When approaching the end of a year, folks even peripherally associated with show business, tend to break out their best of the year list of TV and motion pictures. What follows is my attempt to keep up with the true professionals who make a living off such lists and, with that disclaimer, let me also disclose that this “list” of mine is still very much one in progress, and not near to being complete.
The why of that is simply stated: 2021 has been a hectic one in the Rosenzweig/Gless household, as any follower of these notes must know. Simon & Schuster has released Sharon’s memoir to Amazon and the nations bookstores, resulting in very good-to-great reviews. A terrific publicity campaign followed (People Magazine, National Public Radio, CBS Sunday Morning, The NY Times, the TODAY Show on NBC, and… coming up next month, The View). And those are only the ones that come immediately to mind. She has been busy, and I have had my role in support.
Still, when I can, I have tried to keep up with what is new in filmland. Here is what I have observed so far, along with a quick comment or two:
The Power of the Dog: If you have even a slight case of ADD do not watch this film. Too often you will find yourself wondering “is this a flashback?” And “who is that?” And “what is going on?” To be fair to the picture makers, the film is beautiful to look at and the performances are sterling. It is a good movie… perhaps even close to being a great movie… but it does make demands of its audience… patience being only one of them. The movie is slow, and the payoff is less than satisfying. But if you are serious about the movies (and judging by this and last year’s crop) at least the people who make them are, then you MUST see this film. It is directed by the woman who years ago helmed The Piano, and it is a worthy successor to that award winning film. One addendum: as I wrote “serious about movies” I kept wanting to ask the question if during these pandemic days the folks green-lighting these films (particularly at Netflix) are being TOO serious. Hello? Does anyone remember Fred and Ginger, and the idea of escapist entertainment?
The Eyes of Tammy Faye: I really wanted to see this, and now, having done so, I cannot think of even one reason why. Pretty much a waste of time in that it not only isn’t good, but it also isn’t a train wreck, or anything deliciously bad. It isn’t even crummy enough to be camp; it is simply a non-event. Even the usually very good Jessica Chastain is ho-hum.
Dune: I have previously written a praise-filled paragraph or three about this very well done, not for everyone, film. At the end of my comments, I wrote something about hoping it would be successful enough in its theatrical release to have the sequel green-lighted to production. It was, and it has been.
Belfast: (Netflix)This could take home the lion’s share of the prizes come award season. It is a sweet and touching recount of “the troubles” of the 1960s in Northern Ireland. And there is a kid in it (Jude Hill) who will steal your heart and warm you up all over. Director Kenneth Branagh does a nice job with this newcomer as well as with this homage to his own childhood.
The Unforgivable: I like almost any movie with Sandra Bullock, and this is no exception. The Unforgivable is, however, forgettable. It is just a sort of well spent couple of hours, with a true Hollywood star, giving a very nice performance. Try it. You will (I would bet) like it. (Netflix).
Finch: (Apple TV) Tom Hanks, who is arguably THE Hollywood star, carries this movie all by himself (unless you want to credit a not particularly interesting dog or a pleasant enough robot). There are not many in the history of the motion picture who can do this. Hanks has now done it twice (remember that thing he did as a Fed Ex delivery man turned Robinson Crusoe?). The guy is sort of incredible… at the very least the 21st century version of Jimmy Stewart… and more. I enjoyed the movie but not as much as I did Hanks’ star-turn in last year’s Greyhound.
I’m Your Man: A German language film that comes closest to making the Artificial Intelligence thing work for a human audience as any I have ever seen. I admired the pic for any number of reasons and commend it to you for your viewing pleasure. Nice performances by the two leads in a thoughtful and smart little motion picture.
Last Night In Soho: A high end psychological thriller starring Anya Taylor-Joy (she of the big eyes in Queen’s Gambit) and Thomasin McKenzie (Jojo Rabbit) and featuring the late Diana Rigg and Terence Stamp. It is meticulously designed by its director and cinematographer as well as being beautifully edited. The two young stars are top-drawer, but the movie suffers from being excessively long and (after a time) having a sense of redundancy. Still, it is an entertaining film, but one that (outside of some possible awards for film craft) does not really belong on anyone’s “Best” list. It’s okay, sometimes a movie is just a movie. This is one of those and it is a good one.
Black Widow, No Time to Die, In The Heights: All previously reviewed, none worthy of award season. The Bond movie is a long slog and a bit pretentious, but if you love the franchise (as I do), it is a fun night at the cinema. Scarlett Johansson has the title role in the Marvel movie, Black Widow, and she makes just about any film worth watching. This may not be one of the best of its genre, but there is plenty there to satisfy any fan of the Avenger idiom. In the Heights almost brings one to the point of thinking that maybe Hamilton was a fluke… that’s how bad this Lin-Manuel Miranda musical is. The first time I saw it on stage I blamed the vast auditorium of the Miami Theatre in which it played after its Broadway run. This time, despite some fine direction from Jon M. Chu, the piece still stinks up the screen. A definite pass.
There are many films yet unseen and even though one has yet to emerge as the clear favorite I am grateful that the tone of these and other films of the year are, although often glum, not as depressing as last season’s crop. Remember those? The Trials of the Chicago 7 was almost a situation comedy in the grouping of Nomadland, The Father, Sound of Metal, Minari and Judas and the Black Messiah.
I have not had time to see them yet, but I am hopeful that such films as C’mon, C’mon, Tick, Tick Boom, Being the Ricardos, Spencer, Don’t Look Up, King Richard, House of Gucci, Coda, West Side Story, The Lost Daughter, Titane… hell, even The Tragedy of Macbeth… might lighten things up compared to last year.
The New year is all but here with an ever-increasing number of films attempting to get under the wire for Academy consideration or (I dunno) maybe income tax credits. Here are some more, with commentary, to add to my previous offering:
The Lost Daughter: Olivia Colman is the darling of every critic you will ever hear from on both sides of the Atlantic. Doesn’t matter what she does, any film or television mini-series she is in is bound to be on everyone’s ten best list. Let me here and now apologize for breaking with that tradition. This movie is a low-key, borderline monotonous, waste of time. Jessie Buckley as Colman’s younger self is interesting, Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith’s daughter, Dakota Johnson, has her moments, and Ed Harris is his usual craggy-faced solid self. Everyone is fine and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut seems to have come off without a hitch, but (I have to ask) who gives a damn? It is a boring movie based on a novel that I am sure I would never be able to wade through, but if you insist on seeing every one of the films that will be nominated, no matter how forewarned, see this on Netflix while on a comfortable couch. It might help your insomnia.
Cyrano… is a poor idea made even worse by certain, what seem to me should have been, obviously poor decisions. Taking a play that is all about the beauty of poetry, and the magnificence of the spoken word, then turning it into a musical… with all the restrictions/limitations that any lyric not written by Stephen Sondheim must endure…is to begin with…a poor idea. Then to remake an Oscar winning motion picture classic with that same limitation only doubles the bad bet.
As in all past renditions, Cyrano refers to Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, not only a 19th century poet extraordinaire, but the finest swordsman in all of France. And, in this case, some swordsman he would have to be, given that Peter Dinklage, the very fine actor who plays the title role, has a reach deficit of something (if you will excuse the expression) short of his opponent’s by perhaps three feet. Tough to win a sword fight with that handicap. But win he does (with nothing to explain away how he conquers this incredible disadvantage….and with nothing on screen to demonstrate a particular acumen, athleticism, or even the last resort moment of cleverness where he whips out a derringer and just shoots his adversary, with the poetic equivalent of “parry that, mother f’…er).
The rest of the story we all know. I was a teenage usher at East LA’s Boulevard Theatre in the early 1950s and watched Jose Ferrer pull this role off show after show without ever being redundant or dull. Steve Martin surprised when he did a semi-wonderful modern-day version of the same story with most of the same 19th century dialogue that somehow Mr. Martin made sound contemporary.
Do not see Cyrano (to begin with it is not worth braving COVID at a movie theatre). Better to rent the one with Mr. Ferrer. I know, I know, it’s in black and white, but deal with it. It is one of the greats and this new version…isn’t.
Don’t Look Up: Director Adam McKay who did such a brilliant job with The Big Short, a movie all about the very complicated financial collapse that hit America at the end of the Bush II administration, now has taken on climate change and the American way of governance with a stellar cast in what is one of the better political satires of this generation. The film is not as good as its predecessor, but it is still worthy, and I commend it to you. As long as the subject of political satire has been broached, let me also commend the CBS limited series Brain Dead written by the same team that brought America two great series, The Good Wife and The Good Fight. Trust me, Brain Dead is worth your time and will tickle your funny bone. These TV offerings are both on Amazon Video and Paramount+. Don’t Look Up can be streamed on Netflix.
Spencer: May be currently rented (or purchased) through Amazon Prime for streaming at home. Kristen Stewart is a legitimate candidate to be Oscar nominated for this character study which primarily focuses on a weekend in the country with her folks… the Royal Family of England. It is time for the annual holiday family fete, a time of coming together, but Princess Diana’s world is doing just the opposite. The unraveling of all of that is the conceit of the movie as it presumes to know what was going on in the mind of the people’s princess at that particular time, and in that unique place. I found it interesting, if not entertaining, and was (as indicated above) impressed by Ms. Stewart’s performance. The rest of the movie… the sets, the supporting players, the cinematography is all English top drawer. Aficionados of The Crown should be forewarned of potential disappointment with this incarnation of the British Royals.
Operation Mincemeat: An English film, doing what the English filmmakers do best; a World War II spy drama based on a true story that, if you are into this sort of thing, will engage you every step of the way. A cast led by Colin Firth and some other folks you will recognize from HBO’s Boardwalk Empire and Succession is simply flawless. This will not ring any bells at Academy Award time, but it is a movie staple that is as good as any ever made in this idiom. It should soon be on Netflix, and if not, in your local theatres.
Benedetta: This is a French film, which some might say, does what the French do best; that is making a sensual, very sexy movie. Except, it ain’t all French. Paul (Basic Instinct) Verhoeven, the director, is Dutch and it is very much his imprimatur that is on this movie that takes place at a convent in the 17th century as it tells what is reputed to be the true story of a nun and her lesbian lover. The film is uneven in the telling, but overall, the film maker’s work, and that of his cast, is compelling. This movie is not for everyone. The brief description already outlined should suffice for why that is, but beyond that are the religious visions that are graphically portrayed along with the disturbing dramatization of the Catholic church of that long ago time. Virginie Efira is gorgeous, in addition to being often brilliant in the title role. Daphne Patakia is believable in support, as are Charlotte Rampling and Lambert Wilson. So far this film can only to be found in movie theatres.
The Tragedy of Macbeth: In my lifetime there have been three important filmed versions of The Scottish play by William Shakespeare. First—few would say foremost—was the Orson Welles version, followed shortly thereafter by Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, and then, decades later, Roman Polanski’s take on the Bard’s play. Now there just may be four. The Joel Coen motion picture, starring his wife, Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth, and Denzel Washington as her husband, the man who would be King, comes close as a qualifier to be included in this prestigious list. Close, but (just maybe) no cigar.
The movie is both spartan and stylish at the same time, owing more to the visual style of Olivier’s Academy Award winning Hamlet than it does to any of its predecessors by Welles, Kurosawa, or Polanski. The sets are stark, and their architecture is heightened by the lights and shadows of Bruno Delbonnel’s austere black and white photography.
Considering the violent nature of the play itself, the motion picture does little to cater to any appetite for blood and gore. Mr. Coen seems more than aware that what distinguishes this Shakespeare epic is not the play itself, but that it features some of the best moments of human speech ever written in the English language. That is “where the money is” and that is what Mr. Washington and Ms. McDormand deliver… pretty much. I was, in the final analysis, a bit less than knocked out, but (in fairness) the actor’s minimalist approach to dialogue and monologue fit right in with the overall austere design of the film itself. Suffice to say, even without the actors, the director, or the cinematographer bringing chills into and through the spines of their audience, this quartet will all be nominated come Academy Award time. But if I had to make a bet, I would seriously consider the best chance at a long-shot Oscar take-home to be supporting actress Kathryn Hunter who, single-handedly, plays all three of Shakespeare’s witches and does so brilliantly. Trust me, about her: something special this way comes.
And so too will more movie reviews. To be continued.
Here’s hoping 2022 brings less Covid and more Fred & Ginger.
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Thank you, Barney. Stewart and I have become so overwhelmed with movie and TV choices, and not enough time to sit back and enjoy them, that your reviews help us decide what’s worth watching or not! Besides, to date, we appear to appreciate the same shows and films. So, again, thanks for keeping us informed! Dena