Well, I finally found out what all the excitement was about. We actually had a plan to see this in London, but then travel kinda took a back seat to the pandemic. Honestly, I wasn't too sad that we missed it ... I didn't have high expectations, by which I mainly mean no matter how good it was, I doubted I would like it.
I take it back. Hamilton was much better than I expected. One problem is that most Broadway "rock" musicals are far more Broadway than they are Rock, and I thought Hamilton would be the same for rap. But in this case, it felt right. It took me awhile to get used to the rhythms of rapping dialogue, and in the end, I'm not sure this was "authentic" rap or hip hop, anymore than Hair was "authentic" rock. But for whatever reason, I ceased caring somewhere along the way. I can't say I remember any of the songs, although if I spent some time with the soundtrack, that problem would probably solve itself.
It was fun recognizing a few members of the cast, especially Oakland's own Daveed Diggs. I admit I didn't realize Aaron Burr was played by Leslie Odom Jr. (Sam Cooke from One Night in Miami), but he was good, too. But ultimately, it's Lin-Manuel Miranda who astonishes. He wrote the music, lyrics, and script for Hamilton, while playing the title role. The play won a Pulitzer Prize and 11 Tonys. Hell, the cast recording spent ten weeks atop the rap charts.
What we watched was a filmed version of the stage play, with the original cast. It was straightforward ... there was no attempt to "open up" the play, it was just a document of an actual performance. Miranda and director Thomas Kail had a few tricks up their sleeves ... they shot three different performances and edited them seamlessly into one. But this was a play as much as it was a film.
I never thought I'd say it, but Hamilton was a highlight of the year.
This was my introduction to the work of Josephine Decker. Well, that's not quite true ... researching her credits, I saw that she directed an episode of the TV series Dare Me. The IMDB lists 18 credits for her as an actor, 16 as a director, 10 each as writer and editor, 4 as producer, 2 as cinematographer, and half-a-dozen more. So I'm embarrassed I didn't know her work, and I can't compare Shirley to what Decker has done in the past.
Shirley has an interesting premise. The title character is famed writer Shirley Jackson (Elisabeth Moss), and the film takes place after her most remembered story, "The Lottery", was published. Michael Stuhlbarg co-stars as Jackson's real-life husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman. As the film begins, Jackson is working on a new novel, Hangsaman (a real book). Hangsaman, as told in Shirley, is a fictionalized version of a true-life story about a college student who disappeared. Similarly, Shirley is a fictionalized version of Jackson's story. This is not one of those "based on a true story" movies ... the entire plot is built out of thin air by author Susan Scarf Merrell, who wrote the novel from which the film is drawn. Shirley adds a young couple who move in with Jackson and Hyman, and as Shirley-the-character obsesses about the missing student, she seems to feel a connection between the student and her new housemate. The young couple are inventions who never existed in real life.
Like I say, an interesting premise. And what Decker (and screenwriter Sarah Gubbins, who I know from Better Things) do is less about telling the story of an author and her work, and more to do with dragging the audience into Jackson's perspective. Things are often a little off, a bit unsettling, and I kept waiting for a full-out horror movie, although that never really happened. What we do get is like a Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf for a new generation, as Jackson and Hyman squabble for the benefit of their guests.
It's more an interesting premise than an actually interesting movie. But the acting, especially from Moss and Odessa Young as the woman in the young couple, is excellent. Moss has the Oscar-bait role, but I thought Young was even better ... she couldn't fall back on the possible insanity of her character, but instead let us understand the depths of the woman gradually.
The Dig has a fine cast in the leading roles (Carey Mulligan, Ralph Fiennes, Lily James) and a solid cast of English actors that I didn't recognize but which are probably "Hey, it's that guy" to Brits. It tells a based-on-fact story of an archeological find in Suffolk in the time just before England entered WWII against Germany. It never trumpets its excellence ... instead, director Simon Stone and screenwriter Moira Buffini guide us gently through the story, which has class differences between characters and various examples of subtle will-they won't-they potential romance. I write all of the above knowing that for some people, movies like The Dig are why they love movies. And it is engrossing, rarely dragging (one of those romances is a bit boring), and even informative in the ways of archaeological excavation.
To say that The Dig is understated is not to imply boredom. It's true that it feels good for you in the way British historical dramas often do, but as with everything else in the film, Stone and Buffini never beat us over the head. They allow their audience to demonstrate our intelligence ... they reward us for being smart. And that's nice of them. I also appreciated that all of the characters had some depth, and no one was exactly a villain. They, like us in the audience, are respected.
I don't mean to belittle The Dig with faint praise. In fact, I recommend it. But its pleasures are subtle, such that I'm not ready to immediately watch it again.
Many times I have said that while one great performance in a movie shows how good an actor is, when the entire cast comes through, it says something good about the director. All four of the key actors in One Night in Miami are excellent: Kingsley Ben-Adir (Malcolm X), Eli Goree (Cassius Clay), Aldis Hodge (Jim Brown), and Leslie Odom Jr. (Sam Cooke). Credit to all, but also tip your cap to director Regina King, who elicits those performances in one of her earliest works as a director. (It seems like many want to call this her debut as a director, but she has done a lot of TV, including a couple of features ... One Night in Miami is her first feature to play in theaters, or it would be if movies were in theaters right now.) The point is, King is no amateur, but ultimately it's beside the point: the film has great performances across the board and she directed it.
The setup, with a screenplay by Kemp Powers from his own stage play, is perfect. Four important American black men meet in a hotel room. The event took place in real life, but no one knows what happened in that room. So Powers can pretty much do whatever he wants. If he strayed too far from what we know of the four men, he would be called on that, but as long as he is honest in his portraits of the four, we are willing to be taken for a ride. Indeed, all four resemble what we imagine the real people were like, and the play is believable on that level. There are things missing ... we get no hint of Brown's problems with domestic violence, for instance ... and the timeline sometimes moves a bit away from what/how things really happened. But Powers gets to make his points about what it meant to be an African-American male in the early-60s without going too far afield.
Besides working with the actors, King has to deal with the staginess of the material, and she does a decent job, moving conversations out of the hotel room on occasion without being obvious about it. You never lose sight of the stage origins, but she avoids the problems that sometimes accompany stage-to-movie productions.
It can't be overemphasized how terrific the main performances are. I'm hard pressed to single out one over the others ... I'm hard pressed to figure out which characters are major and which are minor (I'd say they are all major), and it will be interesting come awards time which of the four end up in the running for Best Actor awards and which will be presented as Best Supporting Actor. But Malcolm X is probably the most interesting of the characters ... he's the one whose interactions with the other three are key to what we learn about all of the men. So it's possible that Kingsley Ben-Adir will contest the Best Actor awards, while the others, especially Leslie Odom Jr., will turn up in Supporting Actor lists. All of the actors have to deal with the fact that at least some of the audience remembers the actual people, so Odon Jr., for instance, isn't just playing a part in a movie, he's competing with our image of Sam Cooke. This is always the case with biopics and their ilk, of course. Ben-Adir and Goree have a double conundrum, because they are not only dealing with the images of Malcolm and Clay, but also of the indelible performances of Denzel Washington in Spike Lee's Malcolm X and Will Smith as the title character in Ali. Both actors are good enough so that, if we don't exactly forget about Washington and Smith, we accept these new and different interpretations of the characters.
The pacing is a bit uneven, with some scenes going on a bit too long (the "dispute" between Malcolm and Cooke being the most noteworthy example), but every scene matters, and even though in the end One Night in Miami boils down to four men talking to each other for a couple of hours, King keeps us from noticing the talkiness, varying the focus on the characters so nothing feels static. It's a fine job, one that makes you hunger for more films directed by King.
I can't resist one last note that is irrelevant, but I can't help myself. None of the four stars are unknowns, but Eli Goree is the closest to a new-to-us performer. Yet at our house, he is known for his work on The 100, and it was a delight to see him in a major role in a major motion picture. Here's a short scene of him in The 100:
A film I'd never heard of, from film makers I didn't know, which means Synchronic was a good Geezer Cinema choice, since one of the best things about that project is I get to see movies I might otherwise have missed. It was written by Benson, with cinematography by Moorhead, and both worked on the editing while directing. The two have done several films together, and have a bit of a following.
On Twitter, Moorhead described the film as "our weird movie about paramedics & designer rugs & the nature of time & dogs & New Orleans & death & cavemen & pirates & how the past sucked & friendship & burnt bodies & sad handshakes". That's actually a very good description, because one, it's accurate, and two, it tells you nothing about the movie. And since Synchronic benefits from spoiler-avoidance, I'm stealing Moorhead's tweet here. It's an atmospheric film, which lends itself to the mysterious unfolding of the plot. And I'm going to say something about that plot in a second here, so spoiler alert and all that.
It co-stars Anthony Mackie and Jamie Dornan. I've found Mackie to be reliable ... at least, I usually like the films that he is in (The Hurt Locker, Detroit, Half Nelson). He gives Synchronic some life to go with the atmosphere.
Here's where the spoilers come. Synchronic deals with time travel, and it appears that Moorhead and Benson wanted to address the problem of race in America. Mackie (Steve) and Dornan (Dennis) are paramedics, and there are a couple of references to the way Steve is treated as opposed to Dennis that offer a bit of insight. But when Steve starts time traveling, Moorhead and Benson seem a bit too proud of the fact that they are showing how tricky it would be for an African-American to go back in time, considering how Blacks have been mistreated throughout our history. It's not a particularly unique take ... the television series Agents of SHIELD and Timeless both addressed the topic, and were at least as interesting and pointed as is Synchronic.
Synchronic takes place in New Orleans, and it feels real ... it was shot there, and Mackie was born there. It is far from a failure. But it's slow-moving, and not to its advantage. A decent movie, not a great one.
It's odd ... I agree with much of what is in The Social Dilemma, and since it's a documentary with an argument, that agreement is crucial. But the presentation is lacking.
Jeff Orlowski trots out an impressive array of experts who know social media in part because they helped invent social media. They are sufficiently frightened about the negative side of social media that their concerns have an impact on us as we watch. But as the film progressed, I realized what was missing: actual, concrete evidence. There were a lot of anecdotes, there were a lot of connections that didn't always understand that correlation does not imply causation. And all of this was further muddied by an odd device wherein Orlowski occasionally switches to fiction, dramatizing the life of an ordinary family being controlled by an A.I. played by Mad Men's Vincent Kartheiser. It's a bit like those true crime television shows that feature recreations of the crime.
And the attempted connections ring false. We're shown charts demonstrating that non-fatal self harm and suicide have risen drastically in recent years. We see a fictional teenage girl who reacts badly to being made fun of online. We're told that "A whole generation is more anxious, more fragile, more depressed", and "that pattern points to social media". Well, that may be true, but I'm not going to believe it because of a fictional vignette about a disturbed teen, nor am I convinced that self harm and suicide can be blamed on social media simply because all of them became more prominent at the same time.
This is frustrating, because as I said, I tend to agree with their arguments. But tarting things up with recreations isn't the best way to get those arguments across. And while you'd think watching The Social Dilemma would scare us away from our phones and our Facebook and our Instagram, it seems just as likely to do the opposite. I'm reminded of my mother, back when TV was no longer allowed to advertise for cigarettes. The only time cigs were on the screen came during anti-smoking ads. My mom, a serious smoker, once told me that every time one of those ads came on, she reached for her pack of cigarettes, because the commercials reminded her she wanted a smoke.
First-time director Grant Sputore had a low budget and a lot of ideas. He managed to work most of those ideas into I Am Mother, aided in part by a remarkable robot that was created in a way simultaneously old-school and new. Weta Workshop out of New Zealand, alongside project supervisor Luke Hawker, created a life-size humanoid robot, mostly bypassing CGI. Hawker then put the robot suit on, rather like Haruo Nakajima in all those Godzilla movies. This old way of making a monster feels once again new, and the robot moves and "acts" seamlessly. Add in Rose Byrne as the robot's voice (the robot is called "Mother"), and you have a quite believable creature right in the middle of the film.
As for all those ideas, Sputore throws up one homage after another ... Blade Runner, Ex Machina, Battlestar Galactica, and 2001 come to mind. Sputore borrows from lots of movies, but puts it together in a unique enough way to make it interesting in its own right. You might find this or that plot turn to be reminiscent of another film, but that thought only occurs to you after the fact. There are plot twists a-plenty, but you don't see them coming until they've reminded you of that other movie, and by then, Sputore has moved on again.
In all of this, I Am Mother is helped by some fine acting. New-to-me Danish actor Clara Rugaard is the core of the entire film as "Daughter", a human grown by "Mother" from an embryo. She convinces us that her emotional attachment to her robot mom is real, and then handles whatever Sputore gives her the rest of the way. Hilary Swank turns up with her usual solid performance ... I am regularly amazed that Hilary Swank has two Oscars, even though her wins were deserved ... I just don't picture Hilary Swank when I imagine a dual-Oscar winner.
I Am Mother is far from perfect. As Matt Zoller Seitz pointed out, "The most frustrating thing about 'I Am Mother' is the way it favors the unveiling of plot twists over nearly everything else, including characterization, theme, and the related pleasures of world-building." Still, those plot twists, along with the clever rearranging of homages, and the creation known as Mother, make I Am Mother much better than I expected.
V for Vendetta (James McTeigue, 2005). Missed this one somehow along the way. Not a great movie, but pretty good, and up my alley, so I have no idea why it took me 15 years to finally watch it. The Wachowskis adapted the graphic novel. Hugo Weaving from their Matrix movies plays the title character ("V") and does a great job without ever getting to show his face, which is hidden throughout by a Guy Fawkes mask. There are hints of 1984 and Mr. Robot, although in the case of the latter, the influence goes in the other direction, Mr. Robot coming out a decade after this film. Natalie Portman shines, and there's the usual who's who of British actors: Stephen Rea, Stephen Fry, John Hurt. Sinéad Cusack turns up for an emotional scene. Creative and dystopian, at least until what passes for a happy ending.
Geezer Cinema: Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (George C. Wolfe, 2020). Oscar bait, which in this case I don't mean as an insult. Ruben Santiago-Hudson's screenplay from August Wilson's play hits the high points, and the direction from George Wolfe gets out of the way of the great performances, which are the main reason to see the film. Those performances are noteworthy from top to bottom, but the ones you'll hear about are from Viola Davis as Ma Rainey and Chadwick Boseman as her trumpet player, Levee. Davis will likely get a Best Actress nomination, although she's on screen for less than half-an-hour. You can believe that all of the men are intimidated by her ... Davis carries a lot of power in her characterization. Boseman is every bit as good as you've heard, and yes, he'll get some nostalgic sympathy because this is his last role, but he doesn't need our sympathy. He almost overpowers the movie, not an easy feat when dealing with co-stars like Glynn Turman and Colman Domingo. Wolfe does everything he can to make the setting feel authentic, but he doesn't try too hard to "open up" the film ... he trusts Wilson's play enough not to mess with it. The result is too often stagy, and your appreciation of the film will depend in part on how much that staginess bothers you. I can't say I was bothered, but at times it did draw my attention away from what I should have been watching. Still, I've never held this against A Streetcar Named Desire.
Since my wife and I retired, we decided to have a weekly date at the movies. We call it Geezer Cinema. We take turns picking movies. We watched 32 (through Emma.) before the virus sent us to our living room.
Totally Under Control (Alex Gibney, Ophelia Harutyunyan, Suzanne Hillinger, 2020). Alex Gibney has dozens of credits as a director, including Enron, Going Clear, and Magic Trip. For Totally Under Control, an expose of the U.S. inadequate response to COVID-19, he called in two co-directors, because he wanted it to be finished before the 2020 election. Indeed, the film was finished just as Donald Trump tested positive for the virus, which was noted in the credits. The film makers had to deal with making a film during a pandemic, and one of their solutions was a complicated camera setup that allowed for interviews without fear of contagion. Totally Under Control is in the ripped-from-the-headlines school of documentaries, and it is impossible for it to tell the whole story, when that story isn't finished unfolding. Thus, the film, with its detailed timeline of events, will likely be more useful for historians looking to examine the period, than it is for us, who are living through it. Still, the movie is infuriating, as is intended.
Geezer Cinema: My Octopus Teacher (Pippa Ehrlich, James Reed, 2020).My Octopus Teacher tells the story of a man, Craig Foster, adrift in his own life who discovers new meaning in the waters off the coast of South Africa. It is a joy to watch, with beautiful underwater cinematography. Often I wondered how certain shots were achieved ... Foster is presented as a loner who swims alone, but clearly someone else has taken at least some of the photography. If you are like me, with limited knowledge of the world beneath the surface, just seeing the various animals is amazing. And I learned that some octopuses (most? all?) are rather small. This threw me off at times, because I assumed the star octopus was as huge as an alien monster, only to realize that it was much smaller than Foster. Foster falls in love with a particular octopus (there's no other way to put it), and in the process, learns about his life (hence, the film's title). Sometimes the film gives the impression that the octopus was only put on earth to illuminate the life of Craig Foster ... he does a lot of ruminating during the movie. But that's a bit unfair. The movie is properly titled "My Octopus Teacher" and not "Craig Foster Learns About Life", and Foster doesn't come across nearly as self-absorbed as I'm describing. In fact, he went on to co-found a project to protect marine life.