Certain traditions persist despite the current pandemic. Among them is Hollywood’s film awards season, now on full blast. Prestige productions are being hyped with hopes of garnering nominations for the Oscar, SAG, or Golden Globe. As the cinemas are still closed, this year’s contenders are wooing viewers through the various streaming sites.
In the new normal, Netflix has arguably become today’s Miramax Films, the once gilded production company that spawned Oscar-winning titles such as The English Patient (1996) and Shakespeare in Love (1998). Netflix has five titles that blatantly want those statuettes.
So here’s a rundown of what this streaming site is touting before the award-giving bodies:
News of the World
Can a faded movie genre such as the western still be relevant in these times when several previously normal things are now considered relics?
The answer is a big YES. Writer/film director Paul Greenglass, of the Bourne Identity movie franchise and Captain Philips, wrote the screenplay of this movie which he adapted from the novel by Paulette Jiles.
In News of the World, Greenglass teams up again with his Captain Philips star Tom Hanks. And again, Hanks plays a captain, this time of the Confederate Army. Set in 1870 in Texas, the captain is already a respected Civil War veteran. Yet he is compelled to earn a living by reading news stories to the people living in remote towns.
While traveling to another town, he comes across a little girl (played by Helena Zenglel), unconscious in an overturned wagon. With documents discovered in the wreckage, the captain learns that her birth parents were German immigrants who were massacred by Kiowa Indians. She was then raised by a Kiowa family who in turn were later murdered. Thus as the captain sympathetically notes, the girl was twice orphaned. Since the man tasked to taking her back to surviving relatives was killed, it’s all up to the captain to take the girl to San Antonio, Texas.
The 400-mile trip is the setting for a nightmarish trip into an apocalyptic world. Pestilence, poverty, racism, and discontentment abound. The two unlikely traveling companions contend with townsfolk raging against the Union, would-be rapists, and other Civil War veterans bitter over the government’s neglectful attitude.
Greenglass proves that sometimes it takes a Brit to make a great western
Hanks’ captain is a pragmatic man. He’s wise enough to muddle through and continue living. Hanks presents a delicate balance of dignity and subtle anger. His lined, tired face paints a clear image of the horrors he’d been through in the war. No need to spell them out, his nuanced performance is effective enough. But once in a while he gives us a dose of the old Tom Hanks charisma, especially when he’s reading the news to a crowd. He makes the perfect 19th century anchorman.
He also plays well with the young and talented Helena Zingel. They make an indelible team.
News of the World imparts its social message without shoving it down one’s throat. The camera effectively does the job. Each frame paints a thousand words. It is part thriller and part character study. It also has a conscience.
Majestic shots of the Texas landscape serve as stage for the suspenseful gunfights. Yet they never overshadow the story of the two protagonists whose lives crossed at a time when both their emotions were at their most fragile state. Indeed, with News of the World, Greenglass proves that sometimes it takes a Brit to make a great western.
Mank was the nickname of the legendary Hollywood screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (played by Gary Oldman). He penned one of the greatest films of all time, Citizen Kane (1941). Mank, however, is less a movie biography as it puts focus on the time he was writing the screenplay of that classic.
The film is told in non-linear fashion. It begins with Mank being shuttled to a remote ranch which would serve as his office. He’s been tasked to finish writing the script for Citizen Kane. He is accompanied only by a secretary and a nurse. Alcoholism was already taking its toll. But the studio, RKO, and the director Orson Welles (Tom Burke), are adamant. He must finish the script no matter what.
Director David Fincher relies on flashbacks to cover Mank’s life as a hotshot writer for major studios like MGM. They also highlight his close friendship to actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfred), the mistress of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). He is a perennial guest in the couple’s glamorous star-studded soirees, where Hearst and Davies find Mank’s acerbic wit thoroughly entertaining. Or as his younger brother, the equally famous Joseph L. Mankiewicz snidely notes, he had become their court jester.
The resulting film he wrote, Citizen Kane, is a roman a clef of Davies and Hearst. By 1940, Hearst’s influence had somewhat waned and Davies was no longer starring in films. But Mank still risked ruining his friendship with the couple.
Like in most films about Hollywood, Mank is seen hobnobbing with some of the glittering personalities of the Golden Age, from MGM chief Louis B. Mayer to actress Norma Shearer. But these brief interludes with the legends play like token guest appearances. Not much is learned about them, since after all, the movie is all about Mank getting intoxicated while writing his masterpiece.
Gary Oldman makes Mank seem like a bonafide classic
Perhaps in an effort to capture the atmosphere of the old Hollywood, director Fincher chose to shoot Mank in black and white. Unfortunately, the result is a dreary production that fails to show the exciting glamour of the Hollywood of yore. Even the fabled parties at the Hearst Castle seem dull in this opus.
Fincher based his film on the screenplay that was written by his father, Jack Fincher. Now if only the real Mank had penned the script of the movie about himself. Mank isn’t inspiring in the way Trumbo (another film about a screenwriter) is. As depicted in the film, Mank was his own enemy. He didn’t struggle with alcoholism, he reveled in it. Perhaps the film asserts that it was his drinking that made him brilliant. Years after he won the Oscar for Citizen Kane, he died of alcoholism.
The movie’s biggest treat: Gary Oldman reciting such priceless bon mots that are sometimes hilarious, other times deliciously scathing. Oldman has the grandest time delivering them and his star turn makes Mank seem like a bonafide classic.
The Trial of the Chicago 7
This one is really aiming for the big prize. It has all the ingredients that make a major Academy Award contender: It rails against an oppressive government that accused seven anti-Vietnam War protesters of inciting a riot during a National Democratic Convention in Chicago in 1968. They were collectively dubbed the Chicago 7.
The accused seven were Tom Haydn (played by Eddie Redmayne), Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron), Rennie Davis (Alex Sharp), Jerry Rubin (Jeremy Strong), David Dellinger (John Caroll Lynch), Lee Weiner (Noah Robbins), and John Froines (Daniel Flaherty).
As illustrated in the movie, the trial was a circus. Most of the defendants are shown mocking and challenging the judge who was prone to being prejudiced against them.
Written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, the film doesn’t make the defendants look like saintly martyrs. They have been unjustly charged but that doesn’t mean you’ll automatically like them. They’re not Marvel Superheroes but they did also fight to make our world a better place.
At least two of them would ring a bell to celebrity watchers. Tom Haydn later married and divorced Jane Fonda. Sacha Baron is a standout as Abbie Hoffman who was also prolific. He later died of drug overdose. People close to him insist that he had been drug- free for years.
Although this historical event transpired more than 50 years ago, they resonate with today’s audiences. Even viewers who aren’t familiar with the Chicago 7 should find the movie very entertaining. Credit Aaron Sorkin for his gripping screenplay and skillful direction. Films like The Trial of the Chicago 7 are his specialty. After all, he was the writer behind other courtroom dramas like A Few Good Men and several dramas set in the White House.
The Trial of the Chicago 7 has the feel of an authentic 1970s movie. The sets and costumes accurately capture the styles of that era. The riot scenes are deftly edited and photographed and made to resemble actual news footage. All that grit and realism create a tense atmosphere.
The ensemble cast is excellent though Frank Langella almost steals the show as the imperious judge who unwittingly becomes the perfect representation of the Establishment. Also on his side are two prosecutors played by J.C. Mackenzie and Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Dressed impeccably and neatly groomed, these two “suits” offer a sharp contrast to the groovy anti-Establishment defendants. A contest of wits is triggered between the two factions in the courtroom, turning the trial into a riot of sorts.
Before the end credit roll, Haydn defies the judge in court when he reads out loud the names and ages of the soldiers who were killed in the Vietnam War. It’s a touching but somewhat manipulative tribute that emulates the final scene in Dead Poets Society. But history professors will tell you that it was actually David Dellinger who read it.
But there is a logical reason behind this switch. Sorkin chose Haydn for the grand finale because he was the second Mr. Jane Fonda. And he’s being played by the bigger star, Eddie Redmayne. That’s Hollywood.
Fresh from her acclaimed performance as Princess Margaret in The Crown, Kirby shows us that “we ain’t seen nuthin’ yet!”
Pieces of a Woman
A riveting drama about a young woman whose baby dies just shortly after birth, Pieces of a Woman is not a strong Best Picture contender. But the cast ought to get some recognition, especially Vanessa Kirby who plays the distraught mother.
Fresh from her acclaimed performance as Princess Margaret in The Crown, Kirby in this film shows us that “we ain’t seen nuthin’ yet!”
She plays a happy and self-confident working woman whose life is shattered when the child she’s been carrying comes into this world and just stops breathing. That “piece” just comes out of her body and for a few moments causes immense joy and then suddenly, profound grief.
Kirby’s Martha chose to give birth at home, with just the expectant dad (Shia LaBeouf) and a midwife on hand. Things go awry and tragedy results. The dad is grief-stricken but the mom just doesn’t know how to express this profound loss.
Directed by Kornel Mondruczo and written by his wife Kate Weber, Pieces of a Woman attempts to get into the soul of this woman Kirby plays.
Following the tragedy, she remains stoic as she tries to get back to her normal life. For viewers, it’s hard to fathom what is going on in her mind She makes such foolish and disgusting decisions, namely, choosing to give birth at home, refusing hospitalization when the midwife strongly recommends it, and finally having the body of her baby donated to science.
She’s hardly sympathetic but through her own art, Kirby displays all that pent-up emotion. She gives it all she’s got when she goes into labor. It’s harrowing and excruciating to watch. More than a Hitchcock thriller, it keeps one at the edge of his seat. If they’re going to show any clip for the Best Actress nominees at the Oscars, this scene would be it. If Kirby gets nominated.
Ellen Burstyn, as Kirby’s domineering mom, dominates every scene she’s in. This actress, at 88, is old enough to be Kirby’s grandmother. But because of her great talent and preserved looks, she’s convincing as the mother.
Viewers are given a relief from the gloomy premise whenever Burstyn appears. She is given the best lines because this mother knows best and she can afford the best. She’s well grounded and everyone else in the film is an idiot. Her daughter can have it her way but when push comes to shove, Burstyn is licensed to say, “I told you so.”
In typical mother-in-law fashion, she doesn’t like the man who got her daughter pregnant. He works as a construction worker so it’s a situation that could have pushed the movie into soap opera territory. Thankfully, smart writing and smart acting prevent this from happening. When she tells LaBeouf to get out of their lives for good, both the line and the actress are understated. She just says, “Leave.”
Glenn Close is turning 74. She would be as old as Katharine Hepburn was when she won her fourth Oscar for On Golden Pond (1981)
Glenn Close is turning 74 in March. She would be as old as Katharine Hepburn was when she won her fourth Oscar for On Golden Pond (1981). Close, despite several nominations, hasn’t won one. She has endured years of near-misses and major upsets, so it’s time they gave her one this year for Hillbilly Elegy.
She isn’t the star of the show, but she’s the one you remember. Close plays a grandmother, lovingly called Mammaw Vance by her grandchildren. She’s a wonder here and she plays it very much in the vein of Sgt. Whitaker, the hilarious senior vigilante in the animated series Wait Till Your Father Gets Home.
She and her brood live in a small town in Ohio, so it’s not surprising that the Vance family is unsophisticated. Wayward daughter Beverly (Amy Adams) has an addiction to husbands and drugs and she’s caused much emotional damage to her children, particularly her son J.D. (Gabriel Basso).
This is based on J.D. Vance’s book so the events that transpire are true, told from J.D.’s point of view. A law student at Yale, he is called back home to Ohio; his mom has overdosed on heroine again. On the long drive back, J.D.’s childhood memories return. Images of his Mammaw raising him and ugly scenes of his mother indulging herself in every vice imaginable resurface.
It’s now up to J.D. to straighten out his mom. This time, he has to do it sans the emotional support of his late Mammaw, who was as steel-willed as her daughter is weak.
Unlike the movie’s title, the pedigree of Hillbilly Elegy production denotes prestige. It was directed by Ron Howard and the book was widely acclaimed. But it’s not a landmark movie. It’s “watch-able” and the story and acting are compelling, yet the final product doesn’t go beyond the level of The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. Both films even have a similar plotline. Both get too sentimental when they’re supposed to be intensely moving.
But like Pieces of a Woman, this movie benefits from the remarkable acting of the women who play mother and daughter, Glenn Close and Amy Adams. Give them the prize!