Category Archives: Oscar Contenders

Films that should earn buzz during awards season.

‘Judas and the Black Messiah’ Review

This film will be noted as one of the best of 2021, but is going to receive nominations for the 2020 awards season. Make it make sense.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” tells the story of criminal-turned-FBI informant William O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) and his betrayal of Black Panther Party chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery, Algee Smith, and Martin Sheen also star, while Shaka King directs.

Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield are two of the best rising talents in Hollywood right now, with both going from obscure favorites to mainstream faces following “Get Out” in 2017. Kaluuya earned an Oscar nomination for his work there, and subsequent praise for his performance in “Widows” and appearance in “Black Panther,” while Stanfield has appeared in numerous acclaimed films like “Knives Out,” “Uncut Gems,” and “Sorry to Bother You.” Their reunion here produces a film that is entertaining and intense, but also ponderous and at times infuriating.

As Fred Hampton, Daniel Kaluuya embodies charisma and passion. An onlooker of one of his speeches calls him a poet, and it’s certainly true. He enters rallies to the sound of drums and the chanting of his name from a roaring crowd like he’s a college football star running out of the tunnel onto the field, and makes a point to gather oppressed people from all walks of life, not just African Americans. Like Martin Luther King Jr., Hampton knew he would not live to see old age (he would die at just 21) but he is ready to trade his life for the advancement of the people.

As petty thief William O’Neal, LaKeith Stanfield has a much more challenging role to balance, essentially playing a less-moral version of Leonardo DiCaprio in “The Departed.” Having his arm twisted by the FBI to infiltrate the Panthers in lieu of going to prison, O’Neal is portrayed as much more conflicted in the film than he was in real life but it serves the story wonderfully. While in reality O’Neal felt “no allegiance” to Hampton and the Panthers, director Shaka King and co-writers Will Berson and Kenny and Keith Lucas choose to make O’Neal becoming a rat much more of a conflict of emotion. In one scene where Stanfield must keep his Panther facade up during a rally despite realizing his cover may be about to be blown, and it is masterful acting and direction by all parties. There is the classic “who else knows about me?” confrontation between O’Neal and his FBI handler, as well as a nice touch by King to have the pair meet in progressively more fancy settings as the film goes on to symbolize how removed from his own world O’Neal is becoming, and it adds a little bit of freshness to a story beat we’ve seen before.

The supporting cast is solid as well, with Jesse Plemons playing O’Neil’s FBI handler thinking he means well, comparing the possible threat of the radical Panther party to that of the KKK. However, he and J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen, in make-up and prosthetics that make him look like Danny DeVito’s Penguin) would rather take Hampton and the Party out than fix any actual problems that created the need for the Panthers in the first place (“you can’t cheat your way to equality” Plemons says to Stanfield).

I really enjoyed the musical score by Mark Isham and Craig Harris, too. It has its tender moments of delicate piano, intense sequences with knocking of wooden blocks, and some cool drum and guitar riffs when characters and simply hanging out. The cinematography by Sean Bibbitt is also pretty good, with nice framing and detailed rain sequences.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” is by-default the best film of 2021 to date (no offense to “The Marksman” or “Outside the Wire”), but I already know I will be talking about it all the way through my Top 10 list in December. Much like “The Trial of the Chicago 7” it may take place in the 1960s but the parallels to modern times could not be any clearer, and it adds to an already impressive filmography from its lead stars. This may not be an easy watch for some people, but it is a necessary one for all.

Critics Rating: 9/10

‘Mank’ Review

I feel the amount of anticipation and pressure on this film and David Fincher to deliver can’t be understated.

“Mank” is the latest film from director David Fincher, and his first since 2014’s “Gone Girl.” Written by his father Jack Fincher, the film follows writer Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) and his development of the script for “Citizen Kane” in 1940; Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Arliss Howard, Tom Burke, and Charles Dance also star.

I’m a decent fan of David Fincher’s work, from “Se7en” to “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” (one of the biggest crimes of the 21st century is us never getting a proper sequel to that), and of course the director’s crowning achievement “The Social Network” (the actual biggest crime of the century is him losing Best Director to “The King’s Speech’s” Tom Hooper). Fincher took some time away from directing films to focus on developing the series “House of Cards” and “Mindhunter” for Netflix but he is back with “Mank,” a film written by his father Jack (who passed away in 2003). Originally set to star Kevin Spacey in the late-90s, the film is a witty and meticulous view of the old Hollywood system and the demons that men with power face, and while it may not rank among Fincher’s best works, I feel it is one of 2020’s better films nevertheless.

For the longest time, Gary Oldman was one of those actors that everyone knew and loved but he never seemed to get the dramatic roles that matched his talents. He finally won an Oscar for his turn as Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour” (whether he deserved it over Timothée Chalamet is another story), and here he is as solid as expected. Oldman’s Mankiewicz is dry and witty, except when he’s sloppy and drunk, and always seems to be the smartest man in the room. It isn’t groundbreaking work, but as he himself says, “you cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours, all you can hope is to leave the impression of one;” and we come away knowing exactly the kind of guy Mank was.

My favorite performance comes from Amanda Seyfried, who portrays actress Marion Davies. Seyfried is sympathetic and while she has less scenes than you would imagine, her presence is felt as a young woman who feels like she has to keep her opinions quiet in a room full of rich old men. The rest of the cast is expectedly good, including Arliss Howard as studio head Louis B. Mayer and Tom Burke as Orson Welles, who perfectly nails Welles’ deep voice and charismatic mannerisms.

Outside Aaron Sorkin’s quips, this is my favorite kind of script. The old-timey rat-a-tat dialogue that is just so sharp and witty that it makes you chuckle even though the line wasn’t technically a joke (“how’s the leg?” Wells asks an injured Mank. “Oh you know, knee bone connected to the thigh bone” he replies). This could land Jack Fincher an Oscar nomination 25 years after he completed the script and more than 17 years after his death, a feat that would mirror August Wilson and his work on “Fences” a few years back.

David Fincher projects always look great, typically with a nice color pallet (“Se7en” is yellow, “Gone Girl” blue, “House of Cards” grey, etc). Here the film is shot in black-and-white, the reason it took Fincher so long to find a studio to back the project, and emphasizes shadows. It is clearly an homage to “Citizen Kane” and the films of old, and at times it is pretty to look at. It never comes off in the same stunning and almost hypnotic way as say, “Roma,” but the cinematography by Erik Messerschmidt works great in certain sequences.

Now the film has a lot on its mind, from the 1934 government race to the old studio system, and not all of it blends perfectly together. Things feel disjointed at times, with the narrative constantly jumping back and forth between Mank trying to keep his socialist views quiet in a Republican-oriented industry (which makes you chuckle when you look at Hollywood today) and his 1940 writing of the script injured in a bed. Also, despite the true authorship of the “Citizen Kane” script being both a big historical controversy and a selling point of the film, the subject is treated as an afterthought until Fincher throws it in (the film itself ends rather abruptly).

“Mank” may not be for everyone but if you love movies, Hollywood, and alcoholism (or the seething criticism of the three) then you should get you kicks here. Do I wish this was an all-timer and not “just” a good movie? Sure, the pieces certainly were there. But I found myself engaged from start to finish, and look forward to revisiting the world again.

Critics Rating: 8/10

‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ Review

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is based on the play of the same name by August Wilson, and follows “Mother of the Blues” singer Ma Rainey (Viola Davis) amid a stressful recording session one summer afternoon in 1927 Chicago. Chadwick Boseman also stars (in his final film appearance), with Glynn Turman, Colman Domingo, and Michael Potts in supporting roles; George C. Wolfe directs.

When Chadwick Boseman passed away from colon cancer this past August, it came as a shock to many. He had been looking thinner in recent public appearances, but since he was such a larger-than-life character both on- and off-screen, plus we had just watched him in Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods” in June, no one assumed the worst was coming. Maybe Boseman knew “Black Bottom” would be his final performance, maybe not, but his work has almost a spiritual sense to it, and could see him earn a posthumous Academy Award nomination.

Chadwick Boseman was only really a big player in movies for seven years, when he came onto the scene as Jackie Robinson in “42.” Since then he played several prominent African-American historical figures, as well as the superhero Black Panther in the MCU. Boseman always had a presence about him, and you feel it in “Black Bottom.” Boseman’s Levee, a trumpet player with high ambitions, is wise-cracking and full of swagger (when we first meet him, he is hitting on women and bragging about his new shoes), but underneath the surface there is pain and struggle. Boseman is able to flip the switch so quickly and with such nuance that you almost don’t even notice, and he says as much with his words as he does with his eyes. I still think Anthony Hopkins gave one of the best performances I have ever seen in “The Father” and he deserves the Best Actor awards, but Boseman is sure to earn some over the next five(!) months and I will be over-the-moon happy for him and his family.

The rest of the cast is solid, with Viola Davis obviously being the other big draw here. Playing Ma Rainey, Davis does her own singing in the film and wears a heavy amount of makeup, to the point she is almost unrecognizable. Davis is at the point in her career where it is hard to be surprised by her acting, and I didn’t think she did anything too great here, but she is able to carry the scenes where Boseman is absent.

The production and costume design are both top-notch as well. You get immersed in early-20th century Chicago, from the cars and the skyline, to the loose ties and fedoras. The score is also pretty good, with the low jazz horns and drum beats.

Where the film comes up short is arguably the most important aspect: the script, adapted from August Wilson’s play by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Santiago-Hudson has a career in theater, as well as acting in films, but this is his first screenplay. Much like “Fences” and other adaptations, the film definitely feels like a play, with only two main locations (both big square rooms) and some exaggerated Shakespearian dialogue and monologues. My issues aren’t with all that, it is that the narrative seems unsure how to lay all the plot points out. For most of the film the big issue is finally getting Rainey’s song recorded, and the hurdles they face from a stuttering singer to Boseman’s ego. However in the final 15 minutes we get a whole world of new conflicts, and it seemed like there wasn’t enough going on in the first two acts to suddenly way too much in the third.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is an actor’s showcase, including a touching swansong performance from Chadwick Boseman, and has some fantastic below-the-line work as well. I can honestly see a world where this gets nominations in every category except Screenplay, that is how notably weaker it is compared to the top-tier work everywhere else. For sure check this film out when it drops on Netflix, and I will be rooting for it to win many awards all season; I just wish the overall experience as a whole left a greater impression on me.

Critics Rating: 6/10

‘The Father’ Review

It’s a shame the Academy Awards aren’t being held until April 25 next year, because that’s just longer it is until Anthony Hopkins can start polishing his second Oscar.

“The Father” stars Sir Anthony Hopkins as an aging man with dementia, and Olivia Coleman as his daughter. Florian Zeller directs and co-writes a script based off his play of the same name.

Usually I will give the background of a film in my third paragraph, but I just have to start talking about Anthony Hopkins’ performance right away, because wow. A true tour-de-force, Hopkins manages to perfectly portray an individual suffering from memory loss, putting us in the shoes of one as well. His emotions jump from giddy one second to enraged the next, and at times it is not clear if he is faking his memory loss in the moment or actually forgotten how he simply arrived to the middle of a sentence. It is a masterful performance from one of our finest actors, who (outside “The Two Popes” last year) has not done much “serious” acting in recent years. I don’t want to get ahead of myself and bet the house before the end of the year, but it would take an all-time performance to steal Best Actor away from Anthony Hopkins.

Olivia Coleman (who won Best Actress for “The Favouite”) plays Hopkins’ adult daughter, who acts as his main caretaker. Stricken with grief, and seemingly some guilt, for not being able to fully manage her aging father alone, Coleman has us relate to her character in the most brutal of ways.

Florian Zeller’s subtle direction and particular square framing of scenes keep some of the dramatics and intimacies of a stage play, but the apartment that most of the film takes place in feels wide and lived in. Zeller holds the camera on an actor for almost an entire conversation, leaving no room for them to breathe, resulting in raw emotion. In an early scene, Coleman tells Hopkins that she is moving from London to Paris and we see his eyes get progressively saddened as he realizes what that means for him (“and what of me?!”).

The film is told in such a way that it simultaneously makes you feel the frustration of a child trying to cope with or understand a parent with dementia, as well as what it is like to be the one who is suddenly living in a new world seemingly every day. It almost plays out like a horror film at times, because just like Hopkins we are unsure what is real and if the events are happening right now or five years ago.

“The Father” may be simple in its title but it is extremely meticulous in its execution. Gentle but devastating performances across the board make this something special. I have to warn you, as someone with a grandmother who has dealing with dementia for a while now, I have to say this one will hit home for anyone in a situation like this. But that is part of its brilliance and sheer, unfiltered reality. I truly am haunted and blown away right now.

Critics Rating: 9/10

‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’ Review

If people worry about Disney creating every blockbuster film, they better at least get used to Netflix owning every Oscar contender, too.

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” tells the tale of the group of protesters who in 1968 were charged with inciting a riot at the Democratic National Convention. The second directorial effort from screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, it features an ensemble cast, including Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, Sacha Baron Cohen, Daniel Flaherty, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Frank Langella, John Carroll Lynch, Eddie Redmayne, Noah Robbins, Mark Rylance, Alex Sharp, and Jeremy Strong.

Like “Greyhound” and “The Lovebirds,” this was originally supposed to be a theatrical release before the pandemic hit, but was sold from Paramount to Netflix (for a cool $56 million). I love Aaron Sorkin, despite a lukewarm reaction to his directorial debut “Molly’s Game,” and always look forward to his films. “Trial of the Chicago 7” had a long road to the (small) screen, starting off as a Steven Spielberg project in 2006. It bounced around, with Ben Stiller and Paul Greengrass briefly attached, before Sorkin took it on as his second directorial effort, and it marks a step up from his first outing.

In large ensemble pieces like this it can sometimes be tough to have a stand out, but this film manages to have several. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Richard Schultz, the young lawyer tasked with new AG John Mitchell to get the group convicted. He sympathizes with the group of radical lefties despite finding their tactics and goals immature, and is really the only character with any sort of development and layers. He owns the best sequence of the film (that I won’t spoil), and was my favorite character.

Fresh off an Emmy win, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays Bobby Seal, the eighth member of the group who was lumped into the trial because he is a Black Panther. Abdul-Mateen displays growing but controlled rage as a black man who was essentially only on trial for his skin, and all too often his situation reminds us of one black men still sometimes face. The real standout in my eyes, though, is prankster Sacha Baron Cohen as hippie Abbie Hoffman. Wearing Hoffman’s thick Bahston accent, Cohen is charming and just a freebird, and while we have seen him in serious roles before, this is a more nuanced performance from him. If this film gets any acting nominations, it’ll be for Cohen and Abdul-Manteen.

Frank Langella portrays the judge overseeing the trial, Julius Hoffman, and he is so frustrating to watch. He refuses to let Abdul-Mateen wait to have a lawyer present, he doesn’t allow testimony, and he makes it impossible for the group to get a step ahead. The fact that by all accounts it was an accurate portrayal of Hoffman makes it all the more infuriating. Rising star Kelvin Harrison Jr. plays Black Panther leader Fred Hampton (soon to be seen in “Judas and the Black Messiah” played by Daniel Kaluuya) and he has a presence despite the limited scenes, and Eddie Redmayne is solid, even though he has the most inconsistent American accent ever.

As a director, Sorkin has a much bigger scale here than in “Molly’s Game.” Despite being shot in 2019, the riot sequences have great, intense build-up, and it is crazy how similar the political and social climate of 1969 and 2020 are, between race issues and police brutality. Sorkin could have fleshed out more of the characters besides Gordin-Levitt and trimmed some scenes down, but this is much better-paced than “Molly’s Game” (editor Alan Baumgarten cuts it together very well, jumping between the riot and the trial).

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” isn’t the snappiest Sorkin script, but it is his most honest in quite some time, possibly even since his Oscar-winning “Social Network” (which just turned 10, happy birthday to the GOAT). The cast all turn in solid performances (including one fun extended cameo), and there are some classic Sorkin lines. Being a Netflix film, this will be instantly available to everyone and in a year of uncertainty and theater closures, it is comforting that we will have a semi-normal awards season after all.

Critics Rating: 8/10

‘Nomandland’ Review

Sometimes the best way is the simplest way.

“Nomadland” stars Frances McDormand as a woman who lives out of her van, traveling the Midwest. Chloé Zhao writes, directs, and edits.

Subtle and minimalistic filmmaking has always been hit or miss for me. I love Tom McCarthy’s nearly non-presence in “Spotlight,” but Jeff Nichols’ removed touch with “Loving” didn’t work in a film with such high stakes. With “Nomadlamd,” Chloé Zhao has delicately created what feels at times almost too real, like a documentary, and an everyday slice of rural Americana.

Zhao captures life in small towns and camaraderie among nodmads in such an honest way, and knows when to hold a close-up or cut to a wide shot. Her direction is barely noticeable, instead letting her actors (most of which are real people, not professionals) fill the world. The film is also cut wonderfully by Zhao, with the first hour especially flying by.

McDormand is so sympathetic, witty, and innocent here, from making honking sounds while pretending to drive an RV to not getting angry at someone who accidentally hurts her. Her character has had some personal struggles in the past (this is set in 2012, right after a lot of mining towns were hit hard), but seems to go on without much care; just keep livin’, baby. There are moments of brief pain or frustration, but McDormand displays them at the proper restraint as only our weird queen can. 

The score by Ludovico Einaudi is mostly piano, and it’s so wonderfully melancholic. Partnered with some of cinematographer Joshua James Richards’ beautiful shots of crashing waves or purple mountains, and it’s almost enough to put you in a trance.

“Nomadland” is one of those “not really much is happening” movies, so if for whatever reason you heard the plot summary, “Frances McDormand travels the country in a van” and were hoping this would turn into “The Revenant,” you’ll be disappointed. But for those who want a humanistic character study that feels genuine and takes place in a world you’ve seen before (or maybe even live in now), seek this one out.

Critics Rating: 9/10

‘Marriage Story’ Review

Who knew that arguably both the best war film and the best comedy of 2019 would be a divorce drama?

“Marriage Story” follows a divorcing couple (Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson), and the struggles they face while going through the process from different sides of the country. Laura Dern, Alan Alda, Ray Liotta, Azhy Robertson, Julie Hagerty and Merritt Wever also star as Noah Baumbach writes and directs.

I’ve been big fan of Adam Driver’s for a while and it was really nice to see him earn an Academy Award nomination last year for his work in “BlacKkKlansman.” Most people know him for his work as Kylo Ren in the new Star Wars trilogy, but this is his fourth collaboration with Baumbach and he gives a career-best performance. Like the film itself, Driver jumps from happy to confused to angry at the drop of a hat, and perfectly conveys all the emotions that one goes through when getting a divorce. He has one scene where he finally explodes and it is one of those sequences that you simply feel drained watching unfold, because of how raw it comes across as.

Scarlett Johansson also gives arguably a career-best turn, and gets to show some actual humor and emotion that the likes of the Avengers films may not allow her. She has one monologue in particular that will likely be used as her Oscar reel where she recounts her marriage to Driver and where things fell apart. We haven’t known these characters for all of 20 minutes and already we feel let down alongside her. I think that at the end of the day this is Driver’s movie, but Johansson gets plenty of scenes that she commands.

The supporting cast is all great, too. The scene-stealing, scenery-chewing duo of Laura Dern and Ray Liotta are great fun and they have some wonderful lawyer banter, and are two people you love to hate. Alan Alda also turns in a fantastic performance as one of Driver’s lawyers, who like Driver wants the divorce process to be as amicable as possible but Dern is out for blood; Alda’s mild-mannered old man is just so great because the character feels so *real*.

I really enjoyed Baumbach’s 2017 film “The Meyerowitz Stories” and thought the script there was great; this one is even better. Baumbach is an old-fashion director who likes to have actors follow his written word and action to the tee, and the end result is a film that both breaks your heart and makes your stomach hurt from laughing. Like “Annie Hall” there is a “Los Angeles vs New York City” storyline and how the cities compare and contrast (“you’d love it in LA, there’s just so much more space than New York!”). There are plenty of dramatic moments that may hit more at home for those who have been married, gotten divorced and/or are a child of divorce (I check none of the three boxes), but even for the casual young person the ideas of love, struggle and betrayal will resonate.

There really isn’t much wrong with this film. It is 136 minutes but it flies by; honestly the editing by Jennifer Lame (who also cut together this year’s brilliant “Midsommar”) is quick but also specific when it has to be. Mixing violins and flutes, the score by Randy Newman is whimsical and melancholic at some parts and thrilling at others, depending on which of the couple the film is focused on, and I kept thinking how the music reminded me of “Toy Story.”

“Marriage Story” is hands-down among 2019’s best films and it has everything a film should have: uncontrived drama, organic characters and genuine laughs. I can’t wait to be able to watch it whenever I want once it starts streaming on Netflix and for it to reach the biggest audience possible. Baumbach has made something truly special here, a film that is built to last and only grow more personal as time goes on.

Critic’s Rating: 9/10

‘The Irishman’ Review

“The Irishman” is the latest film from Martin Scorsese and has been anticipated as much for its cast and director as it was for its infamous budget issues, extensive use of de-aging technology and being Netflix’s biggest and most ambitious release to-date. The film follows Frank Sheeran (Robert De Niro), as he gets tied up in the Pennsylvania crime world (led by Joe Pesci) and the union war of Jimmy Hoffa (Al Pacino).

I feel that all three of the leading men in this film, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci, will have their own supporters as to who steals the show and who the film truly belongs to. For the most part, De Niro is “solid” in the film, not given too much to do or revealed about his inner thoughts for the first two acts. It is the film’s climax where he is finally given material he can work with, and he nails it. Despite being the titular character and the vehicle for the audience to experience the world (I think he’s in mostly every scene of the film), we don’t peel back the curtain until that third act.

Al Pacino will likely be most people’s favorite performance of the trio as the loud, angry and ego-driven Jimmy Hoffa. He gets the classic Pacino rants and raves to do, and at times (especially when first introduced) he may come off like a cartoon, but it is never not entertaining, and like De Niro, it all comes to a head in the film’s third act.

But for my money, it was the unofficially retired Joe Pesci that stole the show and broke my heart. Playing Russell Bufalino, head of the Pennsylvania crime family, Pesci has a presence about him in every scene he’s in that just says “I’m in control, I hold the strings” and there is one scene where he conveys this by just sitting and staring as a conversation between two other people plays out, it’s phenomenal. There is an underlying message about Bufalino and his desires to be a father, and the way it grows and is conveyed was devastating; Scorsese actually got me to feel sympathy for a criminal who sectioned the deaths of dozens of people, and that is his gift.

As far as the de-aging goes, it is a lukewarm but overall positive bag. When you first see De Niro (who is supposed to be about 35 in the scene but still comes across as 50, guess you can only de-age someone so far), the image is a little creepy and animated, but your brain quickly adjusts. If anything, the blue contacts they have him wear throughout the film are more distracting than the de-aging. The work on Joe Pesci is a little more subtle, his problem is he’s a 76-year-old asked to move around like a 50-year-old, and like Samuel L. Jackson in “Captain Marvel” you can’t hide slow movements of old joints. Al Pacino’s de-aging is actually brilliant, I never once questioned it.

Now, the elephant in the room and the reason this film took so long to get made. It is 209 minutes long (three and a half hours for those who don’t want to do the math). Does the film justify its runtime? I mean, no, there are some repetitive story beats and plenty of scenes where characters are simply sitting around talking. It is a lot to ask for from a theater audience (I didn’t consume liquids after noon to prepare), which again maybe that is why Netflix was so willing to finance, they know folks at home can pause it. There are a few slow parts, especially leading up to that third act, and then the film takes its time wrapping up. To give you context of the scale and duration: there are 320 scenes in this movie; the average film has around 60.

“The Irishman” is the quintessential Martin Scorsese movie, for better or worse. It has the pacing of “Silence,” the dark humor of “The Wolf of Wall Street” and the mafia intrigue of “Goodfellas.” Will it go down in history for more than its behind-the-scenes drama? Time will tell. But it’s one of those films that leaves you with so much to think about and has just so much to digest (guys, it’s 3.5 hours!) that it almost feels unfair to properly discuss it after one viewing.

‘Jojo Rabbit’ Review

“Jojo Rabbit” tells the tale of a 10-year-old Hitler Youth (played by Roman Griffith Davis) who discovers his mother (Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in their attic. Taika Waititi stars as an imaginary version of Adolf Hitler, while also writing and directing; Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson and Alfie Allen also star.

This film has been subject of anticipation, skepticism and criticism for quite some time, and its light portrayal of Nazi Germany has led some to make comparisons to 1997’s “Life Is Beautiful” (a great film in its own right). Folk need to get a grip, because as Waititi has spoken on, trying to complain about and shut down a film that uses a dark subject matter for comedy is playing into the very mindset that those people are upset about in the first place. “Jojo Rabbit” may not break new ground (Nazis are bad, 1940s were a dark time for certain people, no one needs that refresher course) but what it lacks in true danger it makes up for in heart.

Children actors can be hit or miss, and this is one of those times where it is a straight bullseye. As the titular Jojo, Roman Griffith Davis is a star in the making, with a cute face and tousled hair, and enough facial expressions he could fill an emoji board. Asked to carry most every single scene of the film, and sometimes act alongside his director, a grown man in a Hitler outfit, Davis does a near-masterful job, giving us fantastic deadpan delivery, emotional glances or heart-breaking reactions. There were times his delivery of Waititi’s script was so sharp the audience laughed over the succeeding lines of dialogue, including one phrase that had people in actual tears.

The supporting cast all turn in great work, too, including Archie Yates as Jojo’s fellow Hitler Youth friend, Sam Rockwell as his scene-stealing SS Captain and Scarlett Johansson as the sympathetic “stop-and-smell-the-roses” mother. They are all given great lines from Waititi and don’t step on each other’s toes, and you get excited whenever they show up on screen. As imaginary friend Hitler, Waititi is essentially playing the Führer if he was mixed with “Mean Girls’” Regina George, and if the idea of Adolf Hitler looking at a 10-year-old boy after an argument and saying “well… that was intense!” is not funny (or worse, offensive) to you then I don’t want to be friends with you anyways.

The production and costume designs of 1940s Germany are also commendable, full of color and detail. We’ve see war-torn Europe in film dozens of times before, and “Jojo Rabbit” gets its chance to flash everything from open fields to obligatory post-bombed city squares, but it is always impressive when a filmmaker can transport you to a time period.

Now the area that may lose some people, beyond the light-hearted take on something as evil as the Nazis, is that the film is pretty cut-and-dry. Very few, if any, of the characters are shades of grey; you’re either a good guy or a bad one, and even the evolution of Jojo out of his indoctrination at times does not feel earned. Sam Rockwell’s character is really the only one who gets any real arc or a sense of “there’s more to this character than we see in the 110 minutes we’re with them,” and it’s probably why (on top of being incredible in everything he touches, sans “Vice”) Rockwell was my favorite part of the film.

“Jojo Rabbit” was a festival darling and time will tell if it is an awards contender, too; but I don’t think it truly needs hardware to justify itself. It manages to deliver numerous laughs in spite of a potentially dark subject matter, and at the same time lets the audience laugh at the expense of some of the worst humans that ever walked the earth. Does it play things too safe and contrive some drama? Sure. But the film is feel-good and funny, and in 2019 that’s not something I for one am going to turn away.

Critics Rating: 8/10

Third ‘A Star Is Born’ Remake is the Charm

I love the smell of Oscar season in the morning…

“A Star Is Born” is the third remake of the original 1937 film (which starred Janet Gaynor and Fredric March), following one in 1954 (with Judy Garland and James Mason) and then again in 1976 (with Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson). This time around Bradley Cooper makes his directorial debut and also stars as an alcoholic rock musician who meets and falls in love with a young singer (Lady Gaga). Andrew Dice Clay, Sam Elliot and Dave Chappelle also star.

It’s crazy to think, but there is a realistic chance that Bradley Cooper gets five Oscar nominations from this film alone (and another for his supporting work in Clint Eastwood’s “The Mule”). Cooper not only directs and stars, but produces (alongside “Hangover” director Todd Phillips, about to be a two-time Academy Award nominee himself), co-wrote the script (also his debut doing that) and will likely get a Best Original Song nod (or two) for the duets he wrote and performed with Gaga. So come sometime in January we could be living in a world where Bradley Cooper, who got his start as the pretty boy in comedies like “Wedding Crashers,”  “The Hangover” and “Yes Man,” is a 10-time Academy Award nominee. I just think that’s crazy cool.

Alright, tangent over, on with the review.

Directorial debuts don’t always go over smoothly, but if last year was any indication sometimes career performers can do a great job on their first swing behind the camera (Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig both earned Oscar nods for their films). Much like Gerwig’s “Lady Bird” the direction in “A Star Is Born” is pretty nuanced and that doesn’t always lend itself to a film; for example the deft performances in “Loving” work but the simple direction of the story does not. But luckily Cooper’s touch and the way he chose to shoot some sequences are the stuff of someone who has multiple films under their belt and his work with himself and his actors is also very well handled.

Shot by Matthew Libatique (who ironically also worked as the cinematographer on this week’s other new release, “Venom”), much of the film is shot in close-ups, making the audience feel the emotions of the actors and trapping them in the space with them. Like simple direction, sometimes this is not for the best as it doesn’t give actors room to breathe but for what Cooper set out to do the choice worked wonderfully. There is not a scene that goes by that subtle glances or expressions go unnoticed, and you know exactly what a character is thinking or feeling without them needing to say it.

There is one sequence in the film early on that is genuinely anxiety-inducing in that it puts you right in Lady Gaga’s shoes and just the way it is shot and composed and edited is just *Italian Chef Kiss* masterclass; I had chills when it was over and my friend turned to me and said “my heart is pounding right now.” It will be the scene that becomes the most viewed on YouTube for years to come for a few reasons but it is without a doubt the best one in the whole film.

Cooper and Gaga play very well off each other and we get nice (and surprising?) dramatic turns from career comedians Dave Chappelle and Andrew Dice Clay, even if they are essentially glorified cameos. It is also always a treat to see Sam Elliot pop up in things, even if his trademark growl, especially when he is talking to Cooper’s raspy self, makes it hard to make out a few lines of dialogue out.

The film does sag a bit in the middle for reasons I don’t really want to get into, but the first hour this is truly great and the climax makes up for the second act. The performances are emotionally resonating, the songs are hum-worthy and the film is shot and edited in a very impressive and appealing way. I can’t say “A Star Is Born” is the best movie of 2018 but it is certainly one of them, and as far as rookie directorial efforts and leading performances go, Cooper and Gaga have set the bar high for the next people who try.

Critic’s Grade:  A–

Warner Bros,