Newman and Woodward: Acting Up!

This week in New Plaza Cinema’s entertaining lecture series on the movies and the people who made them, film historian and author Max Alvarez talked about the 50-year creative partnership between Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, illustrated with numerous film clips. More than half a century ago (can this be true?) Paul Newman became my favorite actor with his portrayal of Ari Ben Canaan in Exodus, a status he cemented the next year in The Hustler.

So many of his great roles, were in the late 1950s and 60s (Brick in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof [1958], Hud in Hud, Luke in Cool Hand Luke, Butch in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Henry Gondorff in The Sting, Frank Galvin in The Verdict [1982]). Just the films mentioned garnered him twenty-five major award nominations, including seven Academy Award Best Actor nominations. Yet he didn’t receive an Oscar until 1986, for reprising his Hustler role as Fast Eddie Felson in The Color of Money.

While Newman was a dominant screen presence in those years, Woodward stayed more in the background, keeping her career secondary to her family role. (The couple has three daughters.) Nevertheless, accolades came early for Woodward. She won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her performance in The Three Faces of Eve (1957). Over his career, Newman acted in 57 feature films, and she in 27. They worked together—as actors, or with him directing—on 14 projects.

Newman and Woodward both arrived in New York in 1951, and, two years later, they met as understudies in Josh Logan’s Picnic, which gave Newman his Broadway debut. He arrived after Yale Drama School, and she, five years younger, studied in New York with Sanford Meisner in the Neighborhood Playhouse School of the Theatre. She never completely lost her Georgia accent. Though they both worked on Broadway, they’re best known for films. As Alvarez emphasized, in that era, Hollywood was willing to produce a fair amount of serious adult drama, many based on literary works, which was lucky for them.

Alvarez found screen tests of each of them with James Dean for the 1955 film, East of Eden, based on the John Steinbeck novel. Judging by their tests, either or both of them might have been at least as good as Elia Kazan’s ultimate picks, Richard Davalos and Julie Harris. (Commentators frequently note that Dean’s untimely death opened up roles for Newman that otherwise might have gone to the then better-known actor.)

Newman and Woodward’s first film together was The Long, Hot Summer (1958)(trailer), based on William Faulkner’s stories. During filming, they became a couple. Newman, already married with three children, needed a divorce before he and Woodward could wed.

Other notable collaborations for the pair were 1959’s From the Terrace (trailer), based on a John O’Hara novel. It was filmed mostly in New York to accommodate Newman’s Broadway acting schedule for Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth. In 1961, they appeared together in Paris Blues (trailer), with Newman on the trombone and Sidney Poitier on the saxophone. A jazz aficionado says Newman faked it pretty well. Newman directed Woodward in the low-budget Rachel, Rachel (1968)(interview with Newman and trailer), based on a novel by Margaret Laurence. The movie turned out to be both an artistic and surprise financial success. It was Newman’s directorial debut and led to his winning the Golden Globe and NY Film Critics Circle Award. Woodward also won those two awards. He also directed her in a 1986 film version of The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams (full movie), which features a young John Malkovich (worth seeing for that alone!).

Their final film together was the 1990 Merchant/Ivory production, Mr. and Mrs. Bridge (trailer), about a sheltered Kansas City couple who must grapple with the profound social changes surrounding World War II. To keep costs down, the film was shot in real locations in Kansas City and received donations of costumes and props, modest and not-so: 100 gallons of paint from Benjamin Moore and a dozen Tiffany lamps and 1930s paintings from a local law firm, for example. Woodward’s performance was especially praised. The New York Times said “there is a reserve, humor and desperation in their characterizations that enrich the very self-conscious flatness of the narrative terrain around them.”

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Indelible Film Memories

The creative partnership between Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro has produced some of the most memorable cinema of the last half-century. From Mean Streets (1973) to Raging Bull (1980) to The Irishman (2019), their movies “can be hard to watch and hard to shake off,” said film historian Max Alvarez. Alvarez presented his survey “DeNiro and Scorsese: An Intense Collaboration” last week as part of New Plaza Cinema’s highly entertaining lecture series.

Scorsese, a born New Yorker, grew up in Little Italy in a family where all four of his grandparents were immigrants from near Palermo, Sicily. Scorsese wasn’t a particularly good student, but he was fascinated by the movies. He has said the only college he could get into was NYU, where he eventually attended the Tisch School of the Arts. There, he started making short films, and his first feature-length film—1967’s Who’s That Knocking on My Door—signaled the start of another long-time collaboration, this one with Harvey Keitel.

Robert DeNiro, also a lifelong New Yorker, has a more ethnically diverse background. He was the only child of two artists, who separated when he was two. He grew up in the Greenwich Village and Little Italy neighborhoods, in what Alvarez called a “cultured and cultivated household.” He was sent to private schools and knew many artists of all types, who were friends of his parents, including Anaïs Nin, Tennessee Williams, and Henry Miller. He began studying acting in high school and went on to study at the Stella Adler school.

Interestingly, despite the cultural touchstones many of their movies have become, few of them actually made money. The exceptions were Taxi Driver (1976)and Goodfellas (1989). By the time that was made, DeNiro had already won his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for The Godfather Part II fifteen years earlier.

Scorsese’s films pioneered many techniques common today; the pop music soundtracks, the profanity that was uncommon previously, the film noir touches, especially in lighting, through the introduction of fast editing and CGI (used to de-age DeNiro in the early scenes of The Irishman, for example).

But even as he tried different projects—a musical, a comedy or two, a religious drama, a couple of psychological thrillers, a costume drama—and even though he’s worked with many other top stars—including Daniel Day-Lewis, Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Paul Newman—he keeps coming back to DeNiro. Maybe it’s that trust that allows the frequent use of improvised (or improvised, then polished) dialog that you sometimes see, as in Goodfellas. Scorsese says that DeNiro is gifted at bringing humanity to “characters who ordinarily would be villains.”

For a treat: Watch this YouTube video of Scorsese and DeNiro have dinner with Don Rickles (who played a straight role in Scorsese’s movie Casino, shown in the photo alongside).This filmed dinner was Rickles’s last performance.

Let the Oscar Countdown Begin!

Only three days until this year’s Academy Award ceremony, and if you haven’t seen all the movies in the overstuffed “best picture” category, there’s hardly time. This category needs to be broken up in some way so that viewers and voters are comparing apples to apples or at least to other fruit. Which is better, political commentary or pure entertainment? A film with a mega-million special effects budget or a small gem? A star-studded romp or exciting new talent? Ten choices are about twice too many. At the very least they should separate musicals from dramas, but of course that may just be my advocacy of West Side Story showing.

Let me admit up front I’ve seen only seven of the “Best Picture” nominees. No Don’t Look Up (sounded too baldly polemical), no Dune (though I loved the book), and no Drive My Car (too depressing and long). And here’s where they could pare the list further. Why is Drive My Car both a “Best Picture” and a “Best International Feature” nominee? Pick a category, please.

Tastes vary, and viewers who like one genre of movie may not resonate with another. In my pair of films in the “why was this nominated?” category, you may have a favorite Sorry! My mystery nominees are Nightmare Alley (though people tell me the 1947 original was better) and Licorice  Pizza. The corollary to the “why?” question is “why not?” Why wasn’t the awesome The Tragedy of Macbeth nominated?

One thing I’d say about all seven nominees I saw, is that the acting this past year has been great. Another thing that can be said about many of them is, they’re too long. Some judicious editing would have helped.

Here are my five top Oscar contenders, in reverse order:

Coda – one of those small sweet films that will never win, and, anyway, the plot was disappointingly predictable; loved the fish stuff
King Richard – great characters and great acting (yes! Aunjanue Ellis), and if I could ever remember how tennis matches are scored, I would have gotten more out of the looong, decisive match
West Side Story – perfection; loved that sly Riff (Mike Faist)
The Power of the Dog – a mystery; haunting music, beautiful scenery, horses!; too long
Belfast – beautiful acting, well directed, powerful historical story

Image by Gia Knight for Pixabay.

2022 AA Nominees: Live-Action Shorts

Academy Award, Oscar

Last weekend, our local movie theater showed this year’s Academy Award-nominated Live-Action Shorts. These do tend to be rather depressing, and this year’s nominees were no exception. Even so, we put ourselves through this, year after year, to see what talented filmmakers from around the world will come up with. Two are available for streaming using the links provided; otherwise, trailers are available.

You’ll have trouble believing this, but the most feel-good story was an end-of-life story from Denmark (which tells you something about the others). In “On My Mind,” a man (played by Rasmus Hammerich) wanders into a bar early one morning and seems determined to get drunk. He notices a karaoke machine and wants the sympathetic bartender (Camilla Bendix) to cue up “Always on My Mind” so he can sing it, and she can record it, for his dying wife. Alas, the bar-owner (Ole Boisen) is determined to complete work on his taxes, without distraction. Discussion ensues.

The satirical U.S. entry, “Please Hold,” (trailer) anticipates a future when law enforcement, incarceration, and legal aid are handled by drones and automated systems. The hero, a young Latino man (played by Erick Lopez) is arrested apparently for no reason and desperate to explain his plight to a human who can get him out of it. The film has quite a few funny bits, but overall it seems a cautionary tale of corporate technologists run amok. Kafka would love it.

“Alu Kachuu (Take and Run),” Switzerland’s entry (trailer), filmed in beautiful Kyrgyzstan, is the story of limited opportunities for women, made even more limited by forced marriage. Alina Turdumamatova plays the unwilling bride. Beautiful costumes! This film was shown last, and we were already so down in the dumps from two others that our mood colored reaction to this film, but it was excellent.

The Polish and UK entries (“The Dress” (trailer) and “The Long Goodbye,” respectively) were too depressing to revisit. Sorry.

Get Your Motor Running

Fifty-two years ago, Columbia Pictures released the low-budget film, Easy Rider (peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, Jack Nicholson) and saw its $400,000 investment balloon into more than $60 million in box office. Never an industry to ignore the possibility of a big payday, Hollywood got its motor running and two years later, the studios offered American audiences a rich diet of long hair, antisocial behavior, and oddball relationships.

With predictable results.

Despite the tepid audience reaction, in 1971, the industry here and in Britain produced intense, dramatic, even arty films that defy the year’s overall poor box office numbers. Film historian Max Alvarez highlighted a number of them in a Zoom program yesterday. Here are the ones I remember seeing that year. Remember these?

A Clockwork Orange – Stanley Kubrick’s adaptation of a book by Anthony Burgess starring Malcolm McDowell. In a dystopian London, a crime spree is led by a young man obsessed with “ultra-violence” (everyday fare in 2021). Warner Brothers.

Klute – Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland star in this noir drama about a high-priced call girl who helps a detective solve the case of a business executive who’s gone missing. Fonda won the Academy Award for Best Actress, and I fell in love with Donald Sutherland. There’s a talkback about this film on Sunday, 6/27. (free, but register)

Roman Polanski’s Macbeth – starring Francesca Annis and Jon Finch. What I most remember about this were complaints about “so much blood.” 1971 was the year Charles Manson and his family were convicted of multiple murders, including that of Polanski’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate. His response was that he’d seen that crime scene: “I know about blood.”

The French Connection – a crime thriller directed by William Friedkin, starring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider as NYPD detectives in pursuit of a wealthy French heroin smuggler. Even if you’ve never seen the whole movie, you’ve probably seen the car chase. Academy Awards for best picture, best director, best adapted screenplay, and best actor (Hackman). 20th Century Fox.

The Last Picture Show – based on a book by Larry McMurtry (Lonesome Dove), with Timothy Bottoms, Jeff Bridges, Ben Johnson, Cybill Shepherd, and Cloris Leachman. Shot in black and white, it well portrays the bleakness of small-town life. Leachman and Johnson won Academy Awards for their supporting roles.

Harold and Maude – starring Bud Cort and Ruth Gordon. This film was among the year’s subversive comedies that Alvarez highlighted. A flop at the box office, it found its way to college campuses where it became a cult classic.

The Hospital – this satire, written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Arthur Hiller, starred George C. Scott, Diana Rigg, and Robert Walden. Academy award for best original screenplay. Here’s a great scene.

The film was inspired in part by the poor hospital care his wife received, and Chayefsky became so leery of medical treatment that he didn’t get optimal care for his cancer and died at age 58.

Oscar and his Shorts

Academy Award, Oscar

It’s become increasingly easy to see the Academy Award-nominated short films—animated, documentaries, and live action, and I’ve enjoyed them a great deal.

The documentaries generally give an in-depth examination of some small aspect of life or interesting person, usually overlooked and often a moving testament to the human spirit. (I’m thinking about the former prison inmates taught to staff a high-end Cleveland restaurant in last year’s Knife Skills or Joe’s Violin from 2017.)  

The live action films explore myriad stories of the human condition—last year’s film about the deaf child who wanted to learn sign language—including lighter moments, such as the absurdly funny 2017 Spanish film, Timecode.

Not this year. The Academy process resulted in nominees of almost unrelieved bleakness. We skipped the documentaries (on racism, Nazism, dying, and the plight of refugees crossing the Mediterranean to Europe). The only film with a hopeful message was about young women in India trying to overcome the stigma of menstruation. That they needed to was discouraging enough. Maybe these films were truly outstanding, but the topics (except the last) are well-worn.

We had a similarly dubious assessment of the live action shorts nominees, noting the heavy “children in peril” theme, but made a last-minute decision to see them anyway. It would be a job of work to decide which was most depressing (links below are to trailers):

  • Madre (Spain) – the mother of a six-year-old has a shaky phone connection to her six-year-old son abandoned by his father and alone on a beach somewhere, he can’t tell her where. Great acting by Marta Nieto as the distraught and helpless mother. Director’s Notes.
  • Marguerite (Canada) – an elderly woman in failing health and her compassionate caregiver. Sweet acting, but breaks no new ground.
  • Fauve (Canada) – two children enter an abandoned, forbidden mine. Quicksand figures in. All I can say is, Why?
  • Skin (U.S.) – a heavily tattooed redneck, though a supportive father, lets his racism run rampant, which goes badly in an unexpected way. (Casting against type, FYI, the actor playing the dad is a ballet dancer.) Interesting, well-acted.
  • Detainment (Ireland)  – the most controversial of the films, it’s about a 1993 British case, in which two ten-year-old boys abducted, tortured, and murdered a two-year-old. The script is based on the police’s taped interviews with the boys. The actors playing the children and their parents do a remarkable job. It wasn’t easy for the detectives, either. The mother of the slain boy campaigned to have the film withdrawn from Oscar consideration because she hadn’t been interviewed for it; however, director Vincent Lambe wanted the actual police interviews to speak for themselves. The case has raised questions about the proper handling of juvenile defendants. In a chilling note, viewers are informed that the last two tapes from the interviews were deemed to disturbing to be heard by the jury and have never been revealed. Tough to watch but a strong contender.

Photo: David Torcivia, creative commons license

Oscar’s Foreign Language Contenders 2019

Only three of this year’s Oscar longlist for best foreign language film have made it to Princeton so far, at least that I’ve seen: The Guilty, Cold War, and Roma.

My favorite so far is the riveting Danish thriller, The Guilty. Alas, it didn’t make the final list of nominees, so it may be hard to catch.

Nevertheless, don’t miss a chance to see Gustav Möller’s The Guilty, which took home the Sundance World Cinema Audience Award (trailer). Danish policeman Asger Holm is assigned to answering emergency calls until he goes to court on some unspecified matter. He deals rather cavalierly with a man who calls complaining that a woman stole his laptop and wallet, once Asger figures out the man is calling from the red-light district and the woman was an Eastern European prostitute. But then the calls turn serious and he works desperately to rescue a kidnapped woman. You can’t take your eyes off him, and the camera almost never does. You hear what he hears and know what he knows. As he frantically tries to figure out how to rescue her, the suspense is almost unbearable. Jacob Cedergren as Asger is brilliant.
Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 99%; audiences: 90%.

The Polish nominee is Cannes Best Director Pawel Pawlikowski’s romance Cold War (trailer), which begins in the 1950s. The romance is doomed, though, because Zula, played by Joanna Kulig in a breakout role, can’t decide what she wants. Scenes of the communist-sponsored cultural performance troop, in which the peasant Zula’s lovely singing voice is discovered, are energetic and entertaining. She begins an on-again, off-again affair with the troop’s sophisticated conductor, Wiktor (played by Tomasz Kot), that over the next few decades is mostly off, to the regret of them both. Full of great music of many types and shot in lovely, deep black and white.
Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 92%; audiences 84%.

The other nominees are two films of a type Indie-Wire calls “poverty-row melodramas,” Hirozaku Kore-eda’s Shoplifters (Japan), winner of Cannes’ Palme d’Or, and Nadine Labaki’s Capernaum (Lebanon) which won the Cannes Jury Prize. In addition, there’s Roma (Mexico), sweet, but not great, in my opinion, and Never Look Away (Germany) from previous Oscar-winner Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, in which the Nazis take on “degenerate art.” You know, Picasso, Mondrian, Kandinsky, Paul Klee and their ilk. That one’s on the “coming soon” board.

Weekend Entertainments

It’s the season to squeeze in viewings of prospective Academy Award nominees. All four of these films and their cast members are in contention. Nominations to be announced January 22, and the awards ceremony will be February 24.

Vice

Word on the street is that this grim yet funny biopic, written and directed by Adam McKay (trailer), is slow. I didn’t find it so, absorbed as I was by McKay’s version of the dark mind and hollow soul of Dick Cheney, long-time Republican operative and George W. Bush’s vice-president.

Since everything is relative, we of short attention span might be tempted to look back on the Bush II Administration with some nostalgia, given . . . This movie is a bracing corrective to that impulse.

As Cheney, Christian Bale gets better and better as the film progresses and Cheney ages, from an irresponsible drunk to master puppeteer—“resilient, back-stabbing, front-stabbing, ruthlessly ambitious,” says Richard Roeper in the Chicago Sun-Times. Early on, we see the 9/11 scene in the White House situation room. (Our President, recall, was reading to a bunch of schoolchildren when that catastrophe unfolded.) While all the other national leaders sequestered in the White House basement are in shock, the narrator says, Cheney “saw an opportunity.”

He saw another one when approached by W (Golden Globe winner Sam Rockwell) to be his vice president. At first he demurs, but he recognizes that Bush is a blank slate. The guy hasn’t a clue. Cheney does. And the power-grab is on. Eventually, tasked with identifying a vice presidential candidate, he identifies himself.

Amy Adams revels in her role as Lynne Cheney/Lady Macbeth, and there’s even an apocryphal pillowtalk scene where she and Dick recite Shakespeare’s lines to each other.

As he did in The Big Short, McKay breaks the fourth wall to demonstrate what he’s suggesting with visuals puns and sly humor. If this film is slow, it’s slow like a steamroller, flattening everything and everyone in its path. Stay for the credits. There’s a bit more movie partway thru.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 62%; audiences: 54%.

Beautiful Boy

Director Felix Van Groeningen’s film recreation of the stories of David Sheff and his son Nic Sheff, and their family’s struggle against Nic’s drug addiction is tough to watch (trailer). But only if you’ve ever been the parent of a teenager or been a teenager yourself. There are times and circumstances when parental love becomes unbearable for them all. Although, like the relapses of addiction itself, the action occasionally becomes repetitive, Steve Carell as the frantic father and Timothée Chalamet as Nic are heartbreaking. Maura Tierny as Nic’s stepmom and Amy Ryan as his biological mother provide powerful performances too.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 67%; audiences 77%.

The Favourite

An entertaining costume drama about three real-life women, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos and written by Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara (trailer). Poor Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) was truly a sad character in real life, plagued by ill health, and, despite 17 pregnancies, leaving no heir. Her reign was short (1702-1714), and she was a widow for half of it. Several strong women were her dueling confidants (Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone). Beautiful costumes, fantastic acting, especially by Colman. I wish the filmmaker had been drawn less to the rumors of lesbianism, which are discounted by many historians, and more to the politics of the time. It was in Queen Anne’s reign that Great Britain was formed, for example. Plus, the Worst Credits Ever.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 94%; audiences: 61%.

Roma

Beautiful black and white photography in this highly praised autobiographical movie written and directed by Alfonso Cuarón (trailer). And compelling acting by the nonprofessional cast, particularly Yalitza Aparicio as Cleo, the put-upon maid of a four-child household in domestic turmoil. She keeps them together, literally and spiritually. I thought I’d read that she is unappreciated, but she isn’t or perhaps the filmmaker is atoning for a lapse in his own history. It’s pleasant and pretty but breaks no new ground—“quotidian and extraordinary at the same time,” said Gary M. Kramer in Salon.com. Now this one is slow.Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 96%; audiences: 83%.

Oscar-Ready? The Long & the Short of It: Call Me by Your Name & the Live-Action Shorts

Call Me by Your Name

Call Me by Your Name

Timothée Chalamet & Armie Hammer

This languorous film based on James Ivory’s adaptation of a novel by André Aciman and directed by Luc Guadagnino (trailer) conjures all the steamy possibilities of youth in summertime. The drowsily buzzing flies, lying in tall grass whose sun-baked scent practically wafts over the audience, the lure of the river’s cool and limpid water, outdoor dinners on the patio. Guadagnino makes best use of his setting “somewhere in northern Italy.”

Timothée Chalamet has received well-deserved raves for his portrayal of Elio Perlman, the 17-year-old son of two intellectuals (played by Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar). He beautifully portrays the confusions of late adolescence, diffidence alternating with aggression, the attraction both to Parisian Marzia (Esther Garrel) and, more strongly, to his father’s summer intern Oliver (Armie Hammer). He also plays the piano with bravura skill. “Is there anything you can’t do?” Oliver asks him and the same question might be put to Chalamet. All the music works, from Chalamet’s playing, to the soundtrack, to dance tunes broadcast on tinny car radios.

The attraction between Elio and Oliver is immediate, but builds slowly, and when they finally do reveal how they feel, “the moment makes you hold your breath with its intimate power,” says Christy Lemire for RogerEbert.com, “and the emotions feel completely authentic and earned.” And from there, to a final few days together, their emotional strength symbolized, perhaps, by the shift from the still waters of the swimming hole to crashing mountain waterfalls. Elio’s father is given an excellent, warmhearted speech to his son about the value of powerful feelings, even wretched ones.

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 96%; audiences, 86%.

LIVE-ACTION SHORTS
The five Oscar-nominated live action shorts this year have a “ripped from the headlines” feeling,  with three of them based on real events. ShortsTV has trailers for all five.

DeKalb Elementary, by U.S. filmmaker Reed Van Dyk came with a trigger warning. It shows a white shooter entering a school and how the black receptionist, through a combination of kindness and cunning, has to try to talk him out of carrying out either violence against the children or suicide-by-cop. Inspired by a 2013 incident in Georgia. (20 minutes)

With The Silent Child, U.K. filmmakers Chris Overton and Rachel Shenton make the case for teaching deaf children sign language, using the story of a sweet young girl whose parents expect her only to lipread. She comes out of her shell when she’s tutored by a sensitive aide. (20 minutes)

My Nephew Emmett recounts the tragic story of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black child from Chicago murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after somehow offending a white woman. Though the story is a touchstone of Civil Rights outrage, U.S. filmmaker Kevin Wilson, Jr., gives it fresh interest by telling it from the uncle’s point of view. (20 minutes)

The Eleven o’Clock is a hilarious demonstration of confused communication. A psychiatrist, waiting for his new patient, knows only that the man believes he too is a psychiatrist. The encounter between the two of them, each trying to establish clinical control, is cleverly constructed by Australian filmmakers Derin Seale and Josh Lawson. (13 minutes)

In Watu Wote/All of Us, also based on a real episode, German filmmakers Katja Benrath and Tobias Rosen show a Christian woman’s uneasy interactions with her Muslim fellow-passengers on a long busride through the Kenyan countryside. Then the bus is stopped by well-armed Islamic militants bent on murdering non-Muslims. (22 minutes)

Try to see some of these excellent short films!

Award-Nominated Movies: The Shape of Water & The Greatest Showman

Shape of WaterThe Shape of Water
The acting alone is a good reason to see writer-director Guillermo del Toro’s romantic fantasy (trailer), written with Vanessa Taylor, although the origins of the story are now in dispute. The film received 13 Academy Award nominations, the most for any 2017 movie, including best picture, writing, directing, best actress, best supporting actor and actress (Jenkins and Spencer), cinematography, and costumes.

Elisa Esposito (played by Sally Hawkins, who was terrific last year in Maudie) plays a mute young woman who, with her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer), is a cleaner at a sketchy 1960s military research facility. The researchers bring in a merman-like creature (the unrecognizable Doug Jones) found in the Amazon, whom they mistreat, believing him violent, but whom Elisa befriends. If you’ve seen the previews, you get the idea.

Playing the heavy is a furious Michael Shannon,  Elisa’s neighbor and friend is Richard Jenkins, and a scientist more interested in saving the “monster” than killing him is Michael Stuhlbarg. All three are super!

Even if you aren’t a fantasy fan, there’s lots of drama and a warm core to this film you may enjoy. I did. As “an enchanting reimagining of ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ it is an unforgettably romantic, utterly sublime, dazzling phantasmagoria,” said Colin Covert, reviewer for the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Rotten Tomatoes critics’ rating: 92%; audiences, 78%.

Greatest Showman The Greatest Showman
By contrast, this movie musical of the P.T. Barnum story (trailer) directed by Michael Gracey disappointed, especially because the songs were by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (fellow U-Mich grads!) who wrote lyrics for La La Land and music and lyrics for the Tony-winning Broadway hit, Dear Evan Hansen.

Talented Hugh Jackman (as Barnum) sells it, but there’s little “it” there. He apparently wanted to do Barnum’s story for some time, but couldn’t get backing. Although the film received three Golden Globe nominations (best musical or comedy, best actor in a musical or comedy for Jackman) and won for best song (Pasek and Paul), Oscar took a pass.

You may enjoy the movie’s spectacle aspects, but it will require you to pause your brain. Plot holes make it hard to stay interested in the story, which is in part Barnum’s highly fictionalized career and in part the love story between him and his wife (nicely played by Michelle Williams).

OK, it’s a musical, so it’s the musical numbers that should shine. The pop-music songs were just bearable until Barnum met The Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson). She has an eye-roller of a pop number (lip-synced, by the way; the real singer is Loren Allred), so contrary to how an internationally famous singer in 1850 would have sounded that the artifice of the whole production collapses under its own absurdity. As San Francisco Chronicle reviewer Mick LaSalle wrote, “It’s an awful mess, but it’s flashy,” calling it “The perfect realization of a really bad idea.”

Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 55%; audiences: 89%.