It’s Armageddon Time

Armageddon Time (Anne Hathaway, Jeremy Strong, Banks Repeta, Anthony Hopkins) – Hollywood is full of big egos. Over the years, many writer/directors have decided that the world deserves to hear their own stories either because they are such interesting people or because they are convinced that they owe it to themselves and/or their families. If they have enough clout, some studio will produce the film.

Sometimes, those movies work. For example, Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast was a lovely story and Oscar nominee. Coming this month is The Fabelmans, Steven Spielberg’s autobiographical tale of his own childhood in Arizona.

Out now is Armageddon Time, James Gray’s autobiographical story of his early youth. Now, we all know who Steven Spielberg is, a superstar in the world of cinema. The same is true of Branagh, the only person to be nominated in seven Oscar categories. So, who is James Gray? He directed Ad Astra, a box office bomb starring Brad Pitt, Tommy Lee Jones, and Donald Sutherland. My favorite movie of his was We Own the Night with Joaquin Phoenix, Mark Wahlberg, and Eva Mendes, a film that barely brought in more money than it cost.

What to make of Armageddon Time? Set in Queens in 1980 as Ronald Reagan is about to win the Presidency, Armageddon Time is the story of Paul Graff, a respectful sixth grader with a rebellious streak and a desire to be an artist. His Jewish family is stereotypical. Mom (Anne Hathaway) is a homemaker who is president of the PTA and wants to run for school board. Dad (Jeremy Strong of Succession) is a dominant, perhaps abusive, personality with an inferiority complex. Grandpa (Anthony Hopkins) is the only one who really connects with Paul, encouraging his ambition even as he, like the parents, want Paul to point for a more conventional future.

Armageddon Time is a family saga, a coming-of-age story, a commentary on an era when the world seemed on the brink, and a cautionary tale about wealth, bigotry, and conformity. Frankly, Gray tries to do too much!

A story about Paul and his best friend, a streetwise black kid, is the most intriguing story. The family dynamic, a seemingly loveless marriage with a repressed mother trying to assert herself and a working-class father who can be cruel and loving at the same time, isn’t rich enough. The grandfather/grandson relationship is heartening and palpable, but it needed more depth and screen time.

There is even a snippet featuring Fred Trump as a private school’s benefactor and his, daughter, Marianne (Jessica Chastain), as the guest speaker at a school assembly. Why do we need this? It diverts the audience without moving the film forward.

The quick summary is that Armageddon Time is a meandering period piece without a meaningful moral center. The acting, featuring tested stars Hathaway, Strong and Hopkins, is earnest but contained. The young actors, Banks Repeta as Paul and Jaylin Webb as his friend, Johnny, absorb a lot of screen time without being particularly captivating. I kept wanting more from them.

I suppose that Gray wants us to know that he turned out well, became an artist, and has had a successful career. Good for him. Unfortunately, his story isn’t all that compelling and will likely not attract a wide audience at the box office. I also doubt that it will get much Oscar consideration either except perhaps for supporting actor for Sir Anthony Hopkins.

And finally, what’s with the title? If this is the end of the world, there is only one reference to it – when Hathaway’s character comments that Reagan’s election will mean nuclear war. Maybe I just don’t get it. Armageddon Time sounds like it will be a political thriller with Matt Damon racing to stop Putin from pushing the button, not some kid lamenting about how black kids get blamed for everything.

The Holdovers is Holiday Charm

The Holdovers (Paul Giamatti, Dominic Sessa, Da’Vine Joy Randolph) – Almost 20 years ago, writer/director Alexander Payne collaborated with Paul Giamatti on the celebrated “little” film, Sideways. Payne’s successes include Election, About Schmidt, The Descendants and Nebraska, garnering six Academy Award nominations. He won Oscars for Adapted Screenplay for both Sideways and The Descendants.

The Holdovers reunites Payne and Giamatti in a harmless, old-fashioned tale about a cranky prep-school teacher who gets stuck with babysitting duty with the students who are stuck on campus for Christmas vacation at the end of 1970. Giamatti has always been a remarkably versatile, “everyman” character actor who can helm a leading role in small, independent films like this. He did just that in Win Win, Barney’s Version, and Duets, all of which are sleeper gems. But he has also played successfully as ensemble player in big-budget movies like The Ides of March (with George Clooney), The Negotiator (with Danny Glover), The Truman Show (with Jim Carrey), Man on the Moon (Carrey again), Cinderella Man (with Russell Crowe), The Illusionist (with Edward Norton), and dozens more. On TV, he starred as John Adams (with Laura Linney) and, most recently, Billions (with Damian Lewis).

He reminds me most of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (also featured in The Ides of March). For both, if they were better looking, they would probably be among the most popular American actors of their generation. Incidentally, they were born the same year, 1967.

The Holdovers is another perfect vehicle for Giamatti. Playing not-so-beloved professor Paul Hunham, Giamatti is sanctimonious, stuffy, traditional, and quick-witted. As Christmas break approaches, he almost joyfully delivers failing grades to most of the students in his ancient history class while urging them to study over the break in order to re-take the exam with different questions. The entitled students who attend this exclusive all-boys prep school range from nice kids to jerks.

One of the smartest is a troubled, smart-mouthed teen, Angus Tully (Dominic Sessa), who is looking forward to his trip to the Caribbean until his mother calls to cancel his trip even though she is going with her new husband. Angus’ father is gone, and he feels doubly abandoned. Now, he must stay at the school with a few other kids and this professor who he loathes. When the other boys find a way out of town, Angus, his professor, and the head cook of the school are stuck together on the big campus. De’Vine Joy Randolph, most familiar to viewers as the cop on Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building, plays Mary Lamb, the sharp-tongued, chain-smoking cook who recently lost her son in the Vietnam War. She is alone, alone and grieving.

It would have been easy to let this story morph into a maudlin, feel good, Hallmark Christmas movie, but Payne is too good for that. Instead, the plot dives deep into the three characters, uncovering their broken souls. We then get the obligatory road trip, the warming winds of friendship, and an ending that might not be totally predictable.

As with most Payne films, the box office results are lower than the critics’ enthusiasm. For movie lovers, this is a leisurely, but satisfying, holiday flick featuring excellent acting and an engaging story.

It’s a “Killer” of a film

Killers of the Flower Moon (Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone) – Paramount greenlighted this adaptation of David Grann’s historical novel about the systematic murder of the Osage Indian Tribe in the 1920s-30s to gain rights to the oil that made them the richest people per capita on Earth. Set in Oklahoma at the dawn of the Roaring ‘20s, Killers of the Flower Moon became legendary director Martin Scorsese’s passion project.

When cost overruns on the film ballooned to (eventually) $200 million, Paramount and Scorsese went to Apple to convince them to provide ongoing financing. Apple planned to enter the movie business, having already begun to provide original content for its Apple TV+ streaming service. Apple committed upwards of $1 billion annually on movie content. Killers of the Flower Moon will spend at least 7-8 weeks in theaters before moving to Apple’s streaming service while establishing the company as a sponsor of quality, award-winning cinema (putting it in the same class as Netflix).

There is no way that Killers of the Flower Moon will earn its money back at the box office. It opened with $23 million the first weekend, which generally fell in line with industry expectations. Its compelling story and incredible scope will attract serious movie mavens, history buffs and human rights advocates. It won’t drag casual moviegoers off their couches.  It also won’t draw younger viewers, who are the beating heart of cinema audiences.

It is the ideal film for streaming. At three-and-a-half hours, it is far easier to watch in bite-sized pieces with convenient bio-breaks. In the theater, it feels mammoth in scope. Like Scorsese’s The Irishman, which runs the same length, it is exhausting.  While the master keeps it moving and visually stunning, Scorsese also weaves a story with seriousness of purpose and incredulity at the violence and brazenness it depicts.

Killer stars Scorsese’s two most frequent on-screen collaborators, Leonardo DiCaprio (The Departed, The Wolf of Wall Street, Shutter Island, Gangs of New York, etc.) and Robert De Niro (Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, GoodFellows, Cape Fear, etc.). They are exceptional; shoe-ins for Oscar nominations.

DiCaprio plays Ernest Burkhart, who returns home to Oklahoma after World War I. He isn’t very bright, very talented or very opinionated. He is embraced by his rich, powerful uncle, Bill Hale (De Niro), the most revered person in this small town. He has managed to make lots of money while supporting the Native American Osage Tribe. He is philanthropic, sympathetic, and seemingly a model white man living in Indian country.

As the story evolves, we realize that Hale is a puppeteer. He encourages Ernest to marry Mollie (Lily Gladstone, who will certainly be Oscar nominated), with whom he is already smitten. She is a beautiful, smart-tongued Osage woman whose family is her foundation. Mollie’s mother and sisters are among the legacy families who own the oil rights that have made the Osage prosperous. Mollie and Ernest seem well matched but increasingly cursed. First, Mollie’s mother dies and, one by one, so do her sisters. And they aren’t the only ones. Over a decade or more, virtually every one of the legacy families suffers unexpected deaths. As viewers, we know that Hale is responsible, with Ernest and Hale’s other son, Byron (Scott Shepherd of Bridge of Spies), serving as the boss’ Corleone-like sons.

Eventually, the feds come to Oklahoma to investigate the rash of murders. As the story tightens, Ernest is arrested … and the film turns into a trial drama. It is more than two hours into the movie before we meet the other stars of the film – Jesse Plemons as the Bureau of Investigations agent; Brendan Fraser as Hale’s attorney; and John Lithgow as the federal prosecutor.

By the end of the film, Scorsese (another certain Oscar nominee) delivers a denouement worth waiting for. I will leave it at that.

In summary, Killers of the Flower Moon is an amazing film. It is very long … and feels it. It is stunningly presented and impeccably well-acted. But you must be ready for it. This is not a casual watch. Viewing it on the big screen is ideal but you can wait to see it on your big-screen TV. The experience won’t be as immersive, however.

I predict that it will compete with Oppenheimer for Best Picture. It deserves to.

Mirren captures Meir in morose “Golda”

Golda (Helen Mirren) – The biopic (biographical picture) is one of cinema’s enduring genres. Essentially, there are three types: docudrama (documentary drama), fictionalized drama, and character psychological study. Some biopics cross multiple sub-types.

Golda falls mostly into the latter category.  Judy, the Judy Garland biopic starring Rene Zellweger; Blonde, the Ana de Armas tour-de-force as Marilyn Monroe; The Queen, Helen Mirren’s depiction of Queen Elizabeth; and The Iron Lady, the Meryl Streep performance as Margaret Thatcher, all garnered Academy Award nominations for their stars. Zellweger, Streep, and Mirren all won Best Actress. 

While these performances were incredible and heralded, the movies themselves were quite mediocre. In each case, the stories covered only narrow slivers of these remarkable women’s lives. Likewise, these icons were depicted as haunted, troubled, and manipulated. The visual tone was dark; the tone was brooding; three of the four ended with their death.

Golda stars Helen Mirren as Golda Meir, the Ukrainian-born, Milwaukee-raised, schoolteacher-turned-Zionist zealot who, despite her gender, her lack of charisma, and her chain smoking, became the Prime Minister of Israel. Golda largely ignores all of this except the chain smoking. It opens with the start of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and, except for the epilogue, ends with Israel’s victory in that conflict.

The film is terribly flawed. While it creates drama without depicting any war scenes, it focuses on Golda’s cancer diagnosis, her angst over the progress of the war, and her struggle with conflicting advice from her seemingly incompetent advisors. It totally ignores her personal life, her motivations, her atheism, and her internal political struggles.

Mirren, who is actually older than Meir was in 1973, is marvelous … as always. Behind the prosthetics, she captures Meir’s grandmotherly gate, her facial mannerisms, and even her Russian/American/Israeli accent. Because we all know that Israel ultimately prevailed in the war and extended its borders, the film is dominated by Mirren’s presence.

The film could have been better if it played more like Darkest Hour, the Winston Churchill biopic starring Gary Oldman or 42, the Jackie Robinson biopic starring Chadwick Boseman. Instead, it is more like Judy, Blonde, and The Iron Lady and just not even as good as The Queen or as bombastic as Elvis, which plays the king of rock n’ roll as victim.

Israeli director Guy Nattiv, who won as Oscar for Live Action Short film in 2019, made the conscious choice to limit Golda’s scope, and it is too bad. Golda deserved better.

Cruise never stops in MI7:Dead Reckoning P1

Mission Impossible: Dark Reckoning Part One (Tom Cruise, Hayley Atwell, Rebecca Ferguson, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Esai Morales, Henry Czerny) – It’s not usually a good sign when a movie has three titles, like Mission Impossible or Dark Reckoning or Part One. I suppose we now know that there will be a sequel to this sequel that is part of a sequel to a TV show.

Tom Cruise reprises his Ethan Hunt role for the seventh time. Determined to show that he can run as fast as ever and to put his life at risk as much as possible in stunts that are truly death-defying, Cruise certainly doesn’t phone it in. His physicality at age 60 is more than impressive though his charming, good looks are more than a little rough around the edges. Are those sags, wrinkles, and Botox injections under that make-up? If so, it hasn’t slowed Ethan down.

He is still saving the world from his perch as the leader of the Impossible Missions Force, the super-secret strike team of the CIA, which is still run by Eugene Kittridge (Henry Czerny) as Cruise’s combination boss/antagonist. This movie’s premise is too ridiculous to describe. But that never matters to MI moviegoers.

All we must know is that the world is in danger from artificial intelligence acquired by The Entity and personified by Gabriel (Esai Morales). Paris (Pom Klementieff) works for Gabriel, and she is a killer, a formidable foe for Ethan and his gang (Luther played by Ving Rhames, Benji portrayed by Simon Pegg, and Ilsa (Rebecca Ferguson). Now MI fans may have thought that Ilsa died in the last movie (I think) but … au contraire. Anyway, Ethan has to kill The Entity but, for reasons we find out in a long-winded speech from Luther, not kill Gabriel. That’s in Part II.

Now to the 2 hours and 43 minutes of high energy, fast, loud action sequences.  Here goes: chase on foot; chase in cars; chase on a motorcycle; chase on a train. Fight with guns; fight with knives; fight with swords. Big finale! That’s it.

To several of my friends who love action movies, you will love this. To those who want human drama, there are Ethan’s relationships with three different women – the one we thought was dead, the thief who steals the “key” that serves as the MacGuffin (look it up) everyone is trying to acquire; and the killer whose life Ethan spares.

As summer movies go, MI7 is a welcome antidote to 100-degree temperatures, reruns on TV, and BS from our thrice indicted, twice impeached, once convicted (so far) sexual predator and democracy destroyer.

“Barbie” visits the Real World

Barbie (Margot Robbie, Ryan Gosling, Kate McKinnon, Michael Cera, Will Ferrell) – Hooray for Greta Gerwig! The director/writer/actor pulled off a nifty trick in turning Barbie into a funny, whimsical, farcical romp with a feminist message without getting overly preachy or totally saccharine. Mattel, the company founded by Harold Matson and Ruth & Elliot Handler, gave Gerwig the room and the budget to take its most beloved property, the Barbie doll, and turn it into the first of the films to be built around Mattel toys.

What Gerwig created is a blockbuster beyond anyone’s expectations. Starring perhaps Hollywood’s currently most bankable actress, Margot Robbie, with heartthrob and La La Land’s Ryan Gosling, Barbie is part fantasy, part musical, part history lesson, and part coming-of-age commentary on the male-dominated world.

Barbie isn’t a perfect film, but it manages to make the audience smile, wink, and cry in equal measures while presenting a world of pink that appeals to both kids who grew up with Barbie over multiple generations. In 1959, when Barbiewas introduced, girls played with baby dolls, not full-figured young women with their own dream house and soon, a full array of clothes and friends.

Robbie makes a perfect “Stereotypical” Barbie, looking perfectly smiley, waving, busty and innocent. But she has a nagging thought that strikes out of nowhere: what happens when you die? As you’ll see, it’s a show/movie stopper. Something is awry, and Barbie doesn’t know why. With the help of “Weird” Barbie (a perfectly cast Kate McKinnon), she realizes she must leave Barbieland and visit the Real World to find the person who is messing with her.

Ken (Gosling), who pines to be Barbie’s boyfriend, invites himself along. When they get to Real World in Los Angeles, Barbie feels rejected but Ken suddenly feels respected even in his rhinestone cowboy outfit. Eventually, Barbie finds Mattel, where she is welcomed by the all-male executive team led by its buffoonish CEO (played expertly by Will Ferrell). Like Barbie, Mattel wants everything to stay exactly the same. But, to play on an old phrase, “the Barbie is out of the Dream House.”

She escapes the board room, which leads to the third act, the pseudo-serious part of the film. It is here that the right-wing media goes bat-sh*t crazy as Barbie morphs into a more worldly woman. She meets Gloria (America Ferrera), the Mattel CEO’s assistant, whose own frustrations as woman and mother have led her to question her life. Gloria’s daughter, Sasha (Ariana Greenblatt), is rebellious and has even rejected her old Barbie, even as mom continues to love it.

Eventually, Barbie heads back to Barbieland, only to find it completely changed. It’s now Kendom, a patriarchy that Ken modeled after his version of the Real World. All the women, the Barbies, who previously ran Barbieland, are now objectified and serve the Kens.

You get the picture. The film then moves to a wrap-up that is quite satisfying, heartwarming, and thoughtful. Barbie is a phenomenon, a full-fledged hit and bridge to a future filled with movies based on Mattel toys. That is not a pleasant prospect. Barbie isn’t the first movie based on a toy or a doll in the way Superman was the genesis of super-hero films. But it is a new stake in the ground for live-action movies based on Mattel toys.Barbie is not just a kid’s movie even though every mother is taking their daughters to this film. There is a nostalgia element to Barbie, which carries a much deeper message than Ruth Handler ever envisioned when she named her doll invention after her daughter.

Oppenheimer is a blast!

Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy, Emily Blunt, Matt Damon, Robert Downey Jr.) – Nobody in Hollywood thought that a film about Robert Oppenheimer (Cillian Murphy), the “father of the atomic bomb” could be a blockbuster. But trusting the story to Batman, Dunkirk, Tenet, Intersteller, and Inception director/writer Christopher Nolan guaranteed that the story wouldn’t be some boring biopic. Getting lucky that the film would be released the same week as Barbie, leading to an internet meme surrounding a Barbenheimer double feature, created a seismic event. Opening with $82 million the first weekend ensured a profit.

Oppenheimer is a masterful, brooding, exciting re-telling of Oppenheimer’s life from his college days in the 1920s through the mid-1950s. Under Nolan’s deft touch, the film presents a complicated, haunted protagonist whose brilliance is exceeded only by his ego. His partnership with humorless Army General Leslie Groves (Matt Damon) led to the development of the bombs that ended World War II and ushered in the atomic age and its potential to destroy the world.

Oppie focused on the science while clearly recognizing the implications of his work if he and his hand-selected group of scientists succeeded. Working from their secret location in New Mexico, where Oppenheimer owned a ranch, the Manhattan Project team raced their German enemy and their Russian “ally” to create a superbomb.

We all know how it ends yet the movie captivates thanks to a blasting, atonal soundtrack by Oscar winning composer Ludwig Göransson (Black Panther). Shot in IMAX, the film pops off the extra big screen with an intensity that matches the explosiveness of the nuclear reaction that relied on fission. If possible, make sure you see this movie on an IMAX screen. Don’t settle unless you must, and please don’t wait to watch it at home.

The cast is first rate led by Irish actor Cillian Murphy, who worked with Nolan on The Dark Knight and Dunkirk. Murphy usually plays dark villains, and he masterfully portrays Oppenheimer as pained, haunted, and uncomfortable in his own skin. As disciplined as Oppenheimer is in his scientific endeavors, he is reckless in his personal life as he flirts with Communism and engages in personal affairs. When, before 1950, Oppie becomes a critic of nuclear proliferation and an advocate of international oversight of the technology, he becomes the target of sinister forces within the government. The hero of the end of the war becomes a pariah, abandoned by some of his closest associates during the “Red Scare.”

The film is presented brilliantly as flashback as Oppenheimer faces a secret hearing to determine whether he should keep his security clearance, a veiled attempt to discredit him. Murphy and Nolan play this post-war period as a lens into Oppenheimer’s moral struggle, perhaps even penance for developing such a lethal weapon.

The supporting cast is outstanding, most notably Robert Downey, Jr. as Lewis Straus, the head of the Atomic Energy Commission. A complicated man, Straus turns from Oppenheimer’s chief sponsor to his secret nemesis, eventually orchestrating Oppie’s fall from grace. Downey is fantastic! Write it down now, he will get an Oscar nomination as will Murphy.

Emily Blunt plays Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty, a biologist relegated to housewife who became a fierce defender of her husband. Blunt’s performance is both understated yet powerful. Florence Pugh, a surprise Oscar nominee for Little Women, steals scenes as Jean Tatlock, one of Oppenheimer’s lovers and muse.

As much as I like superstar Matt Damon, I think he was miscast as Groves. Portraying the no-nonsense, by-the-book General who oversaw the building of the Pentagon before taking over the Manhattan Project, Damon doesn’t quite have the bearing the part requires. He certainly doesn’t detract from the film, but it feels like he was hired for his star power.

And there are lots of cameos, most notably Josh Hartnett, Rami Malek, Casey Affleck, and Matthew Modine. And I challenge you to identify the cameos of Gary Oldman and Tom Conti before the closing credits.

Oppenheimer is an incredible film thanks to Nolan and Murphy. It exceeded my already high expectations. It is great that it has become a box office hit because it is a good story and, most importantly, a cautionary tale about the long-term impact of revolutionary technology.

Even JLaw can’t save “No Hard Feelings”

No Hard Feelings (Jennifer Lawrence, Andrew Barth Feldman, Matthew Broderick, Laura Benanti) – By the time Jennifer Lawrence (JLaw) was 30, she was inarguably the best actress of her generation with one Oscar from four nominations and being the highest paid actress in the mid-2010s. The only actress even close was Kate Winslet. Now (still only) 32, JLaw can name her project. Yet she chose to take time off from acting, to set up a production company, advocate for women’s rights, and become a spokesperson for several humanitarian causes.

The first time I saw her was in the independent film, Winter’s Bone, which earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination at age 22, the second youngest actress ever so nominated. I had missed her on TV’s Bill Engvall Show as a rebellious daughter and in small roles in little films. When watching Winter’s Bone, I told my wife: “She’s the real deal.” Indeed!

Even JLaw can’t save No Hard Feelings, her return to romantic comedies (rom-coms). My first reaction when I left the theater was “This film is beneath her.” She plays Maddie Barker, a broke waitress at a bar in Montauk, NY, the Long Island winter resort for rich New Yorkers. She lives in the house willed to her by her late mother. She can’t make her property tax payments; she’s estranged from her boyfriend and sleeps around; and her car was repossessed. To this point, the film shows promise as a different kind of comedy.

In desperation, she responds to an ad for a young woman to “date” the 19-year-old son of helicopter parents who are concerned about their reclusive, awkward, boy who is lacking in social skills. The parents, played by Laura Benanti of TV’s Supergirl and Matthew Broderick, the original, super-confident teen, Ferris Bueller, want their son, Percy, to come out of his shell and shtup a girl. They lost me right here! Maddie, in desperation, responds to the ad and sets about trying to lure the kid (Andrew Barth Feldman, who starred on Broadway in Dear Evan Hanson and on screen in one of the High School Musical sequels). It’s more difficult than it should be.

The rest of the film contains the merry mix-ups that always occur in the rom-com genre. The kid finds out what his parents are up to; Maddie develops real feelings for the kid; Percy rebels after he realizes the deception. Eventually, inevitably, mercifully, the movie ends … happily. Sorry for the spoiler! If you are thinking about seeing it, go for it. It’s safe; it’s light; it’s breezy. And, yes, as any research will reveal, JLaw goes full frontal on a beach in one of the best scenes in the film.

You can’t go wrong with a JLaw movie whether it’s Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, Joy, Causeway, Hunger Games, or the early X-Men films. But this is not a very good film, and it’s way below JLaw.

A breath of fresh “Air”

Air (Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Viola Davis, Jason Bateman, Chris Messina, Chris Tucker) – As sports movies go, Air is a breath of … well … fresh Air. Not since Moneyball have we had a feel-good story about sports. Like Moneyball, the story isn’t about a player … although it is really the story of how Michael Jordan became an industry by having a shoe named for him … but about a person behind the scenes. In Moneyball, it’s Billy Beane.

In Air, it’s Sonny Vaccaro (Matt Damon), the Nike representative who convinced owner Phil Knight (Ben Affleck) to put the company’s then-scarce basketball money all on one player – Michael Jordan. Although Nike was a powerhouse in sports like track & field, it was being lapped by Adidas and Converse in the quest for the big names in pro basketball.  While MJ was highly touted coming out of national champion, North Carolina, he wasn’t necessarily viewed as a generational talent … at least by anyone other than his mother, Deloris (Viola Davis), and Sonny Vaccaro if this movie is to be believed.

Sure, Adidas and Converse wanted him. And MJ was obsessed with Adidas’s merch(andise) and shoes. Nike wasn’t even in the running, as MJ’s agent David Falk (Chris Messina) makes perfectly clear in Act I of the film. Vaccaro knows that Nike is faltering in basketball and needs to put all its eggs in one basket. Against all established practice, he goes to see the Jordan family. This pisses off Falk but wins him points with Deloris, who is clearly the decision-maker of the family.

The rest is pure, predictable Hollywood filmmaking and sports history. Not to spoil it for the two people in the world who don’t already know it, but MJ ends up with Nike, gets his own shoe, dubbed Air Jordan, and becomes king of the world.

With an all-star, A-list cast, Air can’t miss. Affleck directs in his best effort since Argo. Damon added 25-30 pounds to play the paunchy Vaccaro. Davis gets to play a real person with an ease that must have been a relief for her. And Chris Messina gets to represent the stereotypical jerk of an agent usually portrayed in TV (Entourage) and film, Jerry McGuire notwithstanding.

Air is every sports fan’s movie dream. It’s light, relatively short, full of stars, and tells a familiar story without being preachy or melodramatic. Damon and Affleck, best friends since childhood, teamed up for the first time since Good Will Hunting. Affleck does (at least) his third movie with Jason Bateman (Extract, State of Play), who plays Nike’s chief marketing executive. It’s all very cozy and comfortable. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Cheat Sheet on 2023 Oscars

2023 Oscar Nominees at A Glance

All Quiet on the Western Front – War is hell. This is the third adaptation of the 1927 novel about World War I. It’s a German production (the favorite to win Foreign Film) and a dark look at the “war to end all wars” from the perspective of the losers. All of the characters die so don’t expect to leave smiling. The original film won Best Picture in 1930.

Avatar: The Way of Water – At 3:12 minutes, this sequel is another special effects extravaganza from Director James Cameron, who can spend more money to make more money than anyone in Hollywood. With over $2 billion in box office, Water is swimming in deep visual waters. The kids flooded the theater to see this film, which is now third all-time only to Cameron’s Avatar, and Avengers: Endgame. Cameron’s Titanic is fourth.

The Banshees of Inisherin – The early favorite for Best Picture, this quirky flick reunites In Bruges writer/director Martin McDonagh with actors Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell. All are nominated for Oscars as are supporting actors Kerry Condon and Barry Keoghan. It is essentially a buddy film where one decides he just doesn’t like his friend anymore. This film gives new meaning to the term digital.

Elvis – It’s another over-the-top musical from director Baz Luhrmann. Austin Butler is the favorite to win Best Actor for his uncanny imitation of Elvis Presley, the King of Rock ‘n Roll, who is portrayed as a pawn of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker (Tom Hanks).

Everything Everywhere All at Once – This year’s most unexpected film, it is equal parts fantasy, family saga, and morality tale about the choices we face. All four stars – Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, and Jamie Lee Curtis – have been nominated for acting Oscars. Travel to the multiverse in this low-budget gem.

The Fabelmans – Steven Spielberg’s deeply personal, autobiographical story of his teenage years feels like a throwback to old Hollywood. With amazing performances by Michelle Williams, Judd Hirsch, Paul Dano, and Seth Rogen, The Fabelmans makes you smile, cry, and revel in nostalgia of those uncomfortable years where dreams face reality.

Tár – Cate Blanchett gives an otherworldly portrayal as the heralded conductor of the Berlin Symphony who drives herself to madness. Lydia Tár is a relentless perfectionist in this dark drama. Blanchett might just win her 3rd Oscar.

Top Gun: Maverick – Tom Cruise reprises his role as cocky fighter jet pilot in this terrific sequel to Top Gun. A massive box office hit, Maverick cleverly includes dozens of references to the original with a new group of young pilots (including Miles Teller as the son of Goose) faced with an almost impossible mission. Filmed in San Diego, Top Gun: Maverick is often credited with reviving Hollywood post COVID.

Triangle of Success – If ever there was a headscratcher of a Best Film nominee, it is this wacky tale of a group of rich super-jerks who get stranded on a deserted island when their cruise ship sinks. The “toilet lady” becomes the savior in this class struggle. Woody Harrelson makes a cameo as the drunk, wacked-out captain of the ill-fated ship. My least favorite nominee of the year.

Women Talking – Women trapped in a religious sect where they are sexually abused are tasked with deciding whether to leave or fight for free will. This is a film about freedom, fracture, fear, and formidability set in rural isolation. Director/writer Sarah Polley is nominated for her screenplay, and the movie is among the longshot Best Picture nominees.

A Few Others Whose Actors or Screenplays are Nominated for Oscars

Aftersun – This small film went right to video. Unknown actor Paul Mescal plays a loving, but troubled, father who takes his daughter to a modest seaside resort. In some ways, this is a coming-of-age film for both father and daughter. I won’t promise a happy ending.

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever – Without Chad Bozeman, this sequel doesn’t sing but it’s a big budget blockbuster the kids love. Approaching $1 billion in box office, it’s a big film from Director Ryan Coogler. Nominated for several technical awards, Wakanda earned Angela Bassett a Supporting Actress nomination, her first in 30 years since What’s Love Got to Do with It. She is the sentimental favorite.

Blonde – Ana de Armas stars as Marilyn Monroe in this dark story of the bombshell’s sad, victimized life. De Armas isn’t the first Marilyn impersonator, but she might just be the best. She shows a depth of character we often don’t see. Another straight-to-video movie, Blonde isn’t great, but the performance is.

Causeway – Jennifer Lawrence stars as a combat vet who returns home for rehab and a second chance. Brian Tyree Henry earned a Best Supporting Actor nomination as the car repair guy who befriends her and shows her that there is life after tragedy. This is a fine tale of friendship and hope.

Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery – Daniel Craig reprises his southern detective, Benoit Blanc, in the sequel to the very clever murder mystery, Knives Out. This one is set on a private island with an eclectic, generally unlikeable, cast of characters. A fake murder turns into a real one as Blanc solves the mystery. Plenty of twists and turns helped the script by Writer/Director Rian Johnson to be nominated for Adapted Screenplay.

Living – British character actor Bill Nighy plays a 1950s-era civil servant whose dull, by-the-book life gets turned upside down when he receives a cancer diagnosis. It’s a tremendous performance in a gem of a slow-moving, subtle film.

To Leslie – Relative unknown Andrea Riseborough is nominated for Best Actress for her depiction of a desperate, unlikeable junkie who sacrifices every relationship for her habit. A “little film,” this character study is a story of whether redemption really is possible.

The Whale – Best Actor nominee Brendan Fraser stars as a morbidly obese online teacher who is ostensibly committing suicide while trying to reconcile with his estranged daughter. Hong Chau is nominated for Best Supporting Actor as a caregiver who also was the sister of the teacher’s now deceased male lover. This is a fantastic film that feels like a stage play.

2023 Oscar Picks & Commentary

Pete Mitchell (aka Maverick) goes ballistic with Penny Benjamin AGAIN! The World War I novel, “All Quiet on the Western Friend,” is made into an Oscar-nominated movie AGAIN! James Cameron spends years producing an Avatar movie AGAIN! Elvis left the building AGAIN! Director Martin McDonagh launches a film starring Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson AGAIN! Black Panther birthed BP2, forcing us to go to Wakanda AGAIN!

2022 was a lousy year for movies. It was a year where people … mostly young people … went back into theaters but not in droves unless you’re talking about comic book films. Some of our best actors and actresses are now playing superheroes and supervillains. Tell me it isn’t true, Viola Davis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kate Winslet, Natalie Portman, Christian Bale, Russell Crowe, and Andrew Garfield!

Some of the 10 films nominated for Best Picture only made a token appearance in a real theater. Others went right to TV movie channels or streaming services (Elvis, All Quiet on the Western Front). Most were ignored (Triangle of Success, Tár, Women Talking) even after they were nominated.

No wonder the five actors nominated for Best Actor are someone named Austin Butler, someone named Paul Mescal, and B-List actors Brendan Fraser, Colin Farrell, and Bill Nighy. Supporting actors include Brian Tyree Henry (who?), Barry Keoghan (Who?), and Ke Huy Quan (WHO??). Maybe this is good for Hollywood, but it is no wonder that the Oscar ratings have sunk to historical lows.

Did anyone see To Leslie? It was so unknown even in Hollywood that it took a spirited effort by her manager, the director, the director’s wife (actress Mary McCormack), and an organized group of A-list actresses (Kate Winslet, Charlize Theron, Jennifer Aniston, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Amy Adams) to lobby and host screenings to get its star, Andrea Riseborough, nominated for Best Actress.

How about Causeway, a movie so unheralded that, despite starring Jennifer Lawrence, it almost can’t be found on any streaming service. (See Amazon Prime)

As a result, even I will be watching the Oscars more for the fashion than the awards. Well, maybe I’ll watch to see whether any actor slaps another. Maybe Will Smith and Chris Rock should be invited after all.

The Awards

OK, I will get serious now.

BEST PICTURE: The best movie was The Fabelmans. I hope it wins. In old, traditional Hollywood, it would. Steven Spielberg has expertly crafted a coming-of-age film with exceptional performances by stars Michelle Williams, Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, and Judd Hirsch. The winner is likely to be Everything Everywhere All at Once. It’s weird, fun, bizarre and feels like a foreign film, but it’s not. Stars Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, and Ke Huy Quan are all nominated for acting Oscars. With a budget of only $25 million, it is the anti-Avatar, a special effects-driven movie made on the cheap. Hollywood, which should resent James Cameron’s maximalist approach to filmmaking (Avatars), should love it.

BEST ACTRESS: Cate Blanchett should win for Tár. She plays a renowned orchestra conductor who drives herself to the kind of madness only a perfectionist can. The movie is nominated for Best Picture but shouldn’t have made the cut. The performance is fantastic. Blanchett could now take the baton of any symphony orchestra. The runner-up … and possible upsetter … is Michelle Williams, who plays the mother in The Fabelmans. Blanchett has two Oscars from eight nominations; Williams has five nominations but hasn’t won yet. Hence, she just might win this year. Or will Michelle Yeoh (of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame) ride the Everything Everywhere wave from the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards?

BEST ACTOR: Austin Butler has won almost every award for his portrayal of Elvis. In Baz Lurhmann’s interpretation of the life of the King of Rock ‘N Roll, Butler may be the best Elvis impersonator ever. He may indeed win. But for my money, the best performance by an actor belongs to Brendan Fraser in The Whale. There probably are not two more different performances than these two. Fraser’s performance is transformative in the way that Charlize Theron’s was in Monster. Butler’s is great mimicry.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Shoot me if Angela Bassett wins for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. This is always the toughest category to pick because Hollywood has a habit for choosing an outsider. The sentimental favorite is Jamie Lee Curtis, who won the SAG award for EEAAO. But if I were voting, I would choose Hong Chau for The Whale. As the main caregiver for the dying teacher, she is sympathetic, tough, and loving all at once. Besides, she was equally incredible in The Menu but was not nominated for that performance.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Every performance in this category is Oscar worthy. Ke Huy Quan, as the seemingly clueless husband in Everything Everywhere All at Once, will likely win. His transformation into the emissary from the Alphaverse is really fun to watch. I would love to see 87-year-old Judd Hirsch win for The Fabelmans. It’s been 42 years since he was nominated for Ordinary People. Wouldn’t it be great to see him get the award for this little performance as the grandfather who encourages his grandson to go for his dream of making movies? He is unlikely to win, however.

BEST DIRECTOR: Steven Spielberg helmed this masterpiece of storytelling in The Fabelmans, his autobiographical story. He picked the actors to portray his mother, father, grandfather, and other family members and let them create compelling moviemaking. He deserves his 4th Oscar from 20+ nominations as a director and producer. He has few peers in history. But Hollywood hates to allow dynasties (how else to explain Meryl Streep only winning three Oscars from 20+ nominations?). If he is to be beaten, it might go to EEAAO’s The Daniels, Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, who got their start in music videos. It might be the first shared award that includes an Asian American director. And it would show how two young guys with a small budget can produce a fantastic film.

BEST INTERNATIONAL FILM: I only saw one of these, but it will win. All Quiet on the Western Front is the latest adaptation of the 1928 novel by Erich Maria Remarque. The first movie version in 1930 won the Best Picture Oscar, the second ever awarded.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: It’s Elvis or All Quiet on the Western Front. Let’s go with Elvis because its cinematographer is Mandy Walker. No woman has ever won this category, and her work on Elvis was spectacular. Hollywood has a gender problem … and here is a chance to take a step forward.  If she doesn’t win, it will go to the war movie, All Quiet on the Western Front, which won this category in the British equivalent of the Oscars (it also won Best Film).

I won’t venture forth with predictions on Original and Adapted Screenplays, but I want to make a point. On Adapted Screenplay, I don’t think that movies adapted from other movies (Top Gun: Maverick, Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery) should win this category. And why should the third adaptation of the novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, win when its writers have already seen the two others?

The Academy Awards, hosted by Jimmy Kimmel, will be held on March 12th. If I were you, I would record the show but watch the fashion pre-show. And if you spot Will Smith, watch out!