We need to talk about the Oscars. No, not this year’s awards that will be presented in a few days’ time, the culmination of several months’ worth of head-scratching decisions, logistical retreadings and general affirmation that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences are at a crossroads. That discourse has been beaten with the proverbial golden statuette through many an op-ed, Twitter thread and blog post.
So no, we’re not talking about the 2019 Academy Awards. Nor the 2020 ceremony. If you’ll indulge me, let’s skip ahead to early 2021, where – pending the existence of the human race – it feels increasingly likely that the revival of a certain sci-fi/fantasy property is poised to have the genre’s biggest night at the Oscars since the finale to Peter Jackson’s standard-bearing “Lord of the Rings” trilogy in 2004. Continue reading →
You’d be forgiven for thinking that “Cold War”is a happy love story.
Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski puts you in an illustrious trance with such sensual storytelling, painting the world of discordant lovers Zula and Wiktar with such visual decadence that he makes us want to live in it. It harkens back to a traditional kind of black-tie moviegoing experience where the film is experienced through an air that is always a bit hazy. Jazz music plays in the lobby. A waiter asks if you’d like some champagne beforehand.
It’s a delicious story for our senses to absorb, the foreign-language “Cold War” is. Which is why it makes the contrast all the more haunting one we comprehend the narrative playing out in this magnificent and magnificently devastating opus.
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Arena lights are off, locker rooms are empty and primetime TV slots are dotted with holes.
We don’t have to be told that explicitly in Steven Soderbergh’s confidently insightful new film “High Flying Bird”. Curiously empty New York City sidewalks and forlorn attitudes tell us what we need to know: Professional basketball games are at a standstill amid a lockout, something seemingly as inevitable as the rising sun or a Russell Westbrook triple-double grinding to a halt. (Translation: Team owners and players’ representatives can’t come to an agreement, putting on-court action on hold.)
But a whole new kind of battle is underway, one the film touts as “the game on top of the game.” And it’s a game that Soderbergh and screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney take a magnifying glass to, exposing the centuries-old racial systems that labor relations in pro sports leagues are powered by.
In the hands of a director with trademark kinetic swagger and a screenwriter just two years removed from winning an Oscar for “Moonlight” and channeling his inner Aaron Sorkin, watching the politics of a basketball league (that is essentially the NBA in all but name) play out at a nonstop, infinite dribble is a joy. “High Flying Bird” is like being in a game of pickup where the stud you’re defending tells you exactly how he’s going to score on you, yet you’re still amazed when he pulls it off.
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In “Velvet Buzzsaw” – Dan Gilroy’s third film in five years after “Nightcrawler” and “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” – art is a destination for curious eyes, eager wallets and ostensibly deep critique.
It’s also, eventually, a channel for horror, bloodshed and shlock. The contrast isn’t accidental, and the transition happens nearly as fast as it took you to get to this paragraph from the one above.
The general absence of subtlety in Gilroy’s film, a contemporary art-market satire drunk with a few drops of cinematic absinthe, makes parts of “Nightcrawler” feel like a PBS documentary. For better or worse, hyperbole is a way of the world in “Velvet Buzzsaw,” and even more so as it reaches the realm of violence. “I think sober hasn’t been good for him,” Jake Gyllenhaal’s faux-elitist art critic utters at one point. “Velvet Buzzsaw” doesn’t think so either.
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Ask any 20-something who absorbed the rings, spells and talking lions that dominated fantasy cinema – and, in some of those years, outright cinema – in the aughts, and they’ll tell you their cultural upbringing involved stories of companionship, fortitude and self-discovery pervading some of the medium’s most imaginative worlds.
I would know; I’m one of them. The adaptions of Tolkien, Rowling and Lewis achieved new standards for the fantasy genre, particularly in the case of Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, an enticing gateway drug that demolished what we previously thought of as large-scale action in film, even as we were maybe a few years away from discovering film film.
Joe Cornish, the writer-director of “The Kid Who Would Be King,” realizes that too. In his modern retelling of the age-old tales of King Arthur, Merlin and the Knights of the Round Table, he uses the archetypes and fantastical flourishes found in “Lord of the Rings,” “Harry Potter” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” not just as influence, but as the recipient of a love letter to those films that made statements with critics, at box offices and in the larger history of cinema. Continue reading →