You’ll want to wrap your tentacles around this feel-good, feel-sad nature documentary. James Reid and Pippa Ehrlich’s My Octopus Teacher (B) centers on diver Craig Foster who swims for a year with an octopus that lives in a kelp forest off the coast of South Africa. Through visiting her den and tracking her movements every day, he creates a symbiotic bond that rejuvenates his faith in his own human world. The octopus is a tad more interesting than the guy, and the human drama seems a little tacked on to add extra resonance. But the underwater camera work is spectacular, from camouflaging to evade pyjama sharks to feasting eyes on predatory seafood banquets. Much of the detail is nothing short of miraculous. It’s immersive and occasionally rousing and an unexpected find suitable for families.
Bryan Coley of REEL Experiences interviews Stephen Brown about a lifelong love of the Academy Awards and this year’s eight Best Picture finalists.
Have you ever had two friends with pretty dominant character traits manage to wear out their welcome? The culmination of Legendary’s MonsterVerse including Godzilla (2014), Kong: Skull Island (2017) and Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019), Adam Wingard’s Godzilla vs. Kong (B-) pits a pair of titans in an epic showdown, and the result is less than the sum of its parts. Sure, this serving of Tokusatsu delivers its requisite wallop with spectacular effects and compelling global set pieces, but it runs out of imagination pretty sharply. In this installment, Kong clashes with Godzilla as humans lure the primate into the “Hollow Earth” to retrieve an energy source to stop the fire-breathing lizard monster’s mysterious rampages. Even bringing in “a third,” the robotic doppelgänger Mechagodzilla, fails to spice up this relationship. Brian Tyree Henry and Millie Bobby Brown are some of the few humans in the ensemble who get to display even a hint of nuance, and displays of simian sign language provide some brief moments of up-close connection. The scope, the score and epic battle sequences win here, which may just be enough for this kind of movie. It’s ultimately a kaiju-normous action film that delivers on its premise but is unlikely to provide viewers much more than a momentary ape escape.
This film has all the narrative subtlety of a string of Reddit forum comments or one of those propaganda film strips from health class narrated by the gym coach. A message movie has to at least be competently made before a viewer can determine if its ideology rings true, but Nick Loeb and Cathy Allyn‘s Roe v. Wade (F) is so glaringly misbegotten as a motion picture that its multitude of flaws eclipse its POV. The lead characters, played by Loeb and Jamie Kennedy, are doctors who perform abortions with reckless abandon and little regard for the ethics of their medical procedures, and yet somehow they are intended to be the vessels of a breakthrough conversion that what they are doing is not (capital R?) right. The tone is all over the map, and any attempt at irony to make its points is largely lost in a muddled storyline. Predominantly filmed in the color orange to imply the 1970s, the film punctuates its loosely interspersed doses of conspiracy theories and heavy-handed (capital M?) messages with a fictional recreation of aspects of the titular landmark Supreme Court trial itself. None of the proceedings achieves the gravitas its filmmakers are hoping to attain. No actor in the ensemble, not Jon Voight nor Stacey Dash, is done any favors by this meandering script. It’s telling when Joey Lawrence may give the film’s best performance as a conservative law professor, certainly “whoa” casting in anyone’s universe. Freeze frames and jaw-dropping narration, songs that would seem routine in a Borat movie if not meant to literally shock, turgid line readings, music that makes Reefer Madness look understated and a systematic sequence of bewildering choices comprise a film that doesn’t meet the minimum bar. No doubt the creators of this film intended to expose the hypocrisy of those who oppose their view, and most certainly they will decry a liberal coterie lauding films like Never Rarely Sometimes Always and not giving this movie a separate but equal applause. But this film doesn’t do a great service to its agenda and certainly fails as cinema.
The ambition and creativity its original director intended before a family tragedy prompted him to eject from the helm of his 2017 version of his film are now on full display, as are the material’s flaws, in the 2021 remix of the DC superhero origins movie Zack Snyder’s Justice League (B). Told in six acts like a binge series in four-hour film form (the even numbered sections are best, by the way), this desaturated operatic opus reconstructs and recontextualizes the story of how Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman unite to bring back Superman and defeat an intergalactic villain. The R-rated reshuffling puts more focus and pathos on some of the younger cast members, Ray Fisher as Cyborg and Ezra Miller as The Flash, yielding some freshness and fun amidst a rather epic canvas of reliable action film favorites. Most of the visual effects are glorious, some downright mythical, and there are some pretty compelling action set pieces even though the risks seem low with this breed of formidable fighters running the table. The solemn film’s zigzagging epilogue feels like a dozen plot threads in search of a next franchise. Overall the additional world building, newly rousing score and compelling clarifications don’t adequately make up for for a bifurcated focus and sometimes disjointed narrative that bogs down some of its subplots; but ultimately too much of a good thing is so much better than not enough of a mediocre one.
Here’s an excerpt from the P3 podcast in talks with Byron James about this year’s Academy Awards nominees.
Here’s a movie punch drunk on creativity in the service of characters experiencing the ultimate midlife crisis. Thomas Vinterberg’s Copenhagen-set Another Round (A-), aka Druk in Danish and En runda till in Swedish, centers on four middle-aged male teachers who, feeling their personal lives and classrooms have become stale and staid, hatch a deranged notion of elevating their blood alcohol levels on a regular basis to maintain a sense of greater creativity and relaxation. Their gamified mixology yields various consequences innocent and profound. Vinterberg’s skilled camerawork and deft writing give this tragicomic tale a spring in its step throughout, and he elicits profound performances from his quartet of stars. Mads Mikkelsen (who many Stateside will know as bond villain Le Chiffre) gets the showiest of roles as his bottled up zest is unleashed; he’s a master at playing this sad man making a gasp toward finding himself again. Although an unusual portal into its storytelling, the movie’s themes are universal. This is great gusto in filmmaking.
Like a ghost story or a mystery of memories, a new film with a dementia-plagued protagonist puts viewers smack dab in the middle of his deteriorating mind. Florian Zeller’s handsomely produced and occasionally frustrating The Father (B) takes place primarily in an impeccable flat, and the denizens there are going through rapid melancholy decline and hunkering deeper and deeper behind closed doors. The film depicts a complex Anthony Hopkins who rationalizes the activities and relationships in his life even as his faculties are escaping him. Olivia Colman is moving as the most prominent of the characters surrounding the charming Englishman: a frustrated daughter and caregiver who becomes an engaging foil to the titular subject. Hopkins gives a devastating and forceful performance as a man who feels the rug is consistently pulled out from under him. It’s quite an impressive role and portrayal. The viewers see other characters as he does, sometimes shape-shifting or reacting with confounding responses. It’s a smart drama, well acted; and what it lacks in plot momentum or story immediacy, it makes up in quietly observed intimacy.
It may seem an odd piece of critical feedback for a cartoon, but this one needed more character development. Although splendid to look at and deeply in command of its world-building in a mythical alternate Earth, Don Hall and Carlos Lopez Estrada’s Disney animated film Raya and the Last Dragon (B-) is missing foundational elements, namely clearer characterizations of Raya and the titular last dragon. It’s an extremely exposition-heavy tale with many quirky notions and fantastical details to recommend, but the sumptuous visuals overshadow a color-by-numbers plot line and two meh lead characters. The young heroine, skillfully voiced by Kelly Marie Tran, must travel to the five lands of her world to reclaim missing pieces of a gem that can bring harmony to the planet, and she’s accompanied by a water dragon, voiced by comedienne Awkwafina. From the character’s arrival on the scene, this tacky, talky blue dragon/narwhal/unicorn hybrid is a weak link and not quite as funny as a Disney sidekick should be. She’s the “friend like me” you kinda want to unfriend. The gamified story – spelled out in quite linear fashion – may keep youngsters’ attention on the screen, but it’s all not quite creative or original enough to break through as a classic for the studio. Without the characters breaking out into song, James Newton Howard’s score is nonetheless quite rousing. See it for some wondrous South Asian influenced imagery and enough flights of fancy to make the adventure nominally recommended, but know going in that you may wish upon a star that Raya and her last dragon are more interesting than they are.
The Royal P is painfully clean of inspiration, Your Highness, in Craig Brewer’s fan service filled sequel Coming 2 America (D+). It’s low stakes and low States, all the while firing blanks, as most of Prince Akeem’s story centers on Africa this time around, removing the fish out of water shenanigans which were the main attraction of the first film. Despite the presence of many comic actors, this follow-up is not very funny, relying on occasional bursts of pageantry, bits of whimsy and frequent musical cameos to basically tread water through the low-key variety show filling most of the film’s duration. The plot includes the discovery that Eddie Murphy’s regal character is baby daddy to a Manhattan ticket scalper (the charming Jermaine Fowler, salvaging what he can from a poorly written role), born of a feisty mom (an occasionally funny Leslie Jones), requiring some very brief trips Stateside from what is essentially a moribund melodrama set squarely in the Eastern hemisphere. Much of the film revolves around the princesses of the African kingdom (led by KiKi Layne doing fierce work despite the script) and an oddball Wesley Snipes as some sort of incidental rival villain. There’s so much retread in this cheese Zamunda that it actually resorts to flashbacks from the first film multiple times, just underscoring how old and tired some of its cast and schtick are. The enterprise is rescued at times by some sweet-natured familial moments and some roundabout girl power, plus a glimpse of the barber shop gang with a few zingers about political correctness. Otherwise it’s sloppy seconds all around for a bunch of game performers who aren’t given much to do.
In a film filled with the oft-sung promise of showing “All of Me,” a meandering narrative fails to do justice to a legendary chanteuse. Newcomer actress Andra Day’s breakthrough success in the title role is inversely proportional to the failure of storytelling in Lee Daniels’ The United States Vs. Billie Holiday (D). In the 1940s, Holiday is targeted by the government in an effort to racialize the war on drugs, ultimately aiming to stop her from singing her controversial song about lynching, “Strange Fruit.” This premise is stretched into a misbegotten biopic that rarely finds its focus. Daniels is a director who doesn’t shy away from dark psycho-sexual, violent and drug-induced depravity; but his penchant for wallowing in the worst impulses of his subject’s life and times simply punishes his subject and audience. Trapped in this very bad movie is a “star is born” level performance by Day, a raw and honest portrait brilliantly acted and sung. She brings fearless vocal chops and searing screen presence to the occasion and is met with a zigzagging creative vision that consistently shortchanges her committed work. In breathing life into a short and tragic character, Day stands on the shoulders of giants Diana Ross and Audra McDonald who have portrayed the singer before and compares favorably with a low-key freshness. Regrettably, an unfocused and unpleasant narrative, an often dimly lit parade of loosely connected episodes, and a chaotic tone adds up to a sleepy, sloppy slog that keeps its central character at a distance. Classic jazz music and sometimes lovely production design and costumes mask a truly confused production. The men in the film, Garrett Hedlund as a one-note federal agent and Trevante Rhodes as a complex love interest, are mediocre in underwritten roles. Didn’t we just see other better films about sting operations to thwart racial progress and period pieces about making music against a backdrop of social upheaval? Expect accolades for the new Lady Day and little else about this tedious film.
This year the movie and TV awards seasons shifted a bit later than usual, with Golden Globes, a celebration of both media, airing this Sunday, Feb. 28 at 8:00 p.m. ET hosted at the Beverly Hilton by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler with nominees “zooming in” from homes. The mysterious nominating committee – the Hollywood Foreign Press – is known for anointing Oscar and Emmy darlings and also for making some curious choices like calling out a little-seen movie by pop star Sia (Music) and a creepy performance by Jared Leto (The Little Things). Most of the shows and movies are streaming, so you can either catch up on many of these or decide if some should be binged after the winners are revealed.
On the TV front, Golden Globes nominees love royalty, so expect The Crown and two of its stars, Emma Corrin and Gillian Anderson, to receive lots of love. The Globes will also want to show retroactive love for Schitt’s Creek, the popular comedy it neglected for five seasons, and they may show TV veteran Jason Bateman continued affection for his dark thriller Ozark.
Two popular stars, Kaley Cuoco and Jason Sudeikis, are likely to be noticed for offbeat hits Flight Attendant and Ted Lasso, respectively. And the popular Queen’s Gambit and its star Anya Taylor-Joy should checkmate into the winner’s circle for the limited series category. Two intergalactic action movie stars, John Boyega and Mark Ruffalo are big contenders for intimate turns in TV roles on Small Axe and I Know This Much is True.
As far as movies go, expect love for the buzzy films Promising Young Woman, Trial of the Chicago 7 and the Borat sequel. Sacha Baron Cohen is in the latter two, with a drama/comedy double hitter, and the Globes producers will absolutely want to hear him do an acceptance speech. The late Chadwick Boseman may factor in for a posthumous Globe for his impressive role in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Carey Mulligan of Promising Young Woman and Maria Bakalova as Borat’s daughter in the comedy sequel look to be among the feted. Daniel Kaluuya, who many know from Get Out, appears to have momentum for his charismatic performance in Judas and the Black Messiah.
You should also hear some awards love for the animated Soul and the Korean-American family drama Minari. The just-released trek through unexpected America, Nomadland, is a likely winner for its female director, Chloe Zhao, who we may see again come Oscar time in April.