In “The Way Back” Ben Affleck plays an alcoholic man who is just existing. A former high school and college basketball star, his wife has left him and he lives for his next beer. He is offered the chance to coach his high school’s basketball team. It’s a Catholic school going downhill and the team sucks. Along the way he regains a reason to exist, but still has a problem with alcohol. There is more to his back story, making him more complicated. As he did in the “The Accountant” a few years ago, Gavin O’Connor directs a tight story that does not go in the direction you think it will. Affleck is quite good as the sad sack coach and the kids on the team are realistic as they grow under his guidance. The ending isn’t what you expect, but it is very satisfying. Well made and worth seeing. It’s sort of a “Hoosiers” for the 2020’s.
I wasn’t looking forward to the latest take on the Dr. Dolittle books. I read most of them when I was a boy. They were kind of whimsical, while the various film versions were not. The latest version, starring Robert Downey, Jr., was better than I thought it would be. Downey, using a British accent, is natural as he talks to various animals. It is the actors who voice the animals that really make the movie. They are funny, with differing personalities. Dolittle and crew go off on a quest. They encounter Antonio Banderas as a middle eastern ruler who has it in for Dolittle. Much better than I thought it would be. It may be out of theaters by now, so see it when it is on Netflix.
Probably the most enjoyable film so far in 2020 is “Bad Boys for Life”. This third installment takes place seventeen years after the last one, but Martin Lawrence and Will Smith have lost none of their charm. The action is great with a large body count but the real reason to see this film is the two stars. There is an interesting storyline that goes into Smith’s character’s past. Lawrence is looking to retire, but Smith won’t let him. Very enjoyable action buddy flick.
“Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn” is the latest DC villain back story starring Margot Robbie. It is surreal as is most of the action. A great deal of Harley Quinn’s adventures are comical. I especially liked her pet hyena, Bruce. There isn’t much of a plot other than that girls are trying to get some recognition. Mindless fun.
I’m a little late in posting my thoughts on this year’s Oscar race. Here goes.
BEST PiCTURE: In my opinion 2019 was not the greatest year for movies. Summer blockbusters were tepid at best. A couple of little films stood out. When the nominations for picture of the year came out, there weren’t a lot of surprises. “The Irishman” was the early front runner, with “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood…” not far behind. “The Irishman” is very well done, but way too long. “Once Upon a Time…” is a good Quentin Tarantino film, but I’m not sure it’s his best. The latest leader is “1917”, a World War I epic. It’s different and interesting, even though it meanders a bit. “Parasite” is a South Korean tale about the class system. I think ‘1917″ will win, but this is one of the categories that could surprise us. Frankly, I am not enthusiastic about any of the nominees.
BEST ACTOR: Joaquim Phoenix looks like a sure thing for this category. His performance was intense, showing a dissent into madness. All of the others nominees were quite good. Leonardo DiCaprio added another good performance as an almost has-been actor in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood…”. Jonathan Pryce made Pope Francis’s back story compelling in a film that was almost all dialogue. Antonio Banderas was finally nominated for the Spanish film “Pain and Glory” and Adam Driver gave a great performance in “Marriage Story”. It was arguably his best performance to date. He will probably win an Oscar some day.
BEST ACTRESS: This is probably the category with the strongest nominees. From the beginning it has been Renee Zellwegger’s award to lose. Her performance as Judy Garland in her last year is mesmerizing. In any other year Charlize Theron in “Bombshell” would probably be the front runner. Her Meghan Kelley was spot on. Cynthia Erivo as Harriet Tubman was also great, making the historical figure human. Sairose Ronan continues to give realistic, interesting performances as she did in “Little Women”. Finally Scarlett Johannson is nominated for her nuanced performance in “Marriage Story”.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: It looks like Brad Pitt is the front runner in this category. He was really the center of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood…” plus the feeling in Hollywood is that he deserves the award. I thought Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers was equally as good, but this isn’t his year. Al Pacino and Joe Pesci were incredible in “The Irishman”. Pacino, especially, was great, giving a real performance for the first time in years, not just shouting at the camera. Finally, Anthony Hopkins made me take a new view of Pope Benedict, a not totally sympathetic character. Still, this is Pitt’s year.
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: It is nice to see that there are so many strong roles for women. Laura Dern, as the smarmy divorce lawyer in “Marriage Story”, has been winning a lot of the pre-Oscar awards. She was very good, playing a not-too-likeable character. Kathy Bates, as the mother in “Richard Jewell” gave another good performance and was the heart and soul of the film. Florence Pugh as Amy in “Little Women” added something to that role that predecessors couldn’t. And Margot Robbie did an excellent job as a harassed employee of Fox News in “Bombshell”. Look for her to be nominated in the future. If I were voting, my choice would be Scarlett Johansson in “Jo Jo Rabbit”. I have always liked her as an actress, but she gave a warm, funny and deeply moving performance as the title character’s mother. She stole every scene she was in.
BEST DIRECTOR: This race is between Sam Mendes for “1917”, Quentin Tarantino for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood…”, and Bong Joon Ho for “Parasite”. Todd Phillips for “Joker” and Martin Scorsese for “The Irishman” don’t seem to be in the running. Tarantino’s chances depend on how the Academy views his film. He may just get the writing award as he has done in the past. “Parasite” will win Best Foreign Film, but I don’t think the director will take home the prize. That leaves Sam Mendes, who did a good job in “1917”.
There are my thoughts on the Oscar’s top 5 categories.
Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial effort is “Richard Jewell”, based on the true story of the man who found the bomb at the 1996 Olympics. By finding it he saved countless lives, but ended up being blamed for putting it there. Jewell is a police wannabe, an overweight nerd who still lives with his mother. The supporting cast is very good with Kathy Bates as his mother, Jon Hamm as a FBI agent who doggedly pursues him, Olivia Wilde as a journalist who will do anything for a story and Sam Rockwell as Jewell’s only friend and attorney. The lead is played by Peter Walter Hauser who has had small parts in other films. He does a convincing job as Jewell. This is one of Eastwood’s better films lately. It moves and keeps us on the edge of our seats. Unfortunately it shows us how the government and the press can torment us.
“1917” is a World War I story that is told in a unique way. Two British infantry men are sent into No Man’s Land to deliver a message to the commander of troops that are about to attack the Germans that it is an ambush. The body of the film is about these soldiers’ journey and is continuous. The story is compelling and the young actors do a good job. But the thing that makes this film different is the way it is told. it is a continuous journey, told in almost real time. “1917” has been winning most of the big awards, as has its director Sam Mendes. While I think the film is one of the best of 2019, I do not know if it is THE best. Still, see this movie and if you can, see it on the big screen because it is filmed beautifully.
I am a fan of Spanish film maker Pedro Almodovar. His films are well written and not predictable. “Pain and Glory”, his latest, is no exception. It’s the story of a washed up film director, who is wallowing in self pity because he’s sickly and alone. He agrees to come out of seclusion to publicly discuss one of his films. He has to reconcile with an actor from the film who he trashed. Through flashbacks we learn of his impoverished childhood and he was a prodigy. His mother in these scenes is played by Penelope Cruz, who seems to be channeling Sophia Loren’s earthiness. Antonio Banderas, who started his career in Almodovar’s films and became estranged from him, plays the director. It’s probably his best acting job ever. As with most of the director’s films it takes a bit to get started, but one it does, it packs a wallop.
Adam Sandler tries something different in “Uncut Gems”. He plays a dramatic role and not a sympathetic one. In this film he is owns a New York jewelry store and he’s a liar, gambler and cheat. Obsessed with his gambling, he neglects his family and business, looking to make it big on the next deal. He owes money to the mob and they’re chasing him. This is not a pleasant movie, but it is compelling, well acted and shot on a minimal budget. And Sandler is outstanding in a totally different type of role.
One of the best reviewed films this year is “Marriage Story”, currently streaming on Netflix. Starring Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver, a better title might have been “Break Up of a Marriage Story”, since the whole film is about a couple’s divorce. Johansson and Driver, along with Laura Dern as a divorce lawyer, give career best performances. The story and characters seem so real and many of the situations are heartbreaking. I have not been an Adam Driver fan so far, but he won me over with this role, (Maybe I haven’t forgiven him for killing Han Solo.) And I have always thought that Scarlett Johansson was a good actress. She plays a woman who is a wonderful mother, sweet person, but screws over her husband. Definitely worth seeing.