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My movie blog (which I'm sure holds the record of smallest number of hits):
On the Rocks (2020)
An ongoing father-daughter dialogue
Putting Sofia Coppola and Bill Murray together inevitably brings to mind "Lost in translation". "On the rocks", however, does not claim to be an encore of that philosophical encounter. Rather, it is an ongoing father-daughter dialogue. A little more than that, it is also, but only secondarily, an often-heard tale of hiccups in an otherwise picture-perfect marriage.
This is a model middle-class New York family: businessman husband Dean (Marlon Wayans), writer wife Laura (Rashida Jones) and two adorable little kids. An ever-present cause of a marriage hiccups is a workaholic husband. The immediate catalyst is the stagnation in the wife's inspiration, which puts everybody in a bad mood. Fanning the flame is a bevy of attractive women at Dean's workplace. Inevitably, Laura suspects Dean for cheating. This hiccup might have died a natural death. But then, in comes Laura's visiting father Felix (Bill Murray).
The audience does not get a lot of history between father and daughter, but they don't need it. One thing they know for certain it that is NOT is the heart-breaking story in the recent award winner "The father".
A typical exchange between Laura and Felix is something like this: "Don't know why women take plastic surgery". "For men like you". "You", immediately clear to the audience, embraces mild womanizer and perpetual kidult. When Laura wonders aloud how a woman can keep her husband's interest, Felix promptly offers "A women that is confident that she can keep her desirability in him. That's sexy". That is only one of the assortment of enlightenment we are privy to throughout this less-than-100-minute movie. Witnessing how Felix talks two cops from giving him a speeding ticket to giving his car a push to get it re-started, even Laura cannot hide her admiration "dad, it must be nice to be you".
It doesn't take long for Felix to convince Laura into a stalking exercise on Dean, which quickly escalates to a "hot watch", meaning monitoring Dean's credit cards and other potential tell-tale stuff. The project climaxes in a trip to Mexican resort where Dean is having a working trip together with a group of colleagues. After a relaxing evening ocean-side meal, father and daughter started the staking, culminating in spotting the silhouette a woman at the window of Dean's room. Ignoring Felix's caution, Laura storms the crime scene, to see Fiona, one of Dean' staff (arguably the prettiest), emerging from the door of the hotel. Here is where I should stop.
Murray got a nomination of Best Support Golden Globe (yes, I know they are in trouble now). His best moment in this movie is after a stormy outburst from Laura, Felix responds with a short, classic Murray deadpan. Then, innocently, he says "What happened to you? You used to be fun."
Rashida Jones (Quincy Jones's daughter), a prolific actor, has good dynamics with Murray in father-daughter match up. As the marriage plotline takes only a backseat, Wayans does not have a particularly demanding role. To Game of Throne's fans, there is a special bonus of Fiona being played by Jessica Henwick, who is Nymeria, the middle of three Sand sisters.
Finally, New York City gets some mesmerizing photography, particularly at dusk and night time.
The Dig (2021)
true story depicted by an excellent cast
"The dig" is about archaeology, first and foremost. Not only that it's based on a true story; this is also a historic event. I only learned about these events when I watch the movie, but that reflects just my ignorance. The "Sutton Hoo Find" has been hailed by many as one of the most important archaeological discoveries of all time. This movie, however, has a lot more to offer, not the least of which a strong cast, particularly the lead role: Edith Pretty portrayed by Carey Mulligan.
After her first Oscar nomination 11 years ago for Best Actress ("An education") Mulligan did very well this year with "Promising Young Woman", winning the Film Critics' Association award as well as getting nominations for Oscar and Golden Globe. During these eleven years, she times and again demonstrated the depth of her talent and the width of her range. Her best work, however, is little known, a movie entitled "Wildlife" (2018), in which she portrays an ordinary person under circumstances not particularly exceptional, a role for which it is difficult to shine. She shines.
In "The dig" she plays a widow whose health is failing, looking tired and pale, a polar opposite to the glamorous "Promising young woman" that recently put her in the entertainment world limelight. The performance, however, is equally superb. Edith Pretty, fascinated by archaeology since her childhood, thanks to her father, believes that her expansive property is a treasure ground (which turns out to be literally so eventually) and hires experienced but professionally uncredited Basil Brown (Ralph Fiennes) to conduct the dig. Fiennes is completely unrecognizable from his iconic role Voldemort, playing this humble man from the working class. The first half of the movie is basically shared by these two people.
Between them, they take the audience through a journey of discovery, revealing under the dug-up earth first a skeleton of an 88-foot ship, then a burial chamber it carried, then all kinds of treasure and artifacts. Through this process depicted in meticulous details, the audience is also enlightened to the fact that archaeology is not about the dead. "It's life we found. That's why we dig". A case in point is the very discovery in this story dispels the myth that Anglo-Saxons were violent and savage but instead "they had art. They had culture." "The dark ages are no longer dark", comes the triumphant proclamation.
Carrying the first half of the movie between themselves, Edith and Basil tantalize the audience with their extraordinary chemistry. Often, they appear at dawn and dusk, framed in mesmerizing photography, two lonely figures sharing a common passion, a thirst for knowledge, standing on a mound looking down into their new dig. The tantalizing thing is that this does not appear to be entirely platonic. When inviting Basil to dinner at her place, Edith goes to great length in making her pale, world-weary self look attractive. The bubble bursts when Basil's wife suddenly shows up for a short visit, a normal thing for a normal wife to do when a husband is totally addicted to work.
The change in tone in the second half of the movie is somewhat uneven. In a nutshell, it gets busy. Top of this support cast is Lily James who, similar to Mulligan, trades her glamour for an ordinary-looking woman Peggy Piggott, who gets recognition from her competence in the field of archaeology than her looks. Others in the assortment of people gravitated towards the new Suffolk finds are her husband Stuart (Ban Chaplin) who apparently is more interested in men than women, and Edith's photographer cousin Rory (Johnny Flynn, who you may remember if you have watched "Emma", the most recent version featuring Anya Taylor-Joy), who fills the empty space in Peggy's heart left by her husband. Among the rest of the large support cast, fully deserving mentioning is wonderful young actor Archie Barnes, playing Edith's son Robert who develops a bond with Basil as sort of a new father-figure.
Lurking in the background is the imminent WWII, with occasional war planes flying pastoral landscape, adding a sense of ominous urgency.
The Father (2020)
An excellent adaptation doing full justice to an excellent play
One of the most popular earlier movies about dementia is "The notebook" (2004), a weepy romance that put Ryan Gosling on the map. "The father" (2020) takes the dramatization of this tragic occurrence up a few notched, well above melodrama.
"The father" is adapted from a modern (2011) French play. I browsed several critics' reviews on performances of "Le Pere" in the last few years (in London, Washington, Sydney and New York). As a result, I was able to appreciate the narrative's unique style more than otherwise, but at the cost of sacrificing an unimpaired first impression.
"The father" reminds me of "Le vie en rose" (2007), in which Marion Cotillard won her Oscar for the portrayal of legendary French singer Edith Piaf. In both these movies, gradual deterioration in mental capacity is conveyed with montages seen through the protagonist's POV.
The English movie "The father" stays close to the original play, but with the roles of the two cities, Paris and London, reversed, for obvious reasons. The familiar story is told through 6 characters, 4 real and 2 surreal (identified as "the man" and "the woman"). Familiarity notwithstanding, the story is not less tragic, particularly when depicted by the heart-wrenching performance of the two leads.
The following simple linear recounting of events is nowhere near the way it is presented in the movie. Successful retired engineer Anthony (Anthony Hopkins) lost his younger daughter Lucy years ago (details fuzzy) and has been relying on divorced daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) as his emotions crutch. As his dementia gets worse, Anne moved him out of his upscale apartment to live with her and her boyfriend Paul (Rufus Sewell), while employing a part-time caregiver to take care of Anthony during daytime.
The starting point of the movie is when Anne decides to move with Paul to Paris. Anthony's "having his way" has driven away several caregivers and she is hopeful that the latest candidate, young and attractive Laura (Imogen Poots) will work out for him. The sad, ultimate inevitability comes when just prior to moving to Paris, Anne has to yield to Paul's realistic reasoning for putting Anthony into a nursing home. The aforementioned 4 are the "real" characters.
The remaining two are mainly Anthony's hallucinations. "The man" (Mark Gatiss) represents the dark side of the men he had come across in his life - Paul in the present, his ex-son-in-law in the past, and other male characters real and imagined. "The woman" (Olivia Williams) plays the alternative versions (neutral, not "the dark side") of Anne and Laura to enhance the effect of the confusion in Anthony's mind. In the final scene, Williams also plays the real-life nurse Catherine caring for Anthony in the nursing home.
As mentioned, what the audience witness on the screen (and stage, in the play) is nowhere near to being simple, and the narrative is anything but linear. We are never sure where is where, when is when, who is who. And that is exactly the effect desired, seeing things through Anthony's confused mind, the erosion of which has been renders excruciatingly detailed.
Anthony starts out just a little bit confused about his supposedly missing watch, but comes out emphatically when Anne intimates that she is moving to Paris. "Like rats leaving a ship", he promptly asserts "You're abandoning me". In a later scene, he accuses Anne for waiting for his death so that she can have his flat. "I am going to outlive you, Anne" he declares and, without missing a beat, turns to young Laura and adds "I'm not sure about you". Still sharp-thinking mind even in delusion.
It is heart-wrenching, however, to see him in the final scene, in the nursing home a few months after Anne has moved to Paris. Anthony's mind has regressed to a state of whimpering for "mommy", curdling in Catherine's arms. This scene reminds me at once of both Benjamin Button and the final scene of "2001: A space odyssey", a man coming full circle at the end of his life.
The acting is uniformly excellent, and Hopkins beyond excellent. His completely immersed portrayal of Anthony fully deserves an Oscar to go with his BAFTA. We'll find out in less than 3 days. Coleman matches him tear for tear, smile for smile. Between the two of them, they break your heart again and again.
Sewell who got my attention in the TV series "Man in the high castle" delivers a measured performance as Paul, not a particularly likeable character but comes across as understandably human. The dark side of this (and other) character is left to veteran Gatiss, who has under his credits two popular TV series "Game of thrones" and "Sherlock". Prolific Williams does not have anything to work with in the "alternates" in hallucination of Anne and Laura. But in the final scene, as experienced (perhaps even a bit world-weary) but still compassionate nursing home nurse Catherine, she has her shining moments. Imogen Poots is well-cast for Laura, young and fresh, but poised under pressure.
Anya Taylor-Joy, a joy to watch
When Anya Taylor-Joy got a Golden Globe nomination with "Emma" for Best Actress in motion picture (Comedy or Musical Category), it wasn't exactly a sensation in entertainment news. Rosamund Pike took that award, deservingly, with "I care a lot". Then, as Taylor-Joy started to sweep every award there is to win for TV Mini-series Best Actress (including Golden Globe) with "Queen's Gambit", she became a sensation in her own right. If Oscar had a TV Mini-series award, she is guaranteed to win.
"Emma" is an opportunity for Taylor-Joy to show her virtuosity, in not only the quick witted rebellious victim in "Glass", nor a determined chess genius in "Queen's Gambit", but also a period character, as in Jane Austen. And yet, Emma is the most atypical of Austen heroines. Almost all the rest of them count on marriage as a key to a financially secured (perhaps even affluent) adult life. Not so for Emma, who has a rich widower father (Bill Nighy, a joy to watch as always) that clings to her as his only comfort after her elder sister married and move away.
Similar to many other romances, whether period or contemporary (and most noticeably the recent popular period TV series "Bridgerton") Emma's romance starts with a confronting position. Childhood friend "Mr. Knightley" (Johnny Flynn, well played), more like a brother than a sweetheart, never shies away from chiding Emma for her spoilt-brat, busy-body match-making endeavors which, alas, more often than not end up ruining a promising relationship rather than helping it. One of Emma's "victims" is her close friend Harriet (Mia Goth), an orphan girl whose misfortune magnifies Emma's fortunate position.
Of the other players, one is another close friend "Miss Taylor" (Gemma Whelan, that you may or may not recognize as Yara Greyjoy in the TV series "Game of Thrones"), whose marriage is partly the reason for Emma to seek the friendship of Harriet, as a bosom-friend replacement. While Emma emphatically states that she has no intention to marry, there are two other gentlemen in her orbit. Clergymen Mr. Elton, a bit of a clown, (beautifully played by fellow Golden Globe winner Josh O'Connor, better remembered as Prince Charles in "The Crown"), has a feverish love for Emma until she chills it by an icy refusal. Emma herself is, in turn, a secret admirer for someone she hasn't even met in person, a well-known rich gentleman Frank Churchill (Callum Turner), who finally appears midway through the movie.
In addition to the above-named cast, there is a whole slew of other supporting roles, making this a busy and fast moving movie.
This movie looks and sounds good too. The green rolling hill, elegant estates, and soothing pink-ish indoor palette are occasionally challenged by a parade of school girls in red robes that would make you wonder for a second if you a watching "The Handmaid's Tale". And, with the sight of these young ladies, you get musical interludes in heavenly harmonizing of a mixed voice four-part choir.
The version of "Emma" (which has had too many remakes to count), while not Oscar caliber, is light, airy and a pleasure to watch. And Anya Taylor Joy is a joy to watch.
One Night in Miami... (2020)
"Quartet", with a different flavor
The title "One night in Miami" will no doubt trigger a thought association to "Miami Vice" and have you believe that this is just another crime thriller. It is anything but. This extraordinary film is adopted from a stage play with the same title, and even as stage plays go, this one is talky. Then, after being exposed to some publicity material, you may get the ideas that the entire movie is about four men talking all night long in a hotel in Miami. It's not quite like that either. Under the sure hand of Regina King (unforgettable from the acclaimed TV series "Watchmen") this directing debut keeps you mesmerized throughout the nearly two hours of running time. Let me start from the beginning.
After his legendary defeat of Sonny Liston, 22-year-old newly crowned heavyweight champion Cassius Clay (Eli Goree) celebrates with his good friends in a hotel room in Miami. With brief preludes, each of the four protagonist is introduced, crisp focus of their hopes and fears at that time. Jim Brown (Aldis Hodge), running back of the Cleveland Brown and considered by many as currently the best, sees his success as a dead end and aspires to an acting career in Hollywood. Sam Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), successful as he is as a singer, is painfully aware that his biggest obstacle is the color of his skin. Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben Adir) finds himself at a crossroad wondering if his affiliation with the autocratic Nation of Muslim is really an asset, or rather liability, to his fight for equal human rights.
"Quartet" in my headline refers to two movies, both in 2012: "Quartet" about a vocal ensemble and "Late quartet" about a string ensemble. With a stretch of imagination, I can hear the Miami quartet. Elegant and stylish, Sam Cooke is the tenor responsible for the lyrical moments. As a comic baritone not unlike Papageno, Cassius Clay exudes energy, easily capturing the audience. Jim Brown is the solid baritone providing safety grounding. Malcolm X is the sinister bass in pursuit of confrontations.
Throughout the film, we get a rich mix of permutation and combinations, solos, duets, trios and sometimes full quartet. And they don't all happen inside. There are scenes of one going out to make a private phone call, a pair going to the neighboring convenient store to stock up stuff and four going out all together to check if they are dogged by the "Hoover boys" (the FBI variety)
After Clay's bragging session, the dialogue opens up into chats and banters among four good friends that can be any four black guys without a distinguished background. The undercurrent, however, gradually develops from ripples into surfing waves (though never in tsunami proportions).
As the center of the vortex, Malcolm tried to persuade Cooke to take a more active role, instead of being "a wind up doll in a music box, a monkey", while "black people are dying in the street every day". Unflinching, Cooke asserts that with his music, he is doing his part for the black community without resorting to agitated aggression. "This movement is called a struggle", counters Malcolm, and recounted an anecdote in Chicago when, after the electrical audio equipment failed (maybe deliberately sabotaged), by his sheer presence, Cooke captivated the entire audience. "You could move mountains without lifting a finger" Malcolm exclaims. Cooke, however, stays unmoved. With less confrontation, Malcolm also tries to pursuade Brown - "you are our greatest weapon". Brown, just like Cooke, is unmoved, holding on to his Hollywood dream despite Clay's jab earlier that the roles he will be getting are likely "black action heroes who get kill".
What Malcolm and Clay have in common at the beginning is the Muslim faith. But it is outgoing, as mentioned, for the former but incoming for the latter. When Jamaal, their young bodyguard, intimates to the celebrities that as an adolescent in a rough neighborhood, becoming a Muslim kept him safe on the streets, skeptical Brown quipped "you could join a gang. What's the difference?" Clay however is a true believer as he shows the world later by changing his name to Muhammed Ali. In that hotel room that night, he is disillusioned with Malcolm, telling him how he has changed, and is now "acting in private the way you are on camera".
Sampling the above scenes give a flavor of the interaction of the quartet throughout the movie. But it is not all rough waters. There are moments aplenty of fun making, light philosophizing, casual bantering and just sharing of friendship.
A thoroughly enjoyable movie.
Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)
Alpha faceoff; common foe.
Over the years, among the crossover match ups, two were particularly significant: AvP and Freddy vs Jason. While physically the adversaries are well matched, mentally, they are not. Predators are super-intelligent while with Aliens, it's more like animal (reptilian, if you insist) instincts. Freddy is wickedly clever while Jason is mentally retarded. Not so for Godzilla vs Kong. They are both intelligent. This final showdown has been long-awaited, not just the year-long publicity, but since the creation, 4 years ago, of a mega-size Kong that does not climb skyscrapers, but IS a skyscraper himself, size-wise. Size matters, in a faceoff against Godzilla. One more thing is needed to achieve perfect balance. Godzilla has a powerful weapon of devastating blue flames issuing from its mouth. To balance that, Kong is given an equivalent of Thor's hammer, an axe with a glowing blue blade that can resist Godzilla's flame and in return wreck havocs with every swing delivered by the powerful arm of Kong. From day one, Kong was a good guy, sort of, misunderstood and mistreated by humans. Last time I checked, Godzilla was made into a good guy. In order to be pitched them against each other, one has to be cast into the role of a bad guy, even if temporarily. The plot is too far-fetched to be taken seriously, including subterranean worm holes that connect the Antarctica, the western seaboard of North America, Tasmania, and Hong Kong, where the final action extravaganza takes place. When two alphas are pitched one against another, the outcome has to see that only one remaining standing when the dust settles, or has it? With a plot twist that you can see coming right from the beginning, the device of a common foe serves the purpose of arriving at a truce, even if temporarily, until the sequel. The device is also quite familiar, if you are a fan of the Terminator: real life forms against machines. The narrative is formulaic, with parallel trajectories, when the two meet at the midpoint of the movie in the sort of dress rehearsal, feeling out each other's power and possible weak spots. Between that and the converging end with the climactic clash of these two titans, they each has plenty of fun with lesser minions of the monster world. How about the human supporting cast? On Kong's side are Alexander Skarsgard and Rebecca Hall as a familiar of understanding, supporting scientists. Completing the trio is adorable little Kaylee Hottle, playing the little girl that captures Kong's attention when everybody else fails to. Thrown in for good measure is bad gal schemer played by Eiza Gonzaler who you may remember from "Baby driver" as a murderous femme fatale called "darling". On Godzilla's side, we having coming back from the prequel the father-and-daughter pair Kyle Chandler and Millie Bobby Brown. Chandler is pretty much a cameo, appearing only at the beginning and the end. Brown I must confess I hardly remember from the previous Godzilla movie. But then, I had not yet seen her in the brilliant TV series "Stranger things" where she plays one of the lead roles, mesmerizing as an adolescent with super power. For me, she is the most familiar face, as well as brightest spot in this movie. The other two in her trio are Brian Tyree Henry playing a DJ with an investigative mind and Julian Dennison in a typical funny sidekick role. I am happy with the action sequences and special effects. I didn't expect anything more.
Palm Springs (2020)
Cristin Milioti, under-recognized
"Groundhog day" (1993) added to our vocabulary a new term denoting the phenomenon of constantly repeating alternate realities. The two best successor of this concept are "Edge of Tomorrow" (2014) on the big screen, and "Russian Doll" on the TV screen. One look-alike is "50 first dates" (2004), which is the story of the protagonist repeatedly losing her memory daily, but is still in the same reality. But I digress.
Stripping away this plot device, "Palm Springs" is at heart a well-executed rom-com that also comes with a layer of thought-provoking depth. What initially drew me to this movie is Cristin Milioti, who I found quite unforgettable after watching two TV series "Modern Love" and "Fargo - Season 2". The former refers to only one episode (the series comprises independent stories in each episode, as well as has entirely different casts), entitled "When the doorman is your main man". She plays a highly educated young woman working in New York finding herself pregnant unexpectedly. In "Fargo - Season 2", she plays a young mother in an otherwise perfect family. "Otherwise", because she has cancer.
To "Palm Springs" now. As the first 20 minutes can be quite confusing (but things will soon become clear), let me set out the players first. The stage, essentially, is a wedding gathering at a resort hotel. Tala (Camila Mendes) and Abe (Peter Gallagher, the version of Superman in the Supergirl series) look like a perfect bride and groom match. Wedding guest include Tala's loser of a sister Sarah (Cristin Milioti), bridesmaid Misty (Meredith Hagner) and her boyfriend Nyles (Andy Samberg), plus quite a few other. It wouldn't exactly be a surprise that everybody is secretly sleeping with almost everybody else, or seeking to. One such pair is Nyles and Sarah, exploring a romantic beach after the wedding party. Here comes the weird part. Materializing out of nowhere is middle-aged man Roy (J.K. Simmons), shooting deadly arrows at Nyles. The day ends as abruptly as it begins.
Gradually, the audience is brought to understand that the wedding is a recurring day, similar to Groundhog Days, at the said wedding. What "Palm Springs" has, though, are two more individuals in the same time loop, drawn into it when they walk into a mysterious cave near the beach. Roy has been there before our (the audience's, that is) time and the relevant circumstances are revealed later in the movie via flashback. Sarah is drawn into this time loop right before our eyes, trying to get away from Roy.
This is basically the story, which starts as Nyles's, then becomes Sarah's and, final for both of them. As an offbeat rom-com, it is elevated from the run-of-the-mill genre products usually offered.
While the days in the time loop are repetitive, the situations, feelings, hopes and fears of Nyles and Sarah are anything but. Through this, they learn to understand, appreciate, and finally love each other. The chemistry between Milioti is wonderful to behold.
Pieces of a Woman (2020)
Vanessa Kirby serves notice
In the recently announced Golden Globe results, Rosamund Pike is somewhat lucky in winning the Best Actress award. This is in no way undermining her brilliant acting. The "luck" is in that Golden Globe has two categories for the top acting awards, "Drama" and "Musical or Comedy". The film "I care a lot" with which Pike won was placed in the latter category. The "drama" category has a very strong field for Best Actress. Vanessa Kirby in "Pieces of a woman" is one of them.
Before the film title "Piece of a woman" appears, you witness, in graphic depiction, 30 minutes of nail-biting childbirth. While the experienced midwife reassures the expectant parents "It's pretty normal", we get a fleeting glimpse of anxiety on her face. I don't believe any form of method acting (such as using blindfold to try to get into a blind character) can prepare Kirby for her role, Martha, the protagonist giving a premature birth. The delivery is initially successful but the baby soon dies.
The middle part of the movie is a study of how Martha tries to cope with grieve. Her dominating mother Elizabeth (an always superb Ellen Burstyn, nominated for Best Support by her peers in the SAG award, results to be announced on March 14) calls the whole thing "a monstrosity" and insists on a law suit against the midwife Eva (Molly Parker). Elizabeth despises her son-in-law Sean (a Shia LaBeouf you may find difficult to recognize), not because he is poor but because he is "not intellectual". LaBeouf's portrayal of Sean easily brings to mind Stanley Kowalski in "A streetcar named Desire".
The third, final part of the movie moves to a courtroom setting, culminating in Martha's passionate volunteered statement of absolution. Conviction of Eva who had really done her best, Martha declares firmly, "to say that I can be compensated, but I can't".
"Pieces of a woman" showcases some darn good acting, especially from Kirby, who serves notice that after proving herself in "The Crown", she has more to offer than what she did on "Mission Impossible" or "Fast & Furious".
Golden Globes for Best Picture and Best Director
"Nomadland" is about the life, or lifestyle, of a community of people, seen from the perspective of the protagonist Fern (Frances McDormand). At first glance, it is tempting to compare "Nomadland" to Odyssey. On second thought, however, the difference clearly emerges. While Odyssey is a journey with a beginning and an end, Nomadland just wanders, meanders and drifts, without any final destination. Characters encounter along the way appear, get out of the picture, then reappear later.
While most of the people you see in the movie are real life nomads that make up the loosely defined title community, the protagonist Fern is fictional. Personally, I have particular empathy for her because I have experienced the same devastation, albeit as an outsider (external auditor), of a dying mining town. It was painful (even for just one week) to watch people facing the imminent fate of their hometown where they have lived their entire life wiped out from the face of the earth. Fern, unfortunately, is not an outsider. Empire, Nevada, the town that is synonymous with United States Gypsum Corporation, goes into oblivion with the closing of the mines there. For Fern, there is double calamity in that her husband Bo, a lifelong employee of the company, recently died.
It would be easy to succumb to making this into a tale of grieve but Golden Globe winner director Chloe Zhao is way above that, as is our protagonist. Fern treasures the memory of her late husband, as she intimates towards the end of the movie "I may be spending too much of my life just remembering Bo". But then, she moves on, taking the only possession she has been left with, an old van, into her new life of Nomadland. Previous acquaintants she comes across keep making offers to take her in, which she courteously turn down. At suggestions of early retirement benefits by the bureaucratic institution, she claims that she can't get by with that. "I need work" is her brisk answer. "I like work" she adds, after a short pause. There is dignity clearly palpable.
That is the movie, nothing more, and certainly nothing less. In that "nothing more", there is everything. Around the campfire, we are privy to worldviews that we don't get in stifled, developed, urban communities. They talk about a lifestyle of connection to the earth, with the possible downside being "we have to take care of our own s--t". Down-to-earth people with a sense of humour. The people of Nomadland are the continuation of a heritage of pioneers, as Fern's sister observes. "Nomadland" is beautifully filmed, best exemplified in a "framed from behind" scene (Zhao's favourite technique) with the panning camera following Fern at dawn along the campground, culminating in glorious sunrise. Background music is also wonderful, mostly piano, serene, a little pensive, and always charmingly melodic.
It is a big surprise (perhaps even a huge shock) to many critics that McDormand did not win Golden Globe, perhaps the only miss among the major awards she has been predicted to sweep like she did three years ago with "Three billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri". It is even tempting to compare her two role in these two movies. Both are grieving, but for different reasons. Beyond that, however, there is a big difference. Mildred in "The Billboards" is trapped in anguished anger. Fern, while resigning to the hard reality (some inevitable, some reflecting the inadequacy of the human race), carries on with her genuinely friendly disposition, greeting and offering helps (albeit very small ones) to total strangers she meets along the way.
While, as mentioned, none of these are professional actors, there is one exception, David Strathairn, who plays Dave, a man whose path intersects with Ferns frequently, with him eventually asking her to stay during her first visit to his family. "I like being around you", he explains. While Strathairn's exquisite works are too many to list, my personal favourite is "Good night, and good luck" (2005), the only Oscar nomination for this sadly under-recognized actor.
I Care a Lot (2020)
Enjoyable black comedy
Some movies (only a few) have no villains, and are welcomed by the segment of the audience that do not particularly appreciate having their emotions bruised. Ironically, movies having no good guys have the same effect, because there is no one to root for, to care about. "I care a lot" is one such, a delightful black comedy.
In an opening VO, Maria (Rosamund Pike, nominated for best actress for the Golden Globe, comedy and musical category), announces in no uncertain terms that she is a f...unprintable lioness. She runs a cutting edge care center for those ruled by the courts incapable of looking after themselves. When one of her legal wards dies after 6 months with her institution, she curses "what a f...unprintable waste", because the deceased is no longer available for her to milk. So there, you see. She is not just a lion (and the furthest away from a cowardly one), but also a tin man, that is, without a heart.
But when she becomes the legal guardian of Jennifer (Dianne Wiest, wickedly brilliant), she knows not what she has bargained for. "I am the worst mistake you have ever made", she tells Maria in no uncertain terms. Indeed, Jennifer soon turned from "someone with no strings attached" into "a spider web".
I am not going to dwell on the plot, which has all the delightful ingredients of a black comedy, as well as a couple of mandatory twists. The protagonist Maria shows her true steel when, tied to a chair, punched in the face, threatened with a plastic bag over her head, she calmly carries on negotiating with Russian mob chief Roman Lunyov (Peter Dinklage) for a ten million dollar payoff for the diamonds she has taken from him. Later on, when the tables are turned, he makes her an offer she can't refuse, a partnership in which they make billions for each other, legally ("mostly", he adds quietly).
Pike, excellently cast in her role, is in top form. The abovementioned two main supports are worth their price, whatever that happens to be. One other notable support character is Fran, Maria's partner-in-crime and lover. This is played by Eiza Gonzalez, also excellently cast, if you have seen her roles in "Baby driver" (2017) and "Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw" (2019)
The Prom (2020)
not particularly memorable, but quite enjoyable
Including "The prom", I have watched recently three movies with a lesbian narrative. "Happiest season" is a tasteful melodrama (oxymoron? Don't think so). "Ammonite" is art house to the core. This one is a song-and-dance extravaganza. Can you imagine Nicole Kidman modestly playing second fiddle? "Hardly ever!" as the Major General would say. Well, yes, not unless Meryl Streep is there.
Apologies for using the demeaning term "song-and-dance". It's a musical. The quality of the musical numbers obviously rank high in the expectation, and within that, the melody and lyrics are equally important. In this type of "fun" musical, the melody isn't even that important, so long as the rhythm is lively. As to lyrics, as soon as I heard "thespian" used to rhyme with "lesbian", I knew there is nothing to worry about.
The plotline involved four Broadway characters' opportunistic activism stunt ("from acting to activism" as they say) in a last effort to salvage their sagging popularity. Dee Dee (Meryl Streep) is all about herself, a fading diva whose motto is "I'm a celebrity" as well as claiming "Flattery makes me stronger; fuels my ego". Sincerest of the 4 is gay actor cum costume designer Barry (James Corden, with a Golden Globe nomination for his trouble). Trent (Andrew Rannells) is a totally over-the-hill TV actor who at his hay days was a well-recognized face. Angie Dickenson (Nicole Kidman) is sort of a wild card, capable of bursting with positive energy at the right moment. Does the screenwriter want to tell us something with that character's name? I don't know.
Their project which takes them away from New York to Indiana is to run a rally in support of a prom at a local school which has been cancelled (the prom, not the school) because of young Emma (Jo Ellen Pellman, not looking too much like a teenager but making up for it with her energy and sincerity) who plans to come out in it, bringing her lover Alyssa (Ariana DeBose). The principle Tom (Keegan-Michael Key) is supportive, recognizing that this is "not a homosexual prom but an inclusive prom". But he is one against a powerful parents' group led by Alyssa's own mother Mrs. Greene (Kerry Washington). With this setup, the narrative can just about write itself.
If I were to name one scene that I enjoy most, it is the one in a local eatery "Applebee" where Dee Dee tries to get acquainted with Tom (or the other way round? Or both ways? I don't know). As a devoted theatre lover, I feel a lot of empathy when Tom intimates to Dee Dee "we look to you to take us away", that is, from the daily drudgery to a place where dreams come true.
Streep can do this one in her sleep, as critic all agree, especially with lines like "as a celebrity, I have to unlearn things" and "why does being good cost so much money?" Kidman has her moments, especially a jazz moment. Corden, as mentioned, has a Golden Globe nomination from this movie.
All told, "The prom" is not particularly memorable but does provide two hours of enjoyable entertainment.
Promising Young Woman (2020)
Stylish genre scrambling
In her directing debut, Emerald Fennell (who plays Camilla in "The Crown") turned out a piece of stylish moviemaking that makes you take note. The liberal genre scrambling is something to behold. You start thinking femme fatale revenger story and it soon turns into rom-com. Dark comedy starts as touches here and there, and becomes more prominent. And all the time, you can't help feeling nuanced subtleties and depths marking a character study.
It is difficult to say something meaningful about this movie without some degree of spoiler, and therefore here's my extra spoiler warning.
Cassie (Cary Mulligan) is a med school dropout, the reasons for which, like the other plot elements, are revealed only gradually throughout the movie. She now works a mundane job as a barista, as three parallel narratives develop around her. Sounds a little complicated? Let's take them one at a time.
The simplest one is entirely about the present although it probably reflect traumatic events the past. Pretending to be completely drunk, Cassie lures male predators in bars at night, and turns them into her prey. What exactly happens is tantalizingly obscure. We only see one of these encounters all the way through and this one does not involve physical violence, just psychological bashing, so to speak, of the scumbag. But there are hints of violence in another case, suggesting the "menacing presence of a sociopath". Then, at the midpoint of the movie, during a traffic dispute in broad daylight, it is shown in no uncertain terms that she is capable of physical violence. In all these cases, it is her subtly menacing confrontation, just like a face-off of the two centers at the line of scrimmage, that makes men twice her size backs away.
The rom-com arc starts with reencountering med school classmate Ryan (Bo Burnham). A little carelessly, he lets slips his unflattering opinion of her current job, regrets it immediately, apologizes and suggests that she spit in his coffee. She does, and he drinks it up. The slightly dark humor continues when Cassie's boss, upon finding out that Ryan is a pediatric doctor, quips "Killed any children?" Taking her time, director Fennell allows the relationship to slowly develop from "not a date, just friendship", to his calling her "you miserable axxhxxx" preceding their first kiss. It looks almost as though they are going to live happily ever after.
Which takes us to the third and last plotline. Appearance of Ryan is catalyst to bringing back disturbing memories that have hitherto been simmering. It's all about Cassie's best friend Nina, what happened to her that culminated in both of them dropping med school together. Nina finally killed herself while Cassie all but disappeared from the human race, gnawing in hatred and plotting her revenge. This is now accelerated by information updated by Ryan. Two of the lesser culprits (played by Alison Brie and Connie Britton) were taught a lesson, poetic justice style, without doing them any more harm than a scare. One of them hits back, revealing Ryan's involvement as an observer, whose inactivity can be construed as condoning. This would be the nearest to a moralistic message in this movie, especially if you remember Jodi Foster's "The accused" (1988) (not suggesting that "Promising young woman" has a brutal intensity anywhere near to that movie).
I suppose it can be considered a spoiler (so my warning again!) to say that there is no final surprise twist in the sense of something turning out not to be what it seems. The surprise is in how Fennel brings the story to a conclusion. That, you may not have guessed. Or you may. It may bring frustration to some, and delight to others.
"Promising young woman" boasts of 4 heavyweight nominations for Golden Globe: Best Picture (drama), actress, director, and screenplay (both of the last two for Fennell). It would be interesting to see how it will do in Oscar.
News of the World (2020)
The final five minutes will warm your heart in the coldest winter
Every time I turn on the NBC Evening News (or whatever news you watch), I shall remember this movie. In 1870 Texas, Captain Kidd (Tom Hanks) travels from town to town carrying bundles of an assortment of newspapers, on which he circles the reports and articles he has selected to read to the gathered populace. Usually in town halls, he inform, educate, as well as entertain, all for a modest contribution of a dime. Those sensitive to history would note that this post-civil-war Texas was not exactly a holiday resort. But the macro backdrop of violence, prejudice and hate is, wisely, never allowed to take front stage, which is a father-and-daughter story, of sorts.
The narrative could be described simply as a mini-Odyssey. A prelude establishes scenes introducing the above-mention protagonist. We see that he is a good entertainer when professional needs call, but also a world-wearied veteran (the losing Confederate side) who shares with his audience (mostly grass-root, some even illiterate) empathy of "we're all hurting". On the road, he comes across 10-year old Johanna (Helena Zengel), trying to run away when her "transporting agent" has just been murdered. Naturally he escorts her to the nearest authorities. When they tell him that the next transporting agent is not expected until after 3 months, he decides to transport her himself, as her destination is near the town where he left his wife 4 years ago.
Johanna has suffered the cruelest of misfortunes, taken away by a Kiowa tribe when she was only 4, after witnessing her family of German farmers slaughtered. She has been growing up, in the ensuing 6 years, speaking only Kiowa (plus fragments of German words she remembers). No English at all and "got a curse on her", she is "an orphan twice lost" as her Kiowa "family" was in turn killed.
Armed with 20 rounds of ammunition (gift from a friend), the pair starts out on a journey full of road hazards: animosity between "settlers and Indians", as well as other perils. The relationship between "Cap" and Johanna starts out somewhat awkwardly, with communications only in body language, hand signs, and a few broken words in languages alien to each other. There is however no hostility. Just caution, especially on Johanna's side. By campfire at night, he tried to educate her, from saying "please" to the nature of coffee as "an acquired taste". He is quite generous in allowing her to rummage through his things as the young girl, while cautious, is filled with curiosity as any other child. She finds a picture case with a woman's picture inside and shows it to him. "My wife", he says.
We finally see an excellent action scene, when they are chased by three despicable scums offering to buy Johanna for child prostitution. It is a good-length, solid throwback of an old western shootout, which cements the comradeship between the pair when Johanna, contrary to what she has been told (to run on her own), helps out. The 20 rounds of ammunition have a role to play too, obviously, if you are familiar with Chekov's theory of having a gun shown at the beginning of a play.
I won't belabor the remainder of this mini-Odyssey, and I have discretely alluded to the ending with my "headline". Paul Greengrass, from who we have a right to expect a lot, fully meets my expectations. This is not a movie meant to be loaded with historic, social, or moral issues. Nor does it have any intention to succumb to sentimentality. Refined and nuanced, it is mostly an unhappy story with a happy ending. Hank and Zengel are marvelous to watch.
Let Him Go (2020)
Two riveting performances
Fans of "Yellowstone" might just think that they are watching a new season, with Kevin Costner and horses. It's even set in Montana, initiall.
The early narratives take advantage of the efficient, visual film language, starting with a normal-looking family of grandparents George (Costner) and Margaret (Diane Lane), son James and daughter-in-law Lorna (Kayli Carter), and baby grandson Jimmy. A returning, empty-saddled horse leads ominously into the death of James from an accident. The ensuing crispy cut to the next shot is something of a sledge-of-hand, where Margaret gravely helping George put on his tie would have you believe that it is the funeral, except that the tie is not black. This turns out to be Lorna's wedding, where the presence of little Jimmy does away with the clumsy screen text of "three years later". Body language and physical aggression observed at a distance demonstrates that stepfather Donnie Weboy is despicable bully.
The next thing we see is Margaret baking a cake for Jimmy, only to find that the family has moved away. Packing a revolver, among other things, she heads off to North Dakota, intending to bring Jimmy back all by herself. George comes with her anyway. En route, close to their destination, they have a chance encounter with Peter Dragswolf (Booboo Stewart) who you sense will have a role to play before the end. Peter's backstory is a familiar (but no less detestable) one of a native Indian plucked away at the age of eight from his family to remove the "Indianness" inside him. The second half of the movie, the facing off of the couple against the notorious Weboy family, has all the makings of a thriller, with cringe-inducing brutality to boot.
But don't be mistaken. "Let him go" is all about a couple who has spent more than half of their life together, always in loggerhead because of the acute difference in their basic character, but nonetheless always deeply in love. The loss of James is entirely accidental. The ensuing fate of Lorna and Jimmy is the result of unfortunate circumstances, which may or may not be preventable. George and Margaret, however, are always the same person since they said their vows, decades ago, "to have and to hold...till death do us part". It's the interaction between them that is the fascinating thing about this movie. And it's the great performance of Costner and Laine that sustains this fascination throughout.
The Nest (2020)
Cheerless, but worth the pain if only for Carrie Coon's performance
Jude Law needs no introduction, and did well in "The nest". But Carrie Coon is the truly bright star that shines in this movie. Those that watch few TV series are probably not familiar with Coon. In the mega-blockbuster "Avengers: Infinity War" she is completely unrecognizable (assuming that you know that face in the first place) as Proxima Midnight. Her only other notable movie role is in an ensemble cast of "Widows" (2018). However, fans of TV series will remember her from "Fargo Season 2" and "The Leftovers". Her performance in the latter, the very final scene of the 4-seasons series, is beyond brilliance.
The conventional wisdom in movie-making "show, not tell" is rooted in the logic that visual images are better than dialogue in telling a story. In the above-mentioned scene, Coon disproves that theory, demonstrating convincingly what a superbly delivered dialogue can do.
The story of "The nest", taking place during the Reagan-Thatcher-era, is simple. We are shown a normal upper middle class family living in suburban New York. Rory O'Hara (Jude Law) came from the U.K, ten years ago, already a successful investment manager, making it here in the Big Apple (not yet "top of the heap" but certainly aspiring) and marrying a local girl. Alison's (Carrie Coon) profession is more down to earth (in more ways than one), to do with horses, raising them and giving riding lessons. Teenage daughter Sam (Oona Roche, "The morning show") from Alison's previous marriage, and younger brother Ben (Charley Shotwell) complete this perfectly typical family. Step-father and -daughter get along very well, in cast you are curious. When Rory announces his big plans of moving back to the U.K. where unlimited prospects lure, Alison takes some convincing but eventually accommodates, taking along her favourite horse (shipped separately, of course).
Rory rents a farm mansion in Surrey, with options to buy, a gothic monstrosity to the non-appreciating eyes of some. From this point on, we witness the disintegration of a normal-looking family, the detailed of which I wouldn't belabour here. Nor is there any spectacular details to disclose, just ordinary sins of vanity, greed, self-absorption, plus other little human weaknesses. While it is easy to place Rory in the role of the main villain, Alison is not entirely blameless. The children are victims, but not ones that will roll over and play dead. They finally decided that they will look after themselves if the parents aren't going to.
"The nest" is open-ended. While we have seen everybody at their worst, things may just carry on, or even improve. As well, while it is unlikely that the audience would root for this family, there may still be a mild desire to see them getting some sort of reprieve, if only out of charity.
The Midnight Sky (2020)
"I think we're alone now" meets "Away"
While the year is 2049, the two parallel narratives somehow remind me very much of the movie and the TV series cited in my "headline".
At the start of "I think we're alone now" (2018), we see Del (Peter Dinklage) all alone in a post-apocalyptic world. Similar situation for Augustine (George Clooney) in "The midnight sky". But here's where the similarity ends. Augustine, at a late stage of his terminal cancer and deciding to die alone, had just evacuated the population of a scientific exploration site in the Arctic, sending them to safety (albeit maybe only temporary) at an underground shelter. Del, on the other hand, thought that the entire human population had been wiped out and he himself was really all alone.
The cause of the apocalypse were also different. Del's world was annihilated biologically - a deadly virus. Augustine's situation was never fully explained. Towards the end of the movie, we saw from space an earth shrouded in ominous black smoke. That visual hint is the only thing we get.
Oh yes, there is one other similarity. They both discovered (or were discovered by, take your pick) a girl. Del's companion that saved him from total loneliness is a teenage girl played by Elle Fanning. Augustine's is really a little girl, "7 or 8", played by Caoilinn Springall, a completely new face.
Regarding TV series "Away" (2020), the similarity in "The midnight sky" is a space exploration mission on "Aether". Both feature a 3-men and 2-women teams of astronauts. "Away" is about a mission to Mars. In "The midnight sky", Aether is returning to Jupiter after a search for habitable moons. Gully (Felicity Jones) and Adewole (David Oyelowo) plus three others are disturbed that they lose contact with earth even when they get closer and closer. The narratives of the two plots loosely hang together, predictably moving towards convergence, Gully finally talking to Augustine who gives her the vague idea that it is not a good idea to come home. In between there are brief flashbacks of young Augustine (Ethan Peck) and his love Jean (Sophie Rundle, "Bodyguard", playing the protagonist's partly estranged wife).
The movie is open-ended. Augustine's plotline is more symbolism-driven than event-driven, starting right from him telling the little girl "I am the wrong person" (to look after you). The other plot is relatively more event-driven, with a mandatory sequence of spacewalk: going outside to fix something, again quite similar to what is seen in "Away". As well, there are brief backstories of each of the five team members.
The tone of the movie is stoic at best and, in Augustine's plotline, often sombre and melancholy. There is one bright scene though. Sully is pregnant with Adewole's child and the entire crew has a field day trying to find the name of the baby girl. When the name Caroline comes up someone brings up Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" and everybody (except for the one member who has never heard know the son, poor soul) join in singing, to a rousing climax.
Viewers (and even critics) don't seem to have an easy consensus as to what this movie really is about. A lofty interpretation would be as a philosophical examination of humans at a critical point of their very existence. A more general view may be a character study. It could also be an entertainment of sorts in sci-fi space adventure, but it would be quite depressing as such. A showcase of filming imagination and skill? The ambiguity in the ending doesn't help. To me, enjoyment of the performance of a stellar cast would do as well, particularly Clooney, whose transformation from his usual persona of a dashing heartthrob to a wasted, dying cancer patient is staggering.
Let Them All Talk (2020)
Not your average cruise
It's an oversimplification to say that most of the movie takes place in a two-week cruise on "Queen Mary 2" across the Atlantic. It is still an oversimplification to say that the movie comprises a series of various conversations on the abovementioned cruise. That statement covers the events, but not the underlying subtleties and nuances. To get out of the movie what director Soderbergh puts into it, one has to experience it by carefully watching and, even more importantly, listening. And, what's more, it is not only Soderbergh, because he has evidently given his actors free reign, maybe not to go off-script, but likely room for improvisation.
Here's the plot. Three old friends who were inseparable at college 50 years ago got together on the abovementioned cruise, after years of each having, separately, "friends 4 years at a time". Resting on the laurels of her Pulitzer-winning "You Always/You Never hope" from years back, Alice (Meryl Streep) doesn't need to do much more to enjoy a good life, and even gets another prestigious award, at the start of the movie. While her health condition does not permit her to fly to England for the ceremony, she is persuaded to go on the Queen Mary 2, where her reputation and a couple of talks are sufficient pay for not only her own passages, but also three guests she wants to bring along. This comprise the aforementioned two friends, Susan (Dianne Wiest) and Roberta (Candice Bergen), and her nephew Tyler (Lucas Hedges, Oscar nominee in "Manchester by the sea"). Also hitching a ride, unknown to Alice, is her literary agent Karen (Gemma Chan, best known in "Crazy Rich Asians" but also a not-too-small role in "Captain Marvel") who tries to find out from Tyler anything she can about his aunt's plan to write a sequel for "You Always/You Never hope" on the cruise. A few more characters on the crew complete the cast.
I am tempted to stop right here, taking a hint from the title. But, on the other hand, I can't resist outlining a little bit more of the flavour.
While neither of the two old friends has been as successful as Alice, Susan has her own mission as an advocate for incarcerated woman. Roberta, however, is at the lowest rungs of the social/economic ladder, hating her job as a sales person. She also has an axe to grind with Alice who allegedly populated her award-winning novel with real life friends. Throughout the movie, we see a lot of scene with the two women together playing Monopoly, Scrabble and Clue, while all the time...talking.
The subplot of Tyler and Karen is low-key and sweet. Starting with Karen approaching Tyler for whatever he can discover, surmise or sense about the potential sequel, a succession of scenes between them ease towards mild romance. There is probably a projection of the young man in Karen the image of an affectionate older sister. As said, this is quite low-key, sweet but never syrupy. Quite delightful.
These characters, together with a few others, continuously meet in various permutations on the cruise to engage in dialogues which may be witty, trivial, clever, poignant, irritating, philosophical..... and, heavens forbid, simultaneously all of the above.
Everything evolves around Streep, needless to say. She and she alone also has the pleasure of delivering a monologue, in the form of a literary talk she gives on the cruise. She starts with a reassuring observation that during this age of Facebook, Whatssap, etc, human connection is basically the same because humans are basically the same. Her closing remark is truly thought-provoking as she marvels at the wonder of authors long gone still being able to touch the consciousness of someone today.
The final twist, which seems to have been received with mixed feelings, I will to disclose. What touches me is the beautiful song The Ash Grove as the background of a scene. And it's only in browsing through IMDb that I realised that it was sung by Meryl Streep herself.
Satisfaction for fans of this genre
Without the grandiose of Pearl Harbour or the intrigue of Midway, "Greyhound" is not that exceptional a story. Thanks to Tom Hanks, for both the acting and the screenplay, it has been elevated a notch to well worth watching.
Those familiar with this part of naval history will know that the "Battle of the Atlantic" was about the lifeline to the U.K. through convoys across the Atlantic which had become a death trap because of the deadly German U-boats (submarines). "Greyhound" is the U.S. destroyer heading the protection of such a convoy, for most part of the treacherous voyage until it is close enough to be taken over by British destroyers, supported by air cover. The texts appearing regularly on the screen denoting the days since the start of the convoy also show the countdown of number of hours to getting air cover.
Remember that this was the time when technology was so archaic that detection of enemy depended on "sonar", with resulting estimations hand-marked on a chart. As well, sending messages involved risks of being intercepted. At a critical point when there was no choice but to send an SOS, the captain and his second-in-command debate the exact wording, cutting it down from "Help needed urgently", to "help needed", to simply "help"!
Captain Krause (Tom Hanks) faces a tough challenge in his first ever command in charge of such a convoy. It turns out to be a cat-and-mouse encounter and it isn't always clear as to who is cat and who is mouse. Looks like Greyhound is the cat in the first round. Using the above-mentioned detection technique means a lot of shouting back and forth between the crew members to confirm position, distance etc. It seems that the first encounter will be a miss as the U-boat tries to slip right underneath Greyhound. In the end, depth charges are released in time. "It seems we sank that target", sounding a little tentative, announces Krause, and he adds that there appears to be "solid evidence of a kill". This scene gives you a glimpse of the continuous hit-and-miss situation, very literally.
Soon, the roles are reversed when a counterattack in a series of torpedoes threatens. Under the commands shouted in rapid-fire fashion by Krause, Greyhound first moves to "meet her", facing off with the on oncoming torpedo that shoots past within just a few yard. Then, immediately, Greyhound makes an abrupt rudder turn, just in time to avoid another torpedo that follows right at the heels of the first.
This is just the beginning. All kinds of encounters galore follow, including salvos of "friendly fire" directed right at Greyhound in the dark, as well as knight-jostling style challenge from a surfaced U-boat that comes too close for gun fire from Greyhound to be feasible. With casualties on both sides, Krause's mission climaxes to a not-too-climactic conclusion when long-awaited air support finally materialises to take out a couple of increasing menacing U-boats. Taking over the charge of escorting the convoy, the British captain asks (over wireless communication) Krause "Just out of curiosity, how many crosses?" "This is my first" brings encouraging compliments, needless to say.
As I said, to pure lovers of this genre, this no-nonsense, well-paced, impeccably detailed account is very satisfying. Those looking for "the human factor" will be appeased to see the small touches here and there that underscore the slight nervousness first-time commander Krause works hard to keep beneath his steely resolute - persistently refusing food from the well-meant cook, getting his crew members' name wrong again and again.
In the end, you will heave a well-earned sigh of relief with Krause, albeit with mixed feelings, looking forward to going back to his lovely fiancée, a cameo appearance by the inimitable Elisabeth Shue, who you hopefully, for the sake of this movie, have not seen in TV series "The Boys" (or at least do not remember, which is most unlikely).
Wonder Woman 1984 (2020)
Unfortunately, parts do not add up to whole
After a long wait, WW84 has not been particularly well received. Maybe the wait was too long? Or, more likely, the bar set by the debut three years ago is too high.
Whether you like them or not, WW84 brings a few things rarely (I'd never say never) seen before, even in this genre.
The power of the prime villain, one Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal), is not physical, nor even mental in the sense of controlling your mind. It is in granting wishes. "What is your wish?", uttered with unbreakable eye contact, sounds almost like Lucifer's (highly recommended TV series) "What is it that you most desired?" But there is a huge difference. While Lucifer's question is to get one admit one's crime, Max Lord simply grants wishes, any wishes. How does he get to do that? Don't ask.
One of those wishes he granted is to Diane Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), to see her long-deceased boyfriend Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) again. The next thing she knows is that a "handsome man" (thus identified in the credits) stalking her turns out to be Steve, who claims that after death, he mysteriously wakes up in the body of this man, 6 decades later. Once convince, Diana sees the face of Steve (that is, Pine) instead of the stranger's. How's that again? Don't ask.
As there is no physical combat with the main villain, a secondary villain is needed, a timid, clueless woman Barbara (Kristen Wiig) that Diana befriends. Barbara's "wish", as you can see coming, is to be as strong as Diana. This spells big trouble because, at the same time, Diana grows weaker from being close to Stevere incarnate. Why would that happen? Don't ask. (This is striking similarity to a key plot device in the aforementioned "Lucifer").
And finally, Wonder Woman can fly, just like Superman. Don't ask.
Let me go right into the things I like about WW84, because with all its messy story and messy story-telling, there are parts that are really quite good. It's unfortunate that they don't add up to a good whole.
The scene I like second best is one that reminds me of the iconic "can you read my mind?" scene in "Superman" (1978). Not only the same romantic vibe. It is also about flying. But instead of Superman carrying in Lois Lane in his arms, Steve is flying a cutting edge (for 1984) fight plane with Diane sitting by his side. Steve, remember, is sort of a stranger in strange land, finding a new toy from 6 decades after his time. But flying is in his genes and he get the hang of it in no time at all. Diana is all joy, being with Steve again, and plays along, like a pair of mischievous kids. Using a rarely used power, she makes the plane invisible (strikingly similar to "Agent of SHIELD") for the take off and flight. She cheerfully explains to Steve that this is something she tried ages ago, using only a coffee cup. "And we never found the cup", she further explains. This was such a delightful scene, not the least because of the unique, lovely chemistry between Gadot and Pine.
The comedy comes from Barbara. Those who have watched Wiig's performance can visualize how perfect she would be in the persona I described for Barbara. But that is only the first half of the movie. After Barbara acquires her strength, the character became someone that just any decent actor (maybe indecent ones too) can handle, a waste of Wiig's talents.
To be able to regain her power, Diana must renounce her wish and let Steve go. By this time, if you're are rooted with the characters in their rediscovered romance (silly as it is, plot-wise), you will feel the pain. A mandatory line "I'll never love again", delivered by Gadot, becomes heartbreaking. Then, after he is gone, there is a bitter-sweet closure of the earlier flying scene. Rather than using her lasso as transportation tool (just like Spider Man his threads), Diana is actually flying, recalling what Steve explained to her how easy this is "It's only wind and air".
Finally, I'll come to the scene I like best. This is when Diana shows Steve around in a world 6 decades after his time (an escalator is novelty to him!). As they stroll around the brave new world on a beautiful bright morning, we hear in the background, in entirety, "Voi Che Sapete" (performed by Christina Johnston) the divine love song from Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro". The rekindling of the love between them becomes so palpable that you can feel the passion from the song.
More thought-provoking than visceral
Among other things, "Mank" is the story of the birth of the screenplay for "Citizen Kane" (1941), which some consider to be the best movie ever made. Obviously, "Mank" would mean a lot more to those who have watched "Citizen Kane", and remember it in detail. I qualify for in the first instance, but not the second. I have immediately added to my 2021 resolution list: re-watch "Citizen Kane". But until that happens, I may be missing quite a bit in "Mank".
For the aforementioned "other things", first and foremost is a character study of Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), who shared an Oscar with director Orson Welles for the Best Screenplay for "Citizen Kane", the only Oscar it won, despite a total of 9 nomination. The sore point for Mankiewicz was that he was solely responsible for the award-winning script and Welles had made no contribution to it whatsoever.
Filmed in retro black-and-white but with state-of-the-art modern cinematic technology, "Mank" depicts the two months during which Mank recuperates, with a leg completely in cast (car accident), in a remote ranch house. During this period, he dictates the script of "Kane" to his secretary Rita Alexander (Lily Collins, unrecognizable from Emily in "Emily in Paris" in persona, same lovely face notwithstanding), all the time fueled by generous consumption of alcohol, an act condoned by nurse-cum-housekeeper Fraulein Freda (Monika Gossmann) but frowned upon by Rita. The warmest scene in this otherwise somewhat "cool" (meant as a compliment) movie is the reconciliation between Mank and Rita, raising a glass to each other. Instrumental to this reconciliation is a touching conversation Rita had with Freda.
While Freda is just a small part, there are two other important support female characters, both appearing largely in the prolific sprinkling of flashbacks throughout the movie. One is Mank's loving (and loved) wife Sara (Tuppence Middleton, well remembered from her roles in TV series "War and peace" and movie "Downton Abbey"), nicknamed "Poor Sara", who best understands him. The other is Marion (Amanda Seyfried, unrecognizable from Sophie in "Mamma Mia" in persona, same lovely face notwithstanding),), an aspiring Hollywood starlet and mistress of media mega-tycoon William Randolph Hearst (the ever compelling screen presence of Charles Dance). She could be the daughter he wished he had.
If there is a "set piece" in this movie, in the sense of that in an action blockbuster, it would be in one of those flashbacks where Mank, amply under the influence of alcohol, sketches the plot of Citizen Cane at a lavish, extravagantly-costumed dinner party, as the story of a modern-day Don Quixote. For this, he is called a "court jester", and told that Hearst, who pays half his salary, likes only the way he talks, but not the way he writes.
While this movie is not exactly genre-revolutionizing, it is hard to put neatly into a niche. I have mentioned the story of the birth of "Citizen Cane" and a character study of Herman Mankiewicz. It is, I suppose, also a tribute to Hollywood, but not in the sense of Tarantino's affectionate look of "Once upon a time in Hollywood". Unlike that one, you will not particularly root for any of the characters (including the protagonist) although the three women aforementioned are all treated with benevolence. Consider it a series of sketches of Hollywood ("where millions to be made here and your only competition is idiots") that are between witty and sardonic. The final climax, the confrontation with Orson Welles (Tom Burke) who ends up smashing case of alcohol, is a tad melodramatic
The virtuosic director David Fincher has already given movie-lovers a large variety of pleasure: mystery psychological thriller "Gone Girl", spy thriller "The girl with the dragon tattoo", fast-paced modern drama "The social network", tantalizing fantasy "The curious case of Benjamin Button", semi-doc procedural of serial killer "Zodiac" and, most devastating of all "Se7en". "Mank" is yet something he has not done before. It may not appeal to the general audience, but Oscar nods are almost certain.
Mesmerizing performance by Winslet and Ronan
The protagonist is a real-life figure, although not exactly historic. In her field, however, she had made ample contribution which, alas, were not even credited to her own name, in the male-dominated era she was born into.
Mary Anning (Kate Winslet) was a palaeontologist in England in the 1840s. A deprived childhood in abject poverty molded her into something as hard as the fossils she gathers at the rugged Dorset seashore, a passion and a livelihood. She shares her life with just her mother, but only in the sense than they live under the same roof.
Honestly I cannot think of any actor who can best Winslet in portraying the bottled up resentment and resignation. Winslet accomplished this with an unsmiling, taciturn face that is subtly eloquent. As well, a half-nude shot of her back shows the hardened, developed muscles from climbing and digging (Winslet must have worked hard on this, unless it is superb makeup). When a fellow scientist pays her a friendly, albeit unexpected, visit, her cold handshake signals rejection rather than welcome.
But it is this man's wife that changes Anning's life forever. Delicately beautiful and vulnerably fragile, Charlotte (Saoirse Ronan) is described by her husband as one suffering from "mild malancolia". Without saying in so many words, he leaves a clear impression that she is something of a burden. A rich man, he can afford to pay Mary to look after his wife while he has important business to do all over Europe. While Mary does not particularly need a burden either, the money is handy.
The rest of the film, depicting the development of the relationship between these two women, is a joy to behold. Trying to describe the mesmerizing performance of these two actors would ruin the enjoyment of the film. Very little is known about the private life of Anning. Therefore, director/writer Francis Lee had a free hand in showing his artistic creativity, which he accomplished brilliantly. The narrative is opening-ended, in a wordless scene showing the two protagonists gazing at each other across the glass display case in a museum, with their hitherto persona somewhat reversed. Just that one shot will stay with you for a long time, let alone the entire film.
Happiest Season (2020)
Half a century after "Guess who is coming to dinner"
Last year, we had "Last Christmas" for the annual holiday season movie, with the charm of Daenerys Targaryen. This year, the charm is doubled, in "Happiest Season", with Bella Swan the converted vampire and Grace the latest version of bionic woman (in "Terminator: Dark Fate"). The stories are quite different but both are reasonably enjoyable holiday fare.
In my "headline", I made reference to the 1967 movie about a girl bringing a black boyfriend home to meet her parents. Times have changed. The parents in "Happiest Season" are perfectly happy with a black son-in-law, even when his genes dominated her daughter's in the twin grandchildren. The issue now is coming out.
Abby (Kristen Stewart) plans to propose to Harper (Mackenzie Davis, hardly recognizable from her role in Terminator), after spending her meet-the-parents vacation over Christmas. The little twist is that it is only when they are about to arrive at Harper's parent's house that she tells Abby that she had lied about coming out with her parents. Somewhat shocked, Abby resigns to making the best use of the situation to get into the good books of the parents, and have coming out and proposal after Christmas, in that order, quite obviously.
There are subplots and support characters in abundance but I have covered all you need to know about plotline. A lot of this movie looks familiar, even cliché. But it has its little charms here and there, cruising into the mandatory happy ending, offering generous portions of ingredients in tune with the holiday spirit: love, forgiveness, reconciliation, positive vibe and so on.
Stewart and Davis have done well, even with some of the awkward scenes they are written into. Mary Steenburgen and Victor Garber are just about the best veterans you can find for the parents. The rest of the large support cast generally delivers what is required to hold this movie together into a feel-warm holiday season flick.
Inception: a hit. Entropy reversal: a miss.
Christopher Nolan has sub-passed himself. "Inception" was original, brilliant, ingenuous, absolutely overwhelming, surpassing everything he had done before. "Tenet" is a muddled mess, totally underwhelming.
The fault is in his attempt to tackle temporal displacement, something I wish he had stayed away from. H.G. Wells in 1895 gave the world "The time machine", the first glimpse of what can be done in the entertainment universe with the concept of time-travel. From Isaac Asimov, the world of entertainment fiction had the authoritative last word on the paradox of time travel, "The end of eternity" published in 1955. Since then, none of the proliferation of material on time travel, be it written or filmed, offered anything new, let alone ground-breaking. "Tenet" is no exception.
"Tenet" would have been a very entertaining 007 thriller, well-acted and extravagantly filmed. It is all but ruined, from about midway through, with mumbo-jumbo double-talks that might have been intended to impress the audience but end up being a nuisance of a distraction.
John David Washington, who served notice in "BlackkKlansman" (2018) that he belongs to the big league, further consolidates his position with this movie. Robert Pattison, who has come a long way since debuting as the heart-throb vampire in the "Twilight" franchise, has proven that he can do just about anything on the screen, may well be the actor you would enjoy watching most in this movie. Elizabeth Debicki, who first got my attention in her role as Jordan Baker in "The Great Gatsby" (2013), plays a role here that is strikingly similar to her character in the TV mini-series "The night manager" (2016), a damsel-in-distress kind of wife to the prime villain, whose entire life is her pre-teen son. Neither has given her much room to showcase her acting talent. The biggest name in the cast, Kenneth Branagh, is somewhat of a disappointment as the villain.
One type of audience that should stay away from this movie, those who feel their intelligence insulted when facing a bombardment of contrivances. Nor is this a movie that will satisfy those who are looking for the standard disaster blockbuster type of entertainment. This one is small-budget stuff, compared with any recent flick in that genre. But, if you lock away your brain in a safety deposit box before you walk into the theatre, there is a chance that you may actually enjoy it, to a degree. I did. In my own case, maybe it was because there are three actors in the cast that I particularly enjoyed watching.
I'm sure you can easily mention a few meteor-catastrophe movies. "Greenland" is another one. In anticipation of such "extinction event" level of crisis, the government has set up in Greenland an underground shelter for selected individuals and their immediate family members to ride this out. The criteria for selection is obvious: people that have skill sets to contribute to the rebuilding of the world. John (Gerard Butler) a construction engineer, is a natural choice, together with wife Allison (Morena Baccarin) and son Nathan (Roger Dale Floyd). The trajectory is their journey to Greenland, with a whole slew of incredulous twist and turns, including the three of them get separated and back together again in Allison's father Dale's (Scott Glenn) house.
I am not going to spend any time on the plotline. All the ingredients you see here you would have seen in other movies, and likely better handled there. I enjoyed this movie, as mentioned before, because of three actors (that does not include Butler, sorry).
Morena Baccarin is not a household name but would be favy familiar to the very successful TV series "Homeland" which completed its 8th season earlier this year. Scott Glenn is one of my favourite evergreen veterans, with 98 acting credits to-date. The third one, which I haven't mentioned yet, is Hope Davis, with 57 acting credits to-date and best remembered, for me, in the TV recent series "For the people" which unfortunately has been cancelled after two season. In "Greenland" she has only a small part.
Visually pleasing, isolated good acting, and Lily James (who alone may be reason enough for some)
Daphne du Maurier's best-seller "Rebecca" has been adapted many times over the years via different media (radio, TV, movie). Best known is the 1940 movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock, starring Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. This latest, 2020 version comes with top-notch art direction, breath-taking set design and vacation-brochure-like scenery. Many people, I believe, want to see it just for Lily James. What it lacks is the gruelling tension and dark subtleties expected of the original novel. Let's, stay away from comparing and pretend that it is the first time we hear this story.
As in the originals, Lily James's character's maiden name is not revealed. Until she marries Maxim de Winter (Armie Hammer) nobody addresses her by any name. Then, she becomes "Mrs. de Winter" to everybody, taking over the name of the previous owner Rebecca, who was drowned in a capsized boat six months ago.
There is a cast of strong supporting actors. Let me introduce them as they appear, in succession, as the narrative unfolds.
The movie opens with Mrs. de Winter's VO, uttering the immortal line from the story "I dream I was is Manderley again". The first sequences, which takes her from Monte Carlo to Manderley, can be considered a prelude. In these scenes, we may have seen the best of the supporting performances, from Ann Dowd playing Mrs. Van Hopper who employs her as a "lady's companion", a sort of glorified travelling housemaid. Those who have seen the mesmerising TV series "The Leftovers" know how good she is. As the nasty Mrs. Van Hopper, Dowd steals every scene she is in. Unfortunately, we see no more of her after the lucky girl's brief romance encounter with Maxim. Off they go Manderley.
"Gothic" appears to be the word legally required to describe any terror-imposing mansion, although the degree of "Gothic-ness" varies. Manderley in this movie is on the mild end of the scale, if only judged by the light palette of its exterior. The first of the support cast we meet there is Tom Goodman-Hill, who has a proliferation of 106 acting credits under his name. Here, he plays Frank, the good-natured cousin who can always be relied upon.
The next one that appears I hesitate to categorize as "support". This is none other than Kristin Scott Thomas, playing Mrs. Danvers, the darkly menacing Manderley-keeper who had also been something like a surrogate mother to Rebecca. "Danny" deserves to be consider one of the three leads in this movie rather than a support character.
Two more characters complete my list. Mrs de Winter soon meets Beatrice, her friendly and reassuring sister-in-law, played by Keeley Hawes. While this seasoned British actress is not exactly a household name, those who have seen the compelling TV series "Bodyguard" will not forget her as the high profile Home Secretary, even though she appears in only the first 3 episodes of the 7-episode mini-series. Completing the list is Rebecca's loathsome cousin Jack Favell, who appears at the mid-point of the movie. He is played by Sam Riley, who plays the lovable lackey Diaval (with an altered ego as a crow) to Maleficent (Angelina Jolie).