By Dominique Paul Noth
Hidetoshi Nishijima and Tôko Miura in "Drive My Car"
By Dominique Paul Noth
For decades I served as movie critic for The Milwaukee Journal, rubbing shoulders with national film critics and understanding that the movie industry was interested in us only if a review could help their box office. We were free to speculate about insider behavior, such as the Oscars, where it was mutually beneficial. But what critics actually thought about movies – didn’t matter unless we put “fannies in the seats” as one industry spokesman subtly told me -- had little influence compared to the members of the Motion Picture Academy who actually did the work.
This may have changed in 2021 when the choice of 10 films for best picture Oscar was clearly schizophrenic and desperate. Think it was 2013 when Oscar decided to double to 10 the number of best pictures and that seemed to make sense back then. In 2021, however, several films were delayed a year by COVID, some were caught up in controversies such as the continuing #MeToo that snared Harvey Weinstein and Scott Rudin, both successful producers who ran intensive Oscar promotional campaigns for their films. No more, thank heaven, but Oscar still isn’t sure how to police itself from all the vagaries of social comment and split viewership between home screens and movie theaters, which may have lent more weight to the critics’ blather than in earlier years.
The impact of social comment was clear when two films by veteran director Ridley Scott, who has enjoyed Oscar nominations since the 1970s, failed dismally in Oscar voting – The Last Duel (nada) and House of Gucci (one nomination for makeup) despite favorable reviews and an A cast list including Adam Driver, Lady Gaga, Mark Damon, Ben Affleck and Al Pacino. There’s a lot of feeling that Scott did it to himself in an interview when he blamed millennials and their “f*ing cell phone” fetish for skipping out on traditional films.
So, this year out of 10 films there are three with serious traditional Oscar sensibilities. Belfast, which not only emotionally revives the family fleeing in military conflict, but also the tail end of its Oscar campaign dovetailing with similar emotions stirred by Ukraine – and there are similarities in how Putin tried to make this a conflict between Russians and Ukrainians while Belfast explored the effort in the 1960s to split Protestants and Catholics.
Then there is West Side Story, a remarkably fresh retooling of a 60-year-old musical favorite by the world’s most honored director, Steven Spielberg, leading a host of his acclaimed academy cohorts. And, to fulfill the offbeat creative director at full power slot, there is Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, which has offended Old Western diehards and requires moviegoers to stick through a subtle opening psychological first half for a kicker of a payoff. Not a typical Oscar entry by any measure.
And then come two films that reflect appreciation of individual actors and family values (Coda, King Richard) and others that represent not the best work but at least solid work by admired directors (Dune, Nightmare Alley, Licorice Pizza and Don’t Look Up).
And then there is the mystery entry with four Oscar nominations including best director and best movie, the nearly three hour Drive My Car, limited availability in movie theaters and online at HBO Max (just choose the right language). Its young Japanese director, Ryusuke Hamaguchi, does not have a strong American or Hollywood following. There was no major promotional campaign to include it. But it won best picture from the New York, Los Angeles and National Society of film critics – and this year that seems to have been enough.
Now I like the film but think my fellow critics lost their sense of proportion and don’t recognize flaws in construction that the Oscar professionals will. It’s not the year’s best. It is the year’s most difficult to explain intelligently since it marries Chekhov’s play, Uncle Vanya, a world weary theater director, his late and deeply loved though unfaithful wife, the hypnosis of the family car and conversations (an obsession which the Japanese apparently share with Americans) and how coincidences of auditions and conversations, plus the constantly playing Uncle Vanya on the car stereo in the dead wife's voice -- all connect a wandering storyline.
American film makers often smirk about sex scenes, but the Japanese have a way of combining erotica with character development, and the film shines in this regard. Oto, played by Reika Kirishima, is mostly seen during lovemaking while spinning her poetic ghostlike tales, pretending to be a lamprey sucking the bottom. She also dies early in the film yet remains its most important character.
Her fanciful tales during lovemaking do more than hypnotize her husband, a modernistic theater director played by Hidetoshi Nishijima, who is off to direct a mixed language production of Uncle Vanya (Korean, Japanese, English and even Korean sign language for the deaf).
One of the auditioners is the TV actor he knows slept with his wife and whose memories of her, plus his blatant appeal to women, figure in the conclusion. The director is forced by the Hiroshima theater company to turn over the driving of his car to a young woman of a different class and background. Their encounters also figure in the story.
Something unusual that I liked.: The film waits till some 41 minutes in to flash the opening credits in Japanese and English during one of the many driving moments that are key to its pace and appeal. Curiously, the psychological shards of all this – Uncle Vanya, erotic memories, deaf mute power, and the hours traveling in the red car – do mount up to an involving drama, though the film is a half hour too long and its levers of coincidence become mannered. But it proceeds with an assurance of purpose that does set it apart from other nominated films, and while I doubt that the professional members of the academy will be as taken in by its plot intricacies as the film critics were, it’s a demonstrable case of outside social factors forcing their way onto the Oscar slate.
By Dominique Paul Noth
Despite their lame explanation that there is no such thing as a lesser Oscar, the planners for the March 27 national TV ceremony made a value judgment between eyeballs and awards – and their idea of eyeballs won.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, in a letter that created great discomfort since its 10,000 plus members are divided up into the categories being invaded, announced it would relegate eight Oscars to a preliminary ceremony an hour before telecast. That is more than a third of the Oscar categories.
They will do this through careful editing into the three-hour (hoped for) TV program the title of the movie that wins the category, the person who won and the acceptance speech – clearly hoping this would produce eight of the shortest acceptance speeches in Oscar memory, along with eliminating that walk to the podium and congratulations from peers and press, all to speed things up.
Irony of ironies. The academy is relying on careful editing to quickly bring those moments to the telecast – just as it removes editing from prime time hoopla.
It’s only one step the Oscars are taking to boost viewership by giving the audience more of what the academy planners think they want. They’re bringing back hosts – three of them. They are making moves toward fan favoritism and polling. There is even a new campaign to create an #OscarFanFavorite – a popular film to be selected via Twitter! Plus there are rumors of more entertainment numbers rather than peers imposing honor on other peers.
|Age 71, Fred Astaire broke into an unannounced dance in |
1970 at the Oscars, a hard kind of audience thrill to create
by moving eight Oscar categories out of live TV.
Also, mainly because the public doesn’t get to see these so much, I don’t strongly object that the academy is throwing to the early dogs the documentary short, the animated short and the live action short, even if those were the categories where viewers were likely to spot important newcomers. In other words, the academy is showing less concern for its own future viability.
They are also moving off prime time the makeup and hairstyle category – in an era where prosthetics, wigs and other specialty body designs have grown in importance. In reality, this move eliminates from live interplay the only Oscar “House of Gucci” was in competition for. (If its star, Lady Gaga, still shows up March 27, expect an inserted musical number.)
In another nominated candidate, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” makeup and prosthetics are key to the appeal. But at least Jessica Chastain still gets to compete for best actress in an HBO Max movie that few have seen.
But now come the categories relegated to earlier that most distress me, and make me wonder if the academy realizes the history and important artistic names it is losing.
Original music score has been sidelined to the earlier time -- and this one dumfounds me. Names like Bernard Herrmann, Dmitri Tiomkin, Alex North, Ennio Morricone, Max Steiner, Quincy Jones, Elmer Bernstein have long made me sit up and take notice at the film’s credits, signaling more to me than the producer names. Wonder if the academy would have dared do this if John Williams was one of the nominees? But another notable nominated name that springs to mind is Hans Zimmer who composed the music for “Dune” And among the team composing for ”Encanto,” given the edge for animated feature Oscar, is “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Production design. Lost to live moments are many artistic names: The detailed eye brought to “West Side Story” by Adam Stockhausen, who has also done many of Wes Anderson’s films; also Stefan Deshant who helped director Joel Coen reinterpret German Expressionism for “The Tragedy of Macbeth.” Nor can anyone argue that the design wasn’t crucial to "Dune," "Nightmare Alley" and "The Power of the Dog."
“Dune” should be particularly grieved by the designation to earlier time since four of its potential Oscars have been moved out. That leaves the prime time opportunities to none that “Dune” is seen as a favorite in -- cinematography, one of 10 nominated best pictures, costume design, original screenplay and visual effects. It certainly weakens the “Dune” boasting rights for landing the most nominations.
Also discarded – sorry, that’s moved earlier – are the stalwart categories of sound and film editing. That may also indicate that the passage of time has affected the value of certain skills in a collaborative medium. Sound and film editing today are built on past skills but they are not the same as in the old studio system.
But there have been film editors as well known to cinephiles as directors (if you doubt me, think Dede Allen). A number of directors either started or incorporated film editing into their methods – David Lean, Robert Wise, the Coen brothers and Akira Kurosawa.
And sound magic has never been more important and more complicated an enhancement to moviegoing. In interviews several times, actors have mentioned how a fan has credited them for an emotional moment when it was really the music or the use of sound or a nifty bit of editing.
This academy decision is not quite putting music, sound, editing and production design to pasture. But it is sticking them in the backseat.
For many of us who enjoy thinking about films and what makes them good or bad, it is understandable that a trade group – which is what the academy is – wants to police itself (Can’t they just work on the internal hatred-love promotional campaigns the members still engage in?) and create a better TV product without diminishing the purpose of the celebration. The trade group argues that there is no diminishment, but I doubt the nominees would agree.
The Oscars have also been a rich time for reviewers. Urban Milwaukee has picked up several of mine and I’ll provide that site links here: West Side Story, Tragedy of Macbeth, Being the Ricardos, Spencer, The Power of the Dog, King Richard, Nightmare Alley, plus a speculation on the richness of the supporting actress category.
Many other reviews timed to the Oscars are available by scrolling through domsdomain.blogspot.com
ALSO AT DOM’S DOMAIN:
Six decades of children turning into teenagers turning into parents turning into grandparents.
From family movie night at the local palatial palace for the Natalie Wood version of “West Side Story” (1961) then after a decade a TV perennial, then forgotten by movie palaces turning into multiplexes, then COVID comes along confusing movies with home streaming services, then teens preferring the video joys on their smart phones to ever going out to a movie with mom and dad -- what changes in the entertainment habit! These shifts now greet the most successful moviemaker in history, director Steven Spielberg, for his re-thought remake of West Side Story (2021)
Spielberg makes more money signing a deal than I could imagine in a lifetime, so he can afford to outwait an uncertain public as his $100 million outing has brought in to date only $37 million at the box office. Those figures will jump around March 2 when the movie-house-only decision gives way to Disney Plus and HBO Max.
But frankly I think it will be 20 years before Spielberg’s much better version matches the original box office or reputation. It is bothersome that the public is not rushing to the moviehouse. Maybe an Oscar win out of seven nominations will start the ball rolling. But Oscar and Hollywood have got to stop counting box office as some sign of quality or even proof of commercial longevity for a work like this. I think the 2021 version is deservedly here for the long haul.
One reason is respect for the original. You’ll find visual echoes of director Robert Wise such as the colors coming through windows panes. Choreographer Justin Peck pays constant homage to the other original director Jerome Robbins (yes, there were two) for the dance numbers – less finger snapping and fewer scoops to the ground but the same syncopated action, more synchronized ballet twirls, more lunging forward in groups, the same Robbins power and virile strength, even extended street dances with more people involved, including kids.
Where Wise started with high aerial views, Spielberg brings the story closer to the ground as wrecking balls skim the dilapidated turf where the Lincoln Center is going up in the 1950s. Oscar nominated cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, a Spielberg veteran, provides exceptional images without calling attention to how shrewdly his cameras have been placed, particularly noteworthy in the intimate singing scenes.
Spielberg has daringly changed “Cool” into a “keep-away” fight for a gun with extraordinary leaps. He has moved “I Feel Pretty” to provide irony after the rumble – it is performed by an unknowingly happy Maria and minimum wage Puerto Ricans (no subtitles needed) cleaning up Gimbel’s. The rumble draws Tony in with more brutality and psychological whiplash.
Screenwriter Tony Kushner has moments of brilliance. He has not thrown away Arthur Laurents’ Broadway book with its invented slang but he has augmented with powerful back-stories, clever changes in sequence, and extended dialog face-offs that explain more deeply the friendship of Tony and Riff and clearly make Maria the aggressive one in her romance with Tony. Even Chino, Maria’s hulky boy friend who intends to shoot Tony, is fleshed out into a believable character by Josh Andrés Rivera
Ansel Elgort as Tony
Tony as actually sung and acted by Ansel Elgort is a remarkable improvement on the original. With a fine voice and smoldering Marlon Brando looks as he swings among the fire escapes, he approaches the role as a tall star-struck kid with a vicious past and the naïve belief he can charm anyone to like him – and then learns savagely that he can’t.
The Riff of Mike Faist looks like an emaciated John Cassavetes but is frighteningly intense in his acting and dancing, while David Alvarez’s Bernardo is a snarling boxer eager to mix it up. The storyline now makes more of the main characters believable.
It will take several viewings for the other members of the Jets and the Sharks to take on the individuality the public bestowed on the originals, but Spielberg is making sure that each will have that sort of moment. The fight over turf and racism is more cutting in language with neighborhood adults added for humor and street shock (we no longer feel the youth gangs are aliens dropped from space).
Virtually all the Jets and Sharks have Broadway experience, and the combination of choreography and singing demands those skills. Leonard Bernstein’s music has never sounded better and Spielberg marries the music to the settings as intended in special ways I had not thought about when seeing the 1961 version.
The Anita of Ariana DeBose is Oscar nominated, delightfully smiling and swirling her skirt but also grimly dark and mature in the tragic scenes. She is being allowed to suffer and strike back in manners different than Rita Moreno as the first Anita, and that brings up an interesting Oscar exclusion.
Rita Moreno as Valentina
I had speculated the Oscars would not resist nominating both DeBose and Moreno, but they did. Moreno at 90 hardly needs any more honors but her natural depth should have been recognized. As Doc’s widow, Valentina, she plays a more central role in the story. A scene that could have been gimmicky – when Valentina teaches Tony Spanish – is not the overused movie device it sounds like. Quite touching as well is Moreno soloing on “Somewhere” after a sip of Puerto Rican rum.
Rachel Zegler was plucked not from Broadway but from 30,000 audition tapes to be Maria. Of course her face and eyes are luminous. More important her soprano is lovely especially in the higher range and her acting grows in firmness, capturing the innocence as well as the determination in important dialog additions.
Rachel Zegler as Maria
The surprise to me about the remake is that the power of the music is improved. It is not just better sound technology (also nominated for an Oscar) but the major difference in people actually singing the parts they are playing. There are no big celebrity names that require dubbing as was standard in 1961.
I know all about pre-recording and the like, and the studio has gone out of its way to describe how much was captured live. But either way it is amazingly more human and freeing for this A-list of Spielberg collaborators when Tony and Maria are actually singing and looking at each other, as opposed to imported voices like Jimmy Bryant and Marni Nixon in the original.
Nor is the movie a new plaything for people seeking those “easter eggs,” the Spielberg touches in how the story is told, like the color red in “Schindler’s List” or the John Ford scene in “E.T.” The actual touches are in the craftsmen he hired and the way he keeps the camera moving among the players – and the way the story adds believability.
This is a fine film and the audiences will discover it at their own pace. Of all the film makers today, Spielberg is the one of such high regard that he can wait patiently for that fickle audience to find him.
In the stark black-and-white almost landscape of The Tragedy of Macbeth -- “almost landscape” in how it takes shape only to transport us -- director and shrewd editor of Shakespeare’s original, Joel Coen, does not waste any time to address the hot social media controversy that surrounds the casting of his wife, Frances McDormand, and Denzel Washington, 67, as the Macbeths.
The social media talk is all about how they are too old for the roles. The parts have been played as young rebels or sensual lovers or middle aged overachievers, but here there is no effort by Coen to justify their long-term relationship nor hide the grizzled lines and non-Botoxed necks. They just ARE and believable as practiced lieges who have risen to the heights of a Scottish court where they can scheme in isolation and embrace their darkest ambitions. Works just fine.
Coen simply lets us realize that these established veteran members of the court will be abnormally trusted by Duncan the king and other nobles, letting us focus not on how they avoid the law but become the hated law itself as they wade deeper into the lies and the blood.
McDormand was not even nominated for an Oscar – was it because she won last year? Or is this a mild ageism snub – that famous “unsex me here” dialog? Either way it is a horrid oversight. She is a concentrated, convincing, earthy, understandable Lady Macbeth who becomes numbed by the blood hunger she has unleashed within her husband and can no longer control. The calibrations are well done without cheating in terms of dramatic acting. The film cuts the emotional conflicts to the bone, every courtier there for a reason.
Coen’s style in the telling is minimalist, tight-fisted and only exploding in cinematic punctuations for good reason. Perhaps this was why it wasn’t nominated as best picture. It seems to take place in fog or abstract space which suddenly has landscapes that echo each other, with sudden stark outlines of castles and roads, and places murderers can hide or victims can delay the inevitable. We move through this space with quickness and fear, never knowing what lies around the next invented turn. Shakespeare’s words have a human bite to them.
With Coen there is a subtlety as well as cleverness in how the settings melt into each other, how mere passageways, endless steps and chambers sublimate into the next scene, how floods of birds and leaves are suddenly unleashed to paint the way to doom. The sets are built for cinema, not for the stage.
In this of all years, Coen’s power of limited palette should be recognized. The Oscars have gone overboard in the best director category to praise those whose general artistry is loved even if this wasn’t their best year. There are no other honors, for example, for Licorice Pizza. Even those who admire "best" director Paul Thomas Anderson have to admit that he is there just because he embodies how giddily palettes, editing and running techniques can be employed to entertain us – indeed some nominations are really about the way the film pyrotechnics have been used or even overused, maybe because Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences technical experts are voting for each other.
|Denzel Washington as Macbeth|
If you know the play intimately, you may sense some disappointments (the night porter tries too hard to be funny) but you won’t miss the cuts, such as the unneeded scene in England where Malcolm tries to test Macduff’s commitment to the cause.
Joel Coen (operating here without younger brother Ethan) confesses in interviews that he is a novice scholar – like hell. He has made the mysterious Third Murderer (whose purpose has confounded many directors before him) a clever plot device. He creates a Macbeth so consumed by overreach that his ending is in keeping with his disease.
He has edited the sleepwalking scene with great skill and belief in the original and he has been remarkably inventive and terrifying in the Witches -- using a shape-shifting stage legend, Kathleen Hunter, to twist her limbs and guttural her voice into the master puppeteer of all three weird ones. Though there are some special effects involved, how Hunter is not nominated as best supporting actress is beyond me, except that category already had too many options.
If Denzel wins in a walk, I will forgive a strange Oscar year, clearly affected by COVID delays and vagaries of online vs. movie house receipts, which apparently influence voters. But it is passing strange that a powerful Shakespeare adaptation that will stand the test of time better than Olivier’s “Hamlet” (which did win best picture) has gotten so little attention as this Tragedy of Macbeth.
By Dominique Paul Noth
Kristen Stewart in 'Spencer'
The film opens with a vista of perfectly aligned trees and passing trucks, then slightly eerie sound effects as sentries guard a huge empty royal kitchen -- then a blond actress with a familiar haircut speeds by on the country road, weirdly alone for a royal princess, seeking the way to her grandmother’s estate and Christmas dinner with the family.
I had sensed this styling before, the indirect entry into the land of the opulent rich, back in 2016 or actually the 2017 Oscars when Chilean film-maker Pablo Larrain broke into consideration with “Jackie,” a vision of Jackie Kennedy (Onassis) struggling with neurosis set against lavish backgrounds. Larrain imagined much of that struggle with the kind of sympathetic invention Hollywood loves and we do, too, our feelings for a lost princess struggling against relentless fame and media. That film gained a best actress nomination for Natalie Portman and furthered Larrain’s reputation for elaborate camera techniques and psychological journeys.
Here we are again at Oscar time. Same director, similar style, similarly based on a real life, another actress carrying the load, but even deeper phantasmagoria, even a horror story, about the late and beloved Princess Diana, actually justified on screen as a “fable from true tragedy.”
Spencer (her family name) is about Diana speeding to her royal prison, muttering to herself and hallucinating as she faces up to divorcing Prince Charles.
It is a fable but is it also a true tragedy? Maybe, if we are always on Diana’s side, viewing her husband as a stuffed shirt ordering her not to throw up at the family dinner, seeing the queen as an always smirking cold fish.
Diana is constantly running away from and into a regimented prison of luxury corridors, fancy curtains and prying eyes, every maid and butler a spy. She imagines slurping a green vichyssoise full of the string of pearls Charles has given her, which are like the pearls he gave Camilla (she already knows). She envies the local field’s scarecrow, feeling like a pheasant being shot by royal hunters. Moments with her children return her partly to normal, at least in this concoction.
Going mad before our eyes (despite a last minute mental rescue out of nowhere) is the style of Lorrain, who expertly arranges the details and gets us squirming at a world lined up as her enemy. His skill at composition is unassailable. But beautiful to watch is not the same as beautiful to think about.
In 2017, Portman was a mere placeholder in the best actress category, and the same is expected for Stewart. Only because of that likelihood is the film in Oscar discussion – along with seeking to elevate Stewart’s reputation after the “Twilight” films.
We can distinguish film acting from genuine acting (and love the bodies that can do both). Maybe Stewart can, but as used here, loping across fields and flashing eyes in close-ups, then cut-in fragments of conversation, the main Di details are only in the way she gasps for breath and gulps as she talks. She represents the film acting side only, a performance that could easily be pieced together from small takes.
For an established actress, look to Sally Hawkins as her loving dresser. Now that’s a good performance. Stewart’s Diana is more like impaling a butterfly on a pin and seeing how neurotically it can quiver.
The film is hanging around a few theaters hoping for Oscar nods, but mainly available for rent at streaming services.
Editor's Note Feb. 8: The Oscar nominations today make aspects of my story wrong, particularly that the Academy resisted what I thought it wouldn't -- nominating Rita Moreno alongside Ariana DeBose. But rather than deal with the 'Belfast' conflict, they only nominated Judi Dench, plucked the new actress Jessie Buckley from 'The Lost Daughter' and, as I predicted, dropped the two leading ladies I mentioned to this category.
By Dominique Paul Noth
COVID could still change the timing, but the Oscar nominations are now set for February 8 and the ceremony itself for March 27. Various trades, guilds and other industry groups have met and produced their lists that will influence how the Oscar voters decide.
|Ariana DeBose and Rita Moreno|
at premiere of 'West Side Story'
The nominations could also reflect movie theaters in one corner and streaming services in the other. There are cross-overs but there are also stern one-siders. Some categories in fact will be hard put to find five genuine prospects to nominate (much less 10 films for the top slot!).
But the situation is the opposite in the supporting actress category. There exist far more genuine hopefuls than there are slots, particularly when studios and agents play the game of forcing lead actresses into the supporting actress category.
That will smack viewers most forcibly with Belfast, a well acted movie that clearly confused some American viewers, who struggled with the Northern Ireland accents (I found them charming) and some uncertainty about who to root for in this boy’s life story of growing up in 1969. The film opens subtly with color panoramas of Belfast today before moving into a black and white 1969.
Also confusing to some viewers is that the Protestant vs. Catholic enmity did not prevent both sides from declaring their Irishness and how in 1969, even as they were inflamed into choosing sides, Protestant and Catholic families co-existed. We all obviously need to learn more about this history, which was shut off US front pages by Vietnam.
Holding the Protestant family together in ways that Catholic families will find recognizable is a fine Irish actress (and truth teller in director Kenneth Branagh’s film based on his own upbringing), Caitríona Balfe. Despite her central importance and screen time, academy voters are being pushed to consider her in the supporting actress category.
But there is a better known member of this cast also likely to be there. If so, it will be hard to dislodge Judi Dench. The Dame, as she is titled, is best known to moviegoers as the perennial M in the James Bond films, where her dry wit and bemused looks don’t begin to tap her ability. “Belfast” does. She is the Granny being left behind, whose scenes with her husband (Ciarán Hinds, and look for him to be nominated in the supporting actor category) spark the humor and genuine sentiment of the story. She is even given the defining phrases as the rest of the family leaves for America. Her final scene will be hard to overlook.
Two strong possibles from one film – and that isn’t even the strangest case. How about two actresses associated with the same role – Anita in West Side Story?
Ariana DeBose has drawn raves for her acting, singing and dancing in Steven Spielberg’s new version, only available in movie houses. It is a role where those elements plus the ethical dilemma won Rita Moreno her Oscar 60 years ago -- but look! Over there in the same film IS Rita Moreno, a miracle at age 90.
She won the Oscar for Anita -- and is given a new role, Doc’s widow Valentina, now running the drugstore, and she even nails a famous song, “Somewhere,” which she sang live on set, according to the studio. It isn’t a cameo, as she insists, since screenwriter Tony Kushner wrote the part for her.
Can you imagine the Oscar voters resisting coming full circle? Can you imagine them nominating her and not nominating DeBose -- even though they may cancel each other out?
And can they also resist Cate Blanchett? A fine actress and former winner, she has two good ice-maiden supporting roles – Don’t Look Up and Nightmare Alley. She never can be discounted.
Then there are two actresses who ought to be in the best actress category for the importance of their parts, but are only being talked about for supporting. They are Kirsten Dunst, who quietly nails the dichotomies of her role in The Power of the Dog.
And there is the most cringe-worthy de-elevation being contemplated for King Richard, while Will Smith seems a lock for best actor nomination.
As I wrote in a January review: “The best acting in the film belongs to Aunjanue Ellis as Oracene (Brandy) his wife – feisty, supportive and insisting on equality – a performance that deserves to be considered at awards time. It is her honesty as an angry truth-telling wife that keeps the film from slipping irretrievably into the sugary side.”
Yet the studio is pushing her – and not very hard – only for the supporting category.
As of this writing, it is unclear which names the Oscars will jump for, and it might not include someone I should have listed as I see more of the films in contention. I pretty much know who I like in the other races, but I wouldn’t want to be the voter who has to come down to five and then one in this category.
|Publicity still for Bradley Cooper in 'Nightmare Alley'|
Within the movie industry and even on cable networks there’s an Oscar publicity push for Mexican director Guillermo del Toro’s latest, Nightmare Alley. And given its acting lineup and movie lineage, no wonder.
Del Toro is the director of films I have admired such as “Pan’s Labyrinth” (2006 combining fantasy and fascist horror) and “The Shape of Water” (elements of fantasy, romance and a creature from the black lagoon that cleaned up in 2018 at the Oscars).
A prolific producer and user of the latest cinematic techniques, he recently turned to co-host duties on Turner Classic Movies pumping how his “Nightmare Alley” corrected a major studio’s wild stab at film noir in 1947 when 20th Century Fox didn’t dare turn its biggest heart-throb Tyrone Power into the chicken-ripping carny disaster suggested in the original novel of the same name.
Given his delight in the human underbelly and technical mastery of gloomy alley visuals, constant traveling camera and shocking intercuts of humanity’s darkest sides, del Toro had no hesitation in exploring a third-rate carnival and its denizens – in fact, adding to the macabre. The film tries but lacks his usual collision of grim tale with historic resonance, but he has called in some notable acting names to roam this 1940s underworld:
Bradley Cooper as the central hustler, believing he can outguess everyone, Rooney Mara as his disquieted love interest, Toni Collette as his fortune-telling plaything, Ron Perlman as the menacing carny strongman, Willem Dafoe in a black wig and mustache as the ultimate nasty know-it-all, David Strathairn as the drunken pseudo-psychic who teaches him the ropes, Richard Jenkins as the savage rich guy he wants to fool, and Cate Blanchett as the cool psychiatrist who may outwit him. What a cast! And what a strangely slow and unconvincing movie as we wearily trudge this masterfully-shot endless tunnel of 1940s environments.
The film is interesting, though, in how language and meanings have changed. Today a “geek” may actually be an affectionate term for a computer nerd. In the 1940s a geek was the absolute dregs of show biz, a doped up drunk in the carny’s worst act, hired from town to town to bite the heads off chickens – an almost inhuman being who has driven himself to the bottom.
That’s where Cooper is heading and the story’s ending is telegraphed (which is one reason the 1947 movie was and is so disappointing – the studio couldn’t imagine going this dirty with Tyrone and the audience knows where it is supposed to be going). Well, 20th Century Fox has evolved into Searchlight, with the same famous theme song. The dirtier the stars get, the better.
The suspense in the story has always been is seeing how the Cooper character gets there, from a drifter with a checkered past but tons of good looks and immoral ideas to a smooth nightclub mentalist to an overly confident dapper-dressed trickster who unglues himself.
Del Toro is having a lot of fun foreshadowing and after-shadowing how the Cooper character has a lot of creepiness in his past and built-in weaknesses stemming from his self-confidence. Cooper is unusually metronomic in how he handles character development, almost as if he is peeking at the next page of the script.
As the overly cool blonde manipulator, Blanchett is a strong but extreme version of herself – likely to be nominated on reputation because she is never bad. Of the other supporting cast, I thought only Dafoe and Jenkins showed anything special.
Now while I long to see del Toro’s future projects, including a grown-up version of “Pinocchio,” this one is a mere sideshow and not worth the hullabaloo.
By Dominique Paul Noth
Sickened by our politics? By our cavalier attitude toward climate change? By selfishness during an epidemic? The vapid chatter on TV news and social media? For those reasons and more you want to applaud director-writer Adam McKay for his angry three-endings take in Don’t Look Up, a title that invites pundit variations such as Don’t Look It Up or Just Don’t Look. It is exclusively on Netflix for now, and that is also a commentary on this star-studded film.
We the American public are the main target as we refuse to believe in the planet-killing comet speeding toward Earth (how the film opens). We are the complacent society of couch potatoes reluctant to even look up at the meteor filled sky. We let rich technology gurus, slimy politicians and those TV talking heads reduce major ideas into gotcha balloons or seek a way to make money off disaster. These privileged movers and shakers even think they can escape the Earth’s impending atmosphere of climate destruction.
After a promising opening premise, the film demonstrates that gathering a stellar cast for a needed assault doesn’t mount to diddly without tight writing, true humor and a good instinct of how to poke fun again and again without becoming boring. Something McKay was supposed to learn from his past at SNL, but then again today’s SNL is also hit and miss.
As the scientists alarmed at how society refuses to accept their facts about the killer comet, the movie relies on Leonardo DiCaprio (for too many panicked reaction takes) and Jennifer Lawrence (tricked up with nose earring and burnt red hair to look as ugly as possible for one of the most attractive creatures on screen). They become the anxious ragers against Establishment indifference and self-serving schemes.
Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence
Rallied against them are Meryl Streep as a female presidential version of Trump, Jonah Hill as her obnoxious son elevated to chief of staff, Cate Blanchett as a man-eating TV host devoted to making the important look trivial, and Tyler Perry as her co-host echo chamber. There are also in various stages of opposition Timothee Chalamet as the unpretentious but empty-headed love interest and an extra talented actor, Mark Rylance, who almost escapes criticism as the creepy technological guru (think Steve Jobs crossed with Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos).
Look around if you don’t think this story has truths. The movie insists that we like sheep will heed the bigwigs’ commands to just step aside, keep our heads down and let the money boys operate. The film is a scream of anguish and a parable for our time – but it is a comedy? Or is comedy passé in our current gridlock?
McKay feels righteous outrage – so several of his films testify (“Vice,” “The Big Short”). But clever humor is still expected from him, and is sadly thin in a movie where bile rules and an understandable negative view of mankind wins.
In a better film Rylance would receive accolades for his constant smile and spooky mannerisms, as would Streep for her ferocious portrayal of a soulless politician. In this film, people I never thought would be boring are.
Mark Rylance in 'Don't Look Up'
It’s a strange thing to say about such collected first-rate talents. You can easily be misled into thinking it all can’t be a waste – the cast alone should put it at No. 1 on Netflix. Well it isn’t all a waste, not at first, but it comes damn close in two and a half hours. It’s understandable that many of the participants say in interviews that it was more like making a documentary than a satire. That may well be part of the problem.
We keep agreeing with McKay’s points and long for a reason to like this parade of very expensive special effects and useless diatribes, with constant intercuts to scenes of destroyed or threatened nature. He is trying to make the modern complicated equivalent of 1964’s “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” But director Stanley Kubrick and writer Terry Southern had a spine – a serious fiction novel “Red Alert” that struck them as hysterical to spin off, breaking themselves up with laughter. McKay has no such anchor, nor the talent to wing his way through this.
Hiring like-minded seriously talented people is desperation, not a substitute for wit and genuine ideas. That’s why the movie scrambles for finales – not just a stolen kiss between unlikely partners, not a meeting of the good folks for a final dinner, not just a surprise space ship voyaging into disaster.
A word about Netflix and this ever more common way of watching movies. The service signed some pretty big names for this movie to add to its seemingly bottomless mixed bag of exclusive offerings. I’m finding value in my Netflix subscription by ignoring the entry screens and daily emails where they push the products they think I would be interested in. I just push deeper to find my gems – like “Voir” (a collection of movie essays) or movies that will never strike it big but are worth a look like “Proof,” “Passing” and “Tick Tick Boom.”
The online services are doing with volume what the movie theaters have given up for now (though they may surge into variety again if COVID fears die off). The online services welcome blockbuster possibilities while also embracing slivers of audiences. This broad choice of venues has turned film critics into openly being what they secretly always were – consumer advisers showing you where and when.