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

17 January 2020

The Secret of Santa Vittoria (1969)

The Secret of Santa Vittoria is really fun, and Virna Lisi is legitimately brilliant in it. This also means that I have only three films left to see from the 1970 Oscars. (This is obviously a strange task that I've set myself, but it does mean I watch some really fun (and offbeat) stuff, this film included.)

15 January 2020

The Report (2019)

The Report is a dry business, and it's a shame because I think the torture report is super important. But this movie is just not interesting at all. For reasons I do not understand, Annette Bening was nominated for Best Supporting Actress at the Golden Globes this year. Now, I love me some Annette Bening, but this makes no sense.

10 January 2020

J'ai Perdu Mon Corps

I Lost My Body is startlingly original. We are literally following a dismembered hand as it searches for its body. This is an incredible film. It also made me very uncomfortable for much of its run time. But what is extraordinary about Jérémy Clapin's film is that it manages to be deeply emotional and very touching while also surprising me constantly. It's an absolutely excellent film, and I loved it. It is definitely one of my favorites of the year, and I expect it'll easily be my favorite animated film of the year. (It's available on Netflix, so you should watch it as soon as possible.)

08 January 2020

The Irishman

This was so fucking boring.

And interminable.

People liked this?

De Niro's character has no arc at all – after three and a half hours. Is this for real?

And, like, who cares about these men and all of their misdeeds over which, in fact, they appear to feel no compunction (except for Joe Pesci... near the three hour mark)?

What was it all for?

If you know me, you know that Scorsese is already not my favorite, but, seriously... I don't get it.

I mean this sincerely: I'd rather rewatch Cats than rewatch The Irishman.

Best Actress 2019

My top choices in the order I would place them on my Academy ballot if I were allowed to vote. In other words, this is my top five, but I acknowledge that this list is already influenced by awards buzz. They are not in order of my preference. Instead, the actors whom I think would theoretically benefit the most from my vote are at the top.

ZHAO TAO, Ash Is Purest White (江湖儿女)

TAYLOR RUSSELL, Waves

JENNIFER LOPEZ, Hustlers

SCARLETT JOHANSSON, Marriage Story

RENÉE ZELLWEGER, Judy

Also loved:
Ana Brun, Las Herederas (The Heiresses)
Sheila Munyiva, Rafiki
Saoirse Ronan, Little Women
Charlize Theron, Bombshell

Apologies to:
Gemma Arterton (Vita & Virginia), Juliette Binoche (Frankie), Elizabeth Debicki (Vita & Virginia), Catherine Deneuve (Frankie), Adèle Haenel (Portrait de la Jeune Fille en Feu), Keira Knightley (The Aftermath), Noémie Merlant (Portrait de la Jeune Fille en Feu), Anna Paquin (Tell It to the Bees), Mary Kay Place (Diane), Natalie Portman (Lucy in the Sky), and Julia Stockler (A Vida Invisível), whose films I have not yet seen.

Related:
My Best Actress picks from past years (2004-2018)
My Best Actor picks from 2019
My Best Supporting Actress picks from 2018
My Best Supporting Actor picks from 2018

07 January 2020

Best Actor 2019

My top choices in the order I would place them on my Academy ballot if I were allowed to vote. In other words, this is my top five, but I acknowledge that this list is already influenced by awards buzz. They are not in order of my preference. Instead, the actors whom I think would theoretically benefit the most from my vote are at the top.


FRANZ ROGOWSKI, Transit

KELVIN HARRISON JR., Waves

SHIA LaBEOUF, Honey Boy

PAUL WALTER HAUSER, Richard Jewell

ADAM SANDLER, Uncut Gems

Also loved:
Roman Griffin Davis, Jojo Rabbit
Leonardo DiCaprio, Once upon a Time... in Hollywood
August Diehl, A Hidden Life
Adam Driver, Marriage Story
Anthony Hopkins, The Two Popes
George MacKay, 1917
Jonathan Majors, The Last Black Man in San Francisco
Eddie Murphy, Dolemite Is My Name
Robert Pattinson, The Lighthouse
Matthew Rhys, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Apologies to:
Pierre Deladonchamps (Plaire, Aimer et Courir Vite), Jesse Eisenberg (The Art of Self-defense), Michael B. Jordan (Just Mercy), Félix Maritaud (Sauvage), Tom Mercier (Synonymes), and Aaron Taylor-Johnson (A Million Little Pieces), whose films I have not yet seen.

Related:
My Best Actor picks from past years (2004-2018)
My Best Actress picks from 2019
My Best Supporting Actress picks from 2019
My Best Supporting Actor picks from 2019

06 January 2020

Best Supporting Actress 2019

My top choices in the order I would place them on my Academy ballot if I were allowed to vote. In other words, this is my top five, but I acknowledge that this list is already influenced by awards buzz. They are not in order of my preference. Instead, the actors whom I think would theoretically benefit the most from my vote are at the top.

DIANA LIN, The Farewell

JULIANNE NICHOLSON, Monos

ZHOU SHUZHEN, The Farewell

KATHY BATES, Richard Jewell

NICOLE KIDMAN, Bombshell

Also loved:
Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Dolemite Is My Name
Cardi B, Hustlers
Laura Dern, Little Women
Billie Lourd, Booksmart
Karin Neuhäuser, A Hidden Life

Related:
My Best Supporting Actress picks from past years (2004-2018)
My Best Actress picks from 2019
My Best Actor picks from 2019
My Best Supporting Actor picks from 2019

Best Supporting Actor 2019

My top choices in the order I would place them on my Academy ballot if I were allowed to vote. In other words, this is my top five, but I acknowledge that this list is already influenced by awards buzz. They are not in order of my preference. Instead, the actors whom I think would theoretically benefit the most from my vote are at the top.



ERIC BOGOSIAN, Uncut Gems

STERLING K. BROWN, Waves

DEAN-CHARLES CHAPMAN, 1917

Also loved:
Timothée Chalamet, Little Women
Joel Edgerton, The King
Lucas Hedges, Honey Boy
Richard Madden, 1917
Juan Minujín, The Two Popes
Aleksey Morozov, The White Crow
Franz Rogowski, A Hidden Life
Song Kang-ho, Parasite (기생충)

Apologies to:
Jamie Foxx (Just Mercy), whose film I have not yet seen.

Related:
My Best Supporting Actor picks from past years (2004-2018)
My Best Actress picks from 2019
My Best Actor picks from 2019
My Best Supporting Actress picks from 2019

05 January 2020

Sublimity: 1917 and A Hidden Life

I am in love with Sam Mendes' 1917. In fact, I can't wait to see it again when it opens nationwide next weekend. In the first place, I love World War I movies – actually, I kind of love WWI everything. That period of time is so interesting to me, and WWI doesn't get enough press as an event that shifted the course of history, overshadowed as it is by the Second World War.

You probably know that 1917 is shot by the genius cinematographer Roger Deakins. You may also know – although this is not clear from 1917's trailer – that the entirety of Sam Mendes film is edited so that it looks as though it is a single long take. This is showy cinematography, and it works excellently. Of course, the fact that it appears to be a single shot means that one begins to pay more attention to the camera itself, where it goes, what it looks at, who it follows.

There are some drawbacks to this approach. As I say, this camera work is flashy, and there are moments in act two when I was so visually blown away by what I was watching that I was thinking more about Roger Deakins and less about the story. There is also the question of cuts. It's clear that there are some cuts, and so (at least in act one) I was playing a small game of oh they could have made a cut there. But all of this is worth it.

But this one-shot gimmick (and it is a gimmick, even though it works well and I loved it) also begins to work thematically. The camera never gets off the ground to look at the war from a distance. World War I is not a war that was fought from a distance. It was fought on the ground, in the mud, in ditches. And it was fought over lands that used to be filled with people – small towns, farmlands, churches. Because we never leave our two main characters, we feel the weight of their mission in a kind of horizontal way. They must get from here to there and they must cross through, go under. They must run. They (and we) are not allowed the relief of seeing the war from the sky or from the point of view of strategy of any kind. They (and we) see it as immediate, mundane. It's a brilliant filmmaking strategy.

There is also the question of time. This is a film in which two young men are given a mission that they must execute immediately. They must cross a large distance and they must do it quickly or sixteen hundred men will die. So the fact that the camera never leaves them, never looks away, is a kind of insistence, a demand that they move. The stakes in 1917 always feel very, very high.

1917 is a simple story designed to pack an emotional wallop. And it does. It also tells the kind of war story I like – one told from the perspective of the men and women who fought the war and one that is very, very clear about the effect of war on the bodies of the soldiers, the civilians, the land, and in the case of WWI, the animals. It's a wonderfully told story, and I was deeply moved. This has, also, in part to do with the excellent acting in 1917. Most of the roles in the film are quite small – little more than cameos – but these appearances are uniformly excellent. Andrew Scott has a brilliant section in act one, and my sister and I both looked at each other and smiled when Mark Strong showed up (she recognized him by his voice even before I knew it was him). Strong is, as always, superb. Claire Duburcq has a single scene, and she is also wonderful. And then there's Richard Madden, who has a gorgeous, extraordinary role near the very end of the film that I won't say anything more about other than to say that Madden absolutely knocks this out of the park and that I'm getting emotional just thinking about it. The film's two leads, George Mackay and Dean-Charles Chapman, are perfect. I loved both of them from the very beginning, and they're doing top-notch work throughout. I would give both Oscar nominations if it were up to me.

I will stop talking about this movie, but I want to say that if much of the pleasure of watching 1917 was, for me, witnessing the extraordinary filmmaking that Mendes and his team did, the film always feels grounded, deep, and honest. It doesn't get lost in its own flash. The filmmaking is in service of something much larger, and I don't think Mendes' film loses sight of that ever.

Oscar: I would expect a boatload. Sound mixing, sound editing, visual effects, Thomas Newman's score (which is by turns action-packed and gentle), cinematography (obviously), picture, director, and screenplay all seem like slam-dunks to me. Film editing and production design both seem possible as well. Makeup and hairstyling could happen, too. It might be as many as 11. They're deserved.

* * *

Another gorgeously shot movie is Terrence Malick's A Hidden Life. Now, I love Malick very much – The Thin Red Line, The New World, and The Tree of Life are some of my favorite films. But his approach has started to feel a bit repetitive, as if he's stuck in something of a rut and can't quite get out of it. Malick is invested in nature and nature photography, especially the relationship of human beings with the land.

But A Hidden Life has more of a script – and maybe more of a plot – than Malick's last few films. This movie is about a conscientious objector in Austria during World War II. August Diehl and Valerie Pachner are farmers in the mountains of Austria who live in a small village beneath gorgeous towering cliffs and a waterfall. It's an idyllic, beautiful space, and it's shot lovingly by Jörg Widmer. Malick's usual voice-overs are, in this case, actual letters that Franz and Fani Jägerstätter wrote to each other while he was imprisoned by the Third Reich.

The film didn't totally work for me. It's beautiful, of course, and Malick's ability to capture affection and care and his meditations on family and community all work very well. But there's something indirect or tired here, for me. Maybe it is that Malick doesn't really seem to be investigating anything here. He knows the answers already, and so the story feels over before it begins. In many ways, the whole film (and it is a long one) is played in one key, as if it is over before it begins. This is, perhaps, a philosopher's approach, but for me it lacks dynamism.

Like 1917, A Hidden Life has a lot of appearances by great actors. Matthias Schoenaerts, Alexander Fehling, and the late great Bruno Ganz all have small parts. Franz Rogowski, who is so great in this year's Transit, is excellent as Franz's friend.

I want to highlight a very strange but very cool choice that Malick made as he crafted A Hidden Life. The film is not shot in sets that look like Nazi prisons. Instead it's shot in prison ruins. At times we are in rooms where there are dozens of bed frames but no beds, for example, or where plants are coming in through the walls. (Even the churches in A Hidden Life are actively being restored during the course of the movie.) So what we see instead of a realistic portrayal of Franz imprisoned by the Germans is a kind of strange rumination about this philosophical or ethical question as a kind of haunting of the German prison. This is a fascinating choice, and for me this made much of the prison stuff feel strange and spiritual in a very good way.

Oh! Side note: in 2019 I read George Eliot's Middlemarch, from which this film's title is taken. I loved this novel, and I've shared the quotation before, but it's worth sharing again. A Hidden Life and Middlemarch both end with the following: "Her finely touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Alexander broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

After the film, I wondered aloud what all of these meditations on nature have to do with the Nazis and political imprisonments and Dayne said something like If you appreciate life, you can't choose to kill or It is much easier to destroy life when you don't know how beautiful it is. Dayne is, of course, right about this, and it does help me see A Hidden Life in a smarter way. But I do feel like this movie is a bit too repetitive ("do you think this matters to anyone?" is repeated a great many times) and just a bit too one-note.

Oscar: James Newton Howard's score, which is absolutely beautiful, is overshadowed in the movie (Malick always does this) by music by Arvo Pärt and Henryk Górecki so much that JMH was certainly disqualified in this category. Widmer hasn't made a lot of films, and so it seems to me that the cinematographers branch probably won't nominate him. The actors are all European... in short, I don't think we're looking at any nominations, despite the obvious quality of the filmmaking.

31 December 2019

On Richard Jewell, Law, Order, and Ideology


Clint Eastwood's Richard Jewell is a sturdy, straightforward movie that is fairly well made and is buoyed by a few really great performances. It feels worth saying from the outset that Paul Walter Hauser, who plays the eponymous character, is really excellent in this. He deserves a Best Actor nomination, but he will not get one because he does not look like a movie star. (There are, for the record, lots of reasons why people don't get Oscar nominations; this just happens to be the reason Hauser won't get one.) Kathy Bates, who plays Jewell's mom Bobi, is much more likely to get a nomination. She has several really great scenes and is really wonderful throughout. Jewell himself is a strange character, and he is sort of hard to like, but Bobi is easy to like and easy to relate to.

Richard Jewell is the kind of movie I mostly like but that never winds up surprising me very much. Eastwood's tone is provocative and a bit procedural, and the film has the kind of repetitive documentary quality he attempted with Sully. This leads to a kind of detached form of viewing, I think. Everyone is good in this, and it's an interesting story. I liked it, but it's not really the kind of thing anyone can get excited about. The main guy is too weird to be a hero. What he is, instead, is a kind of victim of an enormous machine designed to take advantage of him.

Here's what I mean: Richard loves law enforcement. He loves "law and order". He follows the rules, believes in the rules, loves the rules. He trusts the government. He owns a dozen guns because he wants to be part of the club that maintains law and order and keeps people safe in the United States. But law enforcement themselves – and the film underlines this countless times – think Jewell is a boob. They take advantage of him; they talk down to him; they treat him like a naif (and he is one, though he doesn't need to be treated like one). Actual law enforcement also does not behave the way Richard thinks they do (Eastwood underlines this countless times, too): they are petty, devious, and lazy; they bend the rules; they don't care about the safety of regular people very much; they take the easiest way rather than the right way. Actual law enforcement would not have found the bomb in Atlanta that Richard Jewell found. They would have treated it like a backpack full of beer, and it would have done a lot more damage than it did.

If you think about it, Richard himself is a logical extension/embodiment of "law and order" ideas. He takes "law and order" seriously even though most of us do not. This is why the film likes him so much and why he feels like such a weirdo to everyone else. To me this is super interesting. Eastwood's movie, however, is not interested in these contradictions at all – he is telling a straightforward story about a lone hero, an evil newsmedia conglomerate, a corrupt government agency (the FBI), and the way that government and media can crush the little guy. In Eastwood's vision, the media are evil; the government is out to get you; but somehow law and order are still the ideal. The whole thing seemed confused – even tortured – to me. I really had to twist my brain in order to make sense of Eastwood's moral stance here.

I haven't said anything yet about the journalist Olivia Wilde plays. This portrayal/performance is... unfortunate. The media are, of course, the big bad villain in this story, and I get that, but Eastwood/Wilde portray the journo at the center of this story as a caricature of the self-serving reporter. Eastwood introduces the character in the most insane manner possible. She's bragging to the other women on the floor that their stories are insipid and readers only want the exciting copy she writes. She is gunning for television news. She's wearing short skirts and hoping for murders and scandal. She sleeps with an FBI agent for the story. She publishes information that ruins this guy's life. She is, in short, completely without ethics, integrity, standards, or human compassion until very, very late in the movie when she does an incredible (by which I mean I did not believe it) about-face. The whole thing is so caricatured that it doesn't appear the least bit realistic.

Richard Jewell is super interesting for all of these reasons. It's a perspective that is worth watching, even if it doesn't quite make sense or doesn't totally hold together. This is another of Eastwood's American hero movies (Sully, The 15:17 to Paris, American Sniper). I'm not a supporter of Eastwood's flag-waving at all, and I like my stories to be more complex than his Manichean version of the world allows, but there is a lot to talk about in Richard Jewell, and the performances are great.

[One more thing about the filmmaking. Sometimes in Eastwood's films, there are physical choices that make no sense at all – like that fake baby in American Sniper. There is one of those gaffes near the end of Richard Jewell when the FBI brings back all of Bobi Jewell's household items. The folks from the Bureau walk in the door in a line like a little color guard troupe carrying boxes and then they walk out in the same line into the apartment. Where the Hell are they going? This makes no sense at all. My sister and I both noticed it, and because it happened at the end of the movie it was the very first thing we talked about after the credits. There is only an exit in that direction if we're on a movie set, Mr. Eastwood. I know it makes your shot look cleaner, but it defies all logic.]

30 December 2019

Partial December Movie Round-up

Jay Roach's Bombshell is the movie about Gretchen Carlson, Megyn Kelly, and what I assume is a (fictional and likeable) version of Tomi Lahren. They're women who work at Fox News, and the plot of Bombshell is the takedown of Fox News head Roger Ailes.

You know how this ends. In fact, you probably know a lot about this story of sexual harassment, sexual misconduct, and rank misogyny.

Bombshell takes a jaunty, slightly mocking tone with this story – in the vein of The Big Short and Vice. This movie is (and I am not the first person to say this) better than Vice but not as good as The Big Short. Even more, there's something about the way this particular Brechtian film works that makes the facts of the story seem like they might actually be fictional, or at least exaggerated. A part of that has to do with the fact that this is a story about Fox News, which is a "news" outlet that cannot be trusted even to report the actual news. The other reason for this is that what happens at Fox already feels so absurd and insane. The real people are themselves over the top and seem slightly unhinged. As a result, even if the events portrayed in the film actually happened, one has the feeling that what is happening can't totally be trusted.

But the acting is pretty great. Charlize Theron is doing a strange but compelling impersonation of Megyn Kelly (the voice isn't quite right, but I didn't really mind), and Nicole Kidman's Gretchen Carlson is less of an impersonation than a powerful interpretation. Kidman is best in show, but Margot Robbie, Kate MacKinnon, Holland Taylor, Allison Janney, Liv Hewson, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Mark Duplass, Robin Weigert, and Malcolm McDowell are all great. For me, John Lithgow's Roger Ailes felt a little cartoony, but, as I say, the whole of Bombshell is a little cartoony, so this is perhaps not quite a fair criticism of his performance as such. Obviously the film hates this character, and so it's a difficult one to play.

Bombshell works, but it does feel a bit shallow. There are clear good guys in this movie and clear bad guys. There's also a right thing to do, and that is never really interrogated in this movie. In fact, not much is interrogated in this movie. It's a movie with a clear winner and a clear morality and not a lot of room for nuance. I think it could have benefited from a bit of that missing nuance. I would've liked a bit more interrogation into Fox News itself as a purveyor of misogyny, racism, and homophobia and how those values intersect and contribute to the sexual exploitation of women. It might also have been interesting to go the other way and explore this story alongside of the other enormous #MeToo stories. This felt a bit like fuel for a leftist fire already ablaze and not a serious exploration of sexual harrassment, the 24-hour news cycle, the values of television, the values of American Conservatism, or anything else.

I don't want to knock Bombshell too much because it has quite a few redeeming qualities, but it doesn't set out to do very much.

Oscar: I think we're looking at probably three acting nominations. Screenplay seems likely, as well. And film editing. Makeup & Hairstyling is also a fairly obvious nomination (and likely win – Theron looks amazing). So... 6.

* * *

I loved Marriage Story. The title is an intriguing sleight of hand: this is, of course, a divorce story. But Baumbach makes the brilliant choice to begin his movie with all of the tiny things that this couple loves about one another, and so the film starts with us understanding just how much the two main characters belong together – just how much they worked. And then 8 minutes into the movie, we understand that they're already at each other's throats.

Totally generous to the two people at its center, Marriage Story also felt (at least to me) as though it didn't choose sides. At its ugliest moments, the film is also at its most compassionate. But Baumbach's movie is also beautifully calibrated and balanced between very funny broad comedy, incisive and clever satire, and serious drama. It switches modes expertly and with complete confidence. It's heartbreaking and silly and bright and sober, one right after the other.

It's interesting to me that the clip of the film that went viral that everyone was mocking – the fight in Adam Driver's apartment – hit me as the emotional climax of the film. Folks laughed, but I knew nothing of their mockery and I found this sequence absolutely heartbreaking.

The acting is also wonderful. Laura Dern has a flashy role as a razor-sharp, not-to-be-trusted lawyer, and Ray Liotta as her rival is wonderful. Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are both excellent. I've never loved either of them more.

Oscar: Three acting nominations here, too. Screenplay, Best Picture, Best Director. I think that's probably all, but that's a lot: 6.

* * *

I really didn't like Little Women. In the first place, we don't need a fourth adaptation of this book. The most recent one (25 years old now) was just fine. In the second place, Greta Gerwig's adaptation attempts to work against its source material basically for its entire running time, as though it wants to say that what is basically a non-feminist story is actually feminist. This movie apologizes for its source material. Gerwig has created a kind of frame for the movie so that she can comment on the way the original story works. This isn't a terrible idea, but it does lead me to wonder why she wanted to adapt this novel in the first place. It felt to me as though she was trying to save the novel or redeem it.

Saoirse Ronan is excellent as always, as are Timothée Chalamet and Laura Dern. Florence Pugh, however, is insanely miscast. She is supposed to be playing a thirteen year old and she looks about thirty throughout the movie. Her portrayal of Amy March has the largest arc – especially because Gerwig's Little Women wants to redeem Amy and make her into a likable character. (I saw this with a group of friends, and we all remembered refusing to forgive Amy when we originally read the book.) Pugh plays a very bratty young teenager and it's mostly cringe-worthy. She is also really the only character who changes a great deal over the long timespan the film covers, and so she stands out strangely.

Gerwig's film, in fact, has a lot of trouble with the way it manages time. It jumps back and forth in time in ways that don't always work and frequently feel unnatural or forced. The folks I was with found these jumps confusing, but maybe because I read the book so many times as a kid (at least 8; queer childhood is real), I was never really lost. I did find all of the jumps frustrating, though. The adaptation is already doing a kind of greatest hits of the novel's most important emotional moments, and the jumping back and forth just drew attention to the way the film already functioned as a highlight reel.

The supporting cast is mostly good. Chris Cooper has some great scenes; Louis Garrel is perfectly cast. Tracy Letts is excellently bombastic. I didn't like the young woman who played Beth; she was outshone by the other sisters, even though we keep being told (confusingly) that Beth is "the best" sister. In fact, here's one example where, for me, the film wants to have its feminist cake and eat it too. How is Beth "the best of us"? According to what criteria?

I submit that Beth is "the best" according to the criteria of traditional Victorian womanhood, in which she is selfless, caring, nurturing, loving, shy, sexless, without desires of almost any kind except for her family, and she is mostly silent. She has a good heart and doesn't think of herself, and she wants nothing in return for the gifts she gives to others. Now, I don't particularly object to any of these qualities, but my twenty-first-century attitudes toward gender don't allow me to think this makes Beth into "the best". But Louisa May Alcott does think that Beth is objectively the best. In Alcott's novel, Beth is figured as too perfect to exist in the world. It seems to me that Gerwig, too, objects to ideas like this, but maybe not quite enough for my taste. The new film cherry-picks the feminist values the novel has, but retains plenty of other outdated values that I chafed against as a twenty-first-century viewer. Gerwig's film is, thus, confusing in the way it deals with Alcott's value system. Rather than rethink the novel and really change the content so that she could give us a new version of Little Women, to my mind she keeps too much of Alcott's original. She splits the difference and tries to have it both ways. For me this didn't work.

Oscar: I think Saoirse Ronan will get a Best Actress nomination. I think the film will also get an original score nomination. The Art Directors Guild and the Costume Designers Guild both have ignored Little Women, so I would say those nominations feel unlikely at this stage. Makeup & Hairstyling is still a possibility. I say we are looking at 3.

* * *

I really liked the Safdie Brothers' Uncut Gems. It's an uncomfortable film in that what one does is watch the film's main character (played brilliantly by Adam Sandler) fuck up for the entirety of the movie. He just. Keeps. Fucking. Up. Again and again. This is an intensely frustrating but also just plain intense screenplay. Things are going terribly, and this fool cannot seem to right himself. He makes mistake after mistake and there doesn't seem to be a way of making things right and finding balance of some kind.

Sandler is so excellent. And Idina Menzel, Kevin Garnett, LaKeith Stanfield, and (especially) Eric Bogosian are also very, very good.

This is a crime caper, so you have to like things like that in order to like this movie. I love crime films, but I am not sure if I would call Uncut Gems enjoyable. I don't know. It's hard to talk about it. The movie is plainly very, very good, and it's also hard to shake after it's over. But it's just so rough to watch. 

Oscar: I really hope Sandler gets a Best Actor nomination. Screenplay seems likely. I think that may be it, however. I am guessing 2.

26 December 2019

Waves

I know there are a lot of better movies than Waves this year, and I will admit that some of this melodrama was cliché but I was here for all of it. The acting is wonderful – particularly from Sterling K. Brown, who is just brilliant. The lead actors, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Taylor Russell are also great. There isn't much else to say about Waves, but it really worked for me.

22 December 2019

Neighborly Behavior

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is well directed. To be honest, though, I don't totally know how to feel about this movie. I cannot at all take Mr. Rogers seriously; the cutesy, simple way of talking about things, and the recourse to puppets and childishness is totally laughable to me. Maybe four or five times during Beautiful Day I laughed out loud with embarrassment. You're a grown man; put down the puppets. But Marielle Heller's film is, in many ways, aimed at audiences like me. The main character can't take Fred Rogers seriously either, and he sort of learns that even if you don't really get his way of moving through the world, there is still stuff to learn from it. Matthew Rhys is deeply affecting, and I really loved him in the movie. Tom Hanks is fine. I'm not sure I really get the casting. He's a very famous man playing another very famous man, and it's hard to see him as anything other than Tom Hanks. Oh yeah, and running him as a supporting actor for awards is total fraud. True enough, the movie is about Rhys's character chiefly, but Hanks opens and closes the movie, and the movie is most certainly his movie.

21 December 2019

Jellicles Can and Jellicles Do

I felt compelled to see Cats for reasons I can't quite explain. I've never actually seen the musical onstage, so I have no real emotional history with the show at all. When the trailer first dropped, everyone thought it was so weird, but (I thought) isn't the show weird? Like, there are dancing adult humans in catsuits and cat makeup singing about being cats. It's already strange.

But Tom Hooper's movie version of Cats is so much weirder than I imagined. This movie is really fuckin' unhinged. (Tom Hooper, in case you've forgotten, directed the all-close-ups-all-the-time movie version of Boublil & Schönberg's Les Misérables, the Best-Picture-winning The King's Speech, and the mostly-respectable The Danish Girl.) To treat the movie like an adult, of course, is to break the spell Cats itself is trying to cast – as I say, it's about playing dress-up in catsuits and dancing around like a feline, so you can't take it seriously, or, rather, if you do take it seriously you're just going to start laughing.

But Cats takes itself seriously. Cats thinks it's a very important movie.

And here is (one of the places) where the film's problems begin.

Ok. So, a cartoon car pulls into a cartoon alley and dumps a bag with a kitten in it into a trash heap. The alley cats all deal with the new cat in various ways, and they begin by introducing the idea of "jellicle cats". This is a very catchy tune, and indeed I also think it's kind of exciting, but I've always thought this song was strange because of the way Andrew Lloyd Webber's tune starts off by stressing the first syllable of the word – jellicles can and jellicles do – but then changes it up – jellicles do and jellicles can. Now, I am not sure what a jellicle cat is, and I want to say that this is also a problem. The song is about jellicle cats; it's designed as a song to introduce us to the concept and the world of the show, but it is just not very clear about who these cats are and why they're hanging out together. Furthermore, as far as I can tell, a jellicle cat is ... a cat.

Are they ghost-cats? Like, are they all dead? My impression is that these are dead cats.

Structurally, what happens next is that after the opening number about jellicles we get a second group number that tells us about cats' names – not specifically about the names of any of these cats, mind you, just about names in general. These numbers are led by an (unnamed-in-the-movie) cat named (apparently) Munkustrap, who is played by Robbie Fairchild. The movie tells us nothing about him, and he doesn't have a number of his own, but he is really the lead performer in this show.

Then what happens is that we get a series of numbers – maybe ten? – in which a new cat is introduced and sings about him- or herself. The first one is the weirdest one. Rebel Wilson plays a cat named Jennyanydots who is training singing mice and singing and dancing cockroaches and basically running around like a crazy person. This number is manic and bizarre and (honestly) sort of terrifying. There's an absolutely insane moment in which this cat unzips her own fur like she's Violet Chachki to reveal a dance costume and a new suit of rhinestoned fur. This happens really early in the film, and because I didn't understand the rules of this world, this began to confuse me seriously.

Do the cats have magical powers? Just this one? Do they each have some kind of talent? Can they all unzip?

Rum Tum Tugger can get it
The movie doesn't really have any dialogue at all. It just introduces one cat after another before abandoning it. We meet Rum Tum Tugger, the sexiest cat I've ever seen, and then he disappears. We meet Bustopher Jones, who is constantly eating, and then Bustopher immediately disappears. We meet the tap-dancing Skimbleshanks, the railway cat, and then he, too, disappears. That's four cats, but I'm not exaggerating. This just keeps happening. We meet Grizabella, Asparagus, Growltiger, Mr. Mistoffelees, Old Deuteronomy, Macavity, and Rumpleteazer. Each of them has its own song... and only its own song. And each of these cats only sings about itself. They join in with the other cats' songs occasionally, of course, but each cat sings about itself and then fades into the background. The cats that are around the whole time – to whom the camera returns repeatedly – are Cassandra, Munkustrap, Griddlebone, and Demeter, cats whose names I have had to look up because they have no song for themselves and no dialogue, really, even though they're the ones with whom we spend the most time. We keep meeting new cats, but we don't know the (jellicle?) cats with whom we spend all of our time, and every time we meet a new cat that cat immediately disappears.

The audience can connect with none of these cats.  They're not around long enough for that. Instead – and I think this is the film's biggest problem – Cats consistently assumes an emotional connection with these cats, but it never works at establishing it. The first cats we meet – Rebel Wilson, Jason Derulo, and James Corden – don't want us to connect; they do big numbers that ask for no emotional connection with the audience. And this sets up a pattern. We watch the cats critically from the outside, but we don't identify with the jellicles, and I didn't emotionally connect with any of them.

Wait. I haven't mentioned that they have these very strange CGI faces. This is actually the weirdest part of the movie. These cats are very clearly humans in CGI fur outfits. They have human hands and human feet and they mostly move balletically – except for the railway cat; he tap-dances – and so although they have cat ears and cat tails, they have distinctly human faces. This is so very strange that it never stops being strange, perhaps because we never spend quite enough time with any one cat and so we never really get accustomed to their faces. It looks so weird. Like the Sun Baby who shines down on the Teletubbies. The fur is creepy and attempting to be erotic (I think?) in a way that is troubling. At some point Idris Elba is dancing, and he's naked, and all we see is his (cat) fur suit and his bare (human) feet and hands and face, and it's just so fuckin' weird. Like, that is not how you should look naked, Idris Elba. You should not look like you're covered in sleek fur. That is not what I want to see when you take off your clothes. It's a really disturbing rip-off.

Through most of the duration of this film I was saying (out loud, since I was the only person in the theatre) wait, what the fuck is happening? It's not the first time I've had that thought in an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical – I still don't know what actually happens in Phantom. And when Cats ended – it ends with Judi Dench's Old Deuteronomy turning to the new (white, of course she's white) baby cat Victoria and telling her "you are a jellicle cat" – I said That's how it ends? We were supposed to be invested in whether or not this young baby cat becomes a jellicle cat? We don't even know what a jellicle cat is! We also didn't know that Dame Judi had the power to turn cats into jellicle cats. The point is I had no idea what the fuck was happening, and Tom Hooper had no idea how to direct my emotional investment toward the journey of any particular one of these human–feline hybrids.

I have one more very serious complaint (amid so many!) and that is that Jennifer Hudson, who has an incredible voice and who sings "Memory" in Cats, doesn't really sing the song. She spends the whole song acting. This is what I mean by the movie taking itself very, very seriously. What we needed from this musical was for the best song in Cats to blow us out of the fucking water by connecting emotionally, hitting all the right notes, and asking us to soar with it. "Memory" is a legitimately great song, and before I continue, let me just share this version, sung by Heather Headley:


Headley asks you to connect with her story emotionally. You hear everything you need to hear about this character, and you feel with her deeply. That is not what Hudson does. She cries and sobs and her voice croaks and she can't quite get there with the notes because of her very important feelings. (Her nose also runs the entire time in an apparent tribute to Viola Davis in Fences.) Of course Jennifer Hudson can hit the notes, and when she finally does as she gets to Touuuuuuuch meeeeeeeeee, my gay ass snapped in the air and was like yaaaaassssssssss, but this is because I was absolutely desperate for her to get there and when she finally did I was just so grateful. In fact, after she belts that one little section, Hudson goes back to acting instead of singing, and the song falls apart again. This was a fundamental mistake in the movie. And I know I complain about this all the fucking time with Hollywood musicals, but the acting is not the most important thing in a musical. The music is. "Memory" is a perfect example. The story is in the music. The music does the work. Hit the notes and you'll hit our emotional notes in the audience, and we will resonate with you. If you spend time attempting to communicate a bunch of feelings by emoting, it's not gonna work.

In other words, aside from Cats' very weird aesthetic problems, it also has some very serious emotional problems. It is, more than anything else, like watching a children's dance recital when you don't have any children in the performance.

The Last Black Man in San Francisco

The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a strange film. Joe Talbot's movie is a very A24 type of thing, but this one doesn't totally connect. There's something about the filmmaking that seems stilted or off – perhaps it's that the two main characters both feel neuro-atypical. As such, I had trouble fully relating to either of them. The performances, though, are really great. Rob Morgan is his usual brilliant self. Jonathan Majors is also excellent. And Danny Glover has a lovely small part.