“The Way Back”” is way bad

The Way Back (Ben Affleck) – The director of Miracle, Gavin O’Connor, reconnects with Ben Affleck, who he directed in The Accountant, in this stunningly predictable tale of an alcoholic whose life is spiraling into the depths of hell.  Affleck, a two-time Academy Award winner (for Good Will Hunting and Argo) but never, ever for acting, plays Jack Cunningham, a former high school basketball star who is asked to come back and coach his alma mater.

But Jack is in no condition to coach a bunch of Hoosiers/Mighty Ducks/Bad News Bears/Pride-like kids.  He is barely functional for reasons we find out too late in the film.  Nonetheless, he tries.  He is often late for practice.  He swears up a storm, which doesn’t go over so well with the team chaplain of this Catholic school.  But somehow, the team starts to win.  We even begin to see the decent human being underneath Jack’s sad, mad demeanor.

But stories like this never end that easily. Just as Jack’s team reaches the cusp of success, the man regresses.  He gets fired; he gets drunk; he makes bad mistakes and lands in the hospital.  The rest is … well, who cares?

While They Way Back is being promoted as the basketball movie equivalent of The Karate Kid, Rocky, and the rest of the movies mentioned earlier, it is actually a film about loss, depression, alcoholism, and abandonment.  And it carries an awful piano-laden soundtrack and depressingly dark tones.   Happy times!  Not.

Maybe because Affleck’s private life mirrors some of this story, you might be inclined to see it.  Don’t.  It really isn’t very good.  Even Affleck fans may want to wait until it reaches Netflix or the other streaming services … which shouldn’t take very long.

Did we need another movie about “Emma”?

Emma. (Anya Taylor-Joy, Johnny Flynn, Bill Nighy, Mia Goth) – I admit to not being a big fan of Jane Austen.  The prolific author wrote Emma in 1815, and they have been making movies of her book since movies could talk.  The latest iteration is a fun romp with an unknown cast, beautiful costumes, a whimsical score, exceptional sets and production design.

Okay, it is not as fun as Clueless, which was a modern take on Austen’s story.  But, for a British comedy, it is practically uproarious.  Emma Woodhouse (Anna Taylor-Joy) is a pampered princess who fashions herself a matchmaker and prom queen.  She is an easy character to dislike except that she is so darned cute and expressive.  Her eccentric father (Bill Nighy) adores her, needs her and coddles her, which is not true of George Knightley, trusted family friend who manages Donwell Abbey.  He keeps her somewhat grounded and doesn’t let her get away with much.  From the moment we meet him, we know that he and Emma are destined to be together.  How we get there is the story of Emma.

Who knew that Jane Austen invented the “chick flick” more than 200 years ago?

For sure, there are sub-plots.  Emma convinces her friend, Harriet Smith (Mia Goth), to turn down a marriage proposal by telling her that the local preening preacher, Mr. Elton (a positively prissy Josh O’Connor), fancies her.  In truth, Elton has his sights set elsewhere.  Then there is Jane Fairfax (Amber Anderson), the smart and talented favorite of commoner/busy-body Miss Bates (Miranda Hart), who is both sweet and insufferable.  Jane is a rival.  Eventually, Mr. Elton finds a wife (Tanya Reynolds), whose confident and frank demeanor renders her husband socially impotent.

Emma is a vehicle for a fine ensemble of young actors.  Veteran Bill Nighy, who you’ll recognize from a slew of British films, including Love Actually, steals every scene he is in.  Of course, that is true in every movie in which he appears.  He allows the audience the comfortable grounding of recognizing someone in this film.  But even Nighy doesn’t answer the inevitable question: Why did someone think we needed yet another movie version of this story?

Wasn’t the Gwyneth Paltrow 1996 Emma good enough?  That film, written and directed by Michael McGrath, won an Oscar for music, was nominated for Best Costumes, and included a well-regarded cast that included Jeremy Northam, Alan Cumming, Toni Collette, and Greta Scacchi.

This version, by first-time feature director, Autumn de Wilde, is very entertaining if you like period chick flicks. Like Little Women, it comes from a 19th century female author who is beloved.  If you liked the latter, you will like Emma.

Academy Awards Preview: Fearless Predictions

And finally we come to the end of movie awards season with the ever-endless presentation of the Academy Awards by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which isn’t really an academy at all.
Once again this year there is no host, just a procession of presenters wearing some of the ugliest and most expensive outfits and hairdos ever invented.  The best part is the jewelry that the women wear, which is largely borrowed from major jewelry distributors as part of the award for Best Publicity Scheme.
Now, on to the awards:
Best Picture: Let’s get right to the big one.  Nine movies made the finals this year, which is probably too many.  But it serves the purpose of getting people to the theaters (or to the streaming services) to see movies they missed the first time around.
The films with no chance include Ford v Ferrari, Jojo Rabbit, Marriage Story or Little Women. FvF features Christian Bale leaning left and right in the cockpit of race cars while Matt Damon adopts a southern accent and lets Bale steal their scenes.  Jojo was a man who thought he was a loner – whoops, that was a Beatles song.  The movie is a parody of Nazis, always a fun topic.  It’s better than you think … but not as good as I had hoped.  Marriage Story is a made-for-TV depress-a-thon about two show business people divorcing, another fun topic.  Fine performances by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver can’t overcome a very “talky” script.  Little Women was made by women for women and is the seventh iteration of Louisa May Alcott’s story of four sisters and their family.  It’s a well done period piece with good acting but it is pretty boring.
That leaves the five that would have been nominated had this been the old days when only a handful were nominated:
Joker Talk about “dark” stories, Joker is a comic book movie with no comic.  Joaquin Phoenix is fabulous as the man who evolved into a psychotic killer.  This isn’t the Caesar Romero Joker of the TV Batman series or even the Jack Nicholson movie version.  The movie is the back story of how a misfit was mistreated by society and became the scourge of Gotham.  Directed expertly and with fantastic production value, Joker probably won’t win but Phoenix will.
Parasite – The hardest movie to describe, Korea’s Parasite is a horror film, a class story, a comedy, and a thriller all in one. A poor family slowly infiltrates a rich family, which results in twists and turns where no one is all good or all bad.  All you have to do is figure out who is the parasite. This is a foreign language film, which probably excludes it from serious consideration as Best Picture.  But it is the “IT” picture of this past year.
The Irishman – A really good gangster film, The Irishman is Martin Scorsese’s long-form story about a mobster, a mob boss, and Jimmy Hoffa.  Starring three legends — Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci, and Al Pacino — The Irishman is a deep dive into the underworld.  At 3 1/2 hours and developed for Netflix, this film is very long but expertly crafted.  As the audience, you get to see the Director’s Cut and not a studio’s abbreviated version.  It won’t win Best Picture but it is great to see these legends of film.
 
1917  – I think it will win.  It is a massive war story that feels very personal as two soldiers are sent to the front lines to warn their brethren that they are headed into a trap.  With amazing technical wizardry and a story that sucks you in and takes you to war, it is shot in a single action style that feels oh so real.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – This was my favorite film of the year.  Quentin Tarantino produced a brilliant, realistic period piece about Hollywood at the time of the Manson murders.  Leonardo DeCaprio and Brad Pitt highlight this fantastic buddy film about a has-been movie star and his stunt double that rewrites the history of its time in an entertaining and surprisingly not violent (for Tarantino) way.  Nothing Hollywood likes better than a movie about itself.  So it has a shot at winning.
Best Actress: Renee Zellweger has won this competition everywhere so she should win the Best Actress Oscar for her uncanny portrayal of Judy Garland in the disappointing Judy. Everything about her performance seemed genuine.  There is no denying that she is perfect for the part. I, for one, couldn’t see any other actress playing Garland once I saw Zellweger.
For my money, Charlize Theron deserves to win this award for her portrayal of Megyn Kelly in Bombshell.  Zellweger plays Garland; Theron IS Kelly.  Amazing.
It is impossible not to be impressed with Cynthia Erivo’s performance as Harriet Tubman in Harriet.  She is positively fantastic in chronicling this brave, pioneering abolitionist.  But no one saw the film. Saoirse Ronan never gives a bad performance, and she is memorable as Jo March, the central character in Little Women. While she is only 25 years old, this is her fourth Oscar nomination.  Wow, but she will lose again.
Finally, Scarlett Johansson is double nominated this year for Marriage Story and in the Supporting Actress category for Jojo Rabbit.  That puts her in rare company.  In Marriage Story, her performance is memorable but not much of a stretch.  She plays an actress caught in a deteriorating marriage.  But there is one monologue she delivers that is absolutely amazing.  That alone might have gotten her this nomination.
Best Actor: Case closed.  Joaquin Phoenix may be weird, enigmatic, and reclusive but he also is positively amazing in Joker.  He has won every other award, and he will win here.  He shows amazing range, a flair for craziness, and a willingness to be both solitary and flamboyant.
Leo is great in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood but he is eclipsed by Brad Pitt and he has won this award before. Tarantino didn’t have to coax an excellent performance out of him, and his performance is more subtle than Phoenix.
Adam Driver wasn’t particularly special in Marriage Story compared to his performance in BlacKkKlansman.  He plays a theatrical director whose goal is getting to Broadway while his favorite actress and wife seeks greater fame in Hollywood.  He takes a backseat to Lady Scarlett here but is very deft and could surprise.
Jonathan Price was hand-selected by the studio to play Pope Francis in The Two Popes. He is almost perfect as the reluctant choice to follow the retiring Pope Benedict.  This is a wonderful performance by a dedicated veteran who deserves his first Oscar nomination.
Finally, Antonio Banderas really shows off his acting chops in Pain and Glory, the Spanish film about an aging movie director who is asked to reunite with his former star to present a remastered version of one of his most famous films.  His journey of rediscovery will either lead him to total destruction or rejuvenation.  It is a nice nomination for a fine actor.
Best Supporting Actor – What a category this is: Tom Hanks, Anthony Hopkins, Joe Pesci, Al Pacino and Brad Pitt.  Every one of these performances is worthy.
Al Pacino has only won one Oscar out of his nine nominations.  That’s a sin.  As Jimmy Hoffa in The Irishman, he is more restrained than usual, which is a good thing.  But he won’t win because this film hasn’t won much of anything.  Likewise, Joe Pesci’s mob boss is memorable but this is not Goodfellas where he won the Oscar in his only other nomination.  Both were Scorsese films.  He won’t win for the same reason as Pacino plus they will split the votes for lovers of this movie.
Anthony Hopkins plays Pope Benedict in The Two Popes opposite Jonathan Pryce.  As usual, he is excellent, a touch understated, and reverential.  The conversations they have are invented but the story is quite interesting, and these two actors pull it off beautifully.  No Oscar but a fitting tribute to a five-time nominee with one previous win (for Silence of the Lambs).  Hello Clarice.
That brings us down to Tom Hanks and Brad Pitt.  Hanks, everyone’s favorite, is amazing as Fred Rogers in Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.  He has the mannerisms and speech cadence down cold.  It is a wonderful performance for a two-time Oscar winner who hadn’t been nominated in 19 years.  The nomination is recognition enough.
That leaves Brad Pitt as the winner.  He is so laid back and perfect in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood that you couldn’t see any other actor playing this part.  Part sage, part airhead, Pitt is the perfect complement to DeCaprio in a Tarantino film.  Bravo!
Best Supporting Actress – This is the category that has provided the most surprises over the years.  This year, it seems that all of the other awards organizations have anointed Laura Dern the hands-down winner.  Her performance in Marriage Story plays a bit against type as she portrays the ruthless lawyer handling Scarlett Johansson’s character’s divorce. You will hate her almost from the moment you meet her.  She deserves the Oscar.
Kathy Bates was riveting as Richard Jewell’s mother in … wait for it … Richard Jewell.  She is supportive, loving, and destroyed by the accusations about her coddled son.  Margot Robbie played a fictional character in Bombshell, which took away from her performance from my perspective.  As a cunning accomplice who became a victim, she was quite believable but just wasn’t in the same league as Charlize Theron and Nicole Kidman.
Scarlett Johansson was flighty and smart in Jojo Rabbit, a character I haven’t seen her play before.  While teaching her Nazi-loving son the realities of the world while harboring a Jewish girl inside the walls of her house, Rosie (her character) isn’t on screen much but made a bigger impression on me than Johansson’s self-absorbed character in Marriage Story.  She could sneak up in this category in this consolation prize for not getting Best Actress.
Florence Pugh is the prototypical upsetter in this category this year.  She played Amy March in Little Women in what I thought was a forgettable performance. Saoirse Ronan, Emma Watson and Laura Dern outperformed her by a large margin, in my opinion.
Best Director – Talk about wide open categories.  I can make a case for each of the nominees. Todd Phillips won the Director’s Guild award for his stunning work on Joker.  This acknowledges his exceptional blend of character and dark Gotham setting plus his ability to coax a performance of a lifetime out of Joaquin Phoenix.  He is the favorite in this category but not my first choice.
Martin Scorsese is the dean of Hollywood directors. The Irishman is a big achievement for Marty, getting the chance to produce a 3 1/2 hour epic.  But what he gains in character development by going that long, he loses in audience entrancement.  Everyone will bow to Marty’s expertise but not give him the Best Director award, which he has won only once (for The Departed) before in eight previous nominations.
I am pulling for Quentin Tarantino for his amazing recreation of Hollywood in the late 1960s. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is so creative and so nostalgic that it makes you care about the characters and the times.  Tarantino dialed his own violent instincts back yet made the movie so absurd (see: flamethrower) and enjoyable that I just marveled.  It may hurt that Tarantino seems so lacking in humility but he has been nominated three times for the directing Oscar but has not won.  His two Oscars are for writing Django Unchained and Pulp Fiction.
For director Bong Joon-ho, Parasite was considered a comeback after his well-reviewed 2013 film Snowpiercer.  The story is very complex and (perhaps) socially relevant.  But the direction moves from comedy to drama to mystery to horror, creating a riveting character study.  It is not unusual for foreign language film directors to win this category without the movie winning Best Picture.  Thus, Bong Joon-ho may pull off the upset here.
Sam Mendes created the most complex technical film of the year: 1917.  With legendary director of photography Roger Deakins, he created a movie that puts the audience on the battleground while making this “big” film feel very personal.  It isn’t the best war film you have ever seen but it is a technical triumph.  This is a great period piece that keeps you on the edge of your chair, which is no small task for a movie set in World War I.
Other categories — I already sent out my thoughts on Live Action Short Films.  I really liked four of the five nominated movies.  While I would choose the only English-speaking film, The Neighbors’ Window, I think the winner will be the highly relevant film, Saria, the story of girls in an orphanage in Guatemala.
I haven’t seen all of the Foreign Language films nominated.  But that doesn’t matter because Parasite will win.
Even though I spent much of my career writing and have seen all of the nominated films, I rarely try to guess the winners of Original Screenplay or Adapted Screenplay.  The original screenplays include Parasite, Marriage Story, Knives Out, 1917, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.  I am hoping that Tarantino wins in this category.  Noah Baumbach wrote a dialog-heavy film in Marriage Story so he could win.  But this is a logical place for the Academy to reward Parasite writer/director Bong Joon-ho, who won the Writers Guild Award.
In the adapted film category is Jojo Rabbit, Little Women, The Irishman, Joker, and The Two Popes. Jojo Rabbit writer Taika Waititi won the Writers Guild award and he should win here, too.  It certainly was the most creative script of the year.  My long shot would be Two Popes’ writer Anthony McCarten but he wasn’t even nominated by the Writers Guild.

International flair to Oscar-nominated Best Live Action Shorts

BROTHERHOOD — When a young Tunisian man comes home with a new bride in tow after fighting in Syria for ISIS his family has mixed reactions.  His father, who is not enamored with his son’s choices, faces an unfathomable choice — turn his son in or accept him back into the family with his new wife. There is plenty of tension here.  This was my least favorite among the five films.

NEFTA FOOTBALL CLUB — The only comedy among the films, this follows two brothers out for a ride on a motorbike near the Algerian border.  The younger one comes upon a donkey wandering alone with earphones over his ears and a cargo that includes several bags of white powder. The older brother realizes what he has and, when they get back to town, contacts the local drug dealers about his haul.  Meanwhile, the younger brother has other ideas. Funny and ironic, this short film has little to do with soccer and nothing to do with American football.

THE NEIGHBORS’ WINDOW — The only English-speaking film among the nominees, this film focuses on a family of five living in an apartment directly across the street from a young couple whose marital exploits are easy … and irresistible … to follow. The parents struggle meeting their own needs and those of their three young kids and pine for the days when they, too, were young and carefree.  But after more than a year, much changes.  This is a lesson in appreciating what you have.

SARIA — Girls in an orphanage in Guatemala live practically as slaves under abominable circumstances.  When they escape from the guards, they head out in search of America and a better life.  Things do not go well for the girls.  Based on a true story, Saria will prove that many of those seeking asylum in the U.S. are not rapists and murderers.  This is a powerful film and the one I think is most likely to win the Oscar in this category.

A SISTER — Also based on a true story, this film is a 20-minute thriller about an emergency (911) operator taking a call from a woman trapped in a car with the man who only minutes before assaulted her.  Thinking that the woman is calling her sister, the man is equally agitated and suspicious.  The operator must solve the puzzle from the cryptic clues of the caller.  It is suspenseful right up to the end.

Cynthia Erivo embraces abolitionist “Harriet”

Harriet (Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom, Jr.) – There have been several movies about abolitionist Harriet Tubman, the escaped slave who became one of the most famous “conductors” of the Underground Railroad.  The latest version features the talented Cynthia Erivo, who starred in Broadway’s revival of The Color Purple. Erivo’s performance is transformative and is worthy of the Best Actress nomination she received.

Tubman grew up as Minty, a woman of uncommon conviction and substance.  Having witnessed unconscionable violence against her family and friends, Minty ultimately left her husband and her home and escaped from Maryland to freedom in Philadelphia.  Adopting the “free” name of Harriet Tubman, she could have lived a safe life in the North.  Rather, she returned home 13 times to lead slaves to freedom.  Braving death, she considered her quest a calling, becoming an unquestioned leader prior to the Civil War in liberating slaves.  During the war, she became a spy for the Union and led the largest battle specifically designed to free slaves.

As a movie, Harriet is a compelling re-telling of the story.  It is beautifully filmed and well-acted.  It is not, however, a deep psychological profile; it is an homage.  This isn’t unusual for movies, of course.  Heroes are often presented as flawless.  The film would have been better if the dive were deeper.  What made her such a brave and relentless woman?  Was there anything in her childhood that drove her to become such as leader?  Why did she feel that she heard messages from God that kept her safe and helped her predict and evade danger?  Curious people want to know.

Nonetheless, Harriet is a very good movie and a fine history lesson.  Erivo is extraordinary.  The supporting cast is convincing and earnest.  Plus, Erivo sings the haunting, uplifting Stand Up, the song played over the closing credits that has been nominated for Best Original Song.  Harriet is difficult to find in theaters; it is available on Amazon for rent or purchase.

Banderas shines in Almodóvar’s “Pain and Glory”

Pain and Glory (Antonio Banderas, Asier Etxeandia, Penelope Cruz, Nora Navas) – It is a foregone conclusion that Parasite will win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.  The only other real competition is famed Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory.  Starring Antonio Banderas, P&G follows the later life of movie writer and director Salvador Mallo, whose life has faded into sickness, despair and depression.

Mallo is barely existing in his well-appointed apartment, choking when he eats almost any solid food and suffering from myriad physical problems.  But it is his emotional infirmities that leave him a shadow of his former self.  Then, one day, he is asked to present one of his most famous films, which has been restored, at a special screening.  The invitation is actually to present it jointly with the film’s star, Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia), with whom he has not spoken since the film was released 32 years earlier.

Mallo is reluctant to do it but is convinced by a friend, Mercedes (Nora Navas), that it would be good for him to do something other than rot in his apartment.  He visits Crespo to persuade him to join him in the presentation.  It is there that Mallo tries heroin for the first time.  Of course, he gets hooked as the drug gives him some respite from his overwhelming pain.  In his stupor, he relives his childhood, re-explores his complicated relationship with his mother (played as a young woman by Almodóvar’s frequent collaborator, Penelope Cruz), and forces him to face his now empty life.

The rest of the film is Salvador’s flashback journey through time, the diagnosis of his illness, and his reunion with an old love, which reawakens his passion for writing and film.

Banderas, who was nominated for Best Actor, sparkles in every shade of Salvador.  As with all great performances, you lose the actor in the character, a rare joy for the audience.  The film is vintage Almódovar, including the twist at the end.

If you can’t see it in the theater, it is available to rent on a couple of the streaming services for less than it costs at your local movie house.  It is subtitled, of course, so settle in for one man’s journey into the truth of his life.

“Jojo Rabbit” fails as satire about Hitler

Jojo Rabbit (Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin McKenzie, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Taika Waititi, Rebel Wilson) – Jojo Rabbit is another rip-roaring film about Adolf Hitler or, more descriptively, a member of the Hitler Youth whose enthusiasm for the Fuhrer wanes as he gets to know the Jewish girl his mother is hiding in their house.  I am being facetious, of course. There haven’t been a lot of movies depicting Hitler as a funny guy, in this case influencing the imagination of a young 10-year-old, Jojo (Golden Globe nominee Roman Griffin Davis), whose goal is become Adolf’s friend.

The movie is a spoof, a comedy of sorts.  It attempts to be Springtime for Hitler (from The Producers) with a cavalcade of silly Nazis – Hitler (writer/director/star New Zealander Taika Waititi), polite SS officers, and the disgraced head of the Hitler Youth (Sam Rockwell as Captain Klenzendorf).  The latter is running an office full of idiots and misfits, including Fraulein Rahm (Rebel Wilson) and some male assistant with whom Klenzendorf is apparently attracted.

I would describe the plot, but I kept falling asleep.  I was awake to see Scarlett Johansson play Jojo’s mother, Rosie, a surprisingly normal, fun-loving, free-spirited German who is providing shelter for a young Jewish girl, Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie).  Johansson’s performance garnered an Oscar nomination for Supporting Actress despite very little screen time.

The underlying story is more serious, of course. Jojo gets close to Elsa and finds out that Jews are real people.  As he gets to know Elsa, he falls out of love with Hitler.  By the end of the film, Elsa is freed, Jojo has matured, and Rosie is dead (sorry for the spoiler!).

Jojo Rabbit (you’ll find out why Jojo got this nickname) is another movie that audiences liked and critics (by and large) didn’t.  The film feels a bit like a West Anderson pic in the spirit of The Grand Budapest Hotel or a Mel Brooks spoof, but it just doesn’t cut it.

I am going out on a limb here: Jojo Rabbit will not win any of the six Academy Awards for which it has been nominated.  At least, I hope not.

“Joker” is no laughing matter

Joker (Joaquin Phoenix, Robert De Niro, Zazie Beetz) – Delve deeply below the surface of a psychopathic killer and you will find a highly disturbed individual with delusions of grandeur and unfulfilled ambition.  Such is this dark, frank portrait of Arthur Fleck, the man who would become the Joker, archenemy of Batman and nemesis to Gotham City.

In this prequel to the Batman saga, Joaquin Phoenix brings all of his personal baggage and enigmatic personality to the complicated character of Arthur, who is anything but the one-dimensional villain we have met in multiple Batman films and TV shows.

Arthur lives with his mother and is her primary caregiver.  Through the film, we find out about her, including her history working for Thomas Wayne, the soon-to-be mayor of Gotham. It is Wayne’s son, Bruce (we meet him only briefly as a young boy), who would later become Batman.  Arthur has trouble holding a job.  Currently, he is working as a clown, entertaining kids in hospitals or twirling one of those signs advertising on a street corner.  He is pretty good at it.  But Arthur has a temper and a mental illness that causes him to laugh uncontrollably, often when he is under stress.  He is under the care of a mental health counselor from whom he gets his drugs and for whom he keeps a diary of his demented thoughts.

We watch Arthur turn from misfit to victim to killer to instigator.  It is very disturbing.  Should we have empathy for this bullied, battered, and abused man-boy?  Does his background story warrant a second look at the comic book character depicted as a one-dimensional menace to society?

These questions rest at the heart of Joker, director Todd Phillip’s dive into a fantasy world that seems all too real to the plight of people with deep-seeded mental illness.  Indeed, Joker is a comic book movie but it feels more relevant than that.  Phoenix’s performance is magnificent … regardless of what you think of him.  His talent is undeniable.  Four Oscar nominations prove that.  His two Golden Globe wins, for this and his portrayal of Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, prove that he belongs in the pantheon of current American actors.

Joker has been an audience darling and a critical catastrophe.  The movie is no fun whatsoever.  It is a psychological thriller with graphic violence and disturbing images.  It is quite a ride into hell.  Missing is the sly wink of the Batman films or the campiness of the Batman TV show.  Clearly, Phillips had no desire to recreate anything but the look and feel of Gotham.  That he accomplishes spectacularly.  Joker is a very big movie about one man’s plummet to the dark side.

With 11 Oscar nominations, the most of any 2019 film, and more than $1 billion in box office, it deserves more than casual attention.  It is a spectacle worth viewing and worth pondering.

“1917” is an epic personal drama

1917 (George MacKay, Dean-Charles Chapman) – It has been more than a century since the end of what H.G. Wells called the “war to end all wars.”  How could a movie about World War I possibly find an audience in the country that has gone to war too many times to count in the last 100 years?

1917 is a very personal account of the war.  The film tells the story of a pair of British soldiers charged with alerting forward troops about the trap the Germans have laid for the good guys.  Shot almost exclusively with Steadicam, the technology allowing moving cameras to track the subject on screen without herky-jerky movement, it follows the pair as they try to reach their colleagues through the wasteland created by combat.  Be prepared to see carnage – human and otherwise.

When most of us think of war, we think of big battles.  War movies follow familiar patterns and are often big, star-studded spectacles like Tora, Tora, Tora, Midway, and The Longest Day.  Recent films like The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty, and Green Zone tend to take a small slice of a war and examine it closely with box office stars in the lead (think Matt Damon, Jeremy Renner, and Jessica Chastain).

1917 is different.  The only stars in this film, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Strong, and Colin Firth, appear in short cameos.  The lead actors, George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman, are unknowns just like the grunts who fight wars.  Oscar-winning director Sam Mendes (American Beauty) manages to create a “little” film on a massive set with some of the most impressive special effects and computer graphics ever seen outside those cookie-cutter comic book movies.

For two hours, Mendes creates the agony, fear, and horror of war through the eyes of these two soldiers, (SPOILER ALERT): one doesn’t make it).  The audience assumes the mission will be accomplished but the obstacles to success seem overwhelming.  Do they make it in time to save the 1,600 men whose lives depend on them?  The outcome is far from certain.  And as we know, war is hell.  At the heart of every war is a person, often not a natural hero, following orders and trying to stay alive and serve his/her country.  That is what 1917 is really about.

Mendes creates a powerful, tense, exhilarating, exhausting drama that brings tears and frustration, sadness and hopelessness. In short, it creates a moving moviegoing experience of the highest order that is one of the leading contenders for the Best Picture Oscar and several others.

Parasites abound in best foreign language film of 2019

Parasite (Kang-ho Song, Sun-kyun Lee, Yao-jeong, So-dam Park) – Last year, it was Roma, the Mexican film that garnered 10 Oscar nominations, three wins, and a Best Picture nomination.  This year, all the Oscar buzz surrounds Parasite, the Korean entry that won Best Foreign Language film at the Golden Globes (someone has to explain to me what a foreign language film is to the Foreign Press Association – wouldn’t English films be foreign language to foreigners?).

With sterling critical reviews and audience ratings, Parasite defies easy definition.  At its heart, it is the story of two families, one dirt poor, one unabashedly rich. Critics looking for deep meaning in the film will drone on about “class struggle” as the central message here.  I don’t think so.  To me, this is a typical “things go bad” movie.

It starts innocently enough as we meet a poor family living in squalor.  The parents are out of work while the daughter and son seem unmotivated.  With the help of a teenage friend, the son gets a job tutoring the daughter of a rich family, the Parks.  Before it’s all over, each member of the poor family gets a job working for the Parks in what essentially turns out to be a confidence scheme.  (Note: if the poor family were so good at manipulation and masterminding this scheme, how did they get so poor?)

The tone of the movie is upbeat, even amusing to this point.  After all, what’s the problem?  Both families are happy, the money is flowing and, despite the false pretenses, life is good.  This lasts right up to the time that the Parks’ previous housekeeper shows up at the front door of the Parks’ home in the middle of a deluge while the Parks are out of town.  What follows is more horror film than deep drama.  In some ways, this reminds me a bit of 2017’s Get Out, a surprise hit that combined family drama, comedy and horror.

Rather than spoil the rest, let’s just say that the plot thickens, the poor family is about to be exposed, the rain finally stops, the rich family goes blissfully forward, and “there will be blood.”  And then ponder, “Who (or what) is the parasite?”

It is true that there is no protagonist in the film.  The poor family is deceitful if generally likable.  The rich family is entitled but well meaning.  Even the old housekeeper evokes pity as well as scorn.  As the story evolves into absurdity, the audience is drawn in.  As Johnny Carson used to say: “You buy the premise; you but the bit.”

I can’t say that this is a great film.  It certainly never felt boring; it kept me guessing; and it kept me engaged for all two-plus hours. Would this have been one of the best films of the year if it had been an American film?  I doubt it.  So, I expect, like Roma, it will win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and be nominated for Best Picture and perhaps Best Director (Bong Joon Ho).

Should you go out of your way to see it?  Absolutely if you don’t mind subtitles and enjoy journeys into the absurd.  Otherwise, you can wait for it to show up on Netflix.