“Triangle of Sadness” is a geometric enigma

Triangle of Sadness (Harris Dickinson, Charlbi Dean, Dolly De Leon, Woody Harrelson) – No way does this quirk of a film deserve to be one of the 10 films nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture. Maybe it’s just me. No stars; ridiculous storyline; unresolved ending. Yuck! But OK, here goes:

In Part One, we find out what the “triangle of sadness” is and meet Yaya (Charlbi Dean), a supermodel, and her boyfriend, Carl (Harris Dickinson), an aspiring model. They aren’t the happiest of couples. Together, in Part Two, they go on an exclusive yacht cruise with a bunch of ultrarich international egotists, none of whom have redeeming qualities. The cruise’s nameless captain, played by Woody Harrelson, is a drunk who never leaves his cabin.  The cruise staff, envisioning a big payday at the end, is trained to say “yes” to everything the guests want … and I mean everything. By the time the guests show up at the Captain’s dinner, they seem oblivious to the storm raging around them. 

Soon enough, as the gourmet food is ingested, prolific projectile vomiting ensues. As the ship rocks relentlessly, the sewage system backs up, passengers roll down the stairs, and almost everyone is sick. Then come the pirates, who throw a hand grenade on board, causing an explosion and sinking the ship.

Part Three follows the survivors, which include Yaya, Carl, the head steward, a stroke survivor, and a half dozen others, to the shore of a seemingly deserted island. They are a useless group of rich losers except for Abigail (Dolly De Leon), the “toilet lady,” a low-level member of the crew who quickly takes over because she can start a fire, forage for food, and demonstrate survivor skills. It’s a stunning turnaround – the people used to barking orders are now at the mercy of the least rich around them. Abigail plays it for all its worth, including turning Carl into a sex slave. I won’t give away the last part of the film, but I promise it isn’t very satisfying.

The lovers of the film consider it a hysterical satire targeting the entitled and privileged. Dolly De Leon’s performance is excellent and earned her a Golden Globe supporting actress nomination. I even concede that there are funny moments in this extraordinarily dark comedy. The Swedish filmmaker, Ruben Östlund, received Oscar nominations for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay, too. The film won the Palme D’or, the top award at Cannes, garnering an 8-minute standing ovation. His previous film, Square, also won the Palme D’or. I must be missing something.

Maybe I am just not sophisticated enough or just can’t relate to the biting satire. I thought it was a colossal waste of time. But if you are willing to spend two-and-a-half hours, you can rent the film on Prime Video for $5.99 and stop any time you like.

Fraser delivers a “Whale” of a performance

The Whale (Brendan Fraser, Sadie Sink, Hong Chau, Samantha Morton) – If I had a vote in the actor section of the Academy of Arts & Sciences, it would go to Brendan Fraser for his astonishing performance in The Whale. It’s not an easy movie or performance to watch, but it is transcendent. 

The Whale is an adaptation of a multiple award-winning play written by Samuel D. Hunter, who also wrote the screenplay. In the hands of director Darren Aronofsky, whose specialty is psychological dramas like Black Swan and The Wrestler, The Whale feels like an exploration into self-loathing. The entire movie covers only one week.

Fraser plays Charlie, a 500+-lb. reclusive, online English teacher with a good heart and deep psychological scars. Charlie is dying; he has severe congestive heart failure. He is effectively committing suicide by eating himself to death. His life has been devolving for at least eight years since he left his wife, Mary (Samantha Morton), and daughter, Ellie (Sadie Sink), in favor of his new love, a man (who later committed suicide).

As Charlie’s health has declined, he refuses to go to the hospital despite being begged to do so by Liz, his lover’s sister who is also a nurse. She deeply cares for Charlie because they share a common tragedy but also because they have become co-dependent friends. In effect, Liz serves as a hospice nurse, providing comfort and even abetting his death quest. Hong Chau, who also was wonderful in The Menu, delivers a mesmerizing performance that is nominated for Best Supporting Actress.

As the week progresses, Charlie’s singular focus is on reconciling with his estranged daughter, a rebellious, deeply scarred teenager who, in her own words, “hates everybody.” She manifests this hate by using him, mocking him, and outing him. As her mother says, “She is evil.” Charlie will have none of that; to him, Ellie (Sadie Sink) is wonderful, glorious, beautiful, and talented. He realizes that she hates him for abandoning her in favor of a man. But he believes it is all his fault, that she is redeemable.

Of course, the film’s title, The Whale, acknowledges Charlie’s size but, more importantly, refers to Moby Dick, Herman Melville’s classic novel and the subject of an essay Charlie cherishes and keeps nearby.

The film feels like a play; it essentially takes place in one room. The Whale cuts deep; it will tear you up … and make you tear up. It should have been nominated for Best Picture. It is well worth your time if, for no other reason, to see Brendan Fraser’s and Hong Chau’s performances. You may want to wait to watch it at home if it comes to streaming before the Oscars in March.

“Causeway” delivers strong performances

Causeway (Jennifer Lawrence, Brian Tyree Henry, Linda Emond) – Lynsey, just out of extended rehab from a war injury caused by an IED, is trying to adjust to life back in New Orleans. She has brain damage and is living in pain and denial. Her personality has changed. When her truck breaks down, she heads to the body shop where she is befriended by James, himself an amputee. Their unlikely friendship — this mentally challenged white lesbian and this physically imposing but haunted, handicapped black man – serves as the heart of this art film.

Jennifer Lawrence, perhaps the best actress of her generation, returns to the genre of film that thrust her into the national spotlight with an Oscar nomination for Winter’s Bone. Still only 32 years old, she may be best known for her Hunger Games films or her Oscar-nominated performances in American Hustle, Silver Linings Playbook (she won), and Joy. In Causeway, she plays this role in an understated, determined, and damaged way. Without makeup, she portrays Lynsey as raw, sloppy, and lost. But it’s not JLaw that garnered an Oscar nomination.

It’s Brian Tyree Henry as James who received the somewhat surprising Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Henry is no newcomer. He is a fine character actor who has received Emmy nominations for his roles in Atlanta and a guest appearance in This is Us, both in 2016.

Causeway is named for the location of the accident that took James’ leg and the life of James’ brother. But it’s also about the bridge these two lost souls cross to return to a meaningful life. There is a chemistry between these characters that sparkles in primarily a co-dependent way.

The film is the feature debut for TV director Lila Neugebauer. The three writers are essentially newcomers. As exceptional as the performances are, the film itself has largely been ignored in this awards season. It’s a “little” film, a low-budget, direct-to-streaming (Apple+) movie that may not have found an audience if it weren’t for Henry’s Oscar nomination. It is well worth a watch.

Raw Riseborough gets Oscar nomination in “To Leslie”

To Leslie (Andrea Riseborough, Marc Maron, Owen Teague, Allison Janney, Stephen Root) – Nobody saw this film. It opened in two theaters and immediately went to pay-to-view. Its director never helmed a feature before. Its British star, Andrea Riseborough, was best known as the love interest to Billie Jean King’s character in Battle of the Sexes and smaller roles in Nocturnal Animals, Birdman, and eight episodes of the Netflix series Bloodline.

Leslie is a despicable person. She squandered the $190,000 she won in the lottery on booze and drugs, abandoned her son (Owen Teague, who also played her son in Bloodline), lost every friend she had, and alienated her family (played by celebrated actors Allison Janney and Stephen Root). Broke, beaten, and desperate, she blames everyone but herself for her empty and vacuous life. She reaches out to her son, messes it up, and eventually returns home to West Texas having reached absolute rock bottom. There, she is shunned … and deserves it. She steals and whores around, taking the money to buy booze and close down the local bar.

When she meets good-natured Sweeney (Marc Maron), the owner of a broken-down motel, she has no hope. For reasons not clear, he offers her a job as a maid and gives her an advance on her $7/hour salary. She blows it, of course. But he gives her a second and third chance. In short, he tries to save her. The rest of the film is the story of her journey, her last chance.

Riseborough’s performance is fantastic. She holds nothing back. It’s raw, revealing and riveting.  To Leslie is a “little” film with a gigantic performance by a talented actress. It deserves to be seen.

Whether it warrants a Best Actress nomination is a matter of debate. Some of Hollywood’s most well-known and connected actresses (Amy Adams, Kate Winslet, Charlize Theron, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox, Minnie Driver, and Melanie Lynskey) and director Michael Morris’ actress/wife Mary McCormack held private screenings and an aggressive social media campaign to promote Riseborough for a Best Actress nomination. Whether this effort constituted “lobbying,” which is outlawed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is now the subject of an investigation by the Academy.

Adding to the controversy is the reality that outstanding performances by two high profile African American actresses, Viola Davis for The Woman King and Danielle Deadwyler for “Till,” were ignored in the Best Actress category while a group of white actresses and others orchestrated a campaign for Riseborough.

The Academy doesn’t need another controversy that touches on the lack of diversity in Hollywood. With the ratings of the Oscars in the toilet, this controversy hurts an industry struggling to get people back into theaters. However, the controversy will definitely help the film with a new box office release and increased viewing on Prime Video ($6.99 rental).

“Living” earns Nighy Oscar nomination

Living (Bill Nighy, Aimee Lou Wood, Alex Sharp) – Glance through Bill Nighy’s filmography and you will quickly notice the tremendous range and breadth of his acting career. In America, he may best be known for playing aging rock star Billy Mack in Love Actually but that would be truly unfortunate. He has been one of Britain’s greatest character actors for four decades.

Living, the remake of the 1952 film Ikiru, is a deeply moving film about a 1950s-era civil servant whose stolid demeanor and empty life change when he receives a terminal cancer diagnosis. His sudden desire to live what life has left for him and to make a difference before he goes makes for a stunning character study.

Nighy plays Mr. Williams, the staid Public Works manager, whose department’s job is mostly to push paper and to consider public projects while supervising a staff of mostly boring bureaucrats who look alike, commute together, and work at a snail’s pace. Williams is highly respected, very prim, and by the book. When he finds out he is gravely ill, he doesn’t tell his son with whom he lives but, instead, heads to the beach where he meets a gadfly who takes him on a booze-filled binge. One day, he runs into one of his former employees, a young woman (Aimee Lou Wood), who has taken an entry-level management job elsewhere. Miss Harris is full of life, which is exactly what Mr. Williams needs and appreciates. Their relationship, purely platonic, opens Williams up. He confides in her; she enjoys his surprising hidden personality.

The third act of the film is touching, heart-rending, satisfying, and hopeful. Nighy’s performance is stunningly reserved yet powerful. He manages to subtly reveal Williams’ transformation through barely perceptible facial expressions and body language that are tightly contained within the confines of this terribly reserved character. That is also a tribute to the tight screenplay, which earned Kazuo Ishiguro an Oscar nomination (the 1952 movie was written by famed Writer/Director Akira Kurosawa).

Most notably, Nighy received a very well-deserved Best Actor Oscar nod for this performance in a year where no real superstars were among the nominated. Most people will miss this film and this exceptional performance, and that would be too bad.

“Tár” will stick with you

Tár (Cate Blanchett, Nina Hoss, Noémie Merlant, Mark Strong) – Katharine Hepburn, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett. We may have reached the time when Ms. Blanchett can be named the successor to the “best actress of her generation” list. With seven Oscar nominations, Blanchett is still far behind the other two. But her two statuettes puts her only one behind Meryl and two behind Kate. Her performance in Tár will certainly be nominated, and she is the frontrunner to win.

Lydia Táris the intense, driven, maniacal conductor of the Berlin Symphony. She is the greatest conductor of her era, a musician of substance who studied under and idolized Leonard Bernstein. She has fought all the battles a woman in a man’s profession needs to fight her way to the top. That journey has taken its toll. Behind that tough, confident, elitist persona is a woman on the brink.

Lydia has a child with her wife or partner, Sharon Goodnow (Nina Hoss), who also is the concertmaster of her orchestra. It’s love and nepotism and dependence and harassment. They are partners for sure, but there is increasingly a power imbalance. As Lydia heads toward the culmination of her career, the completion of the cycle of Gustav Mahler’s work, specifically his Symphony No. 5, she is reaching the brink.

Attuned as she is to music, she starts to hear menacing sounds. She follows a stranger, damaging her face. She fights with Sharon; fires her back-up conductor; denies her assistant, Francesca (Noémie Merlant), the promotion she deserves; and betrays her lead cellist by hand-picking a new, beautiful, young musician to solo with the orchestra in the accompanying piece to the Mahler Fifth Symphony. In the process, she tests her relationships with everyone.

(Spoiler Alert) Lydia is a manipulative, musical genius. She conducts with a physicality that defies description, willing the orchestra to new heights. But her lust for power and perfection ultimately leads to a breakdown and an inevitable descent.

Tár is a haunting, excruciating film with an unforgettable character. Blanchett is brilliant! To prepare, she learned to conduct, to command an orchestra, to learn fluent German, and get physically formidable. It’s the role of a lifetime for an actress whose performances from Blue Jasmine to Bandits to Elizabeth to Notes on a Scandal to The Aviator (as Hepburn) and even Thor create a body of work comparable to the best actresses of their generation.

It’s been 16 years since writer/director/actor Todd Field helmed a major film, Little Children, and over 20 years since his much heralded, five-time Oscar-nominated In the Bedroom. He wrote the Lydia Tár character specifically for Blanchett, and their collaboration is evident.

The film is a tough watch, an emotional experience. Blanchett is glorious!

“The Son” doesn’t shine

The Son (Hugh Jackman, Laura Dern, Vanessa Kirby, Anthony Hopkins) – In 2020, Director/Writer Florian Zeller hit the awards jackpot with six Academy Award nominations, including two wins, for his film, The Father. Anthony Hopkins won Best Actor while Zeller and his co-writer, Christopher Hampton, won for Best Screenplay. It was that movie about the progression and effects of dementia that convinced me to move my mother into a nursing home with a specialty in memory care.

Now comes Zeller’s follow-up film, The Son. Focusing on a teenager experiencing depression, The Son may hit home for many parents who have felt helpless and/or frustrated by their beloved child’s mental health challenges.

Hugh Jackman plays Peter Miller, a busy and ambitious attorney and political aspirant, who is divorced from Kate (played by Laura Dern) with whom their son, Nicholas (Zen McGrath), lives. Kate is frustrated with their son; she’s having trouble relating to him and connecting. And when she finds out that Nicholas hasn’t been to school in weeks – all the time lying to her about his life – she approaches Peter about taking the boy into his home. Peter is reluctant because he and his new wife, Beth (Vanessa Kirby), have a new baby. Injecting Nicholas into the home and requiring Peter to devote more time to his son, would seriously disrupt life for everyone.

But Peter knows his responsibility and accepts it. What ensues is a disturbing, agonizing, and painful family drama that alternates between hope, helplessness, honesty, deception, devotion, and desperation. The movie screams seriousness: there are few happy moments except in flashbacks. Nicholas’ depression touches the life of everyone around him but especially the boy himself. He seems to be making progress; his parents seem to be reconciling; he seems to be integrating into his new home well. And then … I’ll leave that to your viewing.

Jackman is a great showman, displaying his extraordinary talent as a Broadway star (The Music Man), a movie comic book multi-part superhero (Wolverine), and a film superstar (The Greatest Showman, Les Misérables, The Prestige). He lobbied hard to play Peter when he got the script from Zeller.

Dern, who comes from a much-decorated Hollywood family (Oscar winner Bruce Dern and 3-time Oscar nominated Diane Ladd) owns an Oscar of her own and three nominations in total.  She has starred in big budget movies like Jurassic Park but mostly in “little” films like October Sky, Wild, and Marriage Story.

You would think that The Son would be well served by these exceptional talents.  Not so much. The film depends on ensemble, on chemistry.  Zen McGrath, who plays Nicholas, is less than an exceptional actor. The role requires him to show great range, but he seems limited. Even Jackman seems uncomfortable, struggling not only as the conflicted Peter but also to find this character. Dern seems superfluous, a failure of a poor script.

And speaking of superfluous, Anthony Hopkins, the star of Zeller’s The Father, makes a cameo as Peter’s father, a judgmental, super-rich SOB whose disdain for his own son is supposed to make the audience identify with Peter’s drive to solve the mysteries of his son’s illness. But all it does is make us wonder why Peter isn’t emotionally scarred.

The Son is an example of how a poor script can sabotage a potentially deep, compelling film. The movie has too much dialogue and, worse, too much strained dialogue. I predict it won’t even do as well as The Father’s meager $2 million U.S. gross ($25 million worldwide).

The film made the rounds of the film festivals last year (I saw it at the Vancouver International Film Festival) where it got mixed results. Jackman was nominated for Best Actor at the Golden Globes. The film was nominated for the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. But by in large, it has been a disappointment.

“Everything Everywhere” tests your senses

Everything Everywhere All at Once (Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, Jamie Lee Curtis) – This is the weirdest, most bizarre, unique film of the year. That doesn’t mean that it’s a must-see film. It’s Clockwork Orange meets The Matrix meets Parasite, and that doesn’t mean it’s as good as any of those.

As proof, I offer this precise dialogue that serves as the premise of the movie: “When you put everything on a bagel, nothing matters.” The film is the quest to enter the bagel or to stop anyone from entering the bagel. Really!

Everything Everywhere All at Once is a mind-bending, optically spectacular, occasionally funny film from The Dans – Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – two music video empresarios who have turned to film, most notably 2016’s Swiss Army Knife.  I have no idea what drugs they were on when they conceived of this film. The execution is flawless, I think. But that might depend on what they were trying to do: blow my mind, I suppose.

Michelle Yeoh, known best for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and the Bond film, Tomorrow Never Dies, plays Evelyn, the co-owner of a laundromat about to celebrate its anniversary. She has long since abandoned her dream of being a professional singer in favor of being a frustrated wife, a bossy mother, a reverential daughter, and a mediocre businesswoman. Her innocent, bumbling husband, Waymond (2023 Golden Globe winner Ke Huy Quan), seen somersaulting around the laundromat on surveillance video, is about to file for divorce. Her rebellious daughter, Joy (Stephanie Hsu), is decidedly not joyful, due to mom’s disapproval of seemingly everything, including Joy’s new girlfriend. Her father (veteran James Hong), who she reveres and cares for, started the laundromat and lives above it with the family.

Unfortunately, the business is under IRS audit, led by wicked, chain-smoking Deirdre Beaubeirdre (bananfana Beafeirdre?), played deliciously by Jamie Lee Curtis. Suddenly, in the middle of the audit appointment, all normalcy ends. Waymond takes his glasses off and starts explaining to Evelyn in a more authoritative voice that she holds the key to saving the universe and must follow him into the dangerous multiverse. Apparently, everyone lives multiple lives in alternate universes, and the prospects are not good without Evelyn’s intervention. It is important to return to the alphaverse, where Waymond is from.

Why her? Well … follow me here … she must confront and beat back Jobu Tupaki, who apparently intends to destroy the universe where, as stated previously, nothing matters. We meet Jobu, who is really Joy (in variously bizarre costumes) in an alternate universe.

It’s all so confusing to explain. We see Evelyn in various lives – as a famous singer, as a martial artist, and much more. “You’re capable of anything because you’re so bad at everything,” Waymond tells her.

From here, the movie is all visual effects, CGI, slow motion, motion capture, and martial arts. And yes, there is some touching drama, too, that will keep you confused and uncertain right to the end. For example, will Jobu and Evelyn go into the bagel? Hey, I’m serious here.

Maybe this is all just a COVID fever dream!  With more than $100 million in box office and exceptional critical reviews, this is one of the most hyped films of Oscar season.  If you’re up to 139 minutes of “wow,” this is your film. It’s already available on Showtime, Hulu and elsewhere.

“Banshees” is one of the year’s most memorable films

The Banshees of Inisherin (Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson, Kerry Condon) – Martin McDonagh has directed four feature films and one short. He won the Oscar for Live Action Short Film for Six Shooter in 2004 while his Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri was nominated for 2017’s Best Picture and won two Oscars from seven nominations. His first feature film, In Bruges, earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay. This is one talented filmmaker.

Three of his four features have starred Colin Farrell: Seven Psychopaths, In Bruges and The Banshees of Inisherin. Everyone I know who watched In Bruges loves it in a reverential way because it’s funny, entertainingly violent, and quirky. It tells the story of a pair of mostly bumbling hitmen. Farrell’s sidekick in In Bruges is played by fellow Irishman Brendan Gleeson, the wonderful character actor twenty years his senior. At its heart, In Bruges is a buddy film with a fascinating setting and a ridiculously twisted plot.

The Banshees of Inisherin, written and directed by McDonagh, reunites Farrell and Gleeson but in a setting far from Bruges. The fictional island of Inisherin, located off the west coast of Ireland, is both idyllic and isolated. Set in 1923, the film centers on Pádraic (Farrell), who ambles through life living with his spinster sister (Kerry Condon in a masterfully understated performance), taking care of their animals, and regularly visiting the one pub on the island. As the film opens, Pádraic is trying to hook up with his longtime best friend, Colm (Gleeson). For whatever reason, Colm is not interested in joining his friend.

When confronted about it at the pub, Colm coldly declares that he no longer likes Pádraic, finds him boring, and doesn’t want to waste any of the rest of his life in a friendship with him.  Colm wants to play his violin and create a musical legacy before he dies, and he doesn’t have time for his “dull” friend.  Confused, bewildered, and incredulous, Pádraic wants an explanation for the sudden rejection. Colm keeps pushing him away while Pádraic won’t take “stay away from me” for an answer. The break-up of the bromance turns bizarre and barbaric. Beware the banshee!

This wonderful character study won Best Actor at the Golden Globes. And the film won Best Picture in a musical or comedy. This film is neither. It is a totally engrossing, heart-breaking, stomach-churning evaporation of friendship and love with touches of dark humor and irony. It’s one of those films you will be talking about for weeks. It is streaming now on HBO Max.

Hanks goes grumpy in “Otto”

A Man Called Otto (Tom Hanks, Mariana Treviño) – Fredrik Backman’s book, A Man Called Ove, was an international sensation, spending 42 weeks on the New York Times’ Best Seller List. It spawned a wonderful Swedish film by the same name that was nominated for an Oscar as Best Foreign Film. It earned $3.5 million in the U.S. and $30 million worldwide.

Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, Hollywood’s “first couple,” watched Ove and decided it was right up their alley. They formed a production company, Artistic Films (supplementing his Playtone studio), bought the rights from a small Swedish studio and produced A Man Called Otto. They hired successful director, Marc Forster, who helmed Finding Neverland, Monster’s Ball, Stranger Than Fiction and The Kite Runner, and convinced an actor named … Tom Hanks … to star.

The two movies are almost identical. The Swedish film is more highly rated by critics and viewers but, really, they have the same feel and similar creative treatments. However, the new version has Otto instead of Ove and doesn’t require subtitles. And did I mention that it stars America’s favorite guy, Tom Hanks?

A Man Called Otto could have been named Grumpy Old Man but there was another movie with two grumps, one of whom was Walter Matthau, who would have been perfect in this film had he not been … you know … dead (too soon?). The problem with the American version is that we all know Tom Hanks is “the nicest guy in Hollywood.”

His serious roles, of which there are many, specialize in his character’s earnestness (Bridge of Spies, Saving Private Ryan, The Post, Philadelphia, Captain Phillips), likeability (Forrest Gump, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood), and everyman good nature (Sully, Larry Crowne, The Terminal). Grumpy, curmudgeon, and kvetch are not words we associate with him.

The Swedish film has the advantage of a star, Rolf Lassgård, who nobody in America knows. That anonymity helps Ove; Hanks’ familiarity hurts Otto. From the beginning, we know that Otto is going to turn into a nice guy after all. We know that the foreign family that moves in across the street will win his heart. We know that his utter sadness over losing his wife will eventually be replaced by finding the reason to live on.

That makes for a very predictable, but nonetheless enjoyable, story that audiences will love. You’ll shed a tear; forget that it’s cold, rainy or snowy outside; and go home smiling once again about the latest Tom Hanks film. Like Ticket to Paradise, a breezy, star-studded feel-good film, A Man Called Otto is a welcome placebo amidst a pandemic, political polarization, and pitiful populism.

Lest my alliteration becomes pedantic (it might be too late), I suggest you take a couple of hours to watch A Man Called Otto with pop and popcorn in hand.