Friday, March 22, 2019

JORDAN PEELE DELIVERS THE THRILLS AND LAUGHS IN HIS NEW HORROR MOVIE "US"

Original caricature by Jeff York
of Shahadi Wright Joseph, Lupita Nyong'o, Winston Duke and Evan Alex in US. (copyright 2019)

The goal of most horror films is to scare the ever-loving shite out of you, but effective horror needs to be seen, not watched through the hands covering your eyes. That’s an ideal that Jordan Peele understands very well. His horror sensibilities lean towards the accessible. Sure, his Oscar-winning script for GET OUT had edge-of-your-seat frights, but it was also a ton of fun, not to mention exceedingly funny. The same is true with his latest film US. The 1 hour and 56-minute frightener has plenty of jump-out-of-your-seat scares, but first and foremost, it’s a rollicking good time. 

It’s one of those films where you find yourself laughing a lot, not necessarily because it’s uproarious, but because it’s done so well. You giggle with pleasure watching the puppet master pull your strings here, delighting in how deftly Peele is manipulating his audience. Even when the story gets a bit wonky at the end, the goodwill that the filmmaker’s built up throughout carries the story over some third act rough spots. Ultimately, the film is a very good one, if not quite great, but few will walk out of it feeling they didn’t get their money’s worth.  

What makes it so appealing? For starters, Peele creates a family of four protagonists who are very likable and sympathetic. Secondly, the horrors they face are utterly relatable – they’re attacked in their home by a group of strangers, and who hasn’t feared something like that in their lives? Most importantly, Peele avoids turning this family into fools, as so many horror movies do, just to fulfill the bloodletting needs of the genre. Instead, the filmmaker ensures that his characters act smarter than we’d expect, braver too, and most of the surprises in the film come from the family’s heroic acts exceeding our expectations.   

Peele is also expert at casting, with all four actors he’s cast in the leads excelling in their dual roles. (More on that in a bit.) Lupita Nyong’o plays mom Adelaide Wilson, a caretaker out to make the summer vacation into a worthy 'family time' experience. That’s not as easy as it sounds because her towering husband Gabe (Winston Duke) is a bit of a self-absorbed man-child. Meanwhile, moody teen daughter Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) seems nonplussed by every encounter, barely able to look up from her cellphone. Younger son Jason (Evan Alex) is remote too, preferring to flick an old lighter incessantly and wear a werewolf mask to hide in his own private world.

Peele finds humor in their family tension, slyly priming us for the greater consternation to come. That arrives when four visitors show up, standing in the driveway one night, staring at the house, as stiff as statues. Gabe tries to scare them away with tough talk and a baseball bat, but soon the invaders infiltrate the house and start their unexplained torment. These intruders turn out to be twisted doppelgangers of the Wilson clan (also played by the core four.) Are these intruders some kind of clones? Aliens in disguise? Peele’s not telling just yet. Instead, he takes a page from the twisted mind of filmmaker Michael Haneke and has the intruders start to play some funny games with the Wilson clan.  

While the four strangers start to toy with their counterparts, the differences in their characters compared to the originals they're copied from makes for some cheeky satire. Eyeglass-wearing Gabe’s doppelganger has trouble seeing, Jason’s obsession with his lighter manifests itself into matches being flicked by his double, and the other Zora pays too close of attention to everyone, staring continuously at everyone as if they’re her phone screen. Most terrifying is Adelaide’s mirror image. She’s the only one who can speak, and her clipped, almost swallowed, delivery is a nightmare unto its own, satirizing the elegant diction of Nyong’o. 

Then Peele starts to really dial up the fun. Rather than merely have the film stand as another riff on the home invasion trope, he turns it into much, much more. The Wilson’s fight back, as they become spontaneous action heroes, scrambling for their lives and doing a damn good job taking on the intruders. The cat & mouse game between the eight people make for some nail-biting action sequences, ultimately leading to an outrageous and violent set-piece in a hoity-toity modern home. That posh home is owned by their friends, played by Elisabeth Moss, Tim Heidecker, Cali Sheldon, and Noelle Sheldon, and the scenes in that house are where the film reaches its thrilling zenith. 

But then, right as the film enters its final act, Peele is compelled to explain all that’s been going on before it. He writes an exposition scene that is a bit too long and not wholly terrifying, and it ends up taking some of the edges off of the terror. It also opens a Pandora’s box of questions that don’t enhance the story’s logic. For my money, evil left unexplained tends to be much more disturbing.

US should make a killing at the box office - watch out, Captain Marvel - and its accomplishments are many. It’s better than 90% of the horror product that opens in theaters, Nyong’o's performance should merit Oscar consideration, as should composer Michael Abel’s exciting score. Most acclaim must go to Peele though as he once again has created a horror film that manages to be scary, hilarious, as well as socially relevant. The dreaded “other” as the perceived enemy here is a clear commentary on the prejudices at play in our polarizing political age. Peele’s talents as a scaremeister bode well for his reboot of THE TWILIGHT ZONE on CBS due next month and indeed, this film has a definite Rod Serling sensibility to it. We are all very fortunate to have Peele scaring up thrills and chills that do such an exquisite job of rattling us.  

Friday, March 8, 2019

BRIE LARSON, SAMUEL L. JACKSON & A SCENE-STEALING CAT ELEVATE "CAPTAIN MARVEL"



Original caricature by Jeff York of Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson and Goose the Cat in CAPTAIN MARVEL
(copyright 2019)
Expectations are sky-high for Marvel Studio’s latest superhero film CAPTAIN MARVEL. It’s not only the movie studio’s first big-screen adventure with a female lead in Academy-Award winning Brie Larson from Room, but it also stands as a critical bridge between the two-part epic of AVENGERS: INFINITY WARS and AVENGERS: ENDGAME. (She’s the one that Nick Fury paged as he disintegrated in that first part’s post-credit sequence.) Marvel can rest easy that they’ve got another fun movie on their hands, and yet its greatest strengths are those moments more human than heroic. And, in some instances, more feline, as a supporting orange tabby almost steals the entire picture.

Married filmmakers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck do a decent job of delivering the requisite action here, but their strengths lie in creating quirky characters and the loosy-goosy interactions between them. In movies like HALF NELSON (2006) and IT'S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY (2010), they showcased eccentric characters that drove simple stories. Much of the same comes through in Captain Marvel when heroine Carol Danvers isn’t acting like an avenger. She is far more interesting when she’s down-to-earth, literally and figuratively.

In fact, Boden and Fleck seem far less interested in a lot of the typical beats of a Marvel origins stories as evidenced by their minimalizing of the time they spend on such tropes. Their script, written with Geneva Roberston-Dworet, truncates Danvers' youthful flashbacks that would normally take up a ton of screen time in other Marvel movies. The script moves things along so swiftly that the back-story of Danvers’ strained relationship with her father gets covered in a breathless, blink-and-you'll-miss-it moment. 

Boden and Fleck don’t seem all that interested in the excessive backstory about the alien war at the core either. They don't set up the Kree or the Skrulls particularly well, and they don’t even bother to give most of the Kree brotherhood any genuine personalities. (The formidable Djimon Hounsou is one of them, but he’s given virtually no character to play). The directors seem almost apathetic about the lore of this galactic conflict, preferring to get past the 'makeup fest' so they can turn their attention to the more silly stuff. Indeed, Danvers’ fish-out-of-water story when she lands back on earth is quite funny and it's where the movie hits its stride.

Because Danvers’ origin story takes place in the ’90s, it gives Boden and Fleck all the more opportunity to make hay out of that decade's pastiche, in addition to making fun of a younger Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) too. The movie becomes an out-and-out comedy at times, especially with Fury fretting over a wayward cat. (More on that later.) The humor allows Larson to play something she's more comfortable with, specifically bantering wryly with a game Jackson. Watching her pose dramatically in her heroic postures doesn't quite suit her any more than the clearly padded costume she's wearing to make her more buff. Her strengths, despite all the chopping and kicking she's asked to do here, lie in her droll wit and dismissive side-eyes.

The filmmakers have a field day taking the piss out of antiquated 90’s relics like Blockbuster stores, the painfully slow downloads on early computers, and a lot of the music from that period that hasn’t aged particularly well. (Sorry, Gwen Stefani.) The most fun comes from seeing Fury 25 years younger, with a full head of hair and both eyes. Jackson doesn’t get that many chances to be comedic onscreen, and he relishes playing such a version of his character. 

Soon, Danvers and Fury are running all over hill and dale, trying to figure out what the Skrulls are up to, as well as figure out her mysterious history since her memories were lost after she crashed on the Kree planet. That past of hers, as well as the true motivations of the Skulls, hold the key to her powers that include the ability to harness energy, be immune to bullets, and fly. As the two schlep all over Los Angeles, Danvers gets to apply her skills on earth, often in front of bewildered bystanders. The scene on the LA subway where she throws down with a Skrull disguised as an old lady is one of the film’s comedic highlights.

Still, the funniest moments involve that cat previously mentioned. The orange tabby is named Goose, and it keeps popping up while Danvers and Fury are sleuthing. The cat even manages to stow away aboard Danvers’ jet earning the film’s biggest laugh when the kitty is shown reacting badly to zero gravity. Adding to the burlesque is the fact that the Skrulls fear the little creature, thinking that it’s a tentacled alien out to eat them.

It seems every critter in this movie is dealing with identities in question, from Danvers not knowing her backstory to the Skrulls' abilities to morph into others. The Kree are not all they seem to be, of course, including hunky mentor Yon-Rogg (a game Jude Law), let alone the mysterious Skrull leader Talos (an insinuating Ben Mendelsohn). It's even hard to get a bead on just who Dr. Lawson (Annette Bening) is in the overly complicated plotting. She looks dynamite in her green contacts and fitted leather jacket, but is she friend or foe?

One of the most surprising things about this film is that there is no extraneous love interest given to Danvers, something almost miraculous for material like this. Instead, the relationship that is given time is her friendship with fellow pilot Maria (Lashana Lynch). Single mom Maria fought hard to make it in the macho world of the military alongside her bestie, and daughter Monica (Akira Akbar) isn't missing a father figure with these two are around. To that end, the film is a bit too on-the-nose with the “girl power” machinations, but at least neither female adult in the story requires a man for fulfillment. How refreshing is that in the he-man, superhero universe?

Less fresh is the somewhat typical final battle in space as Danvers takes full ownership of her powers, a third act that echoes the finale of 2017's WONDER WOMAN far too closely. Fully embracing her Captain Marvel persona, Danvers throws all the alien baddies into a lot of scenery but is careful not to kill anyone. It's all a little too safe and too dull, and the excessive CGI doesn’t help matters. It would be nice if Larson were genuinely participating in most of the action, but she seems to have been replaced by a digital version of the character most of the time. As expensive as all of the effects are here, the greatest ones remain the ability to shave 25 years off of Jackson, as well as fellow agent Coulson (Clark Gregg, reprising his earlier Avengers film role.)

For all of Marvel’s success in 20 some movies now, their third acts too often play anti-climactically, and so does this one. The superiority of the MCU over the films from DC lies in their ability to create more interesting characters and let humor inform much of their personalities. Such attributes get lost when these endings trot out the inevitable, wham-bam smackdowns as they almost always do. Wouldn’t it be great to have a climax in one of these films where fighting didn’t solve the galaxy’s problems, and smarts did instead? The purpose of Danvers' powers in this film is to "end all wars," but it seems like all that electricity and derring-do is really there to keep her in the role of one helluva war machine. So much for marvelous.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

THE LAST WORD ON OSCAR BY YOURS TRULY


I’ve resisted writing anything about the Oscar ceremony this past week as I read so many assessments from colleagues, critics, and other journalists that captured most of what needed to be said about them. Still, a number of my readers and friends have asked for my two cents, and now with the perspective of almost a week under my belt, I have a few things to add to the mix. 

My thoughts veer more towards the constructive for the awards' future, not strictly a review of the show or an assessment of any particular winner. Fortunately, the Academy put on a good show this year, so that saves a lot of time kvetching. Still, it might be worthwhile to take a few moments to showcase why this show was particularly memorable in so many ways this time. 

Perhaps with all the misfires leading up to the ceremony by Academy leadership and ABC executives, audiences were prepared for a disaster of a show, but thankfully, that never occurred. This go-round the Academy ended up showing sound judgment in what went on-air, making for a crisp and clever entertainment. Here are my final thoughts on the show:
  • The ceremony didn't need a host and if anything proved that past shows spent way too much time catering to the particular schtick of a singular comedian. Let's keep it host-free for a few years, shall we?
  • Giving presenters the opportunity to do more individual bits that highlighted their strengths paid off handsomely. James McAvoy did well with levels of sound an actor can project while presenting awards in that category, and Melissa McCarthy showcased her abilities with physical comedy to give the award for Best Costumes. 
  • The songs were showcased properly without being over-produced.
  • The single clip package at the beginning highlighting the year in movies rather than the history of film was so much better than all those egregious clip packages of the past.
  •  The couplings often made for bizarre and adorable funny duos like Jason Momoa and Helen Mirren. When their interplay makes you wish someone would write a comedy for them to star in, the writers of the show are doing something right. 
  • Newcomers like Elsie Fisher, Stephan James, John Mulaney, Kiki Layne, Bryan Tyree Henry, and Amandla Stenberg were stars that shone brightly in 2018, and they provided fresh sparkle to the show by being included. 
  • Diversity was also well represented across the board in the presenters, the films, and the winners. Bravo!
  • Whoever came up with the one-take, intimate way for Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper to perform "Shallow" from A STAR IS BORN deserves their own award. The staging and camera work was astounding, giving the actors and the song gravitas and a searing romanticism that made that number one of Oscar's best ever.
  • It was great that the winners were allowed to speak without that exit music creeping in too quickly. Bravo for the patience to let those called have their time in the sun. And by and large, most of the speeches were terrific, save those awful and disorganized makeup winner for VICE.
  • Thankfully, the producers knew to let big winners like Spike Lee and Olivia Colman go on and on in their acceptance speeches. They deserved to be heard, and what they had to say was smart, moving, and witty.
Where the Academy erred this year is where they err every year - in some of their ridiculous balloting practices, especially since they've gone to a vote that allows for up to 10 Best Picture nominees. It is here where changes are needed to restore luster to the gold. 

The entire Academy should only vote for Best Picture
Editing awards being voted on by anyone other than editors doesn’t feel particularly informed, especially when too many voters admit to not watching what they’re voting on, and even worse, that they don't know how to judge areas that aren't their expertise. Case in point? The Oscar for editing this year went to BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY with utterly atrocious cutting as highlighted here -  https://bit.ly/2En1v5I

For the final ballot, experts should be the only ones voting, just as they nominate. Actors pick actors, costume designers choose costume designers. That way, both the nomination and winners will be more informed and correct.

Best Picture should go back to five films
The more do not make for the merrier. While the length of the list was increased to try and get more commercial hits squeezed in, they haven't all that much. Having an inconsistent and floating number of possible films lessens the credibility of the list too. The category should go back to five, a very exclusive shortlist.

If you’re going to stay open to 10, however, then nominate 10
Such foolish inconsistency makes a mockery of it all.

Get rid of that weighted ballot for Best Picture
It's a silly numbers game with too many rules, too much of a complicated point system, and too many rounds of balloting to anoint a winner. Enough with all that excessive number crunching. Every voter should get one vote. They choose the one film they'd pick for Best Picture, and the movie with the most votes then should win. Simple. Easy. Period. End of sentence.

Get out in front of the other awards shows
 The world has changed, and the Academy is not doing itself any favors by coming so late after all the critics' awards and other shows. The later the Oscars, the more they appear as an also-ran. Let's get them done by early February from now on, shall we?

There. That’s all I have left to say about the Oscars this year. Now onto the films of 2019. 


Thursday, February 21, 2019

MY PREDICTIONS FOR THE 2019 OSCARS

Original caricature by Jeff York of the cast of BLACK PANTHER (copyright 2019)

The Academy Awards will finally be given out this Sunday, February 24, after months of inept management by those at the AMPAS and ABC that would seem to suggest that those in charge of the Oscars don’t actually like the Oscars. How else do you explain the attempt to create a new award to hand out that was fashioned after the People’s Choice Awards to honor a most popular film? The thought of a non-merit Oscar diminished the Academy’s brand and they quickly pulled that god-awful idea after they were excoriated all over social media. Then there was the whole Kevin Hart fiasco concerning his past homophobic jokes that he didn’t seem too eager to distance himself from. Ultimately, that debacle discouraged others from accepting the hosting gig, and now the ceremony shall go without one. 

Worst of all, just two weeks ago, the Academy made the awful decision to hand out four Oscars during commercial breaks. That brought upon a storm of protest, and the Academy caved. (They’re not only tin-eared but yellow-bellied.) Year in and year out, the AMPAS and ABC seem hell-bent on keeping the show to just three hours, but why? Length of time has little effect on the ratings. When TITANIC won a record 11 Oscars at the 1998 ceremony, the show was almost 4.5 hours long, and yet it got 55 million viewers. The reason Oscar viewership is down these days is mostly due to the glut of award shows on TV and the fact that it's not must-see TV to catch the Academy Awards live. Not when clips are uploaded online minutes after they run on-air. 
Original caricature by Jeff York of Yalitza Aparicio in ROMA (copyright 2019)
There are plenty of ways to trim the Oscar telecast – scrap the egregious clip packages, lengthy dance numbers, strained banter between the presenters, and the endless walks to the stage – but the simple fact is most of the audience that tunes in for the show don't mind the lengthy running time. We want to see the winners pour their hearts out and give a speech not rushed by a jittery producer anxious to cue the band. Those genuine moments are what we tune in for, for God's sake. Do you know that the egregious 15-second clock starts counting down the minute a victor's feet hit the stage? It's true. Sadly, ridiculously true. Again, are the people running the Oscars even fans of the Oscars?

Well, I, like many movie buffs, care about the show and giving every winner their whole time in the sun. It’s fun to see the stars, and with live television, anything can happen too, so what's not to love? And please God, let Richard E. Grant win Best Supporting Actor because not only does the talented actor deserve the award for his performance in CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME, but he has been the stand-out delight all awards season long with his enthusiasm, cheeky humor and chronicling of it all on social media. He is tickled positively pink by it all. And we are by him. Hey, maybe Grant should be the Academy prez. Consider his name put into nomination by yours truly.

So, without any further ado, this film fan and critic is going to share his thoughts on each category and attempt to make informed predictions. I’ve included caricatures that I drew too, of all eight Best Picture nominees, to add some panache to all my pontificating. Enjoy!

BEST PICTURE
Can a Netflix film win, even though the likes of Steven Spielberg keep complaining about streaming services ruining the collective movie experiences in theaters? Yes, I think it can. Thus, I predict ROMA will win the top prize and become the first foreign language film to do so. The nominations of its two unknown actresses by the actor’s wing, the largest voting bloc, is a harbinger of how popular the film whether it's playing on the big or small screen. And its record 10 nominations this year show it has broad support across all disciplines. 

BEST DIRECTOR
Alfonso Cuaron, the multi-hyphenate behind ROMA, is probably as much a lock as any this year, but just as one predicts such a thing, along comes Spike Lee to steal. Lee should win outright for BLACKKKLANSMAN and being ignored by the Academy for DO THE RIGHT THING and MALCOLM X indicates the Academy owes him something. Still, I predict Cuaron will win his second directing Oscar in five years. (He won at the 2014 ceremony for GRAVITY.)

Original caricature by Jeff York of Rami Malek in BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY (copyright  2019)
BEST ACTOR
Rami Malek has the momentum after winning at both SAG and BAFTA, and BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY is a ginormous hit at the box office too. All that helps his already terrific performance prevail, not to mention the fact that he’s playing a beloved real-life figure in the late, great Freddie Mercury of the rock band Queen. This award will honor both artists.

BEST ACTRESS
Glenn Close will win for THE WIFE due to her superb work and the fact that she's been nominated seven times without a victory. Expect a standing ovation when she takes the stage to collect her long-overdue prize.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
As I wrote earlier, it should be Grant, but it will be Mahershala Ali. He's terrific in GREEN BOOK, but his role is a lead, not supporting. The Academy does this sort of thing all the time and the larger role in the category usually takes it. 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Speaking of misplaced leads, what on God’s green earth are Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz doing in this category? Their co-leads in THE FAVOURITE, but they’ve both won before so they were placed here by the PR folks to give Oscar-less Olivia Colman a better shot at the top prize. My guess is Regina King will best them both here, because those two will split votes. Amy Adams could steal, but her part of Lynne Cheney all but disappears for the last hour of VICE. She'll win sometime soon, but this year it's King, an industry favorite, for the crucial scenes she had in IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK.

Original caricature of Viggo Mortenson and Mahershala Ali in GREEN BOOK.
BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Cuaron should prevail for ROMA here too. He’s going to have quite a night.

BEST EDITING
VICE had to tell a lot in its narrative, covering decades, so my guess is it will prevail, but the editing in BLACKKLANSMAN and THE FAVOURITE was better. Dark comedy is dependent upon knowing just when to cut to keep the humor sharp, and that’s more of an accomplishment that keeping a story moving along.

BEST SOUND EDITING AND MIXING
I predict that BOHEMIAN RHAPSODY will take both sound awards for its blending of all that music on-stage and off, and the mixing of Malek’s voice with his lip-synching of Mercury. 

Original caricature by Jeff York of Rachel Weisz, Olivia Colman and Emma Stone in THE FAVOURITE
(copyright 2018) 
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
The Oscars tend to go for the literate when they can, and the tony quipping, and veddy British comedy on display in THE FAVOURITE favors it.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Here is where Spike Lee gets his due. He won an honorary Oscar in 2015, but this one is in the competition should taste twice as sweet. (BTW, the adaptation of BLACKKKLANSMAN is by Lee, along with co-screenwriters Charlie Wachtell, David Rabinowitz, and Kevin Willmott. Bravo to all for this witty, searing, and memorable script.)

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
In any other year, Pawel Pawlikowski would be a lock for COLD WAR. But not in the year of ROMA.

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
Welcome to the Oscars, Marvel, and congrats on SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE winning in a very tough category.

Original caricature by Jeff York of Adam Driver, John David Washington, Topher Grace and Laura Harrier in BLACKKKLANSMAN (copyright 2018)
BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
It should be BLACK PANTHER, but the Academy tends to love period pieces in the production design and costume design category. That gives the edge to THE FAVOURITE.

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
A period piece almost always wins here, but this year the costumes for BLACK PANTHER were so gorgeous, bold, and crucial to the story, I think Ruth E. Carter squeaks by Sandy Powell. 

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
This category is so chock full of brilliance, the Academy couldn’t make room for WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR and THREE IDENTICAL STRANGERS. The winner is often political, and in year two of Trump, that should favor the notorious RBG.

Original caricature of Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A STAR IS BORN (copyright 2018)
BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT
PERIOD. END OF SENTENCE. (Ahhh, I see what you did there.)

BEST ANIMATED SHORT
All of them are terrific this year, but the one that most have seen is BAO since it was the short attached to INCREDIBLES 2. Voters vote for what they've seen in the secondary categories. 

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT
More politics in the age of a POTUS who defends racists as “some very fine people” should help SKIN win. The tale of a white supremacist who gets what’s coming to him, served up in a TWILIGHT ZONE-style version of justice, is catnip for the majority that veer left in Tinsel Town. 

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
The tender and moving score for IF BEALE STREET COULD TALK helped make that movie the extraordinary love story it is, and I think composer Nicholas Britell created the year’s best score, so I’m probably biased here. Still, it's an informed guess.

Original caricature by Jeff York of Christian Bale and Sam Rockwell in VICE (copyright 2019)
BEST ORIGINAL SONG
Last fall, Lady Gaga seemed to be the favorite to take the gold for Best Song and Actress, but now she will likely only be victorious for writing this terrific ballad. Sadly, I predict this will be the only Oscar for A STAR IS BORN. Too bad Bradley Cooper isn’t one of the songwriters of “Shallow,” but at least he shared the Grammy victory with Gaga for singing it. And he’s going to sing it onstage with her Oscar night. That will be something extraordinary.

BEST MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING
VICE will prevail for making Christian Bale utterly unrecognizable as the devil.

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Will the Oscars award three Marvel movies in one night? I think so, considering that the Visual Effects Society gave AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR its top prize and that award has predicted the Visual Effects Oscar in six out of the last 10 years.

What Oscar victory will I be cheering for the loudest? Ethan Hawke’s Best Actor win for his career best in FIRST REFORMED…in a parallel universe. Despite winning over 30 critics prizes for the film, he was snubbed by the Golden Globes, SAG and Oscar. Shame on all of them. 

Of those nominated, I am keeping my fingers crossed for Spike and Richard E. Grant. Who knows? Perhaps Bradley Cooper will score an upset in the Best Actor category. Crazier, unpredictable things happen all the time at the Oscars. There’s almost always one jaw-dropper so maybe that will be it. God knows it would make for the kind of moment that movie fans tune into the show to see. One of these days, the Academy leadership will understand that.

Sunday, February 10, 2019

“RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO” FINDS FASCINATION IN THE COMPLEX CONVERSATION OF COUPLES



Say what you will about CGI or action scenes, more often than not the most exciting thing in a movie is watching two people chat with each other, and seeing how they react.  John Cassavetes knew that. Richard Linklater knows that. And writer/director Michael Glover Smith understands this simple tenet too and mines it for all its worth in his new independent film RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO. 

It’s a triptych of love stories – a beginning, a middle, and an end - all taking place in the Windy City. Shot on a shoestring with an unknown cast, the film manages to be funnier and say more about relationships than 80% of the rom-com’s that Hollywood has churned out over the past decade. It’s a small, intimate film where the audience is placed up close to its would-be lovers, lovers, and ex-lovers, so much so that we become personally invested in their outcomes.  

The first of the trio of stories is entitled “Part One: The Brothers Karamazov.” Dostoevsky’s famous novel about morality is the subject of the dissertation being written by a University of Chicago student named Delaney (Clare Cooney) one evening in a neighborhood bar. She’s old school in her way, writing her thoughts out long-hand on a yellow legal pad. The joint is hardly jumping, and it would seem that’s why the bookish woman chose it, but in the very first scene of the film, she’s warned by her professor to concentrate on her studies and not “f**k up. Is that the genuine reason that Delaney has come to the bar because it’s a setting that could provide more than peace and quiet? Is it because it's a place that might produce intrigue, danger, and even sex? Damn right, as this spider will soon welcome an errant fly into her sticky web.

That fly comes in the form of aspiring writer Paul (Kevin Wehby). He seems to be another scribe looking for any reason to put off getting down to writing, and sure enough, it isn’t long before he wanders over to the comely student to strike up a conversation. Paul is no match for the slyly smug Delaney, but he tries. He slinks around, acting like he’s cooler than he is, professing to her that the subject of her paper is his favorite book. She doesn’t buy his testimony but remains game in seeing just how well this playa can play. 

Delaney proposes the two engage in strip poker right there in the bar. For every Karamazov brother than Paul can name, she’ll remove an item of clothing. For every wrong guess, he must disrobe. You know that Paul's not going to fare well, but is that part of his overall plan, to lose the battle but win the war? For that matter, is there more to her scheme, perhaps to see how well he jumps through her hoops, or for that matter, looks in the nude? Their looks, hesitations, and tension-filled banter as they dance around each other make for a hilarious and erotic form of foreplay. Editor Eric Marsh shrewdly lets his cuts hang on Paul as he squirms and kvetches, and Wehby holds every shot with aplomb. He turns what could be an irritating character into an adorable goof, and manages to be more attractive the more she, and we, spend time with him. 

Cooney is as good as he is, an actress who can say more with staring, lidded eyes than most actresses can with pages of dialogue. If there is a God, she should be a major star. These two are so strong together, Smith could’ve given them his full 90 minutes. (He didn't...leave ‘em wanting more, I suppose.) Still, it might behoove the filmmaker to bring them back for a future film. This is Paul’s second appearance in a Smith film, as his character appeared in his first feature COOL APOCALYPSE, so there is a precedent. Here’s hoping they do return as they're simply delicious together. 

The second story is entitled “Part 2: Cats and Dogs,” and it features an attractive gay couple dancing around whether they should take their relationship to the next level. During a spring walk, the two men make small talk that's fraught with deeper meaning, providing a sly commentary on their bond. Andy (Rashaad Hall) is tall, strapping, and wears dreads as painfully hip as his designer glasses. Rob (Matthew Sherbach) is small and tight, suggesting a bit of a nerd in sound and manner, though his painted on shorts indicate a man who’s very far from shy. They are a cute duo, different in a few ways, similar in most. But are they meant to be together for something everlasting?

From the get-go, we know that Rob has something more in mind than a casual schlep to the lake. He’s packing an engagement ring box that couldn’t be any more conspicuous in his pocket than if he wore it on a string around his neck. Still, he’s nervous that Andy may not be on the same page and willing to take their relationship to such a level of commitment. Then, when their chatting turns to pet preferences, Rob starts to worry. 

Andy expresses a liking for cats that worries Rob, a self-professed dog person. To drive home the point, Smith's script coyly finds them encountering a number of neighborhood critters that ups the ante. Yet, despite Rob's fretting, the real gap exists only in his paranoid mind. He and Andy speak with a similar, gentle lilt, plus,  they enjoy the same relaxed expression of sexuality with each other. Heck, they both wear designer glasses. These two are peas in a pod, but advancing into marriage is always a big step, no matter how confident a couple is, no matter whether they're gay or straight. 

Both actors wisely underplay their roles, and their chemistry together has a warm, “lived in” feel. Smith wrote their characters to respond to each other physically too, grabbing a lingering kiss here and there, walk close as they saunter down the street together. It’s a clever and quietly brilliant political comment too that their story takes place in a city as progressive as Chicago. Not every town would welcome such coupling, but as you cheer them on, you cheer on a town like ours for letting their choices live out loud. 

We know what’s coming with the last story, the chronicling of the end of a relationship, and indeed, it starts off as ugly as possible. Nurse Julie (Nina Ganet) has come home from her hospital shift to find her boyfriend Wyatt (Shane Simmons) in nude flagrante delicto with another woman. She loses her shit and tosses the two of them out. Her pain still manages to be funny, however, especially when she makes an extravagant point of throwing all of his clothing out the window. (The best and most cinematic shot in the film occurs when Smith applies slow-motion to Wyatt’s shirts pummeling his beleaguered head.) 

How this couple came to such a horrid end is only parsed out in crumbs by writer Smith. Wyatt knew she was coming home, so it beggars the question if he wanted to get caught. The other woman (Melanie McNulty) looks to be a saucy blonde, whereas Julie is sans makeup and of mixed race, so was Wyatt consciously seeking another type? Who knows? Smith refuses to answer. He leaves it up to us to fill in the blanks. But make no mistake, however it got there, Julie was caught off guard and she is royally pissed. 

Smith isn’t interested in Wyatt's side of the story. Instead, Alex Halstead's patient camera stays with Julie as she works out her rage. She burns the sheets, still smelling of fornication, and even starts a wildly verbose monologue as she works through her shock and anger. Then, Smith makes a foray into surrealism as she starts confessing her peccadilloes to the camera, belying all that's gone on before in the hyper-realistic film. She even flirts with the camera, like we're to be her new lover. It could be a bawdy audition tape for a dating service, a drunken schpeel, but no matter, it's a bit of a head-scratcher. Maybe it’s all part of Julie’s need to fill someone in about all her pain, no matter if we in the audience are placed in the position of BFF to confide in.

Ultimately, Julie rises to shimmy and strut away her fury, and Ganet's fearless performance reaches its zenith. With such moves, Julie's story touches upon the film’s dancing theme literally and figuratively. The other characters danced around new beginnings with each other while she dances away from her past. It's pretty cheeky. 

RENDEZVOUS IN CHICAGO appears deceptively small, with precious little camera movement, nary a set piece, and no supporting characters of importance other than a funny bartender in the first chapter. Dave McNulty does provide a fascinating barkeep, one both playful and a little sinister. (David Lynch and Stanley Kubrick would’ve loved his inclusion.) Other than the constant presence of composer Jason Coffman’s sexy electronica score, itself both playful and a little sinister, this is stripped down bare-essence filmmaking. But when you have fascinating characters saying clever things in the name of love, what more do you need?  Humanity is still the most fascinating and entertaining game in town. Smith knows that and asks us to join in the conversation. 

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

THE TERRIFIC BATCH OF 2019 ANIMATED SHORT FILMS ARE FILLED WITH PATHOS AND PARENTING



If you still believe that the cartoon world is one filled with childish glee and escapism, wait till you check out this year’s crop of Oscar animated short films. They are all wonderfully done, with exceptional artistry and compelling storytelling, but make no mistake – these five are a serious lot. Even the funniest one is about a self-sabotaging gaggle of psychiatric patients, albeit troubled individuals from the animal kingdom. The rewards are many in these five finalists for Academy gold; just don’t expect anything resembling the zany kids’ fare you're likely to find on places like Cartoon Network or Nickelodeon.


ANIMAL BEHAVIOUR (Canada)

The funniest of the lot is this short taking place during a group therapy session. (It’s also my personal favorite.) ANIMAL BEHAVIOUR is directed by the Canadian Oscar-winning duo of Alison Snowden and David Fine. They won the animated short Oscar in 1993 for BOB’S BIRTHDAY, and they very well could take the top prize this year too. Their 2019 effort not only is superbly done, but it stands out as the only genuinely hilarious one amongst the finalists. Taking place in a doctor’s office during a group psychotherapy session, ANIMAL BEHAVIOUR spoofs both head-shrinking and the animal kingdom.

Dr. Leonard Clement (voiced by Ryan Beil) is a seemingly cool and collected therapist in the Bob Newhart mold, but his patience will be tested by his patients who are anything but ready to calmly share their peccadilloes with the pack. He may have written a book entitled “How to Tame Your Inner Pit Bull,” as evidenced by the poster of it on his wall, but he won't be able to keep his manic group down for long. The jittery bunch consists of Lorraine the leech (Leah Juel), Todd the pig (Toby Berner), Cheryl the mantis (Andrea Libman), Jeffrey the bird (James Kirk), Victor the ape (Taz VanRassel), and Linda the cat (writer/director Snowden pulling triple duty as a voice-over talent).


These critters are one extremely insecure lot, especially Victor, the newcomer to the group. He’s exactly the rough and tumble macho dork you’d fully expect a big ape blundering into a therapy session for the first time to be. Victor is so painfully unaware of his size and brusque attitude that at one point, he blithely sits on Lorraine’s chair…with the little leech still in it. The rest of the animals play up their classic traits as well, and while such tropes may play as a bit cliché, it remains hysterical in how the animators mine the funny. Watching the self-absorbed feline Linda licker her butt because she never feels clean is an especially hilarious moment.

What makes all of this fantastic is the way the animal instincts are interpreted through human frailty. Mantis Cheryl is a single mother who frets that no one will want to date her because she has 1000 children. The good doctor attempts to establish empathy with his patients by sharing his story of being addiction to sniffing other dogs’ butts, and as he confesses, he sounds like every recovering addict you’ve ever heard blather on to Dr. Phil. Just as delicious are the small details that go on in the background by characters who aren’t speaking in the foreground. Their reactions to others are so rich, they require seeing this one a second time. Not a bad idea, actually, given that this film is only 14 minutes long.


BAO (United States)

If you saw Disney/Pixar’s INCREDIBLES 2, then you saw the short that preceded it entitled BAO. (The fact that so many people saw this one makes it the odds-on favorite as all Academy members vote on the final ballot and the more eyeballs the better for any nominee.) The story concerns a Chinese mom who suffers from “empty nest syndrome” but gets a new chance at motherhood when one of the dumplings she’s making magically comes to life. The food stuff anthropomorphically begins to exhibit human traits, specifically those of a lively, fun-loving boy and soon, "he" becomes Mom’s constant companion.

She takes it to the market and the park. She feeds it, dotes on it…as if it were an actual child. Soon though, the dumpling starts growing up, and soon demonstrates independence that starts the whole empty nesting cycle all over again. Director Domee Shi’s tale is a loving and bittersweet essay about parenthood, shot with a similar  intimacy and pathos as one would find in UP or WALL-E. What makes this one special as well is the fact that the main character is a Chinese woman, something all too rare on any screen, let alone in the world of animation.


WEEKENDS (United States)

The 16-minute animated short WEEKENDS, done by filmmaker Trevor Jimenez, is another story that focuses on the relationship between parent and child. Only this one concerns divorced parents and how they interact with their young son after their marriage ends. The pain that the child feels as he’s shuffled off to his father for weekends is predictably painful. So is the gulf between the two ex's as the animation shows them barely able to stand within 20-feet of each other. (A ginormous tree-bush in the front yard symbolizes that huge void between them.) Dad tries to bond with the boy with a substitute “mom” when his new girlfriend joins in the mix, but it further alienates the boy who realizes he's not his father's top priority.

The harshest part of the drama comes when the boy returns to his mother. She has a penchant for abusive men and her son's reaction to her male suitors is as sour as the unattractive men. The boy envisions them as deformed monsters, prone to stumpy heads that  birthday candles and other props grow out of. The hand-drawn animation here sly mocks these bad men, but never goes too far in caricaturing their viciousness. This is a 2D cartoon that is as cold and stark a work as many a European arthouse film, all showcased with austere images and an almost wordless soundtrack. It's a haunting tale, as stories of divorce so often are.


LATE AFTERNOON (Ireland)

In this melancholy 10-minute work, written and directed by Louise Bagnall, an elderly woman named Emily suffers from Alzheimer’s and spends her life drifting in and out of reality. As she loses her grip, various moments in her modern existence trigger cherished memories she holds onto from her past. In her mind she relives them and it adds some loveliness to her lonely life in her home. The hand-drawn animation brilliantly showcases Emily’s seamless movement between the two worlds with one image blending into another. 

And while Emily doesn’t say a great deal in the short, her voice characterization is notable for two reasons. First, because Bagnall delivers the voice of the young Emily, and two, because the older Emily is voiced by the estimable Fionnula Flanagan. She is one of those great actresses who never quite had the superstar career she should have, despite working constantly over the last five decades. Her extraordinary talent graced everything from ABC-TV’s RICH MAN, POOR MAN in 1976 for which she won an Emmy, to her star turn in 1985’s JAMES JOYCE’S WOMEN. Now, at 77, Flanagan lends her lilting Irish voice to the few but crucial lines here, and it makes the piece all the more moving.


ONE SMALL STEP (Chinese-American)

The sleeper among them, and the one that could easily steal the Oscar from the more obvious contenders, is the delightful tale of a young Chinese girl named Luna who’s obsessed with being an astronaut. Her widowed father tries to ensure that her dream comes true but it's not easy for the stoic man. He can’t quite grasp her love of pretend but manages to do his best to adorn her room with star mobiles and play “rocket ship” with her. He looks genuinely out of sorts donning a space helmet made from an old cardboard box, but the loving dad tries. And as she grows older, the moods of a pre-teen become completely lost on him. Still, he perseveres.

The eight-minute short covers a lot of ground in the chronicling of both their lives, and as directed by co-directors Andrew Chesworth and Bobby Pontillas, it manages to be both adorable and heartbreaking. They wrote the script too, along with screenwriter Shaofu Zhang, and their story deftly juxtaposes big laughs against big goose bumps against big tears.

The artistry on display in these animated shorts, and in most years, is truly special. This year's crop utilizes all kinds of animation techniques that paint pictures that speak volumes. These are major, sophisticated accomplishments, and hardly "kid stuff."

(The animated shorts, and the live action shorts debut in theaters this Friday, February 8.)