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The Banker: Timing is everything

If “The Banker” had come out when it was supposed to, director George Nolfi’s film would have been the talk of the town.

A spiritual successor to the Academy Award winning “Green Book,” it was a film with a lot going for it: a pair of talented African American actors including Oscar nominee Samuel L. Jackson, a well-crafted screenplay based on true events and a brand new studio in tech giant Apple looking to make a splash on the big screen.

The film was set to debut at festivals and theaters during the heart of awards season last November before heading to the recently launched AppleTV+ streaming service, but was pulled at the last minute after sexual abuse allegations against the son of one of the subjects of the film – Bernard Garrett, Jr. – who also happened to be among the film’s producers.

With audiences staying home to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, “The Banker” has since limped into theaters earlier this month and began streaming on Apple Friday to little fanfare.

Viewers by and large aren’t aware of the fact that one of 2020’s best films – on the big screen two weeks ago – can be seen in the privacy of their homes today on a free trial or $4.99 monthly subscription to the new service, much more cost-efficient than the $19.99 price tag studios have place on digital rentals of similarly shuttered films like “The Invisible Man” or “The Hunt.”

“The Banker” tells the story of two of the first African American bankers in the United States – Bernard Garrett and Joe Morris – who first become significant Los Angeles real estate owners before purchasing a small Texas bank. Unable to purchase the property on their own due to the political and cultural climate of the 1960s, Bernard and Joe hire a white man, Matt Steiner, to front their investments.

The film’s success lies largely with the dynamic chemistry between its principal cast, with Anthony Mackie giving some of the best work of his career since 2008’s “The Hurt Locker” as financial whiz Bernard. His calm, almost stoic demeanor provides the necessary gravitas to give audiences faith in his sense of purpose and the way Mackie shows just enough of Bernard’s inner anger reflects the drive within the character.

It’s in perfect balance with Jackson’s free-flowing, charismatic turn as Joe, a verbose, wily businessman who’s just as eager to make a profit but follows his gut more than his brain and isn’t afraid to speak his mind.

On the page, the characters of Bernard and Joe are rather simplistic cutouts of real people with little complexity aside from their drive to succeed and their apprehension about racial inequalities in business. But what makes “The Banker” a worth-while watch is how Mackie and Jackson are able to elevate the material with their on-screen chemistry, which feels natural and genuine. Their characters’ different approaches to problems at hand makes for simple, yet effective storytelling and provides for many of the film’s most entertaining moments.

It’s especially effective in the movie’s engaging first hour, where Bernard and Joe begin working together and bring a willing, yet clueless Matt on board as the face of their partnership. Hoult is adept at playing Matt as naïve rather than the fool and it helps make scenes where Joe teaches him golf or Bernard explaining complex algebra feel fun and not demeaning.

Nolfi’s film often struggles to make clear the financial transactions involved, whipping audiences through technically heavy jargon like “capitalization rates,” but there’s a lot of flash and pizzazz to the montage style in which Nolfi wraps and compartmentalizes this information for viewers.

“The Banker” moves along crisply and the direction isn’t particularly noticeable aside from the occasional montage, but Nolfi and his team of screenwriters – five are credited here – could have easily trimmed the film by 10-15 minutes without losing much and maintained the momentum of the first hour.

A potential awards season contender last year, there’s frankly no real chance for “The Banker” to be up for accolades given its middling release and the likelihood that enough films will still be released theatrically in 2020 to boot Apple’s debut feature from the shortlist of contenders.

The ease of access to AppleTV+, combined with strong work from Mackie and Jackson, make “The Banker” a welcome distraction in a world of uncertainty and something worth seeking out at home.

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Spenser Confidential: Last man standing

It started with unflappable British spy James Bond heading for the hills as “No Time To Die” moved from a mid-April release to late November.

Within the last week, film studios have been shelving their biggest upcoming releases with Disney’s “Mulan” postponed indefinitely and Universal’s ninth “Fast and the Furious” film pushed to 2021 amid growing concerns for public safety due to the coronavirus outbreak globally.

As ardent film fans stay away from their local movie theaters, one studio hopes to reel in all the attention with a full court press of new releases. Netflix, the streaming service now doubling as its own production house, will have released 17 new feature films in the first four months of 2020, compared to 18 major releases from the six other large studios combined.

For films still in theaters, box office numbers have sharply dropped relative to expectations across the board due to lower attendance with most films falling by 60% or more from the previous week.

One film that would have been affected by this economic downturn is Mark Wahlberg’s new crime dramedy “Spenser Confidential” from longtime collaborator and director Peter Berg, a middling, uneven flick that would be considered a massive bomb if it opened in theaters last weekend.

Luckily, it’s the number one most watched film on Netflix according to the streaming service as audiences stay home and give a movie they probably wouldn’t consider paying to see a shot.

Based on the 80s private-eye TV series “Spencer for Hire” and the novel “Wonderland” by Ace Atkins, “Spenser Confidential” follows Wahlberg as former Boston cop Spenser, fresh on the streets after serving a five-year prison sentence for assaulting a superior officer. When that officer and another detective are brutally murdered, Spenser cannot look away and privately investigates the crimes with the aid of his roommate, Hawk.

The title role is a perfect summary of what Wahlberg is best at as an actor: no-nonsense toughness with a dry wit and casual charm. There isn’t much to the role, nor Wahlberg’s performance for that matter, but the movie fits the actor’s strengths to a T and makes the overall movie-watching experience better than if the role were played by a younger, less confident actor.

His brash, standoffish demeanor puts him at odds from a chemistry perspective with Winston Duke, whose equally tough-guy persona as Hawk clashes with both actors essentially trying to be the alpha in the relationship. Duke, relatively unknown by comparison to Wahlberg despite memorable roles in “Black Panther” and “Us,” takes a backseat for the most partbut there is still an unease that never really cements into an engaging relationship.

This isn’t the case with Wahlberg and Alan Arkin, playing Spenser’s mentor Henry with ease and a brilliant sense of comic timing. Their chemistry is naturally and effortless, making for the most engaging, entertaining sections of otherwise listless action fodder.

Because so many viewers have a Netflix subscription for other reasons – binging television shows, access to classic movies, etc. – turning on “Spenser Confidential” feels like playing with house money. A byproduct of this is diminishing viewer expectations, a film watched on Netflix or Amazon or Hulu doesn’t have to be as remarkable, or in some cases, good at all. It just needs to be worth time because it feels free to watch.

In this context, “Spenser Confidential” is definitely a film checking out for movie-fans social distancing and self-quarantining due to coronavirus. It’s not great, nor a movie that needs to be seen on a big screen, but in this time of uncertainty, any casual distraction that can allow people to turn off their minds and relax is a welcome reprieve.

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The Way Back: Acting for revitalization

Famous celebrity, actor, and Oscar-winning writer/director Ben Affleck has spent the past several years confronting his personal demons both on and off screen.

His work in David Fincher’s 2014 mystery thriller “Gone Girl” was a treatise on the cult of celebrity status – and largely unbeknownst to Affleck during filming – an intentional bit of casting that put audiences at odds with his character in the film because of their personal disdain towards him.

While his recent work as Batman in the DC Comics Extended Universe provided Affleck an opportunity to cash in on his fame, it also has allowed him to pursue more introspective work including a somber turn in last year’s Netflix drama “Triple Frontier” and now with the sports drama “The Way Back.”

Reteaming with his “The Accountant” director Gavin O’Connor, “The Way Back” features perhaps Affleck’s most thoughtful, self-reflective performance to date as Jack Cunningham, a former high school basketball star turned alcoholic washout asked to become the head boys’ hoops coach at his alma mater.

That it comes on the heels of a well-documented personal battle for Affleck with alcoholism that led to multiple stints in rehabilitation, relapsing and a divorce from Jennifer Garner is not by accident either.

Every moment of “The Way Back” is considered and has an air of subtle authenticity speaking to Affleck’s own struggles. A title change from “The Has-Been” to “The Way Back” suggests this to be true; watching Affleck’s innate precision at showing the signs of substance abuse and hiding them from those around him is especially poignant.

The film’s highest points are in the lowest moments of Jack’s personal hell, stumbling out of his second home at the neighborhood dive bar, waking up hungover and drinking a can of light beer while in the shower, avoiding life as a whole.

It’s in these moments where the line between Jack Cunningham the character and Ben Affleck the performer are exceptionally blurred and viewers cannot possibly separate the two, which usually hinders the success of a film. For “The Way Back,” it’s the only way the film works.

O’Connor’s screenplay, written with Brad Ingelsby, never fully commits to Jack’s story of redemption in overcoming his alcoholism, fusing an intimate, personal journey with a rather bland, standard sports drama that believes itself to be “Hoosiers” but never has any element that elevates the story of a rag-tag group of losing basketball players becoming a team to the level of Affleck’s individual performance.

It’s often noticeable in Affleck’s work how uncomfortable he is coaching the players on the team, which feels both a part of the way he built the character of Jack and how much he’d rather be focusing on the half of “The Way Back” that has nothing to do with basketball.

This isn’t to say that the sports drama is entirely uncompelling. A veteran in the genre directing both 2004’s Olympic ice hockey feature “Miracle” and the exceptional 2011 mixed martial arts film “Warrior,” O’Connor does a terrific job of creating montages that engage viewers in the basketball action.

Basketball sections of the film do provide much needed lightness to an otherwise heavy drama and occasionally create opportunities for Affleck to show Jack’s growth as a person.

But “The Way Back” simply shouldn’t have this much PG-13 level sports in an R-rated character drama. A more composed script would have pushed the film – and especially Affleck’s performance – into Oscar-worthy status and could have made it the first truly great film of the new decade.

Affleck’s subdued, introspective turn is worth the price of admission to “The Way Back,” a film that hopefully showcases more great things to come from one of Hollywood’s most dynamic and passionate filmmakers.

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Portrait of a Lady on Fire: Subtlety in romance

Desire is all about delay.

The anticipation, the angst, the longing all cascading towards a moment of passion.

It’s a difficult trick to pull off in the world of cinema, but Céline Sciamma’s “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” builds from embers into a raging inferno of emotion in one of the best romance films in ten years.

The French filmmaker progresses from a trilogy of coming-of-age features into the world of adulthood with a pitch perfect examination of nuanced affection that turns to admiration that begets passionate lust with a daring contemporary feel to a period love story.

Set on an isolated island in Brittany in the end of the eighteenth century, Sciamma’s fourth feature follows Marianne, a young artist commissioned to paint a wedding portrait of a woman without her knowledge.

Key to the success of “Portrait” is the relationship between model and artist, an examination of the soul that Sciamma deciphers as much as a mirror of self-reflection as a keen eye peering into the world of another.

The film lives and dies on the performances of its two leads and Noémie Merlant brings an effortless earnestness to Marianne that pairs perfectly with Adéle Haenel’s quiet intensity as Héloïse. Each moment in the film feels genuinely considered, not by the actresses portraying the characters, but by Marianne and Héloïse themselves.

Dialogue in a script can provide the context for someone being unable to say what they feel, but the right amount of hesitation or inflection in a voice can be just as breathtaking. Merlant and Haenel are masterful at pulling at the seams of Sciamma’s screenplay and digging beneath the surface of the script in a richly intimate, physical way that smolders in intensity without the two ever touching.

Framed together in a single shot along the cliffs of Brittany, the pair challenge each other with inquisitive, stolen glances that flicker like embers off the screen. “Portrait” captures intimacy as it grows and changes better than any romance film in a decade and the collaboration between actresses and filmmaker shimmers as viewers fall in love with Héloïse, then Marianne, and then both of them together and apart.

Their dynamic chemistry is offset slightly by the presence of a third major character in an otherwise sparsely cast film.

Typically in a film like this, Luàna Bajrami’s Sophie would be a distracting interloper character that pulls audiences away from the primary romance. But Bajrami matches both leads in quiet intensity with a stoic, yet emotional turn that enriches the world of the film and accentuates the progression of Marianne and Héloïse’s relationship.

Sciamma expertly crafts art into the visual style of “Portrait,” building a world of undeniable cinematic moments that often feel like paintings stacked on top of one another to build a story.

So much of this artistry comes through in how the audience is introduced to Héloïse through Marianne’s lens as Sciamma takes viewers on an elaborate examination of Haenel, her hair, her earlobes, her piercing eyes. Every detail that Marianne paints into existence on canvas is masterfully imprinted into the hearts of engaged audience members with careful precision and expert cinematography from Claire Mathon.

The romance of the film comes not just from the brilliant chemistry Merlant and Haenel share on screen, but in the way it is portrayed through the camera lens with longing, lingering shots mixed with stolen glances that push the audience into the middle of a forbidden love affair.

The best French film in many years, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” was eligible for awards season acclaim, usually playing as a de facto runner up to eventual Oscar Best Picture winner “Parasite” in international feature categories. Astoundingly, the French film community chose not to submit “Portrait” for major Academy Award consideration, opting for the political crime drama “Les Misérables,” which recently took home the country’s top film prize.

Emotionally stirring and wonderfully subdued, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” is a daring and expressive film that dazzles in its simplicity and feels of the moment in spite of its period setting.

Sciamma’s film is a must for cinephiles willing to overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles and a thought-provoking drama that lingers long after the credits roll.

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The Last Thing He Wanted: Short term loss, long term value

With a seemingly endless budget, Netflix continues to pour money into project after project with avid disregard for the bottom line.

This strategy may seem counter-intuitive to budget conscious business owners, but for film lovers, the streaming service writing blank checks to everyone from Martin Scorsese to Noah Baumbach to Michael Bay is an overall win.

Some productions may miss the mark financially, but the expansive spending spree has given filmmakers a chance to produce more daring endeavors and creative risks that should make directors better at their craft.

Dee Rees – an African-American writer/director who broke out in 2017 with the Oscar nominated drama “Mudbound” – received a major push from the streaming service for her follow-up feature based on a Joan Didion novel of the same name, “The Last Thing He Wanted,” which premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival and dropped on Netflix last weekend.

Filled with major star power in Oscar winners Anne Hathaway and Ben Affleck and the promise of an emerging filmmaker, “The Last Thing” has the pizzazz and the cinematic bravado necessary for a taut political thriller, but the film falls flat from the outset with an unnecessarily confusing, lackluster screenplay.

Hathaway stars as an investigative journalist whose pursuit of the story overlaps with a guilt-propelled errand thrust upon her by her unstable father and pushes her into the middle of an international labyrinth of drugs and violence that could prove to be her undoing.

The former Academy Award-winning actress is an apt choice for audiences to follow around for the majority of the film’s two-hour run time, but Hathaway plays the character at such a cautious distance that it’s nearly impossible for viewers to get fully behind her performance enough to maintain interest in the haphazard political intrigue.

Her best moments come in the film’s opening third, which takes advantage of Hathaway’s emotional intensity both verbally and within her eyes. This manifests itself differently as her character investigates potential war crimes in Latin America versus personal crisis with her father as well as her daughter at boarding school.

Hathaway is well matched with veteran character actor Willem Dafoe, an alert and present performer willing to take risks as Hathaway’s estranged father slowly deteriorating mentally. Their scenes are dynamic and resonate with audiences long after Dafoe leaves the screen, a rarity in Rees’ film.

Although Dafoe does venture over into the realm of caricature at times, his performance still carries large segments of “The Last Thing” with a bright, engaging turn that breathes life into the sails of the narrative.

The weakest link in the film is Affleck’s stiff, dry turn as a political instigator from Washington with questionable motivations. If the description of the character feels vague, it’s likely because Affleck doesn’t bring much to the performance beyond a simple, almost clinical recitation of dialogue from Rees’ screenplay and it doesn’t hold up comparatively to his recent work in another Netflix original film, J.C. Chandor’s 2019 feature “Triple Frontier.”

As is to be expected with a high-budget political thriller, “The Last Thing” rounds out its considerable supporting cast with a cavalcade of moderately familiar faces that provide depth and richness to a world that far exceeds its middling story, including exceptional turns from Rosie Perez as Hathaway’s investigative partner and Edi Gathegi as a rival gun runner.

The adaptation of Didion’s novel is problematic and messy, from the lingering and verbose prose narration that gives context to the mental state of Hathaway’s character to the ping-pong storyline jumping to the muddling of a relatively straightforward narrative.

This feels more a fault of Rees as screenwriter – a credit she shares with Marco Villalobos – than as a director as her visual storytelling is sometimes engaging and always interesting with strong cinematography from Bobby Bukowski.

For a variety of reasons, “The Last Thing He Wanted” doesn’t really pull together as a compelling narrative but the shades of a taut political thriller can be seen in the shadows.

Ultimately, this makes Netflix’s spending to give Rees a chance to grow as a filmmaker worth their investment and “The Last Thing He Wanted” is a perfect movie for audiences interested in the genre to take a low-risk chance on.

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Birds Of Prey: Identity crisis

She’s just an ordinary girl who loves her breakfast sandwich.

Sure, she also loves money, the ability to do whatever she wants without recourse or retribution and her pet hyena, Bruce.

But Harley Quinn – at least as seen through the lens of Margot Robbie’s gobsmackingly fun portrayal – isn’t simply a bad guy. She’s misunderstood.

An inevitability following the breakout success of Robbie’s Quinn in 2016’s “Suicide Squad,” this year’s first comic book film takes her supporting character and places her right in the middle of the action with “Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn.”

Director Cathy Yan’s sophomore feature follows the classic Batman villainess immediately after her breakup with The Joker, which puts a target on her back from both cops and robbers alike. The quest for a diamond holding bank account numbers serves as a MacGuffin to keep the action going as audiences bounce around Gotham City with Quinn and the titular Birds of Prey.

As comic book movies go, “Birds of Prey” isn’t aiming to be weighty material and the below-par screenplay from writer Christina Hodson cripples major sections of the film’s narrative structure and cohesion.

But the driving force that makes Yan’s film successful is Robbie’s relentless energy and charm as Quinn, taking everything audiences loved about her quirky turn in “Suicide Squad” and ramping it up to 11 for a frantic, maniacal performance that pushes a middling story forward.

Robbie’s Quinn maintains a free-spirited attitude that is a breath of fresh air every time her slightly twisted smile, multicolored pigtails and overly dramatic eyes pop up on screen. The Australian actress pulls viewers in and gets them to root for an unlikely anti-hero with disarming comic timing and quick-witted flashes of sanity from Quinn’s previous life as a psychologist.

Other characters in “Birds of Prey” become more interesting not for what those actors are bringing to the film, but rather how Robbie is able to bounce off of them as audiences are endeared to whatever Quinn’s going to do next.

When “Birds of Prey” turns away from Robbie’s radiantly maniacal turn, Yan’s film begins to veer off the rails as viewers are shown the larger narrative from the perspective of new, thinly written characters that only work about half the time.

Character actress Rosie Perez makes the most of her meatiest role in years as marginalized detective Renee Montoya, taking Montoya’s one defining trait in the film – a hardheadedness developed from watching too much 1980s cop dramas – and making it work for the character as something that gets the intended laughs, but also provides a worthy foil for Robbie.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead – either by choice or by lack of character development – infuses her performance as the crossbow-wielding assassin Huntress with a monotone, almost vapid lack of personality that occasionally makes for a well-timed joke, but equally feels unnecessary and bland in comparison to the bright characters around her.

There’s a strange implied homoerotic bond between the film’s two primary male characters – both major villains – in Ewan McGregor’s Black Mask and Chris Messina’s Victor Zsasz that goes far enough to define both characters as sociopaths who share a romanticism for violence but not far enough that it does anything to make either character compelling or interesting.

What stands out most aside from Quinn is the brilliantly shot and designed fight choreography that puts the viewer in the middle of the action in a way that feels fresh and quintessentially part of the main character.

Each fight takes on a different life based on the setting while maintaining a free-flowing consistency that combines humor and authentically plausible action for a comic book film. Robbie and the stunt coordinators take great care to vary up Quinn’s move set from battle to battle based on the weapons she’s wielding and the fluid use of martial arts is on par with the “John Wick” films.

Films made from DC Comics have largely taken a backseat to the Marvel Cinematic Universe ever since the conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy of Batman films, but it seems that Warner Brothers has begun to figure out a successful format with brighter, lighter films like “Wonder Woman,” “Aquaman” and now “Birds of Prey.”

If the trend continues while the studio also backs more artistic, prestige-driven adaptations like the Oscar-nominated “Joker,” it’s possible that the DC universe of films could surpass Marvel in the next several years if Disney fails to connect with audiences in a post- “Avengers” world.

Although “Birds of Prey” suffers from an identity issue that can’t decide if Robbie’s Quinn can carry an entire film on her own, the fantabulous highs far outweigh the middling lows and make this comic book lark a film worth seeing amid a disappointing February slate at the box office

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The universal language of cinema: ‘Parasite’ breaks barriers as 92nd Academy Award winner for Best Picture

Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films. – Bong Joon-ho, Oscar-winning writer and director of “Parasite”

Before Sunday night, a lot of things were different in the world of cinema.

A foreign language film had never won Best Picture at the Academy Awards; no South Korean film had ever earned a nomination; Walt Disney was the only person in Oscar history to win four awards at the same ceremony, doing so in 1954.

Bong Joon-ho and the 92nd Academy Awards changed film history forever.

The South Korean writer/director’s seventh feature, “Parasite,” a haunting and arresting drama with elements of comedy and paranoia, took home the Academy Award for Best Picture this weekend with a dynamic, unflinching look at families at the top and bottom of South Korea’s social strata.

With wins for Best Direction, Best Original Screenplay and Best International Feature, Bong joins Disney as a four-time Oscar winner on the same night and cements South Korean cinema on the map.

Now available widely for home viewing, there’s absolutely no reason to avoid seeing one of the best films of the 2010’s, especially as “Parasite” will likely dominate film conversation for months to come.

Missing out at this point puts audiences at risk of ruining the film as the less viewers know about the film before seeing “Parasite,” the better the cinematic experience will be.

In the simplest terms, “Parasite” is about two families, the affluent Park family living in a walled manor on a hill and the impoverished Kim family leeching off open Wi-Fi and free extermination in their semi-basement flat.

When the Kim’s son is hired to serve as an English tutor for the Park’s teenage daughter, it sets in motion a series of events that will irrevocably change both families for life.

Twists and turns masterfully crafted into the story are offset by moments of extremely poignant subtlety as Bong envelopes audiences in a world that seems infinitely close and yet constantly out of reach through perfect shot selection and camera movement that puts the viewers’ eyes on exactly what they need to see at the exact moment they need to see it.

Although set in Seoul, the universal film realistically could have taken place anywhere and in any language with its observations on economic class conflict, greed and deception. Its biggest hindrance to mainstream success has been a relative unwillingness for subtitled films, though Bong has crafted a theatrical experience that far transcends any language barrier.

“Parasite” is an arresting display of cinema mastery that reveals its many layers over repeat viewings and a feature whose humor, tension and drama interweave majestically over the terse two-hour running time.

Perspective is of key importance to “Parasite” as viewers are left questioning events in the film from every angle, not knowing what’s coming next or where it’s coming from. The Oscar-winning screenplay written by Bong and Han Jin-won is an unparalleled combination of tension and release that keeps audiences on the edge of their seats.

What’s most important about the unprecedented success of “Parasite” is what it means for the Academy moving forward, and hopefully, for the film industry as a whole.

It’s truly remarkable that a foreign-language film broke through and won in four out of the six categories it was nominated in. But at the same time, “Parasite” failed to receive a deserved cinematography nod and none of the film’s illustrious cast was honored with a nomination despite the film winning Best Ensemble at the Screen Actors Guild awards.

“Parasite” relies on eight actors to deliver memorable, pitch-perfect performances in order to pull off Bong’s layered screenplay and there isn’t a false step among the entire cast. Each member of the family – father, mother, son and daughter – is in sharp contrast from their mirror in the other family, as if they were playing the opposite side of the same coin.

This year’s Academy Award Best Picture winner is a truly special, audacious cinematic masterpiece that’s uniquely of this moment in time and yet transcends the world we’re living in.

“Parasite” was the best film of 2019, arguably the greatest film of the last decade and the correct choice by Academy voters Sunday evening.

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92nd Academy Awards preview: Parasite v 1917

For the sake of posterity, here are my predictions and thoughts on tonight’s Academy Awards:

Best Picture:

Going to win – 1917, the runaway winner at BAFTA and odds on favorite tonight, the Academy will likely favor an old standard in Best Picture winners: the technically proficient, period war epic

Should win – Parasite, probably sitting in the runner-up chair, Bong Joon-Ho’s masterpiece has a strong chance to pull the upset thanks to the preferential balloting system and is the year’s best film by a significant margin

Dark horse – Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, the Academy loves movies about Hollywood and this Quentin Tarantino period dramedy is probably the most accessible of his filmography to Oscar voters

Best Director:

Going to win – Sam Mendes for 1917, Mendes should get the BP boost along with the film’s overwhelmingly spectacular technical achievements to hand him an Oscar for putting all the right pieces around him

Should win – Bong Joon-Ho for Parasite, same story, different category, Bong creates a rich, deep world that constantly keeps audiences on the edge of their seat and masters nuance from start to finish

Dark horse – Realistically no one, although some voters will cast their ballots for Tarantino, one of Hollywood’s best auteurs never to win this award

Best Actor:

Going to win – Joaquin Phoenix for Joker, the darkest, most actor-y performance of the year is essentially a guaranteed first time win for Phoenix, who elevates an otherwise marginal comic book movie to Best Picture contender worthy status

Should win – Adam Driver for Marriage Story, a performance that is probably more nuanced than Phoenix but less showy, which doesn’t bode well given Phoenix has swept everywhere else

Dark horse – None.

Best Actress:

Going to win – Renée Zellweger for Judy, a tolerable performance in a vastly mediocre film that somehow got crowned as the best of the year back in September without any real discussion or debate

Should win – Saoirse Ronan for Little Women, a four-time Oscar nominee by the age of 25, Ronan puts together her most Oscar-y performance yet as Jo March, but with a depth of conviction and character that underlies her immense talent.

Dark horse – Scarlett Johansson for Marriage Story, double nominated in both lead and supporting actress, Johansson is better in the first twenty minutes of Noah Baumbach’s film than Zellweger is at any moment of Judy

Best Supporting Actor:

Going to win – Brad Pitt for Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, a much deserved accolade for one of cinema’s best character actors who just happens to be among its most attractive, which shields out sometimes how good of a performer he is and how effortless it is for Pitt to be charming.

Should win – Pitt

Dark horse – Joe Pesci for The Irishman or Tom Hanks for A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, 2019 was a terrific year for supporting actors and both of these men could easily have run away with the award in another year.

Best Supporting Actress:

Going to win – Laura Dern for Marriage Story, another example of a race that was over before it began, Dern is good as a no-prisoners-taken divorce attorney but there are other performances that are as good or better that deserve more attention as well.

Should win – Florence Pugh for Little Women, the breakout star of Midsommar takes a reviled literary character and turns the tables on audiences with a standout performance as Amy March. The most difficult performance to pull off of any of these nominees, Pugh knocks it out of the park.

Dark horse – None

Best Original Screenplay:

Going to win – Parasite

Should win – Parasite

Dark horse – Once Upon A Time In Hollywood

 

Best Adapted Screenplay: 

Going to win – Jojo Rabbit

Should win – Little Women

Dark horse – The Irishman

Best Animated Feature:

Going to win – Klaus

Should win – Toy Story 4

Best International Feature:

Going to win – Parasite

Should win – Parasite

Best Documentary Feature:

Going to win – American Factory

Should win – American Factory

Best Original Score:

Going to win – Joker

Should win – 1917

Best Original Song:

Going to win – “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” from Rocketman

Should win – “(I’m Gonna) Love Me Again” from Rocketman

Best Sound Editing and Mixing:

Going to win – 1917

Should win – 1917 for editing, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood for mixing

Best Production Design:

Going to win – 1917

Should win – Parasite

Best Cinematography:

Going to win – 1917

Should win – 1917

Best Makeup and Hairstyling:

Going to win – Bombshell

Should win – Bombshell

Best Costume Design:

Going to win – Jojo Rabbit

Should win – Once Upon A Time in Hollywood

Best Film Editing:

Going to win – Parasite

Should win – Parasite

Best Visual Effects:

Going to win – 1917

Should win – 1917

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Dear Basketball: Preserving the legacy of a man, not just a legend

I never liked Kobe Bryant growing up.

To me, a life-long Dallas Mavericks fan, he was a smug, self-indulgent rival who wasn’t as good as everyone else thought he was.

As a film aficionado and budding critic, it bothered me even more that one of my most-disliked sports antagonists won an Academy Award. It reeked of the bravado that annoyed me watching him dunk on Mavs centers or bank in game winning jumpers in route to another championship he didn’t deserve.

Part of the pageantry about sports is creating and hating the villain. It’s what endears us to our heroes who best someone else’s hero that we view through the lens of the enemy.

I was in a movie theater Sunday afternoon watching the film I intended to write this review over, Guy Ritchie’s crime caper “The Gentlemen” starring Matthew McConaughey, Colin Farrell and Hugh Grant.

About halfway through the film, I was strangely moved to do something I rarely do in a theater; stop watching and check my phone.

The screen flashed up with several text messages, a missed phone call and an ESPN news alert, all of which were commonplace for me to see once the credits start rolling on a movie.

For some reason, instead of putting my phone away, I walked down the aisle and into the hallway, far enough out of view to not interrupt other audience members, but close enough to keep myself inside the world of the film.

I opened my phone again expecting to see some text messages that wouldn’t matter in the long run and someone I needed to call back on my way home.

The ESPN alert jumped to the top of the screen, “Breaking News: Kobe Bryant killed in helicopter crash at 41.”

It was an unexpected, stunning revelation and one I couldn’t stop thinking about amid the ensuing diatribe and violence that concluded Ritchie’s film.

It’s lingered in the back of my mind all afternoon and evening; someone I grew up watching and reviling was gone in the most tragic of fashions along with eight other people I’d never known of or met, among them his 13-year-old daughter Gianna.

The thoughts that clouded my mind brought me to the one piece of Kobe lore that I’d never seen before: “Dear Basketball,” the five-minute film based on his retirement poem that won Bryant an Academy Award in 2018 for best animated short.

Director and animator Glen Keane takes Bryant’s words penned for an article in The Player’s Tribune and vividly animates them through hand-sketched pencil work that leaps off the screen in spite of its two-dimensional style.

As Kobe narrates his own story, audiences are shown his legacy not through championships, but through the impact Bryant’s relentless passion for a sport had on him as a man, illustrating his growth from a six-year-old boy shooting hoops with his dad’s rolled-up tube socks into a legendary member of the Los Angeles Lakers.

It’s a touching short that grows more poignant now on the day of his passing, hearing Bryant talking about savoring “every moment we have left together, the good and the bad” in a way that becomes a rallying cry for renewed hope in whatever passions we may have.

Oscar-winner John Williams pens a sweeping score that combines the majesty of athletic competition with the final notes of impending exit. It veers slightly toward the point of excessive, but still hits home hard enough to draw tears from even the most stubborn of viewers.

Keane’s expert use of color palette keeps the focus on Bryant, muting nearly everything but the yellow and purple of Kobe’s jersey and layering black strokes to enhance detail in life-like comic book form, enveloping the Bryant of “Dear Basketball” to superhero status in the mind’s eye of Kobe as a child.

“Dear Basketball” perfectly illustrates not the myth that was created for him, but the inner soul of the man himself.

Poetry and poignancy was something I never expected from Bryant.

The Kobe I thought I knew wasn’t capable of that.

It’s saddening to think that only his untimely passing – and especially that of his teenage daughter – would bring me to reframe the image of him in my mind’s eye.

The power of film comes from its ability to have an impact on its audience and to preserve eternally people and moments in time.

In this regard, “Dear Basketball” is a perfect film, keeping the memory of a legend, but more importantly a man, alive.

 

The animated short film, “Dear Basketball,” can be seen online at believeentertainmentgroup.com/portfolio-item/dear-basketball.

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Just Mercy: Truth in the final hours

A star-studded, politically relevant courtroom drama based on a true story released right in the middle of awards season is typically the kind of film Oscar voters and general audiences eat up.

So why is no one going to see “Just Mercy,” the latest film from indie darling director Destin Daniel Cretton starring a pair of Academy Award winners and led by “Black Panther” standout Michael B. Jordan?

There’s nothing wrong with the film. It’s a perfectly adequate, well-crafted feature that tells a simple story in poignant, heartfelt ways.

“Just Mercy” just happens to be about seven years too late.

The film follows the beginnings of the Equal Rights Institute, a non-profit law firm started by Harvard-educated African American lawyer Bryan Stevenson who moves to the heart of Alabama to counsel disenfranchised and wrongly condemned death row inmates on their final appeals.

While encompassing the first years of the institute in general, the film most closely follows the case of Walter McMillian, wrongly convicted for the murder of an 18-year-old woman in spite of significant evidence ignored during his racially charged trial.

Despite being based on Stevenson’s autobiography of the same name, “Just Mercy” serves more as an acting tour de force for a trio of talented character actors, most notably Oscar winner Jamie Foxx delivering his best performance in over five years as McMillian.

Foxx brings an earnest heart to the role that been hardened not by the prison that’s stolen his life from him, but by an ever-increasing distrust of a justice system that’s failed him time and again.

His chemistry opposite Michael B. Jordan’s steady, stoic turn as Stevenson is consistently solid throughout the film, but what sets Foxx apart in “Just Mercy” is the emotional bonds his McMillian is able to form beyond walls with two adjacent death row inmates played by Rob Morgan and O’Shea Jackson, Jr.

Unable to see or feel the others’ presence, the three men instantly develop an emotional rapport and support that feels earned in spite of the extraordinary circumstances around them and help provide the film’s most heart-wrenching moment at the end of the second act following the decision of one inmate’s final appeal.

In the least heralded great performance of 2019, Morgan blows audiences away with a remorseful passion mixed with bewilderment and confusion that will leave viewers stunned and awe-struck.

Similarly, Tim Blake Nelson plays a pivotal role as a fellow inmate accusing McMillian of the murder whose confrontations with Stevenson feel comically caricature at first glance but becomes revelatory as the film catapults its way through the courtroom stage.

“Just Mercy” fails to make the most of its biggest box office draws as Jordan is a serviceable protagonist through which to follow the story, but he never truly makes much of a mark on the film as Stevenson. Likewise, Oscar winning actress Brie Larson lends her credibility and star power to her third collaboration with Cretton after “Short Term 12” and “The Glass Castle,” but is given almost nothing to do in a small role as Stevenson’s aide.

The fatal flaw within “Just Mercy” is that the scope of the film exceeds the Stevenson-McMillian relationship far too much for a tight narrative structure, but doesn’t expand the world wide enough to justify a lengthy 137-minute running time. While the subject matter is more than worthy of chronicling, Cretton sacrifices a relatively thin plotline for character moments better suited for television miniseries.

Cretton doesn’t force the action visually in any special way, leaving the audience to rely on the ensemble cast’s largely terrific performances to prop up the film as a whole. The cinematography doesn’t get in the way and the musical score swells at all the expected moments, but the whole project technically reminds of an extended television crime procedural rather than a weighty, cinematic courtroom drama.

“Just Mercy” will have a stronger run on streaming platform and home video rather than on the big screen as Warner Brothers rightly focuses their attention on larger projects like “Joker” and “Richard Jewell.”

A competently made, brilliantly acted drama, “Just Mercy” is worth taking a chance on later this year when the film is made available for private home viewing.

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1917: War close at hand

You’ll never see Roger Deakins on screen, but he’s in every frame of director Sam Mendes’ new war epic “1917,” from the opening frames bathed across a sea of endless green grass until the final cut to black before the credits.

World-renowned as a master craftsman in his art, the British-born Deakins achieves his magnum opus with “1917” – a visual spectacle combining his years of experience as film’s premiere cinematographer and his unique eye for capturing fleeting moments to last a lifetime.

The film intends to follow two young English lance corporals as they journey across enemy lines during World War I to deliver a message calling off an impending attack on German forces that will ambush and kill 1600 British soldiers, and for the most part, it does so considerably well.

What “1917” truly is, however, is an arresting, unparalleled feat of technical cinema that will dazzle audiences with its extended, world-spanning one-take camera work that pulls audiences in and gives the effect of continuous, unedited filming over the course of two hours, fully immersing viewers in the shoes of two brave, yet scared young men.

George MacKay and Dean-Charles Chapman propel the engine that makes “1917” work as Lance Corporals Schofield and Blake, respectively. Their easy chemistry amid the most difficult working conditions for actors is especially impressive and the relatively limited dialogue in the screenplay allows for the pair to wear their emotions on their sleeve with haunting eyes.

“1917” pulls the camera in close on both performers and presses in on these non-verbal cues to show, not tell audiences about the mental strains placed on young WWI servicemen and MacKay’s stoicism matched with Chapman’s heart leaps off the screen at every turn.

Though the bulk of the film follows the two young leads, “1917” is also littered by brilliant supporting turns from a number of talented British character actors from Colin Firth and Benedict Cumberbatch, to Mark Strong, as well as Andrew Scott and Richard Madden. Each actor pops up at exactly the right moment to provide gravitas and emotional depth.

The film’s harrowing subject matter and plot leave audiences constantly on edge as Schofield and Blake could easily encounter imminent death over every ridge or around the next corner. An unbroken, continuous camera frame heightens this suspense and keeps audiences dialed in to the duo’s circumstances, equally unsure what’s to come next.

Mendes and Deakins masterfully contend with the elements over the course of meticulously pre-conceived panning shots, often relying on natural light to illuminate scenes and operating free-flowing panoramic cameras that allowed for steady and smooth 360-degree rotation.

Each second of “1917” is a precisely choreographed dance between actors and camera operators, moving across dynamic, uneven terrain and across miles of intricate bunkers and sets hand-crafted for shooting.

Mendes and editor Lee Smith blend scenes together confidently with limited breaks in the dynamic visuals, cheating slightly as the camera is obscured from viewing Schofield and Blake at various points to hide cuts in the film. Most viewers won’t notice these slight imperfections in the cinema that provide the overall look of the film as they will be too entrenched in the pair’s plight and Thomas Newman’s gripping score to peer behind the curtain.

A multiple Golden Globe winner, “1917” is certain to be one of the most nominated Academy Award contenders this spring, immediately vaulting into frontrunner status for cinematography, direction and production design. Newman’s haunting, pitch-perfect orchestral score should win as well, though it has lost recently to Hildur Guõnadóttir’s equally transfixing accompaniment to the comic book origin film “Joker.”

The film could easily win Best Picture following its Best Motion Picture – Drama win at the Golden Globes, but could just as easily fall into the same trap other technically profound films like “Gravity” and “Mad Max: Fury Road” did at the Oscars, winning in many smaller categories but missing out on the top prize.

There’s absolutely no reason to see “1917” on anything less than the biggest, best screen imaginable – even if that means avoiding closer theaters. A visual marvel unlike any other, “1917” requires a grandiose, epic cinematic experience to match the vastness of the film itself.

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Uncut Gems: Loving the uncomfortable

Tense situations often provide for the best drama and leave bystanders watching things unfolding on the sidelines captivated in awe.

It’s a compulsion that pulls us to slow down and gawk at accidents and train-wrecks; the very thing that allows a television program like “The Jerry Springer Show” to exist.

Cinematically, that uncomfortable draw that keeps audiences on the edge of their seats can be the same feeling that prevents people from seeing an incredible film more than once.

The much heralded, Golden Globe-winning “Joker” is like that, as is the latest feature from Josh and Benny Safdie, the writer-director brother indie darling tandem behind 2017’s standout crime drama “Good Time.”

With their new movie “Uncut Gems,” the Safdie brothers crank the volume up to 11 on their signature brand of frenetic, gritty New York City film spectacle in a must-see, then likely never see again drama.

Adam Sandler gives the transformative performance of his career as Howard Ratner, a diamond district jeweler whose obsession with sports gambling and the big score puts him at odds with clients, loan sharks and his estranged family.

Sandler disappears so fully into Howard that it’s often hard to remember Sandler’s comedic work during “Gems.” There’s an eccentricity to Sandler’s performance that emboldens audiences to live inside the world of the film and accept this familiar character on his own terms and not as it relates to Sandler.

When audiences watch an actor like Robert De Niro or Al Pacino, they often find themselves engulfed within their performances and still never take their minds off the fact that De Niro or Pacino are playing the parts. Who they are as personalities can never be totally removed from the work.

Sandler’s Howard pulls viewers in so fully – in large part thanks to the Safdies’ pitch-perfect screenplay – that the comedian himself fades away behind the glasses and goatee, something Sandler has never been able to pull off before in a 20-plus year movie career.

The film’s ensemble cast boasts a bevy of talented character actors with ruthless, memorable work including Eric Bogosian as a vindictive loan shark, Broadway and “Frozen” star Idina Menzel stunning as Howard’s angry wife Dinah and Lakeith Stanfield as Howard’s assistant and client valet.

Former National Basketball Association star Kevin Garnett delivers a tremendous, intense performance as a fictionalized version of himself in one of the best acting performances by any major sports athlete, enhancing the film with an authentic, controlled turn that pushes the drama in new directions.

The film’s breakout star is newcomer Julia Fox, who pulls focus away from Sandler in a wonderful supporting turn as Howard’s employee/mistress. Fox charms audiences in a way that feels manipulative but largely isn’t and her presence on screen is reminiscent of the dynamic energy Margot Robbie brought to her first major role in Martin Scorsese’s “The Wolf of Wall Street.”

What sets “Gems” apart is the film’s relentless uncertainty where literally any outcome or repercussion can occur at any time. This keeps viewers apprehensively engaged and tense, forcing them into Howard’s corner as every action he takes feels like a miniature wager with ever-growing stakes.

It’s a tremendous pairing of screenplay and performance that allows the chaotic pace of the film to genuine and earned rather than deliberately contrived. The Safdies, who have sought Sandler for the role of Howard for the better part of a decade, perfectly pen a character to fit the longtime comedic actor’s unique quirks in such a way that opens up Sandler to a world of new opportunities cinematically.

Shot on 35 mm film, the visual artistry of “Gems” maintains a raw, gritty vibrancy and the Safdie brothers play with lights and colors to keep the dynamic energy of their screenplay alive regardless of the situation. This works especially well during a scene where Howard enters a club filled with blacklights which gives the screen an off blue hue complemented by a bright neon orange hoodie worn by a character antagonizing Howard that visually represents the story the Safdies are trying to tell.

“Gems” is likely far too controversial for major awards season considerations although the movie will likely be heralded by critics and independent film groups.

Sandler has an outside chance for a best actor nomination if newer members of the Academy rally behind him and the film, though it’s more likely their support will go to Eddie Murphy’s turn as a struggling comic turned movie star in Netflix’s “Dolemite Is My Name.”

“Uncut Gems” clearly stands out as one of 2019’s best independent films and a dramatic career pinnacle for Sandler that needs to be seen on the big screen to truly be appreciated.