The United States vs. Billie Holiday

Hollywood seems to be making a good faith effort to keep its promise to produce more inclusive films.  There are, by my count, eleven films in serious contention for Oscars that are either directed, are about, or star members of a minority.  The bulk of those feature African American actors portraying important figures in black history that have never gotten biopics or even fair treatment in a mainstream movie.  Whether or not this is enough to atone for the Academy’s whitewashed past is for history to judge.  I suspect that for this year, at least, it is.  The real test is whether or not the trend continues and even grows.

The last minority entry into the Oscar race is The United States vs. Billie Holiday, a biopic of the legendary singer.  Playing the lead in her first major film, is Andra Day, whose day job is R&B singer.  There’s a supporting cast and they do fine, but this is Andra Day’s movie.  Her scintillating performance carries it to incredible heights.  She handles all the singing parts and while she doesn’t sound exactly like Billie Holiday (no one does) she’s close.

Billie Holiday was born in a brothel to a prostitute and forced into the business at a young age.  Because she was talented and driven, she was able to escape, although not unscathed.  She carries a ton of psychic impedimenta that morphs into demons and hounds her all her life.  Her audience is multi-racial, however, so when she starts singing Abel Meeropol’s song Strange Fruit, which is s graphic depiction of lynching in the South, it has an effect.  So big an effect, in fact, that the FBI takes notice.  The persecution they subject her to makes up the bulk of the film.

Since she is a heroin addict, she’s vulnerable and the Bureau uses the excuse of an anti-drug campaign to investigate and eventually frame her.  They certainly try to smear her name.  But Lady Day won’t stop singing out.  She is, in fact, a fascinating dichotomy of strength and weakness.  Unable to kick the drugs and booze, she’s slowly killing herself; she’s also a terrible judge of men, hooking up with a parade of abusers who use her, steal her money, and eventually betray her.  And yet on her death bed when the FBI agents are trying to get her to confess, she has the strength to tell them to “suck my black ass.”  Threats and jail time cannot extinguish any of that righteous anger.

So, it’s a great performance.  Unfortunately, it’s a great performance in the middle of a mediocre film.  For one thing it’s about twenty minutes too long.  Most of that bloat is people laying around, strung out on heroin.  And like many biopics it’s one scene after another with not enough to connect them.  Lee Daniels directs and produces this film, and he is an established African-American filmmaker, who’s made some good films in the past, like Precious.  The Butler, however, was similar to this, more a string of events than a coherent whole.  Although it too dealt with issues that need more consideration in the mainstream media.  Daniels needs to put these issues in better films. 

Of course, what he does best is direct actors and Andra Day’s performance makes The United State vs. Billie Holiday a must-see movie this year.  It is playing on Hulu.   

Minari

Apparently, one of the jobs in a chicken processing plant is to determine the sex of baby chicks by examining their nether regions.  This is harder than it sounds because what you’re looking for is very small.  Of course, this was back in the ‘70s when Minari is set; these days they may have a more efficient way of doing it for all I know.  The point is that the sexes are separated, with the females being raised to maturity to become dinner and the males are disposed of while still chicks because they are useless.  When Jacob Yi, played by Steven Yuen explains this to his young son David, played by Alan Kim, he warns him that this is a lesson to all men to be useful. 

That’s becoming a struggle for Jacob.  He’s transplanted his family to rural Arkansas where he’s purchased a farm, on which he hopes to grow Korean vegetables to sell to the large number of Korean immigrants in the States.  Jacob is smart and capable but farming is a risky venture at the best of times, and when you’re trying something new the stakes get higher.  His wife, Monica, played by Yeri Han, grew up in the city and is not impressed with the double wide mobile home that is their new home.  It leaks when it rains.  She is dubious about her husband’s schemes and worries about being an hour away from the nearest hospital.  David has a heart murmur.  They are constantly reminding him not to run.  To add to their burden, Monica’s mother Soonja, played by Yuh-jung Youn arrives from the old country to live with them.  She has to share David’s room with him, which he endlessly complains about.

Minari is an immigrant story, although not a typical Hollywood Oscar bait story.  Prejudice doesn’t seem to play any part in it.  The folks in the community are friendly and if the Yi family is isolated it’s mostly because they keep to themselves.  Jacob is working hard to make the farm successful and Monica is uneasy with rural folks of any type.  If anything, the locals seem to want to see the farm succeed.  So, it is more of a family drama.  There’s a lot of tension between Jacob and Monica and both need to learn to compromise.

Performances are the key to the success of any drama and Minari doesn’t disappoint.  Steven Yuen portrays a smart ambitious man, who may perhaps be too willing to put the farm over his family, even though he keeps proclaiming that he’s putting all this effort into it for the benefit of his family.  But you can tell that he just really wants to be a farmer.  Yeri Han’s Monica is believably angry about the whole situation and closes herself off emotionally.  She doesn’t become a harridan but she holds her ground during their frequent fights. 

Soonja is probably the best thing about the film.  She’s mischievous, teaching David and Anne, the older sister, played by Noel Cho, how to gamble with a Korean card game.  She also develops a taste for Mountain Dew.

Minari is currently in theaters.  These days the wait for films to come to streaming generally isn’t too long, so if you don’t want to risk going out, you can probably wait and see it on some streaming service.

Judas and the Black Messiah

Bill O’Neal, played by LaKeith Stanfield doesn’t care about politics.  He’s a small-time car thief and is too busy plying his trade to worry about much else.  But he’s not dumb.  He’s worked out a con where he poses as an FBI agent, shakes down some gangbangers, informing one of them that the car he’s driving has been reported stolen, gets the keys and is gone before anyone catches on.   

The disadvantage is that when he gets caught, the FBI, in the form of Agent Roy Mitchell, takes an interest in his case.  Using the leverage of a five-year sentence in jail for impersonating an agent, Mitchell turns O’Neal into an informant and forces him to infiltrate the Illinois chapter of the Black Panthers.  This is the late 1960’s in Chicago and the chairman of the chapter is Fred Hampton, played by Daniel Kaluuya.  J. Edgar Hoover, played by Martin Sheen wants Hampton in jail before he can become another unifying figure in the civil rights movement like Martin Luther King, or Malcolm X, in other words, a black messiah.

All the performances in the film are very good with the two leads towering above the others.  Stanfield plays a man trapped by circumstances to do something that he increasingly realizes he doesn’t want to do, not only because it’s dangerous but also because he starts believing in the cause.  You can see him being torn apart.

But Kaluuya’s performance is one for the ages.  He’s a fire breathing orator, a radical intellectual and a natural born leader wrapped up into one person.  Kaluuya is charismatic and scary all at the same time and he makes it work.  It’s one of the best performances I’ve seen all year.

The film itself suffers from the usual biopic bugaboo in that it glosses over a great deal.  There were incidents where I think the filmmakers were assuming that I knew about already in that they weren’t put into enough context, and maybe I should have known about them, but I didn’t.  Also, I think they were trying to be as close to the real timeline of events as possible, and unfortunately some of the most dramatic events didn’t happen at the climax of the story, so the plot didn’t really build smoothly. 

Still, those two lead performances make it worth your time.

Judas and the Black Messiah is streaming on HBO Max and is in theaters.

Pieces of a Woman

Tone is an important element of film.  How a movie strikes an audience, sets up expectations as to what’s called for:  popcorn, hankies, or even perhaps, some thought.  I’m talking about the difference between say, The Great Escape, and Robert Redford’s Ordinary People.  And one person (me) is capable of liking both of them.  But there is an undeniable difference. 

All the tools of the filmmaker are involved.  The acting, the cinematography and the other technical aspects, and most especially the writing and direction work in concert to create tone.  That is, if the movie in question is any good.  And part of that is how realistic the characters are.  In Pieces of a Woman, a couple, Martha, played by Vanessa Kirby, and Sean, played by Shia LaBeouf lose a baby in a harrowing home birth.  First of all, let me praise this early scene to the skies.  It is all one shot, which must be over twenty minutes long and it is perfect in every way, absolutely riveting.  I was astonished when it was over and I looked at the time to see that we were thirty minutes into the film.  The remaining hour and a half of the film is this couple tearing themselves apart.

Now, this is realistic, nothing stresses a relationship more than losing a child.  Most relationships don’t survive that kind of tragedy.  And people do not always have rational motivations, or act in their own best interests.  In a story, however, there does need to be an internal logic.  The actions of a main character need to be explained.  Even in something like Lord Jim, where the central act of Jim, the first mate, abandoning a passenger ship most of crew believes is sinking, is done on a whim, a decision made in a split second, which he instantly knew was wrong.  The rest of the novel is Jim trying to explain to himself why he did it and trying to come to terms with it.  He fails.  The explanation for the act was that there was no explanation.  That works because a lot of effort and time went into it and Conrad made it the theme of the book.

In Pieces of a Woman, all the sympathy earned by that fantastic opening, was quickly dissipated by subsequent events in the movie.  When Martha closes herself off and Sean goes back to drinking and has an affair, I soon grew indifferent to their fate.  There was never any question that their relationship was doomed so there was no suspense.  Most of the movie was them going through the dreary motions of breaking up.  And it was with absolutely no clue as to what they were thinking.  Their internal processes were completely opaque.

Now in the interest of full disclosure, I have to confess that this is not the type of movie that I would normally go out of my way to see.  But the reason I try to see all the films likely to be nominated for acting or directing Oscars is to take me out of my comfort zone and expand my tastes.  Normally, I go to the movies to get away from the real world.  But I am capable of appreciating a more grounded and realistic film.  From what I’m reading, Vanessa Kirby will probably be nominated for Best Actress.  I don’t think she should be.  Her character walls herself off from her family, and also from the audience.  By about halfway through the film, I had no idea what she was thinking or feeling, and when she does what she does in the climax of the film, that moment was totally unearned and unmoving.

Pieces of a Woman is playing on Netflix.  Avoid, or at least turn it off after the first half-hour.

Soul

It is tempting to say that with Soul, Pixar is back in form.  But the fact is that they have been making excellent films all these years; they’ve just slipped some duds in there as well, which wasn’t the case when they started.  They are a great producer of animated movies, if no longer a perfect one.

There is also something of a ho-hum factor as well.  So much quality can become routine, even numbing.  Good films like Inside Out or Coco, which other companies would put forth as their very best, get lost in Pixar’s shuffle, obscured by all the Toy Story and The Incredibles films.  It’s an interesting problem to have.

That will undoubtedly be the fate of Soul, even though it is an historic film, being one of the few full length animated films to feature African-American characters.  It is a well-meant and well-made film with a great message and a powerful emotional punch.  But coming out when it has, in a middle of a pandemic when most theaters are closed, how it has, it’s only on Disney+ I fear it will be buried.

Anyway, Joe, voiced by Jaime Foxx is a talented jazz pianist, who makes ends meet by teaching music part time at a middle school.  He’s good at this job, so good, in fact the school offers him a full-time position.  He’s unsure, though.  His longstanding dream is to be a professional musician in a jazz combo and he’s reluctant to give it up.  On the same day he’s offered the security of a full-time job, a former student, Curly, voiced by Questlove, contacts him and says he can audition for a gig with big time sax player Dorothea, voiced by Angela Bassett.  Joe auditions and gets the gig.  He’s so distracted by the decision that has opened before him that he falls into an open manhole and then finds himself on an escalator to the afterlife.

Escaping from that he stumbles into the pre-life, a place for all the potential people, waiting for an opportunity to be born.  The caretakers of this place are all named Jerry and they assume that Joe is there to be a mentor to some pre-person.  All of these souls have to go through an education process to help them find their spark, their passion for life.  They won’t make it to Earth otherwise.  They assign Joe to their most difficult case 22, voiced by Tina Fey.  22 doesn’t want anything to do with life, just doesn’t see the point to it.  No mentor has ever been able to guide her to her spark.

She and Joe spar over this for a while, but what he really wants to do is get back to Earth so he can make his gig.  Eventually, they do discover a loophole but there’s a mix-up and they both go to Earth, except 22 winds up in Joe’s body while Joe is in a cat.  Hilarity ensues.

There’s not much more to add.  It was directed by veteran Pete Doctor and Kemp Powers.  They also wrote the screenplay along with Mike Jones.  It’s well paced, with good vocal performances and it goes without saying that the animation is top notch.

As I said, it is playing on Disney+.  Some day it may make it to DVD.

Promising Young Woman

Promising Young Woman is a genuinely disturbing film.  I don’t know if date rape is as pervasive as depicted in this movie, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was.  It is hard to imagine this film being made a few years back before the revelations about Harvey Weinstein.  That business opened eyes in both the industry and society at large as to how big a problem this is.  Of course, the reason for this is that most authority figures in the past and even now, can only see it from the male’s side.  “Every guy’s worst nightmare is to be accused of something like this,” says one guy in the film.  Cassandra, the main character, played by Carey Mulligan, smirks and replies, “Wanna guess what every woman’s worst nightmare is?”

I’ll set it up to the extent that I can.  Spoilers are an issue here.  Cassandra is a thirty-year-old med school dropout.  The reason she quit is because her best friend, who was in school with her, was raped publicly at a party by a fellow student while others looked on.  She tried to press charges but was bullied and ostracized, while everybody, even the other female students and the female dean of the college, rallied around the guy.  She dropped out and eventually died.  If the movie mentioned it was suicide, I missed it.  But that would be the logical conclusion.

Cassandra has since taken to going to bars at night in disguise, acting drunk and getting predators to take her home and try to rape her.  Then she teaches them a lesson.  Usually this is in the form of a lecture.  When I saw the previews, I assumed she was killing them but the movie is a little more subtle than that.  She has devoted her life to this, living with her parents and working a low paying job at a coffee shop.  To the people around her this is a tragedy, because she really is very smart and capable.

One day Ryan, played by Bo Burnham walks into the coffee shop and recognizes her.  He was at the same med school.  They strike up a relationship and he fills her in on some of the people who were involved with the rape.  Most of them are successful doctors now.  One by one, Cassandra extracts revenge which most of the time goes beyond a lecture.  She saves the rapist for last.

That’s as far as I’m going to go.

The centerpiece of this film is Carey Mulligan’s performance.  It is magnificent.  In other hands, this character could have been strident and unlikeable, but Mulligan plays Cassandra as smart and engaging, just very, very angry and justifiably so.

The script by Emerald Fennell, who also directed is smart and twisty, which is why I can’t go too into the plot.  It never drags and all the performances are terrific.  This is Fennell’s first feature film as a director and it is a home run on her first swing.

This is a subject so buried in social attitudes and prejudices that it must be hard to make a definitive statement about it.  This film does.  It’s very easy to make excuses because it is so pervasive and how can you punish so many men who have productive careers ahead of them?  But we have to.  We have to get the message across that this is serious and that men need to develop a sense of empathy toward the opposite sex.

Perhaps this film is a first step in that process.

Wonder Woman 1984

Maybe it’s the eighties.  With their bright colors, poppy corporate music and material excesses, there’s just something artificial and cheap about them.  Maybe that setting is my problem with the new Wonder Woman film.

It is undeniably a lesser film than the first one, which was terrific.  This one is only fair.  It’s a pretty good comic book story with good fights and a simple straightforward message.  But in the first film Gal Godot’s Princess Diana has an emotional arc.  She’s powerful but she doesn’t always know what to do.  Obviously, it wasn’t Hamlet but it wasn’t bad.  1984 is shallower and not as compelling.

So, wannabe oil tycoon, Max Lord, played by Pedro Pascal, is trying to acquire a rock that supposedly grants wishes.  His henchmen knock over a jewelry store that is a front for a fencing operation of ancient artifacts where he knows the rock is. but the heist is foiled by Wonder Woman and the rock winds up in the Smithsonian in the care of Barbara Minerva, played by Kristen Wiig, a mousy expert on antiquities.  As it happens, Diana works there as well in another department.  She holds the rock and wishes that Steve Trevor, played by Chris Pine, was alive.  Barbara, wishes she was like Diana, not realizing that she was Wonder Woman.  Lord, gets the rock back and puts his plot into action.

Godot’s chemistry with Pine is still there and it’s pretty fun to watch them reverse rolls from the first movie with Diana teaching Steve about the modern world.  Kristen Wiig travels a well-worn road as she goes from nebbish to super-villain in her transformation into Cheetah.

Plot wise, this thing is tired.  You’ve seen many times before.  And that’s a disappointment.

So, maybe it’s the eighties.  Or, it might be the DC curse taking its revenge on the franchise that eluded it, at least for one film.  Either way, Wonder Woman 1984 is a disappointment.

Still, it’s worth seeing.  If you have HBO Max, see it there.  There’s no need to risk your health.

News of the World

It is possible to know everything about what’s going on the world and not know your place in it.  This is the situation that Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, played by Tom Hanks, finds himself in.  He had a good life at one time.  A newspaper printer in San Antonio, he had a loving wife, a nice home and a solid middle-class lifestyle.  Then the Civil War started and he spent four years commanding troops for the Texas militia.  During that time, his wife died of cholera, his job disappeared and his side lost the war.  Now five years after the end of the war, he wanders among small Texas towns, reading newspaper articles to townsfolk who are willing to pay to hear them.  It’s not a bad life, but still there is a sadness that pervades the captain. 

On the trail, he discovers an overturned wagon and a lynched black Union soldier.  While investigating the scene he sees a young girl, wearing Indian buckskins and reluctant to approach him.  She speaks no English and Kidd eventually finds the solder’s written orders in the overturned wagon.  The child was kidnapped by the Kiowa when she was four.  Recently recovered, she was being taken to an aunt and uncle in Castroville Texas, near San Antonio, where Kidd is reluctant to go.  Her name is Johanna and she is played by Helena Zengel.  Soldiers killed her Kiowa parents.  A blonde-haired German girl, who speaks no English or German and only knows the ways of the Kiowa who raised her, also doesn’t have an obvious place in the world.  Kidd tries to get the army to finish the job of delivering her to her family but when that proves difficult, he undertakes the task himself, even though Castroville is hundreds of miles away and the roads are dangerous. 

Tom Hanks is a masterful actor and he deftly displays all the shades of complicated emotion running through Kidd.  This is a man who has known chaos and cruelty, and doesn’t want to see anymore.  He tries to be fair to everyone and to do the right thing, even when that’s not always the easiest road.  He’ll fight bravely and smartly, but only as a last resort.

Zengel is a talented child actor who conveys Johanna’s emotions most without dialog.  It’s a promising performance.

Director Paul Greengrass adapts the novel by Paulette Giles, masterfully.  There are a few slow sections, but for the most part this is a compelling film.  The script by Greengrass and Luke Davies, recalls both The Searchers and spaghetti westerns as the main characters travel the desiccated landscape of the west, encountering situations.  The look of the film is excellent.

News of the World is a high quality western and well worth seeing.

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom deals with some heavy stuff, namely, the pervasive, seemingly impenetrable racism in America in the twenties.  The tone is set when Ma’s band emerges from the subway onto a busy Chicago street and gingerly walks past clumps of white people, being careful not to jostle them or ideally, to be noticed in any way.  It’s a matter of survival in a world that’s forty years away from the Civil Rights Act, when gangs of white men could lynch a black man and have a reasonable expectation of getting away with it.  Terror, hatred and grinding poverty are their most realistic visions of the future.  And anyone with enough talent to dream otherwise, winds up bitter and cynical, or worse.

This film is based on August Wilson’s play, adapted for the screen by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and directed by George C. Wolfe.  It was produced by Denzel Washington who starred in another Wilson adaptation in 2016’s Fences.  That was an excellent film.  To me, this one lacked emotional impact.

It has some great performances, namely Viola Davis as Ma Rainey, smart, imperious and prickly, and Chadwick Boseman in his last role as the ambitious and angry trumpet player Levee.  They put up some real fireworks.  And yet, my strongest reaction was I wished I could see a good production of the play. 

Part of the problem is the theatrical nature of the source material.  The filmmakers don’t really overcome that.  Most of it takes place in a recording studio, over the course of a few hours; the characters talk, and everybody gets at least one speech.  This is the way with most filmed plays and many make you forget that what you are watching is a play.  For some reason this one doesn’t.  I think it’s because there really isn’t much a plot.  This is just people talking.  There are some profound nuggets here but they aren’t embedded in any kind of matrix.  There’s no build-up or climax.  The tone is pretty even right up to the end.

And yet those two performances are worth two hours of your time.  Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is on Netflix right now.

Mank

It is fitting that the greatest American movie ever made should have a great movie made about the making of it.  Or, as in this case, the writing of it.  There is some controversy over who actually wrote the screenplay to Citizen Kane.  And most scholars agree that it was probably more of a collaboration between Herman J. Mankiewicz, played by Gary Oldman, and Orson Welles, played by Tom Burke than is depicted in this film.  But as the screenwriter for Mank, Jack Fincher, points out, the film is told through Mankiewicz’s perceptions.  So, the theory that Mankiewicz wrote the entire screenplay, prevails, even though it’s been thoroughly debunked.  Which demotes the Welles’ character to a very small supporting role, which the great director would have hated. 

Herman J. Mankiewicz was a legendary screenwriter in Hollywood during the twenties and thirties.  If you look him up in the Internet Movie Database you will see that much of his work is uncredited, since he was known as a talented script doctor and he was used to not seeing his name on the screen.  So, it didn’t seem like a big deal to him to sign a contract with hot newcomer Orson Welles to write the screenplay for his first picture and for Welles to get sole credit.  As he finished it and realized that it was the best thing he’d ever written, he changed his mind.

Mank was also an amiable alcoholic and an inveterate gambler with an affection for lost causes. He’d broken his leg in an automobile accident.  So, it seemed smart to Welles to set him up in a cabin in Victorville, California, the middle of the desert, with a cook/housekeeper/nurse Freda, played by Monika Grossman, and a prim English stenographer, Rita Alexander, played by Lily Collins.  John Houseman, played by Sam Troughton, is assigned the task of keeping Mank sober and on task.  Mank has sixty days to come up with a first draft. 

The movie bounces back and forth between this frame story and ten years earlier, when he was working at MGM and going to dinner parties at Hearst Castle in San Simeon given by William Randolph Hearst, played by Charles Dance, and Marion Davies, played by Amanda Seyfried.  As everyone knows, Citizen Kane is based on Hearst’s life. 

Mank is deliberately made in the style of the golden age of Hollywood.  It’s in black and white.  The cameras are securely attached to tripods and dollies.  The lighting is very reminiscent of Citizen Kane, with lots of shadows and spears of light.  But the best thing is the dialog, which could have been written by Mankiewicz himself.  It is witty, satiric and touching by turns.  I’m not sure that people actually talk that way but it is entertaining.  The film is directed in this old style by David Fincher from his father’s screenplay.

The film’s main strength is Gary Oldman’s performance.  It is magnificent, completely immersive.  This is a character that, in other hands, would be totally unlikeable.  I’ve sat through movies about drunks where audiences have applauded at the end when the wretch finally dies.  But when Mank drinks, he becomes more like himself, entertainingly talkative with many streaks of decency.  You root for him.  And for all his acidic observations, Mank doesn’t hate Hearst; no, he’s disappointed at Hearst’s disillusionment.  Like Kane, Hearst ran for office on a progressive platform, lost and sank into despair and right-wing extremism.  Mank, drunkenly tries to explain this to Hearst as Hearst escorts him out of his castle for the last time.  Their relationship, like all of Mank’s relationships was complicated.

Mank is a great film.  Well, it’s not Citizen Kane great but it’s one of the best films of the year.

It’s playing on Netflix now.


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