OSCARS 2020 recap

February 10, 2020

Oscars 2020 recap

 It could be argued that the last 5 years of Best Picture announcements have each provided somewhat of a surprise as the title was announced. However, the noise level and affection directed towards the stage as those associated with PARASITE assembled, gave this year’s announcement a distinct and special feel. Filmmaker Bong Joon Ho has won over many in the industry during this awards season, and the historical significance of having the first non-English language winner shouldn’t be minimized. However, there was something else at play as the applause and whistles boomed throughout Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre. This was an auditorium filled with movie lovers who were celebrating a creative, unique, meaningful, and entertaining cinematic achievement … in other words, the things that movie making is meant to deliver. It was quite a moment.

While my predictions were correct on 20 of 24 categories this year, I can’t help but kick myself for not foreseeing this PARASITE juggernaut (it won 4 of its 6 Oscar nominations). Director Sam Mendes’ WWI visual masterpiece 1917 seemed to be on an unstoppable roll after winning Best Picture at BAFTA, Critics Choice, Directors’ Guild, and Producers’ Guild. But taking a step back and analyzing how the Oscars voting works – success is heavily dependent on how many ballots have a film in the first/favorite position – it becomes much easier to understand how this “upset” occurred. Ever since it won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, the number of crazed and vocal fans for PARASITE have been all over social media encouraging others to check it out. While almost everyone was wowed with the visual experience of 1917, it was the rabid fandom for the South Korean film that really stood out.

 So it was Bong Joon Ho’s film making Oscar history, and yet there are also other things to discuss. Choosing to go “host-less” for the second straight year, the very talented Janelle Monae opened the show by performing a take-off on Mister Rogers and then exploding into a high-octane song and dance featuring many of the nominated films, and a few that weren’t. Ms. Monae also infused the first political statement of the evening – one that would surely be followed by many more. Steve Martin and Chris Rock then took the stage, and though they apparently had not rehearsed their time together, there were a couple of good zingers … especially those aimed at Amazon’s Jeff Bezos … and more than a few that fell flat.

In his acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actor (ONCE UPON A TIME IN … HOLLYWOOD), Brad Pitt infused a bit of political commentary, as did Olaf, I mean Josh Gad, as he introduced Idina Menzel to sing the nominated song from FROZEN 2 (along with some talented international help). Diane Keaton did her best Warren Beatty/Faye Dunaway impression through incoherence and cluelessness (at the expense of good guy Keanu Reeves), and one of the best moments of the show was followed by one of the strangest. Lin-Manuel Miranda introduced a wonderful medley clip of film songs which played right into Eminem taking the stage to perform his Oscar winning “Lose Yourself.” Why is that strange?  Well, 8 MILE came out in 2002, and ‘18’ is rarely celebrated as a commemorative year (unless you are a 17 year old rejoicing in legal impendence). Eminem’s song is a favorite of many, but his inclusion here left us with one unanswered question … why?

Billie Eilish delivered a beautiful version of “Yesterday” as the annual In Memoriam slides played, but live performances from Randy Newman and Elton John (whose song won) paled in comparison to that of Cynthia Erivo. We were rewarded yet again by the brilliance of Olivia Colman, following up last year’s win with a turn as presenter. Her line, “Last year was the best night of my husband’s life” deserves to become part of Oscar lore alongside streakers, no-shows, and botched announcements. We were then subjected to two much-too-long ramblings from Acting winners Joaquin Phoenix and Renee Zellweger. Mr. Phoenix at least made some sense in his plea for justice for all (and a nice quote from his deceased brother River: “Run to the rescue with love, and peace will follow”), while Ms. Zellweger babbled “ums” and “you knows” about heroes, and proved why most actors should stick to a script.

As I’ve stated before, celebrities are welcome to their political opinions, which many share frequently and openly. My issue is that the Academy Awards ceremony was designed as a once a year opportunity to celebrate cinema and those who make it such an enticing and entertaining art form. Especially in this day of social media, I find the political outbursts to be in poor taste … similar to bringing McDonalds carry-out to a dinner party. It seems the proper approach would be to thank the Academy and those who helped the winner with their achievements, and then head backstage and tweet all the political opinions swirling about in their head. Having one’s own hair stylist, make-up artist, limo driver, and fashion designer, does not seemingly make one an expert on equality or geopolitics, so my personal preference would be for political opinions to be stifled for a few hours.

 All the best stories have memorable endings, and this year’s Academy Awards certainly delivered that. Political ramblings were forgotten as soon as Jane Fonda, after pausing for dramatic effect (and to ensure she had the correct envelope) announced PARASITE as Best Picture. Watching movie history unfold was exhilarating, and Bong Joon Ho’s promise to “drink till the morning” was well-deserved. He has announced his involvement with an HBO series based on this Oscar winning film, so we can expect to see his creativity on one screen or another for the next few years.

***NOTE: Tom Hanks announced during the ceremony that the long-awaited Academy Museum of Motion Pictures will open December 14, 2020 in Los Angeles’ Miracle Mile district.


LITTLE WOMEN (2019)

December 23, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. More than 150 years have passed since Louisa May Alcott’s novel was published (volume 1 was published in 1868, volume 2 in 1869). By my count, there have been seven previous movie adaptations, dating back to the silent film era and through the more familiar George Cukor-Katharine Hepburn (1933), Mervyn Leroy-June Allyson (1949), and Gillian Armstrong-Wynona Ryder (1994) versions. One might think that sufficient, yet, after viewing this latest, you’ll likely join me in believing that director Greta Gerwig and Louisa May Alcott (and by natural extension Jo March) are kindred spirits … timeless storytellers of the moment.

Oscar nominated (writing and directing) for her standout LADY BIRD (2017), Ms. Gerwig remains true to the beloved source material while adding her own contemporary touch. She begins with the adult March sisters and then flashing back 7 years to the stage of living together and battling through the difficult and awkward transitional phase. The four sisters Jo (Saoirse Ronan), Meg (Emma Watson), Amy (Florence Pugh), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen) are exceptionally well cast, and we immediately recognize the familiar personality traits of each. Jo is the serious, determined writer who has an understanding of financial necessities. Meg is the warm facilitator beloved by all. Amy has ambitions (or is it dreams?) of being a great artist and living an exceptional life. Beth, the youngest, radiates a sweet nature and love for the piano.

Much of the story is told through the eyes of Jo. Her independent spirit and frustration with how the world is, boils over at times. She states her disappointment at being born a girl, and is described as having “a nature too noble to curb.” While viewing, one must keep in mind that this was the Civil War era (the girls’ father is a military Chaplain), and women had achieved very few rights in society. The contrast is never more evident than when comparing Marmee (Laura Dern), presented here as a near flesh-and-blood saint, with Aunt March (Meryl Streep), one quite at ease in thumbing her nose at societal norms for one reason … she is rich.

Fans of the novel will be pleased that Timothee Chalamet plays “Laurie Laurence”, who struggles every bit as much as the sisters in finding his way towards adulthood. His scenes with Jo are exceptional. Chris Cooper, not seen nearly enough in movies these days, perfectly captures the broken spirit of Mr. Laurence, a man never quite able to escape his own personal loss. Other key cast members include James Norton as tutor/teacher John Brooke, Louis Garrel as Friedrich (here a Frenchman), and Tracy Letts dropping some deadpan comedy as Jo’s publisher Mr Dashwood.

Ms. Gerwig (perhaps with a future as one of the greatest filmmakers) displays storytelling and cinematic craftsmanship at the highest level. She bounces between timelines (over at least 7 years) and different sisters’ stories, showing how each is so different … yet all interconnected. These spirited sisters, raised in the same modest home, have their own independent thoughts and ideas of how they want to live their lives. This delivers multiple comings-of-age and examines ‘a woman’s place’, whatever that means. In fact, the message is that a woman’s place is whatever she decides, and while her options are many (despite obstacles), her decisions are personal. None of the four sisters are played by American actors, and all four perform admirably. Pay particular attention to Florence Pugh (MIDSOMMAR) and her work as Amy. Also impressive is the Production Design by Jess Gonchor and the score by 2-time Oscar winner Alexandre Desplat. This one is all about the storytelling and characters, so take in the bunch known as the March sisters. As a side note, Greta Gerwig’s next movie is a live-action BARBIE movie, with Margot Robbie in the lead.

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MARRIAGE STORY (2019)

December 6, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Nicole has already made her decision. The film opens with her and husband Charlie in a therapy session. They are listing traits they admire about the other person. Watching this, we are unsure if the therapist thinks this exercise might salvage a broken marriage, or if it’s some cruel way of highlighting what is being lost. This is writer-director Noah Baumbach’s most gut-wrenching film to date, and it’s based, at least partially, on his split from wife Jennifer Jason Leigh. Writing about personal experience is nothing new for Baumbach, as THE SQUID AND THE WHALE was inspired by his parents’ divorce.

Charlie (Adam Driver) is an up-and-coming theatre director in New York City, and wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) is the company’s lead actor. When Nicole informs Charlie that she wants a divorce, and is headed back home to Los Angeles to be with family and resume her TV acting career, he is stunned. She explains that her dreams and ambitions have been stifled by focusing on his career, and despite her numerous attempts to discuss this, he has never bothered to take her seriously. Oh, and she’s taking their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson) with her.

What follows is a masterclass in writing, acting, directing, editing, and human nature. We watch as Nicole builds the foundation of her new life, while Charlie is staggered – not so much in denial, as disbelief. Their initial course of an amicable split, equitable division of belongings, and shared/split custody of Henry is abruptly altered when Nicole takes counsel from powerhouse LA divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern). Complicating matters is the bi-coastal nature of the divorce and California laws. This forces Charlie to meet with attorney Bert Spitz (a terrific Alan Alda), who may or may not be up to the task – his acumen varying from day to day.

Baumbach allows both sides to play out. These are basically normal, good people in a situation that brings out the worst traits in both. Unsparing pain arises at every turn. One particular argument between Charlie and Nicole is the axis on which the movie turns. It’s a spilling of guts and filled with devastating honesty. The scene is relentless and builds to a breakdown or breakthrough … any description leaves us spent. Just when we don’t believe we can handle any more emotional turmoil, up pops a moment of genuine tenderness that restores our faith – even if it’s only long enough for us to breathe again. There are even some surprisingly funny (dark humor) moments sprinkled throughout, just as there is in life.

Supporting roles are filled beautifully by Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, Merritt Weaver and Wallace Shawn. As Henry, Azhy Robertson avoids the “cute-kid” syndrome and delivers an actual nuanced performance by a child actor. Although it seems they are both everywhere these days, Ms. Johansson and Mr. Driver are truly outstanding in their roles here. Scarlet perfectly captures a woman moving on, while Adam singing Stephen Sondheim’s “Being Alive” at the bar in front of his theatre company is one of the most poignant on screen moments of the year.

There have been some amazing movies about marriage/divorce over the years. Bergman’s SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (1974), Benton’s KRAMER VS KRAMER (1979), and Farhadi’s A SEPARATION (2011) come to mind. Baumbach’s latest belongs in that group. Even the “best” divorces – those where both sides end up better off – are a “loss” for both parties. At a minimum, it’s a loss of a once-in-time vision of life partnership. The division of assets is a cold term for the shredding of emotions. We are fine with whatever the adults decide as long as the priority for both is their young son who shouldn’t pay the price for their debacle … but certainly will, just as countless other children have. I’m only now able to write about this film after seeing it at the inaugural North Texas Film Festival (NTXFF). As a movie lover, I’m in awe of the acting and storytelling. As a human being, it temporarily destroyed me.

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THE FOUNDER (2016)

January 19, 2017

founder Greetings again from the darkness. How you define success will likely determine your interpretation of this film that is every bit as much about the humble beginnings and explosive growth of McDonalds as it is a biopic of Ray Kroc, the self-professed “founder” of the golden arches empire. Capitalism and its corresponding businessmen have not typically been favorably portrayed by Hollywood in such films as The Social Network, Wall Street, Glengarry Glen Ross, Steve Jobs and The Wolf of Wall Street. This latest from director John Lee Hancock (Saving Mr. Banks, The Blind Side) and writer Robert Siegel (The Wrestler) is no exception, and it’s obvious why.

It’s 1954 when we first catch up with Ray Kroc (as played by Michael Keaton). He’s the type of traveling salesman who totes around his latest widget (a multiple milkshake machine), rehearses and polishes his spiel (via extreme close-up), and listens to motivational record albums that preach the importance of persistence, while he stays at roadside motels that act as his home away from home. Kroc doggedly pursues the American dream, and optimistically bounces from one project to another … convinced that he’s found “the next big thing”.

When circumstance leads him to a crowded little octagonal burger shop in San Bernardino, Kroc becomes fascinated with its simplicity and success. Over dinner, Dick (Nick Offerman) and Mac (John Carroll Lynch) McDonald detail the Spee-Dee kitchen design and unique focus on quality, consistency and speed that today is considered the starting line of the fast-food industry. The tennis court sequence is especially creative and fun to watch. While the brothers prefer to keep the business small and remain in control, Kroc pitches his vision of franchising … a pitch with emphasis on “Crosses. Flags. Arches”.

The full story is likely one most people don’t know … despite the fact that McDonalds now feeds 1% of the world population each day (a statistic posted on screen). The relationship between Kroc and the McDonald brothers was never a smooth one, and it’s a perfect example of dog-eat-dog, or unprincipled vs idealistic. Kroc sees himself as a “winner”, while it’s likely most will view his actions as unscrupulous, even if legal.

Keaton’s performance accurately captures a man who is impatiently ambitious, and whose confidence and ego grow incrementally as it becomes inevitable that the decency of the brothers is actually a weakness in business. Offerman and Lynch are both excellent, and other support work is provided by Laura Dern as Kroc’s first and mostly neglected wife who is tossed aside when something better comes along; BJ Novak as Harry J Sonneborn, the key to Kroc’s power move; Justin Randell Brooks as Fred Turner and Kate Kneeland as June Martino, two trusted employees; and Patrick Wilson as a key franchisee. Linda Cardellini (Mad Men, Bloodline) plays Joan, Ray’s wife (she was actually his third) and business advisor from 1969 until his death in 1984. The film shortchanges her importance – at least until the closing credit recap.

Bookending that opening extreme close-up sales pitch, is a near-conclusion zoom on Keaton’s face as he prepares for an event where he will tell his story … at least his version of the story. The film does a really nice job of capturing the era. Of particular interest is that the cars don’t look like they rolled right out of a classic car show, as happens with most movies. It’s nice to see some faded paint and a dented fender on screen. The early McDonalds locations are beautifully and realistically replicated to provide a nostalgic look for some, and a first glimpse for others. Carter Burwell’s score is complementary to the proceedings, and director Hancock deserves credit for not just making this the Michael Keaton/Ray Kroc show. Rather than serving up a Happy Meal movie, the film instead provides a somewhat toned-down historical view of ambition and drive, and the birth of an empire … one that changed our culture.

watch the trailer:

 


CERTAIN WOMEN (2016)

October 13, 2016

certain-women Greetings again from the darkness. This is surely one of the most intriguing movies of the year that is about women and by a woman. Writer/director Kelly Reichardt (Wendy and Lucy, 2008) has adapted the short stories from Maile Meloy into a film with 3 segments focusing on the daily perseverance of three women in small town Montana (including a rare Wyoming joke).

The first segment has lawyer Laura Dern returning to the office after an … umm … “long lunch meeting”. Waiting for her is her client played by Jared Harris (“Mad Men”). The frustration between the two is palpable. Things take a turn for the worse as the sheriff calls Dern to the scene where Harris has taken a hostage at gunpoint. The issues on display here include the lack of respect for a female attorney, her unsatisfying personal life, and the one-way trust that can happen in times of desperation.

In the next story, we follow Michelle Williams and her husband James LeGros as they meet with a lonely elderly neighbor (Rene Auberjonis) and offer to buy some limestone blocks that have been sitting on his property for decades. The subtlety of the conversation embodies the missing respect and power of Ms. Williams’ character.

Emotions are exploding beneath the surface in the third segment featuring horse handler Lily Gladstone as she stumbles into a class being taught by Kristen Stewart, and is immediately captivated by the smart young teacher. Where this attraction leads is further commentary on the challenges faced by those trying to escape the daily drudgery of their lives.

The above recaps don’t come close to capturing the extraordinary quiet and stillness that director Reichardt uses in an emotionally powerful manner. These three women are all intelligent and filled with both pride and visceral disappointment … each quietly suffering, yet trudging forward with the emptiness each day brings. They each have a feeling of isolation – even if they aren’t truly alone, and failed or lackluster relationships certainly play a role.

The acting and cinematography (film, not digital!) is as expert as the directing. Ms. Gladstone is truly a standout by saying few words out loud, but speaking volumes with her open and pleading eyes. The nuance of each scene is where the most interest is, and the overall mood of the characters and tone of the stories overcome the fact that we are plopped into these lives with little or no backstory. As each one softly crashes (two figuratively, one literally), we understand these are the faces of strong women who will continue to do what’s necessary … even if that’s shoveling horse poop. The film is dedicated to Ms. Reichardt’s dog Lucy (a key to her personal and professional life).

watch the trailer:

 

 


99 HOMES (2015)

October 8, 2015

99 homes Greetings again from the darkness. Thumping music, the aftermath of a suicide, and an arrogant and immediately dislikable real estate agent fill the screen in a tension-packed opening sequence. This is how writer/director Ramin Bahrani begins our descent back to 2010 during the severe housing and economic crash. While the foundation of the story is the “system” that screwed over so many homeowners, it’s really more a tale of morality and how we react during desperate times.

Andrew Garfield plays Dennis Nash, a skilled construction worker scrounging for jobs as he tries hard to make ends meet in the house-building industry so devastated by the economy. He lives in his childhood home with his mom (Laura Dern) and his young son. In an attempt to stave off foreclosure, Dennis goes to court pleading his case. See, he received contradictory instructions from his bank, and he ends up on the wrong end of the bailout. Watching a family getting booted from their home is excruciatingly emotional, and we empathize with the anger, frustration and helplessness of Dennis as realtor Rick Carver (Michael Shannon) and the Sheriff’s department execute the eviction.

In an odd turn of events, Dennis ends up working for Carver and quickly becomes addicted to the money. As Carver pulls him deeper into his scheme of bilking the banks and government agencies, Dennis rationalizes with the knowledge that he is providing for his family and on track to get his family house back. Watching Garfield’s emotionally vulnerable character interact with Shannon’s brutal businessman is pretty fascinating. It’s a bit Faustian as Dennis basically sells his soul to the devil (Carver), though he continually struggles with the moral issues until the final act … where the true line in the Florida sand is drawn.

Garfield makes the acting transition to adult in a fine turn, but it’s Shannon’s creepy Realtor who dominates the picture. From the beginning, we don’t like him – but we find ourselves better understanding his motivations after we finally get his personal explanation. The film does a nice job pointing out all parties who are somewhat responsible for the horrific housing downturn, and does so without sermonizing on the evils of big banks. In fact, it could be taken as a reminder that the “system” so many love to bash is actually made up of individuals who, in the words of Rick Carver, have learned to go “numb” rather than show emotion or respect. It’s a tough movie to watch, but a needed reminder of the importance of humanity during desperate times.

watch the trailer:

 


BRAVETOWN (2015)

May 7, 2015

bravetown Greetings again from the darkness. It’s a coming of age film. Nope, it’s small town Americana film. Wait … it’s a high school dance film. Hold on, it’s an anti-war film. Sorry about that, it’s a film about families struggling with grief.  Not that a film has to be any one type – the best rarely are – but writer Oscar Orlando Torres and first time director Daniel Duron are all over the place with this one.

Josh (Lucas Til, Havoc from the “X-Men” films) is a troubled young man with dazzling DJ skills beloved in the NYC club scene. An unfortunate turn leads to his mother (Maria Bello) and a Judge banishing him to live with his long lost father (Tom Everett Scott) in a small, idyllic place that could be AnyTown USA … or more appropriately, NoPlace USA.  Josh is required to go to regular counseling for one year, and of course his therapist (Josh Duhamel) is as unstable as most any patient (as noted by his passion for soccer).

As with any new high school student, Josh is quickly befriended by Tony the nerdy little brother of the beautiful dance team captain Mary (Kherington Payne, Fame 2009). Tony is played by Jae Head, who you will remember as the sharp-but-still-goofy little brother in The Blind Side. It’s pretty obvious where this is headed when we first see the lame dance routines. In the blink of an eye, Josh’s music has elevated the dance team to elite status while he also stumbles into a romantic situation with Mary.

We soon learn that this town is hiding something. No, it’s not like The Stepford Wives, but in case we can’t figure it out on our own, Mary illuminates the War Memorial Tree – filled with military medals awarded to those the town has lost to war. See, the whole town has been touched war casualties, but no one will deal. Laura Dern plays mom to Tony and Mary, but she is so disoriented by grief, that she often thinks her oldest son is still returning home someday.

With elements of Footloose and Step Up, the story is continually brought crashing back around us with clips from Platoon – a film Josh so loves that it plays a central role in the film’s climax and redemption for all involved. The best parts of the film revolve around grief and pain, but those elements are constantly chopped up with the abbreviated dance contests. Some script doctoring would have helped rescue a film that seems to have too much to say, yet underserves a solid cast (though Til and Payne are too old to play high schoolers).

watch the trailer: