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.
One of the best examples of investigative journalism at Fox News was actually the investigation of the journalist organization itself, as chronicled in Jay Roach’s ripped-from-the-headlines sexual harassment drama Bombshell (B). Charlize Theron brilliantly channels alpha anchor Megyn Kelly, who follows the disturbing trail of manipulative behavior by the news network’s top brass (a terrifying John Lithgow in pancaked prosthetics as the late Roger Ailes). The film is consistently engrossing even though often surface level. Nicole Kidman and Margot Robbie are also effective in their roles as news purveyors who find themselves the news subjects (I wish the central trio were on screen together!), and Kate McKinnon is solid as an unexpected ally. The parade of real-life lookalikes gets a bit distracting as central characters are given short shrift (look, it’s someone playing Geraldo!), but the film will go down in history for showcasing a fascinating formula for how a #MeToo movement could take hold even in the most insular of places.
Filled with autumnal beauty, radiant performances, fierce dialogue and timeless themes, writer/director Greta Gerwig’s Little Women (A) breaks through the barriers of the work’s familiarity to speak an empowering message to modern moviegoers about truly heeding one’s instincts. This is the eighth adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s coming-of-age novel written more than a century and a half ago, and Gerwig finds extraordinary resonance in the story for contemporary times. She re-invents the piece a bit with a non-linear format and even a meta interplay with the book’s author, and the playfulness with chronology helps the work echo even further with delight. A quartet of curious and talented sisters led by protagonist Jo March, played by Saoirse Ronan, experience the highs and lows of growing up and discovering their individual female powers in a changing America during the aftermath of the Civil War. A luminous Ronan anchors the film, with Florence Pugh, Emma Watson and Eliza Scanlen each adding depth and appeal to the ensemble. Pugh in particular gets to shine. Laura Dern is splendid as the vulnerable mother holding down the family fort while father is away fighting, and Timothée Chalamet is a charismatic and ideal match for the sisters who are weighing the joys and costs of male companionship in both flash forwards and flashbacks. It’s telling how high quality every aspect of the film is that one can almost forget Meryl Streep is also in the movie and incidentally excellent as the misanthropic aunt. The film is sumptuous and idyllic in its depiction of the March family’s story and snappy in its defiant points of view. There is real and ribald sibling rivalry, sensational depiction of true sisterly bonds, genuine glass ceilings to smash and sheer delight to behold in every picturesque frame. Gerwig has made an essential version of this tale with a feminist vantage point which is inclusive and insightful. Her warm film is highly recommended to anyone looking to forge a path against the odds.
Two master actors chew the Sistine scenery in the often insightful, sometimes humorous The Two Popes (B), directed by Fernando Meirelles. Anthony Hopkins plays Pope Benedict, making the stunning decision of recanting his papacy, and Jonathan Pryce portrays the future Pope Francis, visiting Vatican City and Benedict’s summer home in a moment of crisis for the church. Both actors are at the top of their game reflecting two very different world views. The film works best in depicting the two men discussing conflicting interpretations of church teachings in the world and debating nuances of God’s authority (a veritable tennis match of lobbing insightful dialogue back and forth like a tennis match) and is less effective in addressing topical issues of church scandals or even delving into some mysterious flashbacks. The film has some fun with behind the scenes glimpses of the men following World Cup matches and other personal moments humanizing their lives while wrestling with Big Issues. It’s an ultimately hopeful look at the good that men can do when balancing theological duties with a perspective beyond the insular workings of the church.