Tag Archives: 2023

Notes on the 2024 Oscars

Best Picture

Another very strong batch of films this year; I enjoyed all of them to varying degrees and don’t recognize a dud in the bunch. Each of my top 3 personal picks for best movie of the year are here, along with a couple more from my top 15. At this point in the race, it seems Oppenheimer is the clear frontrunner with Killers Of The Flower Moon as a distant dark horse. Its presence here with Barbie calls to mind the Barbenheimer craze that came to define 2023 in cinema. Awarding a box office juggernaut like Oppenheimer with Best Picture will give the Academy an opportunity to appeal to a broader audience, as they have been trying to do for years.

My Prediction: Oppenheimer
My Vote: Oppenheimer
Overlooked: All Of Us Strangers

Best Director

A strong batch of candidates here, with a similar narrative to Best Picture as Nolan is assuredly the one to beat with Scorsese — still one of our finest living filmmakers — firmly in second place. Nolan has been putting out such consistently high quality work for 25 years now that I’m personally very excited for him to be taking home his first Academy Award. That it’s for one of his most accomplished works in Oppenheimer is a nice cherry on top. It would have been nice to see Greta Gerwig or Sean Durkin here, who each have a trio of features under their belts that demonstrate a high watermark for quality.

My Prediction: Christopher Nolan
My Vote: Christopher Nolan
Overlooked: Sean Durkin – The Iron Claw

Best Actor

This category looks to be a two horse race between Murphy for Oppenheimer and Giamatti for The Holdovers. Two respected actors who have done excellent work for years but have yet to take home Oscar gold — though Giamatti was nominated as Best Supporting Actor in Cinderella Man. At this point, I think Murphy has the wind at his back and will be heading up to the stage for the Best Actor trophy. His haunted performance in Oppenheimer gives that movie so much of its undeniable power and while Giamatti is certainly affecting in The Holdovers, it doesn’t have the same level of impact.

My Prediction: Cillian Murphy
My Vote: Cillian Murphy
Overlooked: Nicolas Cage – Dream Scenario

Best Actress

Best Actress also seems to be coming down to two performers — Lily Gladstone and Emma Stone — who have been trading off awards this season. Regardless of who wins, Gladstone’s nomination marks the first time an Indigenous American actress has been nominated for an Academy Award. I’m sure she’ll give a heck of a speech if she ends up winning but I feel like Stone has the lead at this point. Her performance in Poor Things is likely my favorite acting in all of 2023 and I imagine the voting pool for Actress will also find it similarly irresistible.

My Prediction: Emma Stone
My Vote: Emma Stone
Overlooked: Phoebe Dynevor – Fair Play

Best Supporting Actor

My Prediction: Robert Downey Jr.
My Vote: Robert Downey Jr.
Overlooked: Charles Melton – May December

Best Supporting Actress

  • Emily Blunt – Oppenheimer
  • Danielle Brooks – The Color Purple
  • America Ferrera – Barbie
  • Jodie Foster – Nyad
  • Da’Vine Joy Randolph – The Holdovers

My Prediction: Da’Vine Joy Randolph
My Vote: Da’Vine Joy Randolph
Overlooked: Ayo Edebiri – Bottoms

Some fun choices here; I’m delighted the Academy felt Ryan Gosling was good Kenough to be nominated for Barbie. Supporting Actor is especially strong, with Ruffalo putting in career-best work for Poor Things and De Niro reminding us through a monstrous character why he’s still one of the greats. But Downey Jr. seems difficult to overcome in this category, shining brilliantly in a villainous role after playing the heroic Iron Man for numerous MCU entries. Sadly, Supporting Actress is more underwhelming this year and Randolph has virtually gone undefeated in this category during awards season, so her win seems like one of the strongest locks of the night.

Best Original Screenplay

My Prediction: The Holdovers
My Vote: The Holdovers
Overlooked: Afire

Best Adapted Screenplay

My Prediction: Oppenheimer
My Vote: Oppenheimer
Overlooked: Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse

Best Animated Feature Film

My Prediction: Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse
My Vote: Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse
Overlooked: Suzume

Best International Feature Film

My Prediction: The Zone Of Interest
My Vote: The Zone Of Interest
Overlooked: Fallen Leaves

Best Documentary – Feature

  • Bobi Wine: The People’s President
  • The Eternal Memory
  • Four Daughters
  • To Kill A Tiger
  • 20 Days In Mariupol

My Prediction: 20 Days In Mariupol
My Vote: 20 Days In Mariupol
Overlooked: Lakota Nation vs. United States

Best Documentary – Short Subject

  • The ABCs Of Book Banning
  • The Barber Of Little Rock
  • Island In Between
  • The Last Repair Shop
  • Nǎi Nai & Wài Pó

My Prediction: The ABCs Of Book Banning
My Vote: The Last Repair Shop
Overlooked: —

Best Live Action Short Film

  • The After
  • Invincible
  • Knight Of Fortune
  • Red, White And Blue
  • The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar

My Prediction: The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar
My Vote: The Wonderful Story Of Henry Sugar
Overlooked: —

Best Animated Short Film

  • Letter To A Pig
  • Ninety-Five Senses
  • Our Uniform
  • Pachyderme
  • War Is Over! Inspired By The Music Of John And Yoko

My Prediction: Letter To A Pig
My Vote: Pachyderme
Overlooked: —

Best Production Design

My Prediction: Barbie
My Vote: Barbie
Overlooked: Asteroid City

Best Cinematography

My Prediction: Oppenheimer
My Vote: Oppenheimer
Overlooked: Saltburn

Best Costume Design

My Prediction: Barbie
My Vote: Poor Things
Overlooked: A Haunting In Venice

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

My Prediction: Maestro
My Vote: Poor Things
Overlooked: Barbie

Best Original Score

My Prediction: Oppenheimer
My Vote: Oppenheimer
Overlooked: The Boy And The Heron

Best Original Song

  • “The Fire Inside” from Flamin’ Hot
  • “I’m Just Ken” from Barbie
  • “It Never Went Away” from American Symphony
  • “Wahzhazhe (A Song for My People)” from Killers Of The Flower Moon
  • “What Was I Made For?” from Barbie

My Prediction: “What Was I Made For?”
My Vote: “What Was I Made For?”
Overlooked: “Camp Isn’t Home” from Theater Camp

Best Sound

My Prediction: Oppenheimer
My Vote: The Zone Of Interest
Overlooked: The Killer

Best Film Editing

My Prediction: Oppenheimer
My Vote: Oppenheimer
Overlooked: How To Blow Up A Pipeline

Best Visual Effects

My Prediction: Godzilla Minus One
My Vote: Godzilla Minus One
Overlooked: Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves

Enjoy the show!

My Top 10 Films of 2023

Undoubtedly, the year in film was defined by Barbenheimer, the simultaneous release of Barbie and Oppenheimer in the middle of the summer that generated almost a billion dollars at the box office in the US alone. Conversely, the months-long concurrent labor disputes between the writers and actors unions against the studios put Hollywood on standstill and delayed numerous productions. But a resolution was reached in early November and, through it all, the movies marched on. I watched just under 200 new releases in 2023; these are my 10 favorites:

  1. The Holdovers (streaming on Peacock and available to rent/buy)
    Alexander Payne’s acerbic yet tender tale of a trio holed up at a New England boarding school for Christmas break is a new holiday classic. David Hemingson’s first feature script is filled with innumerable quotable lines and Payne’s directorial touches beautifully evoke the film’s early 1970s aesthetic. It wouldn’t surprise me if Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, and Dominic Sessa all score Oscar nominations later this month for their performances here.
  2. Fair Play (streaming on Netflix)
    The most striking film debut of the year, this workplace thriller is almost unbearably tense at times but well worth the ride. Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich are magnificent as a newly engaged couple whose relationship implodes after one receives a promotion over the other at a ruthless hedge fund firm. Writer-director Chloe Domont paces her tale of ambition and passion breathlessly and announces herself as one of the best new filmmakers to watch in the coming years.
  3. Afire (streaming on The Criterion Channel and available to rent/buy)
    Part of German director Christian Petzold’s series of movies loosely inspired by the classical elements, the follow-up to 2020’s Undine is a smoldering evocation of the insulated worlds writers create for themselves. What starts as a story of a pair of artists looking for inspiration during holiday at a house by the Baltic Sea turns into a bizarre love triangle. Thomas Schubert is brilliant as an author whose best work may be behind him but who may still have a spark of inspiration left somewhere inside him.
  4. The Iron Claw (now playing in theaters)
    The tragic true story of the Von Erich family of wrestlers is told with strapping compassion and wrenching heartbreak by writer-director Sean Durkin. The fraternal bonds are deeply felt throughout, particularly in the electrifying performances by Zac Efron and Jeremy Allen White. I don’t typically have much of a soft spot for sports biopics but I was barely holding back tears by the time this film reached its cogent conclusion.
  5. Spider-Man: Across The Spider-Verse (streaming on Netflix and available to rent/buy)
    Despite ending on a cliffhanger that won’t be concluded until next year at the earliest, this sequel to the Best Animated Feature Academy Award winner is somehow an improvement on its already stellar predecessor. Where Into introduced a new style of frenetic animated action, Across developed its palette even more with emotive watercolor sequences that are stunning in their expressivity. Who knows when Beyond will be released but Sony Animation has captured lightning in a bottle again with another web-slinging dynamo.
  6. All Of Us Strangers (now playing in theaters)
    English filmmaker Andrew Haigh delivers another stunner with a powerful cathartic energy all its own. Andrew Scott is outstanding as a wayward screenwriter desperate for connection and finding it in imagined relationships that no less feel real to him. The soundtrack is filled with top-tier needle drops and the variegated cinematography by Jamie D. Ramsay bolsters the story’s warmth and intimacy.
  7. Dream Scenario (available to rent/buy)
    Nicolas Cage finds another indie winner after 2021’s sublime Pig in this dark comedy that feels like a direct descendant of Spike Jonze classics Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Writer-director Kristoffer Borgli’s clever take on viral fame and its inevitable backlash is both sneakily incisive and and caustically hilarious. Once again, Cage is the key to making this weird world — in which people around the world start inexplicably seeing his milquetoast character in their dreams — work.
  8. Poor Things (now playing in theaters)
    Emma Stone turns in first-rate work in this cattywampus journey of sexual exploration and self-discovery that is bound to push buttons. Director Yorgos Lanthimos continues to let his freak flag fly with a steampunk Victorian rendering that’s both lavish and lascivious. The Favourite and The Great scribe Tony McNamara pens another witty winner with pithy exchanges and indelible insight into human nature.
  9. The Zone Of Interest (now playing in theaters)
    Holocaust movies are never an easy watch but writer-director Jonathan Glazer finds a wholly new way to thoughtfully interrogate the atrocities of the period and those who committed them. Set in an idyllic family home of a Nazi commandant within earshot of Auschwitz, their everyday lives are faintly scored by the implied violence occurring outside of their fortified gardens. The banality of evil has never been so exquisitely examined on film before.
  10. Oppenheimer (available to rent/buy)
    It may have been half of the Barbenheimer phenomenon but Christopher Nolan’s 3-hour biopic about the creator of the first atomic bomb was an unmissable event all its own. The finest ensemble cast of the year sported career-best turns from the likes of Cillian Murphy and Robert Downey Jr., with loads of other welcome faces along the way. Ludwig Göransson’s musical score is his most stirring work yet and the tireless efforts of editor Jennifer Lame tie this masterpiece about duty and betrayal together like no one else could.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Poor Things

Poor Things, the recent recipient of a record-setting 7 awards from the Indiana Film Journalists Association, is a lot. Then again, it never pretends it isn’t. The opening shot is awash with what seems like a thousand hues of blue, cerulean bleeding into cobalt as a woman with her back to the camera prepares to jump off a bridge. This is the latest grandiose vision from director Yorgos Lanthimos, whose previous film The Favourite was a provocative take on the costume drama and his newest is certain to widen some eyes in the audience as well. But unlike the recent Saltburn, Lanthimos’ provocations are borne organically from the story that he’s telling and convey a deeper subtext than simply being shocking for the sake of being shocking.

Emma Stone gives a career-best turn as Bella Baxter, a young woman living under the care of deformed surgeon Dr. Godwin Baxter (Willem Dafoe). We learn that Godwin found Bella moments after she attempted suicide and tapped into his mad scientist side to reanimate her while she still had a bit of brain activity left. The experiment saved Bella’s life but left her with the mental capacity of an infant, able to form rudimentary sentences and discover the world around her anew. Helping her along is one of Godwin’s students Max McCandles (Ramy Youssef), who quickly develops feelings for Bella while assisting her. But when Godwin’s brash lawyer Duncan Wedderburn (Mark Ruffalo) stops by the house one day, he sets out to free Bella from her bondage and travel across the world.

The world of Poor Things is entirely its own but it begins in a version of Victorian London with steam engines and resurrection machines and incorporates even more anachronisms and impossibilities as the setting expands further. The production design is a swirling canvas of Terry Gilliam-esque futurism with German Expressionist monumentalism, a surreal palette upon which to tell this exceedingly peculiar journey. With his music score, composer Jerskin Fendrix finds appropriately wonky motifs to weave into the music. For instance, Bella’s theme sounds like a harp that is being played in a giant sink filled with dirty dishwater, its undulating timbres matching the uneven steps of Bella’s toddler-like gait.

If this all sounds oppressively weird, Emma Stone’s transcendent performance alone makes Poor Things well worth seeing. It’s a tremendously physical role, requiring her to mimic the movements of a newborn at the outset and then slowly recalibrating motor skills as her character finds her footing. But it’s also language-centric work, and exceptionally funny to boot, as Bella starts with choppy phonetics and soon forms more complex sentences with abandon for tact or social grace. The notion of “polite society” is examined through numerous lenses and through her character, Stone navigates the contradictions and quandaries that the so-called cultured class throws her way. Tony McNamara, who also wrote the biting screenplay for The Favourite, gives her devilishly humorous lines to play with all the way along.

Poor Things is getting all sorts of critical acclaim, and rightfully so, but I must confess a tiny gripe with the movie and that’s with some of the cinematography by Lanthimos regular Robbie Ryan. He’s a terrific DP, responsible not only for The Favourite but other exquisitely-shot films like C’mon C’mon and long take fantasia Medusa Deluxe from earlier this year. Here, he uses a myriad of film lenses to contribute to the movie’s otherworldly field but overdoes it in a few places. At several points, he uses a lens so narrow that it looks like a porthole on a cruise ship and it comes across as a bit too forced for my tastes. During a rollicking dance scene like the one from The Favourite, he even moves to handheld with this constrained focus and the results are fussy and overindulgent. Having said that, it’s a minor nitpick and certainly doesn’t keep Poor Things from remaining a major artistic achievement from one of the most fascinating filmmakers around at the moment.

Score – 4.5/5

More movies coming to theaters this weekend:
Aquaman And The Lost Kingdom, starring Jason Momoa and Patrick Wilson, is a superhero sequel in which Aquaman is forced to protect Atlantis and his loved ones from devastation after an ancient power is unleashed by Manta obtaining the cursed Black Trident.
Anyone But You, starring Sydney Sweeney and Glen Powell, is a romantic comedy about a pair of young attractive people who pretend to be a couple during a destination wedding in Australia, even though they secretly hate each other.
Migration, starring Kumail Nanjiani and Elizabeth Banks, is an animated adventure comedy about a family of ducks who try to convince their overprotective father to go on the vacation of a lifetime.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Eileen

Early on in the new thriller Eileen, we’re tipped off to the fact that something about the title character may be a little off. Played with tremulous longing by Thomasin McKenzie, Eileen creeps on a couple making out in a cliffside car and does little to resist sexual urges for guards at the corrections facility where she works. Anything to get away from the cruddy reality of her Massachusetts life in winter, bogged down by the obligations to look after her alcoholic father Jim (Shea Whigham) and to put up with the hectoring of her co-workers. Then comes Rebecca (Anne Hathaway), the new prison psychologist whose platinum blonde hair shines like a beacon in Eileen’s bleak existence. The two share cigarettes and conversation at work and soon become friends outside work as well but something darker lurks below their burgeoning relationship.

Based on the acclaimed 2015 novel of the same name, Eileen is an intoxicating film noir that oozes with both sumptuous style and pernicious undercurrents. Though the film takes place in the 1960s, it more closely resembles Technicolor white-knucklers of the 1950s like Niagara and Dial M For Murder in terms of narrative inertia and intent. The title card sets the mood brilliantly: a static shot of Eileen’s dashboard as her crummy car slowly fills with exhaust, with Richard Reed Parry’s music score emulating urgent Bernard Herrmann-style strings underneath. Director William Oldroyd lays out the plight of Eileen’s daily life so thoroughly in the opening scenes that when Rebecca shows up that one fateful day at Moorehead prison, we’re as lured in by her beguiling opulence as Eileen is.

Though she’s performed variations on the femme fatale role in The Dark Knight Rises and Serenity, Hathaway in Eileen is playing a more archetypical seductress like that ones that screen legends Barbara Stanwyck and Lana Turner perfected in the 1940s. Marked by worldly candor and breathy beauty, her Rebecca has an agenda that isn’t much more obvious to us in the audience than it is for Eileen on-screen but it’s alluring either way. While Hathaway plays all the right notes of mystery and eroticism in her performance, her Massachusetts accent too often falls prey to Transatlantic and British dialectical detours. It’s an aspect of the film that’s a bit hard to shake off, since her character is meant to be casting a spell and the wrong-sounding word or phrase can quickly shatter the illusion.

McKenzie, on the other hand, gives the more accomplished performance overall and, specifically, weaves together a linguistic timbre that is absolutely authentic from start to finish. Whether her character is murmuring words under her breath or shouting obscenities, her articulations and non-rhoticity remain consistent. You would never know that McKenzie’s native accent is New Zealand, given that she pulls off various dialects so convincingly; she’s done Cornish in The King, “standard American” in Leave No Trace and German in Jojo Rabbit. She also does a British variation in Last Night In Soho, another film about a mousy introvert who gets taken in by a blonde beauty. She’s only 23 but given what McKenzie has shown us so far, her acting talents will continue to astonish for years to come.

If Eileen falters for some, it’ll be with its audacious third act, which pushes the storyline into even psychologically darker territory than the film noir genre tends to go. It’s not the most tactful of shifts from Oldroyd but the husband and wife screenwriting duo of Luke Goebel and Ottessa Moshfegh, the latter of whom wrote the book upon which the movie is based, keep things from veering too off track. DP Ari Wegner also tinges the frame with an inviting warmth that’s a well-conceived foil to the grimy and cold street-level settings. Though there are narrative and performance elements that keep it from greatness, Eileen is a frosty-paned noir throwback that titillates at every turn.

Score – 3.5/5

New movies coming this week:
Playing only in theaters is Wonka, a fantasy musical starring Timothée Chalamet and Calah Lane detailing the origin story of chocolatier Willy Wonka as he dreams of opening a shop in a city renowned for its sweet confections.
Streaming on Paramount+ is Finestkind, a crime thriller starring Ben Foster and Jenna Ortega following two estranged brothers as they hatch a deal with a Boston crime syndicate, with unexpected consequences for the pair as well as their father.
Premiering on Apple TV+ is The Family Plan, an action comedy starring Mark Wahlberg and Michelle Monaghan about a former top assassin living incognito as a suburban dad who must take his unsuspecting family on the run when his past catches up to him.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Dream Scenario

Nicolas Cage must know that he’s on our minds. Between GIFs, memes and the 100+ films in which he’s starred over the past 40 years, it can be a challenge getting through the week without seeing his face pop up at least once somewhere. His latest, the outstanding absurdist comedy Dream Scenario, seems to play with the idea of his unavoidable persona and the specific space he inhabits in our collective cultural subconscious. Like the shadow version of last year’s reflexive The Unbearable Weight Of Massive Talent, in which Cage played multiple versions of himself, this film deals with the consequences of a meteoric rise to fame. Sure, other movies have tackled the rise and fall arc of immediate notoriety under various circumstances but Norwegian writer-director Kristoffer Borgli brings a unique sense of fatalism and irony to the familiar narrative.

Cage stars as Paul Matthews, a biology professor so milquetoast that he perfectly encapsulates the Thoreau quote of “men [who] lead lives of quiet desperation.” In between his college lectures and his time at home with his wife Janet (Julianne Nicholson) along with their daughters, he plots a book about ant intelligence that he can’t seem to actually start. But then a strange incident keeps occurring to Paul: strangers recognize him. When he presses them, it turns out that he’s been popping up in their dreams, not even as the focal point but commonly as a bystander observing the main events. So many people begin to see him in their dreams that it becomes a worldwide phenomenon and so, this mild-mannered nobody is thrust into the spotlight, even if it’s not the manner in which he expected. But when everyone’s dreams turn into violent nightmares, the backlash is even more intense than the wave of appreciation that preceded it.

Dream Scenario is simultaneously a Kafkaesque and Charlie Kaufman-esque parable about men who say they value their anonymity but get visibly excited when a Like count on their Facebook post hits double digits. Of course, what distinguishes this movie from others about a swift rise to ubiquitousness is that Paul doesn’t have any control over what’s making him so popular. No one, least of whom Paul, can explain why he’s visiting random people during their sleep cycles and, of course, he has no say in what he’s doing in them. Borgli takes this high-concept premise to explore the ideas of identity and intention in the internet age, where captured moments and floating faces can go viral in a heartbeat. He calls to mind the notion that no matter the size and scale of our interactions, we can never completely manage how people perceive us.

Recalling his dual role in Adaptation, in which he plays struggling screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and his fictitious brother Donald, Cage is pitch-perfect as a man so meek and mired that it’s hard not to feel bad for him. We learn early on that, sadly, the more Paul attempts to take hold of the bizarre situation, the harder he will likely fail. He returns the call from a PR firm, headed by a hilarious Michael Cera, who doesn’t understand the origin of Paul’s fame but wants to capitalize on it all the same. He tries to parlay the prompt popularity for an invite to a colleague’s dinner party that he previously wasn’t cool enough to attend but the evening goes wildly astray. Those who lament in watching protagonists engage in Sisyphean efforts to overcome their circumstances may be driven mad by Dream Scenario but, as a huge fan of Cage’s virtuosic pathos, I was delighted.

Of course, the film also calls back to another Spike Jonze project in Being John Malkovich, but almost in reverse; where that movie was about everyone trying to get into one celebrity’s head, Dream Scenario is about a reluctant celebrity trying to get out of everyone else’s. Like Malkovich, it also evokes how we strive to spice up the mundane nature of everyday life with pop culture fixations. Paul’s increasingly threatening pervasiveness in people’s dreams naturally points to Freddy Krueger from the A Nightmare On Elm Street series, which Borgli cleverly integrates in the third act. An iconic costume from an iconic concert film is also implemented as a lynchpin for a tender memory between Paul and Janet, similar to one that would appear in Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind. Despite its modern sensibilities, Dream Scenario‘s central theme of how we perceive one another is timeless and endlessly resonant.

Score – 4.5/5

New movies coming this week:
Playing only in theaters is The Boy And The Heron, an animated fantasy film starring Robert Pattinson and Christian Bale about a boy who discovers an abandoned tower in his new town after his mother’s death and enters a fantastical world with a talking grey heron.
Streaming on Netflix is Leave The World Behind, a psychological thriller starring Julia Roberts and Mahershala Ali about a family’s getaway to a luxurious rental home that takes an ominous turn when a cyberattack knocks out their devices and two strangers appear at their door.
Premiering on Amazon Prime is Merry Little Batman, an animated action comedy starring Luke Wilson and Yonas Kibreab about Bruce Wayne’s son Damian safeguarding his home and the rest of Gotham City from supervillains during the holiday season.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Saltburn

Academy Award-winning writer-director Emerald Fennell follows up her provocative breakout Promising Young Woman with another button-pusher in the new stately and seductive psychological dramedy Saltburn. Where Fennell’s previous effort targeted rape culture and male entitlement in the States, her latest takes place across the pond and focuses on class disparities and resentments in England. It’s an ever-shifting mirrorball of a movie, resembling a ritzier redo of The Talented Mr. Ripley one moment and then an especially twisted version of a Jane Austen tale the next. Though it can undoubtedly spin out of control at times, the performances and mise-en-scène ultimately sell its brash vision of sociopathic caste warfare.

Miles from his sweet and sensitive turn in The Banshees Of Inisherin last year, Barry Keoghan stars as Oliver Quick, a prickly undergrad struggling to make friends during his first year at Oxford University. After a serendipitous favor, he’s taken under the wing of the fantastically well-off Felix (Jacob Elordi) and invited to Saltburn, his family’s opulent estate, for school break. Braving the sweltering summer sun with them are Felix’s posh parents Lady Elspeth (Rosamund Pike) and Sir James (Richard E. Grant), along with his licentious sister Venetia (Alison Oliver) and his contumelious cousin Farleigh (Archie Madekwe). They spend the days donning tuxedos for pick-up tennis and the nights singing Pet Shop Boys karaoke, all with a full martini glass in hand for every moment. But underneath the hazy-minded fun, a more deviant game is afoot.

Holding over from Promising Young Woman, Carey Mulligan pops up in a brief role as an oblivious hanger-on of Elspeth’s who portends Oliver’s fate should he remain at Saltburn past his welcome. The stoic Paul Rhys rounds out the exceptional ensemble as the head butler, who seems to be holding back so much that he wishes he could say at every moment. But it’s ultimately Keoghan’s show and, indeed, he puts on quite the perverse spectacle; he’s played creepy before in The Green Knight and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer but this is his most unnerving performance to date. Though his frame is noticeably more diminutive than 6′ 5″ co-stars Elordi and Madekwe, Keoghan gives Oliver an imposing disposition that implies his threat is more psychological than physical.

Shooting with lurid colors in a more constrained aspect ratio, cinematographer Linus Sandgren contributes to the lecherous and voyeuristic vibe that Fennell aims to impart with Saltburn. Oliver is frequently framed as an outsider, peering through doorways and windows into a privileged life that he desperately desires for himself. The question is who will he become once he’s granted access inside such a life and the answer may turn off those who most enjoy movies where you can guiltlessly root for the protagonist. At the very least, Keoghan does everything to sell his character’s trajectory as the summer trudges on.

But like in Promising Young Woman, Fennell can’t help but hit us over the head with the messaging and plotting in the final act. In a way, it’s more disappointing in Saltburn, since there’s so much subtlety in the performances — by Keoghan and Elordi, in particular — that gets wiped out by Fennell’s garish storytelling instincts. I was gobstruck when she opted for a “what you didn’t see” montage in the final stretch; my hope is that Fennell starts to trust her audience a bit more her next time out. She does, at least, score a barnburner of a closing scene that doesn’t necessarily add much to the narrative but is irresistibly conceived and choreographed. Those who are in a naughty mood this holiday season may feel right at home within the confines of Saltburn.

Score – 3/5

New movies coming this week:
Playing only in theaters is Silent Night, an action thriller starring Joel Kinnaman and Scott Mescudi following a grieving father as he wordlessly enacts his long-awaited revenge against a ruthless gang on Christmas Eve.
Streaming on Netflix is May December, a drama starring Natalie Portman and Julianne Moore about a married couple with a large age gap who buckles under the pressure when an actress arrives to do research for a film about their past.
Premiering on Amazon Prime is Candy Cane Lane, a Christmas comedy starring Eddie Murphy and Tracee Ellis Ross about a man who makes a pact with an elf to help him win the neighborhood’s annual Christmas decorating contest.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is a superb slasher, one that does all the things that it’s supposed to do very well, in addition to doing other things that it wouldn’t necessarily need to do well but does anyway. Adapted from the best of the fictitious movie trailers that appear throughout 2007’s Grindhouse, the long-gestating feature is comparatively more straight-faced than its farcical predecessor but is still stuffed with just the right amount of camp. Given that this is directed by Eli Roth, who debatably hasn’t made a good movie since the original Thanksgiving short, and that it’s a Sony horror movie released after Halloween that was barely screened for critics, I did not go into this film with high hopes. Sometimes, lowered expectations can be a beautiful thing.

The outset of Thanksgiving covers a scenario that is sadly becoming more familiar: a crazed crowd forming outside a retail store (RightMart, a stand-in for WalMart) on Thanksgiving evening ahead of Black Friday. When a few shoppers get in early, the incensed mob pushes their way through the doors and carnage ensues. A year later, RightMart owner Thomas Wright (Rick Hoffman) waffles on whether or not to have a Black Friday sale, given the previous year’s riot. His daughter Jessica (Nell Verlaque) saw the violence firsthand with her friends Gabby (Addison Rae) and Bobby (Jalen Thomas Brooks), the latter of whom has been missing ever since. When members of the community who were also present that night start getting picked off in brutal fashion, it’s up to Sheriff Eric Newlon (Patrick Dempsey) to track down the killer.

While the original 2-minute Thanksgiving trailer is aiming for laughs with its corny line readings and increasingly improbable decapitations, the feature-length adaptation isn’t as much as send-up of slashers as it is a genuine student of their craft. Roth is obviously versed in horror filmmaking but this is his most exquisitely-enacted entertainment yet. The movie’s killer, who dresses in pilgrim garb and goes by the moniker “John Carver”, is a dynamic dispatcher who favors an ax but isn’t above a flashbang grenade or silenced pistol when the situation calls for it. Appropriately, Carver makes creative use of holiday meal props like pop-up turkey timers and corn cob forks as well. There aren’t a ton of Thanksgiving-set slasher movies out there but those kinds of festive touches immediately shoot this entry to the top of the list.

Even more than your average horror flick, Thanksgiving sports a sometimes overwhelming amount of primary and secondary players but the actors make the most of their screen time regardless. Verlaque is outstanding as final girl Jessica, smart and sensitive while no doubt tough enough to fight off Carver’s numerous ambushes. Joe Delfin is a hoot as McCarty, a Black Sabbath-loving hooligan whose impressive gun stash is concealed so ingeniously that it would make the arms hustler from Taxi Driver jealous. Dempsey is seemingly the only one in the cast who decided to be deliberate with their New England accent but I’m happy that he did nonetheless.

As both director and co-writer, Roth does an excellent job evoking the tropes embedded in the slasher subgenre while he reminds us how effective they still are. There’s the rival high school with their loudmouth football captain, the weird loner who wants to fit in, and the jock with a heart of gold. All potential victims and all potential suspects. It’s a tricky balance, getting the audience to care about characters who could either be killed one minute or revealed to be unspeakably evil the next. Masters of horror like Tobe Hooper and Wes Craven manage this expertly and while Roth doesn’t have the track record of those two, he does a pretty darn good job running at their pace with this one. Thanksgiving is a massively satisfying meal that will have horror buffs coming back to the table each year for seconds.

Score – 4/5

New movies coming this week:
Playing only in theaters is Napoleon, a historical epic starring Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby depicting Napoleon Bonaparte’s rise to power in France through the lens of his volatile relationship with Empress Joséphine de Beauharnais.
Also coming only to theaters is Wish, an animated musical starring Ariana DeBose and Chris Pine following a young girl who wishes on a star and gets a more direct answer than she bargained for when a trouble-making star comes down from the sky to join her.
Streaming on Apple TV+ is The Velveteen Rabbit, a holiday special starring Phoenix Laroche and Helena Bonham Carter adapting the classic children’s book about a boy who unlocks a world of magic after receiving a new favorite toy for Christmas.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup

Next Goal Wins

There’s no mistaking the goofy sports biopic Next Goal Wins for anything other than the latest brainchild of filmmaker Taika Waititi. Ten years ago, few outside of the New Zealand film community knew his name but two Thor movies and multiple Oscar nominations later, Waititi has built up his own brand of idiosyncratic comedy that has seemed to resonate with audiences. He’s the first face that graces the screen in his newest film, doing double duty as both a hippie priest character and the occasional narrator for the story we’re about to see. With silly facial hair in unison with a silly accent, Waititi lays out the plight of the underdogs that we’ll be expected to cheer on for the next hour and a half. Though Waititi the actor sets up the groundwork, Waititi the director and co-writer doesn’t follow through with committed and focused storytelling.

Based on a 2014 documentary of the same name, Next Goal Wins centers around struggling soccer coach Thomas Rongen (Michael Fassbender), who hasn’t been the same since the divorce from his ex-wife Gail (Elisabeth Moss). At the risk of being fired by his boss Alex (Will Arnett), he reluctantly accepts a position head coaching the woeful American Samoa soccer team, notable for being on the losing end of a brutal 31–0 defeat during a World Cup qualifier. Upon landing in the island territory, Rongen is greeted by the ever-jaunty club manager Tavita (Oscar Kightley) and introduced to the flailing players that make up their national team. The goal for the season, which is to score a single goal during a game, is sent down from the Football Federation American Samoa and Rongen sets about getting the squad up to snuff.

Throughout Next Goal Wins, Waititi demonstrates that he wants to have it both ways; he wants to lampoon underdog sports comedy tropes but embrace them when the story calls for it. Perhaps that’s why some of the humor fitfully works during the story but by the film’s conclusion, it doesn’t feel all that significant. Waititi fills his film with a colorful cast of characters that he doesn’t feel the inclination to develop much, outside of transgender player Jaiyah Saelua. Played by newcomer Kaimana, Saelua has bonding scenes with Rongen that predictably break down his prejudices around gender identity while building up his ardor for coaching the pitiable group. I understand why Waititi chose to focus solely on Saelua but unfortunately, it’s at the expense of almost all of the supporting cast.

Fassbender, who also stars in recently-released Netflix thriller The Killer, is simply better suited to play a stoic assassin in that movie as opposed to playing the hot-headed soccer coach that he portrays in Next Goal Wins. He’s an immensely talented actor and I appreciate him trying to stretch his acting chops into more comedic terrain but he’s just not a good fit for this role. In addition to his scenes with Saelua, there are sparks in the brief moments between Fassbender and Moss but they don’t get nearly enough screen time to develop their relationship. There’s also a teased-out bit about Rongen’s past that is supposed to play like a big character revelation towards the ending but it all feels too obvious. Kightley fares much better as the perpetually optimistic manager, who also has to wear different hats around the sparsely-populated island as the cameraman for a show and waiter for a beachside restaurant.

It probably helps that Kightley is channeling the same kind of goofball energy that Waititi infuses in his films both as a performer and a director. Fans of the filmmaker’s earlier work like What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople will no doubt find bits that work within Next Goal Wins. The movie’s finest occurs early on when Rongen is in the process of being fired; in an attempt to console him, an ex-colleague played by Rhys Darby tries to guide him through the 5 stages of grief with the help of an overhead projector and transparency slides. Rongen also demonstrates a streak of unintentionally parroting big speeches from movies like Any Given Sunday and Taken. There’s plenty of Waititi’s signature quirk in Next Goal Wins but not enough genuine pathos to balance out the field.

Score – 2.5/5

More movies coming to theaters this weekend:
The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes, starring Tom Blyth and Rachel Zegler, is a prequel to 2012’s The Hunger Games which focuses on future Panem president Coriolanus Snow as he mentors a tribute for the 10th annual Hunger Games.
Trolls Band Together, starring Anna Kendrick and Justin Timberlake, is the third installment in the Trolls franchise centering around Poppy and Branch as they work to rescue one of Branch’s brothers after he is kidnapped by a band of pop star siblings.
Thanksgiving, starring Patrick Dempsey and Addison Rae, is a seasonal slasher following a mysterious serial killer, known only as “John Carver”, who comes to Plymouth, MA with the intention of creating a carving board out of the town’s inhabitants.

Reprinted by permission of Whatzup