Tag Archives: Oscar contender

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

Chicago, 1927. Welcome to a single recording session of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Ma (Viola Davis) is running late, of course, cause she’s the star. The band is rehearsing in the “studio,” a dank basement room that’s not big enough for the egos it’s asked to contain. Levee the horn player (Chadwick Boseman) in particular is testing everyone’s nerves with his outsized ambitions and his new $11 shoes.

When Ma arrives, tensions mount. Levee is trying to rearrange her music, and she’s got to show him his place. But she’s also battling the (white) management, who are subtly trying to push her in different directions, disrespecting her status as the mother of the blues, trying to control a product they don’t fully understand. The other band members – Cutler (Colman Domingo), Toledo (Glynn Turman), and Slow Drag (Michael Potts) – try to run interference, but they know their place and are loathe to stray from it.

Ruben Santiago-Hudson adapts from August Wilson’s excellent play. You may know that Denzel Washington intends to bring all 10 of Wilson’s “century cycle” plays to screen, starting with Fences, for which David received an Oscar, and following this one with The Piano Lesson, for which he’ll cast his son, John David Washington. Of course, he wasn’t far off in casting Boseman for this one; Boseman was his longtime protégé; Washington had sponsored him at Howard University, paying his tuition so he could take Phylicia Rashad’s coveted acting class. Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is Boseman’s last role. He was secretly receiving treatment for the colon cancer that killed him earlier this year while filming.

As far as legacy goes, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is about as good a final role as you can hope for. He’s magnetic, vital, crackling with suppressed rage, electrifying and dangerous. Opposite him, Viola Davis’s Ma can afford to be a little more confident, a little more sedate. Perhaps because of her career she has more experience dealing with the white man’s power struggle, but she holds her own, knows her worth and insists on it.

August Wilson’s play is urgent and alive (I personally prefer this one to Fences). Director George C. Wolfe does an excellent job of making us feel every inch of that tiny recording studio’s claustrophobic walls. It’s hot, it’s crowded, there is little room for maneuvering (physically and symbolically) and plenty of potential for mistakes. Egos and tempers are bouncing off each other in desperate and menacing ways. Meanwhile, the white managers and producers sit comfortably upstairs, dictating how the session will go, depriving even their star of a 5 cent bottle of Coke.

This recording session is a microcosm of the Black experience in America in the early 20th century. Generational trauma, informed by racism, religion and violence, is evident in every note sung in the blues, and white men stand by to monetize and profit from it. It is no wonder that this session may turn explosive at any moment, and very telling that when that escalating pressure so carefully cultivated finally does release, the lateral violence is just another heartbreaking blow to an already wounded community.

Mank

I was in the right kind of mood to fall in love with a movie, and Mank was it for me.

Sean and I were at the cottage last weekend celebrating his birthday, and it was the first 48 hours I’d spent movie-free all year. Which is weird, considering 2020 will be known, among so many other things, as the year without movies. And yet, if you’re devoted to movie views and reviews, there were actually plenty of films to watch (this is my 428th review this year, not including some of Halloween and Christmas content that I backdate). Still, a lot (most) of the big releases have been delayed and there were perhaps fewer films to really get excited about – most markedly at this time of year, as Christmas is usually the big awards kick-off. So I was ripe to be swept away, ripe to appreciate something big and intentional, thoughtful and well-crafted. Mank was a cinematic gift under my tree this year, and the tag reads ‘With Love from David Fincher.’

Herman J. Mankiewicz (“call me Mank”), having just survived a car crash, is laid up in bed with a broken leg. Recovering in seclusion, and bedridden due to injury, he is perhaps in a wonderful position to do some serious writing, or that’s what Orson Welles is hoping. Orson Welles is a hot shot young director who’s just been given the Hollywood golden ticket, a rare opportunity to have complete creative control over his films. Welles has selected notorious drunk Mankiewicz as his screenwriter, leaving him with a stack of pristine white pages, a nurse, and a typist to get the work done in just a few weeks. What Mank eventually turns in will be a whirlwind, and long-winded, but beautifully written script for what will turn out to be the greatest film ever made: Citizen Kane. David Fincher’s movie takes a closer look at the duress under which that screenplay came to be written, and the Hollywood experiences that inspired it.

1930s Hollywood had a lot of stuff going on: a great depression, a looming war, rising anti-Semitism, the demonization of socialism…it was the Golden Age of Hollywood, but if you rubbed at the gold plating just a little, you could easily expose an awful lot of ugliness. Mank was a skeptic and a scathing social critic. Before he wrote for movies, he wrote for newspapers; he was the Berlin correspondent for the Chicago Tribune but really sharpened his wit as the drama critic for The New York Times and as the first regular drama critic at The New Yorker. When he made the move to Hollywood, Mank was often asked to fix the screenplays of other writers, with much of this work going uncredited. Ultimately he worked on The Wizard of Oz, Man of the World, Dinner at Eight, Pride of the Yankees, and The Pride of St. Louis, and dozens more. He became one of the highest-paid writers in the world, audiences gobbling up his new style of “fast” and “immoral” characters and plot. He wasn’t the most important man in Hollywood but he knew the ones that were – studio head Louis B. Mayer, for example, of whom Mank was not a fan.

David Fincher’s film sees Mank (Gary Oldman) laid up in bed, reflecting on his time in Hollywood, and digesting it into a movie that Welles (Tom Burke) would immortalize, critics would applaud, history would remember, and Hollywood insiders revile, for they knew the man Mank was referencing behind a veil so thin it left very little doubt. The man was of course frenemy and newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance).

As typist Rita (Lily Collins) races to keep pace, turning his volumes of scrawls into something legible, Mank writes feverishly and drinks furiously. He has clearly been holding on to a lot of resentment as we flashback to specific events that are easily related to characters and scenes that we know and love from Citizen Kane. Hearst’s mistress, for example, Marion Davies (Amandy Seyfried), an actress for whom Hearst co-founded a movie studio, and to whose career he devoted many headlines throughout his vast media empire. And Mayer (Arliss Howard) at the studio, shamelessly churning out propaganda that would be mistaken for news (fake news, we’d call it in 2020) in order to sway elections. Mank has contempt for them all, and yet he’s able to turn into a script about spiritual corruption into, well, an enjoyable movie about spiritual corruption. It’s beautiful, in its way, in its insight and compassion.

Fincher’s film attracts my attention, my whimsy, and my admiration from the very first frame – from the opening credits, even. It looks and feels like a movie made during the period in which it’s set, and yet it also looks and feels as though it has every benefit that modern 21st century film making has to offer. With the help of cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, Fincher straddles a line of his own making, and manages to lay down on film the very best of both worlds. Mank is textured and technically brilliant. It is a love letter to cinema, to the greatest movie ever made, and to film making itself, by brilliant film maker himself, an auteur, a highly skilled visual storyteller who eschewed film school and cut his teeth instead on Rick Springfield music videos (true story). After making his way through the very best (Madonna, Aerosmith, Iggy Pop, George Michael, Michael Jackson, the Stones), he made the leap to the big screen with 1992’s Alien³ (which also starred Charles Dance, fyi), which wasn’t a critical darling but did take some admirable risks with the franchise’s mythology. Ice broken, Fincher never looked back, and if you’re any kind of cinephile, chances are pretty good at least one of his films is in your top 10 (Se7en, Fight Club, Zodiac, The Social Network, Gone Girl), yet he’s never won an Oscar for direction, nor have any of his films landed the coveted Best Picture award, though The Curious Case of Benjamin Button seemed a shoo-in with 13 nominations that year (it lost to Slumdog Millionaire). Will this be Fincher’s year?

Mank‘s cast is not to be forgotten, the film’s success in large part thanks to an extremely talented ensemble who really work the material. The razor-sharp dialogue can be a lot of fun, and some of the drunken soliloquies are absolutely the stuff Oscar clips are made of. Gary Oldman of course deserves top credit for portraying a cynic with a secret soft heart, but he’s surrounded by people able to rally, particularly Charles Dance who is most hypnotic as a titan outraged by criticism. The quasi-betrayal between these two men is a magnetic source of conflict and intrigue.

The script too, is something to behold, and it’s perhaps the component that fascinates me most, credited to a Jack Fincher. Any relation, you might ask? Indeed, Jack Fincher is David’s father. David’s dead father, in fact, dead since 2003 in fact. Mank is his only screen credit. Clearly this script has been languishing in a drawer somewhere for quite some time, perhaps its only companion a screenplay about Howard Hughes that never got made once Scorsese chose John Logan’s version for The Aviator. Still, Mank must have been the favourite, since David recalls that as a budding child cinephile shepherded mostly by his father, there was no question which was “the greatest movie ever made.” Of course, that was very much nearly fact for a very long time, the film beloved and admired from the 1950s on (especially once it started being screened on television). It has been the watermark against which all other film is measured, and has informed an entire generation of film makers. Jack Fincher’s script is a clever way to let us celebrate the film once again, and perhaps appreciate some of its most personal influences. The senior Fincher gets lone credit for the script, though the way it proficiently draws such incisive parallels to present day makes it clear that Junior has had a hand in it is well. I wouldn’t be bothered one bit to see Jack Fincher receive an Oscsar nomination for his work, and I do wonder who holds the record for (forgive me) most posthumously awarded recipient.

Mank manages a send up to an entire era of film making while also saluting the man who gave so many favoured films of the time their unique flavour and identity. It’s a peek behind the scenes that isn’t necessarily pretty, but incredibly fascinating, an homage to an undisputed classic that just may turn into a classic itself.

TIFF19: Ford v Ferrari

Full disclosure: I saw Ford v. Ferrari at last September’s Toronto International Film Festival. I enjoyed it. It was probably in my top three movies there. But you know what? I never got around to writing a review for it. I just wasn’t inspired. I still haven’t figured out why.

Ford+V+Ferrari+Movie+PosterI loved the cars. I remember chasing after the Ford GT40 in Gran Turismo and/or Forza (driving games from the late 90s or early 2000s) and it being totally worth the “work”. And like those games, Ford v. Ferrari puts the viewer in the driver’s seat at the legendary 24 Hours of LeMans (which, coincidentally, was one of the races I had to win in my video game quest, with lots of pauses).

I love the story. It’s based on true events as designer Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) and driver Ken Miles (Christian Bale) team up with the Ford Motor Company to build a car that is able to compete with Ferrari’s racers. It’s a classic underdog tale twice over, as Ford had no racing pedigree at the time, and Ford wanted no part of Miles. But as often happens in movies and in real life that becomes movies, these spare parts were thrown together and triumphed against all odds – sort of. Ford got its trophy, Miles got the short end of the stick, and Shelby made a whole lot more classic cars, many of which you’ve seen in other movies (Bad Boys’ Shelby 427 Cobra and Gone in 60 Seconds’ Shelby GT500).

I liked the film. Damon and Bale have a nice chemistry. The script is clever and funny. The story translates well to the big screen. The effects are great.

And yet, Ford v. Ferrari would never have been in my list of best picture nominees for this year’s Academy Awards. It makes sense; it is a deserving nominee. I guess there were just a number of other movies this year that appealed to me and connected with me more than Ford v. Ferrari. Us, The Farewell, Knives Out, Ad AstraBombshell and Honey Boy, to name a few. But there are only so many spots. Ford v. Ferrari is really good, so I guess just make sure to see the others too!

Bombshell

Sean and I have had our eye on a tiny, forgotten movie theatre in the basement of a local shopping mall. It only shows films during mall hours, and it’s strictly second-run stuff: this is where movies go to die, these are their last breaths at the box office, and the last chance Sean and I will have to see them in theatres before the Oscars which ARE THIS WEEKEND. It’s where we saw Richard Jewell last week and it’s where we caught Bombshell this week. It came out just before Christmas, and between holiday prep and Rise of Skywalker, we never got around to it. Plus, word was that it was kind of a lame movie that housed some good performances. Of course once those Oscar nominations came out, the movie went from back burner to the pressure cooker: see 38 movies before February 9th, some of which aren’t in theatres and hardly where, and certainly not in this country or in a language that I speak (and that’s not counting the shorts!).

So when I finally got around to seeing Bombshell, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it. True, Bombshell is all flame and no burning embers; it deals with the headline-grabbing sexual harassment case at Fox News circa 2016 and though it does justice to the headlines, it doesn’t offer up a lot of meat. However, it does an excellent job of spreading the heat and accounting for the experience of many.

Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is right in the middle of the blast. Having been with Fox in one capacity or another for years, Gretchen finds herself demoted, and reprimanded for covering stories deemed by network president Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) to be ‘too feminist’ and criticized for not upholding beauty standards when she dares to do one episode makeup-free. She’s seen the writing on the wall and when she’s let go in June of 2016, she’s ready with a lawsuit accusing Ailes of sexual harassment. She’s confident that once she breaks the ice, other women will come forward, but she’s forgetting just how pervasive the culture is at Fox news.

Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), Roger’s golden girl, the tough reporter recently taking heat for questioning Trump’s behaviour toward women during a debate, has remained silent. No support for Gretchen, but none for Roger either, though the entirety of the organization seems to pressure her. Instead, she’s searching for the truth, quietly speaking with other women about their own experiences. Eventually she’ll make her way to Kayla (Margot Robbie), a composite character of a new girl trying to climb her way up the ladder. It’s pretty clear whose “ladder” she’ll have to “climb” in order to get anywhere – but ambition and livelihoods are inextricably tangled up in this thing, and it’s fairly clear that any woman who comes forward will have a permanent stain on her record, untouchable by any other network for having dared to make a complaint against her boss. That’s just not something women are allowed to get away with.

It’s shocking, actually, that it’s the women of Fox of all places that really got something done. They haven’t toppled the patriarchy; there were plenty of other white men to replace Ailes in more ways than one. Director Jay Roach shows how pervasive the boys’ club can be, and how women have been denied their own network by constantly being pitted against each other. There’s too much history here for any one film, too much damage to uncover let alone comprehend. Still, I like the attempt. I like all three of these performances even if Kidman got shut out of awards season. What I dislike is that this very important story told (written and directed) by men. Which kind of misses the point altogether.

For Sama

In so many ways, Waad al-Kateab is a young woman just like you and I. She went to school, left home, fell in love, got married, had a daughter. But al-Kateab’s milestones are happening amidst the backdrop of the Syrian war. For five years she has had her camera trained on the uprising in Aleppo and she crafts this documentary as a love letter to her young daughter so she may know just what her parents were fighting for.

This is an intimate, female portrait of war, a side of the story rarely reported. In many ways, Jojo Rabbit is the film that got me thinking down this path; war stories are so often told from the point of view of the soldier (1917 is a good one), but for the women and children left behind, life goes on. Life: complicated and confusing, but there is no pause button. Children grow out of shoes, and tape idols on their bedroom walls. Mothers cobble together meals, and try to create some semblance of a happy home. For Sama is a story that is ongoing, and real. Waad al-Kateab is a real wife and mother telling her story from war-torn streets. Bombs are dropping around her but she slow-danced at her wedding just like you, peed on a stick just like you, felt her belly swell not just with baby but with hope and happiness, but tinged with a filament of fear always burning from within. She plays peek-a-boo with her baby just like you, but flees from a barrel bomb dropped on her by her own government with her baby clutched to her breast. But she loves her country just like you, believes it is worth saving. Her husband, a doctor, tends every day to the wounded. There are always new wounded. Sometimes the body bags are so small. It is endless work. So is the balancing of parenthood and principle, the urge to flee the city to protect their daughter’s life, and the conviction to stay and fight for what so many have already sacrificed so much.

It feels so alien to face such choices, and yet one image stops me cold: sock feet in a pile of bodies. Sock feet that could easily belong to anyone. Must I (we?) relate to those who suffer before we feel compassion? It’s so easy to dismiss this conflict as “their” problem but the boundary between us and them is illusory at best. We are all brothers and sisters, and if this documentary helps us walk a mile in someone else’s socks, it has done its job.

Sama is a toddler with big, gorgeous eyes. She was born during war. She knows nothing else. A loud bang erupts as another bomb explodes nearby. Her mother flinches, crouches reflexively, but Sama doesn’t react at all: a baby who doesn’t cry at a loud noise? Sama doesn’t know this is wrong, this is scary. She thinks this is life. Who will be left to tell her otherwise?

Oscar-nominated shorts 2020

Hair Love: nominated for short film (animated), directed by Matthew Cherry, Everett Downing Jr. & Bruce Smith

A father does his daughter’s hair. Normally I’d be extremely dismissive – these types of videos go viral all the time, the world falls over itself to applaud dads for attempting the things mothers are expected to do on a daily basis. HOWEVER. Hair Love is not really about a father patting himself on the back, it’s about a little black girl named Zuri who wakes up wanting to look extra nice on this special day. She follows an online tutorial from her absent mother’s hair blog, but wrangling her hair is challenging and things don’t go well for Zuri or her dad. A black woman’s hair is a special thing indeed, tied up in her identity and her culture, a symbol of her status, perhaps fraught with difficulty. But Zuri just wants to honour her mother; she already knows that hair does not make the woman. Inspirational and sweetly animated.

Kitbull: nominated for short film (animated), directed by Rosana Sullivan

A scrappy young street cat (well, kitten) and a pit bull trained to be vicious form an unlikely bond and experience friendship together for the first time. It brought a tear to my eye. Though it’s by Pixar (SparkShorts), the 8 minute film is 2D, every frame hand-drawn and hand-painted. Available now on Disney+.

Brotherhood: nominated for short film (live action), directed by Meryam Joobeur

Mohamed, a shepherd, is deeply shaken and a little suspicious when his estranged eldest son Malek returns home from Syria to rural Tunisia with a mysterious young wife in tow. The black sheep of the family returns on the same day as an actual sheep is found slaughtered. Families are tough things to navigate and Mohamed’s is no different. He is mistrustful of this new woman, covered head to toe in a niqab, and even of his son, one of 3 red-headed brothers played by real-life red-headed brothers, a jarring sight out in this hard-scrabbled land. He doesn’t approve of Malek’s decision to fight in Syria but it’s clear their relationship has always been fraught. Brotherhood has stunning cinematography and a meaty script but neither will soften the blow when Mohamed learns how costly assumptions can be.

Walk Run Cha-Cha: nominated for documentary (short subject), directed by Laura Nix

Paul and Millie recall their youth in Vietnam, where ‘foreign music’ was so romantic and sexy, and dance parties at home were illegal. They fell in love but were separated when Paul’s family fled the communists. They lost their youth and their young love to the aftermath of the Vietnam war, but 40 years later they have reunited in California and are rekindling their romance on the dance floor. Through one couple’s love story, Laura Nix teaches us about the immigration process and what it takes to relearn the language of love and make up for lost time. In their golden years, Paul and Millie finally have the time, energy, safety and security to learn what it means to enjoy life.

Nefta Football Club: nominated for short film (live action), directed by Yves Piat

In the south of Tunisia (again with Tunisia!), two young brothers and ardent football fan brothers bump into a donkey just chilling out in the middle of the desert on the border of Algeria. Oddly, the donkey is wearing red headphones (and yes, listening to music). The donkey is carrying bags of white powder (flour, they wonder? laundry detergent?) – they ditch the donkey and bring the powder back to their village, where their friends are playing football.

The Neighbors’ Window: nominated for short film (live action), directed by Marshall Curry

Exhausted, frazzled, middle-aged parents Alli and Jacob are mesmerized by their curtainless neighbours in the next building. While they breastfeed and wipe up poop and serve up meals that don’t get eaten, the two pine for their youth by spying on their young, horny neighbours across the street. This film is about envy more than voyeurism, well-acted and slick as hell, two people who are so busy that they’ve forgotten the grass isn’t always greener on the other side. This is Curry’s third nomination so it seems unwise to discount him.

Life Overtakes Me: nominated for documentary (short subject), directed by John Haptas and Kristine Samuelson

Over the last 15 years, hundreds of traumatized refugee children in Sweden have become afflicted with Resignation Syndrome. Life is so hard they withdraw into a coma-like state, unresponsive, sometimes for years. It’s like their little bodies can only take so much. Children need security, not uncertainty, to recover after a trauma, but for refugees, security is a long time coming. Watching these kids waste away is tragic. What is happening here? And the scariest part is that their families are still facing deportation. Imagine caring for a comatose child as a refugee? Those kids are frankly not likely to survive. But with anti-immigration sentiment growing in Sweden, and asylum laws getting stricter, the outlook isn’t positive. This documentary had me asking questions I’d never even thought of before, and combing the internet for answers. Stirring and urgent, Life Overtakes Me is available on Netflix.

Some of these are available to watch on Youtube, legally and for free – check out my Oscar-nominated films playlist.

Pain and Glory

Thirty-two years after his film Sabor (Flavor) came out, writer-director Salvador Mallo (Antonio Banderas) is just coming to terms with it. He hasn’t seen Sabor’s lead actor Alberto (Asier Etxeandia) since it premiered 3 decades ago but the cinemateque has recently restored the film, labelled it a classic, and viewing it with fresh (well, older, wiser, more experienced) eyes, Salvador decides maybe it’s time to bury the hatchet.

It is clear that Salvador is taking stock of his life. He’s not well. But his recollections suggest that his life has rarely been without pain of some kind. As a talented choir soloist, he was educated by the priests and taught his book learning to others. But geography he learned by traveling the world as a successful director. And anatomy he learned through pain and illness. When he reconnects with Alberto we assume he’s making amends but resentments still run hot and what is actually exchanged is heroin.

Antonia Banderas is the picture of a tortured man. Riddled with pain he can no longer make movies. But without shooting, his life has no purpose. To hear those truths is to understand a man who is resigned to the end. His character has come full circle in a lot of ways, a lot of ways that are painfully obvious as a play about his youth is staged and brings out forgotten friends. We learn so much about his fears and motivations and how a man who has made his living telling stories is now grappling with his own. And in many ways, this role brings Banderas full circle from the role that first garnered him attention from American audiences as Tom Hanks’ lover in Philadelphia. This time Banderas is front and centre, earning himself his first Oscar nomination for his restraint, consideration, and tenderness.

Dolor Y Gloria is like a vise on my heart for every shred of his own humanity that master film-maker Pedro Almodóvar pulls from his experience and uses to paint the screen with sorrow and redemption. Using heroin is referred to as ‘chasing the dragon’ but this film chases after so much more: compassion, reflection, grief, making peace. Almodóvar still knows how to engage us, but in this he surprises us, and perhaps even himself, with the authenticity in his unflinching self-examination.

Breakthrough

Contrary to popular opinion, I do not see every single movie in the world, but usually I do at least know about them. Not much sneaks by me. So when this particular movie managed to snag an Oscar nomination (for original song), I was like: huh? Sean thought it might be “one of those religion ones” but it wasn’t until I saw the poster that I remembered it at all, indeed a religion one, starring Chrissy Metz from This Is Us (Randolph & Beth forever!). I’m glad to see her branching out but it wasn’t for that pesky Oscar nom, this one would 110% have passed me by,

Chrissy Metz stars as Joyce, a Christian mother who offers up the kind of teasing prayers during dinner that make husband Brian (Josh Lucas) smirk. But her son John (Marcel Ruiz) is a teenager, determined not to crack a smile. He’s in an eye-rolling phase. An avid basket ball player at school, John is also struggling with his origin story, having been adopted from Guatemala while Joyce and Brian were there on a church mission. Meanwhile, Joyce is at odds with the new “cool” young pastor at her church, Jason (Topher Grace). Jason has a spiky haircut and references The Bachelor during sermons and says things like “Dope!” He wears the same kind of headset microphone that Britney Spears wears and has rock bands with auto-tuned rappers sing “hymns.” Oh he’s shaking things up.

Meanwhile, the movie is determined to establish itself as not just a Christian movie, shelling out for pop songs by Bruno Mars and Macklemore; John is a kid like any other, saving a pristine pair of Jordans for an occasion so special that only he will know it when he sees it.

I happened to notice a Stephen Curry listed as a producer and wondered if it could be THAT Curry. I wondered even more when the all-star was mentioned by name – the Warriors would be in town to face Kevin Durant and the Thunder. This places the film for me immediately, in the season just before Durant joined Curry on Golden State, the very same season when Sean and I traveled to OKC to see Durant face Lebron, then playing for Cleveland, and then we drove down to Dallas to see them play the Warriors. We were traveling in December, for Sean’s birthday, and a snowstorm here in Ottawa meant we almost didn’t make it, touching down in Oklahoma with just minutes to spare. I remember the valet at our hotel apologizing for their unseasonably cool weather but of course it felt downright tropical to us. But in St Louis, MI, it was cold enough for a lake to have frozen, but warm enough that a trio of teenage boys were out playing on it when the ice gave way and John went down.

After an hour with no breath and no pulse, the doctors draw the logical conclusion; they’ve only worked this long to keep him decent for his mother to arrive and say goodbye. Her frantic prayer is heard, or else this movie wouldn’t be much of a movie, and a pulse reappears from nowhere. But his brain was starved of oxygen for far too long. In an induced-coma, his parents are prepped for his inevitable vegetative state. But you know that Joyce isn’t about to let that happen. She badgers his doctors just as much as she badgers the lord.

He recovers of course. That’s a foregone conclusion in a Christian film. Religion isn’t my thing and neither is an entirely predictable plot. But I will begrudgingly admit that Breakthrough has a whole mess of admirable performances. And interestingly for a movie that attributes John’s recover to god’s miracle, it dares to ask why god saves some and not others, which is one of religion’s great quandaries. Of course Breakthrough doesn’t have an answer, but I give it credit for even voicing the question.

And push come to shove, it’s now an Oscar-nominated film, for a song called I’m Standing With You, performed by the esteemed Chrissy Metz and written by Diane Warren. And Diane Warren is not to be messed with. She’s got 11 nominations under her belt, including for chart-busting songs like Because You Loved me, from Up Close and Personal, performed by Celine Dion, and How Do I Live from Con Air performed by Trisha Yearwood and I Don’t Want To Miss A Thing from Armageddon and performed of course by Aerosmith. The woman is a songwriting powerhouse. Will this be her year? Check it out:

Undeniably beautiful, but her competition is fierce:

Stand Up, written by Joshuah Brian Campbell & Cynthia Erivo, performed by Erivo for the movie Harriet

From Toy Story 4, I Can’t Let You Throw Yourself Away, written and performed Randy Newman, a man with 20 Oscar nominations and 2 wins under his belt (Toy Story 3‘s “We Belong Together” and “If I Didn’t Have You” from Monsters, Inc.)

Also from Disney, Into the Unknown, performed by Idina Menzel and AURORA, written by Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez who have two previous Oscar wins for “Let It Go” from Frozen and “Remember Me” from Coco.

And of course (I’m Gonna) Love Me Again from the Elton John biopic Rocketman. Written by John (who has a previous win for The Lion King’s Can You Feel the Love Tonight) and Bernie Taupin, performed by both Elton and Taron Egerton. It took the Globe – will it take the Oscar as well?

Who do you think will win??

The Edge of Democracy

Brazilian film-maker Petra Costa is in her 30s, and just a little older than democracy itself in her country. Her parents were activists and briefly jailed for their convictions when military regimes still governed the country. This film blends political documentary with personal memoir as she recounts her family’s political and social entanglements while studying the dramatic collision between two Brazilian presidencies.

Costa voted for Lula da Silva but watches in dismay as scandal and corruption engulf his presidency and he scrambles to compromise and resort to alliances with the oligarchy that he’d always railed against. And yet Brazil prospers: the economy thrives, the poor are lifted up. When he leaves office two terms later, his approval rate is at an all-time high. He anoints a predecessor, Dilma Rousseff, and she is elected thanks to an even stronger alliance with PMDB, who appoints her vice president. She starts her presidency strong but the socio-political climate of Brazil is changing, as it is in many of the world’s democracies. The people are waking up, and Rousseff scrambles to regain credibility by initiating a sweeping investigation into corruption.

As one president is impeached and another imprisoned, the country is further destabilized. It is clear as Costa narrates this film in the first-person that she is watching her country descend into turmoil and worries that democracy itself is crumbling. When you witness some of the illogical but fervent rhetoric being flung around in its media, it reminds us rather alarmingly of Trump’s disregard for the rules of democracy and the parameters of the presidency.

Brazil is on the edge of democracy, perhaps teetering back toward dictatorship. Costa narrates an angry and intimate portrait of this tumultuous time; it is one-sided to be sure, personal and impassioned. And yet the country’s split into two seemingly irreconcilable factions feels all-too familiar and if nothing else, The Edge of Democracy should be viewed by Americans as a warning shot against the increasing polarization of their own country. This documentary is a portrait of democracy’s demise, but Brazil isn’t the only country in danger of rolling down this hill.

The Edge of Democracy is nominated for an Oscar in the documentary (feature) category, alongside American Factory, The Cave, For Sama, and Honeyland. Which do you think will win?

1917

Time is the enemy, the tag line reads. But also mud. And also Germans, but time first, and mud second. Oh the mud. They trudge through it, slipping and sliding, it squishes between their toes and claims the corpses of men. I worry one of the men will lose his footing in the slippery, unforgiving mud and accidentally bayonet himself, or someone else. The sludge is real. You feel the dirt viscerally just as you feel the time urgently.

Oh the time. Time is the enemy you see. Two young soldiers on the Western front are given an impossible task. Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) has a brother in another unit, an isolated regiment about to walk right into a trap. He and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay) need to get to them before dawn to save the lives of 1600 men, but the journey to prevent their massacre is likely a suicide mission.

Director Sam Mendes executes this film with such mastery and technical prowess that it induces a state of anxiety, dread and hyper-vigilance in the viewer, immersing us quite brilliantly in the ethos of the battlefield. Most of the film feels like it’s done in a single take, and because we’re experiencing this nightmare in near real-time alongside the soldiers, the urgency and gravity of their mission infects us with constant tension and foreboding. Inevitably this sounds like a harrowing cinematic experience and it is, but one that’s deeply moving and conscientious and frankly impossible not to admire.

Cinematography by legendary Roger Deakins highlights the horror of war, the monotony of the mud, the pitted landscapes, and is particularly effective at night, when a village burns and is intermittently lit by flares. But his work with Mendes to seamlessly knit together shots to create a visual single take is surely worthy of the Oscar. And Thomas Newman’s score is similarly haunting, some of those trumpet swells literally responsible for a tightening in my chest.

My adrenaline was so successfully engaged that it wasn’t until the very end of the film that I finally indulged in a tear. My nerves were so keyed up that I probably didn’t take a full lung’s worth of breath until I was in the parking lot. 1917 is not easy to watch but boy is it easy to praise.