Industry News: Your Guide to Oscars 2021 Binging

The Oscars ceremony is Sunday, April 25, 2021 on ABC.

Despite most of the movies being available on streaming services, the films up for this week’s Academy Awards ceremony are little-seen. But there are definitely some independent and thoughtful gems to check out before Sunday’s ceremony. Here’s where you can find the eight movies up for Best Picture plus three others which could factor into the winner’s circle:

Minari (On demand) – This movie about a Korean-American family starting a farm in ‘80’s Arkansas is a heartwarming drama. Expect Youn Yuh-jung as the feisty and funny grandmother to get noticed.

Sound of Metal (Amazon Prime) – Riz Ahmed gives one of the year’s best performances as a heavy metal drummer and former addict who is losing his hearing. It features moving characters and some really good sound design.

Mank (Netflix) – Up for 10 awards including acting nominations for Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried, this black and white tale of classic Hollywood screenwriting and politics is inspired by the look and feel of Citizen Kane, whose screenwriter’s life it chronicles.

Promising Young Woman (On demand) – Carey Mulligan teaches men a dark lesson in this smart and sassy film blending topical themes about relationships with a bubble-gum pop soundtrack and brightly colored cinematography.

The Father (On demand) – Anthony Hopkins gives a master class performance as a man losing his mind in this drama also starring fellow past Oscar winner Olivia Colman.

Judas and the Black Messiah (On demand) –LaKeith Stanfield and Daniel Kaluuya are both up for the gold for this historical action film about an FBI informant who infiltrates the Black Panther Party.

The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix) – Aaron (The West Wing) Sorkin writes snappy dialogue for an ensemble of 1960’s political protesters including multiple award nominee Sacha Baron Cohen.

Nomadland (Hulu) – Director Chloe Zhao and lead actress Frances McDormand take a road trip across America to discover what truly matters in this fiercely independent and gorgeously filmed story featuring real people discovered along the journey.

These additional three movies have a good chance to take home some prizes:

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Netflix) – The late Chadwick Boseman gives a fierce performance opposite an amazing Viola Davis in this story about a powder-keg of a blues recording session.

The United States vs. Billie Holiday (Hulu) – Newcomer Andra Day is a leading Best Actress contender for playing the title part of the troubled songstress (The same role also got Diana Ross a nomination for an Oscar years ago).

One Night in Miami (Amazon Prime) – Regina King’s directorial debut features Hamilton’s Leslie Odom Jr. in a star-making silver screen performance as soulful singer Sam Cooke.

Movie Review: Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)

In theatres and HBO Max.

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.

Movie Review: Roe V. Wade (2021)

Now on select on-demand platforms.

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.

Movie Review: Zack Snyder’s Justice League (2021)

Now on HBO Max streaming service.

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.

Link to review of the 2017 cut of the film

Movie Review: Another Round (2020)

This Oscar-nominated Danish film is now available on the Hulu streaming service.

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.

Available on Hulu

Movie Review: The Father (2021)

Now playing.

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. 

Movie Review: Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)

Now available to stream on the paid premium service of Disney+.

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.

Movie Review: Coming 2 America (2021)

Paramount Pictures via Amazon Prime.

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.