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Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Nobody

            “Nobody” wears its resemblance to the “John Wick” movies on its sleeve. David Leitch, director of the first “Wick” film, is a producer for this movie, and the advertising hasn’t been shy about playing up that connection. Like the “Wick” series, this movie takes place in a world of sophisticated gangsters and assassins. I’d say it could be a shared universe, but the characters in this movie use gold bars and paper money (which can be burned dramatically) for currency instead of those cute doubloons, so… not the same.

            Bob Odenkirk stars as Hutch Mansell, a seemingly-lame suburban dad who is stuck in a rut. He’s unhappy in his job working for his father-in-law (Michael Ironside), his wife Becca (Connie Nielsen) isn’t affectionate, and everybody thinks he’s a wimp, including his own son Blake (Gage Munroe). When a pair of burglars break into his house and assault Blake, nobody is surprised that Hutch takes a path of inaction and lets them get away. The official word from the police is that he did the right thing, but even some of the officers think he should have taken more steps to protect his family.

            Hutch lets people know that he’s a former “auditor,” which people assume means a boring accounting job, but actually means highly-trained assassin. He hasn’t tapped into that particular set of skills (did you think I was going review a movie about an assassin in his late 50’s and not make that reference?) for a while, but against the advice of his brother Harry (RZA), he’s compelled to do so in the name of catching the burglars. The results of the investigation prove disappointing, and he’s left wanting to take his anger out on somebody. Fortunately some Russian mobsters happen upon the bus he’s riding and start harassing a young woman. The good news is that he’s able to put them in the hospital guilt-free, satisfying his bloodlust. The bad news is that one of them is the brother of the powerful, dangerous Yulian (Aleksei Serebryakov), who vows revenge on Hutch.

            From there, the movie is pretty standard action movie fare. Yulian’s men pay a visit to Hutch’s house, and Hutch unleashes the full power of his background. The henchman try to get to Hutch through his elderly father (Christopher Lloyd), but that doesn’t go well for them either. Hutch sends a message to Yulian through his stronghold of money, which destroys his reputation and career. The two are set for an epic confrontation where Yulian brings an army to a metalwork factory, which Hutch has tricked out “Home Alone”-style. The fight is about 50-1, and we know that things can only end badly for at least 49 of the 50, and probably all of them unless someone really wants to save cool villain Yulian for a sequel.

            My on-the-spot reaction to “Nobody” was to call it “sporadically awesome.” I loved the extended fight scene on the bus, the attack on Hutch’s house, the attack on Hutch’s father, the final showdown, and scenes where Hutch tries to intimidate people with varying degrees of success. But the rest of the movie is familiar “assassin gets dragged out of retirement” territory. At one point, Hutch goes to get help from a character called “The Barber” (Colin Salmon). A character in an assassin movie named after an innocuous occupation – never seen that before. Stuff like that makes the movie seem hacky and unoriginal. What does make the movie seem original is the performance from Odenkirk, the former sketch comedy player turned dramatic actor turned historical actor (my mind was blown when he showed up in “Little Women”) now turned action star. He’s shrewdly cast as the last guy you’d expect to be dangerous. In other words, he’s somebody who makes the perfect “Nobody.”

 

Grade: B-

1:22 am edt          Comments

Voyagers

            Before I get into trashing 6th place weekend box office finisher “Voyagers,” I want to take some time to say some nice things about 8th place finisher “In the Earth.” The latter film played on less than a third as many screens as “Voyagers,” yet it made nearly two-thirds as much money. The underpromoted horror movie is one of the most pleasant surprises I’ve seen in a long time. And by “pleasant,” I mean in terms of quality, not subject matter, because there are some brutal scenes in that film. But if the film is playing in your area, if you can handle an R-rated horror film, and if you can withstand a barrage of strobe and other potentially-nauseating lighting effects, then I recommend seeing it. I would have given it a grade of B if I weren’t stuck reviewing “Voyagers,” a bomb that is playing on nearly 2,000 screens, but in its second weekend couldn’t beat “Tom & Jerry” in its eighth.

            The film follows a group of kids bred specifically to go on an 86-year space mission to a distant planet that may be the key to saving humanity. The only adult onboard the ship is tutor Richard (Colin Farrell). As the mission slowly progresses, the kids grow into teenagers, their hormones and pleasure centers suppressed by a drugged liquid. Two of the teens, Christopher (Tye Sheridan) and Zac (Fionn Whitehead) get wise to the druggings and experiment with not taking the drugs, in what I suppose is the opposite of the typical teen experimentation experience. Christopher handles his heightened senses reasonably responsibly, but Zac does not. In what will no doubt go down as the most infamous scene in the movie, he commits an act of sexual assault on medical officer Sela (Lily-Rose Depp).

            Shortly after, a scene of more traditional violence occurs as Richard is seemingly attacked by a space monster. Now the teens are left to fend for themselves, and they are angry, scared, lustful, and above all, dangerous. Based on feelings toward the mission and fear of the monster, or “beast,” if you will, the teens break off into two groups. The more impulsive and animalistic crew members follow Jack, er, Zac; and the more levelheaded ones follow Ralph, I mean, Christopher. And if you don’t know by now which book this movie is ripping off, let me just add that there’s a bespectacled girl named Pheobe (Chante Adams), whose name is close to Piggy, and things don’t go well for her. Enough beating around the bush, it’s “Lord of the Flies.” This movie is “Lord of the Flies” in space.

            The mystery of what happened to Richard is painfully easy to figure out, as is the mystery surrounding the space monster. As a matter of fact, I felt like I was always way ahead of any twist the movie was going to throw at me. As for the action, it takes forever to get going, and when it does, the characters chase each other throughout the ship down what is almost certainly the same corridor set. It reminded me of that obviously-repeatedly-used staircase set from “The Big Bang Theory.”

            I’d say to stay away from “Voyagers,” but since the movie hasn’t risen above fifth place at the box office since it opened, it doesn’t seem people need to be told that. The actors are putting their backs into what must have seemed like a juicy script about sexual awakening in space, but between page and screen this movie just became blah. I’m hoping that “In the Earth” builds up enough of a cult following among adult viewers (and it does need to be adults, and ones who can handle an assault on the senses at that) that I’ll wind up regretting the choice to review this lousy movie.

 

Grade: C-

1:15 am edt          Comments

The Unholy

            Some time back I wrote about how Oscar season got pushed back a few months, which was why we were getting movies like “Nomadland” and “Judas and the Black Messiah” in February. Now with “The Unholy,” it’s like January has come to April. January is typically the time of year when studios like to dump their lousy horror movies that couldn’t compete on Halloween. The film actually opened last Friday, Good Friday, no doubt intentionally so the marketing team could blasphemously brag that it was opening “on the holiest day of the year.” The idea was to cause controversy, but nobody cared about this movie enough to fight over it one way or the other. If anything the campaign backfired, because made it seem like the film was outdated by the time I saw it the very next day, and of course it’s a really lame duck now. But nothing wanted to open this weekend in the shadow of “Godzilla vs. Kong,” so I have to settle for reviewing last weekend’s #2 movie that has already fallen to #3.

            Jeffrey Dean Morgan stars as Gerry Fenn, a disgraced reporter looking for a comeback. A story about cattle mutilation in rural Massachusetts proves fruitless, but he thinks he can salvage his career with a story about a bogus miracle involving a creepy tree and a creepier doll. He stays in town long enough to get in a car accident and witness an “actual miracle,” where deaf teenager Alice (Cricket Brown) is suddenly able to hear, speak and even sing. She becomes a faith healer, helping a deaf child walk for the first time and curing her priest uncle (William Sadler) of his emphysema.

People flock to Alice, especially when she interacts with the tree – her line of communication with “Mary,” presumably the Virgin. And because Gerry was there at the beginning of her interactions, Alice grants him exclusive interview privileges. Sure, he has to contend with an annoying local bishop (Cary Elwes – his accent unmistakably locked on “Boston gangster”) and a Vatican-sanctioned miracle-disprover (Diogo Morgado), but for once he believes in the subject of his story. Or at least, he’s sure of the miraculous things he’s seen. The circumstances may not be as pure as the Virgin Mary suddenly bestowing blessings on this small town.

Eh, it’s no secret that this is a horror movie, so why play coy? There’s a malevolent creature at work named Mary, whose scheme is to get people to pledge their souls to what they think is the Virgin Mary, but is actually her. It’s a plan I could see working (assuming that soul-pledging actually works that way), but she sabotages her own plan by letting Gerry and the priest know that something evil is afoot. She just has to keep popping up in nightmares and jump scares to make them suspicious. Rarely do these scares accomplish anything besides filling the quota for an uninteresting horror movie. Plus Mary has inconsistent lore and powers, meaning that we never know what equals danger and death with her. Despite the film’s title making her sound more consistent, the way this villain is written is quite hole-y indeed.

Morgan and Brown turn in better performances than the material deserves, and it’s fun to root against the obviously-exploitative Elwes character. But “The Unholy” is too obsessed with the short-term goal of scaring audiences with pointless startles and laughable special effects rather than pulling off anything memorable. The movie wants to outrage people of faith, but it’s not worth an emotion as strong as outrage. And even if you’re not a person of faith, this movie isn’t worth your time or money. Try to see some leftover Oscar season stuff instead.

 

Grade: C-

1:14 am edt          Comments

Godzilla vs. Kong

            “Godzilla vs Kong” is a follow-up to “Godzilla” (2014), “Kong: Skull Island” (2017), and “Godzilla: King of the Monsters” (2019). Those films are respectively known as the one that kills off Bryan Cranston too early and cuts away from a monster fight that should have been the most exciting sequence in the movie, the one where someone stretched a “Viet Kong” joke out to two hours, and the one with a human villain who ripped off their evil plan from Thanos. Maybe the logic was that since the two Godzilla movies were about a 3 out of 10 and the Kong movie was about a 4 out of 10, combining them all would result in a 10 out of 10. This movie… isn’t quite that good.

            The movie bounces between what I’ll call the “A” story and the “B” story. In the A story, billionaire tycoon Walt Simmons (Demian Bichir) recruits geologist Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgard) and linguist and Kong-handler Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) to use Kong to go deep into the Earth to find a new source of energy that can presumably protect humanity against the threat of “Titans” like Godzilla. Along for the ride is Simmons’ enterprising daughter Maia (Eiza Gonzalez) and Andrews’ adopted daughter Jia (Kaylee Hottle), Kong’s only human friend who can communicate with the ferocious-yet-sensitive ape through sign language. It is in this storyline where Kong and Godzilla do all their fighting, making the B story about a kooky spy within Simmons’ company (Brian Tyree Henry) teaming up with two teenagers (Millie Bobby Brown and Julian Dennison) to uncover a conspiracy mostly extraneous (and momentum-killing). But it is in the B story that two villains are revealed, one of which you’ll probably see coming a mile away, the other a blast from either Kong or Godzilla’s past.

            The humans are boring and get way too much screen time, as usual, with the exception of loveable child Jia. I’ve been hearing a lot of people say that the Henry character is their favorite among those played by “name” actors, and at first I thought they were crazy for picking someone so annoying, but then I realized that everyone else is so bland that “annoying” is better than nothing. There’s still no excuse for how easily the obviously-duplicitous character uncovers top-secret information or how long he goes without getting caught.

            As for the Titans, Kong is the sweetest human-crusher you’ll ever want to meet. Godzilla is only in this movie to fight Kong in a feud built on ancient instinct. The two fight, and I was solidly behind my fellow mammal. A new opponent emerges later in the film, and I was solidly behind my fellow carbon-based lifeforms. There are three main battle sequences (plus Kong taking care of some business under the Earth’s surface in between rounds). The first takes place in the water, where motion is limited and Godzilla the swimmer has a distinct advantage. The second takes place in Hong Kong, where skyscrapers are destroyed and in all likelihood thousands of people are killed, but this is “Godzilla vs. Kong,” not “Batman v Superman,” so we’re not supposed to think about those consequences. The third is also in Hong Kong, where the combatants take out any structures they missed the first time.

            I wasn’t particularly captivated by “Godzilla vs. Kong.” It was always clear to me that these Titans both need to stick around to keep making the studio money, so some sort of compromise finish was inevitable. But Kong is a worthy protagonist and some of the fighting he does with the lumbering Godzilla is impressive. And it’s hard for me to get mad at a movie that does so much to stimulate the box office - $48 million domestically in a five-day weekend. Hopefully we have bigger numbers from better movies on the horizon, but this movie is serviceable as a blockbuster for now.

 

Grade: C

1:13 am edt          Comments

The Courier

            “The Courier” would have done well to open last month, before the cutoff date to qualify for the Academy Awards. I doubt it would have gotten a Best Picture nomination, and Chadwick Boseman is such a lock for a posthumous Best Actor Oscar for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” that nobody would care if Benedict Cumberbatch eked out a nomination for this film. But it could have been a factor in the Best Supporting Actress race. That field is so scattershot that the Academy omitted Golden Globe winner Jodie Foster (“The Mauritanian”) and nominated Razzie contender Glenn Close (“Hillbilly Elegy”). I would not have been surprised if Rachel Brosnahan, Jessie Buckley, or possibly both pulled in a nomination for this film. And then the awards buzz could have given this film its best shot at commercial success, because as it is, this is a bleak film whose bleakness doesn’t translate into Oscar gold or box office green.

            Cumberbatch stars as Greville Wynne, a slick traveling salesman in 1960’s England, as Cold War tensions are mounting. He’s approached by MI6 representative Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) and CIA agent Emily Donovan (Brosnahan) to do some spy work on an upcoming business trip to the Soviet Union. They need someone to act as a go-between with Soviet colonel Oleg Penkovsky (Merab Ninidze), who has decided to undermine his own government because Khrushchev is too eager to go to war. Wynne fits the bill because he’s a civilian with no government connections. He agrees only after promises are made about his safety, but Franks and Donovan don’t seem like the types to go out of their way to keep those promises.

            Wynne makes several “business” trips to the Soviet Union, gradually building up a friendship with Penkovsky. But he’s affected by the danger of these missions, and his wife Sheila (Buckley) can tell something is wrong. She thinks he has a more extramarital reason for repeatedly skipping the country. Wynne wants to tell her what he’s really doing, but that of course would compromise the missions, so he has to keep telling a series of unconvincing lies that she can’t stand.

            Eventually Penkovsky feels the walls closing in around him and he needs to defect, something Donovan promised she’d help him do. But she can’t deal with him directly, her superiors and Franks want her to wash her hands of the whole thing, and it’s too risky to send Wynne anymore. Wynne, however, feels a sense of obligation to his friend, and Donovan grows a conscience that even she didn’t know she had. She and Wynne travel to the Soviet Union to extract Penkovsky, but the plan is foiled. Wynne goes to a gulag, and the film turns into a prison/interrogation movie much like “The Mauritanian,” the film that won Jodie Foster a Golden Globe but came up empty in the Oscar nominations. This film’s advertising didn’t make much mention of the jarring tonal shift of the imprisonment portion, maybe because it would be considered a spoiler, but the film is based on a true story, and it’s an unavoidable chapter.

            The good news is that all the actors put their backs into “The Courier.” Among the best scenes are Cumberbatch losing his mind in prison, Buckley visiting Cumberbatch in prison, Brosnahan telling Cumberbatch that he and his family probably won’t survive a nuclear strike, and Ninidze telling Cumberbatch that he trusts him with his life. The bad news is that even though the film is good with crafting suspense and despair, it doesn’t really work on the level of popcorn entertainment that a film in this slot needs to have. I hate to disparage a film based on the timing of its release – especially in this era – but if I want to watch a depressing movie, however solid, I can watch an Oscar nominee like “Judas and the Black Messiah” and know that what I’m watching will be well-remembered down the line.

 

Grade: B-
1:12 am edt          Comments

Chaos Walking

            It was weird two weekends ago when the movie theaters in NYC reopened and this movie was playing on all the IMAX screens. I thought the dazzling animation (and Disney branding) of “Raya and the Last Dragon” would have put that film in such prime real estate, but for whatever reason, theaters thought “Chaos Walking” should get those slots instead. I noticed this past weekend that theaters were giving their IMAX theaters to “Tenet,” as if they had more confidence in that six-month-old disappointment than either the thus-far-underperforming “Raya” or “Chaos Walking,” which has been #3 at the domestic box office since it opened. The film hasn’t even been able to beat “Tom and Jerry” for the last two weekends, and that movie is free to anyone with an HBO Max subscription.

            The film takes place on a distant planet called New World, which is seemingly inhabited only by men. The men are subject to “The Noise,” a series of audible words and holograms that convey their innermost thoughts. Most of the older and supposedly “stronger” men have learned to control their Noise so as to remain enigmatic. But Todd Hewitt (Tom Holland) is so darn young and emotional that his Noise is louder than anyone else’s.

            One day Viola (Daisy Ridley) crash lands on New World, the sole survivor of a scouting mission that reports back to a huge spaceship that can carry a whole population. The men of New World are of course intrigued by the visitor, with Mayor Prentiss (Mads Mikkelsen) deciding that Viola can be the community’s ticket off this planet he and the men have depleted. He could just ask Viola nicely if the spaceship people would be kind enough to let them tag along when they come to rescue her, but for some reason he decides to take the villainous route and threaten Viola with violence. The kindhearted Tom rescues her from the Mayor’s clutches, and he and Viola go on a journey to get her to a long-dormant crashed spaceship.

            Tom and Viola form an unlikely bond, even though he has problems with his Noise, and she has never known anyone or anything outside of her spaceship, even though she has way better cardio than the outdoorsy Tom. As for his Noise, it announces his insecurities at every opportunity, though it usually relates to how unsure he is about his survival skills. A few times it lets Viola know that he thinks she has pretty hair and wants her to kiss him, but this is a PG-13 movie and that’s as amorous as he’s allowed to get.

            The film is an adaptation of a dystopian Young Adult book series, and it would have been right at home among “The Hunger Games” and its ilk about five years ago. There’s a running joke with futuristic films like these that characters with political and religious titles are always bad guys, and here we get two: The Mayor and Preacher (David Oyelowo). My theory was that one would get killed in this film and the other would be saved for an upcoming sequel. That’s right, this is supposed to be a franchise, with future installments likely to flesh out characters that are underdeveloped here, like The Mayor’s son (Nick Jonas, barely consequential here, though Jonas gave the best performance in 2019’s “Midway”). But I don’t think those sequels are going to happen. The series will probably wind up abandoned like “Divergent.”

            The best thing I can say about “Chaos Walking” is that it’s onto something. Holland and Ridley are likeable leads, though it can be frustrating to see Spider-Man and Rey Skywalker struggle to learn the lesson that they’re more powerful than they think. The Noise is a fresh idea for an obstacle to overcome (“What Women/Men Want” notwithstanding) and I thought a surprisingly high number of Noise-related jokes landed. But it isn’t enough to save the film from poor pacing, predictability, and a lack of action.

 

Grade: C
1:11 am edt          Comments

Raya and the Last Dragon

            “Raya and the Last Dragon” was the first movie I saw in a New York City theater in nearly a year. No testing the waters with small-scale releases for us, we got a major Disney animated feature on the first day theaters were reopened. And I’d like to take this moment to thank the staffs of the reopening theaters for jumping into action on less than two weeks’ notice to ensure a smooth moviegoing experience. While I’m at it, I want to thank the staffs of the theaters in central Pennsylvania that similarly answered the call back in August. Ah, hooray for everybody! Having the theaters back has me in a celebratory mood.

            The film takes place in a fictional kingdom somewhere in southeast Asia. 500 years ago, evil spirits ran amok and turned the humans of the kingdom to stone. The magical dragons of the land concentrated all their power into an orb that brought the people back and imprisoned the spirits, but it turned the dragons to stone. It has been up to one family to protect the stone ever since, a difficult task considering the once-prosperous kingdom has since splintered into five tribes that all distrust one another.

            Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) is the daughter of Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) of the Heart Tribe. The beginning of the film sees her pass a test that makes her the newest guardian of the orb. Her first job comes when her father invites the other four tribes for a peace summit. Raya makes the mistake of showing the orb to Namaari, the daughter of the chief of another tribe. Namaari immediately turns on Raya, and the squabble causes the orb to be broken into five pieces – one for each tribe. The shattering also releases the evil spirits that were defeated 500 years ago. They set right back to turning people into stone, including Raya’s father.

            After an “Avengers: Endgame”- style six year wait, Raya finally finds a dragon that can turn things around for humanity. Sisu (Awkwafina) is a big blue magical creature that comes along at about the one-third mark and injects ill-fittingly modern comedy into the movie. Somebody high-up on this movie’s creative team was big fan of the genie from “Aladdin.” Together Raya and Sisu travel around to the different tribes collecting pieces of the orb to reassemble. They make friends along the way, like a 10-year old restaurateur (Izaac Wang), a gruff softie barbarian (Benedict Wong), and a con-artist baby. On their tail is Namaari (Gemma Chan), determined to not let them reassemble the orb, because once people come back from being stone, they’ll turn on her and her tribe for breaking the orb in the first place.

            The message of the movie is a nice one about trust and non-violence. The animation is amazing as always, with lip and facial movements so realistic they’d fall into the Uncanny Valley if the animation around them wasn’t so competent. The action sequences are frantic and funny, and Sisu always has some creative trick up her sleeve.

The only area where the movie lacks is in its script and dialogue. I’ve already mentioned the out-of-place comedy stylings of the very of-her-time Awkwafina (she’s much better in serious scenes), there are also problems with low stakes (knowing that the people turned to stone can be brought back just turns the movie into a waiting game) and predictability (the movie ticks all the Disney boxes about animal sidekicks, magical quests, and lesson-learning). It turns what could have been a great Disney animated movie into an okay one. But after a year away, the big screen makes even an okay Disney movie like “Raya and the Last Dragon” seem like a great one.

 

Grade: B

1:09 am edt          Comments

Tom and Jerry

            I didn’t really grow up with the “Tom and Jerry” cartoon. I was more into Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, but I understand the two pairs have similarly adversarial relationships. The key difference is that while Wile E. definitely wants to eat the Road Runner, I don’t think Tom the Cat would know what to do with Jerry the Mouse if he ever caught him. The two need each other as enemies to give their lives purpose.

            The new film takes place in a world where all humans are live-action and all animals are animated. At least the animals are 2-D cartoons and not CGI abominations. Tom moves to New York City with dreams of becoming a famous pianist. Jerry moves to NYC with dreams of lazing about in a luxury apartment. Frankly it’s hard not to side with Tom here for following his passion, as opposed to Jerry, who wants to get ahead with as little effort as possible. Tom tries to earn a living by playing music for people in Central Park, and it takes just a few seconds of Jerry trying to upstage him for the entire act to be ruined and Tom’s only keyboard to be destroyed.

            Tom’s not the only one to lose his job in the fray. Delivery girl Kayla (Chloë Grace Moretz) is knocked from her bike and her package destroyed, which gets her fired. She’s the kind of person who gets fired a lot, so now she’s really at the end of her rope. She goes to a nearby hotel to soothe herself with free cookies, where she learns that they’re hiring temporary staff for an upcoming high-profile wedding between social darlings Preeta (Pallavi Sharda) and Ben (Colin Jost). She steals an impressive resume from a snobby applicant and cons her way into an interview. Hotel General Manger Mr. Dubros (Rob Delaney) takes an instant liking to Kayla and hires her on the spot, but Events Manager Terence (Michael Peña) smells a rat – and he hasn’t even encountered Jerry yet.

            High-strung chef Jackie (Ken Jeong) is the first to spot Jerry trying to make a home for himself in the walls of the hotel. Kayla is soon tasked with trying to remove the mouse as discreetly as possible, and she has the idea to outsource the job to Tom, who wants a new keyboard as a reward for thwarting his mortal enemy. Of course, Kayla has greatly overestimated Tom’s competence (he tries to send Jerry away in a box without understanding how boxes work), and he and Jerry wreak far more havoc than if Jerry had just been allowed to keep to himself.

            The climactic set piece of the film is the lavish wedding, where Kayla tries to keep things together despite the presence of Tom, Jerry, Ben’s dog (who wants to beat up Tom), Preeta’s cat (who wants to eat up Jerry), a tiger (who wants to beat up Ben’s dog), peacocks (who are skittish around all the cats), and elephants (who are skittish around Jerry the mouse). Basically what I’m saying is that the wedding cake doesn’t stand a chance.

            Creatively, I don’t have much good to say about “Tom and Jerry.” The physical humor is predictable and played-out, and the emphasis on the live-action characters is ill-advised. I laughed at maybe one out of ten gags, which puts the movie somewhere above “painful,” but not worthy of a recommendation. As for the kids in the film’s target audience, I don’t think they’ll go for the movie either, since it can’t match the frantic pace of the cartoon. Commercially, I’m begrudgingly proud of the film. It made a bit over $13 million at the domestic box office over the weekend, making it the biggest movie of 2021 so far in its opening weekend alone. I’m glad something can open to $13 million in this era, even if it’s “Tom and Jerry.”

 

Grade: C-

1:08 am edt          Comments

Nomadland

            Since September of last year when the film won top prizes at both the Venice and Toronto International Film Festivals, it has been clear that Chloe Zhao’s “Nomadland” would dominate awards season. Mind you, awards season itself was in question, with all the delays and compromises that affected all institutions in the last year. But whenever awards season was going to take place, “Nomadland” was going to be there to pounce on it and devour its many accolades. Now the film has opened, both in theaters and streaming on Hulu (try to see it in theaters if you can, though with my schedule I had to settle for Hulu), and it’s frankly it’s not doing too well at the box office. But I have a feeling that things are going to change this coming weekend with the Golden Globe Awards, and even more in a few weeks when Oscar nominations are announced. People are going to want to see this film that is all over those programs.

            The film follows Fern (Frances McDormand), a widow from a mining town so economically downtrodden, its zip code was recently decommissioned. Unable to find work and seeing little value in her house, she sets out on a new life living out of her van. It’s no ramshackle operation – she makes it rather homey, given the circumstances – but nobody is going to mistake this thing for a full-scale mobile home. Characters throughout the film debate whether she should be counted as “homeless,” and there’s a good case on both sides of the issue.

            There’s no one central conflict or storyline to this movie, we’re simply along for the ride with Fern as she bounces around from place to place. Other characters are almost entirely other nomads. There’s David (David Strathairn, much more subtle here than with his usual broad/theatrical roles), who becomes Fern’s boyfriend of sorts, convincing her at one time to move to a small town and become a waitress. Bob (Bob Wells) is the prophetic leader of the nomad community who sees the movement growing as the economy continues to tank. The film is set ten years ago, and one can’t help but wonder how it will fare in this era, maybe even because of this movie. Swankie (a mononymous actress named Swankie) is a seasoned nomad determined to not let life pass her by. You may have noticed that most of these characters are named for their actors. Fern may very be well be short for Frances (it’s got the consonants in the right order), and there’s a quick mention of a reservation being under M-C-D.

            As played by McDormand, Fern is a memorable character, but she’s also incredibly relatable. Her van could be parked across the street from your house and you would consider her an unofficial neighbor. There’s no swinging-for-the-fences Oscar baiting here, which ironically is what people respect about the performance and why they want to reward it. McDormand has a Best Actress Oscar all but in the bag at this point, and it’s worth mentioning that I could also see Strathairn getting into the Best Supporting Actor race and maybe even Swankie for Best Supporting Actress.

            Not much happens in “Nomadland” besides simple conversations and contemplative looks at scenery. Yet so much passion is put into every scene and shot that it seems like there’s zero fat on this movie. It’s like reading Shakespeare – it’s probably not high on the list of things you “want” to do, but if you push yourself to take it in, you’ll appreciate its brilliance.

 

Grade: B

1:07 am edt          Comments

Judas and the Black Messiah

            One good thing about the year 2021 is that we might get two Oscar seasons. Usually the deadline to qualify for a year’s Oscar race is the end of the calendar year, so December is often loaded with awards-chasers. But because there were so many releases pushed back in 2020, the Academy has decided to extend the deadline two months, so last-minute Oscar bait is actually opening now, in February 2021. Hopefully the system can be restored by the end of the year, meaning that we’ll get one margin of Oscar eligibility that lasts fourteen months followed by one that lasts ten months. “Judas and the Black Messiah” is a film that is shrewdly positioning its release date at the end of the fourteen-month frame. And it is wise to do so, because I can see this film doing very well in the Oscar race.

            The film follows the Black Panther movement in Chicago in the late 1960’s. Illinois State Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) is spouting the kind of fiery rhetoric that could lead to social and political upheaval. What he wants is nothing short of a revolution. This naturally freaks out those dedicated to maintaining the status quo, like the FBI, led by J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen, in yet another onscreen depiction of Hoover that involves horrendous makeup). Agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemmons) taps lowlife car thief William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) to infiltrate Hampton’s circle and serve as an informant in return for dropping some criminal charges. Technically the betrayer O’Neal is the main character of the film, much like how the antagonist Salieri is the main character in “Amadeus,” minus the whole “insane jealousy” angle.

            Hampton is under no delusion that he’s not under constant surveillance or that his life isn’t constantly in danger. He knows he’ll probably be assassinated like fellow leaders Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. But he wants to make a difference while he can, setting up educational programs for disadvantaged children and organizing warring gangs into the Rainbow Coalition. When his friends sense that his days are numbered, they give him some money to flee the country, but he turns it over to a comrade, telling him to start a health clinic. This is much to the chagrin of his pregnant girlfriend Deborah (Dominique Fishback), who worries that Hampton is acting without considering the consequences to his unborn child.

            O’Neal is very much taken with the charismatic Hampton, and as a fellow African-American, agrees with much of what he says about white oppression. But Mitchell warns him that Hampton’s way is not one of peace, and it can only end badly. Also, he’s still got those charges to work off. The time for him to play Judas to Hampton’s Black Messiah is nigh. O’Neal is so affected by the role he has to play that he’s practically crying when he offers Hampton a tainted drink. A barely-conscious Hampton is later assassinated (sorry if that’s a spoiler for a film whose very title equates Hampton with the most famous martyr in history) in a manner sure to draw comparisons to the domestic murder of Breonna Taylor.

            At the heart of “Judas and the Black Messiah” is the fully-dedicated Kaluuya performance, virtually a lock for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, if not the win. I could see Fishback slipping into the Best Supporting Actress race as well, and even the movie for Best Picture. I haven’t seen many of the direct-to-streaming awards contenders, so I don’t know where this film falls in relation to them, but this is certainly a film that screams “award-worthy.” In fact, it’s better than any film released in the year 2020 that I reviewed. And it’s only February. I always recommend seeing movies in theaters for the sake of supporting theaters, but now there’s a movie that’s worth going out of your way to see.

 

Grade: A-
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