Movie Reviews to end 2021, enter 2022 with hope, and the ACADEMY AWARDS!
Academy 2022 by Barney Rosenzweig
It was not my intention to do a follow up article about the Academy Awards. After all, I had already devoted weeks to culling through what… at best…was a mediocre collection of eligible films, reviewing them, and writing commentary, over a period of weeks.
“‘Nuff said,” was how I felt about it. And I would not fall for the flattery of my friends who all seem to think I could do a better job of producing the Academy Award show for ABC then the actual guys and gals who do it. News flash: I could not… (although I do have notes on how it might be improved, which might well begin with having all potential producers being required to watch Ben Mankiewicz on TCM during that platform’s month-long run-up to Oscar night).
The fact is I just do not have any interest in writing a column about what my fellow Academy members have or have not done. Days go by, post the awards show, where I hunker down at home to avoid the incessant questioning of what it was I thought about some particular award, or the show itself.
I have almost never agreed with who the Academy honors in the major categories… although I can almost always guess to whom it is they will give the award. I have been a member since I was in my twenties and here it is, 60 years later, and I still cannot fathom the thinking that goes into the votes of the major categories.
Truth to tell, I am invariably in sync with the technical awards… see my review on DUNE which got 7 Oscars, and probably should have won an 8th… (for best picture).
If you are going to give best picture salutes to Crash (2006) instead of that year’s Brokeback Mountain, then, I guess, Coda makes sense. I mean, they were nice little movies… very nicely made for TV movies… but are you really going to compare Crash and Coda, or even Marty (1955), for that matter, to a picture worthy of an Academy Award? Puhleeze.
I do not want to write about this. But, as long as I am here, let me tell you who I think really deserved an Academy Award this year:
Chris Rock. What a performance that was. What grace. What cool. And once again, the Academy did not notice.
Try to imagine how it might have gone differently:
What if Mr. Rock had decided to react, and punch back? What if the comedian had stood center stage and demanded that the hooligan actor who attacked him be removed from the theatre?
By behaving the way that he did, Chris Rock just may have prevented mayhem from occurring on the world’s television screens… He just maybe was responsible for saving an entire industry from embarrassment and reassessment.
It’s not that I am not concerned for Will Smith. He clearly needs help. But there are plenty of therapists in Hollywood who have experience with folks who have a God complex. He will be all right. He has a best-selling book, which now just might get a second printing. He has an Oscar, and even though he stepped all over Venus and Serena Williams’ moment… sullying their once in a lifetime event forever… trust me, Hollywood will be only too quick to forgive him.
There is a bright side to all of this: Be grateful it was not Amy Schumer who delivered that GI Jane joke. The world as we know it might have ended had Mr. Smith struck a white woman.
Denzel Washington had it right about when it is the Devil comes to visit. And I have it right about the Academy blowing it once again: they shoulda come up with an Oscar for Chris Rock.
LEAD UP TO THE 2022 ACADEMY AWARDS:
This is the other side of the banner that reads “To Be Continued.” Yet another column with encapsulated movie reviews, with a guesstimate that this may very well be the penultimate column relating to the “new” films of 2021. I sure hope so. Even I have lost track of how many there have been, but like Macbeth, I am “in blood stepped in so far, that….” well, you get my drift. And so, with apologies to the Bard, here is the latest quartet of reviews:
tIck, tIck… BOOM!
In a eulogy I delivered at the funeral of my dear friend, writer Ronald M. Cohen, …and as an illustration of one of the ways in which we differed, I said, “Ronald even liked Rent.”
I had occasion to think back on that statement about my friend, and the Broadway show I disliked so intensely, as I settled in to watch Lin-Manuel Miranda’s directorial debut as a filmmaker. The movie is not the off-Broadway show of the same title, but a limited biography of Jonathan Larson, the creator of both Rent and its predecessor, the semi-autobiographical show, tIck, tIck… BOOM!
I am sure it can now be appreciated that I came to this material with reluctance. Turns out, I was wrong. It took me a while, I admit, but when the film came to its conclusion, I responded emotionally, taken by what I had seen.
It was not the “music.” Please note my use of quotation marks, used as emphasis, to bring attention to the fact that the monotonal aspects of the sounds that emanate from the keyboard, guitar, and percussive instruments in this show…as in Rent…continue to leave me cold.
What I eventually responded to is the (apparently) true tale of someone remaining steadfast about his belief in his “art.” It didn’t hurt having the tale told so nicely by another steadfast artist, first time director, Miranda. I must also give points to an ensemble of actors who were remarkably effective in relating the story.
If you are at all like me, you may well have to be patient with this motion picture from Netflix. It does take its own sweet time before hitting its stride, but get there it does, without question.
And while, however briefly, I am expounding on music and the musical, I feel compelled to share that composer Ron Ramin, who created the scores for most of The Trials of Rosie O’Neill series, as well as a great many of the Cagney & Laceyepisodes, wrote me the other day to point out that in the tome that was my West Side Story review, I did not mention the music. Well, score one for him. I think I must have thought that it went without saying that the music is fabulous (Ron referred to it as “glorious,” but then he has an axe to grind: his father, Sid Ramin, along with Bernstein and Irwin Kostal did the original Broadway orchestrations as well as those for the 1961 movie). Ron’s dad won an Academy Award for Music Supervision for that film and, as Ron points out, “thankfully—and smartly—the new WSSmostly uses the original orchestrations.” I will say it, even though Mr. Ramin was kind enough not to: shame on me for even coming close to diminishing the work of all the wonderful musical contributors on both the old and the new versions of West Side Story.
I was either nine or ten years old when I saw Nightmare Alley for the first time. It starred Tyrone Power, a huge deal in the Hollywood of the 1940s, in what was quite a departure from the swashbuckling, leading man roles that had helped make him famous. This film noir presentation, with its very un-Hollywood type ending, made quite an impression on the pre-pubescent me…enough so that when it was recently re-run on the TCM channel, I found myself…once again… semi-spellbound, until the wee hours of the morning.
Now I have seen it again…this time with a new Hollywood heart throb, Bradley Cooper. The Tyrone Power version was nominated for Best Picture by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This new one may also be nominated, primarily (I think) because of its pedigree (Oscar winning director Guillermo del Toro, impressive cinematography by Dan Laustsen, the production design by the extremely talented Tamara Deverell, and an all-star cast led by Cooper, then Mara Rooney, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette, William Dafoe, Ron Perlman, David Strathairn, Mary Steenburgen, and Richard Jenkins).
I need to be perfectly clear: this is not a great movie. The original wasn’t either. Still, there is a great deal about it that resonates. It did for me when I was ten, and it sorta still does. Obviously, it did for director del Toro as well, and he certainly is no easy pushover.
One thing still nags at me. My memory of that night in the theatre nearly three quarters of a century ago was of a film with a very gruesome and shocking ending. I was therefore brought up short when watching TCM and seeing the film again. There, on my TV screen, just before the end credits, was the promise of some hope…not at all the ghastly scene I had remembered from all those years ago.
The possibility of an alternate ending replacing the one I saw so many years ago is not far-fetched. One example would be at Warner Brothers, where at least two alternate endings were ordered photographed for Casablanca. Such a thing was not uncommon back in the big studio era of Hollywood.
The rationale for doing such a thing should be obvious. Happy endings were so de rigueur in the film capital that they were actually called The Hollywood Ending. It might well have been argued at the time that a softer conclusion be inserted to replace the one I originally saw, in a vain attempt to turn around what would (no matter what they did) become a notorious box office failure.
Del Toro does not provide any answer with his Bradley Cooper version. He splits the difference between the two ending extremes, and once again, Nightmare Alley proves to be anything but a dream at the American box office which… to date…is the only place one can see this motion picture remake.
C’Mon C’Mon: In a year with no obvious “winner” to take home the Oscar at the Academy Awards, this tiny movie just might pull it off. Believe me, stranger things have happened. In Cagney & Lacey… and Me I relay a story about Director Ray Danton, after I had turned him down on his argument for an additional day of shooting on a Cagney & Lacey two-parter. Finally, admitting defeat, he paraphrased Robert Browning, as he sighed, “Ah but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp or what’s a heaven for?”
I remember nodding, then countering with a phrase of my own: “Ah, but ‘tis better to aim for San Diego, and hit it, then to shoot for the moon and fall on your ass.” Director Mike Mills has done just that. A perfect bullseye on “San Diego.”
The movie may be small, but it is a gem. Joaquin Phoenix is terrific in his role as an all too human, quirky kind of leading man. Gaby Hoffmann, as his sister, is equally real. But it is nine-year-old Woody Norman who is nothing short of spectacular as the boy who will steal your heart as he simultaneously runs away with this brilliantly directed little movie. You can rent C’Mon C’Mon on iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, YouTube and Vudu.
The Harder They Fall: Think of maybe the best spaghetti western you ever saw, mix it with an old-fashioned blaxploitation flick, stir in Nina Simone, Jay Z, and other Black icons of the music world, then populate the screen with some of the best and most charismatic actors you have probably never (or rarely) seen, and the sound that you hear just may be John Ford turning over in his grave.
As the movie starts… and (again) at the very end of the lengthy list of end credits…there is a note that, although the story is fiction, “These people existed.” I dunno. Could be, but if so, Hollywood certainly took its own sweet time to get around to putting them together in a movie.
…And a movie it is. It is only the second film directed by Jeymes Samuel, but it is filled with all the solid cinematic fun stuff you hope to see in a Hollywood action flick. It is not for everyone… certainly not the squeamish, or the kind of folks who define a western by the standard of Power of the Dog or Lonely Are The Brave.
This one is right out of Sergio Leone’s playbook, assuming of course, that he could ever conceive of dramatizing the old west with an entirely Black cast while also delivering the goods in a grisly story of betrayal, revenge, and greed, peppered in with a few tender scenes of loyalty with just a smidgeon of sex and all served up with plenty of red sauce gushing out of open wounds.
There is humor as well: a bank robbery that takes place in an all-white town that is painted…wait for it…all white. Even the horses are white. There is Regina King, wearing a dress that is sort of an homage to what her character wore in HBO’s Watchmen. And there are some terrific fight scenes, the best of which is between Ms. King and Stagecoach Mary, played by the very beautiful Zazie Beetz. No cat fight, this. It is a legit, down, and dirty action sequence.
Reality is of course stretched beyond any reasonable limit, but once you are into this movie you do not care as it is all you can do to keep from spilling your popcorn. See it on Netflix and enjoy it for what it is, a solid piece of movie craft.
More to come, but hopefully only one more for this season. Meanwhile, may the New Year become a happier one than the last…and, please, much sooner, than later.
These last entries are just that. Not a complete list by any means, they are, nonetheless, all I am going to review. I am eager to get on to other stuff…true notes from my warm island, and not simply reviews and commentary on other people’s work. I am at an age where one movie a night is about all I can manage, and it probably is no accident that as you read toward the bottom of these latest entries you will notice me getting increasingly critical and/or dissatisfied.
It could simply be that these last films are the lesser of the obvious “hot” choices for Award Season. Could be…but I submit it just possibly could be that I found myself getting grumpier and grumpier with the process itself. All that said, here goes with the final seven of a group totaling nearly two dozen feature motion pictures from 2021.
King Richard: Is available on HBO Max and is going to win a lot of awards from a whole bunch of diverse groups. Whether that plethora of hardware will include an Oscar or two is hard to say, but I can assure you of one thing, it is a very satisfying film. The King Richard of the title refers to Richard Williams, the father of Venus and Serena Williams, the great female duo of American tennis. Will Smith plays the title role and does so brilliantly. He is matched, stroke for stroke, by Aunjanue Ellis who plays Oracene “Brandi” Williams, the wife of King Richard and the mother of their exceptional children.
There is much more going on in this film than just tennis, but tennis is what brings about the film’s rousing conclusion and, as a result, evokes much of the movie’s emotional response…depending on who you are.
It is perhaps all too easy to forget that there was a time…not that long ago…where all white garb worn by tennis players was not the only pale item on the courts.
As a Jew growing up in East Los Angeles…and who attended USC in the mid-1950s…I have some appreciation for what it must have been like to come from Compton, California to play tennis on the Junior Circuit as a Black teenager. Let me pause to emphasize the modifier “some.”
The truth is I can only begin to imagine the feelings of any Black man or woman viewing the scenes in the earlier parts of the history of the Williams family which, I am convinced, must resonate well beyond what the well-crafted re-creation of tennis matches do near the movie’s end.
Hollywood sports’ movies date back to the silent days and Charlie Chaplin (The Champion, 1915). They include such great movies as Moneyball, Field of Dreams, Million Dollar Baby, Jerry Maguire, Raging Bull, Friday Night Lights, A League of Their Own, Rudy, The Natural, The Longest Yard, Bull Durham, Rocky, The Pride of the Yankees, The Champ, North Dallas Forty, The Great White Hope, Battle of the Sexes, The Blind Side, and Mark Robson’s Champion.
In the pantheon of Hollywood motion pictures with a sport at its center, King Richard, will rank close to the top of any list. It serves us all as a social document as well, not only because of its content, but for the simple fact that it exists at all. Take a moment; check out that list of great sports’ movies one more time and note that only The Great White Hope and The Blind Side feature a person of color. In a sporting world, dominated by great Black athletes, it says a great deal about we as a people…as well as the movies that reflect us…that the adding of King Richard, only brings to three the number of films on that list that have acknowledged the impact of Black men and women in the world of sport.
Lansky: Not really an award contender, but an interesting small movie with the always interesting Harvey Keitel in the title role playing Meyer Lansky, the one-time infamous head of America’s Murder, Inc. This purportedly true yarn answers some questions as to Lansky’s early days and, many more about the latter stages of his life. It is worth the ninety or so minutes of your time if you have one of those evenings where you want to watch something new, but do not want to get too emotionally entangled. I know…I know, this is damning with faint praise. The film is better than that, but not by much. Lansky is in theatres, or rentable on all the usual platforms.
The French Dispatch: There is a thing we used to call a “location joke,” meaning a statement that should get a laugh, but doesn’t, followed by the phrase, “I guess you had to be there.” That is sort of how it feels to attempt a review of a Wes Anderson movie. There is no question the guy is a genius, but you sort of know, going in, that not everyone is there yet…may never be there…or… maybe… simply does not want to go there.
This is a fabulous movie that is not for everyone…and…may not be for anyone…very much. It is special. It is funny. It is beautifully photographed, staged wonderfully, and features some of the best actors in all of cinema. What then could possibly go wrong? Apparently, just about everything: mixed reviews, mediocre box-office results, and a consensus among Anderson fans that The French Dispatch in no way lives up to its predecessors, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Moonrise Kingdom, The Royal Tenenbaums, The Fantastic Mr. Fox, and more.
I dunno. It is, for me, a stand-alone work, but one I would only recommend to cinema die-hards who do not mind quirkiness, arbitrary segues to animation, jokes that lay a little flat (unless you are in a room full of true Anderson afficionados), episodic storytelling, or other various and sundry elitist conceits.
Only now have I realized that my previous paragraph holds the key to your viewing enjoyment of this unique motion picture. Effort is required, for the task will not be an easy one: A) find yourself a room full of true Anderson aficionados… ideally, and here is the hard part… aficionados who have yet to see The French Dispatch…B) round them up, C) rent the film from Amazon Prime or any number of similar platforms, D) screen the movie. Trust me, with this bunch it is not necessary to serve popcorn.
Coda: There are simply too few feel-good movies out there. Fortunately for all of us there is Coda… a remake of a French film of a few years back about a teenage girl who loves to sing, has a real talent for it, and just happens to be the only member of her working-class family of four who is not deaf. It should be relatively easy to imagine the too-numerous-to-mention possibilities. Trust me, they are here in abundance; none have been missed, and they are delivered nicely, if not brilliantly, in this charming film that will make you feel warm and fuzzy all over. That is about all one can ask from this kind of motion picture and, that is about all I have to say about it. Other than this: you can see it on Apple TV with your Roku device.
Licorice Pizza: Director Paul Thomas Anderson has amassed a most interesting filmography over the last twenty years or so, and this latest effort of his is picking up all kinds of top awards and/or nominations from some very prestigious grantors. The list is impressive, even if the movie (currently streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime) is not.
Don’t get me wrong… there is some good stuff here, mostly an interesting screen debut by Alana Haim as the 20-something heart throb of the teenage lead in this coming-of-age saga. There are also some weird, but interesting, cameos by Sean Penn and Bradley Cooper, to name the top two of many who lend themselves to this venture.
The San Fernando Valley in the 1970s is captured in all its area code 818ness, and effective use is made of the music of that period on the film’s soundtrack… there are even a few attempts at semi-serious social commentary. Still, the bottom line is inescapable: the movie is flabby, bloated and directorially undisciplined.
William Faulkner reportedly once said, “In writing you must first kill all your darlings.” It was a commentary on how important it is for one to be ruthless with one’s art. It applies to filmmaking every bit as much as it does to writing. Director Anderson failed to do that basic… and most important thing. Too bad.
The Hand of God: This, too, is a coming-of-age story and it has Licorice Pizza beat…hands down.
Well, almost. Maybe because it is Italian and set in Naples, the hometown of its filmmaker, Paolo Sorrentino. That could help explain why it is a lot more charming. The movie begins and, right away, you feel that you are in the hands of a witty, and wonderful filmmaker. The picture is a ninety-minute delight. Unfortunately, the film goes on for more than two hours. Again, too bad.
Let me clarify. Unlike the flick by Paul Thomas Anderson, this movie’s interior is not bloated, the film simply continues beyond its perfect ending with all that superficial excess clumped into the last half hour. Walk out on this movie after the teen lead is given a great piece of advice immediately following his first sexual experience, and you will have seen one of the better film gems of this year. Stay until the end credits and you will not only have wasted a half hour of your valuable time, but you will also wind up disappointed in a movie you once really liked…for an hour and a half. Judge for yourself on Netflix.
The Tender Bar: Another coming of age drama that really does not belong in this list of potential award winners. It was brought to my attention because of the appearance of Ben Affleck and the celebrity of the director, George Clooney. That is a great deal of fire power for such a minor work, but it does evoke an occasional tear with little doubt that it is a sweet story based on an autobiographical yarn by NY Times Pulitzer Prize winner, JR Moehringer.
Clooney is not yet in the league of Paul Thomas Anderson or Paolo Sorrentino as a director (but on the flip side, I am betting neither Anderson nor Sorrentino can act as well as Mr. Clooney). To give him his due, director Clooney aims for San Diego and gets there, but he does so without flare and without the necessary support this film so desperately needs. That “need” is in the form of two kids…the nine-year-old youth who learns what it is to be a man from the point of view of his bar owning uncle (Affleck) and the latter-day teenager that boy becomes when it is time to go to college and, ultimately, to the NY Times.
The two young actors who play these parts must carry the emotional weight of the movie. It is okay if they lack acting “technique”… or even experience… just so long as they have that ephemeral something that connects when the camera turns on.
Star power is difficult to define, but you sure know it when you see it. Not every film requires it. But in a story such as this, you either find that kid (in this case kids) or you put everything else at risk. It is one of those things you wait for…if you are serious about your art, (and, if of all people, George Clooney isn’t, then why is he doing this? One would assume that he could not possibly need the money).
Unless there are mouths to feed, you wait… and refuse to make the movie until you find what you need. Trust me, there is no measuring the import of failing to cast one’s project properly. Think about it: how many bad versions of Hamlet have you seen in your life? I can assure you, there is nothing wrong with the writing.
Casting makes the movie C’mon, C’mon rise above the pack, and it could not be more essential to Branagh’s Belfast. It is, unhappily for all concerned, that very special thing that Clooney’s movie lacks. If you insist, you can see this on Netflix.
Moving on. There is a lot of talk about many other films I did not take the time to review that you may well want to discover for yourselves: Flee, winner of the Sundance Grand Jury Prize (Amazon Prime), A Hero, (Amazon Prime) Cannes Film Festival Grand Prix Winner, The Last Duel (HBO MAX) winner National Board of Review, Parallel Mothers (Amazon Prime, Vudu, YouTube) winner Venice Film Festival in best actress category (Penelope Cruz), Passing (Netflix), Red Rocket (Vudu) top film of National Board of Review and others, Respect (Amazon Prime), Summer of Soul (Hulu) winner Sundance Film Festival Grand Jury Prize, Mass (Apple iTunes, YouTube and others) multiple national and international awards and nominations, Titane (Amazon Prime) the Palme d’Or winner at Cannes, plus National Board of Review top foreign language film. It is on Amazon Prime.
That is it for 2021. Overall, I think, an improvement (however small) over 2020. In the belief that 2022 will be even better, and considering the general inflationary spiral, I suggest that you begin stocking up on popcorn now.
AND THEN THERE WERE THREE
Okay, I lied. I saw some more movies and could not resist making comment… however brief. Here are three more. Honest, I promise. I am not going to do this again.
ANNETTE: May just be the best movie of which you have never heard. Director Leos Carax is a genius filmmaker who, for reasons I will leave to his biographer, has had too few opportunities to explore his art over a long international career.
Suffice to say, you will not find a more imaginative or innovative movie this year… or anytime soon. Adam Driver’s bravura performance should win him the Oscar for Lead Actor in a Motion Picture. Marion Cotillard is brilliant, beautiful, and sexy; Simon Helberg is simply terrific in support. There should be a special category for young Devyn McDowell who makes a spectacular entrance late in the film surpassing any of the impressive performances by a child seen this year. Can someone, please, produce an “Our Gang” series for Ms. McDowell and the two boys starring in Belfast and C’mon C’mon. I mean, c’mon.
Last note on this: The picture is not for everyone. If you hated La La Land, or even The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, then stick with the movies from Marvel and stay far away from this fanciful, very dark, very sexy… and incredibly special motion picture musical. If you decide to take the plunge, you may brave select motion picture theatres or get it on Amazon Prime.
MASS: A young friend of mine from England, who is building his career as a writer with BBC radio plays, recommended this movie and it makes perfect sense that he would do so. It is a radio play shot on film… the very antithesis of the Carax film, Annette. That should not negate your seeing it. The subject matter and the performances are powerful. Martha Plimpton should certainly get a nod and a nomination from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the best actress category. Her co-stars, Jason Isaacs, Ann Dowd, and Reed Birney are every bit as good, but Ms. Plimpton gets the better moments from screenwriter Fran Kranz. It is on Redbox, Apple TV, Vudu and Prime Video.
Titane: (Amazon Prime, YouTube, Vudu) Is two movies in one… and I did not like either of them very much. It begins with a devilish like child who has a thing for automobiles, even growing up to be an adult serial killer who gets impregnated by a Cadillac. Yes, you read that last sentence correctly. I am fairly certain the filmmaker did not intend to make two separate films… apparently, writer Julia Ducournau (if you will excuse the expression) ran out of gas with the first idea, and so moved on to make a completely different (almost equally as weird) part two. Even more weird are the French. This film received the Palme d’Or at Cannes in a move all too typical for this group who, lest we forget, considered Jerry Lewis to be one of the great auteurs of cinema. Laisse-moi Tranquille.
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