Oscars So White, So Male

White male actors in big showy roles: Joaquin Phoenix–The Joker, George MacKay–1917, Robert DeNiro–The Irishman & Leonardo DiCaprio–Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood

There was some hope that the 92nd Oscar Nominations might reflect more diversity after the Golden Globes awarded Awkwafina for her lead role in The Farewell — Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy (1st Asian American win) and gave Director Bong Joon Ho, Parasite — Best Motion Picture – Foreign Language (1st South Korean win). There was Cynthia Erivo nominated for Harriet and Eddie Murphy for Dolemite is My Name to bring some color to the Acting Categories. However, the only women nominated in the Directing Categories were in the Documentary and Animated Features.

Sadly, when the Oscar Nominations were announced Monday morning, the only actors adding any color are Antonio Banderas, Pain and Glory (how is this his 1st Oscar Nomination?!) and Cynthia Erivo, Harriet. Even worse, the only women directors nominated are the co-director of Honeyland, Tamara Kotevska (the first non-fiction feature to land nominations for Best Documentary and Best International Feature Film–formerly Best Foreign Language Film!) and a few women in Documentary Features: American Factory co-director Julia Reichert, The Edge of Democracy, Petra Costa, and For Sama co-director Waad Al-Kateab.

Once again the hashtag #OscarSoWhite is trending. Perhaps it would be more representative to say #OscarSoWhiteSoMale. At least Little Women was nominated in the Best Feature Category but to give the film a nomination for Best Picture, Writing (Adapted Screenplay), Costume Design AND Music (Original Score) and to not nominate Greta Gerwig in the Directing category seems to defy logic. What does a Director do, if not to make all those brilliant choices? It feels like it’s another year for the Oscars to recognize films that celebrate white men and their violent tendencies. The recognition is for the Directors wrangling big budgets and big action pieces.

One nice thing about the nominated features this year; many people have been able to see them. They’ve been both popular and award-worthy. Plus, the films have been accessible, even if you don’t have an art house cinema in your town. Where to watch the nominated films? You can catch The Irishman and Marriage Story, I Lost My Body and Klaus on Netflix. Many of the Documentary and International Features can be found on Streaming Sites: Honeyland (Hulu), For Sama (PBS Frontline Website), American Factory (Netflix), The Edge of Democracy (Netflix), Two Popes (Netflix) and Missing Link (Hulu).  Little Women and 1917 are still playing in theaters.

If you love to celebrate women in film and people of color, please seek out the films that feature a more diverse cast and a story that reflects the world around us. There are some wonderful films streaming and in the theater that deserve your attention; even if the Oscars didn’t bless them with nominations. Check out Queen & Slim, Just Mercy, Bombshell, Parasite and Little Women.

Top Films in 2019

I like to say that film appreciation is akin to wine appreciation. I can’t tell YOU what your favorite wine will be as it’s a matter of so much more than just palate. You judge things by bringing your experiences, your emotions, your predilection for what’s new as opposed to tried and true.

My favorite films are the ones released this year that I managed to see, either at theaters or festivals. That leaves out many smaller films that are getting a 2020 release and many films that I didn’t find warranted a long drive. Living in the mountains limits what films I can get to…especially since we no longer have a movie theater in Telluride, Colorado while it’s under construction. I also don’t consider terror or violence to be entertainment. So if you’re looking for accolades for war movies, mobster films or Horror…look elsewhere. Yes, I know US was amazing. I’m sure 1917 and Midsommar were too, but I won’t be seeing them or making time to watch The Irishman. You all enjoy.

The Film that made me Swoon

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (PORTRAIT DE LA JEUNE FILLE EN FEU)
Director: Céline Sciamma, limited release Dec 6, US release Feb 14th (how perfect!)

At once moving and mysterious, Portrait of a Lady on Fire has a wonderful soundtrack, gorgeous cinematography and an unusual love story. An 18th century French portrait painter must paint a young woman’s image without her knowledge. When romance blossoms, she must use her talent knowing she will lose her lover to another. A sublime romance; French writer/director Céline Sciamma won the Best Screenplay award at Cannes. This is a gorgeous romantic film and the chanting of the women gathered around the fire will linger in your mind. This is one film to seek out.

The Funny Sad Film that will make you hug your Grandma

The Farewell, Director: Lulu Wang, now re-released in certain cities to take advantage of award season

Director and Writer, Lulu Wang won accolades for her touching, personal film. The Farewell won Audience Favorite at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. The emotional story follows a Chinese American family traveling from America for a fake wedding. The immediate family have decided to hide the truth about their matriarch’s diagnosis and the wedding is an excuse for everyone to say goodbye. Awkwafina is perfectly cast as the American daughter straddling two cultures; her character is a fictionalized Wang. The Farewell is based on a true story about Wang’s family which the director first shared as a story in a 2016 episode of This American Life. It was released early in 2019 and now re-released and I’m glad that some audiences will get to discover this gem of a film.

The Stand Out Rock Film of the Year

Rocketman, Director: Dexter Fletcher

Yesterday, Blinded By the Light and many great rock documentaries and movies about music were made this year. What sets Rocketman apart is the amazing performances and costumes that make you want to dig out your platform shoes and join the fun. Both the young boy, Matthew Illesley and Taron Egerton are outstanding. One weak supporting role is Bryce Dallas Howard. Undone by her reputation as a sweet person, she comes off as a caricature and isn’t helped by poor old-age makeup. There are some dark moments in this Elton John biopic and there’s no sugar-coating depression and suicide. Having the story unfold thru flashbacks from a counseling session at an addition facility is brilliant. It’s nice to see a tale of triumph as opposed to a rock star biography that ends in death. Taron Egerton does all his own singing and Elton John has applauded his performance. I hope Egerton gets an Oscar nomination.

The Quietly Profound Film

Queen & Slim, Director: Melina Matsoukas, in theaters now

An amazing directorial debut from Grammy award winner, Melina Matsoukas. Her skill directing music videos like Beyonce’s Formation, was likely good training for this powerful film of a couple on the run. Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out) and Jodie Turner-Smith navigate an awkward first date that ends tragically and forces them to flee the country. Days spent on the lam create an intimacy to their relationship, and Matsoukas use of voice-over to share their thoughts reveals another level of nuance. This is not a violent film (save for the key scene and ending) and as the couple travels across the country, they encounter a need for urban heroes and a reckoning of the awful toll of American racism. This is a drama that feels like a documentary. This is an important film.

The Film I’m seeing more than once

Little Women, Director: Greta Gerwig, in theaters now

There have been many versions–both stage and screen adaptations–of Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel. This is the definitive version. A perfect melding of superb cast, a screenplay that does justice to Alcott’s intention (she never wanted her lead, Jo March to marry) and intimate cinematography that brings the audience right into the family fray. A period drama both funny and touching, that allows each of the March girls a voice. Little Women is charming, beautifully realized and a feminist retelling.

The Most Fun Film

Captain Marvel, Directors: Anna BodenRyan Fleck

Not all film-going experiences have to be about changing the world. Sometimes you just want to go cheer on a hero! I like my heroes to be women in women-directed films if I have a choice and thankfully, this year we had Captain Marvel. I enjoyed Brie Larson‘s performance and the otherworldly nature of the story. Her chemistry with Samuel Jackson was hilarious and it was a fun ride.

The Charming Animated Film we didn’t know we needed

Klaus, Director: Sergio Pablos, on Netflix

An Animated Christmas film that has a refreshing sensibility, Klaus is a retelling of the Santa legend. This time we’re on an island where a postman must prove his worth amid warring clans. The Klaus of this tale is a woodsman in a beautiful snowy retreat. The animation is gorgeous, the dialogue equal measures witty and snarky and the resolution is delightful. A new classic for families to share.

The Most Audacious Film

JoJo Rabbit, Director: Taika Waititi, still playing in some theaters

Who makes a dramedy about a little boy who’s imaginary friend is Hitler? Who can walk that fine line between slapstick and pathos? Taika Waititi created this film of wild emotional swings and exuberant performances. The children are amazing actors and Sam Rockwell seems dropped in from a Wes Anderson film but also perfectly cast. This film is astonishing.

The Film I thought would bore me but was intriguing

The Two Popes, Director: Fernando Meirelles, Netflix

The performances by Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce are mesmerizing but it’s the fascinating look at the politics and intrigue of the Vatican that make this film thought-provoking. I expected pomp and politics, instead it’s a warm humane look at two public figures and their unexpected friendship.

Two Films that I’d have liked much more without their last 15 minutes

Parasite, Director: Bong Joon-ho — Brilliant film with crazy twists but the violence left me reeling.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Director: Quentin Tarantino — Awash in nostalgia (and close-ups of feet), I loved the central performances by Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio. If I’d left the film 15 minutes before credit roll…

In Defense of “Angels”

Fresh crop of Angels: Naomi Scott, Kristen Stewart, and Ella Balinska w/director (and Bosley), Elizabeth Banks

When asking friends which film they were excited to see this Thanksgiving weekend, there were lots of votes for Frozen 2, Ford v Ferrari and JoJo Rabbit and a majority vote for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Surprisingly few votes for the latest Charlie’s Angels directed by Elizabeth Banks. “Oh, I hear that film flopped”, was the response I received. In this crowded release weekend, I was saddened to think that this fun feminist film was not getting a fighting chance. It made me wonder if we’re measuring female-directed films with a more critical gaze or if this film should’ve been released in the summer instead?

True confessions; I didn’t carry a Charlie’s Angels lunch box or have a poster on my wall of the fighting females iconic silhouette. I didn’t grow up with the television series, but I’ve always been a fan. Who wouldn’t want a job that involved fabulous costumes, fast cars, exotic locales–while getting to work with clever women that got the job done but also made sure to have some fun while doing it? There may have been shots of slow-motion running, shiny lip gloss, lots of hair tossing and more cleavage shots than taking down the villain warranted, but there was plenty of girl power.

The latest remake opens with a scene that could’ve been in the TV series. Wearing bubble gum pink with lacquered lips, Kristen Stewart’s character is toying with a villain. Using her sex appeal, she’s got this guy wrapped around her finger. In seconds she’s got him wrapped in a long diaphanous drape as well, and at her mercy. As the camera tracks out, we see the rest of the team descend, Stewart’s spy sheds her chic dress and sex kitten demeanor and she’s dressed in commando gear and rappelling off the roof.

There’s a great article about the costumes and how the designer Kym Barrett experienced the job almost as an Angel on assignment; Charlie’s Angels Costume Designer dishes on Kristen Stewart’s “Barbie Look” Laurie Brookins, 11/22/19, The Hollywood Reporter. It’s clear that the costumes and personas of our spies are candy-coated shells cloaking the skilled intelligent women and their gadgets of espionage. That’s been true from the inception of the series but in the updates, there’s more focus on the women building their relationships between assignments. With Elizabeth Banks leading the charge; both literally as the director and figuratively, as a Bosley, the focus is less on gadgets and clothes and more on team building and witnessing how the women train, research and solve the case.

Could the story have more intriguing? Did Elizabeth Banks perhaps take on too much as the writer, director, actor and producer? Yes and yes. But Charlie’s Angels is a fun ride and a great time for women to get together and enjoy a good hoot and holler. My one minor complaint was to not be able to hear Kristen Stewart’s dialogue at times, but that may have been the theater sound system at the mall cineplex. So gather the gals, have a Cosmopolitan and share some good feminist fun. We need to support every female filmmaker and not let critics sway us from a good time at the movies.

Drinks with Films rating: 2 Cosmos (out of five)

Daddy Issues in Space

Brad Pitt, looking weary in Ad Astra

It’s been awhile seen we’ve seen Brad Pitt on the big screen and then, like an unexpected gift, he’s starring in two major films. There has been Oscar buzz about his hyper-masculine stunt man, Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood. Pitt’s character has a laid-back vibe and his charm and beauty still burn bright. He and co-star, Leonardo DiCaprio have a great chemistry together. When his character takes off his shirt to fix a rooftop tv antenna, it calls to mind his first major role as the charming thief and one-night stand for Geena Davis in Thelma & Louise.

Brad Pitt showing good form in Thelma & Louise

In contrast to the his role in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, Brad Pitt is the astronaut Roy McBride in Ad Astra. Once again playing a hyper-masculine character but in this role, we see the toll his career following in his father’s footsteps has taken on family life. Estranged from his partner, presenting a cool facade and barely registering a heart beat…this character is starting to question the orders bestowed on him by the military complex.

Ad Astra, directed, co-written and produced by ‎James Gray is a meditation on the father/son relationship. This intimate film is science fiction that treats a spacesuit-clad traveler hopping a spaceship to the moon like it’s a daily commute. He might as well be wearing a suit and tie…and indeed in one scene, Brad Pitt’s character is carrying what looks like a briefcase. Roy McBride may be living in our distant future but he’s traveling across space dealing with similar 20th century problems: an unsuccessful romantic relationship, a stressful career and a distant father. That father is played by ‎Tommy Lee Jones and he’s floating around Neptune and may be responsible for earth-shattering power surges. This makes McBride’s mission to reunite with his father a rather urgent affair.

There are beautiful space interludes and the race across the moon is a tense and exciting scene. Occasionally obscured by their fishbowl helmets, who is shooting at whom can be difficult to discern. But beyond a few confrontations in space and the novel mode of travel, Ad Astra is a contemplative film that could be set anywhere. Brad Pitt communicates the inner monologue of our conflicted astronaut with reserve; he seems weighed down by his mission and his angst. As he makes his journey, his companions fall away. Donald Sutherland, once a trusted comrade of his father’s, suffers more than a change of heart. Some are killed by pirates; some by McBride himself. He’s alone to face his father issues and eventually, his father.

The first half of the film is driven by the urgency to complete this mission and the need to make contact with the space station McBride’s father commands. Whether this is a rescue mission or an assassination is the final mystery. There are women in the film: Liv Tyler as the abandoned love interest and ‎Ruth Negga‘s Administrator — who provides McBride with crucial information but isn’t even given a name. They provide warmth and emotion and are sorely missed when not on the screen. Our conflicted hero must travel to the moon and then to Neptune and yet, once his mission is complete, his journey seems to skip through time and space as he hurtles back to earth.

Ad Astra ends on a triumphant note and it’s good to see films that are dealing, even in oblique ways, with our fears about Climate Change. What’s missing in the film is a deeper connection to our closed-off astronaut. His issues with his father are like our issues with the planet, they seem too big to overcome. Brad Pitt may be opening up the conversation about what it means to be a man, a father and a lover but it’s difficult to separate his roles from his public falling out with Angelina Jolie. In his movie roles, he seems to be exploring how to navigate his public and private personas.

Drinks with Films Rating: 2 International Space Station squeeze bottles of H2O (out of 5)

“Good Boys” — but who’s it “good” for?

A selling point…but would you take your preteen to this movie?

There must have been an untapped market for a raunchy sex comedy about 12-year old boys that I didn’t know about because Good Boys has made a ton of money at the box office. It’s odd to see a film that the young stars wouldn’t get to see, though I think it might be a film that parents would take their preteens to…but should they? I don’t generally think of myself as a prude and watching the trailer for this film, it’s easy to see that the filmmakers: writers and producers Seth RogenEvan Goldberg, and director Gene Stupnitsky felt it was comedy gold to show kids discussing drugs and sex. The film has just hit 72.5 million dollars in box office revenue so they must’ve been right.

Yes, there were moments I laughed out loud and the young actors Jacob Tremblay (so amazing in The Room), Keith L. WilliamsBrady Noon have a great chemistry together. The three young men, playing 12-yr-olds who’ve been friends since kindergarten, are talented. There are lots of scenes of them trying to navigate the middle school social structure of “cool kids” and nerds that are touching and ring true. It’s genuinely funny to hear Max (Jacob Tremblay) know just enough about a few things to be so completely wrong in his understanding of them – like the word nymphomaniac.

I applaud the originality of the film and the sweet heart at the center of the film; the boy’s friendship. Each boy has a distinct personality — from a talent for singing, a love of gaming, to our young lothario’s blossoming libido. Now if only the filmmakers had toned down a few of the overtly sexual references. The sequence showcasing Max’s string of crushes is cute. But is there anyone who believes that a boy would give the girl of his dreams a “necklace” of anal beads that stills smells like it’s been used for the intended purpose? Or that kids savvy enough to Google porn would not know what a dildo is?

Young dudes with a drone

It’s a movie and all of this is played for laughs. As with many films, it doesn’t bear thinking too hard about it. Spoiler alert: that the boys could be responsible for a car crash on the highway, suffer a dislocated shoulder, give a container of Molly to a cop, breakup a frat house hazing, and the only thing they get in trouble for is accidentally smashing some knickknacks with a drone. Really?! All of that I can let go, but the many instance of fake crying and wielding sex toys as weapons (or gifts); now that took me right out of the film. I’m all for being sex positive and kids know a lot more than adults give them credit for, but I’m not sure we needed a Super Bad with kids.

Drinks with Films rating: 2 sips of beer (out of five)

46th Telluride Film Festival — Racing thru Four Days of Films

A gathering of the luminaries at the 2019 Telluride Film Festival

Film Festivals have their own zeitgeist. Cannes has glamour, Sundance has snow and celebrities, and Telluride has a mountain top cathedral for film aficionados. Programmers fight to have films premiere at their festival and attracting celebrities is very important. Film guests sell tickets but also create a buzz at the event. Some festivals like the Mill Valley Film Festival and the Telluride Film Festival have less work to do to attract the big names — both events are in beautiful places and more importantly, attract fans that will allow filmmakers and stars to walk the streets sans bodyguards and publicists.

This year’s Telluride Film Festival was graced with the presence of such luminaries as Martin Scorsese, Adam Driver, Philip Kaufman, Bong Joon-ho, Edward Norton, and Renee Zellweger. Long-time Festival favorites, Werner Herzog and Ken Burns brought new works to the Festival and first-time festival attendees like Antonio Banderas (Pain and Glory) professed their love for the magic of Telluride. Programming was strong. There weren’t as many thought-provoking or life-affirming features as in years past but there was certainly a breadth of subjects covered. From Imelda Marcos (The Kingmaker) to Oliver Sacks (Oliver Sacks: His Own Life) to sports (cycling, soccer, Australian football, race cars) and hot air balloons (The Aeronauts); from portrait painting (Portrait of a Lady on Fire) to art forgery (Lyrebird).

What was interesting was to hear how many film lovers either LOVED or HATED some of the films. Everyone was excited to see the Hollywood films: Ford v Ferrari, Judy, Marriage Story and Motherless Brooklyn but the more offbeat Uncut Gems? Even with the selling point of having Adam Sandler there for a lively Q & A, Uncut Gems warranted a lot of walk outs. Directors Josh and Bennie Safdie tapped Oneohtrix Point Never who also scored their 2017 film Good Time; both films feature a frenetic soundtrack. Sound and scores were an important part of the the film experience this year and Uncut Gems soundtrack was a cacophany that may have reflected the character’s state of mind — but it was difficult to endure.

There were 30 main film programs, three tributes, shorts programs, retrospectives and outdoor screenings. Guest Director Pico Iyer selected five International film highlighting women in film. With this year’s focus on sound, there was a tribute to Dolby Laboratories, two silent films and many films about musicians. Ken Burns unveiled his series on Country Music, documentaries included Billie (Billie Holiday), Amazing Grace (Aretha Franklin), Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice, Tex Mex music (Chulas Fronteras) and The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash. Two themes were evident in the 2019 program — music, there were some unusual scores this year — and long screening times. Of the 30 main film programs, 20 were at or over 2 hours.

Waves, 2019 — A24

One of the longer films that was also divisive is Waves. I spoke to people who walked out, a few people who ranked it as a favorite, and others who felt it was trite and the soundtrack annoying. Trey Edward Shultz (It Comes at Night, Krisha) uses a few unusual filmmaking techniques to put the audience in the mindset of the characters. Not everyone was a fan of the spinning Go Pro shots in the car (used repeatedly) or the full-screen color waves to represent emotions. The soundtrack also acts like a character in the film. It’s a hard-driving mix of hip hop and rap by Trent Reznor‎ and ‎Atticus Ross and while the characters are listening and singing to music, the soundtrack is playing something different for us. It was jarring at first and like the color blocks on the screen, took some adjusting to.

Taylor Russell plays the daughter in Waves

A tragedy told from two focal points, the acting is strong particularly from the two young actors Kelvin Harrison Jr. and especially Taylor Russell as the young woman who transforms from a background player who’s withdrawn, to the focus of the narrative. Waves is getting a lot of critical acclaim and though I felt it had some beautiful moments, a little judicial trimming would’ve gone a long way to transforming the film.

Working the festival as a Volunteer (love the Sheridan Opera House crew!), there were many films I didn’t get the opportunity to see. So I’m thankful for the After Festival screenings and happy that I had to opportunity to catch Parasite and The Two Popes. Thank you Telluride Film Festival. What a gem of a festival!

Smash, Crash, Zoom — “Hobbs and Shaw” is a fun action film

Burdened with a long title and high expectations from fans of the franchise, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw is surprisingly entertaining. If you haven’t watched any of the films in the series, you can still enjoy this one. There isn’t a lot of backstory from the other films you need to know and if you didn’t know that there was a rivalry between the two main characters, it’s set-up for you right away. I love what writer @tensecondsfromnow wrote in his review: Fast and Furious is largely about the toys, but there need to be men to drive them, and with Paul Walker’s demise, these men must be bald and middle aged.

Once it’s established that our two leads, played by The Rock (Dwayne Johnson) as a lovable muscled giant and the suave Jason Statham, who’s lovely British accent made me forget that yes, he IS indeed bald…are different but can both get the job done–the movie kicks into gear and doesn’t stop. If you’re expecting the trademark action set pieces of one person jumping from a speeding vehicle into another one, a motorcycle vs car chase, and a bunch of ridiculously large trucks fighting helicopters and other vehicles…this films got it.

What I liked about this film and the series, is the focus on the importance of family. Both leads have discussions with their Moms and their opinions influence the arc of the story. It’s refreshing to see an action movie where all the women are given power and allowed the agency to control the action. The women don’t follow the men nor are they playing the damsel-in-distress. Vanessa Kirby is Hattie, an action hero in her own right and Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) tells Shaw (Jason Stratham) that she’s “bad ass”. She even gets her own catch phrase, “how long have you worked here?” that has amusing consequences.

Dame Helen Mirren has a small role as Shaw and Hattie’s mum and even in prison, she appears in control of the situation. She playfully gets out of her chains and drops them in the guard’s hands. Mexican actress and singer, Eiza González, in a small role as an arms dealer, may be a love interest for Shaw but she’s the boss of a full crew of talented women. She’s the one who has both the intel and specialized equipment to deploy on their mission.

Idris Elba is a wonderful conflicted baddie…rebuilt by an evil corporation; his character believes he’s the future of mankind. The moral conflict behind his eyes tells the audience that it’s dawning on him that he might be on the side of evil but he’s beyond committed to his path. The fighting is mostly bloodless–a ballet of bullets and flying bodies, but the battle fought without guns is ironically, the most brutal. It’s also the low-tech solutions that save the good guys in the final battle and they’re medieval and imaginative. I could’ve done without the intrusion of the smirky Ryan Reynolds’ character who seemed to be in another movie. If you’re looking for a high-speed action film that has a heart and some laughs, I think you’ll be pleased with Hobbs and Shaw.

Drinks with Films rating: 3 1/2 glasses of good bourbon served in cut glass tumblers (out of 5)