Greetings again from the darkness. In a cinematic oddity, this is my second SWAN SONG film to review this year. The first was a SXSW starring vehicle for Udo Kier, and now we have the first feature film from writer-director Benjamin Cleary, who won an Oscar for his 2015 short film STUTTERER. It’s safe to say the two ‘Swan Songs’ share no similarities other than their title. Cleary presents a sci-fi drama that applies moral and ethical questions to advanced medical science, and our inherent desire to protect loved ones.
Oscar winner Mahershala Ali (MOONLIGHT, 2016) stars as Cameron, a graphic design artist recently diagnosed with a terminal illness. Rather than disclose this to his wife Poppy (Naomie Harris, MOONLIGHT) and young son Cory (Dax Rey), Cameron opts for an alternative course of action offered by Dr. Jo Scott (8 time Oscar nominee Glenn Close). It’s an extreme and risky solution to a horrible situation, and Cameron’s only motivation is to shield his family from the pain and grief his death would cause.
Dr. Scott, working with Dalton (Adam Beach), a psychologist, has concocted not just a cloning process right down to a person’s DNA, but also the transfer of memories and subconscious memory storage into said clone. The idea is that loved ones never realize they’ve lost a loved one. Is this morally justifiable? Is it ethical? Is this deceit the right thing to do even if it spares the pain of loss? As Cameron goes through the process (and meets the new him), we see much of his life in flashback form, and get a feel for the love in his marriage, as well as the struggles incurred. While at the center … a stunning modern facility buried deep in the picturesque forest … Cameron meets another ‘client’ played by Awkwafina (CRAZY RICHASIANS, 2018), who steers him through the process and the (at times) stifling emotions.
Mr. Ali and Ms. Harris are terrific in their scenes together, and it helps us understand why Cameron agrees to do this for her. Director Cleary never backs away from Cameron’s conflicted thoughts – probably the same most would have – and we comprehend why he’s tortured. However, the film never tackles some of the big picture questions and issues raised by such a proposal. The film is certain to spur plenty of thought and debate. It’s a nice-looking film with strong sound design and terrific performances … leading up to your decision: what would you do?
Available in theaters and on AppleTV+ beginning December 17, 2021
The Academy missed their goal of a 3 hour presentation, but only by 17 minutes! Ratings were up (over last year) and diversity was on full display, so it seems most can agree that things went pretty smoothly without a host. Despite some recent bungled decision-making, followed by a social media outcry which resulted in decision reversals, the Academy deserves credit for a fine presentation that featured more diversity than ever before. The days of #OscarSoWhite seem to be over.
I trust you didn’t come here to read yet another rant about why a certain award proves how out of touch the Academy is. Nope, I like movies and prefer to view the Oscars as a celebration rather than a political statement. By the time the final envelope was opened, all 8 Best Picture nominees had won at least one Oscar. Additionally, two other excellent films, IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK and FIRST MAN, also won awards (Best Supporting Actress and Visual Effects, respectively). Spreading the major award love over 10 different films speaks not just to the diversity, but also the deep lineup of quality filmmaking during 2018.
As always, the ceremony provided some fun talking/debating/arguing points. Queen opened the show with Adam Lambert proving how remarkable Freddie Mercury’s voice was, while Brian May showed us he still plays a mean guitar. Best Actor winner Rami Malek fell off the stage after giving his speech. Fortunately, he wasn’t seriously hurt. Melissa McCarthy (and a puppet) and Brian Tyree Henry fully and elaborately committed to their duties as co-presenters of Best Costume. Despite not being present, the omnipotent Oprah made an appearance – via the montage of 2018 films (from her bomb A WRINKLE IN TIME), and we saw a live quasi-reunion of WAYNE’S WORLD with Mike Myers and Dana Carvey (sans wigs and head-bobbing). Spike Lee finally won an Oscar (Adapted Screenplay for BLACKKKLANSMAN), and then proceeded to bogart the microphone from his equally deserving co-writers, before throwing a tantrum when GREEN BOOK was announced as Best Picture.
Of course, the most Tweeted about moment came when Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga took the stage to sing their (now Oscar winning song) “Shallow” from A STAR IS BORN. It was a very intimate duet that, had there been one more verse, might have resulted in clothes being shed on stage. The aforementioned diversity resulted in the most presented Oscars for both African-Americans and Women, and with presenter Michael Keaton being the only white male to take the stage solo. Barbra Streisand (presenting BLACKKKLANSMAN rather than A STAR IS BORN) somehow escaped backlash after comparing herself to Spike Lee … see they are both from Brooklyn and like hats; although we aren’t sure if Babs greeted her superfan, nominee Richard E Grant. And poor Christian Bale – no way that room was ever going to vote for Dick Cheney, regardless of how remarkable his transformation and performance.
Olivia Colman (THE FAVOURITE) won the Best Actress Oscar over Glenn Close (THE WIFE). This was Ms. Close’s 7th Oscar nomination without a win, keeping her one ahead of fellow nominee Amy Adams (VICE). However, neither of them gained ground on songwriter Diane Warren whose nomination for “I’ll Fight” (RBG) was her 10th without a win. It should also be noted that Ms. Colman’s acceptance speech was the funniest, most charming and most heartfelt of the evening. In contrast to Ms. Close, Ms. Adams and Ms. Warren, Regina King was thrilled to win the Best Supporting Actress Oscar with her first ever nomination (IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK). In a show of ultimate class, Congressman John Lewis presented Best Picture nominee GREEN BOOK, and we could be certain a man with his perspective and role in history, would not partake in any tantrum throwing.
Mahershala Ali (GREEN BOOK) won Best Supporting Actor for the second consecutive year, and Alfonso Cuaron won 3 Oscars (Best Director, Cinematographer, Best Foreign Language Film) for his autobiographical masterpiece ROMA. Also winning 3 Oscars on the night were BLACK PANTHER (Costumes, Production Design, Score) and GREEN BOOK; however, it was BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY with 4 wins that walked away with the most statuettes. Even those who are upset by GREEN BOOK’s Best Picture win must agree that it was a much smoother end to the evening than last year’s debacle and mix-up.
***Note: although there were a few political barbs tossed in throughout the evening, President Trump’s name was never mentioned on the broadcast. This allowed the focus to remain mostly on the nominees and the films … and the plug for the under-construction Academy museum (opening someday). .
Greetings again from the darkness. “The Negro Motorist Green Book” was a travel guide highlighting safe places for African Americans to stay, eat and visit from the 1930’s through the mid 1960’s. Yes, it was a real publication and yes, there was a real need for it during the Jim Crow era. The book makes for a nice movie title, but this sterling dramedy from director Peter Farrelly focuses more on the budding friendship of two men from vastly different worlds separated by a few city blocks.
Mr. Farrelly is one-half of the infamous Farrelly Brothers who have directed such raunchy comedy hits as THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY (1998) and DUMB AND DUMBER (1994). This is quite the change of pace for him, as it is for co-stars Mahershala Ali (Oscar winner last year for MOONLIGHT) and heavy drama stalwart Viggo Mortensen. We see a crisp blend of the era’s harsh racism and the inherent comedy of a buddy road trip featuring a working class NYC Italian-American and an upper crust, well-educated, world class African-American pianist.
The film kicks off in 1962 at the Copacabana, a mob-controlled club where Frank Anthony “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (a beefed up Mortensen) gives us an up-close look at his bouncer skills. He’s quite good at his job. When the club closes for renovation, he takes a job as a chauffeur/bodyguard for Dr. Don Shirley (Ali), who is beginning an 8 week tour as the featured player in a jazz trio through the Midwest and Deep South. Tony Lip is a walking Italian cliché, while Dr Shirley is a regal black man … in fact, he might view himself as royalty – living alone in a swank apartment above Carnegie Hall. This is a good time to note that Tony Lip’s son Nick Vallelonga co-wrote the script, is a producer on the film, and even makes an appearance as a State Trooper.
Inspired by the true story of this trip and the lifelong friendship that ensued, we get to know both men as they get to know each other. Tony Lip is a streetwise man who is comfortable with his lot in life, while Dr. Shirley plays his role in society while quietly stewing internally. He flashes his toothy grin to disarm the adoring white audiences, but then sucks down his Cutty Sark in the evening, as he is good enough to perform for them, but not good enough to dine with them (or even use their restroom). There are times the racism gets violent and that’s where Tony Lip comes in.
Don helps Tony write romantic and intimate letters to his wife Dolores (played by Linda Cardellini), while Tony teaches Don about KFC and Little Richard … proclaiming “I’m blacker than you!” in one of the film’s funniest moments. It’s an awkward buddy film that in real life developed into a decades-long friendship – one that only ended when both died in 2013. It could be described as a twisted DRIVING MISS DAISY with a dose of THE HELP. It’s certainly a crowd-pleaser, even delivering a mushy ending not dissimilar to that of PLANES TRAINS AND AUTOMOBILES. Of course we don’t mind, because after spending a couple of hours with these two, we are fine with a feel-good ending. The film is showcase for two terrific actors, and for those that don’t know, the real Tony Lip appeared in a few projects such as “The Sopranos” and DONNIE BRASCO. Expect to see these two actors get some love at Oscar time, and this is one of the few that can be recommended to just about every movie lover.
Greetings again from the darkness. The space program has created many iconic images over the years: rhesus monkeys in space suits, the Mercury 7 Astronauts press conference, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin erecting a flag on the moon, and numerous Space Shuttle missions – some successful, others quite tragic. We’ve even been privy to cameras inside the space station and the NASA control center. Despite all of that, director Theodore Melfi’s (St Vincent, 2014) latest film uncovers a part of history of which most of us knew nothing.
Adapted from the book by Margot Lee Shetterly, the film stuns us with the story of the “Colored Computers” … the African-American female mathematicians who manually checked and cross-checked the endless calculations, formulas and theories required to launch a rocket into space and bring it (and the astronaut) back home. It’s a crowd-pleasing history lesson and an overdue tribute to, and celebration of, three intelligent women of color who played crucial roles in the success of the American space program
We first meet a young Katherine Johnson as a child math prodigy whose school can’t provide her the challenge she needs. Next we see her as a bespectacled adult (Taraji P Henson) on the side of the road beside a broken down car with her friends and co-workers Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (musician Janelle Monae). They are on their way to work at Langley in the computing department. Dorothy is the ad hoc supervisor of the group and is in a non-stop battle for the title and increased pay that comes with the job. Mary is the razor-tongued one who is striving to overcome all of the obstacles on her way to becoming the first female African American Engineer at NASA. These are good friends and smart women caught up in the racism and sexism of the times and of the organization for which they work.
Soon, Katherine is promoted to the Space Task Group run by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner). This is a group of true rocket scientists, and Katherine is charged with checking and confirming their work … a thankless job for anyone, but especially for a black woman in the early 1960’s. Her supervisor (Jim Parsons) refuses to give her the necessary security clearance – huge portions of the work are redacted, making it increasingly difficult for Katherine to run the numbers. This is a seemingly accurate and grounded portrayal of racism in the workplace. At the time, racism and sexism were mostly woven into the fabric of society … it’s “just the way things are”. It’s almost a passive-aggressive environment with separate coffee pots and restrooms clear across campus.
There are numerous sub-plots – probably too many. We even get an underdeveloped romance between Katherine and a soldier named Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali, so great in this year’s Moonlight). We follow Mary as she goes to court in pursuit of the right to take the engineering courses required for her certification. We see Dorothy with her kids, as well as her ongoing head-butting with her condescending supervisor (Kristen Dunst), who claims to have nothing against ‘you people’. Dorothy’s response is clever, crowd-pleasing and a reminder that this is an air-brushed version of reality … but also a view that we rarely see. As the Mercury Project progresses, we note how Harrison (Costner) is so focused on getting the job done, that he is oblivious to the extra challenges faced by Katherine – that is until her emotions erupt in a scene that will have Henson under Oscar consideration.
The slow implementation of the first IBM mainframe is important not just to NASA, but also to Dorothy and her team. They see the future and immediately start self-training on Fortran so that they are positioned for the new world, rather than being left behind. Eye-opening sequences like this are contrasted with slick mainstream aspects like no slide-rules (not very camera friendly, I guess), stylish and expensive clothing for the underpaid women, and a steady parade of sparkling classic cars in vibrant colors – no mud or dents in sight. Sure, these are minor qualms, but it’s these types of details that distract from the important stories and messages.
The film does a nice job of capturing the national pride inspired by the Mercury project, and astronauts such as John Glenn (played here by Glen Powell, Everybody Wants Some!!).It even deploys some actual clips and captures the pressure brought on by the race to space versus the Russians. There is an interesting blend of Hans Zimmer’s score and the music of Pharrell Williams that gives the film a somewhat contemporary feel despite being firmly planted in the 60’s. This mostly unknown story of these women is clearly about heroes fighting the daily battles while maintaining exemplary self-control. It offers a positive, upbeat and inspirational message … believe in yourself, and don’t pre-judge others. Don’t miss the photos over the closing credits, and don’t hesitate to take the family to the theatre over the holidays.
Greetings again from the darkness. It’s uncertain whether writer/director Barry Jenkins has developed the story from Tarell McCraney in order to highlight stereotypes, explain stereotypes, or both. The interpretation is up to the viewer, but what’s clear is that the film is one of the most sensitive portraits we’ve seen of growing up young, black, and sexually confused, while being mostly neglected by a drug-addicted mother.
Told in standard triptych structure, the film chronicles 3 stages in the life of a young male, with the chapters titled Little – Chiron – Black, for the names he is known by at each stage. As a 9 year old boy, “Little” (a nickname due to his small stature) is a wide-eyed near-mute who gets bullied and called names by the bigger boys. It’s at this stage where he is taken under the wing of local drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali), who offers a “safe place” to sleep and eat, with the bonus of swimming lessons accentuated by life lessons from Juan and his understanding girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monae). It’s a poignant and painful moment when Little connects the dots between his mother (Naomie Harris) and Juan.
As a high school adolescent, Chiron is now a nervous, totally-withdrawn kid who simply doesn’t fit in – and doesn’t understand why. His high-crime Miami neighborhood is even more dangerous for him now as the schoolyard bullying is often accompanied by violent behavior. His surrogate father figure Juan is no longer in the picture, but Teresa is still there for him – always at the ready with a meal, clean sheets, and a spoonful of wisdom.
In the final chapter, we catch up with a hardened “Black” (another nickname) 10 years after high school followed by a stint in prison. He has moved from his Miami roots, and it’s at this stage where we fully understand the influence of a role model on a boy who has few. When he reconnects with childhood buddy Kevin, we see the shredded remnants of young “Little” still present in the older, experienced “Black”. This circle of life is understandable, while at the same time being nearly unbearable.
In addition to Mr. Ali and Ms. Monea (both who are excellent in the upcoming Hidden Figures), and the standout work of Ms. Harris, the six actors who play Chiron and Kevin through the years are fascinating to watch. Alex Hibbert perfectly captures the confused “Little”. Ashton Sanders plays the awkward, dreading-each-day Chiron; and Trevante Rhodes (former University of Texas athlete) plays the adult “Black” with a quiet uneasiness that resonates on screen. The 3 Kevin actors are Jaden Piner, Jharell Jerome, and Andre Holland (a standout as the adult Kevin).
Beautifully filmed in all three segments by cinematographer James Laxton, the film reiterates the importance of role models, especially in the life of those whose path seems pre-ordained by circumstance. The harsh realities of drug addiction, absentee parents, schoolyard bullying, and the almost inevitable stint behind bars are contrasted with a plate of fries, the chef’s special from an old friend, and the soothing effects of sand and sea. Encouraging our kids to be true to themselves is a lesson that can fall on deaf ears when surviving the moment is first and foremost. This incredibly sensitive film is likely either a necessary reminder or an eye-opening education … depending on your own situation.
Greetings again from the darkness. I’m now even further removed from the target demographics than for the first two Hunger Games movies. Regardless, I have read all 3 books from Suzanne Collins’ trilogy and have seen all 3 movies based on her books. Oh, wait. There will be FOUR movies, not three, from her source material. Hello Lionsgate profits! By definition, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 is a warm-up act … it’s setting the stage for the finale which will be released in one year.
So for this one we get a Hunger Games movie with no Hunger Games. In fact, there is very little combat action at all. Instead, we are witness to the strategic planning and “selling” of a war (think Wag the Dog), replete with short promo videos featuring Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) as the Mockingjay … the rallying symbol of the rebels. There is a terrific scene featuring four great actors: Jennifer Lawrence, Julianne Moore (as President Coin), Jeffrey Wright (as Beetee) and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (as Plutarch). Four great actors in harmony elevating a movie based on YA novels. Pretty cool.
With no actual Hunger Games, the color palette of the film is almost entirely grays and browns. Even Julianne Moore’s famous red tresses are toned down to a streaked gray. The bleak look reminds of the Metropolis (1927) set, and also makes President Snow’s (Donald Sutherland) vivid white wardrobe and beard stand in contrast to rest. Mr. Sutherland has another juicy scene flashing his devilish grin and twinkle. He’s another example of the perfect casting, which extends to Elizabeth Banks (Effie), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch), Stanley Tucci, and Mahershala Ali (as Boggs). You should expect much less Josh Hutcherson (Peeta) this time, but a little more Gale (Liam Hemsworth).
Jennifer Lawrence proves again that her recurring role as Katniss is underrated from an acting perspective. She is now best known as an Oscar winner, but that doesn’t affect the sincerity, emotion and tenacity that she exhibits here.
This ending of Part 1 feels a bit awkward, but the break comes at the right time considering how the book is written. If you are a fan of the franchise, just accept that you will be buying a ticket for this move as well as next year’s finale.
**NOTE: Fans of Face Offwill pick up a nod to that film
**NOTE: Philip Seymour Hoffman passed away with less than two weeks remaining in the filming schedule. He will appear in the finale, but his last few scenes were re-written to account for his absence. I will say it again next year, but his death leaves such a void for us movie lovers.