[#2021oscardeathrace] Judas and the Black Messiah (2021)

Director: Shaka King
Cast: Daniel Kaluuya, Lakeith Stanfield, Jesse Plemons, Dominique Fishback, Ashton Sanders, Darrell Britt-Gibson, Lil Rel Howery, Algee Smith, Dominique Thorne, Martin Sheen
Screenplay: Shaka King
126 mins. Rated R for violence and pervasive language.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Motion Picture of the Year [PENDING]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Daniel Kaluuya) [PENDING]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Lakeith Stanfield) [PENDING]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Original Screenplay [PENDING]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures (Original Song) “Fight For You” [PENDING]
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Cinematography [PENDING]


Judas and the Black Messiah, according to the Academy, doesn’t have a lead actor. Both Daniel Kaluuya (Get Out, Queen & Slim) and Lakeith Stanfield (Knives Out, The Photograph) received nominations for Best Supporting Actor. So who is the lead for Judas and the Black Messiah? Let’s break it down.

The follows Bill O’Neal (Stanfield), a criminal-turned-informant for the FBI, as he infiltrates the Black Panthers and becomes acquainted with Fred Hampton (Kaluuya), the passionate and charismatic leader. Along the way, lines start blurring between Bill’s alliance to the FBI and his handler, Roy Mitchell (Jesse Plemons, The Irishman, I’m Thinking of Ending Things), and the Hampton’s quest for equality and freedom from impression in the highly divisive 1960s.

The first element of Judas that struck me was the cinematography. This is an excellently-shot piece of cinema. Starting with Bill’s criminal activity at the film’s start, this camera is commanding the screen, almost a character of its own. Director of Photography Sean Bobbitt (12 Years a Slave) has a true handling of the action set pieces, and he knows when to let his powerhouse performers have the spotlight.

Kaluuya and Stanfield are electrifying as Hampton and O’Neal. Kaluuya’s is the more flashy of the two performances as Hampton, who is presented with a silver tongue for unity and a restrained fire to protecting his people, both within the Black Panthers, and for Black Americans across the nation. On the opposite is Stanfield, who is able to access a subtlety in his absolute terror as he stands by Hampton and the rest of the Black Panthers, forced to confront a choice within him that could forever alter the Civil Right Movement. Not knowing a lot of the real story of these two men, I was entranced by the quality of these two performances within the confines of the tension that director Shaka King (Newlyweeds) has constructed.

Let’s be honest here. Stanfield is the lead of the film and Kaluuya is the supporting player. We’re following Stanfield’s Bill O’Neal throughout the narrative, and the decision to push them both for Best Supporting Actor is likely to split the votes and garner neither of them with wins.

It’s shocking to note that this is only the second feature film for Shaka King as a director. King had served as director on a few television series and shorts, and I’m not denigrating those accomplishments, but a show, a short, and a feature film, while being genuinely the same, are very different undertakings. When I watch King’s understanding of character and plot while also being able to give an extra stylistic flair to Judas, I can see how all of that previous work helped and developed the work seen here, but the scale of this particular project is so much larger.

Judas and the Black Messiah was initially envisioned as “The Departed inside the world of COINTELPRO (Counter Intelligence Program)” and that is essentially what we get from a story perspective, but King comes at the material with a totally different and distinguished voice than Martin Scorsese had with The Departed. Judas is blessed with some incredible performances from not just Kaluuya and Stanfield but the entire principal cast, some real lions in the room. King’s film pairs well with another Best Picture nominee in The Trial of the Chicago 7, as Hampton plays a role in both, and it should make an intense and thoughtful film that will captivate your night.

4/5
-Kyle A. Goethe

[#2020oscardeathrace] A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019)

Director: Marielle Heller

Cast: Tom Hanks, Matthew Rhys, Susan Kelechi Watson, Chris Cooper

Screenplay: Noah Harpster, Micah Fitzerman-Blue

109 mins. Rated PG.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role [Tom Hanks] [PENDING]

 

After the success of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, it seemed certain that we would see a Mr. Rogers biopic. I became surprised that we hadn’t already gotten one in the years following his death, but I learned that his estate was primarily concerned with getting it as accurate as possible, and so when it was announced that Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Can You Ever Forgive Me?) would be directing the biopic with Tom Hanks (Cast Away, Toy Story 4) playing Mr. Rogers, it seemed to be perfect, but could Hanks pull it off?

In 1998, Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys, The Report, TV’s The Americans), a journalist for Esquire magazine, is tasked with profiling Fred Rogers, host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, for an issue on heroes. Lloyd’s at a place in his life where he’s known for his cynical and scathing pieces of journalism, and he’s not too keen on writing about Mr. Rogers, but he begrudgingly accepts. Over several meetings, Lloyd and Fred learn quite a lot about each other, and Fred is determined to understand his interviewer and help him come to terms with his past.

I cannot begin to discuss the merits of this film without giving a whole lot of credit to Tom Hanks and his performance as Mr. Rogers. There are a few different ways that Hanks could have approached playing the iconic personality. The worst of these ways would have been to attempt an impersonation of Fred Rogers. Hanks avoids this by purely studying the mannerisms, inflection, and tone of the character and apply it to his performance. No one can be Fred Rogers, and Hanks plays the spirit of who Mr. Rogers is.

The decision made by the screenwriters, Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue (Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, The Motel Life), to focus on a single story of friendship instead of a straight-up biopic was a great choice. I’m so sick of by-the-numbers checklist biopics. I want to see a story. That’s what we get here. It also works since most everyone who has an interest in the life story can watch Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and get all that. Using Lloyd Vogel as the lens through which we view Mr. Rogers creates an accessibility that really works for understanding Fred Rogers as a human being.

Another benefit of telling a singular story is that director Marielle Heller is able to experiment and really let her artistry shine. She constructs a dream-like quality by creating a framing device that also lets us see Lloyd through Fred’s eyes as well. She also expanded upon the diner scene in the film, and I don’t want to get into the details of it, but that sequence because I want you to experience it for yourself, but it’s the moment that elevates this film to another level.A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is another outstanding feature from Marielle Heller that contains another stunner of a performance from Tom Hanks. This unforgettable film experience is well worth your time, even if you think you know the whole story…so sing it with me:

“Won’t you please, won’t you please,
Please won’t you see this movie?”

 

4.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For my review of Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?, click here.

[#2018oscardeathrace] The Florida Project (2017)

Director: Sean Baker

Cast: Willem Dafoe, Brooklyn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones

Screenplay: Sean Baker, Chris Bergen

111 mins. Rated R for language throughout, disturbing behavior, sexual references and some drug material.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role [Willem Dafoe] [Pending]

 

Many critics believe that The Florida Project was snubbed for Best Picture this year. Let me weigh in yet again.

The Florida Project follows Moonee (Brooklyn Prince, Robo-Dog: Airborne) and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) who live in the Magic Castle, a cheap motel near Disney World. Moonee is not disciplined by her mother and takes part in mooching, stealing, and rudeness with friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Dicky. Magic Castle’s manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe, Shadow of a Vampire, Death Note) tries to keep the peace, but Halley’s inability to take responsibility for her child causes many guests to complain. Bobby is torn between his duties as a manager and his concern for the well-being of the children.

I wasn’t a big fan of The Florida Project. As I say a lot, a character doesn’t have to be likable as long as they are interesting. The only character I found to be compelling and interesting in the film is Dafoe’s Bobby. His performance is strong and real. You can see the strain of his decisions weighing on him.

I really didn’t like Halley as a character. I felt bad for her child as I’ve seen this kind of thing play out in real life. The film was real and believable in a lot of ways, but these weren’t compelling characters that I wanted to spend time with, and Halley especially was more annoying and one-note.

The technical aspects are strong, though, with director Sean Baker (Tangerine, Starlet) again using his strong visual sense to fill the screen with gorgeous albeit tragic images. It’s one of the saving graces of an overall disappointing and depressing film.

I might catch some flack here for my opinion on The Florida Project, but overall, I wasn’t nearly as taken by the film as others clearly were. That’s the great thing about film. I hope you enjoy it, but I certainly didn’t. Short of Dafoe’s incredible work and the lovely cinematography, The Florida Project didn’t work for me.

 

2/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

 

 

For more Almighty Goatman,

Moonlight (2016)

Director: Barry Jenkins

Cast: Mahershala Ali, Duan Sanderson, Trevante Rhodes, Andre Holland, Janelle Monae, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Naomie Harris

Screenplay: Barry Jenkins

111 mins. Rated R for sexuality, drug use, brief violence, and language throughout.

  • Academy Award Winner: Best Motion Picture of the Year
  • Academy Award Winner: Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Mahershala Ali)
  • Academy Award Winner: Best Adapted Screenplay
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role (Naomie Harris)
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Directing
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Cinematography
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Acheivement in Film Editing
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievment in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score

 

Don’t get upset. Moonlight won Best Picture and La La Land did not. Don’t be angry. I foresaw the win (but not the controversy) but needed to see the film before making my own judgment call. I needed to see for myself what the hubbub was all about. I’ve now seen Moonlight several times, and it’s one of the best and most important films you will ever see.

Moonlight’s storytelling technique is a little complex, so I’ll explain. Moonlight is in three pieces, each showcasing a different period in the life of Chiron. In each of the three key pieces, Chiron is played by a different actor of course. There is Little (Alex Hibbert), Chiron (Ashton Sanders, Straight Outta Compton, The Retrieval) and Black (Trevante Rhodes, The Night is Young, Open Windows). The narrative explores Chiron’s upbringing, his relationship with drug dealer Juan (Mahershala Ali, TV’s House of Cards, Free State of Jones) and his mother Paula (Naomie Harris, Skyfall, Collateral Beauty), and the themes of sexuality and identity that run through Chiron’s blood. It is an elegant and powerful tale.

The strength of Moonlight comes from the incredible ensemble both in front and behind the camera. The performances from Ali and Harris first spring to mind, but all three actors playing Chiron are just incredible.

Director Barry Jenkins (Medicine for Melancholy) put together a great team from a technical standpoint, bathing each stage of Chiron’s life in a different color tone. The film is gorgeously shot and expertly edited into a tight runtime that leaves little out of place. In fact, each piece of the story has its own musical cues and moments to play with. It almost feels like you could watch any one part of the story as a short film and be quite satisfied, but in the grander scheme, Chiron’s life comes into full view.

Moonlight is damn impressive, and very deserving of the Best Picture Oscar it took back from La La Land. I love both films, but I think Moonlight is exactly what it sets out to be and narrowly edges out La La Land. This is impressive filmmaking at its core, and I highly recommend you see it immediately.

 

5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

Foxcatcher (2014)

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Director: Bennett Miller

Cast: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave, Sienna Miller

Screenplay: E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman

134 mins. Rated R for some drug use and a scene of violence.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role (Steve Carell)
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Mark Ruffalo)
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Directing
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Writing, Original Screenplay
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling

 

I knew nothing about the actual events of Foxcatcher until Foxcatcher.

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Foxcatcher tells the story of Olympic wrestler Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum, 21 Jump Street, Jupiter Ascending) and his relationship with millionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell, TV’s The Office, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day). The true story of these two men, as well as Mark’s brother David (Mark Ruffalo, The Avengers, The Normal Heart), is a powerhouse tale of manipulation, love, and neglect at the infamous Foxcatcher Farms as du Pont plays the brothers for what they can give him as he furthers himself in the world of professional wrestling in the latest film from director Bennett Miller (Moneyball, Capote).

I’m going to bring up my big beef with this movie right now, because there are so few. I don’t like that we spend so little time in du Pont’s head. Carell’s performance is unbelievably incredible, but we don’t get to delve into the man’s psychosis. I also have some trouble with the runtime, which has some definite places to cut.

That being said, these performances are at a level so incredibly powerful that you forget you are watching a film. I already mentioned Carell, but Channing Tatum and Mark Ruffalo turn in near-perfect work as well, not to mention their amazing chemistry as brothers. Don’t let me forget Sienna Miller (Stardust, Unfinished Business) as Nancy Schultz, David’s wife.

Bennett creates a world in this film, and he has the ability to really get the best work out of his actors. His vision always gives something completely fresh.

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The editing and screenplay could have used a little more development, but Foxcatcher is an intense film that shows a shocking set of events that I didn’t know all that much about. The impact will not wear off soon, that much I can promise.

 

4/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

Whiplash (2014)

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Director: Damien Chazelle

Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser

Screenplay: Damien Chazelle

107 mins. Rated R for strong language including some sexual references.

  • Academy Award Winner: Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (J.K. Simmons)
  • Academy Award Winner: Best Achievement in Film Editing
  • Academy Award Winner: Best Achievement in Sound Mixing
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Motion Picture of the Year
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay

 

Whiplash was a strange entry to the list of Best Picture nominees at this year’s Oscars. It kind of just came out of nowhere. Everyone was talking about this movie that came out at the beginning of the year and just sort of slipped by everyone. All of the sudden, though, people were talking about J.K. Simmons (TV’s The Legend of Korra, Spider-Man) and his riveting performance as a musical maestro with a sharp edge.

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Whiplash tells the story of Andrew Neimann (Miles Teller, The Spectacular Now, The Divergent Series: Insurgent), a fantastic drummer who dreams of entering stardom at any cost. He will do absolutely anything to become one of the greats. This brings him to the attention of Fletcher (Simmons), a bandleader at the prestigious music school Andrew attends. Fletcher has the hottest ensemble on campus and everyone wants to join, but there are costs to working with the best, as Andrew soon discovers. As relationships with his girlfriend and father (played by Paul Reiser, Aliens, Life After Beth) crumble around him, can Andrew hold it all together?

Whiplash is, to put it best, a jarring piece of art. It is difficult to watch and, in equal measures, glorious and destructive. The performances by Teller and Simmons are intense and building and emotionally draining.

The screenplay, by writer-director Damien Chazelle, is an engrossing pile of paper, with themes of stardom and loneliness worked in.

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Whiplash feels like a rock concert that you want to see but don’t necessarily want to be a part of. The stellar work from just about everyone involved is top notch. My only complaint is that it does lull for a bit in the middle, but other than that, this is a movie you need to see. Now. Seriously. Go rent it now.

 

4.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

Boyhood (2014)

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Director: Richard Linklater

Cast: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke

Screenplay: Richard Linklater

165 mins. Rated R for language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use.

  • Academy Award Winner: Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role (Patricia Arquette)
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Motion Picture of the Year
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Ethan Hawke)
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Directing
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Writing, Original Screenplay
  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Achievement in Film Editing

 

In 2002, director Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise, Bernie) began shooting a film, one that would keep him busy for the next twelve years. That film was Boyhood, a tale surrounding the adolescence of Mason (Ellar Coltrane, Fast Food Nation, Lone Star State of Mind), his mother (Patricia Arquette, TV’s Medium, Holes), his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), and his absent father (Ethan Hawke, Gattaca, Predestination). It covers the hurdles that young people encounter in their lives and the many challenged in adjusting to the world. It may appear simple, but this isn’t a simple film by any means. Its assembly, too, was a difficult one, as Linklater gathered his cast and crew together every year for twelve years to film sections of the movie as the actors aged alongside it.

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What a film! Boyhood constantly flips back and forth in my mind for the best film of 2014 (the other possibility being Birdman). I love how the film analyzes those major steps on the way to adulthood. Mason’s journey, aided by powerhouse performances by Arquette and Hawke, is a heartfelt one, one that many others have been on and can completely connect to. Coltrane’s performance improves as the film moves on, but it isn’t anything to mess up the film.

Linklater’s perfectly helmed camera gives us some gorgeous (and somehow unaged) cinematography. His camera elevates the vision to a true art form.

Linklater understood his audience would want to place the film on the timeline. He placed clues to guide the film, like song choices and events like discussions about a seventh Star Wars film.

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Boyhood is a visually stunning, emotionally resonant film that continues to impress and overwhelm each viewing. Linklater’s careful planning (he was to sign over directorial duties to Ethan Hawke if he died during production) led to an incredible film that will be known for its uniqueness as much as for its universality.

 

5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

[#2015oscardeathrace] The Judge (2014)

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Director: David Dobkin

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong, Dax Shepard, Billy Bob Thornton

Screenplay: Nick Schenk, Bill Dubuque

141 mins. Rated R for language including some sexual references.

  • Academy Award Nominee: Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Robert Duvall) [Awards Not Yet Announced]

 

What happens when a judge becomes the suspect in a murder?

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In The Judge, Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr., The Avengers, Chef), a high-powered defense attorney, is going to home to bury his mother who has just passed. Being barely on speaking terms with his father Joseph (Robert Duvall, The Godfather: Part II, Hemingway & Gellhorn), a small-town judge, Hank wants to get in and out and on his way. But when Joseph Palmer is charged with vehicular manslaughter in the death of a man he let off easy years earlier, Hank stays on to help his father as the two rebuild their fractured relationship.

I would like to see Downey take on work that flexes his abilities better than the same character he has played in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and the recent Sherlock Holmes films. That being said, Robert Downey Jr. and Robert Duvall have tremendous chemistry, or anti-chemistry, in their portrayal of father and son on the brink of collapse here. These two save an otherwise faulty film with some major flaws.

First of all, Hank’s rekindling of a friendship with old flame Samantha (Vera Farmiga, TV’s Bates Motel, The Conjuring) comes off as boring, unneeded, and somewhat silly. It could’ve been sliced and brought this film down to a more accessible two hours. The courtroom scenes are far less engaging than they should be, wasting the talented Billy Bob Thornton (Armageddon, Entourage) on what almost seems like an extended cameo at most.

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The score here is great and the two leads have some truly tense and unforgettable scenes, but overall The Judge is too long and too little about actual courtrooms. The entirety of Joseph’s criminal trial is uninteresting and useless at building anything. The Judge could have been better under a more capable set of hands (director David Dobkin is known for his goofy comedies like Wedding Crashers and The Change-Up and less so for anything serious).

 

2.5/5

-Kyle A. Goethe

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