Times of quarantine can benefit from a little elf help, as a major animated theatrical release careens quickly to the home screen with video-on-demand and Disney+ providing a safe social distanced landing. Dan Scanlon’s Onward (B-) is mid-tier Pixar, no doubt, filled with fanciful frames of kid-friendly highjinks before culminating in the emotional payoffs adults will dig. The medieval pixels are summoned for brotherly buddy comedy as two elf siblings in an alternate modern suburbia filled with formerly magical and mythological characters invoke an ancient spell and embark on a quest to bring back their deceased father for just one day. The story and script are a bit bland, the character renderings and landscapes a touch unappealing and the adventure pedestrian at best, but then every once in a while there’s magic in this gathering. A charming dance moment and a heartfelt hug just may touch the heart and tickle the tear ducts. Tom Holland and Chris Pratt perform the two main voice roles, and what they lack in interesting things to say is often eclipsed by solid enthusiasm. The half-dad effect, the elves themselves and a dragon-infused denouement all fail to impress, but even a sometimes lackluster lark can pass muster and time in a moment of uncertainty.
The Erwin Brothers create faith-based movies filled with inspiration and hope. And while their latest Christian-centric biography based on a chapter in the life of worship musician Jeremy Camp, I Still Believe (C), accomplishes its goal of showcasing a moving real-life romance forged against the odds, it largely misses the mark in terms of originality and craft. KJ Apa and Britt Robertson offer earnest enough acting in their central romance filmed in a Hallmark-worthy glow but are written with such cherubic reverence that they don’t often register completely as real characters. Supporting actors Gary Sinise and Shania Twain are so underused as the leading man’s parents that it feels like they were loaned for just a day or two on set. Only Nathan Parsons as a friend, mentor and near hypoteneuse of a chaste love triangle registers as an actual conflicted human being. For a film ostensibly about overcoming illness with faith-restoring music, the film doesn’t really pulse with much of a flair for either medicine or music. When compared to a performance sequence in A Star is Born or Bohemian Rhapsody, for instance, the big concert numbers appear strangely detached, like the crowds weren’t even filmed in sync with what’s happening on stage. It all means well, of course, and the purity of the romance at the center is really what it’s all about. But for a film that praises risk-taking, it sure plays it safe.
The audacity of a far-fetched plot in the latest remake of The Invisible Man (B) all but vanishes under the steady direction of Leigh Whannell and spellbinding central performance of Elisabeth Moss. The H.G. Wells story and classic films have been modernized with a strong woman at the center and a streamlined narrative about recovering from manipulation and abuse. Aldis Hodge is also fantastic as the heroine’s policeman friend; and while his role is somewhat “transparent,” Oliver Jackson-Cohen makes an impression in the title role, a controlling husband and Silicon Valley magnate who has invented an optical illusion suit allowing him to be fully invisible. The film is more thriller than horror film, despite the sense of dread in its first half. The stunts and visual effects are pretty nifty, and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score is sufficiently macabre, with ostinati aplenty. The film was a little too much like 1991’s Sleeping with the Enemy at times, but the twists and turns dialed up the novelty. Moss, who is seen in virtually every scene, delivers richly here and makes the entire enterprise fresh and believable. It’s nice to see popular entertainment with a smidgen of topicality so wonderfully packaged.
This is one of the great romances. Writer/director Céline Sciamma’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire (Portrait de la jeune fille en feu) (A+) is a French historical drama tracing the contours and the canvas of an enduring love. Set in France in the late 18th century, this masterwork obeys the conventions of period romances with its windswept coast and Gothic homestead but upends the typical narrative rules in tracing a truly scorching and revolutionary tale. Noémie Merlant plays the commissioned painter and Adèle Haenel her aristocratic subject, and both actresses are spellbinding in their passion for detail and commitment to superb tandem acting. Merlant’s character is told her subject is unwilling to be sketched and thus must be painted in secret, and thus begins an observation period with flourishes of the forbidden. Sciamma creates indelible characters in a ravishing work and weaves an intoxicating chronicle. This feisty and fiercely feminist film rewards those who are patient for character studies and relish movies with the heart of a classic text. This is one of the great sleeper films of 2019 and one adventurous cinema lovers should seek out and see.
Wielding an encouraging epistle or a poison pen whittled down to the quick, caustic cinematic commentator Pauline Kael was America’s first and most influential metacritic. Two decades after the loss of this iconoclast, Rob Garver’s What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael (B+) showcases this writer’s startling ability to convince readers to see movies in a new way including ushering in new wave foreign films and distinct new voices ranging from Scorsese to Spielberg. Famous for panning The Sound of Music or embracing films on the fringe, Kael was a noted contrarian and often a misanthrope who charmed and alarmed the chattering class and forged loyal acolytes in the critical press. The film is a roast meets requiem of interviews from those who loved her (Quentin Tarantino, for one) and those who felt damaged by her cutting rebukes (David Lean, for instance). There is little film or voice footage available to weave into the story, but Garver digs deep to conjure Kael’s singular spirit. There are also wonderful sequences from many of Kael’s favorite motion pictures. This is a film about visceral love for the movies and for joy in writing about the movies. It’s no wonder I loved it.
Lana Wilson’s Miss Americana (B) is an enjoyable biographical documentary showcasing several years in the life of crossover country/pop music artist Taylor Swift, especially during her personal awakening into political action. The film vividly shows Swift’s rise to fame and thirst for validation as a people pleaser given energy by audiences and record sales. So it’s all the more dramatic as she begins to feel the slings and arrows of life under scrutiny in the darker side of the spotlight. It’s a shot to the heart about shared humanity and a revealing portrait of a woman finding her place in life. The film is dotted with wonderful tidbits of Swift’s confessional songwriting process. As a central subject, she is a delightful individual, spry, honest and funny. The movie provides an awesome insider glimpse at a talented role model and a stark look at the notion of standing up for convictions when self-worth, finances and reputation are on the line. Wilson’s steady hand in chronicling the complex chanteuse’s story across several tumultuous years is commendable, even if all of it doesn’t come across completely seamlessly. For fans of the artist at the film’s center, it is essential viewing.
Cathy Yan’s bubblegum-hued crime saga Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (B-) is another origin story in the DC Extended Universe and follows Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn as she joins forces with Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Black Canary and several vigilantes to fight Gotham City crime lord Black Mask, played by Ewan McGregor. The film is chock-full of throwaway gags, gallows humor and cartoonish violence with a tinge of sisterhood power, but it’s rarely as sharp as it needs to be. Yan scrambles the enterprise with flashbacks, animation and witty title cards, but often it feels like a magic trick to disguise a threadbare story. Although McGregor is miscast and not menacing enough, the women in the film are marvelous. Robbie is wonderful as the devil-may-care antihero, and Bell is a sonic sensation. The stunts and wall-to-wall action should please fans of the genre; it reaches mightily but doesn’t quite take the flight it promises.
Here’s your guide to Sunday’s Oscars.
The Academy Awards telecast is Sunday at 8 p.m. on ABC. Expect glamour in the form of Charlize Theron, Margot Robbie and the twice-nominated Scarlett Johansson to dominate the red carpet walkway. But many of the awards will be doled out to those who forged an unexpected path for cinema this year.
Walk on the Dark Side
This year the big nominee is Joker, with the box office hit’s Joaquin Phoenix favored to win Best Actor for his maniacal portrayal of the Batman villain in a grisly origin story. Joining him for potential top honors is Renée Zellweger, portraying the dark final pill-popping days in the life of celebrated songbird Judy Garland in Judy. Both films are now available for home viewing. If anyone could upset these two, it’s the two leads in the Netflix film Marriage Story – Johannson and Adam Driver – playing a couple on the brink as their bond collapses. Laura Dern is likely to win supporting actress as a divorce lawyer in the film. Brad Pitt is a bit of a shoo-in for best supporting actor playing the wry stuntman in the slow-burn nostalgic drama Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. The ultimate Golden Boy may finally win one for his mantle.
Because of obscure rules governing certain categories, the Academy may opt to spread the wealth a bit. There’s lots of goodwill for Little Women writer/director Greta Gerwig and a strong possibility she’ll win Best Adapted Screenplay for her mixology of Louisa May Alcott’s inspirational American classic. The Original Screenplay category is a close race between Quentin Tarantino for Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood and Korean director Bong Joon-ho for the puzzle-box of a suspense thriller, Parasite. These two could also battle for Best Director. Parasite (just out on DVD as well this week) has so many fans that some believe it could win Best Foreign Film as well as upset for Best Picture. Many others believe the technical feat director Sam Mendes accomplished in the WWI film 1917 is so overpowering – much of the film is constructed to appear as one continuous shot – that it will be hard to overlook him for a Best Director and Best Picture win.
Battle of the Big Studios
Behind all the successes, surprises and snubs is an epic battle for the future of the movie business. Will big blockbusters such as 1917 and Joker keep people pouring into movie theatres? Or will the Netflix model which brought us The Irishman, indies such as Marriage Story and The Two Popes and even potential animated film winner Klaus get the most recognition this year? Or will “world cinema,” bigger than either camp, be the big winner, ushered in by a new kind of curiosity such as Parasite? And many are also asking when the Academy will start nominating more women and persons of color in many of the major categories. The winners this year could give a glimpse into the industry’s future.
The Oscar show is going host-less for a second year in a row, but expect lots of star power including comedy actors Will Ferrell, Mindy Kaling and Kristin Wiig to be among the announcers. Hopefully you can binge-watch a few more films before the big night to see what all the fuss and buzz is about.
Fear of failure and unwarranted confidence can both be blinding. The ‘90s Silicon Valley dreamers in Matt Maude and Sarah Kerruish’s cautionary and ultimately redemptive documentary General Magic (B+) are enjoyable subjects inventing technologies well before their time. While the denizens of the titular start-up saw their promising platform go up in smoke, they learned lessons they apply to some of the most prolific tech companies of our era and contributed to the vision of the modern smartphone. The film is a compelling and compassionate look at innovation and redemption.
The World War I film 1917 (B+), directed by Sam Mendes and photographed by Roger Deakins, relies on an enormously effective and immersive magic trick of appearing like one continuous camera take, achieved with a mix of practical action and digital sleight of hand. It’s an incredible adventure spectacular even though the parade of set pieces and escalating stunts feel a bit too convenient at times. George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman are very empathetic as lance corporals in the British Army tasked with getting a message to a fellow battalion to thwart a German trap. The film’s you-are-there aesthetic is nothing short of masterful even though it shortchanges character development and deeper themes in service of its technical priorities. Still, the action sequences are visceral and propulsive, as if the journey of Apocalypse Now were given the lilt and momentum of Run Lola Run. Mendes marshals splendid elements ranging from majestic music to earthy atmosphere and gorgeous shots of Northern France in various stages of terror. Go for the war movie, stay for the action ride.
Josh and Benny Safdie’s new verité thriller should come with a warning label that it will most assuredly produce anxiety in its audience. It is both a blessing and a curse that these sibling writer/directors fill every mise-en-scène of the paranoid action drama Uncut Gems (B) with such realistic and resounding cinematic finesse. This potboiler of a film constantly raises the stakes and develops a preternaturally tense atmosphere not to be underestimated by the faint of heart. The brothers’ mastery of charged objects nearly out-Malteses every falcon frame. Adam Sandler is incredible in the meaty antihero role at the film’s center, and the plot basically traces his diamond district hustler character through the constant ups and downs of being over leveraged. It’s not necessarily a cautionary tale since the main character was pretty corrupted from the very beginning, but it’s fascinating to see the compounding effects of his actions as he juggles bribes, bets and bids into a nearly untenable position. The central character so dominates the movie that there’s really little oxygen for others in the ensemble, so it’s difficult to want much more than a speedy resolution for all of them. It’s amazing filmmaking buoyed by a pulpy performance, but you may like it best once it’s over.