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Review: Little Women (no spoilers)

I love Greta Gerwig.

Not romantically. Not in any way outside of knowing her a little, having felt her energy for a few hours over a few years in my life, and also seeing her work.

You may think this gives her an unfair advantage over me as a film critic. And in a few ways, it does. I don’t want to write about the work she has done that I don’t like very much. I am very uncomfortable saying anything negative about the work of the man whose child she bore. It hasn’t stopped me from saying my piece when it is time to do so, but I am as conscious of hurting her feelings as I am that she would either not care at all or forgive me instantly.

I tell you this as a preface because the experience of sitting in the theater, watching Little Women, which also stars someone else I love the way I love Greta, because what I felt for most of the two-hour-and-twenty-minute running time was Greta’s energy. I saw the movie. I admired words and images and performances. But what I felt, overwhelmingly, from stem to stern, was Greta’s love for these women, those little, those older, and those who grow from one to the other. I felt her love for the men, too, who all got to be more than the stereotypes you would expect from the shorter performances and of course, the appreciation of the mushy, angular, sloppy, beautiful charms of Timothée Chalamet (an actor’s name I beg will be shortened to Tim—without an accent—someday).

Watching Gerwig’s camera watching these actors behave in their characters, with intimacy but without seeing effort so much of the time, is like watching family movies on video or Super 8. She reminds you of how children play together, how siblings share intimacies and rivalries, and how deep the love is.

And the adults around the “little women” show their feelings instead of saying them. They never slide into caricature. Streep has the most dangerous role, as a brutal realist (perhaps overly so) in a world that has no safe place for women yet. But with a lot of funny lines and eye-rolling, she never goes past the point where you know that she wants her girls to be safe and as happy as they can be, in her perspective. Chris Cooper seems a set-up for a tough codger, but bring enormous depth and pain and love to a small role. Tracy Letts gets maybe 4 minutes on camera, but still gets business that gets recalled later and ultimately, a lovely little arc.

Laura Dern gives another beautiful performance, though her grounded earth mom here feels so much more like her to me than her bitch-on-heels in Marriage Story for which she will likely be Oscar-nominated. But not easier. Between Marriage and Big Little Lies, I was happy to see the kind woman (another one), I’ve been lucky to spend a little time with. She radiates strength and kindness and wisdom. But in all that, she is given some moments of deep truthfulness as well.

Saoirse Ronan got screwed out of an Oscar last year for her truly stunning, career-topping role in Mary, Queen of Scots, which Focus just couldn’t commit to in a way that made even a nomination a legit possibility. It was a challenging structure for a movie and a bit odd in certain ways, but what a breathtaking performance of a woman who believed deeply and would not take anything less than that to which she was entitled. (Margot Robbie, who will likely be nominated for Bombshell, in supporting, was also stunning in a pretty small role.)

Saoirse’s Jo March doesn’t feel like as hard a carry for this remarkable and still young, actress. But as always, Ronan brings more nuance than you might expect in these roles. When they could easily go off the rails into the obvious, she grounds them in her own humanity. She carries the movie and does it without showing a bead of sweat. But don’t go in expecting a character you have seen from Ronan before. She is not a movie star that way, where you can expect a certain similarity in energy every time. She is strong here. And she often is. But her vulnerability comes out in new ways with every person she plays.

On a side note, it struck me somewhere in the middle of this film, in one of Greta’s pore-exposing close-ups of Saoirse, that she could end up being the first female Bond in ten to fifteen years. She needs the aging. Sorry about the wait. But it is easy to see how Saoirse could eventually bring the world-weariness and physicality and seductive skills to the Bond franchise.

Emily Watson seems to be the second little woman as Meg, but she unselfishly lets the second dominant character come slowly into focus through the film in the form of Florence Pugh, whose character, Amy, is not as clear about what she wants. Both just get better and better through the film. And Beth, played by Eliza Scanlen, has the least to do in the film, but still comes through as a fully formed character.

But the film felt so much about Greta Gerwig. Her first solo feature, Lady Bird, was  her personal story, set in the town where she grew up, shot simply and so effectively.

Little Women has the size that you would expect and desire in a period piece. Hardly epic, but nothing ever feels like a choice made for a lack of a viable alternative or idea. But in the midst of this more demanding canvas, Gerwig still delivers her heart on a cinematic platter. She is not, as the trailer suggests a little, doing the Sofia Coppola idea of taking the period out of the period. Greta never cheats or winks at the camera, though I have to say that I could easily see the film with modern music cues. This would displace Alexandre Desplat’s truly beautiful score, which would be a shame. But the thought did occur to me as I got in my car and heard some Bowie and Aretha and Tina.

I was happy to be in the room with this family. I was happy to be bathed in their familial intimacies. I felt my heart break with their heartbreaks. And I was happy to feel clear in what each of the people represented and not to feel like the characters or the director was shoving the subtext down my throat like they were fattening my liver for pâté.

I have read complaints that people got lost in the screenplay’s time shifting of the story. Wait ‘til they get a load of The Irishman!

But seriously folks, I didn’t find it confusing at all. The first couple leaps take a moment to settle in, but once you accept that this is how the story is being told, I didn’t find it confusing at all. It just requires you to think a little because it all fits together rather perfectly.

I have never connected to Little Women before. I didn’t dislike the Robin Swicord/Gillian Armstrong version of 25 years and that stunning cast ago (amazing how much young Bale resembles TC), but it felt much more of a traditional period movie. It still has a very loyal following. Maybe Geoffrey Simpson’s cinematography was just to beige for me.

Somehow, Greta Gerwig’s clean palette and clarity for each of the characters, even as they bounce about complicated story arcs and changes of perspective, felt like a refreshing cocktail of love and tears and not a delicious bloody Mary that is good in many ways, but gets too heavy to keep drinking after a while.

I felt this movie from beginning to end. And I can’t just blame that on my admiration of Greta or Saoirse or their real world humanity. Like a laugh, you can’t feel emotion that you don’t feel. You can lie. But if you feel it, you feel it. I felt it.

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Box Office First Look

I’m getting back into this habit… but a little uninspired so far.

Frozen 2 opened in the same slot as Frozen, although the first time around, it opened on a single screen. This time, it started wide, as has become the norm. The $41 million Friday is great, although it is dwarfed by the The Hunger Games: Catching Fire opening of $71 million in the same schedule slot in 2013. But the number today (Saturday) will be the really interesting one. It would be no embarrassment for it to be flat or drop some. A significant rise would be exciting for Disney. A significant drop less so.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood isn’t an exciting number, but if you look at recent November opening comps, films like Hacksaw Ridge, Instant Family and A Bad Mom’s Christmas got into the 60s and some the 70s with this kind of launch. This is the rare case where I am interested inCinemascore responses (Tony D left their Cinemascore off his piece today as did Cinemascore’s website), as it will be interesting to see how audiences react to the film being less about Mr. Rogers than they might expect.

Not a great Friday-to-Friday hold for Ford v Ferrari. We’ll see if it accelerates.

21 Bridges falling down. I don’t think the repeated references to Marvel helped this very non-Marvel movie.

There are only three serious Best Picture candidates in theaters right now. Parasite has kept an edge over the more-widely-released Jojo Rabbit. (FvF is above.)

According to what’s left of Box Office Mojo, we’re $758 million behind last year’s total domestic gross as of today. Frozen, Jumanji: Welcome to The Jungle, and Star Wars 8 generated over $860 million domestic through December 31 in their releases. If the sequels do 90% of the previous ones and there isn’t even another dime coming in, this will be the highest-grossing year in the history of the movie business, with over $10.5 billion. If they do 80% as much business by year’s end, we are still only $70m from the record, which Cats, Richard Jewell, and Bombshell will surely deliver between them.

To be honest, I am not 100% trusting the Mojo numbers right now, so I hope this is as accurate as history has suggested the site is. (Oy!)

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Why You Should Be Afraid Of The End Of The Paramount Decree

If you believe the theatrical film business is in serious trouble, the Trump Administration may have created a key opportunity for the paranoid fears of so many to come true. Assistant Attorney General Makan Delrahim announced in a speech to the American Bar Association’s 2019 Antitrust Fall Forum that Trump’s Justice Department was prepared to clear out the Paramount Consent Decree of 1948.

The primary purpose of the Paramount Decree was to get the major studios out of the exhibition business. Besides divesting themselves of ownership, it also blocked predatory distribution practices.

“Block booking” is the practice of one studio blocking out entire theaters. Back then, that meant that meant one distributor could block a single screen from playing anyone else’s movies against the threat of not getting the major releases from that distributor. If you read a wide swathe of media, you have seen Disney accused of doing this in recent years (although that is factually untrue).

“Circuit dealing” is the practice of booking an entire chain, which, similar to block booking, threatens to allow the power of access to be held without restraint by a handful of distributors and, in this era, less than a handful of dominant exhibition chains.

The argument by Justice is that the Paramount Decree is now outdated and somehow, in its imagination, inhibiting innovation is content distribution.

I would argue that this is true, but not in its entirety. There are elements of the Paramount Decree that, in the modern market, are too inhibiting to studios and distributors. But only to a degree.

The innovation that Justice claims it worries about being inhibited is already happening. In fact, this innovation is exactly the area at which Justice’s anti-trust division should be looking. They should be seriously considering addition limitations on the wild wild west that is the streaming business. The entire industry is shifting to a system that gives more control to the funding organizations and less to the people creating the work, both in theatrical and in post-theatrical (streaming, etc).

But this Trump Justice Department is all about removing any restrictions, no matter how important to the industries involved or the health and happiness of the majority of the American public.

The media, which occasionally raises its head toward these issues, has a tendency to scream about how Disney is bending the rules that the Paramount Decree set into law in 1948. And  Disney has been the most aggressive studio regarding exhibition in the recent years, driven by the power of their commercial success.

But there is this small detail… Disney is not a signatory to the Paramount Decree. They had only had six hits by 1948. So they are legally free to do as they wish, not that a studio has had Paramount held seriously over their heads anytime in recent decades. It is the foundation of things work and the biggest battles have been managed privately.

And this bit of reality… the job of the people running all the major studios is to maximize profits, not to make the world of cinema better for everyone. I don’t consider that a sin. It is just a reality.

AMC has been experimenting with upscale screening rooms in their multiplexes, whether Dolby Cinema or IMAX or Prime rooms that feature reclining seats, etcetera. What keeps Disney from pushing out seventeen movies a year—as opposed to their current annual output of between eight and thirteen films —to a chain like AMC and demanding 52-week-a-year control of, say, the Dolby Cinema space in every AMC? Those rooms are pre-booked to near-capacity every weekend, because people love the experience and AMC keeps the newest movies in those rooms.

Disney could be trying to force that issue right now. But the agreement that has been in place since 1948 has won the day so far.

The Trump Administration wants to give the other four major studios the chance to engage in that kind of destructive behavior.

Chain exhibitors developed a system of “accordioning” in multiplexes: on opening weekend, when a big film is coming, that film can end up occupying as much as half of a multiplex’s screens for four days or a week or ten days, etcetera. As there is less demand for tickets, the theater can bring the accordion back in, as needed to maximize the venue’s ticket selling opportunity. Of course, distributors with expected blockbusters have made this a part of their negotiation with chains. Broadly, it works.

Removing the Paramount Decree opens the door for abuses of this system. Whether it’s a Star Wars movie or Jurassic World or Spider-Man or Transformers or Batman, without the Decree, a distributor could demand longer runs, controlling more screens (and thus, a wider range of play times), for longer periods of time.

Who suffers? The exhibitor has more distributor-controlled screens beyond the point where it makes economic sense. Other distributors have less opportunity to either show their film more broadly in a given multiplex, or to be in any screens at all. The movie consumer has less choice when they want to go to their local venue.

“To be clear, terminating the Paramount decrees does not mean that the practices addressed in them are now considered per se lawful under the antitrust laws,” Delrahim counters. “They are not insulated from antitrust scrutiny. Rather, consistent with modern antitrust law, the Division will review the vertical practices initially prohibited by the Paramount decrees using the rule of reason. If credible evidence shows a practice harms consumer welfare, antitrust enforcers remain ready to act.”

But anyone in the film business knows that if you are suing, you are losing. Is any chain or any individual theater that is not under immediate threat of being closed ever going to sue one of the five major distributors over a practice that harms consumer welfare? Of course not. It would be the end of the relationship with that distributor, while the distributor that can best take advantage are the most powerful.

Delrahim also offers, “Changes over the course of more than half a century also have made it unlikely that the remaining defendants can reinstate their cartel.”

This is perhaps the most damning statement in his speech. Changes in the course of the last 70 years have put the studios in a better position to reinstate their cartel more than ever. Aside from Paramount, the other four surviving major theatrical distributors are owned by multinational conglomerates that do not rely on their theatrical business as their primary revenue source. Even Disney’s leading theatrical is dwarfed by other Disney divisions such as ABC, cable operations and theme parks.

Meanwhile, the exhibition business, which splintered in many directions after the Paramount Decree has consolidated dramatically. America has four chains that own almost half the total screens in the country. AMC (8,218 screens), Cinemark (4,566), Regal (7,308), and Marcus (1,098).

There are eight chains of between 300 and 501 screens, ten between 200 and 299 screens, twenty between 100 and 199, twenty-four between 50 and 99, and twenty-nine between 2 and 49.

Twelve exhibitors in total ,with more than 300 screens each, control the vast majority of America’s movie theater screens, including three that are massively dominant.

No anti-trust protections = easy pickings.

The idea that theaters will be dominated exclusively by the mega-movies that lead the worldwide box office has not proven to be true in the marketplace. But killing off, rather than adjusting, the Paramount Decree, is a clear step towards that unpleasant idea.

The five remaining theatrical majors already have enormous power, simply because they dominate content distribution with bigger budgets and higher marketing spends. By giving them more power, the U.S. Justice Department will take protections away that encourage innovation in this unique market and the inclusion of an already struggling independent film market.

In time, this opens the door to a severe narrowing of theatrical cinema as we know it.

“As Henry Ford once famously remarked, ‘if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.’” Delrahim writes. “In this case, antitrust enforcers can see the cars; it thus makes little sense to enforce the law as if we rode horses.”

But Delrahim has it impossibly wrong. The “cars” are not being inhibited by the Paramount Decree. In fact, the Decree has nothing at all to do with the “cars.” Over a billion movie theater tickets were sold to consumers in America last year. Theatrical is not obsolete. And while there are some tweaks to the Paramount Decree that could ease the space for distributor studios a bit, like racism, the need for protections for the exhibition environment is not over because some guy at Trump’s Justice Department decides so.

The theatrical business for movies is robust and strong and there is no reason for it to go anywhere other than up. But even a robust business can be killed, like a moron Trump child shooting a rhino that has been boxed in to make it easy for morons in need of an ego boost.

Be afraid.

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Review: Frozen 2 (spoiler-free)

Frozen is a mess.

Oh, wait, you are trying to read a Frozen 2 review.

But I feel compelled to go back to the massively successful, beloved original.

What made Frozen work? Because what was cobbled together was, as noted before, a mess.

(spoilers for Frozen, not Frozen 2)
The film starts with little Anna having her brain washed by the Grand Pabbie so she grows up isolated from her sister, being lied to by her parents, and locked away from the world. Is that a good message? Mom and Dad die, inevitably for a Disney movie. So the isolated, unprepared sister with dangerous powers that have never been addressed becomes Queen, which frees her somehow-sane little sister as a result. So Elsa, now Queen, suddenly is freed too, rebelling against her fear and isolation in a way that she should have 15 years earlier, with her loving family to help guide her through the stumbles. Her triumph is building an ice castle, abandoning her home and responsibilities. But Anna is determined to get her sister back and save Arendelle, which she has sentenced to a cold death without realizing it. And then she almost kills her sister by mistake… again. Then she creates a monster to overpower her sister and friends. Don’t even get me started on the evil prince and Anna turning into an Anna-cicle. Or the level of violence in the 2nd half of the film.

This is a crazy stitched-together Frankenstein of a movie. So many weird elements shoved together that really don’t match.

So why does it work so well?

It’s Anna’s story and the stakes for her are enormous. She was hurt, which leads to her losing her sister and a normal life and then, her parents. Snowman is a plea for familial love. First Time in Forever is a scream of the joy of freedom. Love is an Open Door is the accelerated first love story.

Then, of course, Elsa lets it go, delivering what may be the greatest musical song ever that makes no sense in the context of the film. Her letting it go is deadly dangerous to everyone and everything she loves. “Find a Handle” would not be as good a song.

I often remember explaining to a young friend, many years ago, that if you listen to Motown songs, they are often not as fun. As you’re rocking out to “Love Child,” you don’t really want to think about the abandoned woman and her child, “born in poverty.” A magnificent song. But people don’t think about the details. Same with “Let It Go.”

Frozen’s writing often sparkles, the animation is great, but most of all, those songs. Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez delivered “Do You Want to Build a Snowman,” “For The First Time in Forever,” “Love is an Open Door,” “Let It Go,” “In Summer,” “Fixer Upper,” and “Reindeers Are Better Than People.” SEVEN great brand-new Broadway showtunes. That is the stuff of Broadway legend. Yes, West Side Story has more. But it’s the same number of classic songs in Gypsy, for example.

Thing is, in another oddity, the sensational musical is loaded almost completely into the first half of the film, culminating with the anthem, “Let It Go.”

It’s a beautifully made film. Absolutely. But it is one of the best musical song scores ever. And Disney has had some great ones.

But here is my point… Frozen 2, like all sequels, wants to be fresh, but to reflect the past hit. And in that, there is more danger than a teenager with ice powers.

So what do you do when there isn’t a stable structure to recreate and you can’t just let it go and take these characters and really change things up?

In a weird way, since the original started with the women’s childhoods, they made Frozen 2 into a prequel or origins story, even as it moves forward.

But the problem… the stakes are external, not internal. Arendelle needs to be saved… again. Elsa has to learn about her magic… again. Anna is adorable… again.

And the songs are… good. It’s like writing a sequel to Grease. Or writing a sequel to any great-song musical. Good. Luck. Anderson-Lopez and Lopez are easily amongst the greats of Broadway songwriting in this era. I wish half of the songwriters – even the successful ones – who have reflected their style were half as good as them. But they didn’t really have anything to write about this time.

The movie, like the songs, is… okay.

I like the Northuldra, a new group of characters in the film.

At times, Frozen 2 feels like a made-for-streaming-DVD sequel. Sometimes, it feels bigger than that.

But I was hungry for more the whole way through.

It needed new stakes. It needed something like Elsa being the reckless one and Anna being the settled, obsessed one. What if we had started with Anna and Kristoff were long-married and had 2 daughters and she was overprotective? What if Elsa had her first love and that is what got everyone in trouble? SOMETHING! At least something other than continuing adventures.

Or to quote Sondheim…

“You can pull all the stops out
Till they call the cops out;
Grind your behind till you’re banned.
But you gotta get a gimmick
If you wanna get a hand.

You can sacrifice your saccro
Working in the back row.
Bump in a dump till you’re dead.
Kid, you gotta have a gimmick
If you wanna get ahead.”

A sequel is almost always a lowering of the stakes. It is a very hard hump to get over unless you had a two-parter (like The Godfather, from the novel) or a trilogy laid out going in.

And trying to rebuild a narrative energy from a film that was put together, brilliantly, with duct tape and music, is almost impossible. You have to find another way in and all of the opportunity flows from that.

Or you get a nice movie that just doesn’t stick the way the original did.

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I Should Be Doing Box Office

I will be writing about box office on the regular again soon.

But I am put off by two events. First, the passing of our own Len Klady, who had his quirks, but whose numbers I worked with for a very long time, weekend in, weekend out. Second, the deconstruction of Box Office Mojo, which had become the best tool for box office analysis online.

So I am way out of rhythm.

In any case, the $3.1 million number, which likely means a number under $10 million for the opening of the new Charlie’s Angels is shocking. Just shocking.

Not because of the movie, but because the number is inexcusable. Shall I compare it to other openings this year? Can’t. Box Office Mojo has removed that opportunity.

The recent comps are Stuber, Ugly Dolls and The House. All originals.

For Sony to go out with this movie and miss so completely is… shocking. The film is better than this, if still imperfect. But quality is not the standard for opening a movie! It is, more than ever, a matter of targeting specific core audiences and serving what they might want. You have to convince them first – unless you have a four-quadrant film, which I think Elizabeth Banks was trying for, you need to nail down your base first. And Sony failed to do that with anything less than a $15 million opening for this. (And even then.)

Many reviews I read referenced Hustlers as good feminist fun, while this was somehow lacking. Not sure how to process that. But going out with a female star who is not a consistent movie opener and two actresses who have no name recognition might have been the first mistake. The ads that had both Patrick Stewart as what seemed like Bosley and then Elizabeth Banks as Bosley may have been too clever about not explaining by half (as wanting to keep the third act secret). Naomi Scott playing incompetent in ads may have turned off some women and girls. Silent ass-kicking with Ella Balinska in ads didn’t warm things up, either.

I thought that Banks found a tone that was pretty good within the movie, though Balinska is acting-deficient and this should have been played for comedy more aggressively. The girl-power theme was leaned on too hard. And if the MacGuffin of the film is too complicated to explain here in a couple of sentences, explaining it in ads was impossible.

And why would you change one of the most famous TV-movie logos in history?

In any case, Angels will land slightly better than Miss Bala, the studio’s weakest wide release of 2019 to date. An embarrassment.

On the other side of the hill, Warner Bros. sends The Good Liar into the box office toilet a week after misfiring on Doctor Sleep, which had the same marketing mismanagement as Charlie’s Angels: too heavy a lean on old IP that needed a fresh, aggressive sell for movies that were not what one might expect. I have bad news for my friends in Burbank… Selling Joker is not a game changer. People forget the box office force that Batman and associated characters have always had. (And no, I don’t include Harley Quinn, so they better be marketing that movie like no one knows who she is and not like Charlie’s Angels.

The Good Liar is a solid change-of-pace title. So what do they do? They date it against Ford v Ferrari in what was the Green Book slot last year. But even then, Green Book did a weekend (this weekend) on 25 screens before going to 1,063 for four weekends, 1,215 for one more, and then dropped screens until they got Oscar nominations and went to over 2,000 screens. The Good Liar is not WB’s primary Oscar play, but if you want to throw it into the ring, at least wait until the spring, where the competition for adult eyes is not as hysterical.

I really liked Last Christmas. A piece of pulp that did what it was meant to do. But I was definitely wrong about it growing. Unless there is a miracle over Thanksgiving, it will be gone soon. The word-of-mouth about the close of the film is keeping it from getting the love it might. The one thing that didn’t make sense to me was that ending—aside from the fact that it was not as expected—pisses people off, especially those who claim most loudly they want to see new ideas. I don’t know the story. But something odd must have happened.

And Parasite stays out ahead of Jojo Rabbit in the limited release Oscar race.

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Review: The Good Liar

The Good Liar is a specific kind of movie. It’s the kind of movie for which I have great fondness. Old-fashioned in almost every way… from its distinct design as a two-hander with its two great stars, to its costumes to its sense of London, to the kind of whodunit that it is, which is to say, the kind they used to make in England in black=and-white. Graham Greene, Carol Reed, and little-known names as Arthur Crabtree, who was a cinematographer-turned-director in the 1930s and 1940s. Obviously, the extreme example of success in the genre is Hitchcock.

It was with great pleasure that I sat down to see The Good Liar. Two actors I think the world of, and have watched for over 40 years. A director whose work I consistently admire. And an old-fashioned tale of crosses and double-crosses, as advertised.

And the film delivers. I had great fun, from start to finish, trying to anticipate what was about to happen next and then being taken places that were unexpected. Are a few of the functional devices a little clanky? Absolutely. But I wasn’t judging the movie on that basis. For me, it was more like watching a Mission: Impossible film or episode. I didn’t have to believe that a guy in a rubber mask with a chip to adjust his voice passed without question for another person. I enjoyed the gag.

This is not to say that you need to turn off your brain for The Good Lie. You don’t. You shouldn’t. You just have to watch it in the context in which it operates. And though film experts don’t like to admit it, many of the movies we most love from the historic past have a tone and style that is not like today’s… and we love the movies more for that reason.

Bill Condon is interested in interpreting the past, not just in period, but the past in cinema. Whether it is Gods and Monsters or Chicago (as screenwriter) or Dreamgirls or Beauty and The Beast or or Kinsey or “Side Show,” which he directed on Broadway a couple years ago, all that makes sepia magic seems to be a key to what intrigues him about the world. If he has a signature as a director, it is that.

The third act turn, which comes after a series of other turns, some meant to trick the audience and some just to inform, takes the film from the expected back-and-forth to somewhere else altogether. And I loved that, as the obvious answers are thrown completely out the window. Then your mind starts working backwards.

It’s not Strangers on a Train or North by Northwest. But it’s not meant to be. It’s ambitions are more modest. More old-fashioned. For me, it was an absolutely delightful way to spend an afternoon in the cinema.

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Can’t We All Just Not Agree?

It’s not a new phenomenon, but the last few years of self-righteous (and  simply righteous) indignation over everything have brought a new kind of film criticism to the table.

In some ways, it is as old as the hills. Many critics take an approach to film that looks down the nose at the audience and the films they love. Always have. Always will. The best ones do not.

But now we also have a group that postures itself as aggrieved by popular films they do not like and whine endlessly about how culture as we know it is under attack by these barbarians who, in disagreeing with their taste, allegedly want to narrow the cultural road to the broad tastes of the broadest group possible to the exclusion of all others (aka their tastes, aka good taste).

So, if you like the films that upset their sense of control, you are not only exposing your limited palate, you are pissing on progressivism, on equality, on the quality of the life that your children and grandchildren will live.

In twenty-five years or so of watching movies for a living, I can think of, maybe, a half dozen films the existence of which I really regretted. Probably not that many. God knows there are scores of horrible movies every single year. Same as it ever was.

But it is not my job to keep producers and funders from making the movies they think will help them make a living. I am not the arbiter of the choice of what gets produced. And I know, because I am all about the history of both art and commerce in this industry, that having such an arbiter is a horrible idea.

Why? In part, because (almost) everyone has a side of their taste spectrum in film and television that is silly or seeking excitement or “lowbrow.” So sorry, if you love Jacques Tati and/or Laurel & Hardy and/or Jerry Lewis, you don’t really get to decide that Adam Sandler must be banished to the shitpile of history.

Now… if you hate Adam Sandler’s work, GREAT! I don’t care. No one should care. Your taste is your taste and as far as I am concerned, that is inviolate.

However… if I enjoy an Adam Sandler movie – or as some do, all Adam Sandler movies – you may think me an idiot. And I am okay with that too. But what I am not okay with is turning that into an accusation that I am damaging the future of film as an art form or cultural in general or that my taste indicates that I hold others in some form of contempt or disinterest.

On a finer point, you are not a racist or hater or an idiot of some kind if you like or love La La Land. You also are likely capable of appreciating a great, intimate film like Moonlight. These things are not mutually exclusive. Just are not.

But there is a significant group of otherwise very decent and thoughtful and smart individuals who cover the film industry who are not only willing to suggest these kinds of ideas – backhandedly if not directly – are not only true, but that embracing this judgement of others is important and honorable, somehow protecting the films that they feel deserve more consideration by more people and that other films are in their way.

What I think is that there is every reason to celebrate and promote and sing the praises of the films with smaller audiences to every person who will listen. And that as film journalists, we have a responsibility to make the spaces we write in available to these films in much the same way we do higher grossing films.

In other words, if your outlet does a story a week about the success of La La Land and does no stories about Moonlight, you not only have a bad editor, you are perpetuating racism and gender bias in this industry. I think that this is a fair thing to argue.

But if La La Land is killing it at the box office and you do twice as many stories about that film as you do about Moonlight and other awards season films that are not getting as much attention from your audience, you are not a racist, you are working in a business. It may not make every reader happy, but there are real pressures in the real world. Sorry.

Of course, there are arguments to be made in and around and next store to what I just laid out. Exceptions on details always exist. Not my point.

But this habit of demonizing the perceived frontrunner for not being the film in the awards field that is politically proper is a horror show as far as I am concerned. And I am not talking about how anyone chooses to vote. That is a private decision. And I am not talking about major controversies, either in content or in the people involved with making a film (onscreen or off).

I am talking about a lot of media trying to shame people for liking or loving Green Book. Or Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Or this season, Jojo Rabbit.

In the case of Jojo Rabbit, it started with the first North American showings of the film at Toronto. A group of critics – a distinct minority, but including some of the best – decided that the movie was an offense of various degrees because it was both too Nazi and not Nazi enough.

Some, like Owen Gleiberman, have taken a deeply offensive position that the movie is some kind of trick of hipsterism… as in, if you like it, you must see yourself as holier than he.

And maybe there is some idiot out there who actually feels that way.

Quoting Owen: “The key question Jojo Rabbit is asking its audience isn’t, ‘Are you willing to laugh at hate?’

The key question is, ‘Are you cool enough to get it?’”

Neither question is relevant to what this movie is. To call the movie “hipper than thou” is not just a self-pitying whine, it suggests insight into the filmmakers’ choices. But as you read Owen’s piece and see the film, there is no doubt that Owen has no idea what the filmmaker is doing. Owen is a smart critic. But this one eluded him. Right up there with Roger Ebert entirely missing the point of Fight Club.

(Back then, I thought it was important to convince Roger. I have since learned to not lean into other people’s personal taste.)

The predecessor of Jojo Rabbit is clearly not Life Is Beautiful or The Great Dictator or The Producers or Hogan’s Heroes or any of the previous films that include humor in accessing Nazi Germany. It is not about a parent trying to distract a child who is living in a death camp or a satire of Hitler or a satire about shocking audiences or an office sitcom set in a prisoner of war camp. It is coming from a completely different place.

The closest progenitor I can think of is the work of Dennis Potter, who often mixed genres in unexpected ways to mine the emotion that a more traditional approach couldn’t manage, because of the simple truth was too grim or too distracting for audiences to manage emotionally. As a high schooler at the time of the release of the American adaptation Potter’s Pennies From Heaven, I had to deal with the anger of my contemporaries (including my then-girlfriend) when happy musical numbers was juxtaposed with such a painful story.

I had the good fortune about 15 years ago to see Potter’s 1979 BBC film, Blue Remembered Hills on a big screen at LACMA. In the film, a group of 7-year-old children are played by adults (including Helen Mirren). Of it, Potter said, “When we dream of childhood, we take our present selves with us. It is not the adult world writ small; childhood is the adult world writ large.”

Jojo Rabbit is seen through the eyes of a 10-year-old boy. It is the conceptual opposite of another film I admire greatly this year, The Painted Bird, which also follows a child of a similar age. The Painted Bird is an agonizing, painful journey of survival, pain following pain following relief leading to more pain. It is beautiful. It is high art. And it hurts for all 3 hours. But it is a dramatized history (even if there are questions about the author’s personal history). That is its ambition. And at that it succeeds.

Taika Waititi took another course. His boy is not in the kind of trouble that the boy in The Painted Bird is in. He is protected by his mother in their house in Berlin. She has decided that he will be safer without knowing the truth. And in that vein, she almost encourages him to participate in the film’s version of Hitler Youth. And Jojo does what most 10-year-olds tend to do. He falls deeply in love with what he is interested in being part of… his way of being one of the cool kids… his way of feeling he belongs.

You’ve heard the old saw, you have to laugh or you’ll cry. That is the course of Waititi. He finds the humor in human irrationality. Character after character walks the fine line between truth and humor. I’m sorry, Owen and the rest of you… People don’t laugh because they feel so cool because they get the joke. People laugh because they connect to the humanity.

And in the third act of this film, as the boy matures, the drama grows over the humor. I don’t want to include spoilers, but if you don’t find tears in your eyes multiple times in the third act of this film, you have either checked out 45 minutes earlier or you are simply unwilling to let a film bring painful human emotion to you. And when you accuse the film of being manipulative at that point, I dare say that you are rubber/gluing, which is to say that you are so busy trying not to be manipulated that you forget to feel and you miss the experience of this film.

I saw Jojo a third time this weekend and I was preparing to write a proper review to publish in the space where this is. I will write it. But I don’t really want to attach my feelings about this work to the cynical smackdowns of the sort that, of course, showed up online as I was about to sit down to write the review.

Owen closes with, “the only real answer Jojo Rabbit offers to hateful extremism is the extreme love the movie has for itself.”

Did the movie leave his hotel room before he woke up and not leave a number?

If it is such a personal affront, somewhere deep inside, it got to you. Dig deeper.

If Owen wants to know why he is “not clued-in enough to join that club” of self-satisfied Jojo fans, it’s not because of the movie… it’s because he made a decision about the movie early on, shut the rest out, and spent the last few months rationalizing his disconnection.

Wait! Am I making presumptions about his intentions and actions? Yes. His pieces on this film have taught me that this is what good critics do.

But he’s wrong. Good critics – which Owen usually is – look at the film for what it is, not the context they bring into the theater.

And while he drags A.O. Scott into it, he suggests that Scott is reviewing Jojo Rabbit, but the piece is almost all about earlier films. But Scott does misread when he writes, “The triumph of The Producers is to suppose a world where the anxious hopes of Chaplin and Lubitsch have come true — where fascism has been expunged, its spell permanently broken by humanism and humor. That’s the world of Hogan’s Heroes, too, and also of Jojo Rabbit.”

But it is not the world of Jojo Rabbit. There are prices paid in Jojo that are not even on the table in these other films. The gestapo may be mocked, but there is a real threat coming from them… or from the out-sized characterization of Rebel Wilson, who see the world in an insanely simplistic way. And the Sam Rockwell character brings layers of emotional turbulence, as well as the humor. You don’t leave this film feeling bad… but all considered, it is hardly a happy ending, unlike all the other examples.

I don’t really care one way or the other if Owen or anyone else loves or hates this film. But I do care about him or anyone telling me that I am wrong for feeling very real emotion both in the drama and the comedy of Jojo Rabbit. The film doesn’t make me feel good about myself for getting it. It does make me consider how the world keeps getting into horrible inhumanities while feeling that it is doing the right thing… including 38% of America today and a conman jackass in the White House. It does speak to the idea that humans can hold two opposing emotions or ideas at the same time and switch back and forth between them. It does use a rarely used tool to get me where Waititi wants, I think, to take me.

Not liking Jojo Rabbit does not make you an asshole or smug or arrogant or above me. Telling me that I am a smug, arrogant asshole for loving it does. So do us all a favor and stop it. Make your argument. Don’t tell everyone else that they have to sync with you or they are bad people.

Arguments over ideas and facts and the willingness to really consider them are critical to growing as people. Silencing and shunning those with whom we honorably disagree is never a good idea. Not everyone is willing. But those who are deserve respect. And those who do not – like absolutist adult Nazis or Trump supporters who see his illegalities as him being victimized allowing no room for factual dissent – have to be tolerated, if not engaged.

You know where you might learn that lesson? Watching Jojo Rabbit.

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Review: Marriage Story (spoilers only in the broadest sense)

There are many wonderful things in Marriage Story. The acting is excellent. It is the best photographed film in Noah Baumbach directorial filmography. There are great lines. Baumbach shows a mastery of verbal runs, both in dialogue and monologue.

But after seeing it twice and pushing away some of its problems – which may be my problems that are unfair to put on the filmmaker’s work – I still feel like there is a giant hole in the middle of this work.

Why is this couple getting divorced?

I can accept that in this era of more than fifty-percent of marriages ending in divorce that couples often just shrug their shoulders when they aren’t feeling “it” anymore and move on. But that is not what Baumbach seems to think of his characters. They are very, very specific and deliberate people. This is one of the big strengths of the film.

So when they choose to divorce without really working on their marriage, in spite of having an eight(?)-year-old child, I am not okay with that. As much as I like both of these characters, I am not a fan of people who decide to explore their personal needs at the cost of an elementary school child unless they have gone very, very far to try to make it work.

And the very start of this film tells us about all the reasons to try to make it work… and then one half of the couple simply decides she doesn’t feel like making the effort. And I can understand having had enough of a relationship and wanting to escape. I am pretty sure that everyone who has ever been married longer than 5 years knows the feeling. And I suppose if you don’t have a kid, no harm, no foul. But if you do…

I’m not judging everyone who divorces with children. Quite the opposite, really. Because everyone I know who has gotten a divorce after having a kid has, in real life, really fought to try to make it work and fought and fought and just had to end it eventually. Divorce is the right choice for a lot of people.

But if this couple did the work, it isn’t in this movie.

I spent time after this film wondering whether the intention Baumbach brought to this was to make a no-fault divorce movie and that these characters were stand-ins for anyone experiencing this moment. But I couldn’t convince myself. The characters are too clear and specific.

The first time I saw the film, I felt that Baumbach had really leaned the script in his own male direction. I felt that way less the second time. But still, in the end, she is a bit shallow and selfish and finds it much easier to move on from this marriage. She is the one who really made the decision and he never gets a conversation, much less a vote.

He has his own flaws. It’s not completely one-sided. But when it comes to the summing up, she sings the little ditty as one of three girls who are hooking up with the same guy and he gets to sing the epic ballad of a man who has finally come to the truth in his life that he wants more than having fun, being free, and avoiding responsibility. So you tell me.

Baumbach is a delightful writer. There is a verbal showdown at one point in the film and it is a brilliant piece of writing and performance… lyrical and musical. Alan Alda’s gentle divorce lawyer and Laura Dern’s brutal one are undeniable. Julie Hagerty is a joy to behold. Baumbach gets the awkwardness of the son when stuck between the parents pretty perfect.

But again, I feel like I came to the movie with too many ideas. There is a trick-or-treating sequence that is just not reality. Not in a world with iPhones. Not in an empty neighborhood three blocks up the hill from Santa Monica Boulevard’s Halloween mania. It’s almost signature Baumbach that he didn’t take the effort of a father desperate to excite his kid and let him make the mistake of taking an under-10 into Boy’s Town on Halloween and have to explain some awkward things while embracing the joy of the scene. Or even making the active choice to go up the hill (to a dead neighborhood) instead of down to the wildness.

I’m not looking for a hero and a villain. Maybe it’s my problem with much of Baumbach’s work… it screams of daring, but is ultimately extremely careful. It’s probably why Margot At The Wedding is my favorite directorial work of his… because it doesn’t cut away from the brutality when the brutality comes.

Marriage Story is a series of moments from a divorce (after a lovely four minutes that are all the scenes from a happy marriage we are going to get) that all ring true, but not so much when connected. He does asshole divorce lawyers great. He does the ambivalence of separating great. He does trying to focus on two different things of near-equal importance at the same time great.

And then he will take a flight of fancy to the point that it must be metaphor because no regular person is that silly and the movie resets for me. A bunch of times. It was quite frustrating.

I don’t dislike Marriage Story. There are too many good things in it for that. There are moments of greatness. But Baumbach is one of those filmmakers who tantalizes with the possibility of true greatness. And he has made a very accessible movie, but perhaps at the cost of that greatness. I keep seeing his films. I keep seeing the signs. I keep hoping with all of my heart.

For those who know Sondheim’s “Company,” this couple is all “Barcelona.” But the movie doesn’t seem to want to admit it. Doo doo doo doo doot doo… it could drive a critic crazy… it could drive a critic mad.

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BYOB Fall Back, Film Forward

 

[Via BBC.]

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AppleTV+ Lands…

So, tomorrow is arrival day for AppleTV+. And Apple is doing everything right… except for delivering on content.

“The Morning Show” has been the stalking horse, with TV superstar Jennifer Aniston, Oscar-winning movie star Reese Witherspoon, and the well-loved crossover star, Steve Carell.

And they should have thrown away the first two episodes and started from scratch.

I don’t know about the drama of production and I don’t really care. Nor will any non-industry viewer. What people care about is the show. And what they get is, mostly, confused. Some shows take time to evolve. This has become the norm on PayTV, Netflix included. “Watch three or four and then it gets really good.”

The problem with “The Morning Show” is that the show starts by folding in on itself. The Carell character, as you have no doubt heard or seen if you are reading this, is accused of sexual malfeasance right away. And unless the first season is about him coming back, there is nowhere to go with this. And that does not seem to be where the show is going, as the next big story beat is the arrival of Reese Witherspoon’s character, who will replace Carell on the morning show. Her angle is the fish out of water. Meanwhile, the center is Aniston’s veteran morning star… who is seen as being on the way out as well.

The show is, allegedly, based on and reflective of Brian Stelter’s book about the real morning shows, but very little seems remotely realistic. It’s as though they took real-life characters and incidents and put them in a blender.

For instance, Mark Duplass’ morning show producer seems to be a riff on the guy from Live with Regis and Kelly (or whatever it is now… and the guy’s name is Gelman), who is a throw rug for his stars and network. But is the producer of the top-rated morning show really that weak?

Episode 3 shows more promise. There is the first truly great sequence of the series, with Marty Short guesting as a pal of Carell’s character. But even after their intense conversation about #MeToo, it leaves me wondering where this is going, and not in the good way.

Episode 3 also lays down track for the romantic relationship that seems likely to come near the end of season one. And Aniston’s character has taken, since episode two, a real take charge attitude, which seems excessive and unlikely to stick as her new partner on air (Witherspoon) will surely overcome complete inexperience to be the more popular of the duo. And Carell seems getting set to take a second fall before the season ends.

But this three-episode launch is a mess and leans heavily on the fact that we so like these three actors. If the show gets better, they should be starting with more than three.

“Dickinson” is either the best-timed or the worst=timed gimmick series ever. It’s like someone saw that Greta Gerwig was doing Little Women and rushed this into production to take advantage. It’s iconoclastic Emily Dickinson, acting like a bright young woman in this era stuck in the past. There’s rap music. There’s open cursing. There’s a gay Asian kid. There’s opium. There’s cunnilingus!

“She’s insane!” “Of course she’s insane… she’s Emily Dickinson!”

Ya.

Is it a comedy? Is it a romance? Is it drama? Who knows? It’s a mélange of wacky 1850s fun! By Episode 5, I expected them to have the kids start a band, adopt a talking cat, and use brief clips of their groovy music as a bumper between every scene.

Maybe “the kids’ will love this show. Anything is possible. They love “Riverdale.” The cast is young and sexy and deliver quality TV acting. Great costumes. Oy.

“Servant” is the most interesting of the eight launch shows. M. Night Shyamalan to the core, it is a high-concept thriller with an intriguing central idea. Problem is, it feels like it should have been over after an hour, maybe two.

I greedily watched the four episodes that were available, anxious to get to the answers that would come (many don’t arrive in those four episodes). The first episode sets things up, using the full 35 minutes to do so. The second episode deepens the side characters and adds more questions to the leads. Episode three, more more more. And episode four starts a turn that seems likely to dominate the next few episodes.

You know the old saw that works expand to justify the time one has to do it? This feels like that. A movie that feels free to go really, really slow and to linger on everything, when it is not necessary dramatically. I am both a fan of the show and irritated by the show for that reason. Acting is strong. Lauren Ambrose is particularly strong, playing an apparently mentally ill mother while we also get to see her public image as a TV newsperson and the split between the two sides of this woman are a joy to watch. Toby Kebbell doesn’t get a ton to do besides be moody, but he does it well. Rupert Grint may finally have the career-changing role he’s been looking for. Terrific. And Nell Tiger Free, who I don’t recognize from “Game of Thrones,” but was there, is perfect so far as the mysterious nanny.

Food is a theme, as the lead male is a chef and consultant. But mostly, it seems to be a kink. At least until we find out that it’s not in the penultimate episode.

“Servant” and “Dickinson,” feel like shows that might work well for Netflix. So they may work out great for AppleTV+.

I have more serious disconnections with the three other series on offer at AppleTV+, “For All Mankind,” “SEE,” and “Truth Be Told.” They are all perfectly well-made TV. But that is the low bar. All of the shows being made by all of these companies are beyond competent.

“For All Mankind” is an odd hybrid of history and drama and projection that demands a level of granular attention to care about the material. It’s like every NASA movie you have seen, but cleaner, less gritty, and on the whole, less focused. There is a legitimate chance that this is going to connect with a loving core like other Ronald D. Moore shows. I was never onboard with “Battlestar Galactica” (2004 – 2009), although I spent time on that set and tried to catch up. Whatever was beloved about that show, I didn’t get. On the other hand, I found “Outlander” very accessible, even with its complications. I didn’t watch every episode. But when I dipped into the early seasons, it was clear and accessible. I was with those characters instantly.

“SEE” just drove me nuts. A show about everyone in the world being blind… but the most vivid photography and a level of action that made no sense at all to me. When blindness came up, it seemed like a manipulative gimmick every single time. But again, I can’t say that my taste is a match with the very passionate audience base for action dramas like this. Every scene is just a series of people who seem to be pretending to be blind by looking away from everyone else, except when they are fighting.

“Truth Be Told” grabbed me in the first episode. I love the cast. The idea of a crime podcaster reconsidering her role in defining the lives of others. Great.

But it got weird for me quickly. There is something naturally conflictual about listening to someone tell a story and the series then showing the story. The longer this weird combination continued, the blurrier it got. In great part, this was an issue of there being such a thin line between the story telling and the real life of the show drama. I get that no one watches TV to listen to radio. But after a while, every scene feels like a series of scenes and not a sharply defined part of a whole.

Again, performances are quite good. Aaron Paul is as good as I have ever seen him outside of Jesse Pinkman. Elizabeth Perkins has big moments. Lizzy Caplan as twins!!! Actors like Tracie Thoms, Michael Beach and Ron Cephas Jones who I never get enough of. And Octavia Spencer has more than enough juice to hold it all together.

But like other AppleTV+ shows, it feels like the freedom of the form led to an overreach of that freedom. Maybe it will seem different in a complete context of a season. But for now, a few episodes in, I tend to bail out on shows like these.

AppleTV+ also offers three movies—we’re calling these “movies,” right? The Elephant Queen is a charming wildlife documentary with highs and lows, life and death… if it sounds good to you, you are sure to like it a lot.

Hala is a Sundance pick-up from young filmmaker Minhal Baig. Very Sundance.

And The Banker is a Sam Jackson-Anthony Mackie-Nicholas Hoult movie, directed by George Nolfi, best known as a screenwriter. Good tale. Based on a real story. Two mismatched black men try to build a real estate empire in Los Angeles, but were thwarted by open racism, so they bring on a white guy to front them.

It’s not a world-beater, but it is the kind of movie you run into flipping through channels on a weekend afternoon and enjoy a lot more than you would expect.

And that is the AppleTV+ line-up.

What’s odd is that it is a lot of content to push out all at once for a new distributor. On the other hand, its dwarfed by all the other new streamers rolling out in November and next spring.

Whatever your tastes – assuming they are not exclusively for high art – you are likely to enjoy a some of these new shows. And there will be more. But this is really a quiet launch.

I don’t think that Apple is going to be in the TV business for long, really. There are theories about them buying Netflix and that is possible, if Netflix’s stock price keeps dropping. But if that doesn’t happen, AppleTV+ is the weakest entrant in this field. Even taking away the original content on Amazon Prime, there is a deep enough licensed library of content to make it a place where most viewers would spend more time than here. And there is no “Mrs. Maisel” or “Handmaid’s Tale” or “House of Cards” in this batch. Just isn’t. “The Morning Show” could become one, but they have to find their focus and stick with it before I can make that leap.

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Strategy Session: Getting Out Of The Way

The two titles that seem to be mortal locks for Best Picture nominations at this point are Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood and The Irishman.

Critics are on board. The Tarantino was a significant commercial hit and The Scorsese has pushed aside commerciality as a consideration by going to Netflix without a traditional theatrical window.

But playing from ahead can be more difficult than playing from behind, especially if your goal is a win and not just a participation trophy (aka, a bunch of nominations with few or no wins).

Obviously, once nominated, everyone wants to win, no matter how unlikely. But… sanity tends to roll up eventually.

This season, both of these front-running movies have an undercurrent t0 contend with… male privilege. I am not a believer that a filmmaker is obliged to make their films about other genders or races or political perspectives to be legitimate. And in both cases, these are period films with very specific perspectives.

In The Irishman, the most significant female character is The Daughter, who is nearly silent, and represents her father’s shame. It’s not a spoiler to say that the perspective of the film is the Irishman’s, so the sadness he feels about his daughter’s view of him doesn’t require words.

In Once Upon A Time … in Hollywood, the Sharon Tate character’s relative silence is a strength. It’s an idealized view of Tate and some say that she is narrowed into being an object. But that is more a political analysis than a cinematic one. Her character is an ideal, and even in her private moments, she represents an image of a perceived moment of perfection in one’s life (albeit fake), where nothing can go wrong. Margot Robbie gives a great performance as the embodiment of sunshine, even while pregnant, as she lives this moment in an actor’s life, reflected in DiCaprio’s character feeling he is entering a eclipse.

Regardless, these issues need to be addressed in order to deflect ongoing negativity in the media and – ta-da!!! – Twitter.

Here is where the films diverge. Even though no one will acknowledge it – and once your film is nominated, anything seems possible – Once Upon is seen by most people as a participation trophy kind of movie. Lots of nominations. Hard to imagine fewer than seven or eight (Pitt, DiCaprio, Director, Screenplay, Production Design, Costume, two Sound, maybe Robbie). But there are only three slots where it has a real shot at winning. Supporting Actor for Brad Pitt, Original Screenplay and Production Design. I think Leo DiCaprio gives the best performance of his career. But he took one home recently and I lean towards a built-up love of Joaquin Phoenix or the newcomer award for Jonathan Pryce.

But the point is that Sony and consultant Strategy need to avoid missteps more than anything else at this point. Critics groups will help where they will. Globes, too. Sony is re-releasing the film with extra footage, which will help shore up those bases and get many to take another look at a film, which is almost a piece of nostalgia now, the angry oppositions long forgotten (all the way back in July). The movie was the first established serious contender this year and it’s not going anywhere.

The Irishman is trickier. It goes into a handful of theaters for its “theatrical run” this week. So everyone will see it. And if you are in New York, you will have the opportunity to see it in a special venue on Broadway. Netflix will have the butterfly net out to field any grumbles as the film screens more widely. Here we go.

There are already stories circulated about why the daughter is silent and how often Scorsese has made films with women being significant characters and even a lead once or twice (45 and 26 years ago). And new stories and reviews by critics should bolster the film.

It’s in. That isn’t the challenge. Netflix doesn’t want another participation award. They want the big win. And that is a different challenge.

What is hard for Netflix is that we are already pretty late in a short season and while narratives are being set for movies, it is still tough to get a read on what the narrative for the season will be.

Every season, writers get aroused by the idea of lifetime achievement wins, but recent history suggests that this is no longer a realistic selling point. Critics may wet themselves talking about how The Irishman wraps up Scorsese’s legacy of “goodfella” movies. And the film is loaded with history.

But there is a legitimate chance that the story will go in some other direction. Realistically, no one knows how the movie will play with real people yet. Sample is just too small and too selected. But it is fair to figure that there is some hardcore support for this as the film of the year. And it is fair to expect that there will be some “meh” response, driven by the length, the CG de-aging, and the lack of action that many expect from Scorsese gangster movies.

But what will be the response in a couple weeks… after another 5,000 people see it? Will the love remain as intense overall?

And Netflix — like everyone else — has to be very careful not to read the room when superstar talent is about to come out of the curtain as the last credit rolls. Most people are either likely to be overly kind or overly unkind at those screenings. Just the way it.

Irishman will get plenty of noms from the Globes, the BFCA, and probably the two top critics groups. But that really doesn’t mean anything. That is a given. An achievement. But a given.

The trick to having a real chance to win is to read the energy of the next six weeks and then to shift the energy of your campaign, even before Oscar nominations in that direction.

In this case, what is the weakest part of The Irishman for voters, what it the zeitgeist of November and December, and how does Netflix convince voters that the weak thing is a strength and that Irishman speaks to what their heart is leaning into at the end of this year?

Also, in this case, they are going to have to decide whether it is Pesci or Pacino. Both have a good chance of being nominated. But only one can win and if Netflix doesn’t commit, neither will win.

There is also another sticky problem for Netflix… people are less excited about De Niro than about his co-stars. And the streamer really wants Adam Driver for Best Actor and will end up with Jonathan Pryce taking another slot if he continues to work his ass off. Are actors going to mark the spot for three Netflix Best Actors while Joaquin Phoenix, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christian Bale, Antonio Banderas and Tom “Hard Working” Hanks fight for the last two slots (not even getting to Eddie Murphy, Ian McKellan, the kid in Jojo Rabbit, and dare I say it, Paul Walter Hauser)?

Getting De Niro is a statement nomination for this film. It could get 11 noms and if it doesn’t score De Niro, that could be sold in the media as ambivalence.

But here is the other thing… and it is true for both of these films.

You can’t get caught being smug or trying to hard when you are in this slot. Sometimes a great idea should just allowed to slip away, undone.

I would put the massive outdoor display they created for the Irishman premiere last week in that category. So wonderful on a conceptual level. But what does it say to the potential voters… who are all that really matter at this point? It says, “We don’t care about money.” It doesn’t capture the heart of this movie. It says to New Yorkers that Angelenos think they can recreate New York with brightly painted false fronts.

And what is it supposed to say to audiences? This is not a FUN movie. It’s not gimmicky. It’s not a fun time on the red carpet. But that display says the opposite.

Truth is, the only time I think a red carpet display that is A TON OF FUN is appropriate is when the movie is an amusement park ride or for kids.

Do I think this will matter? No. Neither way. No one is voting for a movie because you recreated Umberto’s on Hollywood Boulevard. And no one is trashing the film for it either.

But it is another little reminder that Netflix is different. And no one is voting for that either. I don’t think a win is impossible because it is Netflix. But I also don’t think there is a single vote – outside of Netflix employees – that will be given any movie because it comes from Netflix and they do things different.

It is a weird ask to chase something that is all about tradition (for those who see it that way… certainly most Academy members) and to keep saying, “We don’t honor your traditions.”

Like I said in the title…. Get out of the way.

The Irishman is a more likely Best Picture winner than Roma ever was. But part of the charm of Roma is that it was so iconoclastic. That is not the hook for The Irishman. It is about the end of an era of a kind of life. It is made for older members of The Academy, not the freshly invited young ones. It is made by a filmmaker who has liquid international celluloid running through his blood. Tradition.

The hard part is that when you think about it, the film is asking us to have sympathy for the devil. And that may be hard to overcome, when all is said and done.

And getting back to Once Upon, that film also has a self-indulgent fop and a stone-cold killer as its leads.

But they are clearly the two most deeply embraced films of this season so far, with only 1917 really left in the barrel. (I don’t know anyone who thinks Richard Jewell is going to be a late-game-changing Million Dollar Baby kind of movie, although it could get nods.)

They need to be managed, left loose to keep being loved, and pushed hard all at the same time. And that is the great challenge of keeping your frontrunner front running.

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Review: Motherless Brooklyn (spoiler-free)

Motherless Brooklyn is perfect.

This is both a virtue and limitation.

My sense of the film is that it is in the spirit of Chinatown and The Man Who Knew Too Much and even a movie like Phantom Thread. It is an innocent’s (or a relative innocent’s) dive into a is well-established world that is unknown to “the straight world,” a world of power and human disposability and ugly truths.

The big twist in this story is that the eventual hero is Tourettic, which complicates his ability to be inexpressive or to lie effectively when need be. Interesting, huh? Yeah.

This has been a passion project for over a decade for Edward Norton. He eventually got enough money… but not really enough. His friends and colleagues showed and worked for minimal amounts. He had a writer-director-producer-star in himself.

And truly, what he pulls off is remarkable. He shot New York City as a period piece and found quite special locations, interior and exterior, to frame his story. The cleanness of this movie cannot be overstated as an incredible challenge. It looks like a much more expensive film than it is.

But for me, it is all just too perfect. This is a story we have seen, generally, but it feels like it desperately wants some kink. And not just period dialogue and a hero that swings between the artistic black community and the wealthy whites.

The kink that is missing is in the lead role. It’s not that Norton isn’t good. He’s never less than very, very good. But he’s not wildly unpredictable as he often has been. He does the Tourette’s well, but it misses danger and subtext. And I imagine this was a result of having so many jobs on the film.

My insta-casting would be Joaquin Phoenix, and he would be great. But it doesn’t need a Joker-type performance. It needs something that bends the beautiful conventionality of what Norton was able to deliver as a director and producer to take the story to the next level. Maybe a Shia LaBeouf. A younger Dafoe (who is great in the movie). Sam Rockwell. Tim Blake Nelson. A younger Giamatti. I don’t have THE answer. I would bet that an Edward Norton who was primarily there as an actor would have found another level to the characterization.

I could feel where the film wanted to take me. And there are moments, like Baldwin swimming laps, that were simple perfection. The performances are all good. Get terrific actors and let them work.

But even in early scenes, with Bruce Willis as the hero figure to his employees Norton and Ethan Suplee (which is pronounced with the emphasis on the LEE, I learned tonight), told me what they were, but I didn’t get the rush of sensing that Willis knows the hidden genius of Norton’s Lionel Essrog and puts his faith in it despite Lionel seeming impossibly weird and untrustworthy as a result. The disconnect didn’t connect, so when it changes, it didn’t feel like a change.

I saw the movie a second time to be sure that it wasn’t my imagination. And there are people who definitely disagree with me. But to me, it is crystal clear. The movie is so accomplished on many levels, but is missing the accelerant that makes for greatness.

In Chinatown, it wasn’t just the “mother/daughter” and “daughter/co-parent” thing, but the actors who played the roles. John Huston is so beautifully creepy and Faye Dunaway is so odd and even Nicholson as The Hero is untraditional in every way.

It reminds me of the story that Ronald Reagan almost starred in Casablanca and how his simple good looks and traditional male energy would have lowered the film.

For me, Motherless Brooklyn is the most frustrating kind of movie. So well made, but missing something.

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Strategy Session: Eight Things (In No Particular Order) To Know About Oscar Season

1. The Best Picture Field Has Already Been Narrowed To 30 Movies Or Less By August 1.

Movies don’t happen overnight. Some of the horses get out of the gate pretty late. But distributors see where they are throughout the winter and spring. By the summer, priorities have been made, schedules have been set, festivals have been targeted, and your dream that there will be fresh discoveries is mostly out the door.

Even indie hipsters, like A24, have their targets in mind well before you, the public, know a Room from a Moonlight. Things speed up fast after the films start screening at the festivals, but there are people who know exactly what they are hoping for and working towards that coaxing surprised agreement from the audience.

2. Journalists Help Narrow The Field Early In The Season (Festival Window) And After Thanksgiving.

The idea that critics and feature writers and Oscar bloggers (oh my!) are meaningless is false. However, the main times when they matter is during the first festival window (Venice/Telluride/Toronto) and during the bubbling cauldron of “what to do” in late November and early December.

In the festival window, journalists narrow the field. Obviously, some of the narrowing would happen without us. But some of it would not. Also, journalists can expand the field, though one often wonders if we are suckers being led to something we think is unexpected (like The Two Popes at Telluride this year).

And journalists can be a very real part of defining the narrative of a movie. This can be good or bad, especially these days. So much of the chattering class is busy chattering about biases and perceived values that have little to do with the moviegoing experience of real people. When this kind of thing occurs, the people selling the movie can either overreact or underreact to this kind of narrative. Challenging.

Later, as we head into the heavy pre-Oscar voting period, many of the groups are trying to figure out what Oscar voters will end up doing because, no matter how they protest, most groups want to be seen as Oscar influencers, knowing full well that their specific awards will soon be a distant memory for most. The Battle of The HFPA is also going on, although it is quite remarkable how many paid experts in that field turn out to be wrong in the end. But back to journalists… narrowing, narrowing, narrowing.

3. Some Big Titles Are Regularly Excluded From Telluride & NY By Those Festivals And It Is A Big Secret.

Does it really matter whether a handful of people in Berkeley or Manhattan think your movie sucks? No. They are often dead wrong. But in those early days of the season, no one wants the stain of being rejected. They want to be seen as making an affirmative choice. But almost every single season, at least one of the eventual Best Picture nominees and, by my count, at least four of the last 10 Best Picture winners has been rejected by one of those 2 early fall festivals.

4. No One Really Cares About Your Stinkin’ Politics.

This one is simple. Everything in the world is political in some way for some people. But the annual fantasy that Oscar voters are going to get behind this movie or that because of the politics of the moment is dashed pretty much every single time. In the last 40 years, Crash is really the only example I can find… and honestly, I see that win as a response to a still very homophobic Academy membership as much as anything else. (It’s not that they hated gay people… it’s that they didn’t want a movie about gay love to represent Oscar to the world. I know it’s splitting hairs a bit, but it was the kind of genderism that was the norm in the last generation of voters, same as they saw black people as lesser, but not as bad. Please don’t kill the messenger.)

The Academy doesn’t send political messages in their voting. They can be convinced that something is not good for them.

Movies like Spotlight or 12 Years A Slave seem like “good for you” movies that may have a political edge, but I believe in cases like those, they are the default movies for those seasons and the few that could have win instead simply failed to close the sale. They didn’t find the hook that said, “a vote for this film instead will make you feel better.”

5. Gotham Awards, NBR Awards, And Many Other Awards Simply Do Not Matter To The Outcome Of Oscar.

Sorry. Lovely events. Wonderful winners. Great nominees. Happy crowds.

Don’t mean diddly.

Gotham, god bless it, doesn’t even really try. Four awards that match Oscar. Just not trying.

NBR is a shill machine and who really cares. Do you know who votes? No. Do you care for any reason other than they are the only ones announcing that early? No.

New York and LA critics… matter. Yes. They are not decisive. But they are respected enough to help a turtle over the hump.

6. It Is, In Most Situations, Much More Important To Not Be Left Out Than To Be Included.

This is basic. Why do so many crap events get so much talent? Because if one does it, everyone thinks they need to do it.

Do they? Not at all. Mostly meaningless. Some are quite lovely. Some are quite sincere. But I am waiting to see a single example of a Hollywood Film Award or a Festival X Award or a Top Contenders event that changes anything for anyone. Literally, five votes.

Now, they do confirm what people are already thinking when they occur. If the snowball is already headed downhill, no one wants to do anything to slow it down. And indeed, the magic things that make the snowball so big in the first place tend to continue to keep working.

On the other hand, if you are the only one not at The Big Event of the Week, the whispering starts… “they couldn’t even get this shitty award?” Petty. But if you aren’t on top, you are always worried about being shoved to the bottom. So the whore, the merrier.

7. The Significance Of Money is Absolute… Except When It Is Not.

You gotta spend The Cash. If you don’t have The Cash to spend, you are facing a mountain instead of a mole hill (and mole hills are already a challenge).

Everyone likes to believe money doesn’t matter. And in terms of box office, this is the one major change that was created with the birth of the expanded Best Picture field to as many as 10.

A24 is not a mega-spender… though they are a little less frugal than some think. Anyway, they didn’t go crazy spending into Moonlight. But they had a massive win in social media and that led to traditional media and that, I believe, took them to the big win.

So it is possible. And not just Dumb & Dumber possible.

But you need magic to happen. This season, the biggest chaser of magic is Parasite. Neon isn’t going to spend wildly. So they need everything – above and beyond having great movie – to even get a nomination. And after that, fate starts playing its hand.

On the other hand, a movie like Little Women will walk right into its nominations, fully supported by Sony. They may not spend like some, but spend they will. And that pushes a strong movie into a much better position to close the deal. Just the way it is.

Lady Bird also got its nominations. But that was the harder road with less money. And sometimes, that means that Beanie Feldman can’t get the second Supporting Actress slot.

Again… nothing to do with the quality of the movie. But as I have long said, you can spend like a maniac, but you have to have a movie that hits a certain level. You can’t get there without a movie. BUT… if you have a movie that is for real and a budget to take you on the journey comfortably, it is a massive advantage.

8. No One And No Amount Of Spending Can Force A Winner… But You Can Try To Prevent A Win By Undermining The Value Of The Frontrunner, Which Is Roughly A 50/50 Proposition.

Once the horses are in the gate for the final race, the rules change substantially. Part of it is that the marketing hands are tied a bit tighter than in Phase I. I have always thought this a bit idiotic, as a more narrowed field is, in my opinion, when the freedom to push hard should really occur. The field is evened by the nominations, while as in Phase I (pre-noms), it’s a wild rumpus.

People love to talk about how Harvey Weinstein screwed over poor Steven Spielberg for Best Picture. But people are being a bit melodramatic and taking advantage of the weak memories. Yes, Harvey is and was an ax murderer and a rapist and a horrible human. But he was not the first person to dare suggest that Saving Private Ryan was a bit schizo. Spielberg himself talked about how the intense, violent, heart-pounding landing was meant to take audiences to a different level of intensity before they settled into the main story. I think it was a brilliant choice.

However… there were TWO WW II movies that year. And I feel The Thin Red Line is the better of the two. There was also the brilliant Elizabeth, which was the major launch of Cate Blanchett into our American lives. And we had just been through a run of epics winning Best Picture. And Ryan had time to go stale from the summer, while Shakespeare in Love was a December release and had a lightness and.a freshness.

So did Harvey steal that win? I could argue either side.

But get past that and ask, has anyone bought a win since?

I don’t see one. Literally, not one.

I have seen competitive arguments in which what likely seemed the winner ended up losing. But that is part of the ebb and flow of any season.

If you are fortunate to be in the top group that seems like a potential winner, find the thing that people love about your competitor and bring that thing to the perception of your movie. Take it away from theirs.

You can’t buy it. You need to feel it.

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BYO Autumn Anticipation

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BYO I Yi Yi

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon