This spring in film

by Megan Bianco

Hypocrisy in the New Space Jam Movie?Nostalgia and outdated pop culture are a heck of a combination, and they’re a combo that generally doesn’t end well.

The Warner Bros’ reboot of Joe Pytka’s cult comedy “Space Jam” (1996) appears to be testing this formula — at least based on the new trailer for Malcolm D. Lee’s “Space Jam: A New Legacy.”

Revisiting the original as an adult, I came to three conclusions: 1.) Nearly all of the ’90s pop culture references are obsolete now. 2.) Professional athletes should probably stick to the court rather than experiment with acting. And, 3.) The soundtrack is still the best part of the movie.

But before we could joke about the sequel being an obvious, easy cash grab, it’s important to note that there is some highly distracting and possibly obtuse hypocrisy in the trailer that was quickly acknowledged on social media platforms like Twitter and Reddit. Unlike the first film, which just featured all the classic Looney Tunes characters, plus some new cartoon faces alongside basketball superstar Michael Jordan, this new flick is tossing everything at the wall, and including nearly all of the properties the studio currently owns, next to LeBron James.

This includes the Scooby-Doo gang, the flying monkeys from “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), Jim Carrey’s alter-ego in “The Mask” (1994), Pennywise, and from It (2017), Batman, Superman and Matrix villains, Mama Fratelli from The Goonies (1985) and even the title character of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. Someone at Warner Bros clearly saw Phil Johnston & Rich Moore’s “Ralph Breaks the Internet” (2018) and Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” (2018), and thought, “Yes, let’s make a Space Jam sequel as an excuse to do our own version of this.”

This would be amusingly obvious if it weren’t for some more controversial character cameos also spotted in the new trailer. The Droogs from Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” (1971), the War Boys of George Miller’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” (2015), and the White Walkers of HBO’s “Game of Thrones” (2011-19) all make an appearance.

The first two are from R-rated movies and the third a TV-MA cable series, and all feature graphic violent content. Why are these characters making appearances in a family friendly fantasy-comedy? It would be one thing to have them as blink-and-you’ll-miss-it background Easter eggs for the parents watching the movie, but the Droogs are front and center of a whole shot. These additions are not only peculiar, but almost hilariously bewildering after Warner and Lee went out of their way to claim the new movie would be more progressive by making Lola Bunny less sexy and more girl-power-heavy, while snubbing Pepe Le Pew’s presence.

Lola’s altering is whatever to me. Looking back on the first “Space Jam,” she was a bit alluring, but was also portrayed as a good basketball player, so the sex appeal didn’t make much of a difference for me as a kid. Pepe’s absence is not surprising considering that the character’s schtick is very dated. For those who don’t remember or are unaware, Pepe is a skunk with a French accent who is constantly trying to woo a female cat, Penelope, he is smitten with. Only issue is she’s disgusted by his stench and is constantly trying to rush away, while Pepe is oblivious to both his odor and her repulsion.

While watching some of the old Pepe cartoon shorts contemporarily on YouTube, it is a little awkward to see the skunk so physically up in the cat’s personal space while she’s not interested in him at all, even if the gag is toward his delusion. What’s funny is Pepe originally was featured in “Space Jam” 25 years ago, but with all his flirtations and advancements missing. When it comes to generally politically incorrect content in their classic cartoons, Warner usually begins the shorts with a special disclaimer as a warning and reminder that the studio’s current views aren’t relevant to half a century ago.

This is generally a tactic I prefer over a studio like Disney, which has a habit of hiding the controversial material like it didn’t exist. But if that’s the route Warner Bros is choosing to go with Pepe Le Pew this time around, they should at least be genuine with it and not make it completely obvious it’s only performative — especially when you feature R-rated famous movie/TV characters inappropriately in a PG-rated comedy.

Godzilla vs. KongWho would have guessed that the film to welcome back the traditional movie theater experience amidst the pandemic was not Christopher Nolan’s “Tenet” (2020) or Patty Jenkins’ “Wonder Woman 1984” (2020), but Adam Wingard’s “Godzilla vs. Kong?”

As with the Planet of the Apes reboots in the 2010s, this was a seemingly unnecessary franchise that we probably didn’t need, yet we got it anyway — and surprisingly, it turned out mostly decent.

When Gareth Edwards’ “Godzilla” (2014) debuted, it was given intriguing and effective marketing, yet a lukewarm reception from viewers. A similar happened with Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ “Kong: Skull Island” (2017), though rather than being accused of being boring, it was just a little too schlocky.

Now, following Michael Dougherty’s “Godzilla: King of Monsters,” does Warner Bros’ “MonsterVerse” finally take off?

Like with most epic, action blockbusters, there are not only giant monsters in “Godzilla vs. Kong,” but a wide variety of characters as well. Back on Skull Island, geologist Nathan Lind (Alexander Skarsgård) and linguist Ilene Andrews (Rebecca Hall) are studying King Kong’s behavior and origins with the unexpected help of Ilene’s deaf adolescent daughter, Jia (Kaylee Hottle), who appears to have a special connection with the colossal ape. On the other side of the world, paranoid podcaster Bernie Hayes (Brian Tyree Henry), and high schoolers Madison Russell (Millie Bobby Brown) and Josh Valentine (Julian Dennison), team up to track down what they believe is a genocide plot involving Godzilla led by shady tech company head Walter Simmons (Demián Bichir).

Eiza González, Lance Reddick, Shun Oguri and Kyle Chandler make up the rest of the cast of familiar faces. The most common complaint about the new Kong and Godzilla flicks is that the excitement of the action is brought down by the dull subplots involving the humans. Well, “Godzilla vs. Kong” is a possible case of “be careful what you wish for,” because this is officially a 113-minute non-stop action sequence with no character development or arcs in sight.

The chase and battle sequences are eye candy for all with impressive and vibrant special effects. If you feel comfortable and healthy enough to visit a movie theater already open near you, I would definitely say Wingard’s new feature fully lives up to the big screen experience. The cast themselves are fine, though basically just good looking, and their uninteresting roles only to lead the monsters along the way. Dennison in particular is not so much amusing comic relief, but more Exposition: the Character.

But I will say that out of all the MonsterVerse efforts so far, Wingard really nailed the tone and atmosphere of a traditional action-adventure blockbuster from the 1980s-1990s. There are moments of “Godzilla vs. Kong” that reminded me of Travis Knight’s “Bumblebee” (2018), in which you get a subtle sense of nostalgia and a past era, without it coming across as pandering. This, as well as Wingard knowing how to craft and make the action scenes entertaining, have the visuals of GvK almost make up for the lack of interesting characters or plot.

NomadlandIt feels strange to say, but in many ways Chloé Zhao’s “Nomadland” getting released in the middle of the pandemic last December might have been the best thing to happen to the indie drama. In any other fall movie awards season, it most likely would have been buried beyond the usual critics groups who branch outside of the mainstream. But, at a time when most of the supposedly good movies are still a ways away, Zhao’s and the film’s lead star and producer Frances McDormand have a big chance of Oscar glory.

Though one could easily label her a movie star with her already two Oscar wins, McDormand is at heart a successful character actress who chooses to ignore the glam and sparkle of Hollywood for meatier and more interesting roles. Whether it’s husband Joel Coen’s “Fargo” (1996), Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous” (2000), or Martin McDonagh’s “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017), you can expect her to stand out on her own.

The thespian is at her prime once again as the center of “Nomadland” while playing a fictional widowed nomad named Fern. When the Nevada local loses both her job and husband in 2011 amidst the housing recession, she chooses to live out of a van, roaming middle America with odd jobs on her own. While on the road, Fern discovers many other people, from middle age to elderly, are also living in vans, just like her.

“Nomadland” is one of those indie movies that effectively features two famous actors — McDormand and David Straitharn — while the rest of the cast are complete newcomers (in this case real life nomads). McDormand and Straitharn are experienced and talented enough to not seem out of place in the camping scenes with the locals, with the former also carrying the nature sequences on her own.

Zhao does double duty as both the film’s director and editor, with help from some gorgeous, natural cinematography from Joshua James Richards, and a pretty, simple music score by Ludovico Einaudi. The Chinese filmmaker’s previous feature, “The Rider” (2017), brought attention to contemporary cowboys, and made a splash on the festival circuit and with critics. She impresses again with another group of Americans who aren’t talked about much. It was supposedly McDormand herself who reached out to Zhao to direct the new indie film after reading Jessica Bruder’s 2017 non-fiction book Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century. This makes sense when you watch the director’s work and feel a genuine understanding and appreciation for the greater, modest countryside.

One thing I did find a bit amusing is that at the start of the movie, Fern works for Amazon part-time. Yet, “Nomadland” is produced by Fox Searchlight Pictures and distributed through Hulu for streaming, even though the shopping company isn’t portrayed particularly negatively. Whatever the case, “Nomadland” is one for film fans who appreciate intuitive acting and atmospheric direction.

The United States vs. Billie HolidayJazz and R&B superstar Billie Holiday is an icon the same way fellow singers Judy Garland and Janis Joplin are, with a troubled personal life and premature death in 1959 a part of her legacy.

When you hear Holiday’s classics like ‘God Bless the Child,’ ‘Did I Remember?’ or — most famously —‘Strange Fruit,’ you don’t just think of the brilliant performance, production, and talent. You also think of the fact that her life was clouded by so much tragedy. Yet, one ponders how surely there must be something a little brighter beyond that.

Holiday, much like Garland, struggles to be the subject of a film biopic that fully captures both the essence and accuracy of the vocalist as a person. While singer-turned-actress Andra Day won Best Actress in a Drama at the Golden Globes for Lee Daniels’ “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” last month, it would be easy to assume the win was due, at least in part, to a lack of competition with so many movies on hiatus. But upon viewing, you can see some of the same signs as the Diana Ross-led vehicle of Sidney J. Furie’s “Lady Sings the Blues” (1972).

As a whole, Daniels’ new movie seems to be pretty divided and mixed from the critics. If you’ve seen some of the director’s previous features, such as “Shadowboxer” (2005) or “The Butler” (2013), this likely isn’t much of a surprise.

What is a very nice surprise is that Day truly did live up to the hype of her breakthrough performance as Holiday, quite similarly to Ross. And, I would go as far as to say Day’s portrayal is even more impressive than Ross’ — and the result of better casting. While viewers praised Ross’ Oscar nominated first acting effort in 1972, one issue that comes up is that we feel like we’re still watching Ross rather than Holiday. Here, Day is still fresh enough as a famous face to capture Holiday’s presence and gift, but also to avoid coming off as a caricature. I would almost say Day’s dramatic and musical efforts save the film, but unfortunately, there are some narrative and story execution problems with Daniels’ directing and Suzan-Lori Parks’ screenplay that can’t be fixed.

For me, both the title, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” and the opening sequence, make it seem like the film is about the famous legal case regarding Holiday, in which she was legitimately targeted by the government as an excuse to both rationalize the war on drugs and also curb jazz music’s popularity.

This actually is a part of the plot’s progression, especially with Trevante Rhodes cast as real-life federal agent Jimmy Fletcher, who followed Holiday’s career for roughly the last decade of her life. But while this event does play a pivotal role in the film, “The US vs. Billie Holiday” sticks too closely to the typical music biopic formula that we’ve seen time and again on screen, including with “Lady Sings the Blues.”

Even more underwhelming is the fact that there are more sensationalized scenes on Holiday’s addiction, legal issues, and marital dysfunction than there are scenes for the appreciation of her talent and career.

Natasha Lyonne is practically wasted with a glorified cameo as Tallulah Bankhead, the Broadway star and Holiday’s confidante, with the filmmakers not bothering to properly confirm or deny Holiday’s rumored bisexuality. Garrett Hedlund is fine as Harry Anslinger, the US Treasury head with a personal vendetta against Holiday, and Rhodes is genuinely charming and endearing as the agent torn between his job and the blatant racial bias of his case.

There was a point where Jimmy seemed almost a little too charismatically perfect, and I was not surprised to discover afterwards that the love triangle set up between Fletcher, Holiday, and her husband, Louis McKay (Rob Morgan), was largely fictionalized.

All that said, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” holds one of the best debut film performances in recent history, but ultimately, it could have used some more nuance with its direction and script to be a huge win across the board.

The World to ComeLesbian costume dramas really seem to be all the rage these days in independent filmmaking. Recent examples can be found everywhere, from Todd Haynes&#x20
9; awards friendly “Carol” (2015), to Celine Sciamma’s critical darling, “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (2019), to Jessica Swarle’s Summerland and Frances Lee’s “Ammonite,” which was just last year.

Mona Fastvold’s “The World to Come” now joins the club by going to VOD and streaming after a limited theatrical release during Valentine’s Day. Fastvold’s film quickly gained online hype from the film side of social media after debuting at the Venice Film Festival last September. Now movie fans can see for themselves whether it earned the hype.

In a dreary, freezing winter season on the east coast frontier in mid-19th century America, two married couples live near each other with similar, yet different situations. Abigail (Katherine Waterston) and Dyer (Casey Affleck) live isolated while running their farm after the tragic death of their 5-year-old daughter from Typhoid.

Tallie (Vanessa Kirby) and Finney (Christopher Abbott) move into the area temporarily to accommodate Finney’s career. By summertime, Abigail and Tallie have not only formed a quick friendship from the neglect and business of their husbands, but also a more intimate bond.

The Rotten Tomatoes rating score for “The World to Come” went from 88% to 72% in the past month, which sounds about right to me. Part of me almost wishes I hadn’t known beforehand the screenplay was written by two men — Ron Hansen & Jim Shepard — and was adapted from Shepard’s own 2017 short story, because I ended up nitpicking a bit more with their take than I would otherwise.

And, despite the time period, as well as Abigail being book smart and having a journal, I found some of the narration and dialogue exchanges slightly overwrought and pretentious, particularly during the romantic scenes.

What does work with “The World to Come” is Fastvold’s direction, which reminds me a little of David Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” (2013), which also co-stars Affleck. In some ways, I actually found Fastvold’s effort with “To Come” to be more effective than Lowery on “Bodies Saints.” That is true specifically with what I assume looks like real celluloid instead of digital film, for Andre Chemetoff’s cinematography alongside Daniel Blumberg’s eerie music score. Both give the universe and atmosphere an ominous and introspective feel.

Waterston, Affleck and Abbott are all great actors, but Kirby really shines here with a sensual performance that comes off successfully retro yet modern.

“The World to Come” has its pros and cons, but it’s still a decent new release, especially compared to what we usually get for film in late winter/early spring.

Academy Awards 2021 Recap and HighlightsA lot of firsts happened recently at the 93rd Academy Awards. Some great, some odd, and some completely random.

For the first time in decades, we had the Oscars ceremony in the middle of April rather than the status quo February date. And, for the first in 63 years, an Asian actor won an Academy Award in an acting category, while an Asian woman won Best Director for the first time in history. Plus, Frances McDormand is now a three-time Oscar winner, and filmmaker Steven Soderbergh can go down as the most bizarre choice for awards show producer.

Couple that with having the event take place at Union Station rather than the traditional Dolby Theatre, with no official host, no comedy skits, no live orchestra to cue the end of acceptance speeches, no movie clips to accompany the nominated films (the strangest choice of the broadcast), and the most random order for the awards to be announced and it was a night of unusual events. These surprises were just another addition to the most random awards season of our time.

And, they didn’t stop there. When it came to the eight big categories of the night, there were some correct predictions and some upsets. Best Adapted Screenplay went to Christopher Hampton & Florian Zeller for Zeller’s “The Father” (2020), adapted from Zeller’s own novel of the same name, while Best Original Screenplay was handed to Emerald Fennell for her own directed film, “Promising Young Woman” (2020).

Chloe Zhao made history twice in one night as the first Asian woman to win Best Director — this time for “Nomadland” (2020) — as well as only the second woman in general to win since Kathryn Bigelow for “The Hurt Locker” (2008). Yuh-Jung Youn and Daniel Kaluuya continued their successful streak with a win in the Best Supporting Actress and Actor categories, with Youn for Lee Isaac Chung’s “Minari” (2020) and Kaluuya for Shaka King’s “Judas & the Black Messiah” (2020).

But by far the most baffling choices were placing Best Picture near the end of the end of the ceremony, behind Best Actress and Actor. “Nomadland” took home the big award, though on a bit of an underwhelming note since the event wasn’t technically over, and Frances McDormand winning for the same movie right afterward felt redundant.

And on top of this, it seemed like Best Actor might have been switched to the last award as a posthumous honor for nominee Chadwick Boseman for George C. Wolfe’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” (2020). Yet, Anthony Hopkins for “The Father” was announced in not only the biggest upset of the night, and the award went to an actor who wasn’t present for the event, either in person or digitally.

That said, as messy as the Oscars were for 2021, they certainly weren’t boring, which is saying a lot for an industry that lives on the premise that the only bad publicity is no publicity.

Megan Bianco


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