Take 2

93rd Academy Awards: A botched ending

93rd Academy Awards: A botched ending

Joe’s Take

As the Academy and Oscars producers should know, an ending can make or break a film. A great ending allows the viewer to forget some of the film’s earlier flaws. A bad ending can make the audience forget the film’s earlier greatness. Well, it turns out they don’t know that or they just don’t care. Last night was the 93rd Academy Awards, and the ceremony had its worst ending … ever.

When I say end, I’m not just talking about Anthony Hopkins’ egregious victory over the late Chadwick Boseman to cap the night. This production’s entire last act failed and turned a decent ceremony into a disaster. Let’s start at the beginning of the Oscars’ home stretch.

It’s about 10:40 p.m. and “Fight for You” from “Judas and the Black Messiah” just won best original song. There are three awards left, best picture, best actress and best actor. Before the commercial break, though, it’s time for a game. No, really. They stopped the ceremony to play a game with a few actors. Best actress nominee Andra Day, best supporting actor winner Daniel Kaluuya and best supporting actress nominee Glenn Close had to guess whether a song won an Oscar, was nominated for an Oscar or wasn’t nominated at all. Day said something ABC had to cut the audio for, so rough start. Lil Rel Howery and Kaluuya rallied with some humorous references to “Get Out,” a film they both starred in, and Glenn Close almost stole the Oscars with “Da Butt” dance. So, horrible idea for a game that the actors in attendance salvaged.

They came back from commercial break and started the In Memoriam. They had a lot of names to get through as we lost way too many greats during the extended 2020 movie season. The problem is this In Memoriam is flying. The rushed In Memoriam leaves just a brief moment to read the person’s name and what he or she did in the industry. Originally I gave it a pass, but then I remembered the awful game we had to endure. The ceremony could have cut the game and given more time to the In Memoriam.

Now, the next award is BEST PICTURE, which was given away before best actor and best actress. This blows my mind, but I have a thought. Maybe the show is saving best actor for last to honor Boseman, especially considering we just had to speed read his name during the In Memoriam. “Nomadland” won best picture, which isn’t a shock. It was the heavy favorite and Chloe Zhao won best director midway through the ceremony.

So now, the big finish. Frances McDormand wins best actress and says … nothing. Not her fault, she used her good stuff when “Nomadland” won best picture minutes earlier. No problem. The Academy is about to crown the late great Boseman for the last and greatest performance of his career to end the show in a beautiful, emotional and heartwarming way. And the winner is … Anthony Hopkins. And he’s not here so the show’s over, bye!

How does this happen? Well, my blame pie includes two sets of people, the show’s producers and the Academy. I’m giving both 50% of the blame.

The producers don’t know who will win any award, so they made the MASSIVE mistake assuming Boseman would win best actor. They built their show around that. They also knew Hopkins, who defeated Boseman at the BAFTAs not too long ago by the way, wasn’t at the ceremony. That’s incompetence. Now, as with any movie with a bad ending, we’re left to question the choices earlier in the show. The most influential and impactful actor who died last year at 43 of colon cancer had about three seconds in the In Memoriam. That’s it. Taking away whether you thought Boseman had the best performance or not, it is the producers’ job to make sure he is properly honored like he deserves. They failed.

Don’t worry, I didn’t forget about you, Academy. The fact that most of you thought Hopkins achieved a better performance than Boseman is embarrassing. Even if you thought the performances were equal when it comes to range and emotional impact, which you shouldn’t, how can you not take into account Boseman learned how to play the trumpet for his role in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom?” Did you not care that “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” was a far superior movie to “The Father?” Oh, that’s right. You snubbed it as a best picture nominee in favor of “The Father.” Did it not matter that Boseman’s role was far more demanding, requiring emotional range and physicality? I guess not. I guess it was more important to give Hopkins his second Academy Award, even if it meant the beloved Boseman would never get an Oscar.

Let’s not forget Boseman deserved two Academy Award nominations for his work last year. However, “Da 5 Bloods” was also snubbed and with it Boseman’s chance at a best supporting actor nomination. This colossal failure between the Academy and the producers led to the ceremony honoring Boseman for no more than three seconds. Let that sink in. Three seconds in a rushed In Memoriam.

I’d also like to add Riz Ahmed (“Sound of Metal”) had the second best performance in the best actor category. I’d put Hopkins third.

Here’s where I’m to blame. I assumed the Academy and the ceremony wouldn’t disappoint me. Why was I surprised when I witnessed another failure? This stuff has been happening for years. Here’s just a few examples from the past decade. “The King’s Speech” won best picture at the 2011 Oscars over “Inception” and “The Social Network,” two of the top films of the decade. Anyone ever revisit “The Artist?” Well, it won best picture in 2012. In 2013, “Argo,” Ben Affleck’s third best film he directed out of four, won best picture over the far superior “Zero Dark Thirty.” “The Shape of Water” topped “Get Out,” one of the most influential films ever and one of the best of the decade, at the 2018 Oscars. A year later, “Green Book” captured best picture despite being the worst movie in the category.

Let’s also not forget one of the Oscars’ most memorable moments happened because of incompetence. Remember when “La La Land” won best picture for about two minutes in 2017 before it was revealed “Moonlight” actually won? That was a human error in the production of the show.

Furthermore, the random game during Sunday’s ceremony isn’t the first time the Oscars have tried to do something cute. That’s an every year thing. Jimmy Kimmel brought a bus of people into the Oscars one year. Some actors also went across the street to hand out candy at a theater another year. The one thing they have in common is none of them work. Yet, they continue to waste time on these every year.

On a side note, the pre-show was garbage with awkward interviews and horrid transitions.

As the ratings continue to plummet, the production isn’t getting any better. It in fact just hit rock bottom Sunday. And no matter how obvious the winner might be, the Academy will always find a way to get it so horribly wrong.

If I ever trust the Academy or producers again, I question my sanity. You all failed. Do better.

Chloe Zhao, winner of the awards for best picture and director for “Nomadland,” poses in the press room at the Oscars on Sunday, April 25, 2021, at Union Station in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello, Pool)

Rebecca’s Take

This year’s Oscars were already going to be substantially different because of the coronavirus pandemic. Delayed by two months, the 93rd Academy Awards juggled COVID-19 protocols as it altered its red carpet, slashed the guest list and changed its location.

Separately from those constraints, the show’s producers decided to shake up its traditional format. But just because they could change it doesn’t mean that they should have. In trying to make the ceremony more like a movie with its own climax, the producers lacked faith in their product, botching the ending of a history-making show.

During the age of coronavirus, awards shows have morphed into Zoom meetings. The Emmys, Golden Globes and Screen Actors Guild awards became screens of dressed-down celebrities at home. To its credit, the Oscars tried to avoid that trap.

For the first time during the pandemic, the broadcast felt like a real awards show. Filmed in 24 frames per second – the standard for film, Sunday’s vibrant and glossy Oscars reminded viewers of the movies they had missed seeing in cinemas due to theater blackouts. The opening tracking shot of presenter Regina King walking into Union Station in Los Angeles, with candy-colored titles overlapping, brought a welcome energy that had been lacking throughout awards season.

Seeing the stars sitting at tables – in person! – felt familiar and intimate. Instead of seeing clips from the nominated films, the presenters told stories and tidbits about the nominees, which made the broadcast more personal. For about two hours and 40 minutes, the Oscars felt like life was returning to normal, much as it has in the real world with the rollout of vaccines.

And then, like the title of show producer Steven Soderbergh’s 2011 film, the 93rd Academy Awards went “Haywire” in its final act.

It wasn’t enough that Chloé Zhao would become the first woman of color and just the second woman to win best director. Because she was the frontrunner, the producers moved that category up in the broadcast. It wasn’t enough that her film, “Nomadland,” was the heavy favorite to win best picture. So the producers moved the night’s biggest award from last to third to last, ahead of the best actress and best actor honors.

Instead, they decided to end with the category they thought would have the most emotional resonance. The producers bet big that the late Chadwick Boseman, the frontrunner for best actor for his sensational performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” would claim the honor, and shifted that category into the final spot.
The producers should know better. At the Oscars, you can’t guarantee who’s going to take home the trophy – “La La Land” and “Moonlight,” anyone? In trying to manufacture drama, the show created even more of it when Boseman didn’t win.

Instead, Anthony Hopkins’ name was read aloud for “The Father” – stunning everyone, including the producers. And to add insult to injury, the 83-year-old actor wasn’t even in attendance to accept his second Oscar. What was meant to be a tender, beautiful and heartfelt tribute to Boseman’s short but impactful career turned to confusion as the awards show abruptly ended. After the promise of something more, the cut to black felt completely anti-climactic. This is the worst kind of ending for a movie – and what’s supposed to be the biggest night in film.

After seeing Boseman’s widow accept award after award, it was a shock not to hear the actor’s name for best actor. Boseman, who made a career out of playing Black icons both real and fictional, achieved his best performance playing an ambitious but naive trumpeter in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” He readily gave himself over to the impassioned and physical demands of the role. He had so much talent yet to give when colon cancer claimed the actor last summer at the age of 43. I thought Boseman deserved the award, and that it would cap off the stellar body of work he left us.

But don’t blame Hopkins. The internet response accuses the actor of pulling a “Green Book” and stealing the win from Boseman. But the comparison isn’t exactly fair.

First, the actor’s recent BAFTA win indicated the category wasn’t cut and dry. Second, crowd favorite “Green Book” was tone-deaf and simplistic in its treatment of race relations, undeserving of its 2019 best picture win. Hopkins, on the other hand, delivers an excellent, layered performance as a dementia patient struggling to understand what’s happening around him. It’s an emotionally grueling and devastating portrayal that anyone who has watched family members suffer from dementia can relate. I have looked into the eyes of relatives who had Alzheimer’s and realized the lack of recognition staring back at me.

Is Hopkins worthy of the award? Yes, without a doubt. Should he have won over Boseman? Not necessarily, and many viewers have already taken a side. But by placing the best actor category for last, the producers set up the show to fail when the outcome didn’t go the way they wanted. After a rushed In Memoriam segment, Boseman didn’t get the extended tribute he deserved. And Hopkins wasn’t there to try and temper the tide against him. In an Instagram video this morning, the actor revealed he did not expect to win the award and paid tribute to Boseman. The decision to shake up the order of the awards did a disservice to both actors.

So who do we blame? The show’s producers. The pandemic protocols didn’t mandate changing up the order of the awards; the producers decided to do that on their own. Had they left the traditional structure intact, then the best director and best picture honors would have followed best actor. Zhao’s historic wins would have been celebrated last, lessening some of the blow from the best actor stunner. The producers already had their dramatic moment, but they didn’t trust it.

This is a shame for everyone – the producers, the winners and the viewers. Instead of the focus on Zhao’s one-two punch, the Boseman/Hopkins disaster is commanding the Oscars conversation.

This takes away from the awards’ other historic moments. Out of the best actor winners, half were diverse performers. Daniel Kaluuya became the sixth Black actor to win best supporting actor for “Judas and the Black Messiah.” Best supporting actress winner Yuh-Jung Youn (“Minari”) is the first Korean to claim an Oscar. In taking home the Oscar for original score for “Soul” with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Jon Batiste became the second Black composer to win in the category. Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson are the first Black women to win makeup and hairstyling for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

The producers had the ending they wanted: historic wins and progress for diversity. And for the most part, the show aced its snazzy new look and creative nominee introductions. But it wasn’t enough. Instead, the best actor miscalculation will go down as one of the biggest goofs in Oscars history. That’s what people will remember about a ceremony that put in the work to rise above an unprecedented pandemic to recognize the best in film.

Now once again, in a seemingly endless cycle, next year’s Academy Awards must seek redemption – and prove that they’re still worth watching.

Review: “Minari”

Review: “Minari”

Rebecca’s Take

As Bong Joon-ho accepted the Academy Award for last year’s best picture winner “Parasite,” the South Korean writer/director begged audiences to give films with foreign-language subtitles a chance. This paved the way for “Minari,” the Oscar-nominated family drama filmed in America but largely told in the Korean language.

Writer/director Lee Isaac Chung’s semi-biographical tale speaks to the Asian American immigrant experience. The tender and moving best picture nominee reaps the benefits of its intimate setting, expert directing, gorgeous cinematography and impressive performances.

However, going into the film expecting another “Parasite” would be a mistake. The gentle “Minari” is a much different animal than Bong’s savage satire. “Minari” has an important story to tell, but the acclaim surrounding it was so high that it didn’t quite meet all my expectations.

Set in the 1980s, “Minari” follows a South Korean family who moves to Arkansas to start anew in America. Jacob (Steven Yeun), the family patriarch, is determined to turn their land into a successful farm. His wife, Monica (Yeri Han), doesn’t share his enthusiasm.

As they try to build a new life from scratch, the strained couple is raising their daughter Anne (Noel Cho) and David (Alan S. Kim), who suffers from a heart condition. To help with the kids, Monica’s eccentric and fun-loving mother, Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung), comes to stay with them. As the family encounters agricultural problems and personal misfortune, Jacob and Monica’s love and commitment to each other is put to the test.

“Minari” elegantly showcases an immigrant family’s struggle to succeed in a new country. The film’s title, minari, refers to a water celery that can be planted anywhere and grow abundantly. The plant serves as a metaphor for the family’s journey to put down roots in America. The land in the Ozarks where the family settles is ripe for the taking, but Jacob and his family must put in the work to cultivate it. The title celebrates their resilience as they face one obstacle after another, from water problems to vendor issues to getting along with each other.

Chung, whose South Korean parents immigrated to Arkansas, grew up on a farm and knows his way around one. The film serves as a love letter to America’s heartland. Fertile farmland, with an endless blanket of grass, stretches out along all corners of the frame. The best director nominee realistically captures the promise and pain that Jacob and his family experience as they learn the trials and tribulations of farming. Throughout the story, the land appears as both friend and enemy. The lush cinematography exudes a dreamlike haze as the family chases the American dream.

The drama features terrific acting from its Asian and Asian American cast. The actors switch back and forth between Korean and English, lending authenticity as the characters adjust to their new surroundings.

In an understated performance, Yeun exudes a quiet authority mixed with a fear of failure. “The Walking Dead” alumnus delves into Jacob’s stubbornness and vulnerability while keeping his emotions in check. Jacob is determined to make a better life for his family, even if it means skewing his priorities. Yeun walks a fine line that deservedly earned him a best actor nomination – the first Asian American man to receive one in Oscars history.

Jacob’s optimism puts him at odds with the practicality of his wife, earnestly portrayed by Han. When Jacob and Monica fight, the level-headed Han will only allow her character a moment of emotion or two before wiping her eyes and moving on. Her restrained portrayal adds to the film’s realism. Though the couple’s marriage may be shaky, the strength of their love is believable. Making his film debut, the precocious Kim steals hearts as David. Acting as a stand-in for Chung, the young actor brings fresh eyes as his innocence colors his point of view. Will Patton shines in a small character role as an offbeat Korean War veteran who helps Jacob on the farm.

But the film’s standout is Youn. As soon as the veteran actress enters the film, Soonja’s quirkiness livens things up. She curses, jokes around and teases her grandson, much to his chagrin. Soonja is not a traditional grandma, but she’s the one David needs as she encourages the boy. The two share some of the film’s most emotional moments. The best supporting actress nominee adds heart and soul in a delightful, uplifting performance that should earn her the Oscar.

Youn’s portrayal saves “Minari” when the film starts to drag. Sometimes the film feels so realistic that its action borders on the mundane, which makes the two-hour film feel its length. In the final act, a dramatic event happens that feels contrived to move the film along to its conclusion. As a result, the ending comes off as a bit ambiguous, which can be frustrating.

Coming into “Minari,” I had seen so much hype that I expected to be swept away by its story. Although I cared about the family’s ups and downs, I wasn’t as emotionally hard-hit by the film’s events as others were. But that doesn’t mean the film doesn’t accomplish its goal.

Well-made and well-shot, “Minari” is not another “Parasite.” Lee Isaac Chung lifts the veil on Asian American immigrants, spotlighting their stories as part of the ongoing search for the American dream.

With its excellent directing and masterful performances, the heartwarming film stands out among the best picture nominees. Though it may not have checked off all the boxes for me, the film largely achieves what it sets out to do. Like “Parasite,” here’s hoping “Minari” influences more filmmakers of color to tell personal stories in their native languages.

4 out of 5 stars

From left, Steven Yeun, Alan S. Kim, Youn Yuh-jung, Yeri Han and Noel Cho star in “Minari.”

Joe’s Take

Nominated for six Academy Awards, including best picture, “Minari” explores family and the struggles that disrupt that dynamic. The film tells a heartbreaking yet beautiful story of a Korean family working to realize the American dream.

Everyone in the family has a different priority, and the main battle comes between husband and wife. Jacob (Steven Yeun) takes a risk and creates a farm in hopes the family can live comfortably, while his wife Monica (Yeri Han) is content getting by and surviving. Both make sacrifices, but the rift between them persists through screaming matches and a consistent lack of affection.

Meanwhile, Monica’s mother Soonja (Youn Yuh-jung) tries to find her place as grandmother to David (Alan S. Kim) and Anne (Noel Cho).

The casting proves phenomenal as Yeun and Youn earned best actor and best supporting actress nominations. Although she didn’t receive a nomination, Han achieved the best performance. She stays grounded and reserved in her duties as a mother even though she doesn’t agree with her husband’s and family’s paths. Han handles her emotions realistically. I connected with her the most because of her perfect execution. Judging by the Oscar nominations, I was pleasantly surprised with her performance and importance as the heart of the film.

That isn’t to take away from Youn’s performance. Her chemistry with Kim also adds to the film’s heart. Youn’s presence boosted “Minari” immediately as it struggled to get its footing early. Youn kicks the film into gear, and her funny and powerful scenes with Kim elevate it..

Yeun, of “The Walking Dead” fame, naturally commands the leading role. He starts the film with exuberance, but struggles in pursuit of his dream. His exuberance turns to obsession that affects his relationship with his family. It all culminates in a powerful ending.

Kim and Cho were great as the kids. Kim had the more challenging role, and he nailed the humor and emotion. Cho played the mature sister, who takes on a lot of responsibility at a young age. She also provides comic relief and heart. Great character actor Will Patton (Paul) also thrives in an over-the-top role. He plays it up just the right amount so the audience believes he can be a real person. His dynamic with Jacob and the family also adds heart to the movie.

Lee Isaac Chung’s script and direction allow the actors to bring the film to its full potential. The heartbreaking and beautiful story reaches the soul of the audience. Emile Mosseri creates a gorgeous score that perfectly complements the film without overpowering any scene. He rightfully earned an Oscar nomination for his work.

“Minari” has a few dull and Oscar-bait moments and proves a bit predictable. The trailer also gives away a big scene toward the end of the film. Not that that’s the movie’s fault, but I wouldn’t watch the trailer before watching “Minari.” Despite its few setbacks, it belongs in the best picture category. It proves a complete film with strong directing, writing, acting and music that immerses the audience in the story. It also achieves the heart that most films struggle to reach.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Review: “The Father”

Review: “The Father”

Rebecca’s Take

Watching a once vibrant relative suffer from dementia is painful to bear. It’s agonizing when a parent or grandparent – someone you’ve known your whole life – doesn’t recognize you or mistakes you for someone else.

While several movies have focused on the effects of a loved one’s dementia on those around them, the innovative “The Father” recreates the confusion and disorientation that comes with the disorder from the point of view of an aging man slowly succumbing to it.

Nominated for six Academy Awards, the powerful drama boasts meticulous production design, creative casting and a pair of dynamic performances. As unsettling as it is inventive, “The Father” deserves its place among the best picture nominees.

The drama follows Anthony (Anthony Hopkins), an aging London resident who has fallen out with his caretaker. His daughter Anne (Olivia Colman) is trying to find a new companion for him as his memory loss progresses.

However, Anthony insists he can take care of himself in his own flat – although he may actually be staying with his daughter. Anne tells him she will be leaving to move to Paris with her new boyfriend – but yet her husband appears to be staying with them. And the new caretaker (Imogen Poots) looks a lot like Anthony’s younger daughter Lucy – or does she?

As Anthony struggles to comprehend the changing apartment and faces around him, the elderly man begins to question his reality and sanity.

In exploring the advancing stages of dementia, “The Father” artfully blends its purposeful dialogue with a revolving set and cast. The drama is based on a stage play by Florian Zeller, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay. The script delivers certain pieces of information about Anthony and Anne’s lives, but doles them out in various ways. The technique imitates the scattered nature of Anthony’s mind. Like Anthony, the viewer is questioning the accuracy of the information and the order of events, which helps us to understand his plight.

Like a play, the film’s sets are minimal, but the surroundings require viewers to pay attention. Furniture and items are constantly moving around the flat, testing Anthony and the audience. Whether its grocery bags or chairs, the tiniest of movements upsets Anthony in a space he claims to have occupied for years. We repeatedly see a painting hanging in the living room, only for it to later disappear – and we’re told it was never there in the first place. The painstaking production design replicates the disorientation that accompanies dementia.

The drama uses multiple actresses and actors for the same roles to show Anthony’s inability to recognize the people around him. The unique casting demonstrates a facet of dementia that afflicts many of its patients. After Anne goes out, the character played by Colman returns as a different woman – actress Olivia Williams. But Anthony is also surprised to encounter Anne’s “husband,” played by both Rufus Sewell and Mark Gatiss. The audience can feel Anthony’s confusion as he tries to make sense of the situation.

As “The Father” himself, Hopkins delivers a devastating performance, putting the best actor nominee in the running for his second Academy Award. Hopkins starts out alarmingly lucid as Anthony, adamant that his caregiver stole his watch. But the brash veneer crumbles as Anthony slowly loses his grasp on reality.

The Oscar winner shows us glimpses of the charismatic man Anthony used to be alongside the fragile man he now is. In one memorable scene, Anthony turns up the charm as he meets his new caregiver Laura. But with one breath he insults her, stunning the audience. In an upsetting instance of elder abuse, Hopkins conveys Anthony’s helplessness. Later, when a vulnerable Anthony cries out for his mother, Hopkins’ painful plea is utterly affecting. The acting legend earns the audience’s sympathy on this unnerving journey into a man’s deteriorating mind.

As the collected but weary Anne, Colman shares a believable chemistry with Hopkins. The two often engage in a combative back-and-forth in their strained relationship. The Oscar nominee for best supporting actress pulls off a tricky balance here. As Anne, Colman dons a brave face while letting the frustration of her father’s condition seep into her expressions. Anne is hurt by her father’s inability to recognize her, but she remains devoted to him. The relatable Colman seizes on this emotional push-and-pull, depicting the strife of being a parental caretaker.

With its circular storytelling, “The Father” can be confusing. As we try to understand what’s happening to Anthony, the script doesn’t give us clear answers. The film asks us to accept that, which may be hard for some viewers to do. The drama is also hard to watch, especially if you have or had a loved one going through a similar experience.

“The Father” boldly delves into the unsettling nature of a disorder that wreaks emotional havoc on its patients. Its visionary approach to set design and casting help convey what’s like to live with dementia. Hopkins and Colman give award-worthy performances that ground the film.

Though the drama is confusing at times, “The Father” tackles an issue that many families experience as their loved ones enter old age. Though not necessarily a threat to win best picture, the innovative and emotional film is worthy of its spot for its sympathetic portrayal of dementia.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Anthony Hopkins and Olivia Colman star in “The Father.”

Joe’s Take

The critically acclaimed, Best Picture-nominated “The Father” explores dementia through the lens of a person with the condition. The well-executed film accomplished what it set out to do, but its setup didn’t meet my expectations.

The film quickly establishes Anthony’s (Anthony Hopkins) dementia as it opens with him struggling to even recognize his daughter Anne (Olivia Colman). From there the twists and turns begin as a different woman (Olivia Williams) enters what Anthony believes to be his flat and claims to be his daughter Anne.

That setup made “The Father” seem like a mystery/thriller, which quickly got me invested in the film. That’s not the movie.

Regardless, “The Father” had me on the edge of my couch as I impatiently waited for the big reveals that never came. This frustrated me, but I commend films for having a singular focus, and “The Father” admirably sticks to its premise. It focuses on Anthony’s struggles from his perspective and at no point deviates.

Hopkins rightfully earned a best actor nomination for his dynamic performance in the leading role. The powerless man tries to mask his vulnerability, and Hopkins captures this masterfully. He connects with the audience and garners its sympathy, even when he’s downright cruel. Hopkins also ramps up the charm during one scene when he tries to prove nothing is wrong with him and accentuates it by quickly changing course and insulting a potential caregiver. Later, he finally releases his vulnerability in a powerful and heartbreaking sequence.

Hopkins teams with the great Colman, who captures a realistic portrayal of the daughter of a person with dementia. The best supporting actress nominee balances many emotions as she tries to care for her father, while maintaining her own life with her husband. She shows she loves her father and remains patient with him while her frustration seeps through. The duo builds a believable father-daughter relationship that makes the audience forget they are acting.

The perfect casting continues with Williams in her small and mysterious role. She makes the most of her time on screen and beautifully handles an important scene. Ever since I saw him in “A Knight’s Tale,” Rufus Sewell (Paul) embodies evil so well. While he loves his wife, Paul’s time on screen with Anthony leaves the audience uncomfortable. Sewell captures that uneasiness perfectly. Mark Gatiss also works well in his mysterious role. I never like to see him in movies or shows because I wish he were writing more episodes of BBC’s “Sherlock.” However, I’ll admit he works well. Strong character actress Imogen Poots (Laura) proves charming and a great addition to the movie.

The film does a beautiful job with its seamless adjustments to the flat where most of the movie takes place. It adds to Anthony’s and the audience’s confusion.

While “the Father” accomplishes the confusion it set out to create, that still means the movie confuses, leaving a lot to the viewer’s interpretation. The audience watches Anthony struggle, while struggling at the same time to put the pieces together. Is that what the movie strived to create? Yes. It just didn’t land for me. It felt incomplete. I needed more than Anthony’s perspective, and that frustrated me.

“The Father” captures the devastating life of a person with dementia perfectly through the lens of a man with the condition. While beautifully executed with award-worthy performances, it leaves the pieces of the puzzle scattered on the table with no hope of the audience putting it together. I admire the film for accomplishing what it set out to do and keeping a singular focus. That confusion will work for audiences, but it left me frustrated as the film’s credits rolled. It’s a strong film I wanted to like, but it wasn’t for me.

4 out of 5 stars

 

Review: “Godzilla vs. Kong”

Review: “Godzilla vs. Kong”

Rebecca’s Take

Team Godzilla or Team Kong? That’s the question “Godzilla vs. Kong” poses as the two legendary kaiju come face-to-face for the first time on the silver screen since 1962. Fortunately for audiences, the answer is Team Monster as the fourth film in Warner Bros./Legendary’s MonsterVerse revels in the spectacular fights between its titular beasts. The supersized blockbuster, crafted for the big screen, started streaming on HBO Max the same day it debuted in theaters.

With its breathtaking battles and awe-inspiring special effects, “Godzilla vs. Kong” serves as a worthy sequel to 2017’s excellent but underrated “Kong: Skull Island” – the best film in the MonsterVerse – and a thrilling follow-up to 2019’s “Godzilla: King of the Monsters.” Learning from past films in the franchise, “Godzilla vs. Kong” shows that Legendary’s modern take works the best when the films focus on the monsters more than the human characters.

“Godzilla vs. Kong” harkens back to Godzilla’s origins as a villain in the classic Toho films. Portrayed as a protector of humanity in the MonsterVerse, the radioactive dinosaur typically only attacks when provoked. But in the latest film, Godzilla mysteriously strikes cities without cause. Meanwhile, Kong is living under scientific observation on Skull Island, the only one of his species left. The giant ape is lonely, save for a young native girl, Jia (Kaylee Hottle), with whom he has bonded.

The two storylines converge when a group of scientists decide to use Kong to enter Hollow Earth, the home of the Titans, to extract a power source that can be used to stop Godzilla’s rampages. But Godzilla, sensing Kong’s movements, emerges to defend his apex status. The two will fight not only for the title of King of the Monsters, but for the Earth when an even bigger threat emerges.

The MonsterVerse kicked off with 2014’s “Godzilla,” a polarizing entry that didn’t reveal its marquee beast until halfway through the film. Since then, the successive films have introduced their Titans almost immediately. 2019’s “King of Monsters” made sure to correct the imbalance, with plenty of screen time for Godzilla and his fellow kaiju, including Mothra, Rodan and King Ghidorah. “Godzilla vs. Kong” follows this path, introducing Kong in its opening scene and Godzilla soon after.

This is the best of the modern “Godzilla” films, showcasing the powerful King of the Monsters’ fiery atomic breath and brute strength at every opportunity. Godzilla even shares some amusing facial expressions that I hope become GIFs. A blast from the creature’s past heightens the stakes as the Titan’s role as hero or villain is on the line.

Though Godzilla comes first in the title, audiences spend more time with Kong. “Godzilla vs. Kong” continues Kong’s journey that began in “Kong: Skull Island,” which struck the right balance between monster thrills and heartwarming storytelling. Just a teen in “Skull Island,” decades later Kong has grown up to become an adult, equal in size to Godzilla. And the mighty Kong proves a formidable match. The giant ape uncovers an ancient weapon that helps him deflect Godzilla’s attacks, evening the playing field between them. Though he can’t speak, the film finds a creative way for Kong to communicate, further developing the character.

The film’s entire second half is devoted to monster battles, one exciting match after the other. “Godzilla vs. Kong” does an excellent job of showcasing the scale of the two characters while they fight on top of a ship and against the colorful buildings of Hong Kong. The battles are remarkably clear and crisp – occurring at day and at night. The jaw-dropping clarity improves on the murky confrontations in “King of the Monsters.”

Director Adam Wingard carries on the franchise’s penchant for neon colors, with the Titan action bathed in the soft glow of yellows, blues and reds. The terrific action and first-rate GGI stun the senses. In one sequence, Kong beautifully freefalls into a new location and then encounters a sea of purple stones. The scene would look gorgeous on the big screen, but it still delivers in spades on our TVs.

The latest sequel centers its storylines around the monsters themselves, not the humans. The six main characters in “Godzilla vs. Kong” – three work with Kong while the other three track Godzilla – serve as conduits to understanding the pair of beasts. They’re sketched little more than that, but overall, that’s all right – we watch these movies for the monsters, not the people.

Making up Team Kong is Ilene Andrews (the always reliable Rebecca Hall), a dutiful scientist and Kong expert; Jia (Hottle), her adopted daughter; and Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård), a cowardly Hollow Earth theorist. Hottle amazes in her first film role, establishing a believable bond with Kong. Their relationship endears viewers to her and the big ape. Lind is the only one to have an arc, but the film doesn’t spend a lot of time on it in favor of its more interesting monsters.

On Team Godzilla is knowledgeable teen Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown, returning from “King of the Monsters”), her quirky pal Josh (Julian Dennison, from “Deadpool 2”) and the hilarious Bernie (Brian Tyree Henry), a paranoid conspiracy theorist. The three share a humorous rapport in between the intense monster action. Henry was my favorite character, delivering a lot of comic relief.

However, the film misses an opportunity to further explore the bond Madison shared with Godzilla in “King of the Monsters.” This would have contrasted well with Jia’s kinship with Kong. Kyle Chandler also returns as Madison’s father from “King of the Monsters,” but the film gives the talented actor nothing to do here.

In addition to wasting some of its acting talent, “Godzilla vs. Kong” takes a while to get going in its first act. The movie doles out a lot of exposition before it ushers in the monster action. Though the plot makes sense, viewers may get tired of hearing “gravity inversion” over and over again (not to be confused with time inversion in “Tenet”).

“Godzilla vs. Kong” delivers what kaiju fans want: nearly nonstop monster action. The film embraces its beastly brawls, capitalizing on preceding films and further establishing a fun direction for the franchise. Learning from past trial-and-error, the blockbuster spotlights its titular stars over its human characters. No matter which monster comes out on top, “Godzilla vs. Kong” wins as the epic blockbuster reminds us of a time when moviegoers could lose themselves in the campy absurdity of beastly behemoths duking it out.

4 out of 5 stars

This image released by Warner Bros. Entertainment shows a scene from “Godzilla vs. Kong.” (Warner Bros. Entertainment via AP)

Joe’s Take

The Warner Bros. MonsterVerse franchise is a mixed bag. It kicked off with 2014’s “Godzilla,” a good film with some excellent moments. It followed the blueprint of “Jaws” as it built toward its final battle with an effective slow burn. Well, that’s what I thought of it. Some wanted to see more Godzilla, more focus on the monsters and more fights. Warner Bros. listened to the fans and gave us 2019’s “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” a vastly inferior film to its predecessor devoid of memorable moments and interesting characters. In between those, King Kong entered the universe with 2017’s “Kong: Skull Island,” an entertaining and much better film than “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” but not quite as good as “Godzilla.” Warner Bros. tends to have polarizing franchises with passionate fan bases. As a result, the studio makes drastic changes in the middle of their projects (see the DCEU), so I had no idea what to expect for “Godzilla vs. Kong.” It seemed like it could be a rush, similar to Warners Bros.’ “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” mishap in 2016.

However, “Godzilla vs. Kong” found a better blend to satisfy the most fans possible.

Millie Bobby Brown (Madison Russell) and Kyle Chandler (Mark Russell) reprise their roles from “Godzilla: King of the Monsters,” but most of the cast is new. None are particularly interesting, but the characters are there to get the movie where it needs to go. Haylee Hottle (Jia) proves a strong child actress, and her relationship with Kong works. Alexander Skarsgård (Nathan Lind) is the lone character with an arc, while the rest settle in on one note. While the idea of Skarsgård’s character is the right move for the film, I never bought into his arc. Rebecca Hall (Ilene Andrews) is fine and Chandler plays the character he portrays in every film.

The best human character is Bernie Hayes, played by great character actor Brian Tyree Henry. Easily the most entertaining human character, he buys into the quirky role and has fun with it. He also establishes great chemistry with Brown and they were the only human characters I wanted to see.

Of course, nobody watches a MonsterVerse movie for the humans, and Godzilla and Kong prove the best characters. The visual effects have always been solid in this franchise, but they took a step up in “Godzilla vs. Kong.” Godzilla looks great, which enables the film to show him often in the daylight. The film also handles Godzilla and Kong’s communication beautifully. They don’t speak so the audience has to understand their emotions by reading their body language and facial expressions. The audience can relate to Kong emotionally just by looking at his face.

The monster fights look awesome and they are shot in a way that allows the audience to see the action. That’s why the audience is watching and the fights deliver. The only problem is the film takes a while to get there. The film lags in the beginning as the weak plot tries to set up why the titans will fight. At the very least, the plot does provide a good reason why Godzilla attacks cities after serving as an ally in previous films. It doesn’t do much else except add exposition and jargon.

While the plot lacks, it does enough to get “Godzilla vs. Kong” where it needs to be to satisfy fans. The monsters and fights are amazing and it gives us a few enjoyable side characters when away from the monsters. The filmmakers paid more attention to the monsters and the fights, which they should. “Godzilla vs. Kong” is smart in its execution, gives the audience an entertaining two hours everyone can enjoy and proves the least polarizing in the franchise.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Review: “Promising Young Woman”

Review: “Promising Young Woman”

Rebecca’s Take

A product of the #MeToo movement, the provocative “Promising Young Woman” gives a voice to sexual assault victims. Emerald Fennell’s bold directorial debut and biting screenplay take on rape culture, targeting the patriarchal system and victim blaming that have silenced so many women for so long.

But exactly what the Academy-Award nominated film is trying to say gets muddled in its execution. “Promising Young Woman” tries to be both a rape revenge thriller and romantic comedy at the same time. However, its wildly clashing tones offer conflicting messages. The dark comedy jumpstarts a crucial conversation about rape, injustice and the potential for healing before its gut punch of an ending gives way to an unfulfilling resolution.

A relentless Carey Mulligan stars as Cassie, a medical school dropout turned barista turned avenging angel. After pouring coffee all day, Cassie dresses up and pretends to be drunk at local bars at night, allowing “nice guys” to take her home – before turning the tables on her would-be attackers.

But Cassie’s mission becomes more personal when she encounters a blast from her past, triggering a previous trauma. From there, Cassie embarks on a path of vengeance against those complicit in a flawed system of shielding the accused over the accuser.

First, let’s talk about “Promising Young Woman” as a rape revenge thriller. The film exposes the power imbalance in attempted rape and rape cases. When Cassie nearly passes out at the bar, it’s always the so-called “nice guys” who rescue her, but who ultimately reveal ulterior motives. In the movie’s universe, there is no such thing as a “nice guy.” Excuses such as “we were just kids” don’t cut it, either. What makes a revenge fantasy satisfying is seeing the protagonist get the upper hand and dole out the deserved punishment. At first, “Promising Young Woman” delivers as Cassie takes control of each situation, and the audience learns to root for her.

Mulligan shines as our pink-wearing, gum-chewing antihero. Decked in flower-printed dresses and rainbow highlights, Mulligan transforms herself into a weapon of femininity as Cassie metes out her revenge. The best actress nominee applies an understated approach to the role, exercising restraint as she allows Cassie’s anger and hurt to spread across her face. She can crack a joke just as easily as she can spit out a threat.

But the revenge aspect grows more complex as Cassie’s mission evolves. The trauma driving her actions concerns a horrific wrong done not to her, but to a loved one. As Cassie seeks revenge on those who played a role in the miscarriage of justice, her actions become hypocritical.

In one instance, Cassie ropes a naïve young girl into her plan. In another, she gaslights a female character into believing she was sexually assaulted. The chilling lengths Cassie is willing to go cross into cruelty for a character aiming to elicit sympathy and understanding. Though our protagonist is trying to prove a point, two wrongs don’t make a right.

The film suffers from tonal whiplash as it struggles to balance its dark and heavy themes with its light and comedic bits. We now enter the rom com part of the film. When Cassie takes a break from her vengeance-seeking, she develops a romance with awkward pediatrician Ryan (Bo Burnham). The two share a nice, easygoing chemistry that’s enjoyable to watch. There’s a fun scene between the pair in a drugstore as the two belt out Paris Hilton’s pop song “Stars Go Blind.” As Cassie lets her walls down, so does the audience as the film lulls us into a peaceful submission. But the film jerks us back out of it with its polarizing ending.

The ending. This is the part that has weighed heavily on me, and I’m still not sure what to think about it. The film takes a hard turn as Fennell subverts expectations, pulling the rug out from under the audience. There’s a nearly three-minute, violent scene that is incredibly hard to watch, meant to invoke another crime. But ultimately, it feels as if it’s done more for shock value.

The film concludes its journey of revenge not with a bang, but with a whimper. The ending conveys a sense of helplessness and hopelessness that nearly derails the conversation about sexual assault the film is trying to start.

“Promising Young Woman” has a lot to say about rape culture and the flawed justice system. Fennell’s charged directorial debut offers some pointed insights during the #MeToo era. But where the film succeeds in giving victims a voice, it falters in providing a catharsis. Even though I enjoyed watching most of the film, I’m still not sure what it was trying to achieve.

Mulligan’s nominated performance lifts the film. But its inconsistent tones and mixed messaging make it a head-scratching inclusion for best picture. Despite its flawed execution, “Promising Young Woman” calls on our society to change how we address rape and sexual assault.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Carey Mulligan stars in “Promising Young Woman.” (Focus Features via AP)

Joe’s Take

I don’t know that I’m the one who can provide the best review and perspective of “Promising Young Woman.” I’ve known a lot of great women, heard their stories and learned a lot from them. However, a woman’s perspective is much more valuable for a film that centers on rape, the trauma that comes with it and trying to gain an edge in a male-dominated world. “Promising Young Woman” does bring those issues and conversations to the forefront, and that may be the best result of this film. Regardless of my thoughts about the movie, the world needs more films like this written and directed by and starring women.

I cheered and laughed during the dark comedy. It also disturbed me. While its scenes proved emotionally effective, “Promising Young Woman” never established what kind of movie it wanted to be. I had no idea how to feel when it ended. I still don’t entirely know.

I greatly enjoy the revenge plot in films. No matter how often those movies hit theaters, I’m on board. I know what I’m getting. I know the hero or anti-hero will give the villain or villains what they deserve in the end of the film, and I usually find it to be a satisfying experience. We can take our anger and frustration and release into those films and exit the theater feeling better because good triumphed over evil. “Promising Young Woman” establishes itself as that kind of film with its opening act. We don’t know why Cassie (Carey Mulligan) is seeking vengeance, but it’s pretty easy to figure out. The colors and music choices add to the flash of the typical revenge flick. She’s essentially John Wick who uses her head instead of weapons and martial arts. Watching evil men get what they deserve would have been a satisfying watch.

However, the film makes uneven transitions to very serious scenes with devastating music that throw the movie out of whack. One sequence that stood out was when Cassie visits a lawyer (Alfred Molina). It’s very quick, but very emotional. It felt like it came from a different movie.

Then, the film tries to become a romantic comedy, which would have worked with the serious tone of the movie. However, that combined with the flash of the vengeance scenes and gut-wrenching sequences proves too much. The audience can’t establish how it is supposed to feel.

Dark comedy works when the film establishes the correct balance between humor and drama. The movie I always come back to that accomplishes the balance perfectly is 2015’s “The Big Short.” The film that centers on the housing crisis brings the audience in with humor and a success story of the people who shorted the banks and made millions, even billions, of dollars. However, the film also allows us to see the devastation the crisis caused and the characters introduced to the audience understand that and see and reveal the corruption behind it. It’s an incredibly enjoyable, yet effective film.

“Promising Young Woman” doesn’t produce that cohesiveness, and the film’s potential to be great goes down the drain because of it.

Where I really thought it would go was the direction of a “Kill Bill” film, which again works perfectly for what it’s trying to accomplish. It’s a fun action film about a person who has a really good reason to seek revenge.

“Promising Young Woman” is mostly a flashy revenge film. It creates an unrealistic world where all men are evil and most of the women, too. That’s not to say that men don’t act the way they do in this film, because they do. It just establishes this evil versus the anti-hero narrative that the audience sees in revenge films. Emotionally, that’s the tone I followed throughout the movie. It paid off for me in the end, because “Promising Young Woman” bookends its film with that tone. The problem is there are greater ideas introduced here, more powerful ideas, more effective ideas. I would have liked to have seen the movie that takes its serious tone and combines it with its romantic comedy elements. That’s the film that works best with the ideas introduced — a film grounded in reality.

Acclaimed actor Mulligan gives one of the greatest performances of her career, as she has to shift among the film’s three tones. She nails every scene as the audience sees Cassie’s pain and strength in her face and body language. She also thrives as the anti-hero the audience can root for. She also transforms beautifully from acting drunk into a fierce woman assuming control. Mulligan also develops a soft side with love interest Bo Burnham, who plays Ryan. Burnham is also excellent as their chemistry boosts the film.

There are some great sequences that all work within their separate tones. The revenge scenes work with their flash, the emotional scenes prove powerful and disturbing, the romantic comedy scenes make me want to see a film in the genre starring Mulligan and Burnham. However, they just don’t gel well enough to make the film great.

“Promising Young Woman” has strong pieces, including strong leading and supporting performances from Mulligan and Burnham, but tonal issues leave me wondering why this film is in the race for best picture. I’d love to see writer/director Emerald Fennell take a shot at another film. I enjoy her writing for “Killing Eve,” and there’s a lot great in this film. However, the film never established a singular focus. It takes on very important topics such as rape and women trying to attain their power in a male-dominated world. It just didn’t know the right way to achieve its purpose. Good or bad, it did continue the conversations we need to have to make this world a better place.

3.5 out of 5 stars

 

Review: “Zack Snyder’s Justice League”

Review: “Zack Snyder’s Justice League”

Rebecca’s Take

When Zack Snyder left the superhero 2017 teamup “Justice League” due to a family tragedy, it changed the trajectory of the troubled blockbuster’s legacy and the direction of DC Comics’ Extended Universe. The polarizing architect of the DCEU saw his fingerprints swept away from the final product as Warner Bros. brought in Joss Whedon to finish the film. The resulting mishmash underperformed at the box office, drawing mixed reviews as the contrasting styles of its two directors battled it out onscreen. The film’s perceived failure spurred the DCEU to switch from interconnected movies to more standalone films.

In the years since, Snyder fans have called out for a fabled “Snyder Cut,” demanding to see the director’s ultimate vision for his third film in the DCEU after 2013’s “Man of Steel” and 2016’s “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” charted a dark and gritty course. In 2021, fans got their wish.

“Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is the version we should have gotten in 2017. With Warner Bros.’ backing, Snyder brings his magnificent vision to life, finishing the film on his own terms. The director’s dazzling four-hour-long opus, now streaming on HBO Max, is far superior to the theatrical cut, improving on the original film in every conceivable way.

The sprawling film brings together the superheroes already established in the DCEU – billionaire crimefighter Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), Amazon warrior Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) and the recently deceased Superman/Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) – and introduces fresh faces into the fold. There’s Cyborg/Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), who was left half-human, half-machine after a tragic accident; Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), the fastest man alive; and Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), a part-man, part-Atlantean who struggles to find his place in both worlds (and got his own standalone movie in 2018). The six come together to save the world from Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds), an alien goon seeking to serve up Planet Earth to his disgruntled master Darkseid (voiced by Ray Porter).

Back in 2017, I initially liked the “Justice League” theatrical cut. I’ve watched it many times and even own the Blu-Ray. I ranked my affinity for its characters and light-hearted jokes above a choppy film that felt like it was missing parts (the film was edited down to two hours, according to a studio mandate). But after watching “Zack Synder’s Justice League,” I realized I should have expected more from the original. Seeing the Snyder cut opened my eyes to how lacking and fractured the theatrical cut is.

Snyder was forced to step away from the original project after the suicide of his daughter Autumn. With the reins back in the director’s hands, “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” retains the major plot points and battles from the original film but completely retools its execution, resulting in a more cohesive film with a consistent tone.

Whedon increased the humor in the theatrical cut, leading to some forced scenes that felt at odds with Snyder’s grounded vision. This caused the 2017 version to bounce around from a light atmosphere to a dark one at any given moment. Here, Snyder smooths out the tone from the get-go. The film immediately establishes that its heroes are reeling from Superman’s death while sensing a dangerous threat on the horizon.

The first 15 minutes alone create a masterful introduction that ties together the main characters, their motivations and the setup for the villains’ plan that puts Whedon’s uneven prologue to shame. Snyder’s cut adopts a melancholy tone, punctuated by moments of humor that allow its audience to breathe. The somber atmosphere is enhanced for the better by its new score and soundtrack, with mellow strains and folksy tracks that let hope shine through. Tom Holkenborg completely rescored the film, taking over from Danny Elfman, the original film’s composer.

Following a logical throughline, “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” takes the time to introduce its superheroes and expand their character development. This version lovingly sets up the team dynamic, focusing on its heroes’ rescue instincts to bring them together instead of their differences tearing them apart, as in the original film. The film serves as a reminder of how well-cast the DC’s heroes are, including the sarcastic and able-bodied Affleck, whose time in the role of Batman may be limited.

In one of the most shocking omissions from the original, the Snyder cut restores Cyborg’s entire storyline. We see the heartbreaking loss of his mother (Karen Bryson); more of Cyborg’s strained relationship with his father, Silas (Joe Morton); and a moving scene that depicts Victor’s desire to help the helpless. All of these scenes are essential to understanding Fisher’s portrayal of the character, but were cut out or minimized in the original. The extra footage made me like Cyborg more than I already did.

The film also fleshes out its other heroes. As the Flash, Barry receives a whole new introduction. In the eye-popping sequence, Barry shows off his lightning-fast speed as well as his awkward sense of humor, an endearing personality trait. One thing Snyder’s version leaves out that I missed from the original was a pep talk Batman gives Barry before their first major battle. But the new intro renders the line of dialogue as moot. The blockbuster’s jaw-dropping finale also reveals Barry’s weaknesses as he must overcome them to reach the full scope of his power.

Despite having two solo movies, Gadot’s Wonder Woman benefits from even more screen time as the mighty and caring Diana. Gadot shines in an extended sequence of a bank heist, connecting with and encouraging a young girl, as well as capably holding her own against the relentless Steppenwolf. The Snyder cut thankfully eliminates scenes that objectified the Amazon princess in the original film, including an uncomfortable shot where the camera focuses on the back of Gadot’s rear in tight leather pants.

The opus restores Snyder’s vision for the resurrection of Cavill’s Superman, bringing back the Man of Steel in the fan-favorite black suit. The charismatic Cavill is a joy to behold as the character comes full circle, making peace with his purpose, joining the other superheroes and reuniting with his true love, Lois Lane (Amy Adams). Even Lois receives a revamped storyline here, following her own journey as she struggles with her grief over Clark’s death.

The Snyder cut also gives more time to its villains. The CGI for Hinds’ Steppenwolf looks sharper than in the original. Darkseid finally comes to play after being referenced in “Batman v Superman.” Though his screen time is limited, the big bad finds redemption after being completely cut out of the 2017 “Justice League.” And Jared Leto’s controversial Joker, who did not appear in the original, is a welcome addition. The actor’s performance as Batman’s nemesis is better here than in the entirety of 2016’s “Suicide Squad.”

“Zack Snyder’s Justice League” is more complete, but the revamp is not without its flaws. Its massive four-hour runtime can be off-putting to viewers. The film is divided into six parts, including a prologue and an epilogue. But the format benefits the pacing of the film, making it digestible. The breaks make it easy for audiences to stop and start the film over multiple sittings. I watched the film in three parts, which worked for me and my schedule.

The film starts to feel its length in the epilogue. Snyder adds a “Knightmare” sequence – a dream of Batman’s that hints at the future for the DCEU – which goes on far too long. The scene, though it pays off a similar sequence in “Batman v Superman,” feels indulgent, dragging out the film’s ending unnecessarily.

Though the film excels at explaining how its many moving parts work together, the Synder cut relies on a lot of exposition. After four hours, audiences will probably know too much about the “mother boxes,” the film’s MacGuffin that Steppenwolf needs to deliver Earth to Darkseid.

In a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Zack Snyder achieves his complete vision for “Justice League,” getting a unique second chance after the heartbreak of family tragedy. With a consistent tone, cohesive storytelling and more character development, the redo surpasses the scattered original without question. Though the film’s runtime is long, its format is well-suited to stream on HBO Max.

The transformative film now ranks among the DCEU’s best, which begs the question of how the cinematic universe will proceed. “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” not only brings justice to the persistent fans who called for it, but to the architect who saw what the future of the DCEU could be.

4 out of 5 stars

Ray Fisher as Cyborg in “Zack Snyder’s Justice League.” (HBO Max via AP)

Joe’s Take

Fans of the DC Extended Universe willed “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” into existence. It took four years, but the polarizing director finally realized his vision of the film. Snyder left the movie’s original production in 2017 when his daughter Autumn committed suicide, and Joss Whedon stepped in to complete it. Reshoots and studio interference cut the 2017 film to two hours and created a tonal mess. My official review of the original was, “I didn’t hate it.”

Somehow, Snyder’s cut came to life, and I dreaded the potential of watching this movie a second time. I didn’t want it to happen. Every post I saw on Instagram about the film, I commented, “Why is this happening?” I didn’t believe in Snyder, despite my respect for him. I didn’t believe he could make this bad movie good.

Well, I was wrong.

The director’s cut fixes tonal issues and adds backstory to make “Justice League” a much better film.

The biggest difference and best part of the new film was the backstory and arc of Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher). The Whedon version gave him no backstory. I understand the studio wanted a two-hour movie, but not identifying the best part of the film and simply cutting it is inexcusable. The DCEU’s biggest problem was always patience. The Marvel Cinematic Universe created individual films before the team-up “Avengers” movies to establish the backstories for their characters. The DCEU rushed to the team-up films without establishing characters’ backstories. I understand Warner Bros. wanted to strike while the iron was hot in the superhero genre, but it was too short-sighted to realize comic book movies aren’t going anywhere and audiences will see good solo films (such as “Wonder Woman” and even “Aquaman”).

Cyborg proves the heart of the film, while in Whedon’s version he was just there. The backstory with his parents and arc of his relationship with his father make for some heartfelt and emotional moments that astronomically improve the film. I could not believe watching this cut that the 2017 film didn’t include any of it. I was stunned.

Also, the tonal issue is completely solved. Snyder created a cohesive film, while it’s clear in the 2017 movie that there were two visions at work. It’s no longer quippy. It instead matches the tone of the previous films. It’s more serious, but not to the extent that it’s grim.

Snyder’s cut builds off the heart of Cyborg’s story with an improved scene at Themyscira. In the 2017 film, I never understood why it was such an easy decision for Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) to seal off where one of the mother boxes was held, essentially killing her people. In Snyder’s cut, Hippolyta only sealed the area as a last resort. She did everything she could before that and didn’t make that impossible decision before her troops told her to do it. The pain on her face as the structure collapsed proved much more powerful and made much more sense. Speaking of the Amazons, this film has more Wonder Woman/Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), which is a huge positive as she is the best character in the DCEU. Things like that allowed the viewer to invest more in the movie.

I was happy to see the film cut the Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) is old plotline. One scene they shouldn’t have cut was the pep talk Batman gives Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller) before his first fight. It made sense that he needed it because he’s a kid. Overall, I did like The Flash’s arc better, but having that pep talk would have made the later scenes with him even more powerful.

I feel like people were excited about Darkseid, but it was clear to me that he was just going to be the Thanos of this universe and doesn’t really do much in the film. Despite Steppenwolf’s much improved look, his character is still very much the same. It reveals that he betrayed Darkseid and he’s trying to repay his debt. However, the film fails to tell the audience how he betrayed him.

It goes without saying, but this movie is way too long. At four hours, the film includes six parts and an epilogue. The movie could easily be a much more manageable three hours. The epilogue proves unnecessary with a Batman dream sequence that is out of place and mostly an excuse to get Joker (Jared Leto) in the movie. Snyder’s cut also tries to shoe-horn in another character who doesn’t fit into the film. The movie also had a lot of slow motion, which tends to accompany a Snyder film.

Superman’s change to the dark suit made no sense to me. I’m sure fans understand it, but the red cape and lighter blue original suit would have made more sense to the film. He is supposed to bring hope to the final battle and he is the beacon of light that inspires and completes the Justice League. Instead he flies in with his dark, colorless suit.

In the end, “Zack Snyder’s Justice League” still has issues, but the director’s cut drastically improves on the Whedon version with good storytelling, a cohesive tone and strong character development.

Although I was against the creation of this director’s cut, I’m happy Snyder realized his vision. Some things go beyond a film’s quality and when a director dedicates a film to his daughter and helps suicide prevention through the making of that movie, you have to take a step back and applaud. Many filmmakers have the right to realize their visions, and a lot of the time they are unable to do so. Snyder earned that right and created something good, while helping people around the world. This director’s cut wasn’t for me. It was for the fans. It was for Autumn. It was for the millions of people struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts. My score will be far from perfect, but that doesn’t mean I don’t admire what this film accomplished.

3.5 out of 5 stars

 

Takeaways from the 93rd Academy Awards nominations

Takeaways from the 93rd Academy Awards nominations

The coronavirus pandemic upended the movie-going experience in 2020, leading to an unconventional year in film. As the movie schedule changed radically and more films debuted on streaming, the Oscars pushed back its ceremony and extended the eligibility window. Despite the unusual circumstances, the prolonged movie season produced several top-quality films to contend for the 93rd Academy Awards.

With today’s announcement of nominees, the Academy made strides in recognizing diversity among its top categories. But like past years, there were still some surprises and snubs.

At Take 2 Blog, Rebecca and Joe break down the takeaways from today’s Oscar nominations.

DIVERSITY IN ACTING: Last year, Cynthia Erivo was the lone minority performer nominated across the four acting categories. This year, out of the 20 actors and actresses nominated, nine are people of color. With her best actress nod for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Oscar winner Viola Davis is now the most nominated Black actress in the awards’ history, securing her fourth nomination. Rounding out the inclusive nominees are best supporting actress, Youn Yuh-jung for “Minari”; best actress, Andra Day for “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”; best supporting actor, Daniel Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield for “Judas and the Black Messiah” and Leslie Odom Jr. for “One Night in Miami”; and best actor, Riz Ahmed for “Sound of Metal,” Chadwick Boseman for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and Steven Yeun for “Minari.” In the lead actor race, Yeun makes history as the first Asian American nominated, and Ahmed breaks barriers as the first Muslim actor to receive a nod.

Writer-director Chloé Zhao, left, and Frances McDormand, center, on the set of “Nomadland.” (Searchlight Pictures via AP)

BREAKTHROUGH FOR WOMEN: After last year’s directing category shut out women, two landed nominations for the first time in the Academy’s history: Chloé Zhao for “Nomadland” and Emerald Fennell for her directing debut “Promising Young Woman.” Zhao, the frontrunner after winning the Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice awards, also became the first woman of color and of Asian descent to be nominated for a directing Oscar.

BUT STILL … The directing category featured a notable absence of Black directors. Despite earning a best picture nomination for “Judas and the Black Messiah,” Shaka King was overlooked for his work behind the camera. Also left out were Regina King for “One Night in Miami,” the Oscar-winning actress’s directorial debut, and Spike Lee for “Da 5 Bloods.” Regina King’s and Lee’s snubs go hand-in-hand with their films’ shocking exclusions from best picture. The awards’ top category also omitted another film with a Black cast, “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” And “Soul,” Pixar’s first animated film featuring a Black lead, did not make the cut despite plenty of acclaim, though it earned an expected nod for best animated film.

Gary Oldman portrays Herman Mankiewicz in a scene from “Mank.” (Netflix via AP)

‘MANK’ LEADS THE PACK: David Fincher’s passion project about “Citizen Kane” co-screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz – who grew up in Wilkes-Barre – scored 10 nominations, the most of any film. The Netflix biopic garnered nods for best picture, best director, best actor for Gary Oldman and best supporting actress for Amanda Seyfried, as well as cinematography, production design, costume design, original score, sound design, and makeup and hairstyling. But the film was snubbed for original screenplay, which was penned by Fincher’s late father, Jack.

SURPRISING INCLUSIONS: Thomas Vinterberg earns his way into the director category for the Danish comedy-drama “Another Round,” which is also nominated for best international feature film. Glenn Close sneaks into the supporting actress category for Netflix’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” her eighth Oscar nomination – and just days after nabbing a Razzie nod for the same role. Another Netflix film, “The White Tiger,” claws its way into the best adapted screenplay race.

SOUNDING OFF ON SNUBS: The poster child for this year’s snubs is “Da 5 Bloods.” In addition to omissions for best picture and director, the masterful Delroy Lindo was left out of the best actor category. The late Boseman, who earned a best actor nod for “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” was denied recognition for his supporting work in Lee’s Vietnam drama, deprived of being a double nominee. The film’s sole nomination comes for original score. In another surprising snub, Aaron Sorkin was omitted from best director for “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which claimed six nominations, including best picture and best original screenplay. Sacha Baron Cohen received a best supporting actor nod for “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” but missed out on a best actor nomination for “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm,” for which he won a Golden Globe. Another Globe winner, Jodie Foster, was overlooked for best supporting actress for her work in “The Mauritanian.”

SLIGHTING ‘TENET’: Although a polarizing film with mixed reviews, the Academy overlooked some of the greatness of Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet.” The movie achieved some of the most striking shots never seen in film. While it earned well-deserved nominations for visual effects and production design, Hoyte Van Hoytema’s work as cinematographer went unnoticed by the Academy. Also, Ludwig Göransson’s score should have been a shoo-in for the category as it perfectly complemented the immersive experience of “Tenet.” The Oscars also didn’t recognize the underrated Travis Scott original song “The Plan,” effectively used in the movie and the trailer.

The 93rd Academy Awards ceremony is set to be broadcast April 25 on ABC.

 

Review: “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”

Review: “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”

Rebecca’s Take

When Andra Day won the Golden Globe for best actress in a motion picture drama, the surprise recognition raised the profile of “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” The musical biopic, now streaming on Hulu, traces the FBI’s relentless witch hunt of the legendary jazz singer.

Day’s tour-de-force portrayal of “Lady Day” boosts the otherwise frenetic and messy drama. The ambitious film tries to take on too much at once. Director Lee Daniels’ latest film exploits the embattled songstress’s turbulent life, spending more time wallowing in her drug addiction and abusive relationships than on the themes of racial injustice that it introduces.

The limited biopic, which is based on a nonfiction book, follows the federal government’s efforts in the 1940s and 1950s to prevent Holiday from singing her protest ballad, “Strange Fruit.” The song’s haunting lyrics describe the lynching of Blacks in the South. The government doesn’t want Holiday speaking out against racism, so the Federal Bureau of Narcotics – led by its undeterred commissioner, Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund) – goes after the singer for buying illegal drugs. The agency would hound Holiday – who endured jail time, a drug set-up and the watchful eye of federal agent-turned-lover Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) – until her death from cirrhosis at age 44 in 1959.

With its clashing tones and haphazard editing, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” lacks a cohesive feel. The biopic awkwardly switches from comedy to drama, with little transition. Daniels stylizes some scenes in black and white and speeds them up to replicate the look of the films of the time period. But the method isn’t consistently used, so the artful gimmick feels out of place.

The two most memorable sequences are a pair of long, continuous takes that occur during drug-induced fever dreams. In one, a 10-year-old Holiday shows Fletcher the trauma of being brought up in a bordello. In another, Holiday witnesses a lynching in a field, which leads into Day’s show-stopping performance of “Strange Fruit.” The problem is the rest of the movie feels so choppy.

The drama suffers from a jumbled narrative. The film starts with Holiday being interviewed toward the end of her life, then jumps around different time periods. This becomes confusing as the movie gradually abandons the interview framework. Then the film attempts to focus on the “Strange Fruit” controversy” as the men in Holiday’s life try to convince her to stop performing the song. But then the movie doesn’t focus on the song enough. With the film’s runtime at two hours and 10 minutes, the singer doesn’t perform “Strange Fruit” until an hour and 30 minutes in. That’s a long time to wait for what’s supposed to be the lynchpin of the story.

“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is the latest film in the extended 2020 movie season to address themes of racial injustice. The drama delves into the government’s surveillance of influential Blacks by the government, which was also tackled in “Judas and the Black Messiah” and “One Night in Miami.” The film also looks at Black performers’ struggle to control the art they create, which “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” covered deftly. But the unfocused film doesn’t do as good of a job as these other films in fully exploring these issues. The biopic is more interested in leveraging its leading lady’s woes.

The bulk of “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is spent on Holiday’s debilitating drug use and toxic romances. The film takes a no-holds-barred approach to depicting her traumas, showcasing graphic drug use and sex. The singer is shown repeatedly injecting heroin, craving a fix and letting in shady suitors. What’s upsetting is “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” focuses more on the songstress’s problems instead of who she was as a person. The movie portrays her as a wretched figure instead of the groundbreaking artist and activist that she was. This is a disservice to its leading lady.

The film’s shining light is its own Lady Day – Andra Day. “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” marks the first major film role for the singer-turned-actress, whose stage name was inspired by Holiday. The powerful Day thrives in the role, bringing the storied singer to life with her iconic gardenia hair pins, glamorous gowns and flowing pants suits. Performing her own singing, she disappears into the songstress’s classics, including “All of Me,” “Them There Eyes” and the mesmerizing “Strange Fruit.”

Day adds a formidable depth and grit to what’s in the script as the vulnerable singer battles desperation and heartbreak. She earns viewers’ sympathy as her ongoing addiction and the unrelenting Feds infiltrate her life. The Golden Globe-winning performance should put her on the Academy Awards’ radar for best actress.

The rest of the cast adds varying contributions. As Fletcher, Rhodes shares a combustible chemistry with Day. The character embarks on his own journey as he tries to make his mark as one of the first Black agents at the FBI. Holiday’s circle of friends, which include Miss Lawrence as the protective Miss Freddy and Da’Vine Joy Randolph as the supportive Roslyn, share a warm camaraderie with the singer. Hedlund acts like a cartoon villain as Anslinger, who in real life started America’s “war on drugs” campaign. In a head-scratching move, the versatile Natasha Lyonne is underused as movie star Tallulah Bankhead, who may have had a romantic relationship with Holiday. Leslie Jordan adds a quirky vibe as Holiday’s interviewer.

Ultimately, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is a mediocre film lifted by a masterful performance. Day carries the uneven biopic on her capable shoulders, deserving acclaim for her transformation into the legendary songstress. But the film’s muddled narrative, frenzied storytelling and problematic exploitation of its leading lady add too many sour notes. Where the film may fail its real-life subject, it may end up propelling the career of its refreshing, rising star.

2 out of 5 stars

Review: “Nomadland”

Review: “Nomadland”

Rebecca’s Take

With the open highway as its backdrop, the gorgeous “Nomadland” is more than a transfixing journey across the American West – it’s an introspective odyssey of the soul. The thought-provoking road drama, now streaming on Hulu, speaks to a country looking to find itself amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Director/co-writer Chloé Zhao’s haunting masterpiece about modern nomads thrives on its organic direction, authentic approach and Oscar-worthy lead performance by Frances McDormand. An intimate look at an unconventional way of life, “Nomadland” is one of the best films of the extended 2020 movie season.

The drama, based on the book by Jessica Bruder, is set in the wake of the Great Recession. In 2011, Fern (McDormand), a widow in her 60s, loses her job after the plant where she worked shuts down. As the town’s residents empty out, Fern decides to travel the country looking for seasonal work, living out of her van. As she tells a friend’s daughter, “I’m not homeless. I’m just house-less.”

Setting out for the open road, Fern meets a scattered community of nomads. Most of them are older people who can’t afford to live on Social Security. Eschewing their former middle-class lifestyles, they take to their vans and RVs, moving from one job to another. As Fern learns to become self-sufficient, she makes new friends, tries new jobs and carves a new life for herself.

In her third feature film, Zhao adds a personal touch to “Nomadland.” She makes audiences feel like we’re riding shotgun with Fern as we experience the cross-country journey right alongside her. Zhao mixes long takes of the natural scenery with closeups of the characters’ faces. She wields a confident command over the production as she allows the story to unfold at an unhurried pace, giving enough time to the quiet moments. The camera often lingers on McDormand as she lets the emotions of each experience wash over her face.

The film offers a balanced take on the joys and hardships of nomadic life. “Nomadland” revels in discovering the beauty of the West, from the sweeping deserts of Arizona to the awe-inspiring buttes at Badlands National Park in South Dakota. The stunning cinematography highlights the beauty of the natural landscape. The tourist locations appeal to an audience deprived of traveling during the pandemic. But the film isn’t afraid to show the less glamorous aspects of the transient lifestyle. There’s the calamity of repairing a blown tire, the mundanity of maintaining the paint of your vehicle – and the necessity of defecating in a bucket.

Frances McDormand, left, and and David Strathairn star in “Nomadland.” (Searchlight Pictures via AP)

With its raw take on its subject, “Nomadland” feels like a documentary. The film blends real people with fictional characters. The likable nomads whom Fern meets along the way are real-life transients. Their economic hardships following the Great Recession find an ear in viewers reeling from the financial fallout of the pandemic. There’s the fun-loving Linda May, whose smile can light up the desert. The down-to-earth Swankie teaches Fern some pivotal skills to survive life on the road. The kind Bob Wells organizes a support system for the nomads. All three give natural performances that lend an authenticity to the film.

As the compassionate Fern, McDormand gives one of the year’s best performances. The two-time Academy Award winner is one of the best actresses working today, and “Nomadland” further cements her status. With her cropped hair and lack of makeup, McDormand portrays Fern as no-nonsense, grounded and fiercely independent. But the actress also reveals Fern’s warmth and vulnerability as she embraces the nomadic life.

“Nomadland” is structured so Fern spends about 10 to 15 minutes in each new place, with each new person. Each experience impacts Fern as she adds another stop on her personal journey. She often reconnects with people down the road, and McDormand taps perfectly into the happiness of each reunion. Whether it’s having a “spa day” with Linda May at a nomad camp or reminiscing about her husband with Bob, McDormand makes Fern feel just as real as they are. The heartfelt portrayal may earn McDormand her third Academy Award.

McDormand also shares a nice chemistry with David Strathairn, who plays Dave, a nomad with a crush on Fern. Strathairn is easygoing and unassuming as Dave goes on his own journey, which includes reconnecting with his son (played by Strathairn’s real-life son, Tay).

As beautiful as it is profound, “Nomadland” offers an eye-opening look at life on the open road. The contemplative drama is timely as viewers dream of travel while dealing with the economic impact of the pandemic. Zhao’s natural direction and McDormand’s masterful performance should propel the film to best director, best actress and best picture nominations at this year’s Oscars. As the characters in the film say, “See you down the road,” we’re sure to see “Nomadland” down the road at the Academy Awards ceremony.

5 out of 5 stars

 

Review: “Judas and the Black Messiah”

Review: “Judas and the Black Messiah”

Joe’s Take

A few months ago, Netflix released “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” which glosses over the Black Panther Party and one of its founders Bobby Seale. While a scene from that film is mentioned in “Judas and the Black Messiah,” the Warner Bros./HBO Max film centers on the Illinois Black Panther Party in the 1960s and depicts the racial injustice that proves eerily similar to the issues that still plague this country.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” does an excellent job taking on the topic of racial inequality by focusing on its characters and establishing a universal theme. Whether the character was one of the major players or part of a subplot, each one faced a decision we all understand, a decision between doing what is right or acting in self-preservation. Everything builds beautifully off that central idea.

Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield) must decide whether to accept a prison sentence or work undercover with the FBI against a cause he would support. Working against his beliefs would not only keep him out of prison, but also put money in his pocket. Chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) works to unite and protect the people, but his efforts put him in harm’s way. FBI agent Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons) knows his job is to protect and serve, but will he stick to his morals when challenged by his superior officers?

Now that the film gives the audience the different perspectives, it understands the decisions made, whether it agrees with them or not. As the characters struggle between self-preservation and moral obligation, I noticed something else that still resonates today. Throughout the film, characters so easily speak things into existence or throw labels on people or a group. That becomes how society knows certain groups without looking into the facts.

Early in the film, Mitchell labels the Ku Klux Klan as equal to the Black Panther Party, saying both are terrorist organizations. He adds that he’s for racial equality, but not through cheating the system. J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen) kicks off the film saying it is important that the FBI doesn’t allow any “Black Messiahs” to rise to power because it will be dangerous to the country. The FBI and the cops say Hampton’s tone when he orates is violently charged while missing the eloquence of what he’s saying. None of it is true, but when coming from a man in a position of power with perceived intelligence it becomes accepted as gospel. There’s another part of the film where a character kills cops before the cops eventually kill him. His mother doesn’t want him remembered as a cop killer, because there’s so much more to him. The audience knows this, but most of the world will only know him as a cop killer. This also resonates today with cancel culture and judging a situation without all the facts.

The filmmakers lay that groundwork beautifully so their stars can shine. Stanfield and Kaluuya, who last shared the screen in 2017 with Stanfield screaming at Kaluuya to “Get out!,” did just that. Stanfield captures O’Neal’s internal struggle as he tries to preserve his future, while hoping he can eventually break free from his undercover assignment. Wavering and sometimes on the verge of tears, Stanfield shows the audience his emotional state with his face and body language. He also displays the character’s mental instability. Despite his scary situation, he’ll smirk when he succeeds.

An Oscar nominated actor, Kaluuya eyes at least another nomination with his role as Hampton. He performs phenomenally as an orator, especially toward the end of the film when he gives his “I am a revolutionary” speech. He sparks one of the best scenes of the film with his booming voice and eloquent delivery. What puts his performance among the greats of the extended 2020 movie season is his range in producing a powerful character with a presence balanced with grace, sensitivity and vulnerability when out of the public eye. He builds a beautiful chemistry with Dominique Fishback (Hampton’s love interest Deborah Johnson), which adds a layer to his character.

Fishback shines as well in a supporting role. Her reactions during the “I am a revolutionary” speech and her voiceover during a police shootout add to the impact of both sequences. Her character shares Hampton’s struggle, as she has a baby on the way when Hampton is a target of law enforcement. Plemons as Mitchell fits perfectly into his role, which is right in his wheelhouse.

Shaka King’s direction stood out as well. I keep coming back to this, but during the “I am a revolutionary” speech King balances so much as the film’s major players find themselves in the same room. It epitomizes what he was able to do throughout the movie. While Hampton orates, the scene creates so much exuberance and tension simultaneously. Most of the interaction is communicated nonverbally. An undercover O’Neal sees his FBI boss Mitchell in the crowd and they stare at either. As Hampton mentions death or murder, Johnson struggles to hold back tears as she fears the father of her child’s fate. Once enemies of Hampton, the Crowns in the audience are seen showing more and more support as Hampton orates. It’s a lot to accomplish in one scene. Also, King doesn’t glorify the gun fights, instead making them raw and allowing the audience to feel the impact.

This isn’t a negative to the film, but it is a personal preference. Watching Sheen as Hoover made me uncomfortable. I think of Sheen as President Josiah Bartlet of “The West Wing,” not an evil FBI director. Like I said, this isn’t a real issue because he plays the role well. It just wouldn’t be a Joe review if I didn’t mention an Aaron Sorkin project … or in this case two.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” creates a beautiful setup that engages the audience and enables its actors to shine. It explores racial injustice through a thoughtful and raw lens. The filmmakers add expert storytelling, dialogue and direction that give the movie layers, relevance to today and reasons to watch it again.

4.5 out of 5 stars

Dominique Fishback stars in “Judas and the Black Messiah.” (Warner Bros. Pictures via AP)

Rebecca’s Take

Sometimes synergy is undeniable. At Take 2 Blog, we’ve reviewed several films in the last few months that have taken on racial injustice while our country found itself struggling to answer for it. “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” “One Night in Miami” and “Judas and the Black Messiah” are set during the civil rights movement of the 1960s, with interlocking themes and references to historic figures – and even the appearance of one across two films.

All three are powerful. All three are relevant. And now “Judas and the Black Messiah,” streaming on HBO Max, caps the unofficial trilogy with an unapologetic bang. Featuring dynamic performances, the incendiary drama strikes the right balance between its stirring speeches and relentless action. “Judas and the Black Messiah” resonates as our nation tries to pick up the pieces after a tumultuous year.

The biopic follows the events leading up to the 1969 assassination of Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya), the leader of the Illinois Black Panther Party. Seeing Hampton as a threat, the FBI recruits Bill O’Neal (LaKeith Stanfield), a car thief who wants to evade prison. As O’Neal gets closer to Hampton, he feeds the FBI information on the community activist. But when O’Neal realizes the agency wants Hampton dead, the conflicted informant ultimately betrays the Panthers leader.

This isn’t the first time movie viewers have encountered Hampton. The historical figure briefly appeared in “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” offering support to defendant Bobby Seale. But “Judas and the Black Messiah” gives the Panthers leader his time to shine. The excellent Kaluuya delivers an Oscar-worthy performance as he brings the revolutionary to life.

Kaluuya, who was down-to-earth in “Get Out” and terrifying in “Widows,” exudes charisma as the crusading Hampton. Poetic and disarming, Hampton holds a palpable sway over the Panthers. He’s so magnetic that he convinces rival groups, including the Crowns, to join them. During his speeches, Kaluuya is forceful and strong. But he also taps into Hampton’s humanity and warmth. He cares for his fellow Panthers like family. When he calls them “brothers” and “sisters,” you believe it. The actor makes the legendary figure feel like a real person.

Audiences learn more about Hampton through the relationship he forms with fellow activist Deborah Johnson (Dominique Fishback). A standout in “Project Power,” Fishback plays a pivotal role here as much of the story is told from her point of view. Through closeups, Fishback says a lot through her eyes and expressions. When Hampton speaks about his willingness to lay down his life for the cause, terror washes over Deborah’s face as she’s pregnant with his child. She supports and challenges Hampton, and she’s not afraid to question him.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” emerges as especially timely, shining a spotlight on police brutality. A heart-pumping shootout at the Panthers headquarters between members and police ramps up the tension, leading to a jaw-dropping explosion. Hampton was only 21 years old when he was murdered in a hail of gunfire by police. The harrowing finale is downright brutal, with flying bullets and fearful pleas. It’s uncomfortable and shocking, and it’s supposed to be.

More than 50 years later, the shooting of Black men by law enforcement has galvanized the nation. When O’Neal, who used a fake FBI badge to steal cars, says “a badge is scarier than a gun,” the sentiment lands with frightening accuracy. Daring director and co-writer Shaka King holds up a mirror to today’s fraught state of race relations.

The drama explores the government’s fear of Black leaders. While Malcolm X kept looking over his shoulder for the G-men in “One Night in Miami,” the FBI has a more visible role in “Judas and the Black Messiah.” The agency considers the Panthers the biggest threat to the nation’s security. But that’s not what we see onscreen. Instead, we see the Panthers working to provide meals, legal aid and educational programs for families.

When FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen in very heavy makeup) wants Hampton killed, he has to convince O’Neal’s handler, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons). The film plays on the disconnect between what the Black Panthers are trying to do and what the government proclaims them to be. “Judas and the Black Messiah” lets viewers judge the group – and the government – for themselves.

What ends up hurting “Judas and the Black Messiah” is its Judas. This is not a knock on the phenomenal Stanfield, but rather O’Neal’s underwritten character. It’s hard to get a good sense of his struggle between his duties as an informant and his so-called loyalty to the Panthers because the film doesn’t delve into the conflict as much as it could have. We see the self-serving O’Neal mostly looking out for himself, asking Mitchell for money for the information he provides. I expected the movie to show a closer bond between him and Hampton, but it didn’t. This would have amplified his already devastating betrayal.

Despite the script’s shortcomings, Stanfield’s fantastic acting allows the character’s conflict to come through. The actor lets the apprehension creep into his face when he’s asked to hotwire a car. He nervously laughs after swearing to go after any rats, and he swells up with tears before leaving Hampton to his fate. His talent goes a long way to fill the gaps in character development.

Eye-opening and tragic, “Judas and the Black Messiah” questions how far we’ve come in terms of race relations. The film complements “The Trial of the Chicago 7” and “One Night in Miami” as a gauge of our country’s progress. King’s bold biopic features outstanding performances by several rising stars, including Kaluuya’s award-worthy turn as the ill-fated Fred Hampton. The timely drama strikes at the heart of ongoing racial strife, showing that the past can repeat itself – for better or worse. “Judas and the Black Messiah” challenges us to learn from the past and continue the fight for a better future.

4 out of 5 stars