Two hits and a miss on Netflix

Three new Netflix series dropped in the last couple weeks. For a change, I had a chance to sample them near to their release. It was a mixed bag, but quite the range in material.

AJ and the Queen

Sweet and entertaining, without the extreme intensity of Pose and with just enough Drag Race to keep it all moving.  Which isn’t to say it doesn’t get a bit broad but it’s approach is generally very down-to-earth to keep it feeling real. That does make the pacing a little slower than some may like, but I’m finding it cozy. And while RuPaul is his wonderful self and driving the show, newcomer Izzy G. is making quite the impression as AJ with some serious chips. And, as you find out at the top, it is AJ’s story, not his. Hoping they can continue the effort and build on the characters.

Messiah

This is certainly not the first show to posit the Second Coming…in fact, squint a little and the opening episode echos Dune, among dozens of other stories, shows, and movies. But Messiah is intense and fascinating, with multiple threads all being woven into an intriguing tapestry.

With Mehdi Dehbi  (The Other Son) in the title role and Michelle Monaghan (Mission: Impossible – Fallout) watching from the CIA side, the clashes are inevitible, but the message and the commentary are well educated and non-denominationally specific (so far) and intended to challenge. And with James McTeigue (V for Vendetta, Sense8) at the directing helm of more than half the episodes, I’m feeling confident about the show’s ability to navigate the divisive material in an intelligent and entertaining way.

Medical Police

Yeah, couldn’t even get through the first episode. Not my humor, though it could be yours (Reno 911 anyone)? The pacing is off and the wry humor just falls flat more than hitting the mark. I’m out…you can decide on your own.

The Other Son (Le fils de l’autre)

(3.5 stars)

Changeling tales offer up interesting opportunies to investigate identity and family. Few, however, found quite the flashpoint as swapped births between an Israeli and Palestinian family.  Lorraine Lévy’s tale of two young men discovering their past is quiet and simple, with a modicum of political and religious fervor from the outside. It is focused more on how the young Jules Sitruk (Son of Rambow) and Mehdi Dehbi (A Most Wanted Man, Messiah) reassess who they are because of the revelations rather than how the world views them.

How their families deal with the revelations is part of the success and failures of the story as a whole. It tends to remain, wonderfully, understated. There are emotional moments and stressors, but this isn’t a melodrama. However, some of the choices and conversations feel manipulated to allow for other things to occur, which got a little frustrating even while the interplay was good. Fortunately, Lévy directed it all with a calm, sure hand rooted in reality rather than histrionics.

I have to admit I spent a good deal of the film waiting for it all to blow up into some kind of tragedy. And while an argument could be made that the tension that provides adds to the story, I found it more a distraction. So, I’m letting you know it isn’t a tragedy, though neither is it devoid of bigger issues and problems.

The Other Son is a thoughtful mental experiment that forces some interesting questions upon its characters, and through them the audience. Despite its quiet demeanor it is suprisingly gripping, and ultimately worth the journey.

The Other Son

Oscar Nominees 2020

Well, here we are again. I didn’t try to write up my guesses for the nominees this year, though they’re pretty much aligned with what came in, because they were too early.

This year, even more than last, is going to be one heck of a battle (lack of diversity aside because that’s an entirely different discussion). Not just because of all the great productions and performances, but because this is likely going to be the inflection point for streamers vs. establishment in Hollywood. Either the final votes will snub the streamers and risk becoming irrelevant and pissing off a number of creatives, or they’ll accept the new normal and change the landscape forever. Given that Netflix leads the pack of studios with 24 nominations total, it isn’t out of the question that platform, as a decision maker, may actually have faded since the Roma controversy of last year.

The other two surprises for me were the complete snubbing of The Farewell and Joker garnering the most noms of the season. Farewell not getting a shot at anything is near criminal. It was one of the best films of the past year. But so was Joker, and I honestly thought the Academy voters would eschew it in large part. So, I was wildly wrong on both counts… which just intrigues me more.

So with a few awards already out there, I’m going to risk my early predictions before making a final call the night before the awards early next month. I imagine my insight(?) will shift as more awards are announced and sentiment clarifies over the next few weeks, but it’s never stopped me before…

Actress in a Leading Role

Cynthia Erivo (Harriet)
Scarlett Johansson (Marriage Story)
Siorse Ronan (Little Women)
Charlize Theron (Bombshell)
Renee Zellwegger (Judy)

This is a great list, and every one of these women deserve recognition. But Zellwegger really stands out in her transformation and subtlety of performance. And, let’s face it, Judy Garland is beloved by the industry, which gives her a leg up.

Actor in a Leading Role

Antonio Banderas (Pain and Glory)
Leonardo DiCaprio (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood)
Adam Driver (Marriage Story)
Joaquin Phoenix (Joker)
Jonathan Pryce (The Two Popes)

There are a number of great performances here as well, but I think Joaquin Phoenix really out-classed all these other men. His performance is the most complex and, ultimately, the most affecting.

Actress in a Supporting Role

Kathy Bates (Richard Jewell)
Laura Dern (Marriage Story)
Scarlett Johannson (Jojo Rabbit)
Florence Pugh (Little Women)
Margot Robbie (Bombshell)

This is a really tough field to choose from. Each performance in the list is strong for a different reason. Given Dern’s previous wins for the role, she probably has the edge. Johannson is going to have her votes split and Pugh and Robbie each have great moments, but aren’t quite as impactful as Dern in their roles.

Actor in a Supporting Role

Tom Hanks (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood)
Anthony Hopkins (The Two Popes)
Al Pacino (The Irishman)
Joe Pesci (The Irishman)
Brad Pitt (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood)

A similarly difficult field to choose from. I think Hanks, as good as he was, is simply going to get overlooked, and the dueling Irishmen will cancel eachother out, allowing Pitt to float to the top. In this field, were I to choose, however, I’d give it to Pesci for his quiet and subtle performance that overshadows the entire movie.

Adapted Screenplay

The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Joker
Little Women
The Two Popes

The selection of a winner here will depend heavily on what the voters are looking for in a script. The most creative is, hands-down, Jojo Rabbit. But Joker is an unexpectedly powerful tale of mental illness and a society gone wrong. Irishman is a quiet epic that is really just a small tale of family in the most beautiful of ways. And Little Women and Two Popes took source material and broadened it into a more encompassing philosophy and message.

But since only one can win, I’m thinking Irishman or Joker, with odds on Irishman.

Original Screenplay

Knives Out
Marriage Story
1917
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Parasite

Man, I just want to scream “stop making me pick!” The only one that doesn’t belong here is Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, which was a lousy script. I’m sorry, I know I’m in the minority, but I hated the script. In any event, it doesn really hold a candle to the rest of these.

Honestly, on merits, I think it’s between Marriage Story and Parasite. And since Marriage Story is unlikely to get more than Best Supporting, I’m thinking it will pick up the statuette here…also because it manages to do the seemingly impossible: making divorce feel positive.

Directing

Martin Scorsese (The Irishman)
Todd Phillips (Joker)
Sam Mendes (1917)
Quentin Tarantino (Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood)
Bong Joon-ho (Parasite)

Unsurprisingly, these are all part of the Best Picture pool as well, and with many of the same challenges. For sheer, unexpected craft, my choice would be Joker or Parasite. For audacity of vision and production, 1917. For journeymanship and career best: The Irishman.

But as to who will win? I’m going to go out on a limb and take a lesson from Gravity’s win a few years back and call it for 1917, simply for the incredible delivery of an audacious vision.

Best Picture

Ford V Ferrari
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Joker
Little Women
Marriage Story
1917
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Parasite

With the exception of front-runner Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood and the snubbing of The Farewell, this is a legit list for the year. Given these selections, I’m hard-pressed to pick just one (and expect that much vote-splitting is going to really randomize the winner).

For now, I expect Once Upon a Time to win. It is such insider-baseball and has a groundswell, where many of the others are more divisive and likely to siphon votes from one another.

If it were solely up to me, I’d probably go with The Irishman. It is such a subtle epic and beautifully crafted all around. But honestly, so was Joker. I just don’t see Joker taking this top prize with this voting block. The real question is whether the Academy can get past Netflix-hate to award this top prize to a streamer?

International Feature

Corpus Christi
Honeyland
Les Miserables
Pain And Glory
Parasite

Gotta be Parasite, despite all the other excellent entries.

Original Song

“I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away” – Toy Story 4
“(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” – Rocketman
“I’m Standing With You” – Breakthrough
“Into the Uknown” – Frozen 2
“Stand Up” – Harriet

I’ve always found this category somewhat pointless. It is rarely about more than popularity. And while that may be something worth rewarding, many songs are simply in the credits or as incidental music…there isn’t much consistency in how they interact with the film. This year, none of the songs really broke out in any particular way (again, let me express joy at not being subjected to Let it Go v2). Being forced to select, I’m going to go with Harriet, if for no other reasons than the lack of diversity elsewhere and Eviro’s cred.

Original Score

Joker (Hildur Guonadottir)
Little Women (Alexandre Desplat)
Marriage Story (Randy Newman)
1917 (Thomas Newman)
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (John Williams)

Going with Joker for this one. My experience was best enhanced by the score for that movie. It wouldn’t surprise me if Star Wars takes it since it set a record 52nd nomination for John Williams. He’s only won 5 of those and only Walt Disney (the man) has ever had more at 59. Though, also props for the dual Newman brothers noms… going to make the next holiday meal entertaining, I’m sure…

Documentary Feature

American Factory
The Cave
The Edge of Democracy
For Sama
Honeyland

While Honeyland is a good contender, American Factory with the Obamas behind it may ride a political wave to the front of the race. But I haven’t seen any of these yet to make an educated guess.

Documentary Short Subject

In The Absence
Learning To Skateboard
Life Overtakes Me
St Louis Superman
Walk, Run, Cha-Cha

Still waiting to see these.

Live Action Short Film

Brotherhood
Nefta Football Club
The Neighbors’ Window
Saria
A Sister

Still waiting to see these.

Animated Feature Film

How To Train Your Dragon
I Lost My Body
Klaus
Missing Link
Toy Story 4

For the sheer hubris of the story, I’d love to see I Lost My Body win, but it’s gonna be Toy Story 4. That series really went out on a high and the craft of it is solid. Missing Link just didn’t really work well for me, as much as I’ve loved the previous Laika offerings, and How To Train Your Dragon was sweet and pretty, but not exactly brilliant. Klaus, well, whatever.

Animated Short Film

Dcera (Daughter)
Hair Love
Kitbull
Memorable
Sister

Cinematography

The Irishman
Joker
The Lighthouse
1917
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Until recently, I would have selected differently, but 1917 is a Cinematographer’s dream/nightmare, and its successful delivery sets a new bar for movies. All the nominees have things going for them, but none were as challenged.

Film Editing

Ford V Ferrari
The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Joker
Parasite

How 1917 was subbed here, I don’t know. But, given it isn’t in attendance, my best guess is going to be Ford v Ferrari due to the Le Mans scenes.

Production Design

The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
1917
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Parasite

Such a hodgepodge of eras and approaches makes this a grab-bag. Irishman and 1917 are both perfect incarnations of their eras, making the production design invisible. Sorta true for Once Upon a Time as well, but I just don’t think it has the same creativity. Jojo and Parasite each have a sense of whimsy and reality that mixes in unexpected ways. Because of the latter two’s impact on the story itself, rather than just facilitating the tales, I think it goes to one of them, and if I had to guess (which I do), I’m going with Jojo Rabbit.

Costume Design

The Irishman
Jojo Rabbit
Joker
Little Women
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Almost always this goes to a period piece, despite any of the other relative values of the productions. Since 1917 isn’t in the mix, I’m betting on Little Women.

Visual Effects

Avengers: Endgame
The Irishman
The Lion King
1917
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

This is another tough one. Tougher than usual as several of these films are in it for pushing the envelope in different ways. I’m ignoring Avengers and Star Wars as possibilities as they are big and flashy, but not really new. Lion King found a new way to film that is astounding (however weak the film itself was). Irishman did magic with aging and de-aging. 1917 recreated and presented WWI in a way never achieved before. I think for the invisibleness of it, The Irishman may take this one.

Makeup and Hairstyling

Bombshell
Joker
Judy
Maleficent: Mistress of Evil
1917

Thinking Bombshell or Judy for this. I’m leaning Bombshell because of the transformations the makeup provided. Zellweger already looked like Judy, but Theron was subtly metamorphosed into her character with invisible prosthetics and makeup.

Sound Mixing

Ad Astra
Ford V Ferrari
Joker
1917
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

I think both this and Sound Editing are up for grabs between Ford v Ferrari and 1917. If the latter gets a groundswell, it may well sweep the two.

Sound Editing

Ford V Ferrari
Joker
1917
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

I think both this and Sound Mixing are up for grabs between Ford v Ferrari and 1917. If the latter gets a groundswell, it may well sweep the two.

NOMINATIONS BY FILM

Provided just for reference, but certainly interesting to consider when considering who has the attention of the voters.

Joker (Warner Bros.) – 11
The Irishman (Netflix) – 10
1917 (Universal/Amblin Partners) – 10
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (Sony Pictures Releasing) – 10
Jojo Rabbit (Fox Searchlight) – 6
Little Women (Sony Pictures Releasing) – 6
Marriage Story (Netflix) – 6
Parasite (Neon) – 6
Ford v Ferrari (Disney) – 4
Bombshell (Lionsgate) – 3
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (Disney) – 3
The Two Popes (Netflix) – 3
Harriet (Focus Features) – 2
Honeyland (Neon) 2
Judy (LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions) – 2
Pain and Glory (Sony Pictures Classics) – 2
Toy Story 4 (Disney) – 2

Bless Me, Ulima

[3 stars]

How much has changed since 1944 New Mexico? Well, after watching Carl Franklin’s adaptation of the same named novel, I fear not much.  That isn’t Franklin’s point, but I’m watching this 9 years after its release and art is nothing if not contextually interpreted. Though, to be fair, some of those aspects (inequality, power, prejudice) were Franklin’s intent, they just resonate a bit differently in a world where we’re slamming shut our borders and separating families out of fear and greed.

While there is some nice storytelling through the eyes of a young boy which borders on magic realism, this isn’t a great adaptation. The use of voice over, in particular, is somewhat cheap and distracting. The plot also leaps along in some odd ways, and aspects of the world are a bit forced. Fortunately, the main message of being bonded to the world and each other, never really goes out of style. And Franklin found a unique time and family to deliver that idea. But for all the plot, it feels more like a slice of life than a deep tale worthy of feature film. An interesting slice at times, but incomplete. So, while this is a somewhat interesting film, I can’t strongly recommend it. However, as a brake from all the standard fare out there, it is certainly a different world and set of characters.

Bless Me, Ultima

1917

[4 stars]

Some movies are just great rides, and this is one of them. What Sam Mendes (Spectre) has accomplished with his planning and directing is a movie miracle from a technological point of view. And, in this case, that’s enough to recommend it. The script he co-wrote with Krysty Wilson-Cairns (Penny Dreadful), however, isn’t quite on the same level; it is more than a little forced. These aspects make 1917 an interesting duality.

There is no question that that is worth seeing and, in particular, worth seeing on the big screen. It pulls off what Birdman tried to but was too coy and self-conscious to pull off: making the one-shot completely invisible as a device. From the moment it begins, 1917 makes you walk alongside the young soldiers about to traverse a special kind of hell. George MacKay (Captain Fantastic) and Dean-Charles Chapman (Blinded By the Light) are perfect choices to lead our trip…they aren’t very recognizable, allowing them to be more believable. In fact, their lack of celebrity only heightens other faces we do recognize such as Andrew Scott (Lear), Mark Strong (Shazam!), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Current War), and Richard Madden (Rocketman). It is a purposeful effect, lending power to these small parts and diminishing even more the pawns we are following.

But here’s the tricky thing… their mission and the course it takes, in order to be dramatic, feels directed or manipulated. You may not know exactly what’s going to happen all the time, but you have a good sense since we’ve been on these rides before, just on more highly edited trips. MacKay, in particular, is simply a vessel for us. He is a complete cypher until the very end of his particular journey and then, well, it just isn’t enough.

1917 is a tchnologlcal monster in the way Gravity was in its year. In addition, it has an uncomfortable resonance, particularly now as we sit (yet again) on the brink of war. But despite all that, it isn’t a great story…which makes it only a solid movie and not a great one. Still, it will wow enough voters to get a Best Picture nomination and it may even sway enough to win. Certainly the editing, cinematography, and sound are worthy of notice. Directing as well, given the Herculean effort it took to pull it all off. But the story just isn’t there for me.

Part of my sense of the emotional gap is because of They Shall Not Grow Old, which never really focused on a single soldier, but which managed to create a more emotional journey for me. Part of it was the difference in scale. MacKay and Chapman spend most of their time in No Man’s Land. This sets them in an empty landscape surrounded by the debris of war but not in the midst of it. Those moments come, but the scope of it all was lost by the narrow focus, even as the beginning and end try to bring it back in. Though I fully admit the tension of the journey (one of many soldiers like these had to make) leaves you a wet rag as the credits role; physically, if not entirely emotionally, exhausted.

See this on big screen with big sound (Dolby definitely did this film justice on that level). 1917 is late to the race this year, but it is one you’ll be hearing a lot about over the next month or so.

1917

A Christmas Carol (2019)

[3.5 stars]

Seriously, did we need another Christmas Carol? Well, actually, as it turns out: yes. Steven Knight’s (Serenity) take on Scrooge’s tale is creepy and revelatory, as opposed to rushed and predictable. Guy Pearce (Mary Queen of Scots) embraces the dark and navigates our humbug-spewing character through memories and experiences that finally make it clear why and when he lost his way.

Joe Alwyn (Harriet) provides a solid foil as Crachit, though he is well over-shadowed by his screen-wife Vinette Robinson (Sherlock). Robinson drives the true catalyst of change. But these are the characters we always have known. Part of what Knight does is broaden the tale and provide Marley with a voice in Stephen Graham (The Irishman). Marley was always just an excuse to tell Dicken’s story in previous adaptations. In this one, he truly has something at stake.

Even the other Christmas ghosts have a bit more going on in this telling. Andy Serkis (Black Panther) and Charlotte Riley (Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell), especially, get their own tales.

If, like me, you have always found the saccharine retelling of redemption just a bit too much to stomach, this will give you new appreciation of the story and the message. The experience is probably a lot closer to how Dicken’s audience received the story as well.

Admittedly, you still have to believe someone can utterly change just by seeing the truth, but Knight doesn’t really let anyone completely off the hook in his resolution. It’s messy, like life, but he allows for the nearest thing to a believable change in this classic tale that I’ve seen.

Dracula (2019)

[4 stars]

I’m not here to stake Dracula, but to praise him. Well at least Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss for their imaginative retelling of Stoker’s classic. The two used their Sherlock chops to capture the original’s sense and structure, but recast it and the dialogue into something more digestible for today’s audience.

Gatiss (Christopher Robin) also took the plum bit part of Renfield for himself. Who can blame him, it is always a tasty role.

But while Claes Bang (The Square) burns up the screen as a rather self-aware Dracula, it is Dolly Wells (Can You Ever Forgive Me?) who steals this show utterly. Her alacrity with language and facility with accent set her apart. She really has the best lines as well. Which isn’t to say the rest of the cast isn’t strong. They are, and many are recognizable from earlier Moffat/Gatiss collaborations. Outside of the known ensemble, there was also a nice showing by Matthew Beard (Vienna Blood) and Lydia West (Years and Years) in smaller roles sequestered to the third episode and a nice, if type-cast role, for Patrick Walshe McBride (Shakespeare & Hathaway).

The 3 90-minute episodes allow the story to expand in ways that a 2 hour movie just can’t manage. We get depth and scope as well as answers (some clever, and some inconsistent) and a solid parallel to the book that is usually a jumping off point rather than template. That said, the series definitely departs radically from the book in specifics, but somehow retains the intent and purpose, making it the most authentic version I’ve seen. Even the ending, which is not exactly satisfying (to say the least), best mirrors Stoker’s final pages as compared to other adaptations (the book ending was challenging as well).

Overall, this is an emotionally and intellecutally dense portrait of Dracula, with enough of all the bits we’ve particularly loved about this tale over the last 123 years (sex, violence, murder, seduction, romance). Moffat and Gatiss yet again prove they can take dated, original material and honor it without just slavishly following it.

 

 

The Angry Birds Movie 2

[3 stars]

OK, let’s be honest, the first Angry Birds movie was awful. I only came back for the sequel because there was something about the trailer that gave me some hope. And it wasn’t unwarranted, though it wasn’t fully rewarded either.

The first movie tried to leverage the game that spawned the characters far too much. It was a confrontational movie between birds and pigs, and creepy and unsatisfying on many levels (not to mention a really bad script). But they learned from those errors.

This sequel is more about “pranks” between the birds and pigs (rather than omnivorous emnity). The plot requires them to work together. The humor has a lot of levels, from the slapstick to the more subtle. And the main characters have some arc to them.

Don’t misunderstand, this is still children’s fare to be ingested with lots of sweets or popcorn, but it isn’t a painful affair to spend time with. It’s simply a silly distraction stacked with an impressive voice cast list (though nothing worth calling out). Up to you if you want to spend time with it or simply need to distract some youngsters while you do something else. Either way, it was nice to see that they learned from their errors and put more creativity into this sequel.

Five Feet Apart

[3 stars]

Yes, it’s a manipulative and predictable Romeo and Juliet riff, with cystic fibrosis as the wall between them, but it is executed relatively well if you’re in the mood for it.

Haley Lu Richardson (The Edge of Seventeen) and  Cole Sprouse (Riverdale, but more amusingly Grace Under Fire) are an inevitable couple, far too sharp witted and special for their own good. But, of course, we root for them as they discover what’s really important in life.

My biggest gripe, outside of a few saccharine moments, is that the one gay character, Moises Arias (Ender’s Game), is there for comic relief and to serve other cheap purposes in the script. He did well with the role, but his existence felt forced. While I get that this was a standard love story with a twist, it’s a shame they had to make the story so patently non-inclusive.

That aside, there are some nice turns in the hospital’s staff championed by Kimberly Hebert Gregory (Kevin (Probably) Saves the World)  and Parminder Nagra (Blinded By the Light).  Both manage to take standard characters and provde them some depth.

This is the first feature for director Justin Baldoni (better known as an actor in shows such as Jane the Virgin), as well as a first script for Mikki Daughtry and Tobias Iaconis. As a first attempt, this is fairly polished and tight tale. It isn’t groundbreaking, but it is pleasantly distracting for a night of light romance with a bit of medical issues. It will be interesting to see what lessons all involved take into their next projects.

Being Frank

[2.5 stars]

This odd, black comedy has just enough heart to sell its premise, but not quite enough story to sell the movie.

Part of the problem is that Miranda Bailey selected her her first fiction feature to be one with a very challenging plot. It wasn’t helped by the fact that it was also a first feature script by by writer Glen Lakin. Negotiating through to an ending was never going to be for the feint of heart nor the light of experience. I’d really like to see what Bailey could do with a better script, given her relative success with this one.

There are some funny moments and some nice work by the cast. Jim Gaffigan (Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation), as the titular character, is affable and bumbling. But while he’s the framework for the story, he isn’t the lead. That belongs to his screen-son Logan Miller (Escape Room) who is coming into his own and uncovering secrets. There are several other good performances, but Isabelle Phillips, in her first major role, is the one standout. She brings a light and charismatic performance into the midst of the dark chaos Gaffigan’s character has wrought.

This is far from a great film. To be honest, it is, ultimately, unsatisfying. But there is some good work to enjoy and some nicely contained broad comedy to keep it together. I wouldn’t go out of your way to see it, but if you enjoy this kind of comedy or any of the actors, it isn’t a total loss of time.

Art, writing, life explained… or at least commented upon…