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By Noah Gittell

This year at the Oscars, anything can happen. It’s a lesson we learned last year, when, in what was one of the most exciting moments in Oscar history, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway gave Best Picture to the wrong film, “La La Land,” before a small man with a headset microphone came onstage to correctly award “Moonlight.”

The victory of the fiercely independent “Moonlight” over “La La Land,” which ticks off so many Oscar boxes, wasn’t just an isolated moment of chaos. It signifies a shift in the character of the Academy itself. For the last few years, Academy leaders have sought to diversify its membership, to bring in more young people and artists of color. The coronation of “Moonlight” was the fruits of their labor, and now the old rules no longer apply. In other words, take these predictions with a mountain of salt.

<<Best Actress>>

Will Win: Frances McDormand, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
Dark Horse: Sally Hawkins, “The Shape of Water”

McDormand, a previous Oscar winner for “Fargo,” is deservedly the favorite here. Her deft performance holds “Three Billboards” together amidst its wild tonal shifts and sudden plot twists. But I’d keep an eye on Sally Hawkins. The Academy loves “The Shape of Water,” which garnered a whopping 13 nominations. Playing a mute, as Hawkins does here, is also a well-worn path to Oscar glory. See “The Miracle Worker,” “Children of a Lesser God,” and “The Piano” for proof.

Best Actor
Will Win: Gary Oldman, “Darkest Hour”
Dark Horse: Timothee Chalamet, “Call Me By Your Name”

In this category, all signs point to Oldman, a veteran character actor long overdue for recognition. His speechifying performance as Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour” seems ready-made for an Oscar clip. Still, “Call Me By Your Name,” a gay love story set in the sun-kissed Italian countryside, has its fervent supporters, and Chalamet’s performance is preternaturally great. At 22 years old, he would be the youngest winner in history for Best Actor, which makes this category a test of the strength of the Academy’s youth movement.

Best Supporting Actress

Will Win: Allison Janney, “I, Tonya”
Dark Horse: Laurie Metcalf, “Lady Bird”

Historically one of the most unpredictable categories, this year the precursors all line up for Alison Janney. Playing Tonya Harding’s abusive mother in the polarizing “I, Tonya,” Janney is another longtime character actor who the Academy would love to recognize. If she somehow falters, look for Laurie Metcalf, as a less-abusive mother in “Lady Bird,” to fill her shoes. Finally, I would not count out Mary J. Blige in “Mudbound,” which the new, diversified Academy might be tempted to recognize.

Best Supporting Actor

Will Win: Sam Rockwell, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
Dark Horse: Willem Dafoe, “The Florida Project”

It’s hard to be impartial here, as Rockwell is one of my favorite actors (I thought he deserved a nod for 2013’s “The Way, Way Back”), but his magnetic performance as a bumbling, racist cop in “Three Billboards” seems like a lock. In a film that garnered six nominations, Rockwell’s character goes through the biggest transformation, and his ability to make us feel empathy for such a rotten character is a major achievement.

Best Director

Will Win: Christopher Nolan, “Dunkirk”
Dark Horse: Guillermo Del Toro, “The Shape of Water.”

If Jordan Peele (“Get Out”), Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”), or Paul Thomas Anderson (“Phantom Thread”) wins here, nobody will complain. Del Toro is, by most measures, the favorite, having turned his obsession with ancient creature features into a mainstream hit. But Christopher Nolan somehow went from impressive young upstart to box-office champion to old master, all without being even nominated for an Oscar. “Dunkirk” is his most Oscar-friendly film yet. He’s the one to beat.

Best Picture

Will Win: “The Shape of Water”
Dark Horse: “Get Out”

Here is where it gets exciting: I think there are four films with a legitimate chance here. “Lady Bird” and “Three Billboards” won their respective categories (Comedy/Musical and Drama) at the Golden Globes. “Get Out” was the most talked about film of the year, and for the <whole> year. Rarely has a film that was released in February still found itself in contention a year later. But “The Shape of Water” must be the favorite. In some ways, it’s a classic Oscar film: politically liberal without being overly didactic, and celebratory of film itself, always a plus with the Academy. Despite this, it never feels like Oscar bait, probably because of its idiosyncratic central relationship. Can a movie about a woman who romances a fish win Best Picture? After “Moonlight,” anything is possible.

By Noah Gittell

To remake or not to remake? That is the question applied by the big movie studios in this era of creative bankruptcy to nearly every film that once captured the audience’s imagination. It’s easy to see the appeal, but “Murder on the Orient Express” makes for a bewildering case. The 1974 version, adapted from the famous Agatha Christie novel, was an enormous hit for director Sidney Lumet, but mysteries are out of vogue these days, and younger audiences are unlikely to turn up for a big-budget movie that features no superheroes in capes or short skirts.

It doesn’t help when the remake feels as acutely unnecessary as this one. It’s not that this “Murder on the Orient Express,” helmed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, is bad exactly. It simply never justifies its existence. The odd mishmash of tones – zany comedy one minute, maudlin melodrama the next – indicate Branagh never quite understands the story he is telling, or more importantly, why it needed to be told at all.

Plot-wise, the film hits beats familiar to fans of the book or original film. Hercule Poirot, a brilliant and eccentric detective with an oversized moustache, has just finished a case in Turkey, when he is called to London. He scores a cabin on the eponymous train, the height of luxury travel in the 1930s, at the last minute. He meets the other 11 passengers, and when one of them, a shady businessman named Ratchett (Johnny Depp), turns up dead, Poirot sets about solving the case before they arrive at their next destination.

With such a large cast and so little time, only a few actors are able to make much of an impression. Depp, playing off of his increasingly notorious reputation off-screen, somehow seems both menacing and impotent as the hustling crook who meets his bitter fate while asleep in his room. As a widow on the hunt for a new husband, Thankfully, Michelle Pfeiffer is also onboard, offering a nervous, flirtatious energy that becomes enriched with layers as the plot twists in her direction. Even Josh Gad, who has relied on an irritating comic broadness in films like “Love and Other Drugs” and, yes, “Frozen”, achieves a sweet melancholy as Ratchet’s alcoholic assistant.

Then there is the lead and most important role. Historically, Poirot is a refined character, refined but not aristocratic, cultured but possessing a deep, violent anger at the injustices of the world. The script by Michael Green gets the broad strokes right but never fully commits to this darkness. Instead, he gives Poirot a few lovable quirks. The detective has a mild case of OCD, constantly asking people to straighten their ties or complaining that the eggs he has ordered for breakfast are not precisely the same size. Similarly, the film gives him a shallow backstory, alluding to the traumatic death of a former lover but never fleshing out how this informed his character.

Branagh the actor makes up for these script deficiencies, imbuing the heroic detective with a sense of Shakespearean tragedy. Poirot can contort himself to fit any situation but never loses sight of his overriding sense of purpose. Hidden behind an absurdly long moustache, Branagh uses his piercing blue eyes to great effect, showing us the inner processes and the icy walls of a unique genius.

As director, however, he does not fare as well. He pulls off a few neat camera tricks – a dolly shot following Poirot as he boards the train is a standout –but the tone oscillates without reason. Scenes of emotional revelation are followed by action sequences. A last-minute decision by Poirot to test the villainy of his suspect(s) comes out of nowhere. This is what happens when a filmmaker doesn’t quite have a handle on the meaning of his work, or why he is wrestling it into existence.

None of which would be a problem if the plot’s central mystery could hold the viewer’s interest. Viewers new to the story have no reason to care, and those – like me – who know and loved the 1974 film will get bored rather quickly. We know how this story ends (or at least, we think we do), and most of the film is spent hoping that Poirot will hurry up and put the pieces together. In a mystery, something has gone very amiss when the audience is impatiently waiting for the brilliant detective to figure things out.

My Rating: Put it on your Queue

 

By Noah Gittell

If “Phantom Thread” is really the last film in the historic career of Daniel Day-Lewis, as he has promised, he has gone out with not a seismic bang but a delicate, aching whisper. Moving beyond the transformative tasks of playing an oil man and our nation’s sixteenth president in his last two films — “There Will Be Blood” and “Lincoln” — here Day-Lewis appears to be playing something like himself for the first time in a long time. It’s a revelation.

His Reynolds Woodcock, a celebrity dressmaker in 1950s London, is fastidious and brilliant, polite but distant. He suffers for his art, and if he makes others suffer along with him, it’s a small price to pay for his brilliance. In an early scene, he has breakfast with his latest muse-cum-girlfriend and his sister Cyril (Leslie Manville), and when the former complains about his lack of affection, he glares at her and has Cyril throw her out.

But soon he meets his next muse, and perhaps even his match, in Alma, a country waitress. Of the many subjects “Phantom Thread,” written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson (“Boogie Nights,” “The Master”), tackles — fashion, genius, marriage, and death — perhaps its most insightful comment is on the subject of breakfast. Reynolds and Alma meet over it. As his waitress, she impresses him with her ability to remember his larger order, and when he asks for her number, she gives it to him on the bill, on which she has written, “For the hungry boy.”

After he invites her into his home — and his bed — their budding romance shows signs of strain when she butters her toast and pours her tea too loudly. “If breakfast doesn’t go well,” his sister explains, “it’s very hard for him to recover.” Perhaps Anderson, a married father of four, sees breakfast as a battlefield. Lose the confrontation early on, and you’ve lost the whole day.

Alma, however, is not prepared to go down to defeat. At later breakfasts, and elsewhere, she resists Reynolds’ controlling nature, eventually devising a delicious plan to even the scales between them and find balance. In some ways, “Phantom Thread” seems perfectly timed to the #MeToo moment. Woodcock is emotionally abusive and refuses to see his female models as anything but a vessel for his brilliance. But “Phantom Thread” doesn’t want to see him ruined for this. It yearns for harmony, to see its male genius tamed but not redeemed by a strong woman.

In this context, Day-Lewis was wise to not transform himself too much. Woodcock looks and feels like the actor we have glimpsed in interviews and awards show speeches. He is charismatic but distant. He smiles nervously when caught in a vulnerable moment, and his detachment keeps him in control of every interaction. Anderson’s camera (the director is serving as his own director of photography for the first time in his career) often frames him in silhouette, etching his pointed face into white spaces behind him. He’s a statue waiting to be brought to life.

As the partner who seeks to both save and challenge Woodcock, Krieps is a revelation. Pink-faced and cherubic, we follow Woodcock’s example and see her at first as a shrinking violet (not coincidentally, the color he clothes her in), but Krieps and her character prove every bit as strong as her onscreen opponent. As Alma reclaims her power over Woodcock, Krieps, too, claims a place on cinema’s largest stage. She goes up against the greatest acting talent of our time and comes out ahead.

It’s another perverted tête-à-tête for Anderson, and his most accomplished film yet. A taut and insightful chamber piece, “Phantom Thread” keeps its three central characters mostly in one space, a sparse but gorgeous London townhouse. Anderson works within those natural confines, building a claustrophobic mood, keeping his actors close to the lens, and letting his marvelous actors find each other in the space. Meanwhile, the ethereal score by Johnny Greenwood lifts this story, forged in the dirt of humanity, to a higher plane.

With each disparate element working in concert, “Phantom Thread” is impossible to pin down. A meditation on marriage. A subversion of male genius. A relationship comedy. When a film clicks as well as this one, holding your attention from the first innocent moment to the last twisted one, it doesn’t matter what you call it. It’s just perfect.


My Rating: See it in the Theater

 

By Noah Gittell

 

Movies are, as a rule, filled with exceptional characters. A screenwriting book I once read argued that uber-successful characters are more interesting to viewers than ordinary ones. If your protagonist is a struggling actor, the book suggested, why not make him an award-winning movie star instead? Filmmakers have taken these lessons to heart, and mainstream cinema is brimming with characters — be they doctors, teachers, or Top Gun pilots — who are the best at what they do. In a sense, every movie is a superhero movie.

 

Not “Lady Bird,” a refreshing coming-of-age comedy from writer/director Greta Gerwig in which no one is exceptional, and as a result, the film is. Based very loosely on Gerwig’s own upbringing in Sacramento, “Lady Bird” tells the story of one ordinary girl’s senior year of high school, and her efforts to claw her way out from under the thumb of her hyper-critical mother (Laurie Metcalf) and well-meaning but ineffectual father (Tracy Letts). She dates boys, fights with her best friend, and dreams of escaping her boring hometown for a more vibrant life in the big city. 

 

On paper, it may sound like every other teen movie this side of John Hughes, but Gerwig upends all the conventions of the genre. To wit, consider Christine’s nickname. As a symbolic rejection of her family, she calls herself Lady Bird. Instead of some punk name designed to shock her elders, it’s a name so old-fashioned that it can only be real. Similarly, the Catholic school she attends would, in a lesser film, be a source of extreme oppression, but the nuns are actually nice. When Lady Bird pastes a sign reading “Just Married to Jesus” on her teacher’s car to impress a cool friend, the elderly nun just laughs it off. 

 

Her family is poor (they literally live on the wrong side of the tracks), and even though she has neither the grades nor the finances for it, she applies to some top college on the East Coast. Like many before her, she believes she’ll find herself in New York, far away from the grip of her family. Meanwhile, she prepares for adult life by trying to lose her virginity, dating first a sweet, fumbling theater major (Lucas Hedges), and then swerving towards a cigarette-smoking bad boy (Timothee Chamalet), who plays in a band, reads Howard Zinn, and talks about living his life on a barter system.

 

These details matter. For those of us roughly of Lady Bird’s generation, they strike a chord of familiarity that is instantly endearing. We need this movie. The post-war generation got their anthem in George Lucas’s “American Graffiti,’ and Generation X had “Reality Bites.” If you came of age in the late ’90s or early 2000’s (too late for grunge, and too early to work for Google), “Lady Bird” may be the first film to authentically depict the details of your adolescence. When they started smoking cloves and listening to Reel Big Fish, I knew I’d love this movie forever.

 

But even if you’re not in Lady Bird’s exact demographic, the film tells its universal story with such specificity that it feels fresh and new. Saoirse Ronan again, following her magnetic turn in 2015’s “Brooklyn,” quietly commands the screen in a deceptively powerful performance. She is a character who hides her best self from the world, but Ronan makes a secret connection with the audience, ensuring that we can still see it. Meanwhile, even the least sympathetic characters – notably Metcalf’s controlling mother and Chamalet’s poseur rebel – are afforded respect, and are never punished. 

 

The approach is emblematic of Gerwig loving and generous authorial style. Looking back at her own adolescence, she avoids the tendency to either romanticize or harshly judge the transgressions of youth. In her first solo-directed film (she co-directed the indie film “Nights and Weekends” in 2008), she has delivered a spirited and empathetic work of self-reflection, and the best coming-of-age movie in years. For viewers of any generation, “Lady Bird” is a great gift.

 

 

My Rating: See it in the Theater

 

By Noah Gittell

“Molly’s Game” is a slick and fascinating film that reveals both the possibilities and limits of female redemption in a man’s world. For his directorial debut, uber-writer Aaron Sorkin (“A Few Good Men,” “The Social Network”) has optioned the true story of Molly Bloom, who ran a high-stakes poker game for ten years before being indicted by the FBI for dubious connections with the Russian mob. The tabloids dubbed her the “Poker Princess,” and she was caricatured and convicted in the public eye long before her case even got to court. Sorkin seeks to redeem her from that fate, and for most of the film, “Molly’s Game” succeeds as a heroic portrait of its subject. But in key moments, Sorkin’s male gaze fails him, and the limits of his approach become painfully clear.

We first meet Molly (Jessica Chastain) as a hyper-driven teenager, a competitive skier compelled to excellence by her overbearing father (Kevin Costner). After injuring herself in the Olympics, she moves to Los Angeles and ends up hosting a high-stakes poker game. She knows how to succeed in a world of men. She gets the job by flirting skillfully at her cocktail waitress job with Dean, who runs the game; succeeds at the job by earning the respect and admiration of the all-male players, including movie stars and titans of business; and she breaks out on her own, after her skeevy male boss tries to coerce her into taking a pay cut. She brings the players with her, including big fish Player X (Michael Cera), a mega-star whose fame draws others into the game, and pretty soon, she is exchanging millions on a nightly basis.

Sorkin, an award-winning screenwriter, has been around Hollywood for decades, and in his directorial debut, he successfully passes himself off as a veteran. The surfaces are slick; he leans on Scorsese’s style of caffeinated editing and use of pop music to immerse us in the thrills of high-stakes poker, and the first half of “Molly’s Game” goes down so smooth you might catch a buzz against your will.

Chastain gives a typically understated performance: Molly is so controlled, using her calm and charisma to project stability, that it’s easy to underestimate the skill involved in her performance. Watching her push around the pathetic gamblers who pass as her friends – Chris O’Dowd is aces in comic relief as a harmless drunk – is a giddy delight, but when her humanity reveals itself in an errant tear or quaking voice, it is equally thrilling.

These sequences are all told in flashback, but the film fumbles a bit in present-day narrative that finds Molly in dialogue with her lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba), who takes the case after being impressed with Molly’s character. She won’t turn over the hard drives containing information about her clients to the FBI, and Jaffey, the only high-priced Manhattan lawyer who doubles as a good Samaritan, takes her case. Jaffey is just one of several men on which Molly depends, undercutting Sorkin’s feminist intent. He gets a big speech towards the end in which he passionately defends Molly’s virtues to the FBI, and the way she looks up at him in admiration indicates she has just been waiting for a handsome man like Elba to save her. She is a princess after all.

Even worse is the emotional climax of the film, in which her father reappears on the eve of her court date. Spotting her in Central Park, he proceeds to sit her down and <mansplain> her deep-rooted psychological motivations. Spoiler alert: he says that everything Molly did – leaving skiing, starting the poker game, refusing to back down from the FBI – is to get back at him for a childhood transgression whose reveal comes out of nowhere. It’s an unconscionably terrible scene that wraps her complications up in too tidy a bow, reducing her from an independently strong woman to a little girl with lingering daddy-daughter issues.

It’s hard to imagine a female filmmaker making such a crucial error. In trying to make her more interesting than the cartoonish “Poker Princess” the tabloid sold her as, Sorkin just puts her in a different box, still defining her within the rules of his man’s world. A female filmmaker might have been able to tell Molly’s story as her own. Instead, “Molly’s Game” feels more like one man rescuing her from another. It’s a very satisfying story, even if it’s not the one she would have told about herself.

My Rating: See it in the Theater

AT THE MOVIES

By Noah Gittell

There are certain unalienable truths about Tom Cruise. His smile always works. He always gets the girl. He doesn’t die (except in “Collateral” when he played the villain). These qualities made Cruise the most infallible movie star of the last 35 years, but nothing lasts forever, especially in Hollywood. In his latest, Doug Liman’s “American Made,” he inhabits the same type of hero he has perfected in the past – the cocksure American winner - but for the first time there are chinks in his shiny armor. His smile is now a salesman’s smile, and it hides a deeper fear. His girl threatens to leave him constantly, and for the first time, we sense the possibility that he might not make it out alive. In a few scenes, he is actually missing a tooth, which turns that movie star grin into a comedic prop.

His character in “American Made” plays like a subversion of role that launched his movie star career: Maverick in “Top Gun.” Here, Cruise is Barry Seal, a commercial airline pilot with the skill to be much more. First in his class at the Naval Academy, he now supplements his modest income for his wife (Sarah Wright) and child by smuggling Cuban cigars in from Canada. The CIA, represented only by the smarmy, mysterious Schafer (Domhnall Gleeson) use the cigars for leverage to get him engaged in more serious flying. It’s 1979, and they want him to take surveillance photos of the Communist rebels in Latin America. It’s a dangerous job, but Seal is so bored he would have done it for free.

Structurally, the story is framed by a series of videos made by Seal in a cheap motel room, putting his story down on tape in case something happens to him. It’s a well-worn technique, but it allows Cruise to speak directly to the audience, using his charisma to anchor the film’s wildly scattered plot. When he looks out at us from beneath his still-brown bangs, it remains unthinkable to look away. “It gets crazy from here,” he says at one point, and it does indeed, but we’re willing to follow him into any situation.

After winning praise for his photos of the rebels, the CIA asks him to start smuggling – first cash, then guns, then eventually the Contras themselves. His charisma, which includes a spotty Southern accent, serves him well as he befriends Pablo Escobar, who is so charmed that he starts paying him to smuggle his product back into the U.S. Soon, Seal is running missions for every side, and making money faster than he and his family can spend it.

It’s a thrilling real-life story (although highly fictionalized), even if the telling is a little too familiar. With its fast pace, electric photography, and classic rock songs on the soundtrack, director Doug Liman is working from the playbook created by Martin Scorsese in “Goodfellas.” There are also hints of “Blow” and “American Hustle.” It’s the classic rise and fall of an American outlaw — an irresistible story — but these films increasingly favor style over substance, relying on energetic editing and evocative rock songs to make up for a lack of characterization or a predictable script.

For “American Made,” it works but just barely. The formulaic script by Gary Spinelli never conjures any real drama, but Liman keeps the pedal to the floor, moving so quickly through Seal’s real-life adventures that there is no time to stop and ask what it all means. Like one of Seal’s planes, it flies through the air at record speeds, and while it’s hard to keep track of the cargo, we’re there mostly just for the thrill.

Only Cruise – the star, the performer, and the actor – brings any real significance to “American Made.” If the character is a revision of the unbeatable, exceptional Cruise persona, it could be a harbinger of a next phase in his career that is long overdue. If not, Barry Seal represents only the type of character he should be playing, those who know that American exceptionalism is just a dream and every winning streak must come to an end.

My Rating: See it in the Theater

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