Sunday, December 31, 2017

Golden Globes I

I've seen all of the Golden Globe nominated pictures except Call Me By Your Name and I, Tonya but will hazard a guess at winners in best pictures because neither of those directors was nominated. Best Picture Drama nominees are Call Me By Your Name, Dunkirk, The Post, The Shape of Water and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Last year's winner was Moonlight, a much loved and admired film about a gay man's journey of self-discovery. I get the sense that despite what reviewers describe as a sensitive and provocative narrative and outstanding performances by its two leads, Call Me By Your Name hits the same notes as Moonlight and so might be eliminated for that reason.
Dunkirk strikes me as the kind of big scale / big message / big risk picture that often receives awards for its daring. Director Christopher Nolan, who is greatly admired as an auteur, was nominated for best director. It's a large ensemble drama that experiments with point of view and time and though it featured several notable performances not one was nominated. Also it was released early in the year and may have been forgotten.
Steven Spielberg's The Post is an entertaining picture but in no way is as strong as his reputation and that of his cast would project. Meryl Streep, though quite good, did not have to stretch for this performance; it's well within her range. The same is true for Tom Hanks, who along with Streep has been nominated and whose Ben Bradlee is actually more of a supporting role to Streep's Katharine Graham. I feel their nominations were more by default than merit.
Guillermo Del Toro's The Shape of Water is a beautiful picture with many elements Del Toro's fans have come to expect -- bold visuals, sentiment and magic. That Sally Hawkins and Richard Jenkins, not exactly Hollywood A-listers but outstanding character actors nonetheless, have been nominated along with Del Toro suggests the Hollywood Foreign Press sees the movie as a thoroughgoing work with committed performances in front of and behind the camera.
In 2008, the Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men was denied the Best Picture and Best Director wins though the Coen's did receive the award for best screenplay. Three Billboard's, though directed by nominee ballsy British director Martin McDonagh, feels like a Coen Brothers picture because of its sardonic tone and bloodletting and, yes, Frances McDormand, a Globe nominee. Like No Country, its dark coloring and ambiguous ending might be a bit too much for voters more willing to celebrate the liberation of the spirit of a earthbound mute custodial worker who saves her life by sacrificing it. I think The Shape of Water will win.

Golden Globes II

Golden Globe's Best Motion Picture Musical or Comedy is an odd assortment of films, all but one of which (I, Tonya) I've seen, so I might amend this in a few weeks. None of the directors of the films in this category was nominated.
The Disaster Artist is being singled out for the phenomenal work of its lead actor and director James Franco. The film, itself, while quite funny in spots, feels more like an extended SNL sketch than a motion picture, however, and so might be docked for underdevelopment.
Jordon Peele's highly celebrated Get Out has a sketch comedy premise, being the brain child of a sketch comedian, but a serious message, several intensely violent passages and an overall feeling of dread. The wonderful young British actor Daniel Kaluuya has become both the face of the film and, for some, of black male oppression, which the film has as its core message. While Get Out is a more assured and finely crafted picture than The Disaster Artist, it might be penalized for being tonally ambiguous.
The Greatest Showman is a dazzling musical with a truncated story about P. T. Barnum's rise and near fall as an entertainment impressario. It succeeds with a winning score and several fine musical performances (including star Hugh Jackman's) but the narrative is paper thin and the film's emotion is carried almost completely by the singing.
Lady Bird, written and directed by Greta Gerwig, is the most successful of the projects I've seen on this list. This story of a rebellious teenager and her disapproving mother is familiar but also remarkably fresh, made so by two terrific performances (Saorise Ronan and Laurie Metcalf). I suspect I, Tonya's mother / daughter pairing of Margot Robbie and Allison Janney, both of whom are nominated, might be Lady Bird's strongest competition in this category. Again, I might make a different call after seeing Tonya.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

The Greatest Showman


A-list movie and Broadway composers Pasek and Paul's score for The Greatest Showman, much like last year's celebrated La La Land, is the true star of this fairly conventional story about the rise and near fall of Phineas T. Barnum, of circus fame. The book that ties the dozen or so synth pop songs casts Barnum (a terrific Hugh Jackman) as a champion of society's outcasts (led by Zendaya as a black aerialist and Keala Settle as the bearded lady), at first more as a means to turn a buck but later to challenge high society conventions. Because of this, the show's strongest and most thrilling numbers are the anthemic ensemble pieces, most notably "Come Alive" and "This is Me," which will undoubtedly be adopted as anthems for LGBTQ or other marginalized communities. First-time director Michael Gracey's The Greatest Showman is a dazzling picture in the mold of contemporary Hollywood musicals that will find its largest audience with dreamy-eyed pre-teens from Columbia to Calcutta.

Downsizing

Alexander Payne’s cautionary tale Downsizing shares much with Payne’s better earlier films — Election, Sideways, About Schmidt — which are stories of aging men having varying degrees of success contending with “life” — which is to say “other people.” Downsizing initially makes human extinction the matter at hand but craftily turns the sci-fi narrative about human miniaturization something much more immediate and intimate. It is, perhaps, the film’s subtlety that will leave some viewers perplexed. My advice would be to follow Matt Damon’s Paul through all of his large and small crises of identity and conscience because it is there you’ll find Payne’s very human and relatable message. The wonderful Asian actress Hong Chau is a delightful surprise.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Shape of Water



Guillermo del Toro's films are always memorable, unique cinematic visions. Crimson Peak, Pan's Labyrinth, Hellboy and Pacific Rim were all extravagant and beautiful, in their way, often filled with unsettling images and certainly not the rosiest of outlooks. Del Toro's take on Beauty and the Beast, The Shape of Water, uses a smaller, more intimate canvas than those films to tell the story of a mute custodial worker (Sally Hawkins) in the late '50s who falls for an amphibious ... man-creature (Doug Jones) that was captured in the Brazilian jungle and confined to a military installation to be studied for possible weaponization. She plots a daring rescue with the help of friends and, for a time, has an affair with the creature. This fantastic story is, of course, not actually a fairy tale romance at all but an indictment of our frightful incapacity to care for others. The ubiquitous Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Michael Shannon and Michael Stuhlbarg offer their usual fine support but, for me, the exquisite art direction and lovely, balletic scenes between Hawkins and Jones elevate the film from superior motion picture to art.

All the Money in the World

Ridley Scott’s fact-based morality tale about the spoiling effects of great riches is uneven and occasionally preachy but sustained by the performances of both Michelle Williams as Abigail Getty and Christopher Plummer as her father-in-law, monster mogul J. Paul Getty, who at the time of the story was the richest man in the world. The two square off after her son J. Paul III (a wan and effete Charlie Plummer) is kidnapped in Rome by Italian opportunists or anti-capitalists, depending on whose version of events you’re citing. The senior Getty — as sour a character as I’ve seen — is not interested in paying ransom though he claims to love his grandson. He enlists the assistance of fixer Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) to negotiate a deal and neutralize the boy’s mother, who Getty considers too eager to spend his money. Little goes as planned, culminating in the boy’s transferral to even more brutal handlers and his eventual mutilation. The film’s dynamic pull is in Getty Senior’s chilly remove from these events and Mrs. Getty’s brittle panic as a mother who loves her children but is estranged from a family into which she married but has found unsuited for much else than accumulating wealth.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Godless





My final assessment of Godless is its effect is greater than its parts, which are uneven and too often rely on obvious tropes. I liked the questions it raised about kinship, survival, faith and madness — any one of which might have carried the series. But add to that gender roles, race, predatory capitalism and fake news and you have quite a stew.


Though I really liked the way the characters talked, the series did not serve its audience well by not translating the German and Paiute. It seemed lazy.

I was saddened more than ticked off by the side story of the Buffalo Soldiers. Their fateful encounter with Griffin and his marauders felt more like a device than anything. It was truly puzzling why the show's creators handled their story so peripherally. The “barely there” love story between the white deputy and the mulatto daughter of a Buffalo Soldier was clunky and peculiar. Why was she biracial when every other member of her family was dark-skinned. And why was the mixed white/Paiute boy so clearly full-blooded native? Setting aside these matters I do embrace Godless’ message of determination and sacrifice.

Dark



The coolness of Dark is not just in its Germanic dreariness but in the story’s deliberate time-bending trippiness that feels more sophisticated than much of what I’ve seen on American television and avoids being as manifestly geeked out as Dr. Who. At its core, Dark is the story of disintegrating kinships in a small town that is also home to a nuclear plant. Children are disappearing, just as they had 30 years prior, and sadness and madness have taken residence in the remaining spaces. This fairly miserable storyline is given greater spark by the mysterious cave just outside of town that yawns and growls and transports unwitting townspeople into the past and future and generally menaces and confounds. Like I say, cool stuff.

She’s Gotta Have It (series)

 Spike Lee has jacked up the empowerment edge for the Netflix version of his 1986 film She's Gotta Have It (his second full-length feature). DeWanda Wise is the eponymous "she", Nola Darling, an artist living la vida loca in Brooklyn, untethered and sexually liberated, juggling three amorous suitors (Anthony Ramos, Lyriq Bent and Cleo Anthony) and a host of Mc-jobs while trying to launch her career as a painter. While Lee's film was mostly about Nola's right to be as casual about intercourse as any man, the series appears to be carrying layers of pro-black and pro-woman messaging for these violent and uncertain times and a soundtrack of soul and R & B that will send many of the program's older viewers hunting for that '90s slow drag mix tape they listened to in college.

Lady Bird and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird and Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri are both rich character studies about unlikable people behaving badly for good reasons. Writer and director Gerwig, who starred so affectingly in 2015's Maggie's Plan, pours an abundance of wit and wisdom into her story of dyspeptic 17-year-old Catholic schoolgirl Christine "Lady Bird" McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) who aches for more than her hypercritical mother (Laurie Metcalf) and kind but overwhelmed father (Tracy Letts) can give her. To assume that Lady Bird's unhappiness stems from parental dynamics, religious strictures or the "Midwesterly" sameness of Sacramento might be to overlook the more obvious answer -- Lady Bird is young, enormously self-involved, talented but under-motivated and cursed with bad judgment. In short, she's a teenager but rarely has the angst of those years been captured so vividly. To me, this is less about coming of age milestones (first crush, first sexual experience, getting the driver's license, prom) than it is about more nuanced experiences -- learning one's true value and that of other people.

British writer / director Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards is a bloody uncompromising tale of grief and recompense. The dynamic Frances McDormand stars as Mildred Hayes, a local shopkeeper whose daughter was raped and murdered by unknown parties months before we meet her. Anger and frustration lead Mildred to rent the billboards of the title and post messages to local law enforcement (and the world) that she's not happy. Named on the billboard is the chief of police of Ebbing (played by Woody Harrelson) who tries to reason with Mildred while keeping tabs on a loose-cannon police officer (Sam Rockwell) who has a reputation for brutalizing townspeople, especially blacks. Aside from these three superb performances, the film's narrative intricacy (the law of unintended consequences is almost a character in the film) is what makes the story so compelling. Both films feature a fine performance by the young actor Lucas Hedges, whose role as Patrick in last year's Manchester by the Sea won him an Oscar nomination.

The Post

Steven Spielberg’s The Post has its moments of intrigue (delivered primarily by Meryl Streep as Washington Post publisher Katherine Graham) but is, in the end, a pretty prosaic treatment of the 1971 Pentagon Papers case and the birth of the animus between The Post and the Nixon administration. The Post and the New York Times were co-defendants pitted against the Defense Department, which claimed the papers exposed the nation to enemy threat by reporting on U.S. military operations in Vietnam, operations that were mischaracterized and misrepresented by senior officials. Tom Hanks delivers a solidly controlled performance as Post editor Ben Bradlee, who along with Graham would usher the formerly cuddly paper into an era of aggressive watchdogging that culminated with the Watergate investigation. What makes the film really compelling — beyond these heavy matters — is watching the evolution of Graham from society doyenne into a principled newspaper woman who dared to believe in a free and unencumbered press.

John Wick: Chapter 3 — Parabellum

Interestingly, even though Chad Stahelski's John Wick: Chapter 3 —Parabellum delivers deliciously brutal set pieces where our hero (K...