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Will Lady Bird Soar at the Oscars?

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Lady Bird and LBJ — together again! Okay, so writer-director Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age comedy has nothing to do with the late First Lady, but it is opening the same day as Rob Reiner’s presidential biopic, Nov. 3.  While LBJ has been sitting on the shelf for more than a year (perhaps to put some space between Woody Harrelson’s performance as Lyndon Johnson and Bryan Cranston’s Tony- and Emmy-winning turn in All the Way) , Lady Bird has been earning raves on the festival circuit and seems more likely to win over Oscar voters.

Set in her hometown of Sacramento in 2002-3, Gerwig’s semi-autobiographical gem follows high-school senior Christine McPherson (the prodigious Saoirse Ronan, who should earn her third Oscar nomination at 23, after Atonement and Brooklyn). Dubbing herself “Lady Bird,” she’s determined to fly the coop for college in New York City, over the objections of her hypercritical yet loving mother, played with shattering sensitivity by Laurie Metcalf. A Tony winner for this year’s A Doll’s House, Part 2 and a three-time Emmy winner for Roseanne (a role she’ll soon reprise in the reboot), Metcalf could add an Academy Award to her collection. Now she just needs to sing or record an audiobook and she could have a shot at becoming a member of the EGOT club.

An actress who has frequently worked with real-life romantic partner Noah Baumbach, Gerwig shows a great facility for eliciting vivid performances; the impressive ensemble also includes Manchester by the Sea‘s Lucas Hedges (as a closeted classmate), Fences‘ Stephen McKinley Henderson (as a depressed priest) and Marjorie Prime‘s Lois Smith (as a good-humored nun). Like Tracy Letts, who plays Lady Bird’s soft-hearted father, they’re all veterans of the theater, and Gerwig’s love of the stage shines through in endearingly amateurish scenes from high-school productions of Merrily We Roll Along and The Tempest.

Judging by the warm reception Lady Bird received at the Writers Guild of America East screening I attended, Gerwig seems a shoo-in for screenplay nominations. Whether such a small, sweet film can compete in Best Picture and Director categories depends on how the rest of the field shakes out. It may have competition for Original Screenplay and Supporting Actress from Novitiate, another coming-of-age period piece about a Catholic schoolgirl (Margaret Qualley), only this one dreams of becoming a nun. The feature-film debut of writer-director Margaret Betts, Novitiate boasts powerful work from Melissa Leo as a domineering Mother Superior whose worldview is shaken by the Vatican II reforms of Pope Pius XXIII in the early ’60s. A nominee for Frozen River and a winner for The Fighter, Leo may find herself duking it out with Metcalf on Oscar night.

More importantly, though, with Lady Bird and Novitiate, we have two stellar films written and directed by women with strong, specific points of view. In the post-Harvey Weinstein indie-movie world, that’s reason to rejoice.

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Five Reasons Why The Snowman Blows

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Michael Fassbender has been on an ice-cold streak at the box office with duds like Alien: Resurrection, Assassin’s Creed and The Light Between Oceans. No doubt his star status will continue to melt with The Snowman, an adaptation of Jo Nesbo’s Norwegian crime novel. In it, Fassbender plays Harry Hole (no joke, that’s his name), an Oslo cop on the trail of a serial killer. The film is a scream, but not in the way Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy director Tomas Alfredson  intended. Here’s why.

Fassbender is miscast. Harry Hole is a burnt-out alcoholic prone to passing out in the gutter. We’re not sure why — his backstory seems to have been left out, although we do know he has an ex-girlfriend (Charlotte Gainsbourg, who participates in one of the most uncomfortable love scenes in recent memory). Fassbender doesn’t look like he’s ever been on a bender — or skipped a day at the gym, for that matter.

Snowmen aren’t chilling. Some things, like clowns, are inherently scary, as It has proven. This killer leaves his mark by building a snowman at the scene of his murders. Every time the camera cuts to ice sculpture’s crooked smile, you can’t help but laugh.

We expect better from Martin Scorsese. Yes, we’re talking to you, Marty. You executive-produced this movie, after wisely choosing not to direct it yourself. The fact that your legendary longtime collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker is listed as one of the film’s two editors leads me to believe you realized what a frozen turkey you had on your hands and asked her to try and salvage it. She didn’t succeed.

The supporting cast is problematic. As a cop assigned to Fassbender’s task force, Rebecca Ferguson is beyond bland. As her father, Val Kilmer is simply distracting — his voice seems out of sync with his mouth, like he (or someone else) badly dubbed his lines later. Even J.K. Simmons gives a terrible performance, which I didn’t think was possible, overacting wildly as a nefarious Norwegian businessman.

Harvey Weinstein’s shadow hangs over the film. The ex-Miramax ogre had nothing to do with The Snowman, yet the newfound focus on sexual harassment and assault in Hollywood as a result of the scandal surrounding him makes certain scenes of violence against women even harder to watch. Suffice it to say an alternate title for the movie might be Bring Me the Head of Chloe Sevigny. Maybe all those lawyers who have quit Weinstein’s team can go work for Frosty, because he’s got a serious defamation of character case against the abominable Snowman.

The Florida Project: This Year’s Moonlight?

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Almost a year ago to the day, upstart indie A24 released Moonlight to rave reviews and promising box-office returns, but there was no reason to believe it would move beyond a niche hit and become an Oscar winner for Best Picture. Maybe that’s why no one blinked when La La Land was mistakenly announced as the victor. Could history repeat itself ? Not with the envelope snafu — the Academy had better be sure of that. But A24 recently released another “little” movie that could make a big noise: The Florida Project. Here are four reasons why it could be this year’s Moonlight.

It tells a story from a fresh perspective. Just as Moonlight saw the world through the eyes of a young, gay African-American man, The Florida Project shows us the universe as viewed by a six-year-old girl, Moonee (the luminous, remarkable Brooklynn Kimberly Prince), who lives at a low-rent motel in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom of Walt Disney World. Somehow she transforms her meager surroundings into the Happiest Place on Earth as she runs wild with little supervision from her mother (Bria Vinaite), who’s scraping to pay for their room by any means necessary.

It marks the emergence of a major filmmaker. Barry Jenkins had only made a few little-seen movies before Moonlight, and the same holds true for The Florida Project‘s Sean Baker. His last film, 2015’s Tangerine, was shot entirely on an iPhone, and he takes a huge step forward here. Made for $2 million, Florida projects a dazzling visual style with candy-coated color schemes and kid’s-eye POVs.

It features an endearing unlikely father figure. Mahershala Ali deservedly won Best Supporting Actor as the drug dealer who proves a surprisingly strong male role model to young Chiron in Moonlight. Similarly, Willem Dafoe does heartbreakingly subtle work as the motel manager who keeps a close watch on Moonee. The profoundly versatile Dafoe (the guy has played everyone from Jesus to the Green Goblin!) has been Oscar-nominated twice before, for Platoon and Shadow of the Vampire, and he’s long-overdue for a win.

It’s a movie whose time has come. Moonlight gave insight into the struggles of being young, African-American, gay and poor — basically everything Donald Trump is not. The Florida Project shines a light on the day-to-day grind of America’s working-class, single-parent households and its effect on the most innocent members of our society: kids. God bless Barry Jenkins and Sean Baker: They’re making American movies great again.

Could Adam Sandler Really Win an Oscar?

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The words Adam Sandler and Academy Award have rarely appeared in the same sentence together, unless the sentence is “Adam Sandler will never win an Academy Award.” That could change after his heartbreaking performance in The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), writer-director Noah Baumbach’s latest family dramedy — and his best work since 2005’s The Squid and the Whale. Still, I have a feeling that the words Adam Sandler may appear in the same sentence as Academy Awards next year, but it will also include the word snub. Here’s why:

1) His character is too passive. If the question is, “Should Adam Sandler really win an Oscar?” the answer may be yes, based on the weak field of Best Actor competitors so far this year. I haven’t seen such potential contenders as Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour or Christian Bale in Hostiles yet, but I did catch an early screening of Jason Clarke as Teddy Kennedy in Chappaquiddick — said to be a strong candidate — and his performance left me cold. The problem is lead actors usually win Oscars for playing strong characters (although last year’s recipient, Manchester by the Sea‘s Casey Affleck, is an exception), and Sandler’s pianist-turned-sad stay-at-home dad Danny Meyerowitz isn’t exactly Abe Lincoln or Idi Amin.

2) He’ll probably be entered in the wrong category. I’m assuming Sandler will compete for Best Actor, since his Meyerowitz father, Dustin Hoffman, should be a lock for a Best Supporting Actor nomination, and the studio won’t want to split the vote. But given the episodic structure of Stories, Sandler doesn’t dominate the movie the way you’d expect for an ostensible lead. When he’s on-screen, you can’t take your eyes off him, but when the focus shifts to other characters, he recedes or disappears.

3) His movie is coming out on Netflix. Although Meyerowitz is being released in a few theaters, it will premiere on the streaming service simultaneously — a strategy that hurt such seeming slam-dunk nominees as Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation. If Netflix would wait to debut it online (like Amazon did with Manchester), Academy voters might consider this as something more than a glorified made-for-TV movie.

4) The Oscars are historically biased against comedians, even in serious roles. Think Jim Carrey in The Truman Show. Or Jim Carrey in Man in the Moon. Or Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. And no, the Academy doesn’t just hate Jim Carrey. Steve Martin in Roxanne, Albert Brooks in Drive, and Bill Murray in Rushmore all deserved some Oscar love and instead got snubbed.

5) He’s Adam Sandler, dammit. Fifteen years ago, he delivered impressively mature work in Punch-Drunk Love, but Sandler has mostly stuck to juvenile comedies like Groan Ups… er, Grown UpsPixels, and Netflix duds like The Ridiculous Six. It’s a long way from Happy Gilmore to Oscar glory, and voters may not be able to erase the image of Sandler in Jack and Jill drag long enough to cast their ballots for him. Sorry, Adam, but to paraphrase Rob Schneider in too many of your films, “You can’t do it!”

The Best Film of 2017 (So Far) Is…

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The best film of 2017 (so far) is… not going to be released until 2018. But I caught a screening of it at the 55th New York Film Festival, and I’m here to testify that First Reformed is a cinematic miracle. “This is the movie I’ve avoided making my entire career,” writer-director Paul Schrader said at a post-screening Q&A. I beg to differ. It’s the movie he’s been trying to make his entire career, and he’s finally perfected it.

As I wrote in a comprehensive review of Schrader’s career for RogerEbert.com in 2012, he often makes films fixated on an “unholy Trinity of blood, boobs and the Bible.” Raised in the Christian Reformed Church, a Dutch Calvinist sect in Michigan, he grew obsessed with the forbidden fruits of sex and violence, and has washed himself in blood and other bodily fluids in his screenplays for Martin Scorsese films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ as well as his own movies such as Hardcore, American Gigolo and Auto Focus.

All of these films center around a solitary man on a mission — “God’s lonely man,” as Travis Bickle calls himself — who seek redemption through a sexually attractive woman, with varying degrees of success. In the case of First Reformed, Schrader cuts straight to the heart of his story. Ethan Hawke, who’s been on a remarkable roll lately in films like Boyhood, The Phenom and Maudie, delivers a deeply transfixing performance as Toller, the pastor at the First Reformed Calvinist church. It’s an historic institution that has become little more than a tourist-trap offshoot of a megachurch presided over by a corporate-friendly minister played, in an inspired bit of casting, by The Soul Man‘s Cedric the Entertainer, working under his real name, Cedric Kyles.

A former military chaplain wracked with guilt over sending his son off to die in a meaningless war in Iraq, Toller is suffering a spiritual crisis, unable to pray as he rots literally from the inside out and he drinks himself to near-death. Enter the potential savior, a pregnant woman (a career-best Amanda Seyfried) whose environimental-activist husband (Brawl in Cell Block 99‘s Phillip Ettinger) has grown despondent about bringing a child into our rapidly deteriorating world.

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I won’t spoil any of the plot twists, but suffice it to say Schrader puts you inside the mind and soul of a man wrestling with himself to find a single drop of hope amid a profoundly polluted sea of despair. The imagery isn’t difficult to decipher — “there are going to be a lot of term papers written about this movie,” he cracked — but that doesn’t make the film any less powerful. Even as it veers into surrealism, First Reformed remains rooted in a rare emotional verisimilitude.

Schrader uses techniques of cinematic restraint like minimal music and controlled camera moves to draw you into the heart of his story. Decrying blockbusters that bombard you with their “neediness for approval,” as he put it, he has created a masterpiece that challenges viewers to question the main character’s morality and ultimately, their own faith, or lack thereof. When was the last time a movie did that?

 

How Long Will Blade Runner 2049 Run?

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When I heard Blade Runner 2049 runs 164 minutes, my first instinct was to run away. Ridley Scott’s original 1982 film spanned less than two hours; why would the sequel need an extra 45 minutes? I worried 2049 might feel like the film’s running time, considering the slow pace of director Denis Villenueve’s previous sci-fi epic Arrival. Amy Adams’ 2016 hit lasted less than two hours but felt longer — and that’s not a complaint. The deliberate pace contributed to the film’s hypnotic appeal. And after seeing two other 2017 films that move at measured clips, to great effect, I’m more convinced than ever that slow shouldn’t be a four-letter word when it comes to movies.

Lucky opens, aptly enough, with a shot of a tortoise crawling across a desert. That’s a clue to the poky pace of the movie — and its namesake, a nonagenerian loner played to perfection by Harry Dean Stanton, who passed away at 91 shortly before the film was released. As we watch Lucky go through his mundane daily rituals (yoga in the morning, crossword puzzles over meals, game shows in the evening), the movie, directed with no great haste by actor John Carroll Lynch, creates a profoundly moving portrait of a man coming to terms with his imminent demise.

It’s even more powerful when you realize how closely Lucky’s life story mirrors Stanton’s own. Both are World War II Navy vets who worked as cooks aboard Landing Ship Tank (LST), or “Large Slow Target,” as Lucky calls it in a wonderful scene with Tom Skerritt as an ex-Marine, and never wed nor had kids.

Though it runs less than 90 minutes, Lucky overflows with lovely interactions between the protagonist and various figures in his life, including his baffled doctor, dryly played by Ed Begley, Jr., who co-starred with Stanton in one of his most underseen films, 1974’s Cockfighter. The tortoise, as it turns out, is President Roosevelt, a pet who’s run away from his owner (another frequent Stanton collaborator, David Lynch).

That’s about as much of a plot as the movie has, but Lynch treats his actors with such love that you don’t mind watching them do virtually nothing. That’s the same feeling I got watching a film that in many ways is Lucky‘s polar opposite: Brawl in Cell Block 99, writer-director S. Craig Zahler’s follow-up to his 2015 breakout cannibal Western Bone Tomahawk. Both of the autuer’s movies are genre exploitation pieces that you’d expect to be quick and dirty — 90 minutes tops — but both run over two hours and take their time telling their stories and letting you get to know the characters in the long pauses between action scenes.

In Brawl‘s case, Vince Vaughn’s Bradley (don’t call him Brad) Pierce doesn’t even arrive in the titular cell block until roughly two-thirds of the way through its 141-minute run. Up to that point, we’ve gotten to know him as a down-on-his-luck working-class man who takes a job as a drug runner to provide for his beloved but flawed wife (Dexter‘s Jennifer Carpenter) and their unborn daughter.

His own moral code causes him to be thrown in jail — and costs a meth magnate millions — and to clear his debt to the kingpin, he has to kill an inmate of the maximum-security (or “minimum-freedom,” as its sadistic warden, deliciously played by Don Johnson, calls it) facility that gives the movie its name.

Brawl is the definition of a slow burn, or rather a slow limb-snap and face-stomp. But because Zahler has taken the time to make you care about his main character, it’s much more than just a guilty-pleasure beatdown. He also allows room for indelible scenes with skilled character actors like Udo Kier  (as a henchman known only as Placid Man), Fred Melamed (as a prissy prison employee) and Clark Johnson (as a detective who could be an even world-wearier version of his Meldrick Lewis from Homicide: Life on the Street).

As Zahler put it in a post-screening Q&A at Fantastic Fest in Brooklyn, he leaves in the scenes that other directors cut out, and you may find yourself wondering why you’re watching Vaughn drive around as old soul music plays on the radio, for example. Yet the way his eyes dart around, taking in the details of his downtrodden neighborhood, tells everything you need to know about how he’s constantly alert and on-edge, qualities that serve him well once the mayhem begins.

Having savored the slow pleasures of Lucky and Brawl in Cell Block 99, I’m ready to hunker down for Blade Runner 2049. And if I’m still hungry for another slow-cooked cinematic meals, maybe I’ll check out Frederick Wiseman’s new documentary on the New York Public Library, Ex Libris. After all, it’s only 197 minutes.

Five Fun Facts About Crossing Delancey

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I must confess I didn’t think much of Crossing Delancey when I saw it upon its initial release in 1988, but its vivid depiction of Manhattan’s Lower East Side has often come back to me as I’ve spent time in that neighborhood and watched it change in the three decades since I moved to the area. So I was curious to revisit it when I saw that Film Forum had scheduled a screening of the rom-com, followed by a Q&A with director Joan Micklin Silver and stars Amy Irving and Peter Riegert. I enjoyed the film much more on second viewing and was especially entertained by the discussion afterwards. Here are five things I learned from it.

The studio thought it was too Jewish. Silver had difficulty raising money to make the film. One potential producer offered to finance the picture only if all of the Jewish characters were changed to Italians, which was considered a more marketable demographic in light of the success of Moonstruck a year earlier. Then Irving’s husband, Steven Spielberg, put in a call to his friends at Warner Bros., who immediately agreed to back it. But even after the film was completed, the studio didn’t go wide with it, fearing it was “too ethnic” and wouldn’t play well in the South. Still, it earned a tidy profit, grossing $16 million—four times its budget.

It turned “Pickle Man” Peter Riegert into an unlikely sex symbol. The now-70-year-old Animal House alum recounted with glee how many women approached him after his charmingly low-key performance as a pickle purveyor. One woman accosted him on the street in Manhattan and insisted on introducing him to her daughter, and another made him get on the phone with her boyfriend—a real life Pickle Man—and try to convince him to marry her. “So thank you, Joan, for that,” he deadpanned.

Amy Irving’s agent originally turned it down. When Silver initially sent the script to the actress’ representative, the agent told her that Irving, who had earned an Academy Award nomination a few years earlier for Yentl, didn’t do “little New York pictures.” So Silver ran an end-around and got the screenplay to Irving through a mutual friend, and she fell for it instantly. (No word on whether Irving fired her agent.)

Reizl Bozyk had only acted in one film before — and never in English! The Yiddish theatrical legend was nervous about making her English-speaking screen debut at the age of 74 as Irving’s lovably irascible Bubbe. (She had appeared briefly in 1950’s Catskills Honeymoon, which Film Forum programmer/moderator Bruce Goldstein said was “the worst Yiddish movie ever made”). But Riegert said as soon as he saw Bozyk, he knew she was going to steal every one of  her scenes. And she did.

Izzy and Sam the Pickle Man didn’t live happily ever after… or did they? Irving and Riegert confessed neither of them believes the odd couple was destined for lifelong bliss after the freeze frame that ends the film after Izzy finally agrees to go out on a date with Sam. (Silver said she’d never thought about it.) Riegert said he was too cynical to expect a happy ending, while Irving said she pictured the duo reconnecting years later via the Internet. Sounds like a good plotline for Crossing Delancey 2!