Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

20 May 2018

Saraband for Dead Lovers

This movie is so much better than I thought it would be, and Flora Robson is pretty extraordinary; she gives a brave, fierce performance that elevates the film far above the usual period fare that the studios were cranking out in the late 1940s.

Basil Dearden's filmmaking is also super interesting, which is surprising because the film itself is the kind of sudsy big-budget period romance to which we have all become accustomed in the post-war period. But Saraband for Dead Lovers has lots to recommend it. The editing is intriguing, the tale is told with startling economy, and the politics – a set of moves in Hanover that landed the German George I on the English throne – are not without interest.

As usual with the stuff I'm watching lately, Saraband for Dead Lovers is very hard to get ahold of. If you want to watch it you will have to find yourself a (legally questionable) DVD of it.

18 May 2018

Ådalen 31 (1969)

Ådalen 31 is good. It's no Raven's End, but it's good. I think that Widerberg isn't as clear about the connections he's making in Ådalen 31 as he is in that previous film. And Ådalen 31 doesn't have the same focus on a central character, and so it is hard to connect to this movie in the same way.

What is clear to me, however, is that Widerberg was a major 1960s voice in Sweden, and it is nuts that these films are so hard to get in the United States. Also, as I watch more and more films from this period, it becomes clear that the topic of unionization – and labor more generally – was the conversation in global cinema in the 1960s. This is true for big films like I Compagni but even seemingly somewhat smaller films like La Venganza or the movies of Bo Widerberg or Vasilis Georgiadis.

16 May 2018

Like, Simon

Love, Simon was sort of basic. It has a hip soundtrack, but it settles for most of the usual tropes and it is never really interesting as a film.

Worse yet, it doesn't really have any intriguing characters. Everyone here is attractive and charming, but other recent high school movies like The Edge of Seventeen, Closet Monster, and even Handsome Devil have much more interesting characterization than Love, Simon does. These guys are all just so bland.

To be fair, this film does have a couple really great scenes. There is one where Simon comes out to his friend in a car – this is a really moving sequence. And, of course, the scenes with Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel are all great. Especially their two (solo) post-coming out scenes with Simon. In another very good scene, Simon yells at the young man who has outed him, telling him that when to come out should have been his choice (this is something out gay people seem to forget about people who are not out – I find myself really tired of gay folks telling famous gay actors and musicians that they need to come out).

Still, I wish this film had been more of a film.
And I wish it had been gayer.
And I wish there had been more Joey Pollari.

14 May 2018

When Tomorrow Comes

When Tomorrow Comes is a charming melodrama. It would be remade by Douglas Sirk, eventually. This is a lovely little romantic–tragic follow-up to Love Story starring that earlier movie's leads, Irene Dunne and Charles Boyer. Also, I think I had forgotten just how much I love those two performers. They're wonderful together onscreen. I just love them. When Tomorrow Comes is, surprisingly, hard to find (no DVD release or normal streaming possibilities). It does not deserve this fate. It's no Love Story, of course, but it's quite good, and it has a pretty terrific hurricane sequence.

13 May 2018

Mad about Music

I hated this movie, and I loathed the central character, who spends the entirety of the film lying. But then I hate most Deanna Durbin movies. Honestly, I am not sure why I subjected myself to this. Mad about Music would be a total and complete loss if it were not for Herbert Marshall, who is completely charming in this from start to finish.

12 May 2018

The Red Lanterns (1963)

The Red Lanterns (Τα Κόκκινα Φανάρια), Vasilis Georgiadis's 1963 film is my kind of melodrama. In many ways this is even more of a successful film than Georgiadis's later, more political melodrama, Blood on the Land (Το Χώμα Βάφτηκε Κόκκινο), from 1965. 

The Red Lanterns is the literal title in Greek, but it refers to the red-light district, and the film surely should have been renamed for its U.S. release in 1965. Georgiadis's film is a portrait of one brothel in this red-light district, and we follow four or five different women who work for the same brothel. The stories are beautiful in their way, and, of course melodramatic. I really loved this movie.

Isle of Dogs

This is cute and very funny. I was also really invested in its plot. Isle of Dogs totally works, too, but... I think I am more and more impatient with Wes Anderson and his brand. I really liked the last one, The Grand Budapest Hotel, but I haven't really loved a Wes Anderson film since that one where Gwyneth Paltrow attempted suicide and wore dark eyeliner. I think I just want things to be a little more serious.

07 May 2018

Princess Cyd

Love love love love.  Princess Cyd is filled with light and wisdom, and it's very moving and gentle. It's a gorgeous, generous film with a central performance from Chicago actor Rebecca Spence that is breathtaking. This is such good stuff.

06 May 2018

I Even Met Happy Gypsies

I wish I had more to say about Aleksandar Petrović's I Even Met Happy Gypsies. The filmmaking is cool, but the story is just not that interesting.

Two for the Road (1967)

Two for the Road is a very cleverly told tale about a relationship and three (or four?) different trips through the south of France taken by a couple at different times. The editing is smart, and the script keeps all of these balls in the air in smart ways.

The central question of the film, however, is this romantic relationship: will they divorce? Will they stay together? Will they murder each other? To be honest, by the film's second act, I had already started, rather, to dislike the two of them, and didn't care if they stayed together or not.

05 May 2018

La Vie devant Soi

La Vie devant Soi might be my favorite movie of 1978. That's kind of a difficult claim to make 40 years later, so I'm having trouble committing, but this film is gorgeous. I absolutely loved it. The movie stars (the incomparable) Simone Signoret as Madame Rosa, an aged prostitute and survivor of the Shoah who now takes care of prostitutes' children during the week so that they can work.

The movie, like all Moshé Mizrahi movies, is actually, however, about a young boy coming of age. One of the kids that Madame Rosa has taken in is a boy whose parents were Muslim, and his parents never come back for him, so he and Madame Rosa stick it out together as she grows old and infirm and he becomes a young teenager.

This is easily Mizrahi's best film, and this one manages to cover so many intriguing topics and describe so many fascinating characters. I found it beautiful and very moving even if I have become impatient with Mizrahi's greater interest in young men coming of age than the women in those boys' lives. (The women in his films always seem more interesting to me, but Mizrahi's movies are less interested in them.)

As for Simone Signoret (1921-1985), La Vie devant Soi is a crowning achievement in a long and superb career.

03 May 2018

Logan Lucky

Logan Lucky was really funny, and for the record I thought it was much funnier and not nearly as classist as I, Tonya. I love that Channing Tatum. He's just so great.

24 April 2018

The Death of Louis XIV

It is unquestionably inspired to have cast Jean-Pierre Léaud as Louis XIV for this movie, but the film itself is claustrophobic and even tedious. I know Serra is supposed to be a daring, challenging filmmaker, but La Mort de Louis XIV was definitely not for me.

23 April 2018

Mi Querida Señorita

Mi Querida Señorita is a really strange romantic comedy in which a 43-year-old señora finds out that she is actually a man. It's honestly and surprisingly really funny and charming. Its trans politics are (obviously) 45 years old, but I quite enjoyed this.

As far as I can tell, Mi Querida Señorita was never released in the U.S. It was released in Spain in 1972.

20 April 2018

The Nest

El Nido is a strange film. It moves along at an odd speed, occasionally fast-paced, and occasionally slow. This is typical for the films of Jaime de Armiñán; they can often jump many months without warning. Also typical is the slightly mocking gaze that the film always has turned to its characters. These are characters who are quirky and behave foolishly.

The film asks us also to be sentimental about their behaviors, to care for the characters. Armiñán places them in absurd circumstances, but these circumstances seem to be serving the filmmaker's mockery more than his affection. He certainly is affectionate toward his characters, it's just that the mockery so often seems to outweigh that affection.  

El Nido wasn't really for me. I wanted to identify with the main character, but it just didn't happen. Worse yet, I didn't laugh very much either.

18 April 2018


Thoroughbreds was disappointing. The whole thing felt like build-up, and then nothing ever happened. I know it was supposed to be a black comedy, but, to be honest, it just wasn't that funny.

17 April 2018


Nocturama stressed me out a lot. It's beautifully made, but I am not sure how I feel about it. I loved the characters; I loved Jeanne d'Arc; I loved the department store. But maybe I thought the whole thing was a little too smug for me. The end is really good, though.

Porgy and Bess (1959)

I had always been curious about this film and so I got myself a bootleg copy of this opera-turned-movie ...and now I know.  

Porgy and Bess had a beleaguered production process, and it switched directors right before shooting. It also had a cast that mostly didn't want to be involved, and actors who couldn't sing. Then Otto Preminger filmed the entire thing in a medium shot for reasons I cannot understand at all, but may be related to his relationship with Samuel Goldwyn. The result is distanced and strange. Fine for a stage production, maybe, but as a film it is cold and has too many gaps.

Is the film worth watching for Dorothy Dandridge, Sidney Poitier, Pearl Bailey, and Sammy Davis Jr.? I don't actually think it is. No one seems to want to be here, actually, except maybe Sammy Davis, Jr., who plays a version of Sporting Life that is strange and stilted.

I've used the word strange twice above, and I guess I just feel like this entire film is very odd, as though the director and the producer just didn't quite know what to do with the Gershwins' masterpiece.

03 April 2018

The Four Days of Naples

Le Quattro Giornate di Napoli is a pretty stellar tale of the Neapolitan civilian uprising at the end of WWII. Excellently filmed with lots of action and lots of heart. This is really superb.

Nine Lives

Nine Lives: the Story of Jan Balsruud is the most extraordinary, incredible true story. A Norwegian spy escapes from the Nazis over the mountains into Sweden. He is helped by a succession of extraordinary civilians working for the resistance. This was completely conventional, in many ways, but it was exciting and unbelievable.

28 March 2018

Here Comes the Navy

Here Comes the Navy is some kind of you-guys-should-join-the-navy promotional movie with Jimmy Cagney. Not sure why this got made in 1934, but it did. I thought it was dumb.

27 March 2018

Annihilation and Alex Garland's Big Ideas

Annihilation has a lot of good ideas – well, it has one or two good ideas, but the film is a failure. The thing in its entirety just doesn't work. The movie wants to ask us to think about being, about what cells are and what it means to be an I if our cells mutate constantly. Annihilation uses the fact that our cells deteriorate over our lifespans to ask us to think about what it would mean to instead become something else, to become something new and different than whatever we are. This is all good and well, and it is actually quite an interesting question.

But, in the first place, Natalie Portman is the wrong actress to get us to think about these questions. She is primarily a reactive performer, and so she doesn't appear to be thinking actively about the questions the film poses. Instead she seems simply to respond to whatever the film throws at her. It didn't attack me; it mirrored me, she says of The Shimmer, late in the film, and that's what Portman does, too. She looks seriously and anxiously at whatever is just out of the frame, but she doesn't really do much more.

In the second place, Annihilation sort of wants to be a monster movie, but then it just can't quite keep it up. Whenever the monsters appear out of the Shimmer (and there are something like four or five of these sequences) I was loving this movie. The Shimmer (whatever it is) creates new things by mixing DNA (this is in the trailer, so don't act like I'm spoiling anything), and so we get to see these crazy looking hybrid monsters and strange (occasionally beautiful) lichens and flowers and trees. There are some even weirder monsters in the film's third act. But, the film disposes of these beautiful things easily, and although Portman stares at them and takes DNA samples, she, like the movie, doesn't really seem interested in whatever version of cell division is happening within the space/creature/Shimmer.

And then there's the ending, which is frustrating and easy. I won't spoil this, but Annihilation opts for an uncomplicated, obvious ending, that left me bored. This ending is no more interesting than the last Alien movie's stupid finale. (One is reminded, too, of Ex Machina's ill-considered ending.)

Still, the visuals are really cool, and (as with Alex Garland's last movie) I spent lots of the movie pondering the particular ontological query that the film proposes. The violence in the film, too, is exciting to watch (this was true of Ex Machina, as well). Garland, it seems to me, is fascinated by both being and by actions designed to destroy that being. His films seem to come alive when they focus on either of these things.

If only Annihilation spent more time thinking about the questions it poses; instead it opts for bad storytelling and a cliché finish.

22 March 2018

Super Dark Times

The filmmaking is great here. Excellent script. Very good acting all around. I really liked Super Dark Times even if I find myself skeptical of the whole kids-are-unfeeling-cold-and-merciless message. Still, the whole thing is directed beautifully – especially the film's opening sequence.

12 March 2018

A Quiet Passion

This didn't work for me. It felt too often stilted and too repetitive. There are some great performances, but there are also some terrible ones. It's an odd marriage and Davies is a strange filmmaker. The work is so queer and I always want to love it, but I just don't understand why he makes some of the choices he makes. A Quiet Passion does actually make me like Emily Dickinson a little bit more. I will admit that.

11 March 2018


The parts of the whole of Hostiles are better than their sum. Mostly this is the director's and screenwriter's faults; everyone else is doing very good work here.

This has an excellent cast, with some truly superb performances, and the whole thing looks breathtakingly beautiful. But Hostiles is a little too in love with itself, so it outstays its welcome. Nearly every scene is slightly too long, and then the film itself has three endings. Hostiles' three endings are an indication of a Spielberg-esque tendency to attempt to wring emotion out of us by the end, as though a fine story isn't quite good enough. Rosamund Pike, too, who I normally like a lot, flounders in Hostiles. I blame the script. The screenplay just isn't tight enough, and seems to need to do everything it does twice.

But damn does this thing look gorgeous. Its score and cinematography and production design are just beautiful. No one saw this in time for the Academy Award nominations – it was released way too late, the distributor had no awards-season experience, and Hostiles isn't nearly enough of a crowd pleaser in the first place – but this movie definitely should've been nominated in some of those technical categories.

28 February 2018

Oscar Nominations 2018: Part 12 of 12

1 Nomination
  • Makeup & Hairstyling
Director: Stephen Chbosky
Cast: Julia Roberts, Jacob Tremblay, Owen Wilson, Noah Jupe, Izabela Vidovic, Danielle Rose Russell, Sonia Braga, Nadji Jeter, Daveed Diggs, Millie Davis, Mandy Patinkin, Bryce Gheisar, Elle McKinnon

I love Julia Roberts. I think we should start with that. I am just happy to see her, and I am mostly willing to watch her do absolutely anything. She's just. So. Lovable. I love me some Owen Wilson, too, and the two of them are delightful in this. Wonder is about a kid with facial scarring who is about to start the fifth grade. Roberts and Wilson are the little boy's parents, and the little boy himself is played by Room's breakout star, Jacob Tremblay. As you might imagine, this is a very sentimental film with a lot of heart and a lot of hugs. It's also the kind of movie that is obviously based on a novel. It tries to give us a bunch of different perspectives as a way to disrupt standard narrative structures. All in all, Wonder is fine. You will probably like it if you are a mom. And I am not trying to be dismissive or derisive, but this film is a hug-your-kids-tighter, Hallmark-card, we're-all-beautiful-on-the-inside, if-we-could-only-just-all-be-a-little-nicer-to-one-another kind of thing. It's very well made; it's just not designed with me in mind as its ideal audience member.
Will Win: N/A
Could Win: N/A
My Rating: #66 out of 84

The Greatest Showman
1 Nomination
  • Song – "This Is Me": Benj Pasek (La La Land) & Justin Paul (La La Land)
Director: Michael Gracey
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Zac Efron, Michelle Williams, Zendaya, Rebecca Ferguson, Austyn Johnson, Cameron Seely, Keala Settle, Sam Humphrey, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Byron Jennings, Eric Anderson

Sigh. This is almost impossible to take seriously. It's a musical version of the story of P.T. Barnum (not to be confused with the musical Barnum by Cy Coleman), but it is so different from the actual story of P.T. Barnum and so far removed from the realities of the 19th century that it consistently feels absurd. The movie conveniently leaves out the story of Joice Heth (I was waiting for her!), but it also seems not to take place in the real world at all. Nothing in the film feels the least bit realistic. A central storyline of The Greatest Showman, for example, is that Barnum imports a world-famous opera soprano to the United States. But when she performs for the audience in the U.S., she sings a pop song. The crowd goes wild. It's very strange. I know it's pretend and all, but  I just couldn't get my brain to let go and start pretending along with everyone else. Maybe it's because The Greatest Showman is just a parade of clichés. Barnum has a dream, he leaves behind his wife and children to pursue his dream, he (of course) is focusing too much on work and forgetting the important things in life like "family" and "love" and "friendship" and, like, being a dad. But Barnum learns his lesson, and once he decides to be a family man, the show is (miraculously) better than ever. Still, in terms of music, The Greatest Showman's is fun, and everyone in my theatre department is obsessed with this cover of "Never Enough" by John Pinto Jr.. I am also delighted that Keala Settle will be performing "This Is Me" at the Oscars. It's sure to be a rousing number, and maybe this song will even win.
Will Win: N/A
Could Win: Song
My Rating: #65 out of 84

1 Nomination
  • Song – "Stand Up for Something": Common (Selma) & Diane Warren (The Hunting Ground, Beyond the Lights, Pearl Harbor, Music of the Heart, Armageddon, Con Air, Up Close & Personal, Mannequin)
Director: Reginald Hudlin
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Josh Gad, Sterling K. Brown, Kate Hudson, Dan Stevens, James Cromwell, Keesha Sharp, Roger Guenveur Smith, Barrett Doss, Derrick Baskin, John Magaro, Jussie Smollett

I quite like Common and Diane Warren's tune "Stand Up for Something". Warren is seemingly nominated every year these days. It is a return to her 1990s glory days when she penned songs that were made into worldwide hits by Céline Dion and Gloria Estefan and LeAnn Rimes and Aerosmith. Overall, this crop of original song nominees is pretty good, to be honest. But Marshall is not. This movie is yet another Hollywood cartoon version of history. This time it's Thurgood Marshall arguing a particular case in Massachusetts as a lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1940. Almost no one in this movie behaves like a real person. We, instead, get caricatures of Thurgood Marshall, Walter Francis White, and Langston Hughes. Thurgood Marshall is basically a superhero in this movie: the coolest person you've ever met, slicker than a movie star, smarter than a Rhodes scholar, with the ability to fight villains like Iron Man. We also get equally silly cartoon versions of white racists in a Northern state, men who can be destroyed easily by a witty comment or the well-timed turn of a fedora. I have become very tired of these glossy, cartoon versions of U.S. American history, particularly stories happening during Jim Crow. I feel beat over the head with them, mostly because they never seem to take history seriously, glossing over the real violence of Jim Crow with an anodyne, rose-colored, PG-13 gaze.
Will Win: N/A
Could Win: N/A
My Rating: #77 out of 84

Final Predictions:
Best Picture The Shape of Water
Best Director – Guillermo Del Toro, The Shape of Water
Best Actor – Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
Best Actress – Frances McDormand, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri
Best Adapted Screenplay – James Ivory, Call Me by Your Name
Best Original Screenplay – Martin McDonagh, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri
Best Supporting Actor – Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri
Best Supporting Actress – Allison Janney, I, Tonya
Best Film Editing – Lee Smith, Dunkirk
Best Cinematography – Roger Deakins, Blade Runner 2049
Best Production Design – Paul Denham Austerberry, Jeff Melvin, Shane Vieau, The Shape of Water
Best Original Score – Jonny Greenwood, Phantom Thread
Best Costume Design – Mark Bridges, Phantom Thread
Best Foreign Language Film – Lebanon, The Insult
Best Visual EffectsWar for the Planet of the Apes
Best Sound Mixing  Dunkirk

Best Sound EditingDunkirk
Best Animated Feature Coco
Best Animated Short Film Lou
Best Live-action Short Film The Eleven O'clock
Best Documentary FeatureFaces/Places
Best Documentary Short Film Heroin(e)
Best Makeup & Hairstyling Darkest Hour
Best Original Song – "Remember Me", Coco

27 February 2018

Oscar Nominations 2018: Part 11 of 12

The Breadwinner
1 Nomination
  • Animated Feature
Director: Nora Twomey
Cast: Saara Chaudry, Soma Bhatia, Noorin Gulamgaus, Laara Siddiq, Ali Badshah, Shaista Latif, Kanza Feris, Kawa Ada

This is a beautiful film, which is what we've come to expect from the studio behind Song of the Sea and The Secret of Kells. This one, however, was relentlessly depressing. As I say, the animation is gorgeous, but The Breadwinner never lets up, and yet this movie winds up not actually having much to say about its subject matter. Worse yet, we are told – again and again – that old saw about the power of storytelling. The Breadwinner tells us repeatedly about the magical power of narrative. But saying this over and over doesn't make it any more true. I have grown very tired of this particular bit of sentimental nonsense. Storytelling does not fight the Taliban, as far as I can tell. The little girl in this movie finds courage by retelling old myths, and I think that's just fine, but if that is the takeaway here, I am afraid I need a little more. This movie has much to recommend it – its animation is lovely – but I think I'd rather rewatch Song of the Sea.
Will Win: N/A
Could Win: N/A
My Rating: #61 out of 84

Loving Vincent
1 Nomination
  • Animated Feature
Cast: Douglas Booth, Saoirse Ronan, Eleanor Tomlinson, Chris O'Dowd, Bill Thomas, Jerome Flynn, Robin Hodges, John Sessions, Helen McCrory, Aidan Turner, Josh Burdett, Holly Earl

This one is beautiful too! Every frame is a painting. This is a film that was performed by actors and filmed and then has been painted over in the style of Vincent Van Gogh. The film is not a documentary but a narrative feature in which a young man tries to find out what happened to Van Gogh, how he died, and how he lived the last few weeks of his life. So far, so lovely. But the film is stilted and boring, with lots of pauses and without a real care about its mood, its information, or pacing of any kind. It also tells a story that is, by now, fairly well known: that Van Gogh probably did not commit suicide but was instead covering for someone else in order to protect him or her. I've heard this story before, and so the film did not really have any surprises in it for me. All of this led to me being rather bored. I appreciated Loving Vincent for its beauty, and that beauty sustains the picture for its first ten minutes or so, but that is all it can manage.
Will Win: N/A
Could Win: N/A
My Rating: #62 out of 84

1 Nomination
  • Animated Feature
Director: Carlos Saldanha
Cast: John Cena, Kate MacKinnon, Peyton Manning, Anthony Anderson, David Tennant, Raúl Esparza, Jeremy Sisto, Bobby Cannavale, Gina Rodriguez, Daveed Diggs, Gabriel Iglesias, Flula Borg, Sally Phillips, Boris Kodjoe, Juanes, Jerrod Carmichael

Dear lord, we really are scraping the bottom of the barrel, here. I mean, honestly. I get that there was a shortage of good animated films this year, but why not just nominate Coco, Loving Vincent, and The Breadwinner and be done with it? Adding this one and the next one to the mix is embarrassing. Ferdinand, as it turns out, is not a Disney movie. You are thinking of the actual Disney cartoon with a bull who smells flowers that is called Ferdinand. I am not sure how all the rights worked, but this is a 20th Century Fox movie, and it is a computer animated children's movie. As I was watching, I kept thinking how my nephew and niece would laugh at the dumb-ass jokes in Ferdinand. But I mostly did not. There is an honestly hilarious bit when the bull finds himself in a china shop. This sequence is actually inspired, but the rest of the movie is, like, actually preposterous. I don't know how to deal with a movie like this. We're in the real world, or at least we're supposed to be, but then the livestock get on a trolley in Madrid and, like, ride it to an amphitheatre. How? Why? For laughs? I don't get it. I was surprised by how willfully stupid this was. I forget that that's normal for Fox's animated movies. I guess I don't see very many of them. Little baby Ferdinand is adorable as a calf, but mostly I was shaking my head.
Will Win: N/A
Could Win: N/A
My Rating: #68 out of 84

The Boss Baby
1 Nomination
  • Animated Feature
Director: Tom McGrath
Cast: Alec Baldwin, Miles Bakshi, Jimmy Kimmel, Lisa Kudrow, Steve Buscemi, Tobey Maguire, James McGrath

This is awful, but Alec Baldwin, quite honestly, does save this movie from being a total loss. In December I was telling my father that there were basically zero options for the Animated Feature category. I told him quite seriously that even though The Boss Baby has a 52% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 50 on Metacritic, it would probably be nominated. It's just that there are almost no options this year. (Honestly, they should have nominated Birdboy: the Forgotten Children, but I cannot imagine them nominating something that experimental.) What we see here, then, is that Dreamworks gets a nomination, Fox gets one, Pixar gets one, Disney gets one (if it has a movie), and Cartoon Saloon or Studio Ghibli get one. But I think this helps us predict for the future of these five slots. Turns out, even when Dreamworks and Fox make really bad movies, they have enough folks in the animation branch to push them through. So we, embarrassingly, have The Boss Baby and Ferdinand nominated. Neither of these films will win, so I guess we should be grateful for that. But this whole thing is a mess.
Will Win: N/A
Could Win: N/A
My Rating: #78 out of 84

25 February 2018

Song of the South

Song of the South (1946) is pretty adorable with some great songs.

It is, of course, also a minstrel show, and as always with those, Song of the South reimagines slavery as a happy affair with everyone in his happy place – or laughing place, as this film would have it.


There was a lot that I liked about Detroit, but despite having lots of things going for it, doesn't really work after its first act. The script, by Mark Boal, has a lot of problems, but Kathryn Bigelow's direction is just stellar, and Detroit has some great performances in it, too.

The screenplay is just all over the place. It can't focus for long enough to do the work it needs to do. Then when it does focus (in its second act) it is far too focused on black suffering to get its point across. The whole thing winds up feeling exploitative after a while, as though it is attempting to take pleasure in the violence it shows. It seems to me that this was plainly not the goal of the film, and the way the film is set up, it appears to be trying to do something else, but as Detroit hones in on its second act torture-fest, it also leaves behind the very intelligent analysis it had been doing in act one. And this is a very serious flaw.

I want also to go on record that I am not sure I understand filmmakers' interest in John Boyega. He has yet to be interesting in a movie, as far as I can tell. He is incredibly boring in this movie. But Jacob Latimore, Algee Smith, and Anthony Mackie are all absolutely great. And I loved Jason Mitchell. He is superb in this.

Oscar Nominations 2018: Part 10 of 12

Back to Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7, Part 8, or Part 9.

War for the Planet of the Apes
1 Nomination
  • Visual Effects
Director: Matt Reeves
Cast: Andy Serkis, Woody Harrelson, Steve Zahn, Karin Konoval, Amiah Miller, Terry Notary, Ty Olsson, Michael Adamthwaite, Toby Kebbell, Gabriel Chavarria, Judy Greer

Such squandered potential. This movie looks very cool and the first two movies in the series were very cool, but this one overdoes every scene, overplays every hand, and is all around just extra. I think I would be ok with this if it weren't a melodrama, So what ends up happening is that most of what it overdoes is feelings. We have evil villains, we're shown that the alt-right is evil and racist, and every ounce of feeling is milked out of us while a tiny white girl-child looks at us with tears in her eyes. For me this fell flat. There are five options for the visual effects Oscar. The Star Wars movie seems to me the most likely winner – Shape of Water didn't get one, despite its 13 nominations – but I suppose if that one doesn't win, this one will, and last year's winner (The Jungle Book) was a lot like this one: computer-animated animals.
Will Win: N/A
Could Win: Visual Effects
My Rating: #62 out of 82

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
1 Nomination
  • Visual Effects
Director: James Gunn
Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Bradley Cooper, Dave Bautista, Michael Rooker, Kurt Russell, Karen Gillan, Pom Klementieff, Vin Diesel, Sean Gunn, Sylvester Stallone, Elizabeth Debicki, Chris Sullivan

I hate to criticize this film for the same thing as I criticized War for the Planet of the Apes, but I was also mostly bored with Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. This is a shame. The first one was so good, that I suppose such a thing is easy to replicate. But this one felt like a great confused mess to me, and instead of Chris Pratt fucking up and getting into trouble, this is about him, like, finding himself and learning his origins or somesuch business. There are so many feelings in this movie. This is just unnecessary! Tell us some jokes, blow some things up, have baby Groot dance. Why take things so seriously? Normally I am really into father–son narratives, but I found this one silly. Vol 2. does have some cool setpieces, and whenever we were in full fight mode I was usually enjoying myself, but I think this movie mostly just returns us to the usual Marvel, it's-almost-the-end-of-the-world-if-only-we-could-save-it formula. This is better than Apes, certainly, but not by much.
Will Win: N/A
Could Win: N/A
My Rating: #55 out of 82

Kong: Skull Island
1 Nomination
  • Visual Effects
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John C. Reilly, John Goodman, Toby Kebbell, Corey Hawkins, John Ortiz, Tian Jing, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann

This is the one that deserves to win. It is so much better than the other nominees (including Star Wars and Blade Runner). I really really liked this movie, and I know, I know, it's a King Kong movie, but this one is excellent. Obviously, I love monster movies, and this one gives us monster after monster after monster, but it also does this really well, and it is has some interesting themes to boot. I can't recommend this enough, and although I know it won't win on March 4th, I'll be rooting for it.
Will Win: N/A
Could Win: N/A
My Rating: #19 out of 82

22 February 2018

Oscar Nominations 2018: Part 9 of 12 (Animated Short Films)

Back to Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6Part 7, or Part 8.

1 Nomination
  • Animated Short Film
Director: Dave Mullins

This is cute, but doesn't really make very much sense. The gist is basically that a magical force (which the film calls Lou) collects lost things from a playground and puts them all in a lost and found box so that when the kids come back to play during a break from classes, all the toys are there. This same force teaches a bully–thief a lesson. This had one or two good jokes, and I liked those, but mostly this is sentimental and too buys teaching lessons for me to care. And I still don't really understand the physic of the film's world. It moves along with a kind of logic for a while, but then it abandons that same logic by its end. This is fine, but most of the other films are so much better. This one, however, is a Pixar film, so it will probably win.
Will Win: Live-action Short Film
Could Win: N/A
My Rating: #4 out of 5

Negative Space
1 Nomination
  • Animated Short Film
Director: Ru KuwahataMax Porter
Cast: Albert Birney

Negative Space is a beautiful film. The stop-motion animation is extremely clever, moving back and forth between interiors and dreamworlds with imaginative ease. The film's story is very simple – a quiet, poetic remembrance of a man's father – through packing suitcases, but it moves toward a beautiful emotional ending that I found just lovely. (Incidentally, I read somewhere else that someone thought the ending moment was a laugh-line or a joke. I certainly didn't think so.) Packing a travel bag is a way of deciding what is important and making sure everything fits inside. This is a film about wasting space (and time), about filling our suitcases with as many items as possible, and filling our lives with time spent with loved ones.
Will Win: N/A
Could Win: Live-action Short Film
My Rating: #3 out of 5

Dear Basketball
1 Nomination
  • Animated Short Film
Director: Glen Keane
Cast: Kobe Bryant

This was the first film on the program, and I was not ready for it to affect me so emotionally, but it sure did. Dear Basketball is a sweet film about Kobe Bryant. He writes a love letter to basketball, thanking it for what it did for his life as a very small boy, and saying goodbye to it because his body can no longer handle the physical strain of continuing to play the sport. I found this deeply emotional, and I don't really like basketball all that much at all and really know nothing about Kobe Bryant's career except that he's been with the Lakers a long time. But this movie paints a portrait of basketball as something that can lift a life out of unhappiness and give it purpose. The film moves back and forth between an adult Bryant a little boy Kobe, who is shooting basketballs made of rolled-up socks into wastepaper baskets. It's short and beautiful and profound, and I loved it.

Will Win: N/A
Could Win: Live-action Short Film
My Rating: #2 out of 5

Revolting Rhymes: Part One
1 Nomination
  • Animated Short Film
Cast: Dominic West, Tamsin Greig, Rose Leslie, Gemma Chan, Rob Brydon, Bertie Carvel, David Walliams

This is a reimagining of a set of three fairy tales – Little Red Riding Hood, Snow White, The Three Little Pigs – that is narrated by a wolf, played by Dominic West (whom I love, obviously). This is also the most substantial of the five films; it's much longer than the others and there are a good deal more actors in this one, so it feels more accomplished. But I must confess I found myself bored. These kinds of reimaginings of fairy tales seem tired to me. Wolves are good guys, pigs are thieves, girls turn out to be lesbians. Fine. But this does not strike me as surprising or imaginative. These are clever twists rather than interesting storytelling. Still, the fact that this is my least favorite of the five indicates that these five are quite good.
Will Win: N/A
Could Win: N/A
My Rating: #5 out of 5

Garden Party
1 Nomination
  • Animated Short Film

This film is my favorite. It is a dark, dark comedy about frogs throwing a party (perhaps unwittingly?) in the mansion of what looked to me like some kind of Floridian mob boss or drug dealer. The animation is gorgeous, the jokes are hilarious, but even better, this is a little film about the animal and vegetable kingdoms taking over after something has happened to mankind. I appreciated its unsentimental qualities. I laughed out loud at the jokes. I loved it.
Will Win: N/A
Could Win: N/A
My Rating: #1 out of 5

20 February 2018

Oscar Nominations 2018: Part 8 of 12 (Foreign Language Films)

The Insult (ضية رقم ٢٣)
1 Nomination
  • Foreign Language Film: Lebanon
Director: Ziad Doueiri
Cast: Adel Karam, Kamel El Basha, Camille Salameh, Diamand Bou Abboud, Rita Hayek, Julia Kassar, Talal Jurdi, Christine Choueiri

I found this movie very frustrating. It's not bad, per se, and it is totally something the Academy will like, but I had a lot of trouble with it. The movie follows the Asghar Farhadi structure, where something small happens, and then things get more and more complicated from there, spinning out of control. But in The Insult, one party is clearly in the wrong, and so what is obvious from the start is that one person is trying to be reasonable and the other one is being unreasonable, racist, and hateful. But Doueiri's film follows this hateful, unreasonable racist guy! I couldn't understand it. I was never on the protagonist's side throughout the film. The reason I think this is going to win is that The Insult traffics in a sentimentalism that the Academy tends to like; The Insult imagines everyone in Lebanon as traumatized (I don't object to this, per se), but then it imagines that political strife and material and economic problems can be solved through emotional release and psychotherapeutic airings of differences. It's the kind of thing lots of filmmakers like, because they want to believe that emotional release (which is what films have to offer) can create political action. I rather disliked this movie.
Will Win: Foreign Language Film
Could Win: N/A
My Rating: #65 out of 82

The Square
1 Nomination
  • Foreign Language Film: Sweden (A Man Called Ove, As It Is in Heaven, Evil, Under the Sun, All Things Fair, The Ox, The Flight of the Eagle, Fanny and Alexander, The New Land, The Emigrants, Ådalen '31, Dear John, Raven's End, Through a Glass Darkly, The Virgin Spring)
Director: Ruben Östlund
Cast: Claes Bang, Elisabeth Moss, Terry Notary, Dominic West, Christopher Læssø, Elijandro Edouard, Annica Liljeblad

Brilliant. Hilarious. One of the best movies of the year. And maybe it will even win this award. Because The Square is so funny, and because it is so critical of society, though, I think it might be a bit of a tougher sell than it should be. Last year's hilarious comedy, Toni Erdmann, ended up not taking home the trophy it deserved, and actually the Academy has not been super affectionate to Ruben Östlund in the past, failing to nominated his brilliant movie Force Majeure in 2015. I am still going to hold out hope that it will win. It certainly deserves to do so.
Will Win: N/A
Could Win: Foreign Language Film
My Rating: #3 out of 82

Una Mujer Fantastica (A Fantastic Woman)
1 Nomination
  • Foreign Language Film: Chile (No)
Director: Sebastián Lelio
Cast: Daniela Vega, Francisco Reyes, Luis Gnecco, Aline Küppenheim, Nicolás Saavedra, Amparo Noguera, Sergio Hernández

Another selection I only barely liked. I liked this movie even less than The Insult, honestly. It's about a trans woman whose lover dies, but the central performance – which has been praised by every critic out there – is stiff and wooden and downright strange. I have already discussed this movie here, so I won't go into it further, but I think Sebastián Lelio should stick to comedies. The comedic sequences in A Fantastic Woman work really well; it's the serious drama that doesn't. Still, this has the potential to win, I think. Daniela Vega is going to be a presenter at the Oscars, and people are clearly taken by the actress and her film. All of this is a bit of a shame, I feel. There were two African finalists for these nominations – John Trengove's The Wound and Alain Gomis's Félicité – that are both better than A Fantastic Woman. I would have liked to see either of these films here instead of this one. Sigh.

Will Win: N/A
Could Win: Foreign Language Film
My Rating: #69 out of 82

Loveless (Нелюбовь)
1 Nomination
  • Foreign Language Film: Russia (Leviathan, 12, The Thief, Prisoner of the Mountains, Burnt by the Sun, Close to Eden)
Director: Andrey Zvyagintsev
Cast: Maryana Spivak, Aleksey Rosin, Matvey Novikov, Aleksey Fateev, Marina Vasileva, Andris Keyshs, Anna Gulyarenko, Natalya Potapova, Maksim Solopov, Artyom Zhigulin

I loved this movie. It is terrifying and cold and very, very sad, so it's not like I'm going to recommend this to everyone, but this is a great movie. In fact, I haven't seen an Andrey Zvyagintsev movie in the last ten years that didn't absolutely blow me away. This is a director at the absolute top of his game. He is a brilliant cultural critic and a keen observer of modern life. I love this man's work. Anything he makes is a must-see, as far as I'm concerned. So I take it back. I said I wasn't going to recommend this, but everyone should see this. Loveless is not just a movie about Russia, either, it's about the U.S. just as much as it is about Russia. It's chilly and hard to handle at times, but it is absolutely right on, it's wickedly smart, and I loved it.
Will Win: N/A
Could Win: N/A
My Rating: #5 out of 82

Testről és Lélekről (On Body and Soul)
1 Nomination
  • Foreign Language Film: Hungary (Son of Saul, Hanussen, Colonel Redl, Revolt of Job, Mephisto, Confidence, Hungarians, Catsplay, The Boys of Paul Street)
Director: Ildikó Enyedi
Cast: Géza Morcsányi, Alexandra Borbély, Zoltán Schneider, Ervin Nagy, Tamás Jordán, Zsuzsa Járó

This movie is conveniently available on Netflix now, which is quite nice of everyone involved. This is a quirky love story with a very socially awkward woman and an older man. The Academy loves movies like this, but I don't think I do. Socially awkward people make me feel strange and frustrated. There was plenty I liked in the movie, though. The dream sequences are gorgeous, and we spend time with these two beautiful deer in the middle of some amazing forest. I loved every time we were in a dream sequence (I would have spent more time there, if I had my druthers). And Ervin Nagy gives a good performance as a misunderstood worker. I also loved that the film is set in a slaughterhouse: the film's portrayal of the slaughterhouse and the detail with which it shows us what happens in the slaughterhouse are engaging and beautiful. But thematically, I am not sure how all of those things go together. The film is focused on its quirkiness more than it is on making the connections between the abattoir, the deer in the forest, the two lovers, and the psychology of it all. It just felt a bit confused to me.
Will Win: N/A
Could Win: N/A
My Rating: Unranked (2018 release)

18 February 2018

Oscar Nominations 2018: Part 7 of 12 (Live-action Short Films)

Back to Part 1Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5, or Part 6.

The Eleven O'clock
1 Nomination
  • Live-action Short Film
Director: Derin Seale
Cast: Josh Lawson, Damon Herriman, Jessica Donoghue, Eliza Logan

This is cute, and it's the only comedic film in the bunch, so I don't really see how it can lose. The joke is that a psychiatrist has a patient who believes that he is a psychiatrist. Hilarity and confusion ensue. It's written like a clever little David Ives play, and its single joke works three or four times – if not the ten or twelve times that the filmmakers want it to work, but as I say, this is a successful little thing, if slight.
Will Win: Live-action Short Film
Could Win: N/A
My Rating: #3 out of 5

The Silent Child
1 Nomination
  • Live-action Short Film
Director: Chris Overton
Cast: Rachel Shenton, Maisie Sly, Rachel Fielding, Anna Barry, Philip York, Sam Rees, Annie Cusselle

This is a very serious film about deaf children who are born to hearing parents and who are then left to fend for themselves at school, trained to read lips instead of learn sign language, etc. The filmmaking here is really excellent, and the acting is also quite good, but the film has something to say and so, while it promises intriguing plot developments at one point, The Silent Child ends up being a public service announcement that doesn't get under the skin and might as well be an essay or an article in the New York Times. This film has noble sentiments behind it, but as a film it's a clunker. Which obviously means, I think it is the runner up for the Oscar. It tugs at the heartstrings just enough to be the other real contender for the trophy on March 4.
Will Win: N/A
Could Win: Live-action Short Film
My Rating: #4 out of 5

Watu Wote: All of Us
1 Nomination
  • Live-action Short Film
Director: Katja Benrath
Cast: Adelyne Wairimu, Abdiwala Farrah, Barkhad Abdirahman, Faysal Ahmed, Saada Mohammed, Mahad Ahmed, Charles Karumi

I liked this movie. This one, like The Silent Child, is trying to do a kind of public service announcement, bring-awareness-to-an-issue kind of thing. This is not good, but Watu Wote: All of Us is much more successful in doing what it's trying to do. Set on a bus between Nairobi and Somalia, the plot involves a Christian woman who hates Muslims and who learns a lesson when the bus is attacked by Al-Shabaab militiamen.
Will Win: N/A
Could Win: Live-action Short Film
My Rating: #2 out of 5

My Nephew Emmett
1 Nomination
  • Live-action Short Film
Director: Kevin Wilson Jr.
Cast: L.B Williams, Jasmine Guy, Dane Rhodes, Joshua Wright, Chris Steele, Ethan Leaverton, Dorian Davis

This is a movie about Emmett Till, but I wish it were also a good movie about Emmett Till. The filmmaker shoots the story beautifully, and he tries to give us a sense of the terror of life under Jim Crow, but instead My Nephew Emmett feels slow and, frankly, boring. Wilson knows we know what is about to happen, and so he spends time building up to the violent finish. This strikes me as an odd choice, especially considering the fracas surrounding the Dana Schutz painting at the Whitney Biennial this year. What many artists and other complained about, in regard to Schutz's (extraordinary) painting, is that reveling in black suffering and black pain is insensitive and perhaps unnecessary. I am not sure I agree in total with this line of thinking, but it was certainly running through my head as I watched Kathryn Bigelow's recent Detroit, and I was thinking about it again while I watched My Nephew Emmett. The main problem, however, with Wilson's film is that the lead actor, L.B. Williams, gives a decidedly odd performance, one that struck me as inept and just slightly off the entire time. Then again, this film also stars Jasmine Guy (!), and it might be worth watching just for her.
Will Win: N/A
Could Win: N/A
My Rating: #5 out of 5

DeKalb Elementary
1 Nomination
  • Live-action Short Film
Director: Reed Van Dyk
Cast: Shinelle Azoroh, Bo Mitchell, Del Hunter-White, Cain Thomas

This is definitely my favorite of the five films. DeKalb Elementary is about an active shooter situation at an elementary school in Georgia. This film is superbly made. It builds tension perfectly, and even though the story is mostly simple, Van Dyk scares us over and over again, and we feel the terror of the situation acutely. I watched this movie in rapt attention. And Shinelle Azoroh, who plays the film's main character, is excellent. I don't think this movie will win; it's too good, really, and too serious to compete with the more audience-friendly films on the list. But this one is the best of the five.
Will Win: N/A
Could Win: N/A
My Rating: #1 out of 5