(*homocinematically inclined)

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Reverend's Reviews: ‘Tis the Season… for Movie Awards


As December rolls around, most people are focused on seasonal gift shopping, home decorating and party throwing or attending. However, film critics like myself (plus Hollywood industry guild members) are under the gun to anoint the best (and sometimes trash the worst) movies of 2019. It makes for a fun but even more stressful time of year.

Studios are currently busy sending out DVDs and online screening links of what they consider to be their most promising films to award voters including the members of my group, GALECA: The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics. A number of these contenders have LGBTQ content or other relevance to our community.

Currently, what I’ve dubbed “the four J's” are dominating awards season chatter: Joker, Judy, Jojo Rabbit and Jennifer Lopez. The first two films detail the tragic results of lifelong abuse, a timely and important subject. They also boast awards-worthy performances by their leading man and lady, respectively. Joaquin Phoenix is undeniably powerful in Joker as Arthur Fleck, a downtrodden resident of decrepit, pre-Batman Gotham City. Long convinced by his mother that his role in life is to bring happiness to others, Fleck works as a clown-for-hire by local businesses, hospitals and other organizations. Sadly, he endures near-constant physical and/or emotional abuse from street hoodlums, co-workers, employers and passersby. One day he is pushed too far and ends up shooting three employees of the storied Wayne Enterprises to death after they attack him on a subway train. The general kudos that Fleck’s unanticipated action receives from his fellow poor citizens of Gotham, as well as more personal revelations, spark his evolution into Batman's eventual arch-nemesis.

Although Joker became a huge international hit, it has received wildly divergent reactions from critics and viewers alike. Drawing too obviously at times from the early works of director Martin Scorsese (whose The Irishman is a virtually-guaranteed awards nominee this year), it is a morally troubling movie when it comes to its "kill the rich" denouement/endorsement. Despite this, Phoenix is currently the front runner for Best Actor at the Academy Awards. I suspect Best Picture will be more of a long shot.

Judy, meanwhile, is the latest dramatization of Judy Garland's life. The late, great singer-actress and enduring gay icon endured systematic abuse beginning at the age of two from managers, studio heads and her own mother. Most significantly, they got her addicted to drugs as a child starlet so she could perform on demand. As an adult, her ongoing addictions to drugs, alcohol and manipulative men ruined her career and led to her early death at the age of 47.

This biopic was adapted from, and is actually an improvement on, Peter Quilter's more sensationalistic play End of the Rainbow. Actress Renée Zellweger is sensational in a good way as Garland. While she is subtle more often than not in her channeling of Garland, the musical numbers remind viewers simultaneously of both women's artistry and endearing vulnerability. Zellweger previously won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for 2003’s Cold Mountain, but her performance in Judy may well garner her this year’s Best Actress Oscar. She would definitely get my vote if I had to vote now for GALECA’s Dorian Awards.

The third “J” stands for Jojo, i.e. Jojo Rabbit. This World War II satire, directed by Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok), is alternately hilarious and heartbreaking as it follows the exploits of the title, 10-year old German boy. He is such a devoted little Nazi that he even envisions Adolf Hitler (goofily personified by Waititi himself) as his imaginary friend. Jojo must confront his blind nationalism when he discovers that his beloved mother (played by Scarlett Johansson) is hiding a young Jewish girl in their attic.

Jojo Rabbit is a definite crowd pleaser that won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival and has done well at the US box office since its release in October. Essentially The Diary of Anne Frank if remade by Mel Brooks, I expect it to receive major awards attention. Johansson could be a contender for her lovely performance as Jojo’s compassionate mother, as could Sam Rockwell’s funny yet warm turn as a gay but necessarily-closeted Nazi superior.

Last but not least of “the four J’s” is J.Lo, a.k.a. actress-singer Jennifer Lopez. Although she has previously given strong performances in such movies as Out of Sight and Selena, Lopez is aiming for her first Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress in Hustlers. She played Ramona, the fierce leader of a gang of exotic dancers who turn the tables on wealthy men who took advantage of them. Lopez is indeed a showstopper as she pole-dances, connives, whips up knock-out drugs in her kitchen and sports flashy fur coats.

Every awards season features a worthy underdog and this year’s is The Peanut Butter Falcon. The lovable tale of a young man with Down Syndrome who dreams of becoming a professional wrestler could win nominations and/or awards for its bromantic leads, Shia LaBeouf and newcomer Zack Gottsagen. Of note, Gottsagen would become the industry’s first honoree who actually has Down Syndrome. This might provide some additional incentive to nominators/voters.

Keep watching entertainment news for what will no doubt be an exciting, potentially historic awards season. In the meantime, happy holidays!

Chris’ Picks for the Best and Worst of 2019:

A few end-of-year releases have yet to be screened, notably Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and the controversial adaptation of the stage musical Cats (two words have people concerned: digital fur). I feel confident, though, with my choices of 2019’s best movies below. As I have done in the past, I’ve included some additional films beyond a strict top 10 that I consider equally accomplished and that share similar genres, themes or attributes.

1) The Last Black Man in San Francisco (A24). Young writer-director Joe Talbot makes a very impressive debut with this heartfelt exploration of friendship between two African-American men trying to claim a Victorian home for themselves. Inspired by a true story, it’s an unforgettable, queer-friendly tale.

2) Ask Dr. Ruth (Hulu) and Kathy Griffin: A Hell of a Story (Self-produced). Inspiring documentaries about two strong, LGBTQ-supportive women who have been to hell and back and lived to tell about it. One is a long-lived master of sexual education who survived a Nazi concentration camp. The other is a tell-all comedienne who drew the ire of President Trump and was subsequently blackballed. Love the subjects or hate them, these movies are must-sees.

3) Jojo Rabbit (Fox Searchlight). Speaking of surviving the Nazis, no one has had so much fun sending them up since Mel Brooks did in his heyday. Taika Waititi’s awards season favorite is deeply moving in addition to being very funny.

4) The Farewell (A24). Awkwafina shines in writer-director Lulu Wang’s autobiographical film about a Chinese woman living in the US who returns home when she learns her beloved grandmother is dying. Don’t be turned off by the sad story if you haven’t seen it, as there is a great payoff.

5) Unicorn Store (Netflix) and Captain Marvel (Disney). Brie Larson may have swept Best Actress awards for 2015’s Room, but her films this year made her a star. She played the most powerful hero in the comic book universe in the exciting, well-crafted and unpredictable Captain Marvel (with a very cool cat as co-star). Then she starred in and made a smashing directorial debut with the delightfully whimsical Unicorn Store.

6) Us (Universal), Midsommar (A24) and Doctor Sleep (Warner Bros). A trio of intelligent, beautifully made and, of course, creepy-as-hell horror movies. Made by some of the genre’s finest filmmakers (Jordan Peele, Ari Aster and Mike Flanagan, respectively), these gave viewers something to think about as well as the requisite goosebumps.

7) Kanarie (Breaking Glass). Made in 2018 but not released in the US until this year, I was very impressed by this South African coming-of-age war musical (you read that right). It also includes a gay romance and a lead character who channels such 1980’s pop stars as Madonna, Boy George and my personal favorite, Kate Bush.

8) By the Grace of God (Music Box Films). Gay filmmaker François Ozon’s galvanizing expose of France’s crisis of sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests. Similar to the American, 2015 Oscar winner Spotlight but more admirably from the victims’ perspective.

9) Rocketman (Paramount) and Judy (Roadside Attractions). A pair of terrific musical biographies. I discussed Judy above but Rocketman is an equally great and definitely more fun look at the life of out singer Elton John. I would love to see Taron Egerton nominated as Best Actor for his impersonation of Sir Elton.

10) The Peanut Butter Falcon (Roadside Attractions) and The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot (Epic Pictures). Two quirky but thoroughly enjoyable and even touching movies graced by fine performances. As previously mentioned, Shia LaBeouf and newcomer Zack Gottsagen make a memorable duo in the first. Sam Elliott, a first-time Oscar nominee last year for his turn in A Star is Born, is perfectly laconic as the title character of the second, decidedly fantastical tale.

My worst picks are (in no particular order of dishonor): The Skin of the Teeth, Joker, Annabelle Comes Home, Groupers and High Life.

Reviews by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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