Tag Archives: craft

Grantchester (Series 4)

[3.5 stars]

The first three series of this entertaining mystery show twisted emotionally around the heartache and confusions of the vicar of the titular town, James Norton’s (Flatliners) Sidney. Series four goes about remaking the show with a fascinating transition. And much like the recent Father Brown sequence, it is also bringing in more of the current world in reflection.

What hasn’t changed is the mysteries solved by teaming up with Robson Green’s (Being Human) Geordie. They are often violent, socially reflective, and interestingly twisted at times as they squeeze through a constabulary that wants things to be easy, even when they rarely are. But we also get some interesting side plots as threaded arcs through the series. While the lives of the others in the vicarage were always part of the tales, these are more pointed and very separate. Kacey Ainsworth finally gets a bit more of a life outside Geordie’s and Tessa Peake-Jones gets to settle into the marriage from the previous series while retaining her connection running the household. And Al Weaver (Colette) expands on his delicate and tragic course.

New additions are the main engines for the changes that take place. Most notably, Tom Brittney (Humans) who brings an equally committed and conflicted sense of religion and life to the show. In many ways his energy is much more welcome as it is more vibrant and less maudlin than Sidney’s character.

The series itself has a very complicated but controlled arc over its six episodes. Watching it all being torn apart and put back together, while getting some good stories to carry it along, is really quite entertaining. If you haven’t found Grantchester yet, start at the beginning as otherwise much of this latest series will be lost on you. If you have been enjoying it up till now, be assured the story continues to grow and satisfy, even as all the characters are forced through reckonings and realizations.

The Front Runner

[3 stars]

I want to start with what is good with this story because, honestly, it is a film worth seeing even if it doesn’t accomplish what I’d have liked.

At the top of the positive aspects of the film is Hugh Jackman (The Greatest Showman) who delivers a solid performance as the idealistic Gary Hart. Vera Farmiga (Boundaries), as his wife, also tackles the challenge of her situation with a decidedly adult demeanor. The rest of the cast is solid, but none pop. Even J.K. Simmons (The Snowman), who normally stands out amid a crowd, just isn’t enough of a focus to make him memorable. This is mostly because the story is very focused on Hart and his family. The resulting story is neither a whitewash nor a vilification of Hart, Rice, or even most of the journos involved. Jason Reitman’s (Tully) direction keeps the story honest (even if the script misses the mark by a wide margin on making it’s point).

So let’s talk about what the movie missed. This moment in history was a seminal moment in politics and journalism, one from which we’ve never recovered. But the impact of that is never really achieved on screen. Recently, Vice laid out another aspect of the dismantling of objective journalism and the ending of the Fairness Doctrine. But it was only one aspect of the changes that have occurred. The story of Gary Hart is the other.

Front Runner never establishes what things were like before the moment the Miami Herald made Donna Rice a household name. There are brief conversations, but no real sense of the indelible change and the impact that has brought us to today. A day when there is absolutely no privacy and journalism, real journalism, is a dying skill…a skill who’s value is not even understood by a large portion of the public it used to serve. Worse, the highest offices in the land seem fit to claim open, honest, balanced journalism is “an enemy of the people.” Well, this is how it all really started. But without a clear touchstone for what it had been, it simply becomes a story we watch rather than comprehend.

With a well-documented serial philanderer in the White House, and blatant racists serving in Congress and state houses, it is easy to forget that politicians not only used to be held to a higher standard when confronted, but that any information on their private lives was not even considered germane only 35 years ago. Everything changed with the journalistic and self-destruction of Gary Hart.

Unfortunately, this movie didn’t quite capture that aspect. While there is still real investigative reporting out there, the larger group of news, print, and online are chasing entertainment or simply printing what they need to get eyeballs, regardless of the rigor behind the story or the veracity. And by doing so, they’ve often become the unwitting weapons of those they are trying to expose. And many readers have lost the ability to take in the information critically to pull apart fact from conjecture and opinion. They’d rather take their news in unverified tweets. In other words, the Fifth Estate is under siege from both within and without.

Think this is all hyperbole? Consider that just last week (blog time) Justice Clarence Thomas wrote an opinion suggesting that libel law protections for journalists and their papers put in place by New York Time vs Solomon should be overturned.

OK, rant over. As a movie Front Runner is definitely worth seeing. You may want to dig a bit more into the information to understand the context. This isn’t The Post, it is really more about the man than the implications. That was a legitimate choice, but not the more important one in my opinion.

Oscars 2019 – The Results

This was a tough field to predict this year. In fact, it was my worst showing in years. Honestly, I’m not too embarrassed; where I missed it was usually to the alternatives I called out in previous posts. However, there were a few real surprises, like the strong showing by Black Panther which is a great indicator for genre movies going forward.

Here were my percentage results:

Majors (5 of 9 categories):  56%

Second Tier (3 of 6 categories): 50%

Techincal Tier (5 of 9 categories):  56%

No excuses or explanations with the results below, just the data.

THE MAJOR AWARDS

Actress in a Leading Role

Yalitza Aparicio, Roma
Glenn Close, The Wife
Olivia Colman, The Favourite
Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born
Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

My prediction: Glen Close
Winner: Olivia Colman

Actor in a Leading Role

Christian Bale, Vice
Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born
Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Viggo Mortensen, Green Book

My prediction: Rami Malek
Winner:  Rami Malek

Actor in a Supporting Role

Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman
Sam Elliott, A Star Is Born
Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Sam Rockwell, Vice

My prediction: Mahershala Ali
Winner: Mahershala Ali

Actress in a Supporting Role

Amy Adams, Vice
Marina de Tavira, Roma
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Emma Stone, The Favourite
Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

My prediction: Regina King
Winner: Regina King

Adapted Screenplay

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
BlacKkKlansman, Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee
Can You Ever Forgive Me?,  Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty
If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins
A Star Is Born, Eric Roth and Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters

My prediction: Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Winner:
BlacKkKlansman

Original Screenplay

The Favourite, Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara
First Reformed, Paul Schrader
Green Book, Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, Peter Farrelly
Roma, Alfonso Cuarón
Vice, Adam McKay

My prediction: Green Book
Winner: 
Green Book

Cinematography

Cold War, Lukasz Zal
The Favourite, Robbie Ryan
Never Look Away, Caleb Deschanel
Roma, Alfonso Cuarón
A Star Is Born, Matthew Libatique

My prediction: Roma
Winner:
Roma

Directing

Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman
Pawel Pawlikowski, Cold War
Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite
Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Adam McKay, Vice

My prediction: Spike Lee
Winner:
Alfonso Cuarón

Best Picture

Black Panther
BlacKkKlansman
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Green Book
Roma
A Star Is Born
Vice

My prediction: Roma
Winner: 
Green Book

THE NEXT TIER AWARDS

Animated Feature Film

Incredibles 2
Isle of Dogs
Mirai
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

My prediction: Spider-Man
Winner:
Spider-Man

Foreign Language Film

Capernaum (Lebanon)
Cold War (Poland)
Never Look Away (Germany)
Roma (Mexico)
Shoplifters (Japan)

My prediction: Shoplifters
Winner: 
Roma

Documentary Feature

Free Solo
Hale County This Morning, This Evening
Minding the Gap
Of Fathers and Sons
RBG

My prediction: RBG
Winner: 
Free Solo

Documentary Short Subject

Black Sheep (The Guardian)
End Game (Netflix)
Lifeboat
A Night at the Garden (Field of Vision)
Period. End Of Sentence

My prediction: Period. End Of Sentence.
Winner: 
Period. End Of Sentence.

Animated Short Film

Animal Behaviour
Bao
Late Afternoon
One Small Step
Weekends

My prediction: Bao 
Winner: 
Bao

Live Action Short Film

Detainment
Fauve
Marguerite
Mother
Skin

My prediction: Marguerite
Winner: 
Skin

THE TECHNICAL AWARDS

Production Design (production; set)

Black Panther, Hannah Beachler; Jay Hart
The Favourite, Fiona Crombie; Alice Felton
First Man, Nathan Crowley; Kathy Lucas
Mary Poppins Returns, John Myhre; Gordon Sim
Roma, Eugenio Caballero; Bárbara Enríquez

My prediction: Mary Poppins Returns
Winner: 
Black Panther

Costume Design

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Mary Zophres
Black Panther, Ruth Carter
The Favourite, Sandy Powell
Mary Poppins Returns, Sandy Powell
Mary Queen of Scots, Alexandra Byrne

My prediction: The Favourite
Winner: 
Black Panther

Film Editing

BlacKkKlansman, Barry Alexander Brown
Bohemian Rhapsody, John Ottman
The Favourite, Yorgos Mavropsaridis
Green Book, Patrick J. Don Vito
Vice, Hank Corwin

My prediction: Vice
Winner:
Bohemian Rhapsody

Original Score

Black Panther, Ludwig Goransson
BlacKkKlansman, Terence Blanchard
If Beale Street Could Talk, Nicholas Britell
Isle of Dogs, Alexandre Desplat
Mary Poppins Returns, Marc Shaiman

My prediction: Mary Poppins Returns
Winner: 
Black Panther

Original Song

“All The Stars” — Black Panther
“I’ll Fight” — RBG
“The Place Where Lost Things Go” — Mary Poppins Returns
“Shallow” — A Star Is Born
“When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings” — The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

My prediction: Shallow
Winner:
Shallow

Visual Effects

Avengers: Infinity War
Christopher Robin
First Man
Ready Player One
Solo: A Star Wars Story

My prediction: Avengers: Infinity War
Winner: 
First Man

Makeup and Hairstyling

Border,  Göran Lundström and Pamela Goldammer
Mary Queen of Scots, Jenny Shircore, Marc Pilcher and Jessica Brooks
Vice, Greg Cannom, Kate Biscoe and Patricia DeHaney

My prediction: Vice
Winner: 
Vice

Sound Editing

Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
First Man
A Quiet Place
Roma

My prediction: Bohemian Rhapsody
Winner: 
Bohemian Rhapsody

Sound Mixing

Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
First Man
Roma
A Star Is Born

My prediction: Bohemian Rhapsody
Winner: 
Bohemian Rhapsody

Oscars 2019 – Final Call

Well here we are at the end of the awards season rainbow. And since the nominations, there have been a slew of awards given out: The Annies, The Eddies, PGA, Art Directors Guild, ASC, SAG-AFTRA, Directors Guild, Writers GuildBAFTA, CDG, etc.

Normally, these other ceremonies would have given a strong indication of who was likely to win tomorrow night, but this has been an odd year for a number of reasons. First, the talent in competition is all very good and all very different. Second, a lot of the nominees weren’t in direct competition in the same ceremonies and some of the winners weren’t nominated for Oscars. And third, Netflix. There is a love/hate thing going on in Hollywood with the rise of the streaming giant which could help or hurt it.

I think the public is well ahead of the Academy in making its decision about the legitimacy of streaming services and the release window. The viewing public makes little distinction between a theater and their home screen anymore. It is a meaningless distinction because TVs and sounds systems have gotten so much bigger and better and because of the ongoing shift to on-demand entertainment and the quality it offers.

My biggest concern as this continues is how it will affect the studio choices for what ends up on the large screen. A steady diet of action and musicals would not be my favorite result. I like the smaller scope and surprising films. It would have been criminal for BlacKkKlansman, for example, to miss a theatrical release, or The Wife. But neither needs a big screen to succeed, though I saw both in theater, whether or not they are filmed well. The rise of AMC’s A-List and Cinemark’s club, not to mention the dying-in-the-dust MoviePass, are removing that barrier as well. The Academy needs to catch up to the reality or risk simply becoming irrelevant amidst the sea of other awards bodies.

OK, enough banter. On with the predictions…

THE MAJOR AWARDS

Actress in a Leading Role

Yalitza Aparicio, Roma
Glenn Close, The Wife
Olivia Colman, The Favourite
Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born
Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

While this has always been between Close and Colman, I had thought Colman had the edge with the voters until recently. I think the number of unsatisfied nominations for Close, not to mention the incredible performance, are likely to take the night. Though, as I  originally said, there isn’t a nomination in this category, including Gaga, who aren’t worthy of the honor.

My choice: Glen Close
Likely win: Glen Close

Actor in a Leading Role

Christian Bale, Vice
Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born
Willem Dafoe, At Eternity’s Gate
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Viggo Mortensen, Green Book

Given the options, I really felt this should have gone to Bale, but there is no momentum for him. Given Malek’s number of wins and current societal glow, I’m thinking he’s going to walk away with it. Should he and Bale split the votes, Cooper may come up the middle, but the even money is on Malek.

My choice: Christian Bale
Likely win: Rami Malek

Actor in a Supporting Role

Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman
Sam Elliott, A Star Is Born
Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Sam Rockwell, Vice

Supporting roles are hard to pin some times. But this year, Ali has swept the awards for his phenomenal performance. Richard E. Grant had a good shot, but he couldn’t even pick up BAFTA this year, so it would be a hard win for him, though it is also a great performance.

My choice: Mahershala Ali
Likely win: Mahershala Ali

Actress in a Supporting Role

Amy Adams, Vice
Marina de Tavira, Roma
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Emma Stone, The Favourite
Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

I still think Stone and Weisz should have to mud wrestle for the win here. And Weisz should take it. However, King has been consistently snagging the statuettes and has quite the reputation.

My choice: Rachel Weisz
Likely win:  Regina King

Adapted Screenplay

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
BlacKkKlansman, Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee
Can You Ever Forgive Me?,  Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty
If Beale Street Could Talk, Barry Jenkins
A Star Is Born, Eric Roth and Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters

I think the lack of adherence to the absolute facts, regardless of artistic merit or commentary, is going to cost BlacKkKlansman (and Green Book, for that matter, in its category). Beale Street has its own momentum, and I think there is sympathy for that film. But Can You Ever Forgive Me? has always been my choice here and it is a wonderful and tight script. The movie has little other chance to win anything and it’s surprise win at the WGA, with a substantially similar field, certainly gives the possibility of a win some weight.

My choice: Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Likely win: Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Original Screenplay

The Favourite, Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara
First Reformed, Paul Schrader
Green Book, Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, Peter Farrelly
Roma, Alfonso Cuarón
Vice, Adam McKay

Here, again, the WGA ceremony shifted the possibilities. Outside of the problems around truth and Green Book (some background and info to refute the misinformation) it is a tough field. Favourite had some early momentum, but Roma has been overtaking it. And, depending on how Best Picture swings, this is often a consolation prize. But then the wonderful Eight Grade walked away with the WGA, and it wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. Of course, WGA had a significantly different field as well. I’m suspecting a lot of vote splitting here and a likely surprise. Being forced to choose, however, here’s what I’m thinking…

My choice: Green Book
Likely win: Green Book

Cinematography

Cold War, Lukasz Zal
The Favourite, Robbie Ryan
Never Look Away, Caleb Deschanel
Roma, Alfonso Cuarón
A Star Is Born, Matthew Libatique

Cold War’s win at the ASC awards put it ahead of the presumed choice, Roma, since it won from a nearly identical field by a lot of the same voters. I loved Cuarón’s use of the camera, both in visuals and as a character. I haven’t had the chance to see Cold War yet, which leaves me at a disadvantage here, though from trailers and samples I can see it is an equally beautifully filmed movie. With the ASC win, this has become a toss-up between the two. Because Cuarón also used the camera as moving eye, incorporating it as part of the action rather than just as a capture device, I’m inclined to keep my choice there and hope that the other voters agree.

My choice: Roma
Likely win: Roma

Directing

Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman
Pawel Pawlikowski, Cold War
Yorgos Lanthimos, The Favourite
Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Adam McKay, Vice

Roma has the momentum going in here. But I think that BlacKkKlansman may just edge it out as Lee has never been nominated in this category before. It’s time he had some recognition and I don’t think he can take Best Picture and I don’t expect him to get best screenplay. Typically the two categories are tied, however, so if the Netflix factor doesn’t shift the vote, Cuarón may pick this up as well.

My choice: Spike Lee
Likely win: Spike Lee

Best Picture

Black Panther
BlacKkKlansman
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Green Book
Roma
A Star Is Born
Vice

I don’t even know what this category means anymore. Is it by what’s popular, what’s fun, what’s brave, what took the most skills? Roma and The Favorite are certainly the big guns with momentum… but that also gives voters more chance to recognize them without having to hand over the Best Picture award. Winners from the other events are all over the place. With the exception of Black Panther (fun and surprising as it is, it just doesn’t hold up on rewatch), any of the nominees could legitimately win for their quality. And Best Pic is a preferential ballot, so Green Book may come up the middle as everyone’s second choice is there isn’t a clear first round winner. So, crap shoot.

My choice: Green Book
Likely win: Roma

THE NEXT TIER AWARDS

Animated Feature Film

Incredibles 2
Isle of Dogs
Mirai
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Nothing in the intervening time between nomination and tonight have changed my opinions. Add to that its near sweep at The Annies and Spider-Man should walk away with this award.

My choice: Spider-Man
Likely win: Spider-Man

Foreign Language Film

Capernaum (Lebanon)
Cold War (Poland)
Never Look Away (Germany)
Roma (Mexico)
Shoplifters (Japan)

Shoplifters would have been my early bet here, but Roma is truly a great film and has huge momentum and a ton of noms. And the two cover similar territory in their stories. Those who have no interest in voting for it for Best Pic are likely to balance that by voting for it here. It may well cost Roma as Best Pic ultimately that the safety valve exists. Then again, if it is really aiming at Best Pic, then I don’t think it will get the votes here and Shoplifters could come to the top…which I think is the more likely scenario. But Roma could surprise and win both (or neither).

My Choice: Shoplifters
Likely Win: Shoplifters

Documentary Feature

Free Solo
Hale County This Morning, This Evening
Minding the Gap
Of Fathers and Sons
RBG

How Won’t You Be My Neighbor and Three Identical Strangers missed this list, I don’t understand. However, this is the field we have to work with. But I’ll also admit I’ve not seen the majority of the nominees. Given the current state of politics, however, I’m going with our SCOTUS rep even if Free Solo wow’d audiences consistently.

My Choice: RBG
Likely Win:
 RBG

Documentary Short Subject

Black Sheep (The Guardian)
End Game (Netflix)
Lifeboat
A Night at the Garden (Field of Vision)
Period. End Of Sentence

Likely Win: Period. End Of Sentence.

Animated Short Film

Animal Behaviour
Bao
Late Afternoon
One Small Step
Weekends

Likely Win: Bao (cause, Pixar)

Live Action Short Film

Detainment
Fauve
Marguerite
Mother
Skin

Likely Win: Marguerite

THE TECHNICAL AWARDS

Production Design (production; set)

Black Panther, Hannah Beachler; Jay Hart
The Favourite, Fiona Crombie; Alice Felton
First Man, Nathan Crowley; Kathy Lucas
Mary Poppins Returns, John Myhre; Gordon Sim
Roma, Eugenio Caballero; Bárbara Enríquez

An incredibly diverse and difficult field. There are no apples to apples here to choose from, so it is wide open. Black Panther, to my mind, had the most challenging issues and best results. They got to play in the past and future as well. But I’m thinking it will go more traditional. This is where The Favourite could get some consolation prizes or Mary Poppins, which is mostly ignored this year, could get a some love.

My choice: Black Panther
Likely win: Mary Poppins Returns

Costume Design

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Mary Zophres
Black Panther, Ruth Carter
The Favourite, Sandy Powell
Mary Poppins Returns, Sandy Powell
Mary Queen of Scots, Alexandra Byrne

With Panther and The Favourite having picked up equal awards from the Costume Designers Guild in different categories, it doesn’t make this category any easier to predict. The Oscars usually go for period pieces, with science fiction being snubbed other than for f/x.

My choice: Black Panther
Likely win: The Favourite (though Mary Poppins could sweep in)

Film Editing

BlacKkKlansman, Barry Alexander Brown
Bohemian Rhapsody, John Ottman
The Favourite, Yorgos Mavropsaridis
Green Book, Patrick J. Don Vito
Vice, Hank Corwin

I’ll say again, all of these films have solid editing, but only one lived and died by its edits: Vice. However. Vice wasn’t even nominated for an Eddie this year, so the fact that Bohemian Rhapsody and The Favourite won there wasn’t much help.  But against those, Vice did pick up the BAFTA. And, of course, this is one of those which could become either part of a sweep for a juggernaut or a consolation prize for a film that may otherwise go unnoticed. But I’m sticking to my guns on this one. From a story-telling point of view, I didn’t think either of the Eddie winners came close the impact editing had for the remaining nominees. And of those, Vice was the only one to use the craft to enhance the story rather than to just shock or move it along. I will admit, every time I’ve thought along these lines, I’ve been wrong, so if Bohemian takes this, I won’t be shocked, I’ll just be disappointed.

My Choice:  Vice
Likely win: Vice

Original Score

Black Panther, Ludwig Goransson
BlacKkKlansman, Terence Blanchard
If Beale Street Could Talk, Nicholas Britell
Isle of Dogs, Alexandre Desplat
Mary Poppins Returns, Marc Shaiman

If old-school Hollywood wins out, Mary Poppins will be a runaway. It is certainly one of the more classic and evident scores in the field, and complex while trying to maintain and reflect on the original. Music certainly pushed along the tale in Isle of Dogs in an engaging, if repetitive, way, and the others were more subtly supported.

Likely win: Mary Poppins Returns

Original Song

“All The Stars” — Black Panther
“I’ll Fight” — RBG
“The Place Where Lost Things Go” — Mary Poppins Returns
“Shallow” — A Star Is Born
“When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings” — The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

There is only one song here that has any traction to my mind.  It isn’t perfect (and story-wise it shouldn’t be) but just try to get it out of your head.

Likely Win: Shallow

Visual Effects

Avengers: Infinity War
Christopher Robin
First Man
Ready Player One
Solo: A Star Wars Story

Despite the wealth of blockbusters here, one is infinitely better than the rest in scope and seamlessness…

Likely win: Avengers: Infinity War

Makeup and Hairstyling

Border,  Göran Lundström and Pamela Goldammer
Mary Queen of Scots, Jenny Shircore, Marc Pilcher and Jessica Brooks
Vice, Greg Cannom, Kate Biscoe and Patricia DeHaney

Typically, I’d stay the period piece would get this hands-down, but Vice has magic in its blood with its makeup and hair, completely remaking its actors and capturing the period perfectly.

Likely win: Vice

Sound Editing

Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
First Man
A Quiet Place
Roma

The MPSE awards certainly confused this category. Roma, Bohemian Rhapsody, and A Quiet Place each walked away with sound editing honors in different categories. For the Oscars, they are all dumped into the same bucket. The momentum and recognition is likely to be with Bohemian Rhapsody, though the surprise hit A Quiet Place might get some love here.

My choice: A Quiet Place
Likely win: Bohemian Rhapsody

Sound Mixing

Black Panther
Bohemian Rhapsody
First Man
Roma
A Star Is Born

My choice: Bohemian Rhapsody
Likely win: Bohemian Rhapsody

Shoplifters

[4 stars]

Hirokazu Koreeda wrote and directed this heart-battering and darkly funny look at family that crosses the sense and sensibility of Roma with Florida Project. He continues to plumb some of his favorite themes around family that have often informed his movies and garnered him many awards and nominations.

Shoplifters is a subtle and complicated story that revolves around a low-income family struggling in a unidentified Japanese city. It is a view of that culture that will seem both familiar and utterly unexpected. Koreeda takes his time with the tale, but is constantly building it through the two hours. It is oddly hypnotic through its presentation and its story, but with a tension underneath that keeps your attention and curiosity.

This isn’t a simple tale, nor a perfectly happy one; it is more honest than aspirational. But it is beautiful and oddly hopeful and will leave you thinking about it and discussing it for days afterwards.

Alita: Battle Angel

[3 stars]

There is a lot to like and a lot to hate in this epic adventure. It is packed with incredible visuals, a strong female lead, amazing fights, and some great moments. To dislike, with prejudice, are several chunks of the script and the non-ending (again, thanks to the script). Did I mention the script?

There was so much anticipation around this first big offering of 2019. The pedigree was solid with Robert Rodriguez (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For), king of the low-budget high-impact green screen, at the helm. It even had James Cameron behind it as producer and co-writer along with Rodriguez and Laeta Kalogridis (Altered Carbon) with solid source material in a well-loved manga (Gunnm).

And, honestly, it starts off pretty well. Rosa Salazar (Maze Runner: The Death Cure) tackles Alita with a guileless honesty that manages to not feel stupid. Christoph Waltz (Tulip Fever) guides her journey with some actual depth and character. Even Jennifer Connelly (Stuck in Love), whose character is more than a little cliche, manages to broaden it out to something richer than what was provided on the page. Keean Johnson (Nashville) gives Salazar a reasonable foil and love interest, though he doesn’t quite have the experience to make the role much more than how it was written. Then, of course, there is Mehershala Ali (Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse), the man who’s everywhere this year. Ali gets to have some fun…if not blaze new ground or create a role of a lifetime. Jackie Earle Haley (Damnation Alley) and Ed Skrein (The Transporter Refueled) put together some fun, if unsurprising, villains as well. Even Ed Norton (Isle of Dogs) has a small and, unremarkable, appearance.

But the story is incomplete. It literally ends on an ellipsis without a sense of completion. That is entirely on the script. This film was clearly intended as a first installment in a franchise…one that will never get made (at least for the big screen). But rather than help it stand on its own with a possibility of a future, it simply gets through some stuff and ends without any feeling of resolution. Some slight edits at the end might have helped avoid that feeling by moving some of the final action into or after the credits, but that isn’t what Rodriguez did. After bringing the story to a rather nice climax emotionally, he drops the ball and speeds directly through to the final moments and images.

And then there are the eyes. Alita’s eyes, a weird homage to its anime roots and attempt to make her look different, are, well, distracting. I think there was some intent there to highlight her uniqueness. But in a world where cyborgs and body mods are common, no one there seems to notice them and, as viewers, we just keep getting put off. Salazar’s acting was more than enough to get across the point, the eyes were overkill. It doesn’t ruin the performances or film, but it was the one serious production mistake.

The truth is that if you have any interest in this story or movie, you should see it on the big screen (3D or not is up to you, I saw it in Dobly and was suitably impressed) because it really won’t translate to small screen. Like Valerian, this is a sprawling visual feast with a lot of story that feels pretty common since its release (almost 20 years ago in this case). It is worth supporting for its attempt to do something new, despite its weak script. On the other hand, if you aren’t living to see this or desire some visual acrobatics for a relaxing couple hours away from the world, there are plenty of other choices out there.

At Eternity’s Gate

[3 stars]

Willem Dafoe (Aquaman) gives one of his most quiet, contained and intense performances as Vincent Van Gogh in this odd biopic. The story, as it is presented, is odd not for its subject, but for its style, but let me come back to that.

Dafoe is the lynchpin in this biopic. While there are other performances that help him along, Oscar Isaac (Life Itself) as Paul Gauguin, Rupert Friend (A Simple Favor) as his brother, and Mads Mikkelsen (Doctor Strange) and Mathieu Amalric (Grand Budapest Hotel) as confessors, only Dafoe really drives this story. Given that is through the eyes of a deeply disturbed and unsteady artist, that is either a strength or a weakness, depending on your experience of the story.

Director and co-writer Julian Schnabel (Before Night Falls) has a thing for artists. He is driven to explain and capture the fine line between genius and madness. For a lot of this film we are forced to view the world through a shaky-cam or with split focus to achieve at least part of that goal. It is disorienting and alienating and, frankly, far too obvious. Given Dafoe’s performance, he should have trusted the actors and audience more to understand. The camera tricks were off-putting and, at times for me, unwatchable. Had he used the approach only for a few crisis moments in the film I could have understood and handled it better, but it is better than three-quarters of the film which was already 20-30 minutes longer than necessary.

What is even more disappointing than the camera choices is that we really don’t learn a lot about Vincent’s life. We see events, but never really get to understand them. Vincent clearly does and makes many decisions due to them, so we’re not even emulating his thinking process. The script simply jumps about to various points in his life and assumes we either know the background or can guess it. As a first script for Louise Kugelberg, I can understand that gap, but because Schnabel co-wrote, along with the massively prolific and talented Jean-Claude Carrière (The Patience Stone), I was a little surprised by the result.

For Dafoe’s performance, and some of the inner life of the creative process the film portrays, this is a fascinating film. If you want to learn more about Van Gogh’s life, and mysteries surrounding it, even the recent Loving Vincent will provide more. And, perhaps, I am being unfair to Schanbel’s intentions with this story, but that is in part because the story does try to answer some questions, but never really does full enough. Clearly that was part of the intent as there are black-screen monologues and text explanations to try and fulfill that purpose. Had the film makers focused solely on Vincent’s inner life and process, it may have felt more complete. As it is, we get some interesting ideas and a fabulous performance to appreciate, but not much else.

Bletchley Circle: San Francisco (series 1.0)

[4 stars]

Bletchley, through a series of clever and deliberate transitions, manages to cross the Atlantic successfully without losing its original sensibility. The ability to evolve a show so dramatically is something I really enjoy watching when it is done well, as it was here. In fact, there are several shows that have tackled that problem recently and successfully. Interestingly, most of them are from the UK (e.g., Father Brown) which is far less precious about their properties and far more focused, typically, on quality of story.

Through the first four episodes of this rebuilt Bletchley, we see a new collection of women with similar backgrounds as the original two series, but battling society in new ways (well, in some new ways). The full series consists of another four episodes, but I’ll get to that.

Julie Graham (Shetland) and Rachael Stirling (Their Finest) from the original series provide the anchor and backbone of the tale. The introduction of Crystal Balint, Chanelle Peloso, and Jennifer Spence (Travelers)manages to resurrect the magic of the first series and fill out the gang despite all the new faces.

The real power of this series isn’t the mysteries, which are clever, but rather the energy and intelligence of the women as they find the murderers, and they do it while fighting society’s dismissive view of them. It is a show that is perfectly suited to the times and shines a light into the dark corners of current society.

Now back to those last four episodes of the series. Frustratingly, I don’t know when or if I’ll ever get to see the other half of the season as that appears locked onto BritBox, in the ever growing and complicated landscape of streaming services. Honestly, they’re all just shooting themselves in the foot…I’m not going to get a dozen different subscriptions, especially as most services only have one or two shows I even care about. But if you have BritBox or an opportunity to see the newly conceived series, you won’t be disappointed. If I ever get to see the rest myself, I’ll update this post to cover the full series.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

[3 stars]

A new Coen brothers (Hail, Caesar!) movie is always reason to celebrate, or at least to take notice. They are responsible for some of the weirdest and most wonderful cinema of the last 30 years. And they have garnered nearly 300 award nominations, winning nearly half of them. Their work is idiosyncratic and uneven, but always inventive and intense. Buster Scruggs is no exception.

So what is The Ballad of Buster Scruggs? It is a collection of six shorts held together only by the Western theme that binds the framing book that opens the film. If you are a lover of subversive westerns (think The Dressmaker or Pale Rider, though thoughts of Blazing Saddles probably aren’t out of order), this is probably for you. The stories are organized to become increasingly dark and reserved, but, honestly, the first half of the anthology is much more interesting and effective than the latter half. And it never really came together as a whole for me.

It opens with the eponymous segment, which is a hilarious send up led with real talent by Tim Blake Nelson (Colossal). From there, things begin to shift and take a very dark turn by the wonderful third segment, Meal Ticket, in which Harry Melling (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) steals the screen from Liam Neeson (Widows). The remaining segments aren’t bad, but become more about what the West really was than how we picture it. And the latter three stories drag a little for my taste. In many ways, thanks to the dose of reality, they are closer to real Westerns despite their moments of satire and commentary. I’m not particularly a Western fan, so it isn’t surprising that they left me a little nonplussed. Certainly, like all Coen brothers films, the are all loaded with recognizable and talented faces.

All that said, I’m not entirely sure how this particular offering garnered three Oscar nominations, even if they were for song, costume, and screenplay. I don’t think it really has a chance at any of them given the competition. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth seeing, it is. And, nicely, you can exit it at the end of any one of the sequences and probably feel satisfied though I’m sure the Coen’s would argue you aren’t going to get their point. But I didn’t really get their point and I did watch the whole thing. Or perhaps I did, but got it early and didn’t need to be hammered. Regardless, there are moments through to the end that are worth seeing, if you’ve the patience, and performances are all very entertaining.

Now to the bigger question, is Netflix really a player in cinema now? Between Roma and this movie, they’ve got more than two fist fulls of Oscar nominations, not to mention all the other noms and wins this season. But what is more important to the art of the industry is that Netflix offered both movies the chance to be what their creators envisioned, without the obligation to create something to be a “hit.” In an odd way, Netflix, and other services, are reinvigorating the idea of artistic vision in a way that the studios have crushed in their search for tentpoles and only tentpoles. The success of Roma in particular is challenging the idea that streaming and theatrical releases can’t co-exist. They Shall Not Grow Old has also had a huge theater run, though initially through TV, then Fathom Events, and now broader release. The rules are definitely changing and maybe it’s time for Hollywood and the theater chains to catch up.

The ABC Murders

[3 stars]

I have to give writer Sarah Phelps credit. After successfully tackling several of Agatha Christie’s other works (Ordeal by Innocence, Witness for the Prosecution, And Then There Were None) taking on Poirot took guts. It was a fool’s errand, but guts nonetheless.

The problem is that unlike Marple or Christie’s stand-alones, we know all of Poirot’s life; Christie made sure of that. So remaking the story of such a beloved character is dicey at best.

John Malkovich (Bird Box) tries to tackle Poirot with energy, but he is no David Suchet, nor does he have the accent or the mannerisms to pull off the little Belgian. At least Branagh’s recent attempt was much more palatable in Murder on the Orient Express. Malkovich’s credibility wasn’t helped by resetting the story later in Poirot’s life, and veering off the known path. The push and pull between he and Rupert Grint (Moonwalkers) just feels all wrong, not unbelievable, just wrong for the character.

Eamon Farren (Winchester), as the main focus for the deeds, delivers a delightfully creepy and broken man. Along with Andrew Buchan (Broadchurch), Shirley Henderson (T2: Trainspotting), Anya Chalotra (Wanderlust), and Freya Mavor (Skins) the world is filled out with interesting characters and clues. All of this helps sell an otherwise foolhardy adaptation.

If this weren’t Poirot, it would have been an interesting and fun story. Phelps can write and understands the sense of Christie while being able to update them enough for today’s sensibilities. But, in this case, with the weight of expectations about Poirot around its neck, it simply keeps clunking. If you can keep the spectre of what you know about Poirot out of your mind, this is definitely worth your time. If you’re hoping for a new Christie adaptation that can launch a revival, go elsewhere for now, you’ll simply be disappointed.