CAPERNAUM

Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: A-
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B

You might call Capernaum the “feel-bad movie of the year,” which is perhaps not the best way to sell people on it. It’s absolutely worth seeing, though, even if it’s by virtue of its subtle defiance. Director and co-writer Nadine Labaki seems to be insisting we face the truth of what we’re doing to ourselves.

And it’s not in the manner you might expect. The story revolves around young Zain (Zain Al Rafeea, excellent in his resigned stoicism), who is so scrawny and small he appears much younger than his apparent twelve years of age. He doesn’t even know for sure how old he is; his parents don’t either. No one has any official papers to prove it, and his parents (played by Kawsar Al Haddad and Fadi Yousef) never bothered to care.

And therein lies the point: Zain is suing his parents. His reason? Because he was born.

When it comes to kids who are brought up in crime and squalor, this is honestly an impressively clever idea. Zain didn’t ask for this life, and he has no choice in having had it foist upon him. He’s currently serving five years in a juvenile jail for stabbing a man — or, as he says in court, “a son of a bitch.” This elicits giggles from people in the courtroom, and even from the movie’s audience. Then it slowly dawns on you what the true reason behind the attack may have been.

Zain has too many siblings. He still cares about them, especially Sahar (Haita “Cedra” Izzam), who he helps, in vain, try hiding the fact that, at 11 years old, her menstrual cycle has begun. Before long there is talk of marrying her off to the young man who lets them all live on his property rent free. Zain, understandably, doesn’t trust him. His and Sahar’s parents characterize it as a survival move, that they are doing Sahar a favor.

A rather long stretch of Capernaum — which, in the title credits, is translated as “chaos,” a colloquial use of the word that also doubles as the name of a doomed Biblical village — follows Zain after he gets fed up with his family and runs away, surviving on his on on the streets of Beirut. He is taken in by an Ethiopian woman, Rahil (Yardanos Shiferaw), working in Lebanon illegally and with her own infant in tow. Capernaum really takes its time with Zain’s day to day life, particularly the one he settles into with Rahil, and the infant he winds up having to take care of on his own.

Zain is just trying to make the best of his situation, with an even mix of resignation and determination. Once he moves from life with his family to life with Rahil, it becomes less certain who it was he stabbed. This is one of several details that don’t become quite clear until the end, with some creative editing that slightly plays with the story’s timeline and is also borderline contrived. The majority of the story is told in flashback, from relatively odd scenes in the courtroom in which Zain insists his parents should not be allowed to have more children. And we’re left to think about how right he is, whether it’s his Lebanese parents or parents in the world beyond.

Capernaum ends on a hopeful note, albeit one that is as bittersweet as it is emotionally affecting. The last image of Zain’s face will haunt you.

Nothing cute to see here.

Nothing cute to see here.

Overall: B+

THE LEGO MOVIE 2: THE SECOND PART

Directing: B
Acting: B
Writing: B-
Cinematography: B-
Editing: B-
Animation: B+

I would argue that calling this sequel The Second Part is at least partly misleading: after The Lego Movie (2014) and before The Lego Movie 2, we already got The Lego Batman Movie (2017) and The Lego Ninjago Movie (also 2017). I suppose since The Lego Movie 2 is the only one of these actually to be a direct sequel, but these movies clearly all inhabit the same universe, maybe it would be more accurate to call this one The Lego Movie 2: The Fourth Part.

Four movies and five years in, is no one experiencing “Lego Movie Fatigue”? It would seem in fact they are, what with this movie’s opening day box office pulling in 46% less the original film did in 2014.

It’s kind of too bad, honestly — while The Second Part is hardly a masterpiece, and there are periods that are strangely dull for a movie overstuffed with action, I actually did like this one at least slightly more than I did the original. It has something a little more interesting to say about how children breathe life into their toys, at least. In The Lego Movie, that idea felt swiped wholesale from the Pixar Toy Story movies. This time, Director Mike Mitchell expands that to consider how kids’ imaginations change as they get older.

More specifically in this case, the whole conflict between who we are supposed to regard as “the good guys” (voiced by Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Will Arnett, Alison Brie, Nick Offerman and Charlie Day) and “the bad guys” (voiced fantastically by Tiffany Haddish, and Stephanie Beatriz), arises as the result of a growing boy’s younger sister wanting to play LEGOS with him, and their competing imaginary ideas. Much like the far superior Toy Story 3, it gets into how toys are affected by their child owners starting to grow up. The Lego Movie 2 does offer a take all its own, exploring how adversarial ways of thinking can be made to work together.

As is typical with these movies, though, I just wish it had a bit more wit about it. This movie is all of an hour and 46 minutes long, but a good fifteen minutes could have been shaved off of that, saving a whole lot of unnecessary animation work and really tightening up the gags — many of which are pretty good. Movies like this, which clearly aim to pummel the viewer with both humor and action, start to fall flat when the wit dries up.

That said, within this particular series, I can’t help but say one thing I’ve said about all three that I saw: kids will love it. No young child who loves animated feature films and LEGO toys will feel like watching this was a waste of time. They may not re-watch it quite as much as they did previous “Lego Movies,” I suppose. And when it comes to holding the attention of the adults accompanying said children, it does a sufficient job, with plenty of funny pop culture references. It’s always nice, though, when a movie can do better than just be sufficient.

—But wait! One thing I will give this movie that’s way better than sufficient: its soundtrack. The Lego Movie 2, in fact, could be considered at least partly a musical, which at least one character refers to as “the universal language.” This movie has several super catchy songs, the best of which is literally called “Catchy Song.” And if there is any one thing that does indeed make this one worth seeing, it’s the songs.

Okay everybody get in formation . . . for more of this.

Okay everybody get in formation . . . for more of this.

Overall: B

WHAT MEN WANT

Directing: B-
Acting: B
Writing: C+
Cinematography: B
Editing: B-

Well, Mel Gibson is nowhere to be found in it, so What Men Want certainly has that going for it. Honestly, that being a point in its favor should not be underestimated.

Now, to be fair to everyone else who made that movie released in 2000, What Women Want was made far before anyone had any idea what a douche Mel Gibson would reveal himself to be. It was also slightly more realistic about how people think — although there should be an emphasis on slightly. In a male-dominated world, there’s arguably more to be learned by a man gaining the ability to learn what women are thinking, rather than the other way around.

In What Men Want, sports agent Ali Davis (Taraji P. Henson, gleefully making the best of the role) is presented as a woman with her own lessons to learn about “connecting with men.” She’s self-involved and often selfish, although to this movie’s credit, she’s still presented as “likable.” That said, by and large, the men she comes across after bashing her head and then gaining the ability to hear everything they’re thinking, are themselves presented as innocent and pure of heart by default. In other words, this movie is pure utopian fantasy from every angle.

Sure, there’s a couple of men who are villainous. But these men exist only for that purpose: to be specific adversaries to Ali, as plot devices. If this script made any attempt to be at all realistic, probably half the men whose thoughts Ali heard thinking would be aggressively disgusting, somewhere on the spectrum of misogynistic to racist, and often both in equal measure. But then, that wouldn’t make for the fun, light-hearted movie director Adam Shankman (a white guy, incidentally) was going for here.

Now, some of these utopian elements are maybe not so bad — “be the change you want to see,” and all that. There is a couple of hints of real-world struggles we all know a woman like Ali Davis would face; in one scene, she challenges her boss to fire her, after he references “me too” and she suggests he’s only afraid to fire her because she’s a black woman. The fact that virtually none of her coworkers, <i>all</i> of them men in a male-dominated field, have any overtly bigoted thoughts about her, still places this story squarely in fantasy land.

I even have mixed feelings about Ali’s gay assistant, Brandon (Josh Brener — who is straight, though he’s fine in the part), who seems pointedly presented as a gay person who happens to be extremely knowledgeable about sports and is therefore qualified to be a sports agent. I like that the character is still relatively effeminate even within that otherwise “bro culture” context, although it does feel a little like the filmmakers are patting themselves on the back for how “progressive” they’re being. But as long as we’re talking about tokenism, I did like that among Ali’s core group of close friends, instead of there being one token black lady, there’s a token white lady (Wendi McLendon-Covey), although the running gag about her being a foul-mouthed Jesus freak is a little odd.

Ultimately, that is the biggest problem in What Men Want: none of its supporting characters particularly ring true, with the possible exception of Ali’s dad (Richard Roundtree). Ali herself comes closest of everyone in the film, but she otherwise lives in a universe of two-dimensional characters. This movie gave me a fair number of semi-consistent chuckles, but that’s not exactly the ringing endorsement a “fun comedy” would want. Ultimately this is just another throw-away, moderate amusement that no one is going to remember by next week.

And it’s too bad, because it does have some winning performances, and certainly a great lading lady in Taraji P. Henson. It gets bogged down in its script-by-committee: aside from the three writers of the 2000 film receiving credit on this one, this updated script was itself written by another four people (two white guys, two women of color). And although the diversity is necessary and to be commended, it’s not enough on its own to make this movie particularly great.

It’s not exactly awful either, though — What Men Want is palatable for as long as it’s in front of you, in spite of its tendency toward over-the-top diversions. It does seem to represent a transitional time in Hollywood that reflects some turns in the right direction, broadly speaking. That just means there will be more near-misses that get an E for effort. (Or, I guess in this case, a B-.)

what men want.jpg

Overall: B-

THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD

Directing: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: A-
Editing: B+
Special Effects: A-

I guess it may be time for me to stop expressing amazement when a movie is released in 3D and it’s actually done well. They Shall Not Grow Old marks the second time in about as many months that I saw a film I would insist is best seen in 3D (the other being, amazingly, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse). It was perhaps inevitable that technology would advance soon enough to make it worthwhile in the most talented of hands.

A lot of 3D remains a waste of time, mind you — especially if it’s a blockbuster retrofitted with it just to put a pointless premium on ticket prices. Ten years ago, Avatar worked better in 2D, at least in my opinion — most everyone else was wowed by its 3D effects. Perhaps James Cameron’s upcoming sequels will push the format forward by another leap. Given his less than stellar record as a script writer, I’m not holding my breath for a transcendent experience.

So how does They Shall Not Grow Old fit into all this, then? First of all, it’s the first truly impressive documentary I’ve seen in 3D since Pina (2011) — and, like that film, I must stress that the full effect of the experience won’t be nearly the same on a home television screen, I don’t care how large your screen is. Holding the reigns this time is director Peter Jackson, who has a pretty good history of jaw-dropping, cutting-edge special effects. Well, he did with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, anyway. He went in some slightly misguided directions with King Kong (2005) and really went overboard stretching The Hobbit into a trilogy (2012, 2013, 2014), with seriously diminishing returns.

With this far shorter, far more tightly edited documentary — clocking in at a trim 99 minutes — Jackson really gets back on track. It’s cut down from 100 hours of original footage of World War I, archived by London’s Imperial War Museum, which asked him if he could do something original and unique with it. Smartly leaving out any interviews with historians and instead including audio exclusive to remastered tapes of soldiers who lived it, the footage and the testimonials are a visual and oral history (the audio being whittled down from 600 hours of old IWM and BBC interviews) exclusively by those who were there.

That would have been compelling on its own, but Jackson’s film crew went many extra miles in restoring this footage, from correcting the wide variety of film speeds (at that time, all camera footage was shot using a hand crank), to cleaning up the scratching on the pictures, to — perhaps most importantly — colorizing all of the footage from in the trenches.

Some of you might think, Big deal. I’ve seen colorized movies before. Not like this, you haven’t. This is very detailed, painstaking work. Now, I won’t say it’s perfect, and I will even say that the effects here will easily be seen as dated not very many years from now. More projects of this sort will be far more convincing as these techniques develop. As it stands now, this is still unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. In essence, it’s both imperfect and amazing. This footage brings a vividness to the memory of the first World War not seen in decades.

And, given how much World War II overshadows it historically in virtually every single way, it’s kind of easy to forget the true, global significance of World War I — or, as it was known at the time, “The Great War.” It lasted from 1914 to 1918, so it can take a moment to register: oh, right — that war ended a hundred years ago. As it happens, production of They Shall Not Grow Old started in 2014, the centennial anniversary of the war’s start; production finished on the centennial of its finish. This movie is very well timed.

It begins with the naive hopes of incredibly young men volunteering to serve, many so eager to join that they would lie about being the minimum age of nineteen — some of them as young as fifteen. In a sort of dark nod to The Wizard of Oz, the black and white converts to color when things get really horrible: the footage of life in the trenches. By the end of the war, disillusionment has long been set in; there is pointed commentary on there not being any particular celebration when the war was declared over. After all that death — much of which is seen here, a lot of it disturbing, hence the R rating — there is only exhaustion.

The overall effect, especially when seeing many shots of men posing for then-novel motion picture cameras, smiling and unsure of how to compose themselves, is haunting. This is a story of hope turning to naiveté turning to disillusionment turning to complete emotional detachment. I’m not sure Peter Jackson intended this, but it vaguely feels like a harbinger of things us as audiences already know is to come in the world for these people, their society.

The world has changed a truly massive amount in the past 100 years, more so than in any other century prior. Some things never change, though, and the horrors of war is one of them. They Shall Not Grow Old — the title itself more of a dark cloud than a nod to nostalgia — brings a historical record of it to life in a way never seen before.

A post-technicolor look at life in the trenches.

A post-technicolor look at life in the trenches.

Overall: B+

STAN & OLLIE

Directing: B-
Acting: B+
Writing: B
Cinematography: B+
Editing: B-

Maybe John C. Reilly has been too busy to do the lower-tier types of promotion for Stan & Ollie, as he has not appeared on any of the several movie-related podcasts I listen to. Steve Coogan has, though. I heard at least two podcast interviews with him in the past two months, talking about this movie, making me wonder when the hell it will open locally in Seattle, or if maybe it came and went and I somehow missed it. To be fair, one of those podcasts was WTF with Marc Maron, which John C. Reilly had already been interviewed on, about two and a half years ago. And — oh, look: Reilly has also been on NPR’s Fresh Air himself, just last month. But that counts more as a radio show, yes?

I do have a point here, which has two angles. First, the promotion of Stan & Ollie has seemed appropriately old-school, for a movie about Hollywood comic superstars who had been at the peak of their careers in 1937 — 82 years ago. The most widely consumed promotional appearances at that time, no doubt, would also have been on the radio. Now, podcasts are the 21st-century’s answer to radio, essentially free radio on demand, and for the first time, I literally went to a movie solely because of a guest on podcasts supporting this project.

Curiously, I had never once seen a movie trailer for this film, and I go to the movies usually multiple times a week. Who’s behind the promotion of this movie, anyway? Do they even know what they’re doing? I might not even have known this movie existed but for podcasts, or maybe just checking to see what was playing at local theaters.

It usually doesn’t bode all that well for a movie to get a February release date, as it happens. And to be honest, as sweet at Stan & Ollie is — it’s not bad — it still seems fitting. This movie focuses on the waning, later years of Laurel & Hardy’s careers. As in, when their biggest fans were themselves getting on in age. And that was in 1953. How many twentysomethings alive today even know who these guys are?

And therein lies the challenge: sure, it’s possible to make a great movie that resonates with younger audiences even if it’s about largely forgotten movie stars. It’s all in the telling. The very slight issue here is that Stan & Ollie is presented as though made for those audiences that were getting older. In the fifties.

That said, the performances are fantastic, and arguably alone worth watching the movie. John C. Reilly dons a lot of prosthetics to become Oliver Hardy, only recognizable if you look for him in the eyes, and listen to his relatively distinctive voice. Steve Coogan, a consummate character actor, fades more easily into the role of Stan Laurel, although being a native Brit, his attempt at an American accent comes in and out at points.

Ultimately, Stan & Ollie is a sweet testament to enduring friendship, a tale of these two men attempting to keep things going even after resentments about career moves made sixteen years prior, when they were at the peak of their career, in 1937. Director Jon S. Baird, however, can’t seem to move the action far beyond inert. There’s a great scene that commands attention a little more than halfway through the film, in which the two nearly come to blows at a reception, and for a moment I got a little excited that, well, things would actually get exciting. The potential fizzles.

Most of the rest of the time, Stan & Ollie is filled with nostalgic warm fuzzies, and is not interested in much beyond that. It becomes the kind of biopic that will understandably remain of interest to audiences who are already fans of the real people the characters are based on, but I struggle to imagine anyone with only a cursory familiarity with them finding this story all that compelling. It’s a competently told, very well-acted biopic that is pleasantly meandering at best, and listless at times.

It’s about as thrilling as it looks.

It’s about as thrilling as it looks.

Overall: B

I'd Like to Thank the Academy

(And the nominees are . . .)

This year, ten nominations each for Roma and The Favourite, both leading the pack -- I can live with that. Eight nominations for Vice gets something more akin to "whatever" from me, but at least the Academy doesn't seem to be too far out of line with my thinking generally this year. Well, except for one particularly notable snub: no nominations whatsoever for Eighth Grade, which just happens actually to be the best film of 2018.

This is all subjective, of course, and we're all just passing time with this crap. But I've been doing it for years and years, and I'll never stop! Also, if a superhero movie must be the first ever to be nominated for Best Picture, Black Panther is the one to do it. It won't win and it doesn't deserve to, but it sure as shit deserves a nomination; I was way of the possibility that it wouldn't.

There's actually a surprising number of nominees I haven't seen this year. A couple I've never even heard of. As usual of course I have seen the vast majority, so let's get into it.


Actor in a Leading Role

Christian Bale, Vice
Bradley Cooper, A Star Is Born
Willem Dafoe, At Eternity's Gate
Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody
Viggo Mortensen, Green Book

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: Many months ago, I would not have said this was a tough one -- it's toucher now, only because Bradley Cooper's momentum has waned. And this year, the SAG Awards have yet to happen, so making this prediction today is a lot trickier than it will be a week from now. That said, considering the competition, if pressed, I would still predict Bradley Cooper. If not him, at the moment, it looks like it's close to a toss-up between him and Christian Bale.
WHO I THINK SHOULD WIN: My vote since the moment I saw A Star Is Born has never wavered from Bradley Cooper, whose transformation is astonishing -- honestly, even more so than Christian Bale's, even though it's not as flashy and attention-getting.
WHO I THINK SHOULD NOT WIN: How have I not even heard of At Eternity's Gate, let alone seen it? Perhaps it's unfair to declare a performance I have not even seen should not win, but this is a movie that has not in any way been in the national conversation. It simply makes the least sense for that one to win.


Actress in a Leading Role

Yalitza Aparicio, Roma
Glenn Close, The Wife
Olivia Colman, The Favourite
Lady Gaga, A Star Is Born
Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: I feel like this is the one race that nearly every year has the greatest competition, packed with great performances. Many people seem to think Glenn Close will win, largely because she has more nominations without a win than any other actor alive today, but it seems telling to me that The Wife has no other nominations. So this really is a tough one. I'm leaning toward Melissa McCarthy, but I'm probably wrong.
WHO I THINK SHOULD WIN: And this may be sheer bias on my part -- because I actually feel Melissa McCarthy deserves the win.
WHO I THINK SHOULD NOT WIN: I love Lady Gaga, but her performance in A Star Is Born was fine -- not great. She should get the Oscar for Best Song.


Actor in a Supporting Role

Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman
Sam Elliott, A Star Is Born
Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Sam Rockwell, Vice

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: Given the sheer number of nominations for Vice, the unlikelihood of all others in this category, and his legitimately incredible performance as George W. Bush, I think Sam Rockwell has the edge here.
WHO I THINK SHOULD WIN: Upon further reflection, among these five, I think Sam Rockwell gets my vote as well.
WHO I THINK SHOULD NOT WIN: I actively avoided seeing Green Book, as its production has been uncomfortably problematic in far too many ways: its cliched white perspective without bothering to get the story from the family of the black man it was based on; its writer's own bigoted comments (directly aligning himself with Donald Trump, no less); its portrayal of a gay man, just to name a few. Mahershala Ali is a great actor who has done great work -- he deservedly won an Oscar for Moonlight only two years ago -- but even without having seen this movie, I feel I know enough to conclude this is not a particular film that needs to be rewarded.


Actress in a Supporting Role

Amy Adams, Vice
Marina de Tavira, Roma
Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk
Emma Stone, The Favourite
Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: I have no idea! I'd want to give The Favourite the edge, except that it has two nominees in this category, which could split the vote. This is now Amy Adams's sixth nomination with no win, which could give it to her.
WHO I THINK SHOULD WIN: I'm leaning toward Rachel Weisz here, but . . .
WHO I THINK SHOULD NOT WIN: . . . I'd be fine with anyone in this category winning, really. Marina de Tavira's nomination was a genuine surprise; I'm not sure anyone was predicting acting nominations for Roma besides Yalitza Aparicio as the lead. And really, all five of these women are great. That said -- well, Emma Stone did win for La La Land only two years ago. She doesn't need to win for this. (Rachel Weisz also already has an Oscar, but it's been longer since she last won, in 2006, for The Constant Gardener.)


Animated Feature Film

Incredibles 2
Isle of Dogs
Mirai
Ralph Breaks the Internet
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: I feel like this is a close call between Isle of Dogs and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. If critical response has any sway at all, it'll likely go to the latter.
WHO I THINK SHOULD WIN: Much as I did genuinely love Incredibles 2, for once I am not rooting for the Pixar film. Spider-Man is where it's at -- and I say this as someone who avoids superhero movies as a rule! This one is exceptional in far more ways than any of the others, though: the story, the animation, the themes, everything.
WHO I THINK SHOULD NOT WIN: I don't know, Mirai, I guess? This answer is completely unfair since it's the one nominee I did not see. But, I hate anime. And Spider-Man deserves it, god damn it!


Cinematography

Cold War, Łukasz Żal
The Favourite, Robbie Ryan
Never Look Away, Caleb Deschanel
Roma, Alfonso Cuarón
A Star Is Born, Matthew Libatique

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: I'll bet my head on a spike that Roma will win this award.
WHO I THINK SHOULD WIN: Roma for the win! Not enough people saw this movie, but probably enough members of the Academy did. And, true to form for Alfonso Cuarón movies, the cinematography is jaw-dropping.
WHO I THINK SHOULD NOT WIN: I truly loved virtually everything else about The Favourite, but the one thing I disliked about it was its fishbowl-lens cinematography, which I found persistently distracting. I could only get past it after seeing it three times. Even though I am clearly in the minority on this point, cinematography would be the single award I think that movie does not deserve.


Production Design

Black Panther
The Favourite
First Man
Mary Poppins Returns
Roma

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: This is always a hard one to predict. Maybe The Favourite will get this one, since the production design detail of Roma -- which is itself intricate and extensive -- gets a little lost in the black and white cinematography. And The Favourite was shot in opulent, vast palaces that really added to the tone of the story.
WHO I THINK SHOULD WIN: I think I just convinced myself The Favourite should win.
WHO I THINK SHOULD NOT WIN: Mary Poppins Returns was fun, but ... come on.


Costume Design

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Mary Zophres
Black Panther, Ruth Carter
The Favourite, Sandy Powell
Mary Poppins Returns, Sandy Powell
Mary, Queen of Scots, Alexandra Byrne

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: I think I'm going to declare The Favourite as having the edge here as well. It's possible Mary, Queen of Scots actually deserves it, but only two nominations, that movie isn't likely to win anything.
WHO I THINK SHOULD WIN: I actually think Black Panther also has a legitimately decent chance in this category, and you know what? If Black Panther wins any Oscar at all, it should be for its intricately African-inspired costume designs.
WHO I THINK SHOULD NOT WIN: Seeing three nominations for The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a little jarring; I did not expect it to get any, in spite of knowing it did get a very limited theatrical release just to qualify -- thereafter, though, it seemed merely to be a Netflix original streaming movie. Who ever expects Oscar nominations for such things? The times, they are a-changin'. It doesn't deserve this award, regardless. I mean, the cowboy outfits are nice and all, but they're still just cowboy outfits.


Directing

Spike Lee, BlacKkKlansman
Pawel Pawlikowski, Cold War
Yargos Lanthimos, The Favourite
Alfonso Cuarón, Roma
Adam McKay, Vice

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: Conventional wisdom already says this will be another year with a split between Best Director and Best Picture, and in this category more than any other, Alfonso Cuarón is the one to beat. I was surprised to see a second foreign language film in this category (Cold War), but for that one, the nomination itself is the award.
WHO I THINK SHOULD WIN: Honestly? For every film here except for Roma, I feel that had they not been nominated for Best Director, that would have been fair. Only a Roma exclusion would have been a stunning snub. Roma is the only truly deserving winner here.
WHO I THINK SHOULD NOT WIN: I'm going with Adam McKay and Vice. I'm most surprised by his even being included here -- what is with the love for that movie, anyway? It's all right, but also fails to justify its own existence beyond acting parlor tricks. Christian Bale as Dick Cheney is impressive, and also it's not fun to watch the story of Dick Cheney.


Film Editing

BlacKkKlansman, Barry Alexander Brown
Bohemian Rhapsody, John Ottman
The Favourite, Yargos Lanthimos
Green Book, Patrick J. Don Vito
Vice, Hank Corwin

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: Hey, what! Roma isn't even nominated here. That's odd. I do think movies being in any way polarizing hurts its chances, even for a lower-tier award like Editing. And you know which is the only one of these films that is not notably polarizing in any way? The Favourite.
WHO I THINK SHOULD WIN: The Favourite also gets my vote.
WHO I THINK SHOULD NOT WIN: Green Book. Don't give that whitewashing movie any awards!


Foreign Film

Capernaum, Lebanon
Cold War, Poland
Never Look Away, Germany
Roma, Mexico
Shoplifters, Japan

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: I am actually including this category for the first time in roughly a decade this year, because for once I have actually seen most of them! Well, two out of three. I haven't even had a chance to see Capernaum yet, even though it's opening locally soon; also, what the hell is Never Look Away? Hmm, apparently a three-hour German romance about a tortured soul. Whatever, Roma is winning this award. Unless . . .
WHO I THINK SHOULD WIN: What are the odds that Roma wins both Best Picture and Best Foreign Film? Pretty much zilch, I would think -- and, in the absence of Eighth Grade, among the nominees, Roma truly deserves to win Best Picture. And if that should happen? Cold War should win Best Foreign Language Film. It actually is very good.
WHO I THINK SHOULD NOT WIN: Honestly I could not see what the big deal was with Shoplifters. It was fine, but hardly Oscar-worthy.


Makeup and Hairstyling

Border
Mary, Queen of Scots
Vice

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: Border? What the hell is that? -- oh, right, I nearly forgot: this actually did play locally and I never went to see it. Its main characters are borderline disfigured, hence the makeup nomination. It was a very small, Swedish movie that got almost no attention outside critic circles. Therefore, given the massive transformations of both Christian Bale and Sam Rockwell, Vice is sure to win this one.
WHO I THINK SHOULD WIN: Much as I hesitate to throw any awards at Vice, it probably does deserve this one. Maybe Border does too, but I skipped that one.
WHO I THINK SHOULD NOT WIN: Mary, Queen of Scots seems too on the nose for this award these days, to be honest. Both the other nominees clearly deserve it more.


Music (Original Score)

Black Panther, Ludwig Goransson
BlacKkKlansman, Terence Blanchard
If Beale Street Could Talk, Nicholas Britell
Isle of Dogs, Alexandre Desplat
Mary Poppins Returns, Marc Shaiman

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: I bet anything this one will go to Black Panther, which is packed with nuanced, meaningful details in all sorts of its production elements -- not least of which is its score.
WHO I THINK SHOULD WIN: Black Panther should get it. I'd be fine with If Beale Street Could Talk winning, but there is no question Black Panther had the greater reach, and deservedly so.
WHO I THINK SHOULD NOT WIN: I won't go so far as to say any of these movies is patently undeserving, but I will say Mary Poppins Returns is least likely to get it, and that's fine.


Music (Original Song)

"All the Stars," from Black Panther, Music by Mark Spears, Kendrick Lamar Duckworth and Anthony Tiffith; Lyric by Kendrick Lamar Duckworth, Anthony Tiffith and Solana Rowe
"I'll Fight," from RBG, Music and Lyric by Diane Warren
"The Place Where Lost Things Go," from Mary Poppins Returns, Music by Marc Shaiman; Lyric by Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman
"Shallow," from A Star Is Born, Music and Lyric by Lady Gaga, Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando and Andrew Wyatt
"When A Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings," from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Music and Lyric by David Rawlings and Gillian Welch

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: If "Shallow" from A Star Is Born does not win this award, I will saw off my left arm.
WHO I THINK SHOULD WIN: Given its context in a great movie with great music about musicians, "Shallow" also deserves to win this.
WHO I THINK SHOULD NOT WIN: So I went online to refresh my memory of "What a Cowboy Trades His Spurs For Wings," and . . . no.


Visual Effects

Avengers: Infinity War
Christopher Robin
First Man
Ready Player One
Solo: A Star Wars Story

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: This one's hard. First Man is the only one of these movies for which I gave a solid A grade to its special effects, but that movie has so few nominations, who knows? And most of the others were much bigger blockbusters and therefore seen by many more people. I'm going to call this one for Avengers: Infinity War, which, at the very least, had far better effects than the dismal Avengers: Age of Ultron.
WHO I THINK SHOULD WIN: First Man is without question the most impressive movie among these, in terms of its visual effects.
WHO I THINK SHOULD NOT WIN: Ready Player One can fuck right off with its visual effects that were average at best. Why is it even nominated? Just having countless effects shots should not be considered a qualification!


Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, Written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
BlacKkKlansman, Written by Charlie Wachtel & David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott & Spike Lee
Can You Ever Forgive Me?, Screenplay by Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty
If Beale Street Could Talk, Written for the screen by Barry Jenkins
A Star Is Born, Screenplay by Eric Roth and Bradley Cooper & Will Fetters

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: This award often goes to movies with no chance of winning other awards. Does that narrow it down? By that metric, at least after disqualifying The Ballad of Buster Scruggs for its unusually brief theatrical run, I suppose the award will go to Can You Ever Forgive Me?
WHO I THINK SHOULD WIN: I'm going for Can You Ever Forgive Me? here, but would also be perfectly happy with A Star Is Born, whose script spoke to me and made me feel seen in totally unexpected ways.
WHO I THINK SHOULD NOT WIN: The Ballad of Buster Scruggs's six chapters are far too all over the place to be deserving of this award.


Writing (Original Screenplay)

The Favourite, Written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara
First Reformed, Written by Paul Schrader
Green Book, Written by Nick Vallelonga, Brian Currie, Peter Farrelly
Roma, Written Alfonso Cuarón
Vice, Written by Adam McKay

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: This one comes down to Roma and The Favorite, and considering the belabored pacing of the former, I think the latter actually has the edge in this category.
WHO I THINK SHOULD WIN: Much as I really want to reward The Favourite here, upon further reflection, Roma may actually be the most deserving. Its script is far and away the most nuanced of these five.
WHO I THINK SHOULD NOT WIN: Oh have I mentioned, "fuck Green Book"?


Best motion picture of the year

Black Panther
BlacKkKlansman
Bohemian Rhapsody
The Favourite
Green Book
Roma
A Star Is Born
Vice

WHO I THINK WILL WIN: This is so hard to say, because a foreign film has never won this award before. I'll be happy to be wrong, but the alternative being A Star Is Born, I still think that's the most likely winner, and I'd be happy with that as well. It really spoke to me personally in pleasantly surprising ways.
WHO I THINK SHOULD WIN: My #1 movie of the year (Eighth Grade) and my #2 movie (Blindspotting) both criminally received zero nominations -- but, my #3 movie was Roma, and that one received ten. Being forced to choose between these eight movies, Roma is the only choice to make here.
WHO I THINK SHOULD NOT WIN: Hello, Green Book! That movie winning this year would be the most tone deaf thing the Academy has done since Crash won Best Picture over Brokeback Mountain in 2006. Lucky for everyone alive, there's no chance whatsoever that movie will win this award this year.



(Nominations for documentary feature, documentary short, animated short, live action short, sound editing, and sound mixing were also announced, but I don't know enough about them to make any worthwhile observations.)

The 91st Academy Awards telecast will air on ABC Sunday, February 24 at 5 p.m. Pacific Time. .

COLD WAR

Directing: A-
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: A-
Editing: A-
Music: B+

I don’t usually call out the music in a movie unless it’s a musical — or, as in the case of A Star Is Born, barely short of a musical because it’s about singers who are performing original music. In the case of Cold War, one of its many pleasures is its music, which features far more than expected. It doesn’t quite veer into even “almost a musical” territory, but the female lead, Zula (a captivating Joanna Kulig) is indeed a singer. It’s how she meets her star-crossed lover, Wiktor (Tomasz Kot, mostly stoic), as he is a music director and she cons her way into a group of young musicians scouted from the Polish peasantry in the early 1950s.

These two are mismatched, their backgrounds are incompatible, they cannot let each other go, they cannot stand each other, they are doomed to love each other beyond all others even as their lives dissect intersect, though many years, well into the mid-sixties. This is an incredible time span to cover in a run time of all of 89 minutes, but somehow director and co-writer Pawel Pawlekowski (Ida) manages it.

From the Polish folk music beginning, the narrative moves to Berlin to Paris to Yugoslavia and back to Poland again, Zula’s career as a singer and Wikto’s career as a musician figuring prominently every step of the way. There are moments when the music subtly reveals itself to be subtly quite pretty, even when Zula is merely singing scales.

As you might have guessed, the Cold War is the literal backdrop of this romance that somehow manages to be epic even within a brief run time. If Cold War proves anything, it’s that a movie has no need for en endless run time to convey true depth. Granted, this is still a stylized foreign film, shot in black and white no less, that will test some short attention spans. It’s also a feast for the eyes of anyone who appreciates a striking and start aesthetic, as even without color, Cold War is beautifully shot.

I kept expecting something more overtly political to the story, but Pawlekowski keeps the narrative grounded firmly in romance, with Eastern European sociopolitical issues merely as its framework, or its lens. Perhaps there is a more overt metaphor at play here, a bit of food for the pretensions of film studies majors. I did not find anything particularly cold about the fire between these two, though — burning passions that veer between romance and resentment.

And then Zula is singing into a microphone at a club, and the sequence is captivating. She drinks a little too much, jumps into a crowd dancing to “Rock Around the Clock,” and the choreography and camera work are impressive. I can’t say I found Wiktor to be the most compelling character; he spends a lot of time staring expressionlessly. He looks good, though. That said, literally everyone in this movie does.

The ending takes a turn that will stay with me a while, especially with a uniquely perfect final line of dialogue. It seems to be the only fate for these two, who forge entire lives independent of each other and yet keep returning to each other, that makes sense. Cold War didn’t quite speak to me with as much profundity as it evidently is with most critics, but it certainly has a sensibility all its own, a point of view from a time and place that reverberates beyond its own confines. It somehow turns a universal concept into a singular experience.

A couple in stark relief.

A couple in stark relief.

Overall: B+

DESTROYER

Directing: B
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B
Editing: B

For all its impressiveness, Destroyer is also kind of a stunt. Sure, Nicole Kidman is mostly unrecognizable as beat-up Detective Erin Bell, and it’s thus one of the most amazing transformations of her career. But how badly did we need this transformation? How many times do we need to marvel at beautiful Hollywood actresses “playing ugly”? Perhaps not since Charlize Theron in Monster (2003) has a “gritty” transformation been this dramatic. (Try Googling “beautiful actresses playing ugly” — you’ll find mostly supposedly “brave” portrayals that called for no makeup, or the appearance of no makeup.) But the question remains: why not just hire a perfectly good actor who already looks kind of like the character you’re looking for? Surely that would make the movie cheaper to make. On the other hand, would anyone then be interested in the film? I suppose that is really the pertinent question.

And no one can fault clearly talented actors for being interested in challenging themselves. Nicole Kidman has long been an actor of a caliber few others have matched. Still, casting her so far against type, as a grizzled detective, does have an unintended effect: People come to the movie to marvel at the trick of her transformation, rather than at the quality of the movie itself.

Destroyer is also directed by a woman, Karyn Kusama (her first feature film credit since 2009’s Jennifer’s Body), working from a script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi. The three previously worked together on the very poorly reviewed live action film of Aeon Flux in 2005, so I guess this is a massive step up from that, thirteen years later. I’ll say this about Destroyer’s script: a twist comes at the end that I did not at all see coming.

In the opening scene, Detective Bell approaches the body of a recently murdered man. She tells the other cops already on the scene, who are clearly already conditioned to be frustrated with her, that she knows who did it. The rest of the story unfolds in a way that puts us under the impression that this murder case is integral to Bell’s part in it. For Bell’s part, though — she’s uber-focused on the realization that one Silas (Toby Kebbell), the ringleader of a group of criminals she once got entangled with under cover, has resurfaced. She’s out for vengeance.

It is a little jarring to see the likes of Nicole Kidman occasionally kicking the shit out of people — perhaps most significantly here, a lawyer played by Bradley Whitford. Slightly more often, she’s also getting the shit beat out of her. This has already been pointed out by others, so I cannot take credit for the observation, and I do wonder if it would even have registered had I not heard about it prior to watching the movie: There is a certain satisfaction in one key element in which Destroyer is unusually realistic. Unlike most movies, characters here are completely winded after a foot chase that lasts just a couple of minutes. And after Detective Bell receives a good number of kicks to the abdomen, she spends pretty much the rest of the movie limping and wincing from its lasting pain. These characters suffer injuries that are actually grounded in reality.

The psychological tolls of bad mistakes are well handled too. We get occasional flashbacks to the bank robbery gone wrong — this is seventeen years ago, so here Kidman gets presented as younger than her actual 51 years. It was around this time that she got pregnant, hence the 16-year-old troubled daughter she now has (Jade Pettyjohn, well cast). The present-day Bell looks aged far more than 17 years; she could be sixty. But, to say life has not been great to her in that time would be an understatement, so it makes sense.

Taking the novelty of Kidman’s transformation — which is impressive, as is her performance — out of the equation, it’s difficult to assess the overall quality of Destroyer as a film. I’m not sorry I saw it; it had me engaged from start to finish. Do you need to see it, though? Maybe that depends on your definition of “need.” The plot structure seems novel in its own right, until upon further reflection it becomes clear that it’s a device pretty well worn these days.

I can’t think of any particular reason to tear down Destroyer; gimmick or not, it is a unique experience. That’s not nothing. What sets it apart amounts to pretty superficial elements, and there is maybe not as much depth as at first it may seem. But how many people besides someone with a film critic’s eye are going to consider such things? Plenty of people will marvel at this movie, and be happy to have done so. Anyone who asks me, though, will be told that part is just a trick, and Destroyer is a decent but ultimately unremarkable film.

SHUT YOUR FACE that’s Nicole Kidman??

SHUT YOUR FACE that’s Nicole Kidman??

Overall: B

BEN IS BACK

Directing: B
Acting: B+
Writing: B+
Cinematography: B
Editing: B

What is it about movie ideas that seem to come in twos? From Dante’s Peak and Volcano in the nineties to Friends with Benefits and No Strings Attached less than a decade ago, with countless other examples in between and since, this tendency to greenlight remarkably similar movies at around the same time seems to never end. Well, this year it’s heartwrenching family dramas about drug addict sons.

It’s too bad Beautiful Boy is getting all of the attention, because as it happens, Ben Is Back is the better of the two.

Ben Is Back is not without its own flaws, what with so much going on, crammed into a bit too little time to tell it all, an entire family history revealed over the course of one Christmas Eve. That said, writer-director Peter Hedges (who happens to be father of star Lucas Hedges) has some skill within that framework, revealing background details through the action currently unfolding, and never once resorting to flashback. In this film, the narrative is propelled forward from the start, with the Ben of the title (that being Lucas Hedges) suddenly showing up unexpected at his upper-middle-class home when he’s scheduled to be at his recovery facility over the holiday.

Things sort of spiral from there, albeit at a tolerable pace and in a fairly organic fashion. Ben is doing the best he can, and Hedges makes it easy to root for him in spite of his clear and many gargantuan failings. That doesn’t stop it all from being . . . a little much. In the end, Ben Is Back is not easy to watch, especially if someone you care about or are close to is also an addict. You’ll want to keep tissues handy. And the emotional hits, while deceptively minor at first, ultimately come hard and heavy. A sudden burst of hope can come imbued with heartbreaking skepticism.

I don’t usually like to do this, but with the two movies coming out so close to each other, comparisons are inescapable. Beautiful Boy frustratingly left the causes of its protagonist’s addiction untold; Ben Is Back provides that background, and does it by showing rather than telling. Beautiful Boy hardly seems aware of its characters’ quite obvious white privilege, much less mentions it; in Ben Is Back, Ben’s stepfather (Courtney B. Vance) is black, has produced two half-siblings for Ben, and he even utters the line, “If he were black, he’d be in jail by now.” I wonder how many people might roll their eyes at what seems like a line shoehorned in, but the fact remains: we can’t be reminded of that truth often enough. It also remains true that empathetic portrayals of addicts are not nearly often enough about people of color, but at least this movie acknowledges the disparity.

Ben does have another sister from his mother’s previous marriage, Ivy (Big Little Lies’s Kathryn Newton), who is immediately and understandably skeptical and resentful upon his return. The crux of the story, though, is between Ben and his mother, Holly (Julia Roberts, who has never been better). So yes, once again, it’s a story about how one kid’s chaos-inducing addictions have torn a family apart, but more specifically, affected his relationship with his closest parent.

Ben is trying to be honest and do by right by those he loves (and those who love him), but increasingly dire consequences of past mistakes catch up with him quickly. Maybe a little too quickly, what with how closely this story flirts with becoming overwrought. Whether it quite crosses that line, or the degree to which it does, could be up for debate. Either way, if you’re looking for a good cry, Ben Is Back will do the trick, with impressively constructed if sometimes subtly contrived storytelling. If nothing else, the performances are good enough that you won’t be able to look away, much as you’ll often want to.

Julia Roberts tries to negotiate with someone who tells her he can’t be trusted.

Julia Roberts tries to negotiate with someone who tells her he can’t be trusted.

Overall: B

MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS

Directing: B+
Acting: B+
Writing: B
Cinematography: B
Editing: B

Hey, fundamentalist Christians! You know that King James whose Bible you love so much? The one who also presided over the unification of the Scottish, Irish and English Crowns? A pretty consequential individual, yes? And a quite deliberate existence, the result of Mary, Queen of Scots uniting with Henry Stuart to produce an heir to the throne.

As you might imagine, Mary, Queen of Scots is not about him, although he clearly plays a key role in the history on display here. Instead, it is about the disputed claim to the throne between Mary (a great Saoirse Ronan) and Queen Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie, fantastic).

Director Josie Rourke, working from a script by Beau Willimon based on a biographical book by John Guy, moves the narrative back and forth between Mary and Elizabeth, who were cousins, and their respective counsels either advising or outright manipulating — or, in some instances, worse — their queens, fearful of the other posing a threat to their own monarch’s position. There are occasional messages sent back and forth, by the two women share all of one scene together, a rather consequential one near the end of the film. Aside from the choice to have them walking through hanging linens as though in a maze, it’s a tense exchange that’s worth the wait.

It comes perhaps as little surprise that the trailers to Mary, Queen of Scots would suggest it is only about these two women vying for power. In a different era, they may well have gotten along better, but for the men surrounding them with their superiority complexes. The way the story is told here, it would seem Queen Elizabeth’s choice never to marry was a shrewd one, as it kept those conspiring to usurp her at bay. Mary of Scotland, widowed twice over, was not so lucky.

Still, this movie presents both these women as having natural assumptions of their own superiority, a very specific kind of hubris borne of bloodlines and perceived birthrights. They both have faith in their own rightful claim to the English throne. And Mary, having been raised a Catholic, returned from France after being widowed at nineteen to a country largely wary of how she would approach bloody rivalries between Catholics and Protestants that have gone on for centuries.

It is this backdrop that is slightly oversimplified in Mary, Queen of Scots, one zealot constantly cut to as the movie goes on, showing him half-screaming sermons in a church to a rapt audience, systematically convinced that Mary is a harlot undeserving of their respect.

And Mary does not have the greatest luck with relationships, Henry Stuart evidently having more interest in the men in her court (and one in particular) than in her. Both women are playing the same game, but with a different set of rules. Elizabeth keeps the romance, and even the close relationships, at an arm’s length, and it proves to be a choice to her advantage. Mary is just as convinced of her own savvy as well as her own righteousness, and her quickness to produce an heir was itself a smart move.

As to which of these formidable women ultimately came out on top, that is perhaps up to debate — and food for thought as this story plays out. Given both history and the fact that the film’s opening scene depicts the lead-up to it, it’s hardly a spoiler to say Mary was ultimately beheaded. But with one single child she changed the course of history. Did she lose?

There’s no denying the feminist bent to Mary, Queen of Scots, and how appropriate it is to the time might better be determined by historians with more intimate knowledge than I possess. There is no question that it’s appropriate to the present day, though it does make one wonder about the extent of poetic license, embellishment or anachronism. Either way, it makes for a compelling story.

Mary and her not-so-merry men.

Mary and her not-so-merry men.

Overall: B