Friday, December 31, 2021

Short Takes: December VII - Films

Reviews: C'mon C'mon, The Lost Daughter, Spider-Man: No Way Home

C'mon, C'mon (c) A24

Film: “C’mon C’mon” 
In Cinemas 

Director Mike Mills has certainly come a long way since his debut with “Thumbsucker” in 2005. While that Ritalin-soaked movie had some intermittent joys, mostly from the cast that included Keanu Reeves as a dentist, it wasn’t until “Beginners,” with its Oscar-winning performance by the late Christopher Plummer, and especially “20th Century Women,” which garnered Mills his first Oscar nomination for screenplay, that I really began to understand his vibe and his themes on the modern American family as seen through the eyes of children. In his latest movie, “C’mon, C’mon,” Mills tries to change perspectives to those of the adults in the family and I am sad to say it’s a noble but flawed attempt. A bachelor uncle named Johnny (Joaquin Phoenix) volunteers to look after his 10-year-old nephew Jesse (newcomer Woody Norman) while his sister Viv (Gaby Hoffman) deals with problems in her marriage. The familiar plot holds no new insights about the balance of work and family because, through no fault of young Norman, Jesse is written as such a bratty, spoiled kid that it sort of diminishes the family side of the argument. The irony is that the movie is filled with honest and sincere kids as Johnny’s latest assignment as a journalist is to interview children about the state of the world. Those moments are so genuine and interesting that I wished Mills had made a whole movie about those kids and not Jesse. Phoenix is very good as Johnny until the plot requires him to be neglectful of his uncle duties, which feels fabricated. However, Gaby Hoffman as Viv shines with warmth and honesty, which in turn makes her relationship with Jesse feel authentic. Towards the end of the film, when a détente between uncle and nephew has been reached, I still felt I was being manipulated by the mechanism of the plot to enjoy the resolution. I wanted to love this movie, but I was sadly disappointed. 

Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Oscars Outlook 2021: December 2021

The Lost Daughter (c) Netflix

December 2021 

With critics groups weighing in and two major award precursors announced, the Oscar race is getting clearer, although, one shouldn’t shelve hunches just yet. While Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “The Lost Daughter” is getting more attention than I would have guessed, maybe its win at the Gotham Awards made the movie more of a must see than other screeners for critics and Academy members alike. And while I think it’s still not a shoo-in for Best Picture, Olivia Colman as Best Actress and Gyllenhaal’s screenplay is certainly in play. 

But I am still holding out for my hunches. Here are some predictions I’m hanging onto in each category, most have not gotten any love at all with the precursors: 

Best Picture: The French Dispatch 
Best Actor:
Michael Keaton – Worth 
Best Actress:
Tessa Thompson – Passing 
Best Supporting Actor:
Timothy Spall – Spencer 
Best Supporting Actress:
Marlee Matlin – CODA 
Best Director:
Julia Ducournau – Titane 
Best Original Screenplay:
Bergman Island – Mia Hansen-Løve 
Best Adapted Screenplay:
tick, tick…Boom! – Steven Levenson 

Monday, December 27, 2021

Review: Wonderful "Memoria" Has a Plot and Tilda Swinton Investigates Why

Memoria (c) Neon

Film: Memoria 

In Cinemas (in perpetuity) 

Premise: Jessica (Tilda Swinton) tells her sister Karen “I think I’m going crazy.” And Karen responds, “It’s not the worst thing to be.” Yes, she’s being cheeky, because she thinks Jessica is being silly, but Jessica is very serious, although maybe not in her tone. Jessica is a British woman currently in Colombia, and she was recently woken up by a loud bang, a noise she cannot explain. Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest meditation on the meaning of life in a world full of mysteries starts with this mysterious noise, which continues at random times as Jessica tries to discover why this MacGuffin is following her and no one else (not dissimilar to Elsa’s journey in “Frozen II” – the only time, I dare say, in film discussion that anyone will compared an Apichatpong film to a Disney one). I have seen all but one of his previous films ever since his breakthrough indie hit “Tropical Malady,” and I knew what to expect: long uninterrupted stretches of nature; rarely using close-up shots, preferring to let the audience search the screen for what he wants you to see; and just the strangeness of the world that only those attuned can grasp. For over two hours, he has taken over your mind – how much stays in your memory is up to you. 

Friday, December 24, 2021

Short Takes: December VI - Films

Reviews: The King's Man, The Tender Bar, Encounter

The King's Man (c) 20th Century Studios

Film: The King’s Man 
In Cinemas 

Just in time to fill the hole left by Daniel Craig’s farewell to the James Bond franchise comes the best movie in the Kingsman franchise. That it’s a prequel is probably what gave Matthew Vaughn a license to rethink the series, and did he ever. This, as well as “No Time to Die,” are the best action movies of the year. While I certainly admired a lot of the first Kingsman film, the excessive style on screen couldn’t hide the plot holes or character motives. It was only exacerbated in the sequel which took the action to even more unbelievable extremes. And while “The King’s Man” does have outrageous set pieces, it all feels grounded in its World War I milieu. Ralph Fiennes is perfect as the pacifist at the center of the film, but the supporting characters are the real stars. Rhys Ifans is doing what Jared Leto has been trying to perfect in his recent whacked–out roles – that is to be over-the-top while still living in the world of the film, and so he does with his Rasputin, which is just madcap fun. I liked Harris Dickinson (in his best role since “Beach Rats”) as Fiennes’ son, who at one point becomes a hilarious thirst trap to further the plot, and Gemma Arterton and Djimon Hounsou, who have more to do than their servant roles would have you believe. The only disappointment is the villain, who, unlike Samuel L. Jackson and Julianne Moore in the previous films, is left a mystery, but if you do the math, it’s very easy to figure out their identity. But it’s the script, which is full of wit and pathos and some ingenious plot twists, that makes this movie work so well. The action sequences, including ones involving a ram, a biplane and run through No Man’s Land, are as violent as anything as Vaughn directed, but feel germane to the plot this time around. A perfect diversion for families that need something to fill up time during the holidays. Just leave the kids at home. 

Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Film: Parallel Mothers

Parallel Mothers (c) Sony Pictures Classics

Film: Parallel Mothers 
In Cinemas 

Premise: Janis (Penelope Cruz) is a successful photographer in Spain, but her life project is to get a plot of land, which she believes holds the remains of her great grandfather and others who were taken during the Spanish Civil War but were never seen again. She meets an excavator named Arturo (Isreal Elejalde) and after a night together, she becomes pregnant. Arturo is married so Janis decides to have the baby on her own. In the hospital, she shares a room with a young girl named Ana (Milena Smit), who is also about to have a baby. The two bond at the hospital and after giving birth. Ana’s backstory includes divorced parents who used her as a pawn for their own gains, and the father of Ana’s baby also holds dark secrets. As their friendship grows, Janis also must face the upcoming excavation of the grave and how important the present is informed by the sorrows of the past. 

Friday, December 17, 2021

Short Takes: December V

Reviews: Flying Over Sunset, Nightmare Alley, The Hand of God 

Flying Over Sunset (c) Joan Marcus

Theater: Flying Over Sunset 
At Lincoln Center Theater 

What does Cary Grant, Clare Boothe Luce and Aldous Huxley have in common? They lived in Hollywood in the 1950s and in the new musical, “Flying Over Sunset,” they also (fictitiously) dropped LSD together at Luce’s Southern California home. Before their joint “flight,” the musical, with music by Tom Kitt (“Next to Normal”), lyrics by Michael Korie (“Grey Gardens”) and a book and direction by James Lapine (“Sunday in the Park with George”), shows each having their first solo experience with the drug. Actor Grant (Tony Yazbeck) wants to try the drug that his wife is using in his therapy session, author Huxley (Harry Hadden-Paton) is trying to get over the death of his wife and congresswoman Luce (Carmen Cusack) just wants to try something new and exciting (even though she is politically conservative). Despite its bold approach and good intentions, this production is a jumble of contradictions. The songs are experimental in nature, and in their first collaboration, Kitt and Korie have written some of their best songs in years. But by the end of the almost three-hour show, not much of the music, save the title song, stays in one’s memory. The storytelling is solid with its deliciously bold “what if” plot keeping the audience on its toes, but the trips these three ultimately take become sort of predictable as they don’t vary much in their Freudian subject matters. The choreography by Michelle Dorrance is modern and interesting, except she relies too heavily on the same walking tap moments that get tiresome. And the acting by the core four (Robert Sella is their LSD enabler) is quite engaging, but the rest of the company doesn’t have much to do. Even the cavernous Vivian Beaumont stage occasionally feels both empty and overstuffed in Beowulf Boritt’s mostly inventive sets. I wanted so much to love this musical. Although I admire it immensely, once it was over, the promised flight of the title was unfortunately no more transporting than the local IRT train at the nearby 66th St. Station. 

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Theater: The Streets of New York

The Streets of New York (c) Carol Rosegg

Theater: The Streets of New York 
At Irish Repertory Theater 

Premise: It’s 1837, and the banks are about to fail (an event that seems to happen at least once a century in the US). Evil banker Gideon Bloodgood (David Hess) is planning to leave New York and ensconce with all the bank’s cash when a clerk named Badger (Justin Keyes) tells him he has figured out his plan and wants in, or he’ll report Bloodgood to the police. Fast forward 20 years, Bloodgood and his bank are thriving while the Fairweather family (yes, subtlety is not this play’s strong point), whose money Bloodgood stole, is on the brink of financial ruin, not knowing that Badger might have some evidence that could save them. Add to this mix, a gentle family named the Puffys who are trying to help the Fairweathers, as well as the nobleman Mark Livingstone (Ben Jacoby), who has also fallen onto hard times. He loves Lucy Fairweather (DeLaney Westfall) but is being pursued by Bloodgood’s spoiled daughter Alida (Amanda Jane Cooper), who is looking to marry Livingstone for his title. Oh, and by the way, this is a musical! 

Sunday, December 12, 2021

Short Takes: December IV - Film

Reviews: Don't Look Up, Being the Ricardos, Drive My Car, France

Don't Look Up (c) Netflix

Film: Don’t Look Up 
In Cinemas and Netflix (on December 24) 

When most of you watch “Don’t Look Up” on Christmas Eve with your family, and why not with the dazzle of Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett in the cast, it might break the agreed upon “no politics” détente made for family gatherings. And that’s because (surprise, surprise) director Adam McKay has found the perfect metaphor for our current political climate: a comet is hurtling towards Earth and somehow Americans, lead by a corrupt president (Streep) and her idiot son (Jonah Hill), have found a way to politicize it. DiCaprio and Lawrence play the scientists who discover the comet and are routinely shocked at how much America (and for that matter, the world) doesn’t care. McKay, whose last two movies, “Vice” and “The Big Short” (both Oscar nominated for Best Picture) have used history to comment on the corruptibility of Americans, but this work of speculative fiction is a bit lost at sea. The satire is rather easy and not as sharp as McKay thinks it is. Most of the actors are fine (it’s fun to see DiCaprio and Blanchett together again after “The Aviator”), but the most egregiously indulgent are Hill, who seems to be ad-libbing all his unfunny lines, and Mark Rylance doing an even more benevolent annoying billionaire character than the one he played in “Ready Player One.” Like the all-star dud “Mars Attacks” from 1996, which now has a cult following, this all-star mashup might look quaint one day. Quaint, maybe, but never sharp. 

Friday, December 10, 2021

Short Takes: December III - Theater

Reviews: Kimberly Akimbo, Selling Kabul, Is There Still Sex in the City? 

Kimberly Akimbo (c) Ahron R. Foster

 Theater: Kimberly Akimbo 
At Atlantic Theatre Company


Kimberly Levaco is about to turn 16, which is a big deal for most kids, but it’s doubly important for her since that’s the age doctors didn’t believe she would ever reach. Kimberly has a rare condition where her body grows old faster, so at almost 16, she looks 70. If this sounds like it’s going to be a heavy drama, well, you don’t know playwright David Lindsay-Abaire. His play was one of the funniest shows I saw in 2003 when I saw it at Manhattan Theatre Club. But the current show at the Atlantic is his musical adaptation of that play, and it may be even funnier. He wrote the book and the songs (with composer Jeanine Tesori) and the show seems to have a sharper, more optimistic spirit. Jessica Stone’s direction is bright and airy, and the cast is uniformly excellent. But, attention must be paid to the elegant Victoria Clark playing a convincingly awkward teen as Kimberly, the almost untouchable Bonnie Milligan as Kimberly’s grifter aunt, and making an impressive off-Broadway debut is Justin Cooley as Kimberly’s only friend Seth. Considering the subject matter, the second half does fall into some familiar disease-of-the-week tropes, but it recovers nicely. This is probably the first great musical I’ve seen in the post-Covid era. 

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Film: West Side Story

West Side Story (c) 20th Century Studios

Film: West Side Story 
In Cinemas 

Premise: It is New York in the late 1950s and a swath of the West Side neighborhood of Manhattan is being razed to make way for a new performing arts complex known as Lincoln Center. In this landscape, two rival gangs are fighting to claim dominance of this soon-to-be demolished area. The Jets are white and the Sharks are Puerto Ricans, and a fight seems to break out every day between them. Tony (Ansel Elgort), the head of the Jets, was recently released from prison for almost killing a rival kid and swears to go straight, but Riff (Mike Feist) who has led the Jets in his absence keeps trying to pull him back in. At a dance in which both gangs are invited to show how much they have in common, Tony meets Maria (Rachel Zegler) and it’s love at first sight. But before you can say Montagues and Capulets, Maria is taken away by her friend Anita (Ariana DeBose) and her boxer brother Bernardo (David Alvarez), who just happens to be the head of the Sharks. Told by both respective gangs to stop seeing each other, Tony and Maria don’t listen and decide their love will transcend their differences. 

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Short Takes: December II - Family Fare

Reviews: The Alchemist, a comedy; Cheek to Cheek: Irving Berlin in Hollywood; Encanto 

The Alchemist, a comedy (c) Carol Rosegg

Theater: The Alchemist, a comedy 
Red Bull Theater 

You might think a play about a plague would not be funny at this juncture of our own pandemic, but Jeffrey Hatcher’s adaptation of Ben Johnson’s 17th century play is surprisingly diverting and enjoyable. The plague is only a plot excuse for the master of the house to flee London so his servant Face (Manoel Felciano) and his cohorts can con money out of unsuspecting and naïve marks who believe the alchemist of the title (Reg Rogers) can solve all their woes. This is pure and simple farce and the production directed by Jesse Berger hits all the right marks, although some judicious trimming could have made it zippier. The cast includes some of the best farcical actors in New York, including Carson Elrod and Stephen DeRosa. But the standout has to be Jacob Ming-Trent, who was so memorable as Falstaff in last summer’s Shakespeare in the Park’s “The Merry Wives of Windsor.” He is equally over-the-top foppish and vain here as a man who craves a stone that can turn everything into gold. And there is one throwaway pandemic joke that’s a hoot. A fun evening at the theater for all. 

Saturday, December 4, 2021

Short Takes: December I - Oscar Hopefuls

Reviews:  King Richard, Licorice Pizza, Belfast

King Richard (c) Warner Bros

Film: King Richard 
In Cinemas and HBO Max 

Will Smith has his best chance to win an Oscar for probably his least complicated role as Richard Williams, the devoted and determined father of Serena and Venus Williams, who taught them tennis as kids in Compton and got them noticed to ultimately becoming two of the best tennis players in the history of the game. The film’s feel-good intentions, with occasional detours into social commentary, are in the genre of recent family-friendly films like “Hidden Figures” and even “Green Book” (thankfully without the white savior). The movie is fine and inspiring but there are really no surprises except an enjoyably goofy performance by Jon Bernthal as coach Rick Macci. The two-and-a-half hour running time is also rather a chore, but I did like that director Reinaldo Marcus Green and screenwriter Zach Baylin decided to finally give Venus Williams some agency over her own story at the end, admirably. The reason the film is called “King Richard” is because one, Richard is the center of the film and his rule is law, which makes his unpleasantness and self-righteousness a given (well, there would be no movie if he wrong); and two, the rest of his family barely registers, except for the ferocious Aunjanue Ellis as Queen Brandi. Now that’s the story I would have rather followed.

Friday, December 3, 2021

Film: Flee

Flee (c) Final Cut for Real

Film: Flee 
In Cinemas 

Premise: Director Jonas Poher Rasmussen has been friend with Amin in Denmark since middle school when Amin was a foster home, refugee kid from Afghanistan. Now 25 years later, with his career flourishing and plans to marry his partner, Amin confesses a secret to Jonas about his childhood in Kabul that he feels compelled to confront. Since Amin may not even be his real name, it was going to take some creativity for Rasmussen to make a visual documentary about Amin’s story. So, he opted for animation, which is not the first time a documentary has used this medium (the Oscar-nominated “Waltz With Bashir” was about a soldier’s lost memories of the Lebanon War). Rasmussen peppers in actual news clips and footage from the Kabul throughout the movie to tell “Amin’s” story. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

Film: The Power of the Dog

The Power of the Dog (c) Netflix

The Power of the Dog
In Cinemas and Netflix 

Premise: It is 1920s Montana and the Brothers Burbank are running their family cattle farm. Phil (Benedict Cumberbatch) seems to be enjoying his rough but satisfying life, roughhousing with the workers and drinking the night away. His brother George (Jesse Plemons), on the other hand, who seems to be handling more of the business side of the farm, isn’t very happy, even though Phil tries to get him out of his shell. Enter the widow Rose (Kirsten Dunst), whom George sees as a way out of his unhappiness, and Phil sees as an interloper to his life. Rose also has a college aged son, Peter (Kodi Smith-McPhee). The four outwardly form an uneasy peace, until the vindictive and surly Phil starts to make life miserable for everyone.