Da 5 Bloods – 7.5

A hit-and-miss affair from Spike Lee–nowhere as polished as BlackKklansman, but provocative in its looks at race, Vietnam, friendship, greed–remarkable in its aspirations if not its execution. First off, I should say that Delroy Lindo should be a lock for an Oscar nomination, at least, for his performance. Next best was having a range of six Black characters fill the screen; so you didn’t see them as “Black,” you saw them for their distinct personalities. The plot (which I assume was borrowed from Treasure of the Sierra Madre), was serviceable, but that was about all. It was mainly an armature allowing us to get to know, understand and empathize with the Bloods. At the same time, the French woman (white) was great.

Seeing Da 5 Bloods shortly after watching When the Levees Broke about New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina made clear how relevant and important Spike Lee is to the moment of national consciousness-raising we are going through.

Sanditon – 8

Much of the charm is supplied by the charming Rose Williams’s expressive face, voluptuous body and bottomless pit of dresses, which materialize out of the blue. The rest comes from the smoky Theo James as Sidney Parker, the love/hate cynosure of Rose’s Charlotte. We get to know a dozen other denizens of, and visitors to, the rising beach resort of Sanditon, and they are all sharply delineated and sufficiently interesting. It is easy to fall into the world of Jane Austen’s fiction (easier than it was in the recent Emma), and if we feel cheated at the end (a manufactured tease designed to permit a second season), that is a compliment to what we know from reading Austen, particularly Pride and Prejudice, in our pasts. Once again it was our affection for the female lead that made us race through eight episodes.

Once Were Brothers – 4.5

Robbie Robertson may be a great musician, but as a documentary narrator he is ponderous. As in Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, the story of a five-man band suffers from being told solely from one member’s perspective. Performance clips breathe some life into the film, but with only one great song to The Band’s credit, they’re not enough. The final clip, of Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” made me wish I’d spent the time watching The Last Waltz instead.

Emma – 6.5

After a rather slow first hour, we come to know the residents of Highbury and derive some pleasure in this familiarity – particularly with Mr. Knightley, a true gentleman. The settings and costumes are gorgeous, but the story – much like the superior Little Women – plays like the 19th-century novel it is. If there was a surprise to be had, I missed it. I also wished that the Harriet Smith character could have been more attractive, to justify both her screen time and the attention paid to her.

Oscar Riffs 2020

The Show: Steve Martin and Chris Rock’s opening monologue deserved an A and was matched later on by Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph. If they could host, it would make it a more cohesive show. Ditto for Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. As it was, the segment intros were hit-or-mostly miss. Someone named Ramos I’d never heard of introduced Lin-Manuel Miranda and someone named Utkarsh Ambudkar rapped a half-time recap. This is a night for celebrities, not wannabes. Without a host or subtitles, I had no idea what or why Eminem was performing, nor did I know who it was, although much of the audience sang along. For a show that always exceeds its time slot, there is an awful lot that could be excised without complaint.
The Acceptances: Brad Pitt and Laura Dern were perfect, a pleasure to watch. Joaquin Phoenix and Renee Zellweger not so much, although they took diametrically opposed approaches to their overlong moments: Renee thanked a litany of names that meant nothing to us; Joaquin mounted a soapbox and made you cringe for his causes. A few of the lesser winners handled themselves well, especially Roger Deakins, who must have been ready after having been nominated 15 times. Why we have to listen to a make-up artist announce how much she loves her husband and children is beyond me. So is why we have to listen to her at all. I would start the trimming, however, with the short features. Couldn’t they be honored with the technical awards and just announced on the big night, with a substantial clip from the winning film?
The Awards: Parasite is the elephant in this room. Whatever one thought of the movie – most people I know weren’t wild about it (I gave it a 5.5) – it’s fair to say that four Oscars was a bit much. Of course, two of them – Best Picture and Best Foreign-Language Film – are for the same thing: if one is eligible for both and wins the former, the latter is automatic. There were such other worthy nominees, that it felt a shame not to spread the love a bit – e.g., give Tarantino the award for screenplay and Scorsese for Director. It also got monotonous watching Bong Joon Ho ascend the stage time and again, although he was charming and his speech for Best Director was one of the night’s highlights. Other than Parasite, the awards were pretty much a foregone conclusion, which seems to be happening fairly regularly now. I’m glad Ford v. Ferrari and Little Women were at least recognized, and glad that 1917 was somewhat limited in its haul.
The Music: There were nine musical numbers, so I’m giving music its own rubric. I’ve already cited the two raps – one was a waste of time, the other rather out of place and mysterious. The opening number, sung by Janelle Monae, was what passes for modern music – tuneless with lots of noise and rhythm – the kind of music that, blessedly, had nothing to do with the movies being honored. Billie Eilish’s rendition of Yesterday was affecting – credit there. That leaves the five nominated Best Songs. All of the songwriters involved have had much better days. Undoubtedly the most insipid of the bunch was Elton John’s winner; it was hard to even make out the song as he sang it. I suspect his victory was a kind of reputation, or lifetime achievement acknowledgement. I was getting drinks when Cynthia Erivo sang her song, which was the best reviewed of the weak bunch; but it brought up one of my Oscar peeves. It was not performed during the movie – it was tacked on during the credits. Why is it, then, part of the movie? The Academy bolstered my complaint with a montage of musical numbers that helped define and were inseparable from their movies – all of which, unless I’m mistaken, were part of the movie soundtrack. I don’t know if this practice of movie add-on started with Bruce Springsteen’s Philadelphia, but it has blossomed ever since. If most moviegoers don’t even stick around to hear it, why give it an Oscar?
Best Picture: The critics are proud of Hollywood for choosing a “worthy” film, like 12 Years A Slave and Moonlight. The contrast they inevitably make is with Green Book and Crash, which are deemed punch lines not even worth explaining or discussing. Both, however, were favorites of mine, and Green Book (labeled a “middlebrow nothing” this week by Manohla Dargis) was one of the most universally loved films among theatergoers of my acquaintance. What’s wrong with us?
#OscarsNotTooWhite: Four Oscars to a South Korean film should take care of complaints about lack of Asian representation at the ceremony for a short while, but we all know that the OscarsTooWhite campaign is really about Blacks. Penelope Cruz and Selma Hayek are doing quite well on their own, and Mexico has recently had a lock on the Directing category. The Academy compensated for the lack of Black nominees by overloading the roster of presenters and backup dancers with people of color. But really, who has grounds to complain about the nominations on diversity grounds? Dolemite Is My Name was unwatchable and Eddie Murphy played an unfunny vulgar comedian. Jennifer Lopez, I thought, was inept in an equally bad movie. If there’s a complaint, it’s that there aren’t enough good movies being made about Blacks or Latinos or Asians, not that such individuals were denied nominations. And as for women directors, there were three or four worthy ones this year, led by Greta Gerwig, but whose place were they supposed to take? Scorsese? Tarantino? Mendes? I hope that the Academy gets over its fixation, its self-flagellation on this topic and just lets the best man win.

My Oscar Ballot

Picture: I still refuse to see Joker, and The Two Popes, my favorite, didn’t make the cut; so for me this is a decision between Ford v. Ferrari and Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood, the two on the list I can say I thoroughly enjoyed. The scope and ambition of the latter was far greater, and if I had to watch one a second time, that would be it.

Director: It follows: Quentin Tarantino. Also, I love what he does with music in his films.

Lead Actor: Far and away the toughest competition, even without seeing Joaquin Phoenix, the expected winner. It would be even tougher if Christian Bale had replaced Leonardo DiCaprio. Antonio Banderas and Adam Driver were superb, but Jonathan Pryce was a revelation in a subtly more difficult role.

Supporting Actor: Anthony Hopkins in a role that should qualify as co-lead, but the same could be said for Brad Pitt and Tom Hanks, with Al Pacino not far behind.

Lead Actress: I haven’t seen Bombshell yet, but I’d almost vote for Charlize Theron based on the un-nominated Long Shot. Harriet (Tubman) must have had charisma that Cynthia Erivo lacked to earn her place in history. Renee Zellweger was an uninspiring performer and rather unlikeable as Judy. I liked Scarlett Johansson better in Marriage Story than in JoJo Rabbit, but the nod goes to Saoirse Ronan, who absolutely carried Little Women on her back.

Supporting Actress: I’ll pass, in the hope that Kathy Bates or Margot Robbie might be better than the three I saw. Laura Dern was fine, but nothing out of her comfort zone. Every time Amy Pugh was on screen I couldn’t wait for her to leave.

For Screenplay I will vote for Knives Out (Original) and The Two Popes (Adapted), a consolation prize since they are the only two not nominated for Best Picture, but also because I found them the most clever. Pain and Glory is certainly a worthy choice for International Film, but Les Miserables blew me away.

I am not qualified to vote on any of the other categories, but I will make my usual observation that there’s no reason that Sound Editing,  Costume Design and the other technical awards should be limited to Best Picture nominees. Maybe those are the only films a sufficient number of Academy members actually see?

Queen & Slim – 6.5

More important as a sociological statement than a movie Queen & Slim was ripped from the headlines of white police abusing blacks, and the odds stacked against blacks in that situation. Daniel Kaluuya was as wonderful as he was in Get Out, and his relationship with Jodie Turner-Smith was original and charming. Their encounter with the policeman echoed the story of Sandra Bland I had just read about in Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book; and the fusillade that killed me recalled Bruce Springsteen’s song, “43 Shots.” In between, however, there were slow spots, as their picaresque flight from an unlikely “nation-wide manhunt” moved from one set scene to another. I felt as though the director was stretching to come up with subplots, or secondary messages, and none struck me as terribly successful. Still, the movie kept my attention and made me think, which makes it stand out on those terms alone.

Hustlers – 2

No redeeming social value. Weak acting (except Julia Stiles, who appeared to drop in from a different movie), threadbare plot (no suspense or even forward momentum), endlessly repeating scenes (strip club, strip club backstage, ludicrous sexual encounters), unsympathetic characters (sex club customers and stripper-hustlers), plus gratuitous cartoon effects (the stripper who continually vomited). Jennifer Lopez has a pretty smile but can’t carry a movie, as she is asked to here. Or maybI have a blind spot for the all-girl genre flick: Support the Girls and Oceans 8 scored just as low, with Widows not much better.

The Irishman – 7.5

Robert DeNiro is an emotional black hole at the center of this 3-hour gangster epic. He is the narrator, speaking (to whom?) from a wheelchair in his nursing home, but I never felt anything from or about his extraordinary journey from trucker to hitman to union boss to convict to relic, not from his relationships to his wife and daughters, nor his allegiance and betrayal of Jimmy Hoffa. There are cold-blooded murders aplenty in the movie, with “cold” being the operative word. First, I never saw DeNiro as “Frankie Sheeran.” He was always Robert DeNiro. The twinkly smirk identified the actor, not the character, and I kept waiting for DeNiro the comic over-the-top performer to break out. Second, he wasn’t even remotely Irish. There was more anguish in 20 seconds of Banderas in Pain and Glory than 180 minutes of DeNiro here. You wonder if Scorsese centered his film on DeNiro because they have been friends since they were 16 and the younger DeNiro meant so much to Scorsese’s career, which he was now summing up.

In contrast, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci were wonderful, as the only other characters with any depth of personality. There were scores of others – the credits go on for days – but all of them, especially the wives, are just colorful Post-It notes stuck on DeNiro’s story. The film often plays as a documentary: mobsters are introduced, with their eventual fates superscripted, more for historical “accuracy” than for dramatic purposes. The movie’s structure itself is anti-drama, as the plot rolls on for quite awhile after the main story ends, sort of like life.

New York Theater

Seeing eleven plays (with one rain-out) in four weeks gave me, if nothing else, a better sense of my taste in theater. If only I could relate that to reviews I read, going forward.

There were two shows I left without a complaint, Kiss Me, Kate and Caroline’s Kitchen – one a relatively straightforward revival of a classic Broadway musical, the other a typically old-fashioned British farce. The latter was part of the Brits off Broadway series at 59E59 Theater, where we also saw Instructions for American Servicemen in Britain, which was cringe-worthy amateurish, easily the most forgettable of our theater experiences. In contrast, Caroline’s Kitchen had a slew of interesting characters, a topical plot with manageable tangles and new laughs for every actor who entered the single set. Being British, the play was wonderfully acted, of course.

One might have hoped the same for King Lear, imported from London with Glenda Jackson (and Ruth Wilson), but here the director wasn’t content to let Shakespeare be Shakespeare. He mixed Elizabethan costumes with a handgun and made one duke a deaf-mute, requiring an aide to be constantly signing onstage. Even more central, Lear was played by an 82-year-old woman, shrunken from her small stature to begin with; so we never believed that this could have been a king commanding a country. Without that tragic fall from power, what is Lear?

Ink was another disappointing import. In place of characters were caricatures. I felt I was watching a graphic novel (not that I’ve ever actually read a graphic novel), or a script designed to get us from one musical number to the next – except there was only one musical number. The story was devoid of surprise or suspense. It was a simple morality tale that we were already too familiar with. It also suffered from unintelligible dialogue (at least until we got hearing-assist devices at intermission) and an over-the-top screaming performance by Jonny Lee Miller as editor Larry Lamb.

The other disappointment was American, albeit adapted from the Greek: Hadestown. It was what it was, and my disappointment was more due to the Times review calling it the best musical of the season. Had I seen it Off-Broadway without expectations I might have felt differently. (I do note, however, that it wasn’t even nominated as Best Musical by the Drama Desk panel.) One problem was the music, which wasn’t melodic and didn’t appeal to me. Since this was basically an opera, that was a big issue. Second was the frenetic pace: every moment people were jumping around, lights were going off, stagecraft was being displayed. Hadestown is in the lineage of Rent and American Idiot, but without the good music.

For good music, nothing beat Kiss Me, Kate. Cole Porter’s score, I don’t have to say, is “wunderbar,” and Kelli O’Hara is the musical comedy standard for our decade. The plot shows its age, but in a charming way – particularly the pair of gangsters collecting a gambling debt – and the love/hate relationship between the leads is timeless. Best of all was the clever choreography (deservedly the Drama Desk winner), which further made Hadestown (and Rocketman) look mediocre.

All My Sons was the dramatic equivalent, vintage-wise, of Kiss Me, Kate; and unlike Lear (or last season’s Oklahoma!), I suspect it was presented pretty much the way Arthur Miller intended, the reason for its revival being the presence of Annette Bening and Tracy Letts in the lead roles. They were both superb, and the son has been nominated for a Tony, as well. The rest of the cast was not as uniformly good, but this was a play of ideas, and the ideas came through loud and clear.  Responsibility to your family vs. society played out slowly and thoughtfully here, whereas responsibility vs. pandering to society was presented glibly in Ink.

The other classic revival we saw was Sean O’Casey’s The Plough and the Stars at the Irish Rep. Here was a history lesson (abetted by the exhibition in the upstairs lobby), a jaundiced view of Irish republican uprising and a searing view of human nature. I felt almost as though I were back in college, and all the better for it.

Perhaps it was having seen the O’Casey, or perhaps it was the new all-American cast, but The Ferryman somehow seemed less authentic than other plays about Irish troubles I have encountered. This is not to say it was not enthralling, from opening to close, and the way the story unfolded to a dramatic finish was masterful. I came away with a list of quibbles, however (detailed elsewhere on Riffs). Watching the children perform was an unalloyed pleasure.

The other play in the league of The Ferryman, at least in terms of commercial firepower, was Aaron Sorkind’s To Kill A Mockingbird. The story is powerful (I needn’t say), and the book has been translated to the stage adroitly. Celia Keenan-Bolger, despite the age issue (41-to-6), is captivating as Scout; and the race relations issue, unfortunately, seems just as relevant today as 1935 or 1960. Jeff Daniels, also unfortunately, is no Gregory Peck, which kept me from going over the moon over our $375-ticket evening. Someone who loves Jeff Daniels might feel quite differently.

Faced with an empty weekend, we followed that day’s Times review to Something Clean, a Roundabout black stage production, our furthest venture off-Broadway this season. It was just what you look for in small theater: three actors, all excellent, playing characters trying to make sense of their lives and their relationships, in this case dealing with the aftermath of sexual abuse by their (offstage) college son. Selina Fillinger is a playwright to watch, and Kathryn Erbe’s performance, always onstage, acting one way toward her husband, another, a split-second later, to the assault center counselor, was pitch-perfect.

So, what did I learn? I liked the slower plays, where there was space between the lines and characters, where I wasn’t constantly assaulted and wasn’t straining to hear what someone said. All My Sons and Kiss Me, Kate were written in an era where attention spans were longer and visual gimmicks weren’t required. Hadestown and Ink were the other end of the razzmatazz spectrum. Call me old-fashioned, I guess. Or, maybe, just old.