Wish" franchise, along with a heavy dollop of film noir misogyny, and that's Hank McCain. I think by the end of the movie I was actually rooting for the mafia guys to give it to him. 

Cassavetes reportedly didn't think much of the script or director, Giuliano Montaldo, and only took the gig to help finance his own filmmaking efforts. 

Such was his way, trading studio paychecks for the ability to finance his tiny-budget film projects that he would often edit in his own house. Today he's considered the forefather of American independent cinema, to the point the Independent Spirit Awards gives one in his name for films made for less than a half-million dollars.

His frequent onscreen muse, collaborator and wife, Gena Rowlands, turns up very late in "McCain" and only then does it briefly come alive. Playing McCain's former partner in crime and lover, Rosemary Scott, it's as if this movie suddenly wanders into Orson Welles' "Lady from Shanghai," with Rowlands taking on notes from Rita Hayworth's blonde, doomed woman of mystery, Elsa "Rosalie" Bannister.

At this point, McCain is on the run with nearly $2 million he has robbed from the mob's Royal casino, and has with him his quickie young bride Irene, played by Britt Ekland. He turns to Rosie for help, and she gives it to him, with the full knowledge that the gangsters will eventually catch up with him, and herself. 

When they do so she gives a defiant speech about how people like her and McCain are different from everybody else, and then shows them why. 

McCain's relationship with Irene isn't so much mysterious as baffling. On the day he gets out of prison after a $25,000 bribe for early parole arranged by his son, Jack (Pierluigi Aprà), he declines the services of the prostitutes supplied to him and heads out to a bar. There he spots Irene being mashed upon by two oily businessmen, and after violently dispatching them he leads her to her car and explains his situation and states simply, "I need someone."

He keeps here around, mostly because Irene is so completely pliant to his demands and whims. Eventually he recruits her as his ally in the heist, including a quickie Vegas chapel marriage that feels like a down-payment. It seems clear McCain isn't capable of true, selfless love. Women are a necessary but disposable commodity for his basic, brutish needs. 

It might be interesting to follow McCain around some more and learn how he became such a mercenary, both personally and professionally. Unfortunately the screenplay by Mino Roli, based "freely" on the novel "Candyleg" by Ovid Demaris with dialogue by Israel Horovitz, seems more interested in the mob bosses than the title character.

Much of the middle of the movie follows their various contretemps and antagonisms, to little effect. Peter Falk plays Charlie Adamo, the ambitious young boss of the Western states who wants to muscle in on the Vegas scene, not realizing the top dons already own the Royal. It's he who's bankrolling McCain's kid, hoping to use Hank's experience to knock over the casino for reasons that are unclear.

McCain, who claims to have only met his son twice in his life and has absolutely no regard for him, immediately skips off with the front money Adamo supplied and makes plans to rob the Royal himself, alone. He employs a clever ruse by setting off bombs around Vegas to attract the fire department, then more explosions inside the Casino to evacuate it, whereupon he arrives dressed as a fire marshal to blow open the safe.

Meanwhile, Don Francesco DeMarco (Gabriele Ferzetti) heads in from New York to put Adamo in his place, and decides he likes it out west. DeMarco is like a smooth, aging soap opera idol, speaking in calm, dulcet tones while sweeping his scant remaining hair into a semblance of a widow's peak. There's even a suggestion that Adamo's wife, Joni (Florinda Bolkan), had been carrying on an affair with him. It's she who passes on info about the heist that ends up dooming both Adamo and McCain.

The movie is filled with various other Italian actors who seem chosen entirely for their looks, such as a pair of long-ish haired goons watching over Jack who are implied to be a gay couple, or model-turned-actor Tony Kendall as the mob bosses' top assassin, who kills without ever getting a hair out of place.

McCain himself is deliberately flat and neutral, wearing the same shapeless tan suit for most of the movie, his face largely expressionless. Small in stature, Cassavetes nonetheless manages to project the idea that McCain is always he biggest man in every room, treating everyone as if they're a step slower than he. He tells his son, Jack, that he was stupid to bail him out of prison, insisting "I wouldn't spend 25 cents on you."

Interestingly, while the movie is posited as "one lone hardcase versus the mob," McCain never actually meets any of the mafioso face-to-face. I suppose that would work if it was just his story, and the mob was this faceless entity hunting him. 

But by spending so much time around tuxedoed dons, we wind up finding them more compelling figures.

Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Review: "In the Earth"


"In the Earth" reminds me of old 1970s-era horror films like "The Wicker Man" or "Soylent Green" -- loopy, sensuous, a bit satirical, a tad psychedelic, more unnerving than blood-soaked gorefest. It's the sort of movie, deliberate and slow-paced, that seeps its way into your skin and makes you feel unwell (in a good way) having watched it.

It also skillfully taps into our current anxiety and fears surrounding pandemic, with its backdrop of a mysterious virus that has plunged the Earth into a panic. Interestingly, writer/director Ben Wheatley ("Rebeca") doesn't show us any of that broad scope, just the smaller microcosm of scientists working in the remote forest on a potential cure.

The movie gets a little too fixated on hallucinatory sequences in the last act, with characters blitzed out on mushroom spore clouds while kaleidoscopic imagery flashes and twists onscreen for minutes at a time. It looks like a lava lamp stuck in a blender backlit by neon.

But it genuinely intrigued and scared me, and that ain't easy to do.

Joel Fry plays Martin, a young scientist arriving in the countryside to help tackle the unnamed virus. It isn't COVID per se, but people wear masks around each other and take similar precautions. Newcomers get spritzed down in disinfectant from a sprayer that's the same thing you use with Weed B-Gon.

Tall, gangly and unsure of himself, Martin doesn't exactly seem like the sort of guy who's going to be a horror movie hero. He's come to work with Olivia Wendle (Hayley Squires), a former colleague and mentor who seems to be ahead of everyone else on beating the virus. But she's far off in the woods where there's no cellphone signal, so her only contact has been by leaving written communiques that have recently tapered off.

("Satellite phone?" asks I, the eternal literalist and plothole-sniffer.)

He's assigned a ranger to be his guide. Alma (Ellora Torchia) is everything he's not: confident, experienced, someone who looks you in the eye and asks sensible questions, whereas Martin is an inveterate shoe-starer and mouth-mumbler. 

(Honestly, he's kind of a drip, and by the midway point Alma has clearly shouldered past him into the lead position.)

Off they go on foot into the dense forest, which is also haunted by the legend of Parnag Fegg. It's unclear if this is supposed to be a specific witch-like figure or an ancient druidic cult singing to the trees while slicing open animal intestines. But it doesn't exactly bolster confidence. There are also tales of recent disappearances, and they happen across an abandoned campsite with a child's toys.

One night they are surprised and beaten by some unseen assailant, waking up to find their shoes and Martin's equipment stolen. He soon lacerates his foot badly on something -- pay attention to the film's opening moments and remember -- and their quest seems cursed.

Then they run into a quiet, kindly man named Zach (Reese Shearsmith). Sporting long graying hair and big, intelligent eyes, he appears to be a peaceful hippie checked out of society. His biggest fear is that Alma will report him and the rangers will make him leave his home, which is basically just a haphazard assemblage of tarps and poles. There he gives them food, clothing and sweet-tasting drinks made from various flower petals.

It soon becomes clear there's more to Zach than moonwater and good vibes. He has some curious ideas about communing with nature, seeing it as the opposite and adversary of the civilization that produced the virus.

Eventually they do make it to the camp of Dr. Wendle, which at first seems like a respite but is in some ways even weirder than Zach's place. She has lots of computers and other expensive equipment, and has set up strobe lights in the woods and a network of speakers to churn out haunting natural sounds she's recorded and amplified. 

Trees actually make noise as they grow if you listen carefully enough, she insists as way of explaining her little nightly concertos.

I can't say much more without giving things away. Suffice it to say that Alma and Martin are our avatars as they stumble into an increasingly deeper thicket of the mind. There will be altered states, conflict, strange photography sessions and not a little blood. A good test is if you liked "The Blair Witch Project," you'll probably hearken to this, too.

"In the Earth" is a strange but enjoyable film, if you're into things like not always being exactly sure of what's going on, who's doing what, or how, or why. It's the sort of thing you have to just sit back and let the movie's mood grow over you like aggressive plants, not worrying if that's good or bad.

Review: "Monday"

Remember when Justin Timberlake was bringing sexy back? A lot of people wondered at the time exactly where it was that sexy supposedly went. Was there ever a time when sexy was really "out?" All I can say is for those of us who are sexy-deficient, "not sexy" has definitely never been in.

But the movies, or at least American ones, do seem to go through stages of prudishness interrupted by sudden returns to passionate, fleshy, plain ol' sexy filmmaking that feels like a lurch. "Monday" is certainly in that vein.

It's a bold, brash, diverting and yes, absolutely sexy movie starring Sebastian Stan and Denise Gough as an American couple who meet up in Greece and begin a torrid relationship. Gough's a bit of a cypher to most mainstream audiences, though they likely know Stan as Bucky Barnes from the Avengers movies, aka the current titular co-star of Disney+'s "The Falcon and the Winter Soldier."

If all you know of him is as a grim metal-armed assassin, then you've never seen Stan like this. Certainly, you've never seen as much of him as this. Gough is similarly unabashed.

Let's talk about nudity for a minute. For the prurient among you, I'll not be coy and confirm that in fact, yes, Little Sebastian does make an appearance, and not in the Ben Affleck "Gone Girl" way of bragging beforehand about showing your peen and then it's a three-quarter-turn-misty-shower-did-I-see-it-for-a-split-second-or-was-that-a-reflection-of-linoleum kinda deal.

I can't say as I have any particular enthusiasm for dicks on screen, but by God if you go around bragging about dropping trou then you damn well better whip it out with authority.

I also liked that Gough doesn't do that commonplace cringe-y movie thing of lying in bed after sex with the sheets primly pulled up to her chin. She just lets her boobs hang out, as actual women do. You stare at them for a few seconds, and if you're like me maybe take some pleasure from that, and then you forget about it and pay attention to what she's saying or expressing. 

Not showing the boobs makes such scenes more about the boobs than just saying, "Yep, here're my boobs."

The first half of the movie, directed by Argyris Papadimitropoulos from a script he co-wrote with Rob Hayes, is a freewheeling blast. It's a display of sunshine, music, bare skin and a naked lack of inhibition.

Chloe (Gough) is an immigration attorney whose extended stay in Athens is coming to end along with her relationship with a wealthy businessman (Andreas Konstantinou) who turned out to be a heel. She literally bumps into Mickey (Stan) at a party where he's DJing, they're both pretty drunk, and wind up on the beach the next morning unencumbered by clothing.

There's a hilarious and saucy scene where they introduce each other in the back of a police car while wearing handcuffs. Even though there's no hanky-panky going on at this time, it's the sexiest scene in the backseat of a car I can recall since "No Way Out." (Another movie that heralded a brief return of sex to American cinema.)

You'd expect this to be a one-night fling for both of them, but Mickey makes a gallant display of pushing for something more, and Chloe takes him up on it. Soon they've moved in together and things start to get real, which is also unfortunately where the movie takes a sudden, sharp dip in energy.

It turns out they've both got the inevitable hangups. Chloe drinks more than she should and tends to make fatalistic decisions based on single incidents that may not be as big as she thinks. Mickey, though he works hard at playing the smiling carefree playboy, has a strong streak of self-loathing running through him. It's led him to walk away from life's opportunities and responsibilities.

He has a young son he rarely sees, even though he meticulously keeps a room ready for him at his place. And when an old band mate pops up after hitting it big (Dominique Tipper), he's tempted to return to the States with renewed creative passion.

Basically, the first part of the movie is the young, fun bit and the second half is where real life intrudes. I think it's important to the story that Chloe and Mickey are not supposed to be kids. I'd guess they're closer to 40 than 30. That colors their playful antics, which begin to run into dangerous territory, and might even be viewed as more pathetic than unbridled. 

Yorgos Pirpassopoulos plays Argyris, Mickey's best Greek friend and fellow hedonist. They do business together and play hard together, and it's hard to tell who is leading who astray. Not a whole lot of other characters clutter the background, though Mickey's ex (Elli Tringou) shows up for a confrontation with Chloe that doesn't go the way we think.

The title comes from a series of title cards that flash throughout the film, always stating "Friday." The implication is that these two people are living out a relationship that is a succession of hot weekends, and the chilly reality of Monday is just around the next turn.

I'm disappointed in where "Monday" wound up. I think the filmmakers had a very strong idea of how to portray the heaving beginnings of a love affair but were as clueless as their characters about how to sustain it through its proverbial middle age. 

People tend to think something's sexiest when it's new and fresh, but the bigger challenge is to keep fanning those flames, in movies or otherwise.

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

Review: "Moffie"


When it comes to momentum in a film, it's always better to start weak and build stronger toward the end than hit your peak early and fade. 

Some Old Hollywood soothsayer/huckster said something about all you need is three good scenes and a solid ending, and the audience will forgive a lot of sins. By the same token, if you let the last act of your movie wilt before their eyes, that's all they'll remember.

"Moffie," the story of a sensitive young man serving in the South African military during the height of Apartheid, certainly made a strong early impression on me. But then it fades badly in the last portion, to the point I felt the movie should've just ended after 75 minutes or so.

 It's the tale of Nicolas van der Swart (Kai Luke Brümmer), a teenager conscripted for mandatory two-year service in the army, something all able-bodied white youths must do. In 1981, it's a time of rising paranoia about outsiders infiltrating their pure white society -- blacks, communists, heathens, homosexuals, and so on.

Director Oliver Hermanus, who co-wrote the screenplay with Jack Sidey based on the autobiographical books by André Carl van der Merwe, take their time letting us know that Nic is gay. (And closeted, it need not be said, since there really wasn't such as out in that time and place.) 

At first he just seems smart and reserved, shying away from the constant horseplay, ragging and conflict the other boys seem to subsist upon. At one point, a hulking bully picks a fight with Nic by stealing a photograph of his father (Michael Kirch) and refusing to give it back, finally agreeing to trade it for a nudie magazine dad had bestowed upon him as a parting gift.

But in time we see the forlorn look on Nic's face as he peers at other recruits, though he's careful not to do so in the open shower room, skinny-dipping breaks or other frequent nude congregations in the movie -- which Hermanus shoots with a loving-bordering-on-lascivious eye.

(The title is South African slang for a homosexual man, though I never heard it used in the film, leaning instead on the tried-and-true "faggot." I suppose that's universal.)

The first portion of the movie has a bit of a "Full Metal Jacket" feel, focusing on the harsh abuse the young men receive at the hands of their sadistic sergeant, Brand (Hilton Pelser). He doesn't seem that much older than the youngsters he's terrorizing, sporting a vaguely Hitler-esque mustache and angry blue eyes. 

We've seen this sort of basic training rigamarole before -- doing push-ups until you puke, repeatedly being sent to select the "right" leaf off a tree, marching them miles through the night and then dumping their hot food and coffee on the ground -- but it still hits you in the gut. On top of that, there's all sorts of fascist-leaning talk about blacks and other trod-upons to get your blood boiling.

Nic strikes up a friendship with Sachs, a tousle-headed, easygoing type. They clean rifles together and sing pop songs -- there really isn't anything else to do. There's no romance there, though we see flashes of other recruits being bullied or drummed out of the army after being caught in a bathroom stall together or whatnot. Nic, who's handsome and affable, finds himself picking on a smaller guy (Wynand Ferreira) after he's sent to the mental ward for being gay as a way to cover for his own inclinations.

The real romance arrives fairly late with the figure of Stassen, played by Ryan de Villiers. He looks like he walked straight off the page of a Calvin Klein ad: tall, lean, with thick black hair, quietly appraising eyes and a jawline sharp enough to cut glass. He and Nic share a trench in the middle of the desert, and as they huddle together for warmth we get the barest hint of an attraction, which will continue to grow.

Things come to the clash we expect, but unfortunately at exactly this point the movie wanders away from itself. We get a sudden "eight months later" title on the screen, and spend some time with Nic as his unit is dispatched to some forgotten hellhole where even the base commander sports a beard and doesn't seem to give a shit. Soldiers openly inject morphine to escape from the boredom.

With Stassen's presence gone, Nic's character is relegated to a sort of passive observer, going on patrols and trying to get by. His sexual terror at being discovered gets shifted to the back burner, followed by a terse, unsatisfying ending that leaves us wondering where Nic's life will point him.

"Moffie" has a terrific premise and sensibility, but fails to carry through on them in any kind of satisfying way. Brummer spends a lot of time watching and reacting, and though he's got a winning screen presence the movie just doesn't give him enough to do. Perhaps a narration or journal entries would have allowed us to see more into his mind and soul. Just going by exteriors, Nic comes off as something of a null space.

You never want your protagonist to be the least interesting person on the screen.

Monday, April 5, 2021

Reeling Backward: "Atlantic City" (1980)


Lou Pascal is a liar. Because he is an older, courtly gentleman played by Burt Lancaster, we do not hold this against him as much as we ought. But a liar he is.

Everyone lies to some extent, and of course the art of film has contrivances, misdirection and outright fabrication at the core of its essence. Every movie lover fell in love with their beautiful lies, including me.

In Louis Malle's "Atlantic City," Lou lies to make himself seem more important than what he is, which is an elderly numbers runner subsisting on the lowest rung of the local underworld. But over time he begins to thrive on the rewards of those lies, most notably money and the attentions of Sally Matthews, the much-younger woman who lives in the apartment next door.

Eventually, Lou falls victim to the worst fate of inveterate liars: he begins to believe his own fibs. Only at the very end of the story, screenplay by John Guare, does Lou finally recognize the depth of his lies and learn to cast them aside.

"Atlantic City" pulled off one of the rarest feats in film notoriety: it was nominated for all of the "Big Five" Academy Awards: best picture, actor, actress, director and screenplay. It also failed to win any of them, becoming one of just eight movies (out of 43 total) to earn all five nominations and take home none of the statuettes.

It's a gorgeous movie whose luster has not waned these past four decades. A beautiful new 40th anniversary Blu-ray edition is out from Paramount this week.

Richard Ciupka's gauzy, sepia-toned cinematography made it seem like a very old movie even when it came out. The eponymous city is a gaudy mix of flashy new casinos and crumbling old beach hotels and tourist traps being gradually torn down to make way for more gambling palaces. It reminds me of the south Florida backdrop of "Harry & Son."

This is a story of love and loss on the boardwalk, as various characters strive and scheme for something better than what they have. Which is ironic, since many of them left their homes to move on up in the seedy seaside gambling town, Las Vegas' crummier East Coast cousin, and got stuck.

Sally is one of them, marrying the first guy who came along to take her out of Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. Turns out that her husband, Dave (Matthews!), played by Robert Joy, was a petty criminal who soon got them run out of Vegas. Then he ran off with her simple-minded kid sister, Chrissie (Hollis McLaren) and got her pregnant to boot.

Now Sally works the oyster bar at the casino but is studying to become a blackjack dealer, which can earn $20,000 or even $30,000 a year ($60K and $90K in today's dollars). She even harbors dreams of making her way to Monte Carlo to work in the grand casinos there, and is learning French and high-class manners from her gambling teacher (Michel Piccoli), a lecherous older man whose lust stands as counterpoint to Lou's own.

Every night, Sally stands at her kitchen sink limned in soft light, rubbing lemons over her arms and breasts to get rid of the fishy stink of her quotidian trials. And every night, Lou watches her through their opposite windows. He's never actually spoken to her, and in fact she's surprised to later discover he lives next door.  

To Lou, Sally represents not just a beautiful woman to desire but a representation of everything he never had or has since lost: youth, romance, wealth, status, reputation, importance. When against all odds he later succeeds in winning her affections, Lou's first thought is to run away with Sally to Miami, where he has lots of friends from the old days.

"I'll buy you new clothes, I'll show you off... just let the boys see how well I turned out," Lou proposes.

Lou passes himself off as an old-school gangster who reveled in Atlantic City's outlaw days, telling a story about taking a swim whenever he'd had a belly full of killing so he  could come out feeling fresh to start all over. He brags that he was Bugsy Siegel's cellmate, and people from Vegas are given his name as the man to know out east.

He counts the late mob leader, Cookie Pinza, as his best friend and himself the trusted guardian of his wife, Grace. Now he stays in the flea-bitten building so he can watch over Grace, who's ensconced in the apartment below as a well-kept invalid. Occasionally, he brags, he throws the old lady a bone by bestowing his affections on her to break up the loneliness, sort of a beneficent silver-haired gigolo.

All these things are not exactly lies, but stand sideways from the truth. 

He never killed anybody, but rubbed shoulders with men who did. He only bumped into Bugsy for 10 minutes while in the drunk tank. He was Cookie's lackey, not his friend, and was and still is Grace's servant -- she even has a bell rope strung between their windows so she can fetch Lou to walk her poodle or rub her feet. The real toughguys referred to Lou as "Numbnuts," and his actual name has never meant much.

Lou carefully tends to this ersatz version of himself. Though he lives in a cramped one-room apartment, he meticulously irons his suits and ties, and keeps himself coiffed and "in trim." He makes his daily rounds collecting numbers in the poor section of town for the illegal lottery, where nobody ever wins because, as Fred the bookie (John McCurry) says, "I can't afford winners." 

This is enough to keep Lou in cheap whiskey and cigarettes, barely.

Things start to change when Sally's husband shows up in town decked out in hippie garb with Chrissie very pregnant. He has made off with a large stash of cocaine he stole from a dealer drop in Philadelphia, and needs a place to stay until he can turn it into cash. 

Falling for Lou's anecdotes about being an old-school player, Dave recruits him to sell the drugs in stages to a man (Al Waxman) running a high-stakes private poker game in a smoky hotel room. Unfortunately, the Philadelphia guys track Dave down and kill him.

Now sitting with $4,000 in cash, Lou gets a head full of ideas. He trades in the numbers game for dealing the rest of the drugs. He buys a ridiculous (even in 1980) peacock white suit and hat, and offers to help Sally with the funeral arrangements, which segues into dates at fancy restaurants (Wallace Shawn is a waiter) and eventually confessing his desiring her and their (offscreen) coupling.

Lou's newfound confidence is shattered when the two drug dealers accost them, slapping Sally around while he is dismissed as a useless old man, not even worth their blows. This is compounded by Grace revealing Lou's true lowly status to Sally.

Completely unmanned, Lou's first instinct is to run away. But something inside pulls him to try and make real the life he's always fancied for himself. He pockets his old .38 snubnose and hits the casino, possibly with the idea of turning his goodly sized stash into a fortune.

When Sally chases him onto a bus out of town, Lou is further embarrassed when she poses as his daughter to get the driver to throw him off, under the ruse he's an addled old man who needs his meds.

"I made love to this woman earlier today! I held her in my arms!" he bellows to everyone, and no one, but mostly to himself, needing that confirmation of his newfound status as a lover and protector.

Things get better for a time, as Lou stands up to the two toughs when they confront them again, gunning them down, stealing their Cadillac and driving off with Sally for Miami. Lou positively revels in the media coverage of the slayings -- even going so far as to brag to the hotel manager that he did the deed.

In the end, Lou's lies finally catch up with him and the reality of a 70-ish man running away with a 30-ish woman asserts its inherent absurdity. He spies Sally stealing most of the money from his wallet, and rather than become angry he lets her go, offering the keys to the car and advice on how to get away. 

Lou returns to Atlantic City and his partnership with Grace, who has bonded with Chrissie in a marathon session of foot massages and philosophical musings that feels like it should've taken place 30 minutes earlier in the movie. Things end on a happy note for both Lou and Sally, with her finally having the freedom and wherewithal to do as she pleases, and Lou having found more appropriate companionship, now on a more equal footing.

It's a strangely giddy ending for a film so infused with tragedy and regret. 

Sally's redemption is more straightforward, though Lou's needs some proper vantage angles to see all the facets. In Lou's mind, his lies all finally came true -- he's now a killer, a lover of a pretty young thing, with a wad of cash in his pocket and a reputation. Early on Grace goaded him with taunts of being on the law's most-wanted list, and now he really is.

And yet, he knows it won't last. Sally will leave him, sooner or later, so he speeds along that process, for both her and his sake. He is satisfied to return to Grace and his crumbling hometown, passing into history as the city is perpetually torn down and rebuilt -- just like the reputation he so craved.

"Atlantic City" remains a great movie because it's not just the story of a liar, but one who confronts his own lies and finds them unworthy. Lou would rather end as an anonymous old man who is content with what he has than a scrabbler who needs to concoct an ersatz version of himself. 

The truth can be hard, but it is always beautiful.


Sunday, April 4, 2021

Review: Transference: A Love Story


Some movies are good, some are bad, a whole bunch are somewhere in the middle. Then there are those films you watch and someone asks you afterward, "What's it about?", and you honestly don't know how to answer.

"Transference: A Love Story," is helpful enough to give us a big clue right in the title. It is indeed a romance about two nurses working in a London palliative care hospital, both of them immigrants: Katerina (Emilie Sofie Johannese) from Norway and Nik (Raffaello Degruttola). They have a torrid affair, then things go shaky, then splitsville, then... well, you'll see.

Really, what the movie is about is lots of leisurely shots of the stars looking forlorn, often against a cityscape backdrop, possibly with some odd narration by Katerina that somehow uses physics and other scientific principles to comment upon their relationship. 

It's weird. It doesn't work. Even slightly. lists its running time as 90 minutes, but the version I watched was closer to two hours. It should be an18-minute short film. Certainly you could communicate everything meaningful in the story in that amount of time.

Nik and Katerina do not seem like a good fit. Everyone tells them so, from her roommate, Camilla (Pernille Broch), to their workmates to... anyone with eyes. 

She is 25; he seems close to double that. She is fetching, with long, dark hair and mysterious eyes; he looks like the guy who serves you soup. Katerina has animated facial expressions and seems full of inner turmoil; Nik barely hasn't any animation in his face at all. He's closer to scary than smoldering.

I do not know if Degruttola is a terrible actor or if this was a deliberate choice he made. Probably the latter. He is also the writer/director of the film, and the press notes highlight the fact the story is inspired by his own complicated, real-life relationship with his father, who struggled with bipolar disorder his whole life.

The movie takes until about the halfway point to suggest outright that Nik may have mental health issues. Katerina is the one who comes on to him, which he initially resists since they work in the same place. Soon they plunge full into a passionate (though coyly scanty on skin) affair, including rendezvous at the hospital where people are literally dying in the next room, which is just... ick.

Later on we meet Marieka (Lotte Verbeek), who is Nik's ex. He wants to share news of his new relationship with her, almost as if asking her permission, and she has her own news to relate. A few other characters flit in and out of the background without much impact: another Italian coworker (Iggy Blanco), much younger and better-looking than Nik; the supervising nurse (Bea Watson), who appears even younger than Katerina and is astonishingly clueless about their affair.

Not a lot happens in this movie, and when they do events don't seem to fit with the rest of the story. Nik has an encounter in a bar that turns violent for reasons no one, including him, can figure out. And then, more staring off into space while the music plays. 

So... much... staring...

I still scratch my head thinking about "Transference." It's supposed to be a love story but it's more about mental health challenges. Really, it's about how hard it can be to love someone struggling with a mental health diagnosis. Watching this movie doesn't help anyone.

Saturday, April 3, 2021

Requiem for a fallen giant


Really, for the first few years I knew Ed Johnson-Ott, I had no idea how tall he was. Ed was using a wheelchair at that time, he the film critic for NUVO Newsweekly, and me the newly ensconced entertainment editor for the Indianapolis Star. 

I guess we were supposed to be rivals, but we came to be the very best of friends. For awhile his health improved and he was able to walk with just the aid of a cane, and I realized he was a big man, must've been well over six feet in his prime. As our relationship deepened from adversaries to colleagues to friends, I came to realize he was as gigantic a person as I've ever known.

Ed passed last night. He was a great writer, an even better friend, and an even better human being.

Please forgive me if this paean is as much about me as it is Ed. His loss has affected me on the deepest of levels. Since I moved to Indiana 16 years ago, I only have made three really important friendships. With Ed's passing and that of Star columnist Matt Tully a few years back, two are now gone. I'm not the type to make friendships easily, but they do tend to last. 

I'll carry Ed in my heart forever.

Before I fell in love with Ed as a person, I fell in love with his writing. There was just such a natural ease about it. He referred to his takes on movies as essays, not reviews, and often they were about him as much as they were the film. Reading one of Ed's pieces felt like sliding into a table at a diner for coffee with an old friend to chat about movies, even if it was the very first piece of his you'd ever read.

It affected my own writing style. My reviews had tended to grow into overly wordsmithed ruminations meant to impress the reader as much as inform. Lots of "vocab words" and complex run-on sentences. The sort of thing where you realize the writer is smart, and very much wants you to know how smart they are.

I knew I wanted to write more like Ed, and over the last dozen years I've adopted a simpler style that, if not exactly trying to emulate Ed's, at least took his gentler, more humanistic approach to heart. I even learned to put personal reflections in.

Ed dealt with a lot during the 16 years I knew him. His health, obviously, which landed him in and out of the hospital repeatedly over the last few years. On one occasion I went to visit him and found out he was at a different hospital from the last time. Ed had been in a terrible car accident decades ago where a friend was driving in an altered state and crashed (into a telephone pole, I think it was). His stomach was torn open, a disability that followed him the rest of his life, while the friend was unscathed.

I asked him once if he resented the guy who put him in a wheelchair, and he said not even for an instant. That's just the kind of guy Ed was: the man had no hatred in his heart. Even if he disagreed with you or thought you were behaving badly, he approached you with advice and kindness, never anger or harsh words. 

I remember one time we were out together and some young fellows were acting the fool. Ed, three feet lower in his wheelchair, spoke to them quietly but firmly about how great it was they were enjoying being young, but to have consideration for others while doing it. They stopped, listened and went about their way, a tad less rambunctious. 

Ed never had a lot of money, and his living situation continued to deteriorate over the years. At one time he made his living as a film critic, NUVO paying well enough and a syndication deal with other alt-weeklies making up the rest. It gradually went away, bit by bit, to the point NUVO had to stop paying him. 

Still, he wrote on. Never even considered quitting.

He lived in a ramshackle duplex in Downtown Indy. It was a scary neighborhood when I arrived in Indy, but has now gentrified with a huge, expensive condo building across the street now. His son, Donnie, lived with him for a few stretches, but it was a small place and they had their clashes as his adopted son desired his independence. 

The place got in worse and worse shape as Ed's health grew poorer again. He developed COPD and had to use oxygen tanks  to breathe. He had a car (given to him by a cousin) but stopped driving it because he felt he was no longer safe behind the wheel. We developed a system for press screenings where I would drive to his house, load him in his car with his tanks and wheelchair, go to the movie theater and then do it all in reverse afterward.

Ed lost a ton of weight as a result of his various ailments, which in a strange way actually helped him. His BP improved and the doctor said it was making it easier for him to breathe. He downscaled from the big, heavy oxygen tanks to a portable, lighter battery-powered machine that assisted his lungs. He loved his skinny new look, going from somewhere around 300 pounds when I met him to about 160.

He asked me to take some pictures on the stoop of his place to show off his hot new bod:

Still, he struggled to take care of himself and the place was a mess. Every time I came over I helped pick up, and suggested he consider an assisted living facility. He resisted, holding onto his freedom. He did agree to get a home healthcare aide, which helped for a time. He had a few of them over the span of a couple of years, some good, some not so good. One aide stole from him, but even then Ed was hesitant to report him to his employer.

I grew seriously worried when his mental state began to waver. Sometimes he'd be all there and other times he'd be confused and disoriented. He didn't have dementia, but the combination of his health challenges and medication would leave him addled.

One time I came over and there were pills strew all over the floor of his place, some of them crushed. I carefully put them back into their bottles (thank God for color coding) but the decision was finally made to give up his place. Fortunately Ed had turned 65 and could now receive Medicare, and moved into a nice rehabilitation center on the northeast side of Indy.

All the while, Ed kept reviewing movies. Maybe more sporadically than before, but whenever he could. He had another friend who would pick him up and drive to a movie theater, watch it together, and then work on the review collaboratively. Ed's fingers shook -- he had Parkinson's, on top of everything else -- and had lost the ability to type. Even a special laptop for people with disability I arranged for him from Easterseals Crossroads didn't help. So Ed would talk and the friend would write it down, and they'd turn it into an essay.

Even then, Ed worried that the work wasn't representative of his voice. I told him honestly that reading them, it sounded just like the same ol' Ed. I think this reassurance was important to him. Even with all his problems, he couldn't stand the idea of letting his readers down.

Ed seemed happy at the rehab center. He liked not having to worry about meals or meds, it was all taken care of. The last picture I took of him was January of last year. He wanted me to post it on his Facebook page, because in all the moves and complications, he'd lost access to his social media and email accounts. He wanted everyone to know he was doing OK.

I'd go see him every few months, bring him food or talk on the phone. It could be hard to get ahold of him. Most of the time he wouldn't answer the phone in his room, and voicemails never seemed to find their way to him. You'd just have to call and hope he picked up.

A couple of times when I saw him he was very confused. One time they'd had to move him out of his room because of a fire alarm, and he became convinced that they'd relocated him to another facility without telling him. He finally had a moment of clarity.

"Chris, is this one of those moments where an old person becomes confused about where they are and what's going on, but everything's actually OK?"

But then I'd go back a few weeks later and it'd be Ed, same old Ed, with all his brilliance and heart.

Ed and I talked a lot, about the deepest stuff that you really only share with a spouse or best friend. We shared our worries, our hopes, our disappointments, our sadness and pain. I'd had a lot of the latter over the last few years, with family deaths, job loss and my own health issues. We talked about our relationships, sex, insecurities, body image, all of it. 

He once reminisced about when he was younger and riding a bike with a lover on a hot day, and they took their shirts off. His boyfriend had a camera and took a picture, and he remembered being mortified at the time of his paunch and love handles being captured for all eternity. He still had that photo, and looked at from time to time to remind himself that he had no reason to be ashamed of his body. 

Ed had found his way to a place of practicing self-love long before anybody had given a name to it. What's more, he encouraged me to follow his trail. 

(Though it's something I still struggle with. Even today, I hate to be photographed and, though I'm on television every week, I never watch the footage.)

I hope people will remember Ed as a film critic. He truly was one of the great writers in Indiana history, certainly a giant of Hoosier journalism. There should be tributes and memorials. 

The Indiana Film Journalists Association exists because of him. In late 2008, after I'd been laid off from the Indy Star, Ed encouraged me to keep reviewing in whatever capacity I could. He mentioned that he and former Star critic Bonnie Britton (gone now as well) had tried to organize an Indiana critics group years earlier, but nothing ever came of it. 

He and I decided to try again, and found four other critics to join our little club. Our goal was to draw attention to our own work by giving out awards, and lobby for screenings that the studios had allowed to dwindle to a tiny trickle. But we also wanted to encourage young writers to try their hand at film criticism. Today we have two dozen IFJA members, and the studios actively solicit our attention.

As important a writer as Ed was, I hope people will remember the human being even moreso. He truly was one of the best people I've ever known. He always chose kindness over hatred, engagement over isolation, and listening over shouting.

We came from opposite places in a lot of ways: politically, geographically, sexually, professionally. But Ed never let it divide us.

I haven't been able to see Ed in person over the past year, which breaks my heart. But with a breathing disease and now a senior citizen living in an assisted facility, he was in the highest risk group for COVID. Since he couldn't access email regularly, even after the IFJA bought a tablet for him, occasional phone calls were all we had.

We tried to arrange a meeting in December, after we'd heard the rehab center was allowing outdoor meetings. I picked up his favorite Indian chicken dish as a treat, and had one more. 

The studios send DVD screeners to critics at year-end to make sure they see all their movies for awards voting, and it turns out Ed's had been piling up at his old house. The guy who lived there had been saving them, and got hold of my email address. I put together the whole pile, dozens of films, in a box along with a portable DVD player and headphones.

Alas, we could not meet. The facility was still not allowing in-person visits, even outdoors. So I dropped off the food, DVDs and player for him to enjoy. We talked later about how much that meant to him. I take great joy in knowing he spent the holidays in the company of a bounty of the love he and I both loved. 

Our last phone call was a few weeks ago, and Ed sounded strong and hale. Funny, smart, wonderful. Vintage Ed. 

He told me he loved me. I told him the same. It was something we'd started saying to each other about 10 years ago. In my upbringing, men aren't supposed to say that to each other, and other than my father, Ed was the first one I'd ever said it to. I only wish I'd said it earlier and more often.

We'll always have the movies, Ed... and, so much more.