I know that you Oscar voters get suckered in for Best Picture but Best Original Screenplay? Really?

The 91st annual Academy Awards, for the film year 2018.  The nominations were announced on 22 January 2019 and the awards were held on 24 February 2019.

Best Picture:  Green Book

  • The Favourite
  • Roma
  • A Star is Born
  • BlackKklansman
  • Black Panther
  • Bohemian Rhapsody
  • Green Book
  • Vice

Most Surprising Omission:  If Beale Street Could Talk

Best Eligible Film Not Nominated:  First Man

Rank (out of 91) Among Best Picture Years:  #30

The Race:  You can go here for a detailed description of the race as it unfolded from late November when the first awards came out up until the day before the Oscar nominations were announced.

The Results:  Reactions on nomination morning are here.

White people solve racism. Again.

Green Book

  • Director:  Peter Farrelly
  • Writer:  Brian Hayes Currie  /  Peter Farrelly  /  Nick Vallelonga
  • Producer:  Jim Burke, Charles B. Wessler, Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly, Nick Vallelonga
  • Stars:  Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali
  • Studio:  Universal (DreamWorks)
  • Oscar Nominations: Picture, Original Screenplay, Actor (Mortensen), Supporting Actor (Ali), Editing
  • Oscar Points:  300
  • Length:  130 min
  • Genre:  Comedy
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Release Date:  2017
  • Box Office Gross:  $84.84 mil  (#36  –  2018)
  • Metacritic Rating:  69
  • My Rating:  ***
  • My Rank:  #68  (year)  /  #385  (nominees)  /  #78  (winners)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actor (Mortensen), Supporting Actor (Ali)
  • Nighthawk Points:  65

I was in an awkward position regarding this film from the start.  Thanks, in part to my cancer diagnosis, and in part to no desire to go see it, this was the only nominee I had yet to see by the time of the ceremony.  Why did I have no desire to see it?  First, it was directed by a hack director and writer who, sadly, at this point, is now an Oscar winning writer, a description that had already been thoroughly made undistinguished by its inclusion of Akiva Goldsman.  Second, it was about the South during the Civil Rights Era.  That meant more watching racist whites acting awful to decent blacks.  Honestly, I’ve had my fill of this.  People can make whatever films they want, but that doesn’t mean I want to watch them.  At this point, my honest feeling, is that there doesn’t need to be another film about this era unless an actual black director who either grew up there or had his parents grow up there decides to write and direct a film about that personal experience (which, sadly, rules out many of the most talented black directors around including Spike Lee (Brooklyn), Ryan Coogler (Oakland), Ava DuVernay (Compton), Denzel Washington (New York) and Jordan Peele (New York), so unless Barry Jenkins, who is at least from Miami, wants to make a film like this, I’m really over it and you should see the note at the end of this review concerning that).  What’s more, this film suffered from the white savior narrative so clearly that its lead was white, its director was white and the screenwriters were white.  Added to all of that was the controversy that none of the filmmakers bothered to get the actual Shirley family involved and couldn’t even be bothered to mention him in their speeches for Screenplay or Picture (which I am going on reports, since I muted both speeches).

Then there was the story itself.  Racist white guy (with typical racist thing thrown in at the beginning where he throws out the glasses the black workmen in his house drank from), in travels with a black man, learns to overcome racism.  Which actually misses the whole point.  If anyone involved with this film thinks that he overcame his racism, they are sadly mistaken.  As Veronica has mentioned with every blurb on the film, there is a big difference between personal prejudice and institutional racism.  People overcome their own feelings all the time.  In high school I was friends with a man whose views on homosexuals were absolutely reprehensible (this man is now a judge in Orange County) and in college I was friends with a man who is now nationally known for hitting his wife because his wife has gone on to become a congresswoman.  I have always loathed homophobia and yet we were friends and I knew he had a bad temper and a tendency to act without thinking and yet we were friends.  This film is the opposite case.  Tony hasn’t somehow grown to love blacks.  Deep in his mind, he still thinks the same things.  But he has learned to respect and even like this particular black man, so the message of the film is, once again, whites can overcome racism (see also Driving Miss Daisy, The Help and any number of other films, directed by, written by and starring white people).  Which is bullshit.  Tony has now just become the example of the guy who says “I have a black friend”.  There is added irony in that one of the few actual blacks involved in below the line aspects of this film is Octavia Spencer, who, in Hidden Figures, when told by Kirsten Dunst “Despite what you may think, I have nothing against y’all.” responds, perfectly, “I know, I know you probably believe that.”.

And all of that was before I even saw the damn film.  By the time I saw the film, of course, it had won Best Picture in a win that was immediately set up as a comparison to Crash, both in its ham-handed attempts to deal with racism on-screen and because the other nominees were so clearly better.  It’s not really irony but just appropriate that Crash and Green Book have the same metacritic rating and that it’s far below the other nominees (well, most of the other nominees for this film since there were eight instead of five).  Did the Oscar voters actually think this was the best film of the year?  Honestly, I doubt it.  Most Academy voters don’t think that way.  They think about the movie they enjoyed the most, the one that made them feel good.  That’s why people vote for films like The Sound of Music, Driving Miss Daisy, Titanic and Green Book.  They don’t honestly think about whether they were better films than Doctor Zhivago, Born on the Fourth of July, L.A. Confidential or Roma.  They think about how they felt while watching the film, how it made them feel (it made them feel good about overcoming racism because most voters in the Academy are still older and white).  It certainly doesn’t hurt that again they’re voting for a film that condemns racism and makes whites feel like they can overcome racism at the same time that a blatant racist is sitting in the Oval Office.  What’s more, because Don Shirley was such a refined gentleman, the way he instructs Tony on how to look, behave and even speak makes them feel like this is a more balanced story than it actually is.  White man overcomes racism, refined gentleman learns how to become more human.

So what about the film itself?  The film has been decried as Driving Miss Daisy II and that’s not so far off.  Like Daisy, it is not particularly well written and it wasn’t nominated for Best Director.  But, like Daisy, the two main figures in the car give quite good performances (in fact, I think the two performances in this film are actually considerably superior to the ones in Daisy).  Tony, needing a job, drives Don Shirley around the South and eventually learns to respect the man and find himself not hating at least one black man as much as he did at the beginning of the film.  Don Shirley, an accomplished musician who lives a refined life but doesn’t deal much in the way with other people (it doesn’t help that he’s also gay, not that the film deals much with that) and feels a disconnect with what Tony feels should be his own culture (there’s a scene that feels like such a cliche where Tony is jumping around on radio stations and Don doesn’t recognize any of the prominent black musicians like Little Richard, Chubby Checker or Aretha Franklin) eventually learns to be a bit more open and relaxed.  Of course it ends with the two of them having dinner together at Tony’s house, the same place where he was throwing out glasses at the beginning and now welcomes a black man into his house.

The writing of this film was rewarded which is ridiculous, especially in a year with The Favourite and Roma.  It’s full of cliches and there isn’t anything about it that stands out as worthy of accomplishment.  The acting was rewarded and it deserved to be.  Ali might not be my #1 but he gives a performance that is worthy of an Oscar (it’s unfortunate that he’s now won two Oscars without winning a Nighthawk but he’s been close each time) and Viggo rises to the Top 5 of what is a very strong Best Actor category.  In the end, what we have is a solidly acted film that deals with a subject without a whole lot of subtlety and that somehow managed to rise to the top of the Academy’s list.  They’ve made far worse choices in the past and they, sadly, probably will again in the future, though it’s been quite a while since they’ve botched things like this.  But in the end, it’s a solid film, fairly well made and very well acted.  But perhaps someday we’ll realize that Academy voters aren’t really voting for the best film of the year.

Postscript:  So, I watched the film and wrote the review before watching If Beale Street Could TalkBeale is the complete rebuttal to Green Book and should have been nominated instead of it.  It shows how we deal with racism when it is entrenched in the system from blacks who are oppressed by it.  Yet, it does it, not by placing the film in the height of the fight for civil rights but a decade later, when it was supposed to be over and in the north where it wasn’t supposed to have been an issue in the first place.  And in the end, it has an ending that is far more complicated but still can be seen as heartwarming and one that feels much more real for the characters involved.  It doesn’t suggest that this problem is solved, perhaps because it was made by a black filmmaker instead of white ones.

Bunnies, you don’t really want to get that close to Emma.

The Favourite

  • Director:  Yorgos Lanthimos
  • Writer:  Deborah Davis  /  Tony McNamara
  • Producer:  Ceci Dempsey  /  Ed Guiney  /  Lee Magiday  /  Yorgos Lanthimos
  • Stars:  Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz, Emma Stone, Nicholas Hoult
  • Studio:  Fox Searchlight
  • Oscar Nominations: Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actress (Colman), Supporting Actress (Stone), Supporting Actress (Weisz), Editing, Cinematography, Production Design, Costume Design
  • Oscar Points:  350
  • Length:  119 min
  • Genre:  Comedy
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  2018
  • Box Office Gross:  $34.36 mil  (#81  –  2018)
  • Metacritic Rating:  90
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #1  (year)  /  #65  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actress (Colman), Supporting Actress (Stone), Supporting Actress (Weisz), Editing, Cinematography, Art Direction, Costume Design, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  460

Was All About Eve really a Comedy?  It was after all, the story of a woman at the height of her power, smart, witty and manipulative and a younger, more beautiful woman who comes along, tries to size her up and manages to topple her but with an ending that can not really be defined as sweet.  Here we have a similar story, also with two such women who are smart and beautiful and quick-witted and one of whom starts on top and the other of whom sort of ends there.  And yet, there doesn’t seem to be any question that The Favourite is a Comedy even though the ending, like All About Eve‘s seems in some ways much more tragic than comic.

Sarah Churchill has power.  She might be the most powerful woman in England and in some ways might be the most powerful person in the world as a result of that (and her power stays in her family – her great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson will be the Prime Minister of Great Britain during the second World War and her great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson will likely be the next King of England).  But she is a forthright woman.  She has her power because of her intimacy with Queen Anne, the actual ruler, but one who Churchill is a master of manipulating and because her husband is in charge of leading the current war against France (I could explain the historical details but you could just look them up or, since this is England, you could just assume they’re at war with France because for most of the second millennium they were at war with France).  She is the kind of woman who could say, when the queen complains that she heard someone call her fat “Anne, no one but me would dare and I did not.”

Into the lives of both of them comes Abigail Hill.  Abigail arrives in an dramatically unimpressive fashion (she is literally pushed into a pile of shit and then is tricked by the maids of the house into walking directly up to Churchill without being able to clean off first) but she is Churchill’s cousin and has fallen on hard times so she is taken in.  She trudges through as a scullery maid until a moment of chance allows her to help ease Anne’s pain from gout and that is where Abigail begins her dramatic rise.

Rachel Weisz, who plays Sarah Churchill in an impressive performance (to the point where I almost want to declare a tie between the two actresses for the Nighthawk) has described the film as a funnier, sexy version of All About Eve and she is not wrong.  Abigail (put on screen with a magnificent performance from Emma Stone that combines a seeming innocence with a scheming mind and a sexuality that you are never quite certain of but you know is present, all of which combine to win her a third Nighthawk in five years) will discover that the two women are lovers and, ready to rise to the challenge, manages to placate Anne’s physical needs one night when Sarah is otherwise occupied.  Now we are not only witnesses to a battle of wits (“May I ask a question?”  “As long as you realize I am holding a gun.”) but to a battle of physical affection.

Yet, all of this is played out against the events of the world as they unfold and it’s an interesting reminder precisely what makes this so different from All About Eve.  That film focused on two smart, willful women who were trying to make their way but whose careers were, in important ways, defined by their relationships with the men in their lives, be they critic, writer or director.  Anne (played by Olivia Colman, putting on screen the kind of performance that those who have been watching her for years on television always knew she was capable of) is stuck between two women who are much smarter than her but need her in order to survive.  The men are much less lucky.  Be they Lord Godolphin, Sarah’s poor outwitted political ally (he will not get a response to the line “Obviously you have chosen to keep the particulars of your dismissal from me. I shall leave a gap in the conversation for you to remedy that.”), leader of the opposition Harley, who can push women around on a physical level but still be outsmarted by them (“I wish to make a statement to the queen.”  “State it to me.  I love a comedy.  Is there cake?”) or poor Colonel Masham who doesn’t get the wedding night he was planning on, none of the men in this film can hope to match up to the women.

This is the most fascinating, the wittiest, quite probably the funniest film and in my opinion the best of the year.  If there is any actual problem with it is that, looking at the film as a whole, there are no supporting female performances in the film – just three brilliant leads who all should have been acknowledged as such.

Yes, when the 3.0 list of the Top 100 Directors comes out later this year, someone will be moving up quite a few spots.

Roma

  • Director:  Alfonso Cuarón
  • Writer:  Alfonso Cuarón
  • Producer:  Alfonso Cuarón, Gabriela Rodriguez
  • Stars:  Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira
  • Studio:  Netflix
  • Oscar Nominations: Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actress (Aparicio), Supporting Actress (de), Cinematography, Sound Mixing, Production Design, Sound Editing, Foreign Film
  • Oscar Points:  395
  • Length:  135 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  21 November 2018
  • Box Office Gross:  n/a  –  even though it had a theatrical release, Netflix does not report the grosses from the theatrical releases of its films
  • Metacritic Rating:  96
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #3  (year)  /  #79  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Editing, Cinematography, Foreign Film
  • Nighthawk Points:  225

Cleo Gutiérrez’s worst day is much worse than your worst day.

She’s a maid in the Colonia Roma section of Mexico City, a middle-class neighborhood where she takes care of the four children for her employer, Sofia, while Sofia tries to fake that the father is out of town (really he’s having an affair, something which is almost discovered by the children when they go to a movie that he’s also attending) and tries to fit her monstrously large car into a garage that is entirely too small for it.  Her boyfriend (who wants to be a martial artist and has enough skill when showing off for her while she’s in bed is certainly adept enough not to smack himself in the face with the shower curtain rod he’s using) has knocked her up but when she tried to talk to him about it he refused to acknowledge it and threatened her if she ever spoke to him again.

Now, nearing the end of her pregnancy, she and the children’s grandmother, Teresa, have headed into the heart of the city to shop for a crib.  Unfortunately it is 10 June 1971 and they head right into one of the biggest tragedies in the history of the city, the Corpus Christi Massacre, when student protestors were gathered and instead were brutally beaten by authorities and over a hundred were murdered, mostly by paramilitary groups.  The danger follows them into the store and Teresa and Cleo stand by while a young man is murdered as he tries to flee the violence.  A gunman then stands there, aiming the gun at them and Cleo recognizes the father of her child, the very child whose water breaks just minutes later.  She has been abandoned by the man she thought she loved, though, thankfully, not by the family that employs her.

Making their way through the horrid traffic in the aftermath of the massacre, they finally make it to the hospital and endure the awkwardness of Sofia’s husband suddenly showing up (he works in the hospital) before making an excuse to leave.  Then she is examined and the most horrid words you can imagine come from one of the doctors who is asked to check the baby’s heartbeat: “I don’t hear anything”  Suddenly everything moves into quick speed and slow motion all at once as they do everything they can and in one, brilliant, long static shot, we get the most brutal scene you will see in any film this or any other year, a four minute long birth scene and the confirmation that the baby has been stillborn.  She is asked if she wants to hold the child and she does but not long enough to satisfy her and then the child is gone.  Even though it is dead, she still wants to be holding on because it might have been all she had left and now it is just gone.

The film is autobiographical; the multi-talented Oscar winning director (also functioning as writer, producer, editor and even cinematographer) Alfonso Cuarón has admitted that this is the story of his life in those insane days of his youth.  It’s the story of the maid who loved him even though she was paid for it and who actually saved his life after she had already endured the most horrible day that could possibly be imagined.  Because we’re not done with Cleo and she is not done with life.  In the days after her horrible tragedy, the family takes a vacation to the beach (it’s actually so the father can move out while they’re gone) and Cleo is left to watch two of the children in the ocean but they stray out too far (even knowing she can’t swim) and she has to brave the water to save them.

This is what we have: an extraordinary document of one man’s experience of growing up, of the world he lived in, of the women in his life that helped make him the man he is.  It’s an unbelievable work of art on every level from one of the world’s greatest directors (which the Academy mostly acknowledged except for the idiots in the Editors branch who somehow missed out not only on this, the second best edited film of the year but also First Man, the best edited film of the year).  What film other than this one could be filmed in black and white, star a bunch of no name actors (in spite of that, both the actress playing Cleo and the actress playing Sophia earned nominations and while neither quite makes my Top 5 in what are good years, they were both close), be in Spanish and Mixtec and be released primarily through Netflix rather than theaters and still manage to score an impressive 10 Oscar nominations.

Remakes. You’re doing it right.

A Star is Born

  • Director:  Bradley Cooper
  • Writer:  Bradley Cooper  /  Eric Roth  /  Will Fetters  (based on the 1937, 1954 and 1976 films)
  • Producer:  Bradley Cooper, Bill Gerber, Lynette Howell Taylor
  • Stars:  Bradley Cooper, Lady Gaga, Sam Elliott
  • Studio:  Warner Bros
  • Oscar Nominations: Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Cooper), Actress (Lady Gaga), Supporting Actor (Elliot), Cinematography, Sound Mixing, Original Song (“Shallow”)
  • Oscar Points:  255
  • Length:  136 min
  • Genre:  Musical
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  2018
  • Box Office Gross:  $215.28 mil  (#11  –  2018)
  • Metacritic Rating:  88
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #5  (year)  /  #152  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Actor (Cooper), Actress (Lady Gaga), Supporting Actor (Elliott), Editing, Cinematography, Sound, Original Song (“Shallow”), Original Song (“I’ll Never Love Again”)
  • Nighthawk Points:  360

We’re a good chunk into the film and Jackson Maine, a popular rock and roll star, is blasting his way through another concert in front of what looks to be tens of thousands of fans.  By this point, we already know that Jackson is a fairly hopeless drunk, but we’ve also seen he’s a hell of a rock and roll star and he’s got an eye for talent as well.  One night, desperate for a drink after a show, he walks into what turns out to be a drag bar (he’s told it’s the wrong kind of bar for him and he replies “They serve alcohol?  Then it’s the right bar for me.”) and sees a young woman performing.  She captivates him right from the start, taking the famous “La Vie en Rose” and giving it a vocal performance that Edith Piaf would be proud of.  Intrigued by her (especially once her makeup is off) and especially her voice, and later, when she sings for him in a parking lot as he treats the hand she bruised punching out a cop in the next bar they go to, her song-writing ability (it’s a song she wrote herself), he is more than impressed.  He is blown away.  He knows others will be too.  He sees something in her and he also wants her, so he sends for her, drags her out to his concert and then tries to bring her on stage.  She refuses at first, too beaten down by failure and misery and being told her nose is too big to be successful so he says he’s going out there to sing her song whether she joins him or not.  And he really does, singing a song he barely knows, but has managed to put a guitar lick to, adding in his own lyrics as a counterpoint to the ones she sang for him the night before.  Finally, she can’t take it and she’s out there, scared as can be, but singing because this is her song and it deserves her voice.

By this point, we’re a ways into the film, well past the title coming up on screen, but it would be perfectly fitting if Bradley Cooper (who is doing everything in this film – starring as Jackson Maine, directing, co-writing, co-producing, even co-writing some of the songs) had waited until this moment, when the green light comes up on the young woman, so clearly terrified, but so determined as well, for the title to come up on screen.  Or maybe it doesn’t need to, because in this moment, we can sense something.  The actress, of course, is Lady Gaga, one of the best selling musical artists of our time.  She has been many things in her life but what she hasn’t, up to this point been, is a film actress.  That’s something else she can check off now because in that moment, singing “Shallow”, a song that perfectly captures the moment and is so captivating and brilliant that as I write this, a day after seeing the film, five days after its release, 12 days after the video premiered on YouTube, it is currently at over 23 million views, you can sense that the title has absolutely come true.  A star is born.

The first knowledge that A Star is Born was being remade, yet again, the fourth time by this title, the sixth if you want to count What Price Hollywood and The Artist, did not fill me with relief.  The knowledge that Bradley Cooper, who had become a first-rate actor in films like Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle and American Sniper, was going to be adding writing and directing duties didn’t add any confidence.  Then there was all the hype about Lady Gaga taking the other lead role and given that she is clearly a gifted performer but that her music hadn’t ever much interested me (outside of “Americano” and the fact that she clearly should have won the Oscar for “Til It Happens to You”) didn’t warm me up either.  The Oscar hype had begun long before the film was even made but when it actually got released and started getting rave reviews, that made me interested.  So, I took Veronica on Columbus Day, when she had the day off work but Thomas had school because California doesn’t go into for such crap as Columbus Day, off to the theater, not even thinking about the fact that Veronica had never seen any of the previous versions (except The Artist) and that she wouldn’t necessarily know some of the big points that would hit through the film, including the horrible moment that would clearly come at the Grammys instead of the Oscars like in the first two versions or the ending.

And yet, this film is a marvel.  It is quite possibly as good as any previous version of the film which is saying a hell of a lot since one of them won Best Picture at the Oscars and another is the Nighthawk winner for Best Picture.  Is it because Cooper digs down and gives us the best performance of a career that has already earned him three Oscar nominations?  Is it because Sam Elliot, as the older half-brother, something we only learn about part-way through the film and that brings a perfect measure of sense to the voice that Cooper uses (their argument over the voice and how it is used is one of the best written scenes in the film and one that absolutely didn’t come from any of the previous versions of the film) might finally get the recognition he has deserved for so very long?  Is it because the film never overstays its welcome and earns its running time of well over two hours because of the magnificent songs that begin with the opening shot of the film and continue all the way through to the end of the credits (which we thought worth staying for)?

It is all of these and more, of course.  But perhaps the biggest power of the film is Gaga’s performance.  Through the film, we follow her from a drag club performer, to achieving recognition with a measure of luck (for meeting Jackson) and talent (for her tremendous song-writing) to becoming a star the likes of which she currently is, changing her hair, her look and dropping everything we think we know about her.  Yet, she also comes shining through in that final scene of the film, the moment that has always been so important in the previous versions of the film and which she hits every note that she needs to hit.  And even then, we get the brilliance of Gaga the composer (for the beautiful song being sung) and the magnificent editing in the film as we cut away for a brilliant shot that perfectly complements everything we’ve been listening to and watching.  We’re somehow in the middle of a Golden Era for film Musicals with the likes of La La Land, The Greatest Showman and A Star is Born.

It’s perhaps most telling that when Bradley Cooper decided to get involved in this film, he didn’t feel the need to switch the roles around, that he would take the role of the veteran who was on his way down, unable to conquer his demons and gave Gaga the role that would let her shine through all the way to the final brilliant shot.

If nothing else, we got the happiest Oscar winner ever.

BlackKklansman

  • Director:  Spike Lee
  • Writer:  Spike Lee  /  Charlie Wachtel  /  David Rabinowitz  /  Kevin Willmott
  • Producer:  Spike Lee, Sean McKittrick, Jason Blum, Raymond Mansfield, Jordan Peele
  • Stars:  John David Washington, Adam Driver, Laura Harier, Topher Grace
  • Studio:
  • Oscar Nominations: Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Driver), Editing, Original Score
  • Oscar Points:  255
  • Length:  135 min
  • Genre:  Drama
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  2018
  • Box Office Gross:  $49.27 mil  (#58  –  2018)
  • Metacritic Rating:  83
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #6  (year)  /  #161  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Director, Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Driver)
  • Nighthawk Points:  115

I am an intellectual who reads Faulkner and Joyce which is viewed with some suspicion by my sports fan friends and by my geek friends.  I have, since a young age, been a devourer of comic books and fantasy novels which the intellectuals view with disdain and the sports fans think is lame.  I am a devoted fan of the three major American team sports with a great breadth of knowledge on their history which is rare in either an intellectual or a fantasy geek.  I have a picture which encapsulates all three (you can see the Faulkner and Star Wars collections and I am wearing numerous Red Sox items).  All of this is a way of saying that I at least have a little knowledge of what it is like to be a member of multiple groups that are viewed with suspicion and dislike by the other groups but good lord I have nothing on Ron Stallworth.

Stallworth was a black man in Colorado (a state that is only 4.1% black, one third of the national average) and he wanted to be a police officer.  In fact, he was the first black police officer in the history of the city of Colorado Springs.  He endured racist taunts while working in the records room (“an important job” Veronica yells out) but desperately wanted to work in the field.  Eventually his superiors realized that if they wanted to spy on the local black activists at the university (and they did), then having a black officer who could go undercover would be extremely handy so Stallworth managed to escape the records room (“it’s not an escape, it’s an important job!”) and get out to do field work.  There he meets Patrice, the beautiful president of the black student union and on the way back to her place she is sexually assaulted by a racist officer.

Stallworth is in a tricky place.  His fellow cops for the most part don’t trust him or don’t like him or just disdain him because he’s black (that he’s smarter and harder working than just about all of them doesn’t matter).  The black activists that he is befriending him are a little wary of him and he is wary of them in his own brain because he feels both right and wrong about what he is doing.  He is trapped between two worlds that fear and loathe the other and he doesn’t feel at ease in either one.  But then he takes his undercover work an extra step and decides, over the phone, to impersonate a white man and get himself a membership in the Klan.

Now, suddenly, the new Spike Lee film, to my mind easily the best film he has ever made, takes an interesting twist.  This is a Drama, a true story (certain details are fictionalized and certain ones had to be because certain details about Stallworth’s operation, such as the identity of his partner, have never been released) about a good young cop who made a bold decision (played very well by John David Washington, showing that his father Denzel passed on a considerable measure of talent), a Comedy about what happens when a black man infiltrates the Klan and suddenly needs a white man to play the physical part and he recruits his Jewish partner (played by Adam Driver in the best performance of what is already one of the most fascinating careers currently in film) and a Suspense film about trying to stop a Klan plot to kill some of the young black social activists in town.

All of this works so well because everything is so perfectly balanced.  Lee never overdoes the Comedy but manages to bring it in at the right moments to keep the film centered (it doesn’t hurt that the most outlandish parts of the film – the very premise – are the most accurate) and allows it to keep the Drama and the awfulness of some of the people involved from overwhelming us.  With a great Oscar nominated Score (from Terence Blanchard), first rate Editing and Cinematography and two solid performances anchoring it, it’s nice to finally see Spike Lee not only make it into the Oscar nominations but into the Nighthawk nominations as well.

Then we come to that ending, that brutal reminder that while the world only spins forward, we are still a very long way from where we should be and where the vast majority of us want to be.  Spike Lee knows that we haven’t solved racism, that racism will never really be solved and he wants us to understand how connected the vicious actions of the past are to the brutal moments of the present.  In many other films, those final scenes would seem exploitative but in this one, they have been set up just right and they just serve to remind us that there is work still to be done.

Wakanda forever!!!

Black Panther

  • Director:  Ryan Coogler
  • Writer:  Ryan Coogler  /  Joe Robert Cole  (based on characters created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby)
  • Producer:  Kevin Feige
  • Stars:  Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman
  • Studio:  Walt Disney Studios
  • Oscar Nominations: Picture, Original Score, Sound Mixing, Production Design, Sound Editing, Costume Design, Original Song (“All the Stars”)
  • Oscar Points:  220
  • Length:  134 min
  • Genre:  Action (Comic Book – MCU)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Release Date:  2018
  • Box Office Gross:  $700.05 mil  (#1  –  2018)
  • Metacritic Rating:  88
  • My Rating:  ****
  • My Rank:  #8  (year)  /  #209  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Adapted Screenplay, Supporting Actor (Jordan), Original Score, Sound, Art Direction, Sound Editing, Costume Design, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  210

Black Panther was already an historic film for a variety of reasons long before the awards season even began.  It was the first film to hold the weekend box office championship for 5 straight weekends in eight years (since Avatar), became the highest domestic grossing comic book film, was the first film to ever sit at the top of the year’s box office charts with a primarily black cast and was, by a long, long way, the highest grossing film ever made by a black director.  It was not the first comic book adaptation with a black title character but it was the first marketed in conjunction with the major comic book companies (Blade had been more stand-alone).  It had the first soundtrack in 16 years to be nominated for Album of the Year at the Grammies.  More importantly than that, it gave hope and inspiration to hundreds of millions of kids around the world that this was a hero they could strive to be.  It was so good and so beloved that it inspired the Academy to make rule changes; just like how in 2009, the Academy, most likely in response to the lack of a nomination for The Dark Knight, expanded the number of Best Picture nominees, the Academy this year took one look and decided that rather than running the risk of having their voters look like fools again, created a (hopefully now discarded) Popular Film award that seemed clearly aimed as a token award for this film.  That they ended up putting the award off and that Disney ignored the Academy anyway and moved forward with a strong campaign for Best Picture (and managed the nomination) doesn’t change the fact that it looked like the Academy was panicking and trying to right a wrong they thought might happen.

Black Panther is not the best comic book film ever made; that designation still goes to The Dark Knight, with its intense vision from Christopher Nolan and the psychotic performance for the ages from Heath Ledger.  But, with a strong storyline, fantastic acting from a great ensemble, one hell of a psychotic villain in its own right and top notch technical work from every department, this is easily one of the best comic book films ever made.  If you want to believe that this is a token award because this was a popular film and because the superhero in question is black, you are welcome to believe that, but you are ignoring the evidence in front of you.

To whom do we owe our greatest allegiance: the people we love or the country that we serve?  When your country does wrong do you stand by the ruler or what is right?  What do we owe to our fellow man when we have the means to make their lives better?  Does being wronged all of your life and placed in a position of weakness give you the right to manifest your anger should you manage to achieve a position of power?  These are not easy questions to answer because they speak of difficult choices.  Yet all of them are deftly addressed in this film, a film that understands difficult choices in the world we live in and that there are no easy answers.  And yet, it doesn’t do this by providing us with a moral treatise but with fully realized characters who are the sum of the experiences, who act, each according to their gifts.

If you somehow didn’t see Black Panther and you are in need of a refresher course, it is the story of T’Challa, a prince in a fictional African kingdom that is graced with the gift of magnificent technology but that disguises itself with a mask to the world.  It is a kingdom steeped in tradition yet more modern than any yet devised. T’Challa does not simply become king by birthright but by acknowledgement of the five different groups of people who inhabit the kingdom and he must actually fight to get the crown.  He is also a superhero, but one who has mostly been hidden from the world until now and though he will become an Avenger, it is this film and the journey that he takes that makes him realize that he can no longer hide himself off from the world.  He will discover that by facing difficult choices, being forced to confront horrible realities about himself, his father and his kingdom and by battling a cousin who only wants to destroy the world that has so long kept him down.

Black Panther works so well, not just because it is exquisitely made, with magnificent, visionary art direction, brilliant music, luminous cinematography and first-rate visual effects, but because the characters are so well realized.  Whether it be a psychopath who has gone over the edge into insanity (Andy Serkis), a man so filled with rage that he doesn’t care who he has to kill (Michael B. Jordan), a woman who loves her country more than anything and will not hesitate to sacrifice anything or anyone to keep it safe (Danai Gurira), a man who knows what honor is and will stand by it when it matters most (Winston Duke), a woman who believes that love and compassion are the answer, even when it means fighting to preserve that (Lupita Nyong’o) or a smart-alecy brilliant young woman who will save the day in so many ways because she knows that science can bring us new answers (Letitia Wright), all of them are well-developed.  The film is an ensemble work, with great direction and a magnificent cast that never once falters.

In short, Black Panther is not just a great comic book movie but a great movie.

Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me

Bohemian Rhapsody

  • Director:  Bryan Singer  /  Dexter Fletcher
  • Writer:  Anthony McCarten  /  Peter Morgan
  • Producer:  Graham King
  • Stars:  Rami Malek, Lucy Boynton
  • Studio:  20th Century-Fox
  • Oscar Nominations: Picture, Actor (Malek), Editing, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing
  • Oscar Points:  250
  • Length:  134 min
  • Genre:  Musical (Biopic)
  • MPAA Rating:  PG-13
  • Release Date:  2017
  • Box Office Gross:  $216.21 mil  (#10  –  2017)
  • Metacritic Rating:  49
  • My Rating:  ***.5
  • My Rank:  #24  (year)  /  #275  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actor (Malek), Sound, Art Direction, Sound Editing, Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  105

Ray and Walk the Line were strong films about very troubled musicians.  Both of them focused a considerable amount of time on the private problems of their subjects as they sought to solve their relationship and drug problems that were rooted in their troubled childhoods and how they overcame them and became successful.  Bohemian Rhapsody isn’t that same kind of film precisely because it isn’t designed to be such a film.  Yes, we get hints of the background of Freddie Mercury, of when he still used his birth name of Farrokh Bulsara, struggled against the notion that he was a “Pakie” (his parents were from India but they were Persian in background) and found his place in a band that would catapult him to world fame.  We would also get the struggles in his life, of loving his best friend Mary even if he wasn’t actually romantically inclined towards her, of finding his own sexuality and of his own struggle with drinking and drugs.  But, much to the dismay of some, those things fall into the background of this film.  They were perhaps looking for a different film.  This isn’t that film precisely because this isn’t a musical biopic.  It’s not the story of a life in music like Ray and Walk the Line.  It’s the story of a band.

Bands foster well with creative tension but if they don’t have actual personal tensions they don’t make for a great story.  As much as they are my favorite bands, no one is going to make a movie about U2 or R.E.M. because who wants to make a movie in which four guys get along well for over 30 years?  Queen had the tension of Mercury’s private life as he struggled to become his own man and become a very different man than his parents wanted him to be, how the band worked with and against each other to form music that has endured no matter whether their own label wanted it to be successful, how they rose to the challenge on a day when the entire world was watching and helped make it an artistic triumph as well as a charitable one.

The film works well precisely because of those elements that were honored by the Academy.  Though he narrowly misses out on my own award, Rami Malek gives one hell of a performance as Freddie Mercury, bringing the man vividly to life while not covering over his own shortcomings that lead to his personal failures and strains within the band.  The editing helps bring together the film in an entertaining way, making the most of the music as it comes in and out, fostered by the magnificent sound mixing and editing.  We watch the band grow as a band, finding their own ways to contribute with one of the greatest songs ever for audience participation (and showing why that was done) and one of the greatest bass lines ever recorded.  In the end, of course, most bands will only go as far as their frontman will carry them and Mercury was one of the best precisely because he had an amazing vocal range and could sing like few others could.

This film doesn’t keep to the facts of the story.  That much becomes true very early on when it shows the band on their first American tour in the mid 70’s supposedly singing “Fat Bottomed Girls”, a single that wouldn’t be recorded until 1978.  Likewise, at a party at Mercury’s house we hear “Super Freak” playing in the background before a scene where John Deacon introduces his famous bass line for “Another One Bites the Dust” which was released a year before “Super Freak”.  And if Freddie hasn’t been playing with the band in a while before Live Aid, then how would they even have “Radio Ga Ga”, their song released just a year before, available to play at the concert?  But this isn’t a documentary.  This is a feature film about a band created with the band’s input, showing the story the way the band wanted it told.  Like has been said before, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.

This really comes to a head at the end of the film when Freddie reveals his AIDS diagnosis to the band, two years before he even knew he had the disease.  But that comes down to the filmmakers and their decision over how they wanted to make the film.  Yes, Freddie would eventually die of AIDS, but Freddie lived his life to the fullest and that’s the point here.  He gave the band his all and the band responded in kind.  So they wanted to end with the triumph of Queen at Live Aid, a climax to the film that is the perfect summation of what we have already watched.  It is so exquisitely recreated that we went home after the movie and immediately put in the actual Live Aid DVD and it was as vivid as I have ever seen a recreation of a real event on film.  It was the perfect place to end the film, to remind us all that the band, like the film, was all about the music, and that everything else was just the background.

It seems appropriate that this film, which was not loved by critics, would be so loved by audiences.  It would win the Golden Globe, earn an Oscar nomination for Picture, win four Oscars (the only other film to win everything it was nominated for except for Picture while earning at least five nominations is Traffic) and would eventually bounce Solo out from the Top 10 films at the domestic box office while making nearly $900 million worldwide, easily becoming the biggest film of its kind ever released.  But the band itself was the same way.  The Rolling Stone Album Guide gives ** to most of their albums, only gives over *** to one album and describes them as “excessive, decadent, theatrical, androgynous, tasteless, mocking, ironic, self-conscious” yet “Bohemian Rhapsody” is the third-biggest single in U.K. history and the band’s Greatest Hits is the biggest selling album in U.K. history.  The critics have never liked the band and the audiences always have.  It only seems appropriate that the movie about the band would be the same.

Two endnotes.  First, it’s interesting that after director Bryan Singer was fired, Dexter Fletcher was brought in to replace him because Fletcher directed Rocketman, the forthcoming biopic of Elton John (which in some ways I am even more excited about than I was about the release of Bohemian Rhapsody).  Rocketman has gone even farther than Rhapsody in not being a real biopic in describing itself as “based on a true fantasy”.  It’s not a bad idea for how to make a film and given the awards success of Rhapsody, I’m a little surprised they’re releasing the film in May instead of the fall.  The second bit is that this film deals with a man who was vying for life even when his own actions ended up bringing him to death from the plague of the 20th Century.  As I write this, the second person to have ever been cured of HIV has just been announced which means that there finally might be hope for this after all this time.  But also, during the film,  I got a phone call which I didn’t answer and when I could feel from the buzzing in my pocket that they had left a voicemail, I hoped it was a response from a job I had interviewed for.  Instead, it was my doctor calling about a result from my ultrasound which I immediately knew meant I had cancer.  So, that will always be with me – enjoying the life in the music and the performance in this film while, sitting in my pocket, was my own dark knowledge about my own life (which thankfully has been dealt with and I am now cancer-free).  But we strive for life.  That’s the point of life.  That’s what Freddie did and that’s why it’s so great to watch that performance at Live-Aid (even if it incorrectly shows U2 coming off the stage before Queen going up even though Dire Straits appeared between the two), so full of life and magic, doing what they did best – getting that crowd involved and loving what they were hearing.

I didn’t like the film but Bale does give the most convincing portrait of evil on film since Ralph FIennes played Voldemort.

Vice

  • Director:  Adam McKay
  • Writer:  Adam McKay
  • Producer:  Adam McKay, Dede Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner, Kevin J. Messick
  • Stars:  Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Sam Rockwell, Steve Carell
  • Studio:
  • Oscar Nominations: Picture, Director, Original Screenplay, Actor (Bale), Supporting Actor (Rockwell), Supporting Actress (Adams), Editing, Makeup
  • Oscar Points:  275
  • Length:  132 min
  • Genre:  Comedy (Historical)
  • MPAA Rating:  R
  • Release Date:  2018
  • Box Office Gross:  $47.83 mil  (#60  –  2018)
  • Metacritic Rating:  61
  • My Rating:  **.5
  • My Rank:  #106  (year)  /  #466  (nominees)
  • Nighthawk Nominations:  Actor (Bale), Supporting Actress (Adams), Makeup
  • Nighthawk Points:  75

Let me be upfront for those who have somehow not been able to grasp my political views.  I think Dick Cheney is a reprehensible, malevolent piece of shit.  I think his reign as the power behind the throne (I remember George Lucas, on Colbert, I think, saying that Bush wasn’t the Emperor, he wasn’t smart enough to be the Emperor, that Cheney was the Emperor and I absolutely agreed) was one of the worst things that has happened to this country.  He ruined our international standing around the world, helped drag us into a war that was irresponsible and based on a total pile of lies and his views on torture prove that not only is he a reprehensible person, but one who refuses to listen or learn.  He is all about brutalism and I can’t fathom how he is still alive when his heart, which keeps attacking him, is clearly dark and small and made of coal.

All of that being said, it would seem like I would be the perfect audience for a film like this, a film with all the subtlety of a Michael Moore documentary, which has a viewpoint established very early on and carries through all the way to the end.  This is a biopic about a man where it maneuvers things to make certain that no matter which side of the aisle you are on you can at least find one thing admirable about this vile man (his strong love for his daughters, especially his younger one) only to even undermine that at the end when he gives tacit permission to his older daughter to attack her younger sister’s homosexuality in order to get herself elected in the kind of backwards state that not only continually elected Dick Cheney but also saw the murder of Matthew Shepard.  And yet, the film turned me completely off.

There are certainly things to like in the film.  The main thing is that the film has an absolutely magnificent cast that shines through at almost every point (the one glaring exception is Tyler Perry who isn’t so much bad as he is just there and, first of all, can’t compare to Jeffrey Wright’s small performance in W that was much better and second, because the rest of the cast is so exemplary in their performances).  Christian Bale, an actor who already has a (deserved) Oscar gives what might be his best performance, digging deep to find his inner Cheney (helped along by some excellent makeup work), finding what drives a man who at first doesn’t really believe in anything and later finds that the one thing he believes is that the man at the top should have all the power he wants to take.  Amy Adams, who has already been Oscar nominated twice playing opposite Bale (the first time they disliked each other, the second time they were partners, this time they are a couple, I don’t know how they can get any closer for their next collaboration unless they play two sides of the same person somehow) is a fantastic Lynne Cheney, the one with a deep core of strength that reminds me of Joan Allen’s performance in Nixon except that Lynne really was like this and Pat always seemed in real life like a milksop.  Sam Rockwell, who won an Oscar last year that he didn’t remotely deserve, finds a goofier version of W than Josh Brolin did but it’s just as good and it really cuts to the core of this stupid frat boy who somehow managed to end up with the presidency (though he most assuredly, at least the first time, did not get elected).  There is also the major cast member who hasn’t been getting his rightful due, Steve Carrell, reminding us that much of the horrible path that Cheney would tread through his later years was forged for him by that piece of shit who was first Cheney’s mentor and then his subservient, Don Rumsfeld.

But the filmmakers didn’t really know how to go about making a real film rather than just a hit job.  They decided on a bizarre narrative device and if you can’t figure out the connection then you’ll jump like most of the theater-goers did in my theater unlike myself since it had become clear just before that scene not only what the connection was but exactly what would happen, so I wasn’t surprised at all by the scene clearly designed to make the audience jump.  That last clause was originally a parenthetical but really it is indicative of how I felt about the entire film.  The film was trying too hard to make me hate Cheney (too late); it was clearly designed to be a satirical hit job which is odd since there is little about Cheney’s life and biography that really lends itself to laughter.  And so we end up with this Comedy that doesn’t seem to really know how to go about what it wants to do.

I don’t really know how to sum up how I felt about the film.  I don’t think that the film works on most levels (except for the acting and the makeup and the score which is really well done), that the editing and the narrative device actually undermine the film as a film.  I am glad that this film came out after The Big Short, a film I admired in spite of numerous reasons I would have to dislike it (see the full review) so that I can know that my dislike of this film and my feeling that it doesn’t succeed as a film is because of what the filmmakers tried to do and not because of who they are.  I will just say this – on the point scale where I rate films, it earns 25 total points for its acting.  No other film less than *** has ever earned so many points (in fact, the next highest is Far From Heaven with 17) and only two films less than ***.5 have done so and they were both also Best Picture nominees that I thought were well-acted but over-rated (Judgment at Nuremberg, Mrs. Miniver).