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Recent Movies: The Death of Stalin; Foxtrot; Zama; Musical Theatre: Fun Home

Recent Movies

The Death of Stalin

After the eponymous event takes place in 1953, the inner circle of the notorious Soviet dictator moves from denial and turmoil to backstabbing and power-grabbing.

The film is intended to be a satirical comedy. In this way, it works well much of the time. Stalin’s upper tier seems to have been filled with yes-men whose apparent cowardice hides devious ambition beneath. Their pitiful lack of character make them easy fodder for mockery and there are, indeed, some genuine laughs.

The trouble is in how the film handles the atrocious government-enforced murders, tortures, and incarcerations of numerous innocent citizens during the disreputable Stalin era. At best, the purges are trivialized. At worst, they are used as comic fodder.  (“Well, you purged more people than I did.”  “Did not.”)

This element of bad taste separates me from the many who have praised “The Death of Stalin” as much as it did for “Life is Beautiful” (1997 – Italy), a comedy that used the Holocaust as a backdrop.

“The Death of Stalin” is a Belgian-French-UK co-production in the English language. The topic of the Stalin purges is rarely depicted in film in a rightfully serious way. The best possible outcome would be if Russia made a truthful and genuine film about this subject. However, this is highly unlikely: “The Death of Stalin” is currently banned in Russia.

RATING (out of four stars):   * *


Foxtrot

Michael and Dafna Feldmann (Lior Ashkenazi and Sarah Adler) are a well-off Tel Aviv couple who have just received news that their young adult son was killed while on military duty.

The narrative is told in three segments of equal length. The first exposes the family’s reaction to the bad news; the second takes place in an isolated military checkpoint; the third returns to the Feldmann family home.

Each segment has its own unique style. The first is much like the films of Ingmar Bergman with a lot of silent brooding, overhead shots, and many close-ups. It succeeds in exposing the physical toll of heartbreaking grief. There is also a fascinating scene involving a relative who has dementia. Its conclusion is, to say the least, shocking.

The second segment seems dull in the beginning but this is likely deliberate as a way for the viewer to experience the lives of the four young soldiers at the checkpoint. They are living in terrible, secluded conditions with little happening in their daily routine. The dullness certainly ends in a couple of scenes near the end of this section – scenes which are a harsh critique of the Israeli military itself. The climactic conclusion of this segment is deliberately skipped and revealed only at the end via flashback.

The final segment is the most fascinating. It leaves the viewer in the place of trying to understand what happened at the end of the second segment and the pieces gradually fit before the flashback scene in the epilogue. This segment also highlights the great acting talents of Ashkenazi and Adler whose ensemble is deeply touching especially during a moment of unexpected laughter.

The talents of director/writer Samuel Maoz are on great display. In the most subtle of ways, he draws in the viewer to feel what the characters feel. And his screenplay is exemplary in its exposure of the wickedness of life and fate and for its very unique structure.

RATING:   * * * 1/2

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT:   Screenplay by Samuel Maoz


Zama

Based on the novel by Antonio di Benedetto:  in the 18th century, Don Diego De Zama (Daniel Giminez Cacho) is an administrative official assigned by Spain to oversee a South American colony (later part of Argentina). His attempts to change his status, position and work location (mainly to reunite with his wife and newborn child) are met with great resistance.

“Zama” is courageous in exploring issues of both race and class within colonialism. The main character and those like him falsely believe they are superior to the people indigenous to the land. But this principle comes back to haunt de Zama as well. He is of Spanish heritage but was born in “the colonies” and is thus considered inferior to those who are Spanish-born. He is stuck in the middle of a deplorable hierarchy and mindset.

Despite the film’s assets, the narrative falls into something that is jumbled, incoherent, and sometimes incomprehensible. It is also too long. This is unfortunate considering its potential.

In the later scenes, the shortcomings are appeased with beautiful natural surroundings complemented with a blue sky. This does create a pleasant serenity but at this point, the enjoyment is only a consolation rather than an enhancement.

RATING:   * *


Musical Theatre

“Fun Home” at the CAA Centre, Toronto

****    THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS    ****

Based on the life of Alison Bechdel, a renowned American cartoonist, the play (based on Bechdel’s graphic novel of the same name) is narrated by the middle-aged version of Alison (Laura Condlln) as she observes her life being played out at the age of ten (Hannah Levinson) and in college (Sara Farb). As she discovers she is a lesbian, something else becomes apparent to Alison: her father Bruce (Evan Buliung) is also gay.

It is rare that a coming-out story is the basis of a musical. It is also rare for a musical to have the perfect balance of comedy, drama, and music as “Fun Home” does. It succeeds on so many levels.

The best comedy moments include Alison’s early coming out scenes plus, in the earlier life, a group of young siblings creating their own TV commercial for their father’s funeral home.

But where “Fun Home” excels is in its dramatic content mainly through the complex character of Bruce. Bruce can be irritable, controlling, and evasive. While this archetype fatherly character has often been portrayed negatively as a side character in other works, “Fun Home” is the rare story that gives understanding, depth, and compassion to such a character-type. The great talents of Buliung greatly enhance the characterization. (This is no surprise to anyone who, like me, remembers Buliung’s great talents on display in the production of “Art” earlier this decade.)

While “Fun Home” is mainly about Alison, the story of Bruce is more than a subplot. It is more like a parallel story. It also leaves one wondering how Bruce’s life might have turned out if, like Alison, he had been born twenty years later and came of age in the 1970s rather than the 1950s.

The production’s execution was mostly bang-on except a few times when the orchestra volume overpowered the voices of the singers and lyrics were inaudible. Otherwise, “Fun Home” hits the heart strongly with emotions that endure well after the cast has left the stage.

RATING:   * * * 1/2

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Recent Movies: Loveless; Love, Simon; Black Panther; Old Movies Seen Again: The Young Girls of Rochefort

Recent Movies

Loveless

Moscow, 2012:  Zhenya (Maryana Spivak) and Boris (Aleksey Rozin) are a miserably married couple preparing for a divorce as they try to sell their apartment. Each has a new lover as they prepare for their new lives but both are negligent of their tormented twelve-year old son, Alyosha (Matvey Novikov) – thus causing a major twist in the story.

Director/co-writer Andrey Zvyagintsev created a sensation with the very powerful “Leviathan” released in 2014. The earlier film was very critical of the authorities in Russian society (which irked actual Russian authorities) while “Loveless” is critical of the degradation of Russian individuals and society in general. Some characters are more attached to their smartphones than to the people around them. Boris is attached to the endless news cycle. (In one such scene, it is fascinating to hear the biased Russian media’s take on the troubles in Ukraine a few years back).

Boris’s worst characteristic is his extreme indifference to others while Zhenya is a verbally abusive monster. It is easy to despise her for the way she treats her husband and son but her story is brought to the forefront when the viewer witnesses her with her equally monstrous mother (Natalya Potapova). At this point the viewer sees Zhenya as someone at both ends of the tragic “unwanted child” syndrome – a trait that is sadly hereditary.

Among Zvyagintsev’s gifts is the way he handles sex scenes. Rather than the quasi-pornography that is rampant in modern films, the sex scenes in this film are actually erotic and intimate. And despite the film’s title, they do represent rare moments when people are loving toward each other.

He is also adept at maintaining a bleak mood throughout the film – one that reflects most of the characters and the society around them. There is an extended scene that involves an abandoned building. One can’t help but observe that the building looks functional and even pleasant in some rooms. Like some of the human characters, it was unnecessarily neglected and left to rot.

The epilogue of “Loveless” takes place a few years after the main story. Without giving anything away, its conclusion is sad yet not altogether surprising considering the scenes that preceded it. It’s the right conclusion for a very good film with very powerful performances. And its subtle jab against the degradation of people via modern technology is not just a Russian problem; it’s truly universal.

RATING (out of four stars):   * * * 1/2

(In a previous posting, “Loveless” was mentioned as one of the best movies of 2017.)


Love, Simon

Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) is a teenage boy living in a pleasant Atlanta suburb. While his life is ideal in many ways, he struggles with a secret: he’s gay. His stifled feelings are expressed in an online correspondence with an anonymous teenage boy who attends the same high school.

“Love, Simon” is a very modern update of past feel-good rom-com films. The update is not only the gay twist but the fact that there is far less tragedy than gay stories of the past. Homophobia is present but far less powerful and dangerous than it is in other films. There is another element that is very pleasing: people of different racial backgrounds mix easily in a matter-of-fact way.

Another way this film is very modern is in the way that much of the connection among people is online  – much like in real life. (Earlier stories would have used pen-pals and personal ads – a situation that would be considered quaint by today’s standards or whatever word would substitute the word ‘quaint’ which is as outdated as personal ads and pen pals.)

The narrative of “Love, Simon” includes an unnecessary – and sometimes annoying – blackmail element. This could have been eliminated though it does lead to some very moving, heartfelt scenes in the later segments. These scenes allow the actors to show their best.

It might be fair to criticize the film for being overly simplistic and idealistic. But to have a pleasant story in which none of the gay characters is obligated to be dead, tortured, beaten, humiliated, or ostracized by the end, this strangely comes off as bold compared to earlier films in this genre. There is also a fun, lively energy created by director/writer Greg Berlanti especially in comical relief from characters such as the high school’s principal and drama teacher.

An enjoyable experience.

RATING: * * *


Black Panther

Based on the Marvel Comic series: the fictional African nation of Wakanda poses as underdeveloped but is, in truth, one of the most developed nations on the planet due to its access to a special substance call vibranium. In current times, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is about to become king of Wakanda but he must face various challengers. T’Challa, his family, and his loyal friends face animosity from within and outside Wakanda. Some of their enemies believe that Wakanda should share its advanced technology to help other Africans in great need.

Like many big-budget blockbusters, “Black Panther” is thrilling, exciting, and entertaining.  It is also, like those other big-budget blockbusters, occasionally confusing with too many subplots happening simultaneously. But in fairness, it is less confusing than most other such films. What truly makes this film unique in this genre is its Afrocentric focus and perspective with an almost all-black cast. In this way, it has made history and is a welcome breakthrough. Its focus on whether or not Wakanda should remain isolationist also provides an intelligent critique on the current state of the world.

“Black Panther” has something else to its credit: it is a visual splendor and probably the most beautiful film to grace the big screen in many years – yet another reason to recommend this fine film. It truly is a feast for the eyes and is entertaining in so many other ways as well.

RATING:   * * *

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENTS:   Cinematography;  Set Design;  Costumes


Old Movies Seen Again

The Young Girls of Rochefort (aka Les Demoiselles de Rochefort): 1967 – France / Musical

(The review below is a revised version of one posted in July, 2013)

A traveling carnival arrives in a northern seaside French town for a weekend, adding more charm and fun to the lives of a pair of young and musically-talented adult twin sisters, their mother who runs a restaurant, and various other characters who all seem to be seeking the ideal mate.

The great cast includes legends and stars both French and American:  Catherine Deneuve, her real-life sister Françoise Dorléac (tragically killed in an accident shortly after the film was made), Danielle Darrieux (who passed away last year at the age of 100), Michel Piccoli, Gene Kelly, and George Chakiris.

The storyline can be silly but it is deliberately so.  It is part of the light-heartedness that makes viewing this film so joyous. After five viewings, it becomes easier to see the movie’s occasional flaws. This would normally justify a reduced rating. But the movie’s magical musical moments are so grand, the overall effect is not diminished by the flaws that seem minor by comparison. The most outstanding numbers include the vibrant “Chanson des jumelles”, its partial reprise in “De Hambourg a Rochefort”, “Les rencontres”, and  “Chanson d’un jour d’été” (and the lively carnival events that precede it).

The atmosphere of the film could easily resemble what heaven might be like for those of us lucky enough to get there in the after-life.  With everyone dancing in the streets, beautiful colours on sunny days, magnificent songs by the great Michel Legrand, grand choreography by Norman Maen, great performances overall, all wrapped up by the brilliant director Jacques Demy, this film could be the cure for many a cynical, depressed person who can use a lift. It is equally helpful to anyone who is already happy and just wants to stay that way.

Near the end of the film, the fair is over and the townspeople seem sad that the good time is now over.  This same sadness can be felt in the audience knowing the film is nearing its end.  Luckily, it can be seen again and again.

Magnificent.

Rating:   * * * *

Outstanding Achievements:

–  Directing by Jacques Demy

– Music by Michel Legrand

– Choreography by Norman Maen

Recent Movies: Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool; Paddington 2; A Fantastic Woman

Recent Movies

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

*** THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS   ***

Based on a true story: In the late 1970s, Hollywood star Gloria Grahame (Annette Bening) is in her fifties and performing in regional theatres in Great Britain. She hooks up with Peter Tanner (Jamie Bell), another actor who is a generation younger than she is.

Both Bening and Bell are powerful in their roles especially Bening. Whether she is doing strange verbal exercises to prepare for a performance or showing signs of declining health, she is moving and easily draws in the viewer. She is fully believable as someone who can be very naive while drawing sympathy and understanding. Bell also has a powerful scene when he is receiving difficult news on the telephone. As the viewer cannot hear what is being said on the other line, he makes it very clear with each gesture just how bad the news is.

Peter’s family also provides warmth, welcoming Gloria as a part of the family without batting an eye at the age difference between the lovers. As the family matriarch, the wonderful Julie Walters is a beacon of kindness.

Where the film weakens is in the connection between the two lovers. While the actors are great individually, they don’t fully connect together. There is a scene in which Peter fights with his brother over how the family should handle their ailing guest. The scene was forced, unbelievable, and over-the-top.

Yet the movie is still worth seeing. With all the debate about how women are treated in the film industry, this film deserves credit for giving a substantial leading role in a feature film (not one immediately relegated to television) to a talented, experienced actress over fifty (keep in mind Bening also starred in last year’s “20th Century Women”).

RATING:   * * *


Paddington 2

Paddington is a small-sized bear with human characteristics and lives with the Brown family in a pleasant London neighbourhood. After he is mistaken as a thief, the Brown family works tirelessly to catch the real thief.

This sequel is way ahead of its 2014 predecessor in quality. Though it is occasionally marred in over-the-top slapstick, director Paul King gives a fun and cheeky attitude to much of its narrative’s far-fetched elements. It’s almost like he’s giving the audience a wink when it jumps into the “unbelievable” territory. King also gives the film a quick and clever pace in scenes where the camera circles from the centre of a room while time passes quickly with activity taking much more time than the scene shows. (I’m sure there’s a special film term for that. I admit my ignorance in not knowing it.)

As the centre of the film, Paddington (voiced by Ben Whishaw) is a perfect contradiction for today’s world: someone who still believes in goodness and kindness whether or not this attitude attracts trouble or loyalty. He is ultimately sweet and loveable in his naive purity. And the sentiment of this film is never manipulative or sugar-coated. Its fun, adventurous and humourous story leads to a genuinely emotional conclusion that brings out the tears.

The closing credits provide an entertaining “whatever happened to them” conclusion highlighted by a hilarious sequence in a prison. Intentionally or not, “Paddington 2” gives brief tributes to classics of half a century ago: “Oliver” (a scene involving a food complaint) and “The Producers” (the aforementioned closing scene in a prison).

“Paddington 2” has much in common with the recently released “Coco”. Both appeal to “kids of all ages” with the perfect blend of mind and heart. Is this a part of a new trend? Let’s hope so.

RATING:   * * * 1/2

(In an earlier posting, “Paddington 2” was mentioned as one of the best movies of 2017.)


A Fantastic Woman

Marina Vidal (Daniela Vega) is a transgender woman and aspiring singer in her twenties and living in Santiago, Chile. After the death of her lover, a man in his fifties with an ex-wife and an adult son, Marina is left alone in dealing with her grief and the aftermath of the death.

In addition to the burden of grief, Marina must also deal with humiliating and prejudicial situations around her transgender status. She subtly shows an attitude of “I hate having to go through this again but I can.” Interestingly, her transgender status is used to her advantage in a later scene in the film.

Vega is in nearly every scene of the film and must carry it on her shoulders. She does the job superbly. She ably conveys awkwardness and vulnerability as her character attempts to maintain what is rightfully hers while being aware that many battles may not be won.

Much of the film follows Marina as she journeys through the city’s urban atmosphere to numb her pain. The last quarter of the film takes a different twist that is less interesting than what precedes it. But “A Fantastic Woman” is a good film overall mainly due to the subtle skills of its lead performer.

RATING: * * *

Recent Movies: Get Out; In the Fade; Coco

Recent Movies

Get Out

In an unnamed U.S. city, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is an African-American photographer. His white girlfriend Rose (Allison Williams), whom he has been seeing for about four months, asks him to join her to meet her family for the first time. At the country’s family estate, Chris notices some odd events which lead him to think he could be in danger.

Director/writer Jordan Peele has created a superb thriller that easily reminds one of the brilliant “Stepford Wives” (1975). The tension slowly builds with the viewer identifying with Chris. The strange events seem harmless at first but there are too many coincidences to dismiss. Once the pieces come together, it’s easy to see why the film was given its title.

“Get Out” is not without its comical moments especially stupid comments from well-meaning “good, white liberals” which peak at a massive garden-party-from-hell. As a modern psychological horror-thriller with an unique perspective on racism, it’s easy to see why “Get Out” has earned so much recognition during the current awards season. It does borrow heavily from “The Stepford Wives” but clearly adds its own special, creative spin on the “people here sure are weird” atmosphere.

RATING (out of four stars): * * *


In the Fade

Katja (Diane Kruger) lives in Hamburg, Germany with her husband Nuri – a man of Kurdish Turkish heritage – and their five-year-old son. In the film’s three segments, her life is chronicled. The first involves a major crime; the second involves the trial resulting from the crime; and the third follows the trial’s verdict. (This description is deliberately vague to avoid spoilers.)

Each of the film’s segments – and the film as a whole – are full of surprises and shocks but never far-fetched. As the main character has serious flaws while remaining an object of sympathy, a great deal of credit can be given to Kruger for her solid lead performance and Fatih Akin for his strong directing and especially for his brilliant, multi-layered screenplay. The narrative also covers tensions in a mixed-race extended family and the history of underground Nazi terrorism in the 2000s.

As the family lawyer, Denis Moschitto also delivers a fine performance as the most grounded character in the film. In one courtroom scene, he unleashes so much power and emotion that the courtroom audience acts on behalf of the movie audience by bursting into applause.

The film’s conclusion is truly shocking but, after much thought and discussion, could make sense under the circumstances. The fact that the film can generate so much thought and discussion makes its screenplay one of the best of the year.

RATING: * * * 1/2

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENT: Screenplay by Fatih Akin

(In a previous posting, “In the Fade” was mentioned as one of the best movies of 2017.)


Coco

In Santa Cecilia, Mexico, Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) is a twelve-year-old boy with aspirations to be a musician. This is taboo in his family who still greatly resent his great-great-grandfather for betraying his family to pursue fame and fortune via a musical career. During Mexico’s famous Day of the Dead, a mishap has Miguel entering the spirit world of the dead in which he learns a lot about his family’s history. (“Coco” is an animated Disney/Pixar production.)

Firstly, this has to be one of the most beautiful animated films ever. The elaborate, multi-dimensional, brightly coloured settings in both the living and spirit worlds are – please pardon the pun – to die for. One highlight is a colourful, flying, jungle-cat spirit guide.

The narrative has many adventurous twists and turns and it always stays within its theoretical structure of what life could be like in spirit world as well as how the spirits connect with the living. While this is engaging enough, the added humour is the icing on the cake. Such concepts include bureaucratic procedures of leaving and re-entering the spirit world. There are also numerous funny sight gags.

Adding to the already brilliant story is a rich, well-developed array of characters – indeed, they were truly “characters” in every sense of the term. The story is enriched even further with a unifying theme: the caution against the relentless pursuit of fame and fortune at the expense of other, more important things.

The story concludes with a scene that must be among the best of the year. Though the title character (Miguel’s great-grandmother) is rarely seen, it is easy to see why the movie was named after her. Her special moment is a sincere tear-duct opener that also widely opens the heart.  Truly memorable. The epilogue that follows this scene is also a delightful and intelligent conclusion.

2017 must be one of the best years ever for animated films. “The Breadwinner” and “Loving Vincent” are also superb. Yet, “Coco” manages to top even these two great works. It lives up to the historical intention of Disney (with its younger aspirant Pixar) of appealing to the child in all of us – even those of us who’ve lived so long, we forgot what childhood enthusiasm felt like. In this way, everyone behind “Coco” is a hero for reviving such feelings long buried. This film joins “The Wizard of Oz” and “ET” as classics whose premise involves a main character leaving “home” and spends the rest of the movie trying to get back.

It was also great news to know that this Hollywood production was very accurate in its depiction of Mexican culture and folklore. To finish on another pun: “Coco” truly is a gift from heaven.

RATING:   * * * *

OUTSTANDING ACHIEVEMENTS:

1)  The Animation Team

2)  Screenplay by Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich – from a story by Molina, Aldrich, Lee Unkrich (the film’s director) and Jason Katz

(In a previous posting, “Coco” was mentioned as one of the best movies of 2017.)


Upcoming Movie Reviews:   Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool;  Paddington 2;  A Fantastic Woman;  Loveless;  Black Panther;  Foxtrot;  Love, Simon;  The Death of Stalin

 

Best Movies of 2017

Below is my belated list as it took so long to see all the movies released at the end of 2017. As always, the past few months are the time when the awards-worthy films are all bunched together.

My merit system is different. Instead of guaranteeing a winner in each category, I only give praise to those that truly deserve it. Some categories have ties.

As opposed to a limited list (like five or ten), the best films of 2017 are rated using the Olympic medal systems, depending on how much I liked them.

For the list below, the movies in each category are listed in the chronological order in which I saw them.

A few special notes:

Firstly, there are some acclaimed films I would have liked to have seen (in a movie cinema) but could not as they went immediately to Netflix (to which I have no access). Those films include “On Body and Soul” (Hungary), “Mudbound ” (US Indie), and “First They Killed My Father” (Cambodia). I’m rather old-fashioned in my belief that movies should be released in theatres before going to TV – whatever form the TV viewing takes. (Netflix is too powerful.)

Secondly, there are some films on the list below whose reviews are yet to be posted. They are “Coco”, “In the Fade”, “Paddington 2”, and “Loveless”.

Lastly, it must be noted that, despite being unable to see all I wanted to see, 2017 was an exceptionally good year for movies.  In most years, there are no gold-medal-worthy films. This past year, there were two.

And the list:

 

Gold Medals:

1) Call Me by Your Name (USA/Italy/France – LGBT cinema)

2) Coco (Hollywood – Animated)

 

Silver Medals:

1) God’s Own Country (UK – LGBT cinema)

2) Loving Vincent (UK/Poland/USA – Animated)

3) Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (US Indie)

4) In the Fade (Germany)

 

Bronze Medals

1) Beauty and the Beast (UK / Hollywood)

2) A Quiet Passion (US Indie / UK)

3) The Breadwinner (Canada/Ireland Luxembourg – Animated)

4) Phantom Thread (UK / US Indie)

5) Paddington 2 (UK)

6) Loveless (Russia)


 

Outstanding Achievements

Directing:

1) Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)

2) Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name)

 

Screenplay:

1) Fatih Akin (In the Fade)

2) Adrian Molina and Matthew Aldrich (Coco)

– story by Molina, Aldrich, Lee Unkrich, and Jason Katz

 

Acting Performance:  Josh O’Connor (God’s Own Country)

 

Acting Ensemble:  Call Me By Your Name

 

Animation:

1) Loving Vincent

2) Coco


 

Great Old Films Seen for the First Time in 2017

 

The Rose Tattoo (1955 – USA)

Back to God’s Country (1919 – Canada / Silent)

Gertrud (1964 – Denmark)

Man With a Movie Camera (1929 – Soviet Union / Silent)

Marianne and Juliane (1981 – West Germany)

Imitation of Life (1934 – USA)

The Sacrifice (1986 – Sweden)

Chocolat (1988 – France/Cameroon)


 

Great Old Films Seen Again in 2017

 

The Graduate (1967 – USA)

Diabolique (1955 – France)

Le Samourai (1967 – France)

Malcolm X (1992 – USA)

 

Dennis Bowman

 

 

 

Oscar Predictions 2018

Like all other past Oscar posts, here is a repeat of some notes before the predictions:

This is a summary of the result of other award institutions that have also presented awards thus far plus other recent Oscar trends.

 

For the predicted winners, the levels of strength are noted as follows:

(1)  unstoppable; pretty well a shoo-in

(2)  front-runner

(3)  ahead in the race but just barely

 

For the possible upsets, the levels of strength are as follows:

(4)  very strong possible upset

(5)  possible upset

(6)  long-shot / dark-horse

 

And the predictions:

 

Best Picture:   (3) The Shape of Water;  (4)  Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Best Director:   (1) Guillermo del Toro (The Shape of Water)

Best Actress:   (1) Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri);  (6) Sally Hawkins (The Shape of Water)

Best Actor:   (1) Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour)

Best Supporting Actress:   (1) Allison Janney (I, Tonya);  (6) Laurie Metcalf (Lady Bird); Octavia Spencer (The Shape of Water)

Best Supporting Actor:   (1) Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri);  (6) Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project);  Richard Jenkins (The Shape of Water)

Best Original Screenplay:   (3) Jordan Peele (Get Out); (4) Martin McDonagh (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri); (6) Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird); Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor (The Shape of Water)

Best Adapted Screenplay:   (1) James Ivory (Call Me by Your Name)

Best Foreign Language Film:   (3) Loveless (Russia); (4) all other nominees

Best Documentary:   (1) Faces Places; (6) all other nominees

Best Animated Film:   (1) Coco

Recent Movies: The Post; Phantom Thread; I, Tonya

Recent Movies

The Post

Washington, DC, 1971: The Pentagon Papers  are classified documents that reveal how successive US governments lied to their citizens about the Vietnam war. They are released to the New York Times and later to the Washington Post. It is a great risk for the Post to publish such papers as it is facing financial troubles. Dilemmas at the paper are faced by its owner Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) and its editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks),

While director Steven Spielberg is more renowned for his adventure-thrillers, his adept skills are clearly on display in this rather different project for him: a political film. The story not only reveals events already known but also shows Graham’s personal story – wonderfully played by Streep (no surprise there). After learning more of Graham’s life, her own story would make an equally good film: her occasional lack of confidence was the result of being catapulted into a major position – one for which she had not planned nor had any ambition to create.

The screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer also delves into moral dilemmas of the “friendliness” between high-ranking politicians and equally high-ranking journalists. This results in two of the movie’s best scenes of conflict: one between Graham and Bradlee; the other between Graham and her long-time friend Robert McNamara (Bruce Greenwood), a former Secretary of Defense.

“The Post” is wonderful nostalgia for those of us fascinated by that very volatile time in the US in the 1960s and the 1970s. And its conclusion is a superb nudge and wink to anyone familiar with the history of that time.

RATING (out of four stars):   * * *


Phantom Thread

London, 1950s: Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a renowned, high-level fashion designer who lives and works with his sister Cyril (Leslie Manville). He meets Alma Elson (Vicky Krieps) and brings her into his life as a muse and as a lover. Alma has a difficult time adjusting to Reynolds’ obsessive perfectionism and Cyril’s coldness.

Director/writer Paul Thomas Anderson is very successful in creating a mysterious world, making viewers feel like we are in the place of Alma – intrigued by the fascinating Reynolds but also very cautious of his eccentricities as well as those of his sister. This odd atmosphere is also a creation of the talented actors behind it.

Day-Lewis (whose best performances among many include “My Left Foot”, “In the Name of the Father”, and “There Will Be Blood” also directed by Anderson) is at his usual brilliance. Without being harsh, he can give a sharp sting with just the slightest gesture or comment. The film would have had much less impact if he had not been in the main role.

And Manville conveys so much with a stone cold glance with restrained emotions, one wishes she had been given an even greater part. This role is a great contrast to her superb work in “Another Year” in which her character’s emotions were anything but restrained.

The last third of the film begins a new chapter. While it is less engaging than the first two thirds, the spell of the movie has already been cast on the audience and it cannot be withheld by this point. In addition to Anderson and the cast, credit must also be given to the beautiful music by Jonny Greenwood, the sets, and of course, the costumes.

RATING:   * * * 1/2


I, Tonya

Based on a true story: Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) is an American figure skater who was linked to the 1994 injury on her fellow American rival Nancy Kerrigan. Harding’s hardship life is depicted before and leading to the event including abusive relationships with her mother LaVona (Allison Janney) and later with her husband Jeff (Sebastian Stan).

Anyone who had access to television at the time would recall this event and the attempts to link the Kerrigan attack to Harding. The forecasts seemed endless and were a staple in the vulgarization of the 1990s. In giving the chance for the deeper story to be told, “I, Tonya” does the impossible: it humanizes someone whose name had been reduced to a punchline and shows that nobody ever starts out as “bad” (though the same could not be said for LaVona – at least as depicted here). It also makes one question how much guilt Harding had in the attack and whether or not her eventual punishment was fair.

“I, Tonya” is another fine film that shows the result of class prejudice. While Tonya was a great figure-skater, she had a hard time winning the hearts of judges who seemed to dismiss her as “white trash”.

Robbie is superb in the title role. She easily draws sympathy as someone who worked through terrible hardships to make the best of her life even if she made some terrible decisions. Janney, who is winning multiple awards, can be quite funny at times as a vile, despicable, creature from hell but the role is under-developed. There is never a moment when we see LaVona in a light makes one understand her beastliness or even the slightest moment of goodness. When all is said and done, is it really “funny” to see a parent abuse her child as she does?

The courage in telling this story is also a challenge to the encouragement of chasing the American Dream. In this case, the dream ended up as a nightmare. After viewing this film, one can’t help but re-evaluate one’s own judgments against Tonya Harding. Kudos to the filmmakers for that.

RATING:   * * *