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!

Luhrmann delivers style over substance in “Elvis”

Elvis (Austin Butler, Tom Hanks, Olivia DeJonge) – Nothing about Baz Luhrmann’s movies is subtle … ever. Moulin Rouge is an amazing, giant film. The Great Gatsby is grand. Australia is panoramic and sprawling. Even his version of Romeo + Juliet, the one with Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, feels larger than any other stage or film version.

In Elvis, Luhrmann lures us into the saga of The King of Rock ‘n Roll, the biggest, grandest star between Frank Sinatra and Beyoncé. An average biopic of Elvis would superficially trace the would-be-star from his humble beginnings in Tupelo to a toilet in Graceland with his rocketing to fame as the hip swinging recording, TV and movie star to his service in the military to his return as pop icon to his degeneration into aging, bloated legend.

Elvis covers most of that ground but not all. It tackles Elvis as largely a depressing, manipulated pawn of Svengali Colonel Tom Parker, his manager. Luhrmann’s Elvis is a talented kid with musical roots in rhythm and blues, rockabilly, and country. It is Parker’s eye for talent and his uncanny promotional skills that lands Elvis a recording contract, concert and TV gigs, and a residency in Las Vegas that almost kills him. Parker (Tom Hanks in one of the few performances where you never forget it’s Tom Hanks) is the focal point of the film. At least that’s Luhrmann’s version, which forever will become the narrative on Elvis’ career.

With nine Oscar nominations, Elvis is a smashing film. It’s full of music, punch, and grandiosity. For all of its accolades, it is interestingly not nominated for either directing or screenplay; or, for that matter, music. Rather, it boasts nominations for cinematography, costume design, make-up & hairstyling, sound, production design and, of course, for Best Actor for Austin Butler.

My point here is that Elvis is a spectacle, a Baz Luhrmann original, style over substance. When we celebrate Elvis the movie, we are not celebrating Elvis the person. That’s too bad. In Luhrmann’s movie, Elvis is a victim. Parker is the devil.

Austin Butler is fantastic, perhaps the best Elvis impersonator ever. His range is impressive. He sings several of the songs himself and is mixed with the real Elvis in others. He totally inhabits the character and is one of the favorites for Best Actor.

Like most Luhrmann films, we are left with our eyes wide open, lured by the grandeur and lost in the plot. Elvis deserves its nomination as Best Picture, but it won’t win. Luhrmann has still never been nominated as Best Director despite his distinctive style. I just wish there was more substance.

Not All is “Quiet on the Western Front” in 3rd iteration

All Quiet on the Western Front (Felix Kammerer, Albrecht Schuch, Aaron Hilmer, Daniel Brühl)– In 1930, the second year of the Academy Awards, All Quiet on the Western Front won the Oscar for Best Picture. For some reason, 90+ years later, the producers of this film and Netflix decided there needed to be a remake. This wasn’t the first time. A 1979 TV movie featuring Richard Thomas, Ernest Borgnine, Ian Holm, and Donald Pleasance received nine Emmy nominations, including one win for sound editing.

Edward Berger’s 2022 version is nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best International Feature Film.  It will almost certainly win the latter category (as Germany’s official entry) and perhaps some technical awards, too. It won’t win Best Picture.

All Quiet on the Western Front (Im Westen nichts Neues) is a visual spectacle, quite a feat for perhaps Netflix’s biggest production ever (about $20 million). More than that, it is a sobering, depressing glimpse into the horrors of war. Set in 1917, the third year of the “war to end all wars,” All Quiet is anything but quiet. Its booming soundtrack and unrelenting battle scenes lay bare the exhausting, frightening and brutal reality of World War I from the eyes of a German soldier, Paul (Felix Kammerer), and his soon-to-be dead friends.

They enter the war together in the midst of nationalistic fervor, optimistic that being a soldier of the Kaiser’s army will yield them respect and glory. It doesn’t last long. Once at the western front, they face the stark horror of death and destruction. They wallow in mud, slop, and guts, becoming killers in the process. One by one, they die.

Meanwhile, the armistice talks have begun. With Germany’s troops exhausted and hopelessly stalled, a peace agreement is reached although the fighting, as we see, won’t end until 11 am on 11/11 of 2018. This war will never end for those who fought it. Three million people died in the war, and the western front hardly moved at all, the definition of futility.

Ultimately, All Quiet on the Western Front is an anti-war epic with no winners. At two-and-a-half hours, the film is exhausting yet utterly compelling. It uses color sparingly, depicting the soldiers almost completely in gray to create a stark look and feel. Its soundtrack, by Volker Bertelmann, is haunting.

But before recommending it, I must ask whether we really needed yet another dreary, depressing war picture … let alone a remake of an Oscar winner adapted (now) three times from the 1928 novel by Erich Maria Remarque? I think not. However, I suppose that, if Netflix is going to fund it, then aficionados of the movie war genre will certainly appreciate it and be impressed by its scope and unrelenting nature. Watch it for the art because there is nothing hopeful or uplifting about it.

“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.