Pieces of a Woman

If you’re looking for a harrowing emotional experience look no further than this Netflix drama.

The film stars Vanessa Kirby and Shia LaBeouf as a couple dealing with a deeply traumatic incident that shakes them and their family to their core.

Im being somewhat cagey in my description because I experienced this film without knowing anything. I had it was good and saw the Golden Globes it was nominated for, so I put it on. I was totally taken by this movie. It’s a gripping story told in a unique way.

Vanessa Kirby is really astounding here. The emotional places she’s goes with this character are so authentic it never feels like a performance. She inhabits this woman’s pain, her grief, and her hope.

The centerpiece of the film is its opening sequence. It’s a twenty minute single take style shot. It’s designed to look like one unbroken take. As it began I thought about how often this trick is used and how the one take is a trend like shaky cam was years ago that must be on its way out. But this one was different. This one told a story. This one encapsulated the entirety of the characters experience and absolutely broke my heart. By the end I was extended one takes can stick around forever as long as they are done this well.

Ellen Burstyn has a fantastic part as Vanessa Kirby’s mother. she’s a controlling woman who is beginning to forget things. She’s slowly losing control and watching Burstyn navigate this character is truly fascinating to watch. She’s incredibly authentic in the small moments like finding her cell phone in the salad bowl, but she’s also fierce when she pulls it together to challenge her daughters choices in a stunning speech. She’s excellent here.

The movie has a kind of fragmented structure. It keeps jumping forward in time. It created a real disconnect for me. I struggled to get back in touch with where the characters were. I think this was the intention. It made me feel the way this fragmented family must feel. They are struggling to keep up with each other and recreate the bonds that they shared. This might be too much for some people. They might just feel a disconnect and shut the movie off. I’d advise against that. The movie comes together really well.

For me the squeaky wheel is Shia LaBeouf. He seems to be striving so hard for authenticity whereas the rest of the cast simply is authentic. His performance is effortful. He’s trying hard to give the impression of not trying at all. It’s hard to describe, but watching him opposite Burstyn and Kirby he looks like he’s trying way too hard.

The more is a gut punch. It deals with loss, grief, and despair. It’s not a fun Sunday afternoon movie. It’s not a date night or a dinner and a movie kind of experience. It is however a really good movie that’s worth watching if you have the heart for it.

I’d definitely recommend it. It’s for sure my cup of tea. A-

Nomadland

A woman living out of her van travels the country in search of inner peace in this lovely collection of moments anchored by Frances McDormand’s performance.

The film opens with two titles explaining that there was a factory town in Empire Nevada. The factory shut down in 2011, and within six months the town was empty and their post code was discontinued.

The film follows Frances McDormand as Fern. She travels all over the country, living out of her van, and taking any work she can find. Along the way she encounters challenges and makes friends and comes to terms with the life she used to have.

This movie is difficult to describe because there is no plot. It’s really just a collection of vignettes. Brief moments that add up to a whole experience. It is made up of incredibly short scenes. One scene involves Fern working a job cleaning a bathroom. A guy enters. She says it’s closed. He ignores her and uses the urinal next to her. She rolls her eyes and walks out. That’s the whole scene. On its own it’s nothing, and honestly a lot of the movie is forgettable to me because of that. While not much on their own these tiny little moments do add up to an experience that is felt more than anything.

Frances McDormand does good work, but she’s up against real people. she’s striving for authenticity where the rest of the inhabitants of the movie are authentic people. It often feels like an actress has stepped into a documentary about nomads.

There is only one truly dramatic moment. It comes at the 55 minute mark. I know because I had a strong emotional reaction. My heart stopped, and my stomach sank. It came out of nowhere which is why I checked the time. The funny thing about it is that in any other movie it wouldn’t have been anything. But because of the way this movie works it really hit me.

The movie feels as if it was assembled from deleted bits of a different movie. Like they shot a and edited more traditional film, then took all the bits they cut out of that film, and put them together to make this one. I kept saying to myself “there should be more to that scene” and “they cut away too soon.” Especially toward the end where the film is building to its conclusion and ultimate thematic point. I wish it had given us more.

This movie is a quiet collection of tiny moments that add up to a picture of a lifestyle. If that sounds like your cup of tea then please give it a watch on Hulu or in theaters. If it’s not what you’re into then it’s going to be a challenging viewing experience.

For me this type of movie isn’t my cup of tea. They’re usually too artsy and self important. This one worked better for me than most. I give credit to the director Chloe Zhao for weaving it together. That said it’s only like have a cup of tea for me. B

It’s just been nominated for a slew of Golden Globes. You’ll be hearing about this one all through awards season.

Judas and the Black Messiah

Part thriller, part biopic, and part historical tragedy this enthralling film features two unforgettable performances and incredible story telling that has a lot to say about the world then and now.

I think it helps to have a little history before stepping into the movie especially if your only experience with the Black Panthers is that one scene in Forrest Gump. Fred Hampton was a charismatic young leader in the Chicago chapter of the BlackPanther party. Their primary function was to provide meals for children, and support for families in the black community. Hampton’s outspoken views landed him the crosshairs of Hoover and the FBI.

The movie tells Hampton’s story from the point of view of Bill O’Neal a small time car thief who gets picked up by the cops and is threatened with serious jail time unless he joins the Black Panthers and becomes an informant for the FBI.

LaKeith Stanfield plays O’Neal as a mass of contradictions and contradictory impulses. He’s pulled in different directions. He admires his FBI handler Mitchell played by Jesse Plemmons, but he also sees real value in the Panthers. Stanfield has been a fascinating actor for years. Here he harnesses all his idiosyncrasies to paint an incredible portrait of this man.

The performance that captured me completely was Daniel Kaluuya as Fred Hampton. Holy crap he was amazing. He completely embodies Hampton. His charisma is undeniable, and I was completely entranced the entire time. You never catch him acting in this movie. He simply is Fred Hampton. He deserves all the superlatives. People describe performances are “arresting,” “powerful,” and “stellar” all the time. Kaluuya deserves them all. He’s awesome.

The movie is really incredible the more I think about it. It is intense and suspenseful. It is touching and beautiful. It offers incredible insight into a fascinating chapter in history.

Because the movie isn’t a straightforward biopic, it resists the pitfalls of most biopics. It never tries to canonize its subjects. Hampton and O’Neal are real people with real flaws. It doesn’t try to pretend the ugliness and contradictions didn’t exist in them. It also makes their lives about so much more than just their deaths. Historical biopics often depict their subjects deaths as the most important moments in their lives. By putting Hampton’s ideas and his beliefs at the forefront the movie does a service to his life and legacy.

Finally the movie is entertaining. It’s not a civics lesson or a lecture. It is exciting and challenging and thought provoking. Give this movie a shot. It’s well worth it. It’s streaming on HBO Max.

It’s was definitely my cup of tea. A+

Last note, the title threw me at first. It’s a reference to a J Edgar Hoover memo in which he stated that they had to prevent a “black messiah” from rising up in the black community to unite them.

The Lion King

A long overdue review for a movie that never should have happened. The Lion King is a modern and overlong retelling of a wonderful Disney film from the early 90’s that fails tremendously due to a misguided approach to the material, a tonal dissonance, and uninspired voice acting.

The story is more or less the same as the original film. It follows Simba, the son of Mufasa the King of the Pride Lands in Africa. Mufasa’s jealous brother Scar murders Mufasa and blames Simba. Simba goes on a journey to find himself and reclaim his birthright. This is an epic and emotion driven story about big heroes, dastardly villains, and sweeping scale. This movie approaches this story with photo realistic special effects. The social effects are stunning and truly the most convincing CGI landscapes even created. However realism does not serve a story about the Shakespearean intrigue within a royal family of lions.

The realism just sucks the energy and emotion out of every scene. There is no forward momentum built up when every animal is devoid of emotion. When Mufasa dies, Simba’s face is impassive. There is no emotion that registers. Lion’s do not have emotions therefore his face is a blank. When Simba and Nala fall in love they stare at each other with blank black eyes that convey nothing. The filmmakers avoid closeups throughout a lot of the movie. This creates a nature documentary style which is objective and distant at moments when the film should be subjective and engaging. This whole approach of slavish realism, is a massive mistake that kills any true impact or engagement the story could have.

The tone of the film is basically subdued ambivalence. This is a direct result of the nature documentary approach. The subdued tone would be all right if not for the fact that the film is at times a musical and also a broad comedy with fart jokes and bodily humor. In the movie, Simba runs away for years to live with a meerkat and warthog while Scar rules the Pride Lands with an iron fist. The original sticks with Simba entirely during this segment. The new movie cuts back and forth. This cross cutting creates a horrible jarring effect. The movie shows depictions of predators savagely taking down prey and then cuts to a warthog farting. The darkness and cruelty on display in scenes in which Scar abuses the female lions does not work with scenes in which Simba eats grubs and sings about going with the flow. By showing the devastation of Simba’s home it raises the stakes on Pride rock, but it also makes Simba’s refusal to return home and help feel all the more petty. It diminishes the character of Simba and creates too harsh a dissonance between the two segments.

The films cast has been hyped and praised, but they let the film down big time. None of the cast add anything special to their roles except for Seth Rogen as Pumba and Billy Eichner as Timon. These two give it their all and their line deliveries are perfect. They are very good. Everyone else feels subdued to the point of phoning it in. Chiwetel Ejiofer has gravity as Scar, but his emotions never raise above a 4. Beyonce isn’t any good here. Her delivery is stiff. The young Simba delivers a nice convincing turn, but his emotional voice is at odds with the emotionless face his character has. James Earl Jones’ voice is showing his age, but his inflection and delivery is still fantastic. However due to the film’s documentary approach it often feels as if Jones and the whole cast is narrating a Planet Earth special. Their voices don’t seem to be coming from their characters. They feel disconnected.

This film is bad. There are some highlights and some fun moments. It is nice to hear Jones again. The stampede sequence is very good. The Hyena’s are genuinely scary and intimidating. The computer effects on display are lightyears ahead of anything else. And the story itself is so good it is impossible to hate the film entirely. However the movie as a whole is not good. It is poorly conceived and misguided. It is not exactly my cup of tea. – C+

BlacKkKlansman

An unbelievable true story, some incredible filmmaking, and a sledgehammer of a political message combine to create one of the best films of the year.

The film follows the story of Ron Stallworth, the first black police officer on the Colorado Springs police force. He works undercover and one day responds to an ad placed by the local KKK in the newspaper. He phones in and continues talking to the head of the local KKK over the phone posing as a racist white man. Eventually he becomes a full fledged member in good standing. He sends in his partner, a white man, to play himself in person. Together they thwart cross burnings and foil violent demonstrations.

One of the most remarkable things about the movie is the way it blends and balances the inherent humor of the situation with the inherent horror of what it means. There was a black member who made a fool of the KKK. The irony of the situation is hilarious. There are scenes of high comedy as in the scene where Stallworth tries to teach his white partner how to speak more like him. Or the scene in which David Duke the grand wizard of the KKK explains to Stallworth why he Stallworth could never be black because of the inherent differences in white and black speech. It’s priceless. However at the same time they are dealing with deep hate and horrifying expressions of that hate. The way the film moves fluidly through those two extremes is masterful to watch.

It balances comedy and drama, social commentary and police procedural, a thriller and a love story. The fact that it never goes too far off the rails in any one direction is a tribute to the director Spike Lee’s ability to orchestrate a film. Too many movies these days try to blend satire and drama and they miss the mark. Vice, another film nominated for best picture, is a perfect example of a film that tries for this balance and totally misses the mark. Its satire is too broad. Its sincerity feels too cheap and unearned. This film makes that balancing act look easy.

The best sequence in the movie follows two scenes playing simultaneously. The KKK members sit down in a church basement to watch a screening of The Birth of a Nation. The film is about the formation of the KKK and the lynchings and murders that occurred after the Civil War. The film was released in 1916 and lead to a resurgence of the Klan. In this film the KKK members hoot and holler and celebrate the film and the horrors being depicted. This scene is cross cut with a gathering of a black student group as they listen to a man detail a real life lynching that occurred after the movie was released. Spike Lee uses the medium of film so beautifully here. He captures the contrast and delivers a message more powerfully than could ever have been delivered with words alone. This is a great sequence.

The film concludes with an incredibly hard hitting political message. It ties the entire story to recent events. It reminds the audience that although this story takes place in the past, it hasn’t passed. It remains horribly relevant today. The racism, the hatred, and the expression of that hatred is alive today. The message is a little too political for some, but the film is definitely worth seeing regardless.

This is a really good film and absolutely my cup of tea. Grade A

A Star is Born

Great performances, some really wonderful directorial flourishes and a great soundtrack elevate the film, but aren’t able to make it soar.

The story is a classic. A legendary star on the decline finds and elevates a young ingenue. Her star rises as his collapses. Their love holds them together through it all.

The film is very smart in the changes it makes to the well known story. Bradley Cooper plays the older star. His career is not on the decline. He is in a steady place. He’s a drug addict and alcoholic, but he’s functioning. She is not a young ingenue. She is older, wiser, world weary herself. She has her own internal life and perspective. He doesn’t make her over in his image and give her stardom. She is a star and he gives her a stage. It’s a nice update to the story.

Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga as the two leads are stunning together. The film does a wonderful job crafting and exploring a genuine relationship between these two. It is a relationship that carries the rest of the film. It is the reason this film is as good as it is. If that failed or faltered the movie would have been a waste, but it works throughout. She is natural and steady and brings honest feeling to every moment. He returns the same level of genuine feeling. No one ever rings a false note in the movie performance wise. To watch Gaga play a woman terrified of getting on stage and then making the leap and making the audience believe that she’s never performed before a crowd this size is a genuinely wonderful feat of acting. Cooper is able to show such hurt and truth in his eyes no matter what is happening or how sober his character is.

One of the best scenes in the entire film though involves Cooper and Sam Elliot. They play brothers. They have hurt and fought each other their whole lives, and Elliot is giving him a ride home. In the driveway Cooper tells him something heartbreaking. Elliot drives away. The camera is in the backseat and as Elliot turns in his seat to back out his face becomes visible. The heartbreak is palpable in his face. The build up to this moment is perfect. The timing is exact. The camera placement and shot is brilliant. It turns the audience into the an eavesdropper. It generates a genuine moment of feeling. It’ll break the heart of anyone who sees it.

The place where the film falters is in the depiction of fame. After an hour with these characters, the film jumps into montage territory. A huge chunk of the film becomes one big concert and tour montage. So much time is devoted to snippets of songs and what life is like on the road. It is okay, but it doesn’t add much to the relationships or advance the story in a truly effective way. The film just kind of happens for a long time until the story picks up again.

The other misstep in the film that hampers its greatness is the contrived way it leads to its final tragedy. The film adds a scheming manager character to push the plot to its conclusion. The film didn’t need this. The story has all the elements right there in place. It doesn’t need this additional element to make it happen.

This paragraph goes into more detail about the scheming manager subplot. It may spoil the movie for some. Skip to the next paragraph to avoid the spoiler… Anyway, the film ends with Cooper’s suicide. His character gets sober, but a scheming manager shows up and tells him he’s going to ruin Gaga’s career if he’s around. He then kills himself. This didn’t need to happen. The film has all the elements in place. His drug addiction, his alcoholism, his embarrassing behavior, the way he’s treated her and hindered her career, the things we’ve seen are compelling enough. The film didn’t need the deus ex machina to get the story to this point. It feels contrived and diminishes the effect of the actual moment and the true tragedy of the story.

That said, the film has some wonderful stuff. It is a really good film. It deserves to be seen and enjoyed. It is my cup of tea. Grade – B+

Bohemian Rhapsody

A fantastic lead performance, some nice visual flourishes, and a powerful story help overcome the cliches of the musical biopic genre.

The story of Freddie Mercury’s life and career is a fascinating one. It follows the usual ups and downs of any band, but the true heart is Mercury’s personal life and his own conflicts and afflictions.

As Mercury, Rami Malek is truly fantastic. He transforms completely. His movements. His voice, his appearance. There are moments when he is indistinguishable from the real Freddie Mercury despite looking nothing like him in real life. He truly becomes the legend during the musical numbers. He is electric. Watching him work a crowd is riveting. The way he makes eye contact, and performs a singing call and response with the crowd is just a thrill to see. It is fun watching Malek own this part. Off stage, he doesn’t crowd out his fellow actors. He feels all of a piece with his ensemble. Often an actor playing a big persona can treat the part into a one man show and crowd everyone else out. Malek doesn’t. He lets everyone share the screen and breath. He has a lovely and tender relationship with Mary played by Lucy Boynton. He has a wonderful relationship with a man named Jim Hutton. The film could have used more of this relationship, but the moments they share are hugely impactful.

This film has a few nice visual flourishes especially during the musical numbers. It is shot with a real point of view on its characters and situations. The smaller moments can sometimes get lost in the shuffle of touring and performing. The concert footage is excellent. The performances are exciting and invoke a feeling of what it was probably like to see Queen in concert. A lot has been said of the films climactic Live Aid concert and with good reason. It is a massive performance that hits the audience with how thrilling it must be to perform in front a crowd like that. What it must feel like to perform to a throng of humanity all shouting your lyrics back at you. It is genuinely heart stopping. Mercury’s life as depicted in the film reflects the time period in which he lived. It was a time of convention being flaunted, and excesses being enjoyed, and finally the world crashing down. Mercury and contracted AIDS. His life is as sad they come when viewed in broad strokes. A genius performer loses himself in excess and passes away too early of a terrible illness, and the film is sad. However it doesn’t bash the audience over the head with tragedy. It is uplifting and hopeful even as the terrible undercurrent pulses just below the surface.

The film has problems. Most are due to the limitations of the musical biopic genre. All movies of this type try to cram too much of the main characters life into its limited runtime. Mercury’s relationships with his family, his heritage, his friends, his lovers, his band, his management, and his record label are all touched on. It gets to be a little crowded and the central relationships can get a little lost. It also embraces some cliches in the studio where arguments are all resolved by a good bass riff or a good song idea. It also follows a very familiar formula. It’s the one everyone knows, struggle, rise to fame, getting lost in drugs and sex, rock bottom, the come back. It’s a formula because it works. This film just doesn’t offer a lot new to that formula.

It’s a good movie. A very good movie even. A letter grade – A-

It’s my cup of tea.

Green Book

With two powerhouse performances, this film is a joyful emotional success that is a pleasure to watch again and again. It doesn’t preach nor dictate. It tells the story of these two men and their relationship and lets the emotions flow. The direction offers little beyond getting out of the lead actors’ way as they deliver A+ work.

The film follows Viggo Mortensen as Tony “Lip” Vallelonga a brutal con artist and bouncer from the Bronx who takes a job driving and protecting Dr. Don Shirley on his concert tour of the south in the early 1960’s. The fastidious and proper Dr. Shirley is black and insists on touring the Deep South.

Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen give two of the best and most effective performances of the year. Mortensen is given top billing, but this movie is a duet. Each performance sings in perfect harmony. They share the screen and share the weight. Mortensen plays Tony Lip a character who could easily just be a big Italian from the Bronx cliche, but Mortensen gives him layers and shading. He feels true and honest in every moment. He has grounded this big lug in truth and soul. The way he looks at his wife and doesn’t look at the black man in his backseat. The way he fishes a cigarette out of pack. The way he shrugs and the way he stares. His every movement is motivated and genuine. He nails every detail.

Mahershala Ali is the one that breaks the hearts. He has moments in this film that are truly unforgettable. They live on in the heart. He is such a lonely and tragic figure. The real Dr. Shirley was a black man who wanted to play classic piano in a world that expected him to play black music. Ali brings a deep alienation and isolation to Shirley. There is a moment when Dr. Shirley thinks Tony is leaving him. He pleads with Tony with only his eyes, trying to protect his dignity and unwilling to admit that he is afraid. Mahershala is able to communicate so much with that look. The camera lingers on that face, and the editor lets the moment linger. It creates a haunting and heartbreaking image that earns an entire letter grade for the movie.

The direction is purely objective. In modern cinema when shots and whole movies exist to create a subjective experience of exactly what the characters are going through, the direction here tries to get out of the way and simply capture the moments. It’s a very old fashioned style that doesn’t tell a story so much as seek to get out of its way. This works brilliantly in moments like the one described above, however some moments needed a little extra push. They land fine, but they could have really hit a home run. One such moment is a scene in a bar when Dr. Shirley is being harassed and essentially held hostage. Tony is bargaining with the racists and the scene could have carried a deep intensity and tension, but it was shot in only a couple of medium shots and cuts back and forth to the dialogue. A few directorial flourishes could have made that scene much more gripping while still retaining the tone of the film.

The story itself is fantastic. The script combines solid dialogue with great moments of visual storytelling. There isn’t enough attention paid in modern film to moments without dialogue. One great one comes early when Tony sees two black workmen drinking lemonade in his kitchen. Once they leave he stares at the glasses they used and after considering the glasses throws them in the trash. It’s a great moment. It tells so much about him. These little moments are peppered throughout the movie and feel very fresh.

Finally, some concern has been raised over the films depiction of race relations. People have criticized it as being over simplified or saccharine. It is not either of those things. It embraces certain cliches sure, but the film genuinely isn’t about curing racism. It is about two men from different lives challenging one another to break free from their self imposed constraints and live life a little bit more freely. It’s about these two men and this particular trip. It works and is absolutely my cup of tea. – A-

Vice

The too often comedic and fitfully dramatic retelling of the life and times of Vice President Dick Cheney is an explosion of wonderful acting, misguided directing, and fascinating history.

To begin, the acting is uniformly excellent. Lead by the incomparable Christian Bale, the ensemble is a who’s who of character actors devouring their roles. Bale is the best. He brings so much reality, gravitas, and deep inner life to his role as Cheney. There isn’t a second when he falls into mere mimicry or Acting with a capital “A”. Watching him thinking through and observing the others around him is riveting. His dialogue is often minimal, but Bale creates depth with his eyes and his movement. It’s a fantastic performance. Amy Adams is the next essential piece of this puzzle. She is fierce and powerful as a woman with deep desires in a time period when women weren’t allowed to have those desires or ambitions. She is right in step with Bale. A deep true inner life reflected through her eyes and behavior. Steve Carrell as Rumsfeld and Sam Rockwell as George W Bush are both excellent, but they are show pieces. Adams and Bale are given the most and do the most with what they are given.

The directing and writing is the problem with this film. Adam McKay wrote and directed the film. He is the man behind Anchorman. He has a warped and unique sense of humor. He injected that humor into his financial horror story The Big Short a few years ago. That film found inventive ways to utilize the medium of film to condense huge amounts of technical financial information into easily digestible chunks. He attempts something similar here, but his humor is at war with the material. The story he tells his deadly serious, but his direction insists on going for laughs. This neuters the dramatic impact of a lot of moments. It robs the film of gravitas. It undermines the truth of what we are seeing.

There are two moments that perfectly exemplify his directorial misguidedness… The first involves Adams and Bale in bed. The narrator of the film asks in voice over what must Cheney have been thinking in that moment. He then ponders what it would be like if people spoke in Shakespearean monologues. Bale and Adams then launch into faux Shakespearean speeches about what they are thinking. This is amusing, strange, and gets a laugh. However it doesn’t offer insight into the characters or the story. It’s just a flight of fancy that kind of works. The second moment comes late when Cheney and his team sit down to a fancy dinner. The waiter approaches with the specials. Instead of food he offers them a menu of unethical extremes; water boarding, patriot act surveillance, unlawful rendition, and on and on. They choose all of them. This is clever. It demonstrates the cavalier attitude of the administration with regard to personal rights and freedoms. It’s a really strong metaphor, but it doesn’t stick the landing. The fantasy of it is so jarring and there is no final conclusion or insight drawn from it. It simply ends with the punchline, “we’ll have all of them,” and it moves on. It breaks the verisimilitude of the movie and then dives back into the story proper without giving us a reason. You don’t have to break your movie in half in order to make that metaphor work, but he does in order to get the joke.

The history of this time period and the moments in time that made this man who he is and made his rise possible is unbelievably fascinating. It is riveting stuff. That makes it so unfortunate that they have to leave that history behind for the sake of jokes and random asides. What Cheney did to seize as much control as he did is incredible. To dramatize it in a film is a worthy and perhaps the best way to digest that history. Film can offer us insights into the man and create empathy for the situation and the world in which he exists. The best stretches of this film tell the shadowy history of how Cheney viewed the politics around him. With Bale’s excellent performance, and the riveting history those stretches are fantastic filmmaking and great movie going. However the film can’t get out of its own way.

It feels at times like a student film. The director of that film is not confident in his material, so he injects jokes and humor to keep people watching. It’s too bad.

In conclusion, this movie is half great, half okay. A letter grade – B It’s half a cup of tea anyway