Archive for April 2021

Oscar Night 2021

April 26, 2021


I have no special inside knowledge on why the Oscars ceremony did what it did how it did. So if there was a point to putting the Best Picture award before the two lead acting awards, I wouldn’t know. Some have said that Chadwick Boseman was expected to win Best Actor posthumously and that the show was leading up to that surefire emotional climax. And then … it didn’t. Best Actor went to Anthony Hopkins, who wasn’t there, even remotely. For me, a weirdo, this represented the final panel in a trilogy of matches between Hopkins and the also-nominated Gary Oldman, after Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Hannibal. Too bad that Hopkins couldn’t have been there for it. Too bad that the show itself couldn’t have been there.

Steven Soderbergh was running the show this time, and his influence was evident at the start, with the camera following Regina King to the stage as funky ?uestlove music played and the credits flashed as in a Soderbergh film. A lot of other choices just seemed weird. The idea, I take it, was to produce a cinematic show, and when groups of nominees were announced, the camera would swoop between them fluidly, as if Scorsese were moving it and it would pause on Jimmy Two-Times as he went to go get the papers, get the papers. Some of it fell into the deep Drawer of Nice Tries, and some will never be attempted again. But oddly, away from the discomfort of it, I admire whatever it was that Soderbergh tried. He did his damnedest with what must have been a logistical clusterfuck even without the complications of live musical performances.

It’s just that whatever has gone wrong with the Oscars precedes COVID-19 and the prohibitive protocols the show needed to observe. I miss the bold, terrible, tasteless Oscars of my younger Oscar-watching days. Those Oscars are long gone; so are the films that fueled them. The show has become timid, too reflexively recoiling from anticipated blows from Film Twitter. They’re going to try to be woke, or at least to look woke, but they’re going to do it in a pallid, half-surly fashion. Soderbergh and his director Glenn Weiss tried to muster some sincere engagement; more than once the camera caught sign-language interpreters working for the benefit of deaf attendees, adding the disabled to the diversity project in a way the voters didn’t — witness the nominated Crip Camp, which lost to what quite a few commentators referred to as “the fuckin’ octopus movie.”

As happens more often than not, Best Picture went to one of the nominees I least wanted to get it (at least it wasn’t Mank). So fine, the crypto-corporatist uplifting meme of a movie goes home with the big prize. I love Frances McDormand, but man, she had two of these things already and I would’ve been happy with a Carey Mulligan win. At least Promising Young Woman got Best Original Screenplay, shutting down Chicago 7, the only one of the Best Picture nominees to go home empty-handed. There were choices I hated and choices I didn’t, but an attempt was made to spread the wealth a little. No one film clocked more than three wins.

The thing about Boseman is sad the more I think about it, though. Yes, his performance was perhaps not his best, but people win all the time for not their best work. Putting him in the running for Best Actor was, one would think, an easy way to reward his fine work during his tragically short career. A great movie-movie ending to the show, hearts swelling up as the sparse audience rises in ovation for someone who won’t hear it. Did they put all their chips on Boseman getting the sympathy vote? And, not to overthink, but could it be that voters resisted or resented being manipulated into voting for someone who can’t benefit from it any more anyway, or saw through the attempted narrative and wanted to short-circuit it?

Whatever the reason, I can’t find any angle to feel good about this. Hopkins was great, he’s always great (maybe Riz Ahmed, also great, could’ve used it more), but what this means in the starkest and most basic sense is that Chadwick Boseman never won an Oscar and never will. That’s done. He’s done. Now, that part is reality, and it’s surprising to find the Academy acknowledging reality. The magic of movies can’t bring Boseman back, nor can the encomia of his peers in the craft. On the other hand, it shows the Academy doesn’t quite have the woke thing down yet. Snazzy as the sets were, the optics were sometimes terrible. Laura Dern at one point was way over to the left on your screen, and Daniel Kaluuya was way to the right, and she started talking to him, and the Black man had to crane his neck awkwardly to listen to the white woman talking to him about him. I promise you that this never crossed either of their minds, and I cherish Kaluuya and Dern. But … not a good look.


April 17, 2021

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Sometimes you just want a brutality expert wrecking house and perforating faceless bad guys, and Nobody gives you that and then some. At ninety-one minutes, the movie embodies “lean and mean,” and it’s not about anything — it’s just an excuse to get our hero into as many ferocious encounters as possible. It’s the kind of pure cinema that traditionally gets little respect except from action-film fans, who have seen everything and just want to see it done well. Is it realistic? Gedoudda here. It’s a cartoon. But as directed by Ilya Naishuller (Hardcore Henry) and written by Derek Kolstad (the John Wick series), it’s made by people who know what they’re doing. When a baseline of competence is in place, there’s solid ground from which to jump, take flight, indulge in excess.

Perhaps best known these days for Breaking Bad and its spin-off Better Call Saul, Bob Odenkirk would seem, at the very least, cast against type here as Hutch Mansell, an apparently meek office drone crunching numbers in his father-in-law’s business. (Indication of the fun to come: dad-in-law is played by badass character actor Michael Ironside.) About half an hour into the movie — by which time we’ve seen Hutch decline to meet a couple of home invaders with a violent response — we find out that Hutch used to do wetwork for “the three-letter agencies.” A tough guy in a tattoo parlor sees a tat on Hutch’s wrist and backs right down; he knows what that means. Soon, a group of goons threaten a young woman on a bus Hutch happens to be on, and we’re off to the races.

The fight choreography and bone-snapping editing give us a clear view of the carnage. Odenkirk trained for over two years to master Hutch’s lethal moves, and it shows. Is it easier to get a performance out of a nonactor but professional fighter (say, Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire) or to hire an actor and train them to fight? In this case, Odenkirk brings a resigned slouch to his pre-violent scenes as the retired hit-man turned family man (he has a wife, played by Connie Nielsen, and two kids). Hutch once thought he wanted the quiet life, but after some years away from the bloodshed he wants back in. He doesn’t really suffer any great tragedy to push him back into the fray. He’s just tired of, as the first song in the movie underlines, being misunderstood.

Hutch runs afoul of a Russian gang, led by casually vicious Aleksei Serebryakov. He could take them on alone, but where’s the fun in that? Hutch enlists the aid of two men whose identities I won’t spoil, and just the sight of them joining in the mayhem is boundlessly entertaining. Nobody made me deeply happy not in spite of but because of its dedication to gritty, grunting, gore-splattered climaxes. I liked the reasoning behind Hutch letting the two thieves go at the beginning: as someone well-acquainted with true evil, Hutch didn’t sniff it on these nitwits. Hutch’s wife and son, it turns out, don’t know him very well; they take him for a boring wimp. His little daughter on some level knows what he is; she feels safe with him.

Some fans are already agitating for sequels, or a crossover set in the John Wick-verse. I say let Hutch (and Odenkirk, who’s 58 and probably doesn’t have many more Nobodys in him physically, though I have no doubt he could still kick my ass) stroll off into the sunset and take pride in a job well done. Not everything has to be a franchise. As it is, this plays like the sort of outstanding but obscure action tape you used to find on the bottom shelf of a mom-n-pop video store, a fierce one-and-done. Its story is complete. Hutch came back once; he doesn’t need to keep coming back. By its very energy and happy ingenuity, Nobody argues pretty persuasively for Hutch’s violent past, at least as the subject of a solar-plexus-punching B movie. It’d be depressing in real life. And the other side of Odenkirk’s phenomenal performance is that Hutch, we sense, knows just how depressing. Odenkirk shows us the contradiction of the samurai, many of whom were also Buddhist. Also there’s a dude who gets chest-bumped with a fucking Claymore.


April 11, 2021


Minari is a modest film about big things — ambition, family, immigration and assimilation. It’s based loosely on writer-director Lee Isaac Chung’s experiences in a South Korean family living in rural America. In 1983, Jacob Yi (Steven Yeun) brings his wife Monica (Han Ye-ri) and two kids, and all their belongings, to what looks like a godforsaken five acres of Arkansas land, with a forlorn trailer sitting atop the dry grass. Monica hates the place on sight; Jacob hopes to raise a farm here, and one day have fifty acres. I’m not sure we understand Jacob’s life choice any more than Monica does, but it’s his dream, so we go with it, hoping for the best.

Jacob sees what others don’t: the soil is actually a rich color that tells him it may yield the crop of his fantasies. He hopes to grow all Korean fruits and vegetables, and sell them to fellow Korean transplants. In brief, Jacob has a foot in each world; he has the gumption of a dust-bowl American but seeks to bring some of his home country into his adopted country. Monica would rather go back to the city, or at least back to California, where Steven was a top chicken sexer. Which is how the Yis keep the lights on in Arkansas until the crops come in. 

Monica decides to bring her own home to this new place — her mother Soon-ja (Youn Yuh-jung), who watches the kids but doesn’t act enough like a grandma for the liking of the youngest child David. (As probably the director’s avatar, David gets a lot of screen time without necessarily seeming like the central character — it’s really an ensemble piece — and he has a sister Anne, who it’s easy to forget exists.) Minari is appealing, though short on moviemaking electricity; it’s quietly pictorial, satisfying — along with fellow Best Picture nominee Nomadland — our desire to see America as a big broad land with endless pockets of beauty.

Jacob and Monica go at each other quite a lot, the eternal clash of the pragmatic wife and the dreamer husband. Even so, the film is good-natured; even a couple of blinkered white kids who encounter David and Anne just blurt out highly inappropriate-even-in-1983 questions (“Why is your face so flat?”) not out of malice but just out of blunt curiosity. David gets a sleepover with his new friend; if Anne does, we don’t see it. Anyway, even the film’s Americans who initially set off our radar turn out okay — like ol’ Paul (Will Patton), who invokes Jesus constantly, speaks in tongues, and hauls a life-size cross around a dirt road as “his church.” Refreshingly, Paul stays a loyal farmhand to Jacob, and doesn’t turn out to be a villain. The Yis don’t encounter much racism that we can see. Minari isn’t about that; it centers on how hard it is for a foreigner to follow the American dream, how remarkable it is when they can find any kind of success. 

We are all, of course, foreigners here if we go back far enough, unless we have indigenous lineage. But Chung doesn’t make the mistake of saying we’re all the same under the skin. These are closely specific characters. Soon-ja, for instance, seems like a whole and authentic person with quirks and preferences. She isn’t ennobled, though; Chung sees her fondly but not sentimentally. Whatever way you might expect her to be drawn — strict, disapproving, old-school, secretly soft-hearted, the usual clichés — Yeun Yuh-jung steers clear of it. Her Soon-ja seems more easygoing than her daughter; she’d be a good grandma to have, cussing and teaching you card games and getting a little too involved in TV wrestling. Yet the performance is subtle, not an example of the life force, or “when I am an old woman I shall wear purple,” or any of that.

Chung avoids the trap of turning his experience into an omnibus of tropes. Toxic as this concept seems now, when Jacob and Monica argue, we can legitimately see both sides. Neither one is judged for their flaws or blind spots. Minari is named after an edible plant that grows wild; Soon-ja, perhaps out of solidarity with Jacob, plants some minari seeds at a nearby stream. Much is made of water in the film, the need for it, the lack of it, and finally an event that demands it. We could put on our professor hats and note the symbolism and subtext, but that doesn’t seem like an organic way to respond to a slice-of-life story whose teller wants to pay respects to his parents and grandma, who weren’t larger than life, just people playing the hand they were dealt — or dealt themselves.

Judas and the Black Messiah

April 4, 2021


Someone wanna explain to me how Shaka King didn’t get an Oscar nomination for directing the Best Picture nominee Judas and the Black Messiah? King did get nods for producing and co-writing the film, but come on. The filmmaking here is fleet-footed, smooth, alive, and contains (courtesy of cinematographer Sean Bobbitt) the most colorful rainy scenes I’ve seen in a movie in years. Six Black directors have been nominated for Best Director since 1991, and of those, two directed Best Picture — but the Director Oscar went to someone else. You can say people get way too serious about the Oscars and also say representation is important. You can respect other directors on the list this year and also say King was robbed.

Judas and the Black Messiah is a perhaps too-neat title for an engrossing real-life thriller about Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), leader of the Chicago chapter of the Black Panthers, and Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a car thief strong-armed by the FBI to infiltrate the Panthers and report his findings. Kaluuya puts some sand in his voice and barks out Hampton’s angry revolutionary rhetoric, while Stanfield keeps his cool despite fed Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) affably breathing down O’Neal’s neck for intel. We’ve seen a lot of undercover-cop films, and I thought Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman might have put the subgenre to bed, but this film has a Shakespearean-tragedy tinge to it. The martyr doesn’t even get to confront his betrayer, nor does the betrayer unburden himself of his guilt until far too late. O’Neal talked to interviewers for Eyes on the Prize 2 about all of it twenty years later. The night the interview aired on PBS, O’Neal died under disputed circumstances thought by some, including the filmmakers here, to be suicide. He was only forty.

Then again, O’Neal was only seventeen when Mitchell offered him a way out of his charges. Hampton was 21 when he died (if he were with us today he would still only be 72). Many of the agitators for peace and equality in the ‘60s were young, but man, these folks were young. Kaluuya and Stanfield are each about a decade older than the men they’re playing, and they look it, but it works for the movie — Hampton and O’Neal seem weighed down, prematurely aged, by their responsibilities. And their responsibilities are all tangled up with the racist world they’ve been in all their lives. Fred Hampton’s rhetoric wasn’t beautiful like Malcolm X’s or darting and jabbing like Muhammad Ali’s — it was more blunt-force, incantatory in its repetitions. Where he truly excelled was in getting opposed factions — Black street gangs, a redneck group — under the umbrella of his Rainbow Coalition. The FBI was having none of that, and they put a harder squeeze on O’Neal to clear a path to Hampton’s assassination.

The movie comes in a little north of two hours but flies by. Shaka King sketches Hampton here and there, just enough to keep us invested in him as a person, not an icon. We get almost no background on either Hampton or O’Neal — they exist for us in the now, they define themselves by what they do or don’t do. The movie obliquely prompts us to think about how circumstances have shaped us: what accounts for the differences in the ways Hampton and O’Neal respond to the world? Stanfield’s O’Neal doesn’t get any big dramatic moments, but we can see it’s killing him inside. He and Hampton scarcely get any downtime for hanging out, becoming friends, but we feel warmth and mutual respect between them anyway. In some ways, though, O’Neal redeems himself even during his imposture. He helps run things when Hampton is in jail, and he pitches in to rebuild the Panthers’ office after the cops firebomb it. “We are what we pretend to be,” wrote Kurt Vonnegut, “so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” That cuts both ways, though, and as O’Neal pretends to be someone helping his community, there he is, helping his community.