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On the Radar… (November Edition)

Happy November, everyone! Like the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, we’re about to get stuffed with a full smorgasbord, a seven-course meal with plenty of leftovers, if you will, of Marvel movies, wide releases, streaming releases, major Oscar contenders for pretty much all categories (including the arguable Best Picture frontrunner and inarguable Best Lead Actress and Best Lead Actor contenders-to-beat right now), green bean casserole, and House of Gucci. This is when the season ramps up, and when audiences finally get a chance to weigh in on the hype that’s been generated since the start of the film festival season.

So without further adieu, here is what we get to look forward to in the next thirty days. We’ve got a lot to cover…

ETERNALS – In Theaters November 5

Disney

Directed by Chloé Zhao

Starring Gemma Chan, with Richard Madden and Kumail Nanjiani

What is it about? The saga of the Eternals, a race of immortal beings who lived on Earth and shaped its history and civilizations.

How am I feelin’ about this one? Oh no, you guys! We’re at our first movie being previewed and it’s already DEFCON 1! Red alert, everyone, this is serious! The next feature installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is coming out soon and… critics aren’t near-unanimously positive about it! The last time they were so divided on a comic book movie, it only ended up grossing over a billion dollars at the box office and nominated for eleven Academy Awards! This is a disaster for Disney! Kevin Feige will be out on the streets soon! Run for your lives! Panic! 

So, sarcasm aside, it appears that Eternals, adapted from characters and stories created by Jack Kirby when he returned to Marvel but wasn’t quite ready to move on from The New Gods (oh yeah, remember when that was going to be a thing?) he created at D.C., is not being received with the same very nearly uniform “Yeah it was pretty good but huh that’s weird I’ve already forgotten everything about it” positive feedback from critics. Our own Joey Magidson wasn’t too hot on it, either; admiring its willingness to deviate from the MCU formula while acknowledging that such ambition didn’t result in something that narratively cohered. This is apparently something that is a threat to the viability of the most durable brand name of any movie franchise in the 21st century.

So here are my two cents, as someone who has liked some individual Marvel films while intensely disliking the overall shared cinematic universe and the almost-universally-negative impact it has had on the entertainment industry as a whole: Eternals is the first MCU feature since Black Panther that looks genuinely interesting to me and that I’m going to proactively seek out, in part because of the divided reception it’s been greeted with. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is like the McDonald’s of the film industry: an astonishing demonstration of business acumen, corporate willpower, and complex logistics… serving meals with a low ceiling for quality and creativity. Because they have to. You can’t be expected to produce and serve billions of Big Macs a day across virtually every country on the planet for dirt-cheap prices with a guaranteed consistency of taste and have them turn out like Bobby Flay’s award-winning gourmet burgers. And despite the bizarrely rabid insistence from its fans that these are, in fact, memorable works of art, the vast majority of MCU movies have been… Big Macs. Fine, pretty tasty, not especially healthy, and rarely a memorable culinary achievement. Which is fine… as long as McDonald’s doesn’t colonize every inch of the restaurant business and I’m not reduced to eating only burgers that try to copy the Big Mac in the near future.

So with this IP that is culturally and financially bulletproof, Feige decided to entrust Chloé Zhao with a little more creative freedom than is usually afforded to MCU directors (gosh, I wonder what happened earlier this year that may have prompted such goodwill?) with a more obscure property tackling heady concepts. In other words, he let Zhao attempt to make a McLobster, and we were expecting reception to be… what? All in muted agreement that it was “pretty fun, I guess?” Keep in mind this was not ambition that the press projected onto the film; Disney and Marvel both leaned heavily into pitching this as a more “prestigious” and “artful” production than what they’ve put out before. So yeah, I’m not surprised that there have been some baffled reactions from fans expecting another cinematic Big Mac and disappointed reviews from critics who, understandably, did not go in intending to grade it on the same curve.

If you want the Marvel Cinematic Universe to take more risks, you can’t panic when not all of those risks pay off. That’s why they’re considered risks.

SPENCER – In Theaters November 5

NEON

Directed by Pablo Larraín

Starring Kristen Stewart, with Timothy Spall and Sally Hawkins

What is it about? During her Christmas holidays with the royal family at the Sandringham Estate, Princess Diana decides to leave her marriage to Prince Charles.

How am I feelin’ about this one? We’ll get to the Oscar talk in a second, I promise, but I have to start off our preview of Spencer by asking… why are we getting so many retrospectives on the late Diana, Princess of Wales recently? Not to denigrate an admittedly compelling celebrity and true philanthropist (a rare thing these days) whose death at such a young age was tragic, but in the last five years alone we have seen the release of two full-length BBC documentaries, a documentary in the “True Royalty” series, a deranged documentary peddling conspiracies about her death, a documentary about her fraught relationship with her stepmother Raine Spencer, depictions of her by actress Emma Corrin on the hit show The Crown(and Elizabeth Debicki in the next season!), countless podcasts devoting several episodes if not their entire series to her life, and now this. This apparently following through on an informal series of “Sad Iconic Women of History” films Chilean director Pablo Larraín has unexpectedly found himself making.

I don’t mean to be snide or petty with that remark, by the way – if the Academy’s obsession with rewarding biopics will continue unabated for the foreseeable future, I’d much rather see an increase of movies about conflicted historical women dealing with stuff than the current avalanche of cradle-to-the-grave hagiographies centering actors and musicians still obsessed over by Baby Boomers. It’s just… strange, in the same way our culture’s continuing obsession with Marylin Monroe is strange to me. There can only be so many ways a movie or show can examine the dissonance between a larger-than-life woman’s public and private identities, and the resulting emotional turmoil they quietly suffered through their sadly short lives, right?

She’s an especially odd figure to obsess over since, outside of the humanitarian work she championed in the later years of her life, Diana shouldn’t hold much import to anyone outside of the United Kingdom. Pretty much every member of the British Monarchy should be meaningless to us. Heck, they should be meaningless to their own country. All of them are, as Patrick Freyne so brilliantly described earlier this year, “cosplaying as their ancestors, and are the subject of constant psychosocial projection from people mourning the loss of [their] empire.” By cutting themselves free of that gilded cage and pursuing Netflix deals, Harry and Meghan, the Artists Formerly Known as the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are already on track to being two of the most genuinely productive royals in decades.

Maybe that’s why we find Diana so endlessly fascinating, twenty-four years after her passing. She was… maybe not the first, but certainly the most prominent individual who revealed that all of this royal pageantry is ridiculous and suffocating and archaic and just a big waste of time and money to maintain and everyone involved is miserable keeping up the illusion. She was also a hot mess express in her personal life, and who doesn’t love a hot mess express? If for no other reason than a reassurance that even princesses have debilitating body image issues and a knack for getting into toxic relationships. Larraín’s semi-fictionalized exploration about a possible key moment in her failing marriage is apparently a home run, with the overwhelming majority of reviews, including from Joey himself, singling out Kristen Stewart’s portrayal of the Princess of Wales as prodigious in every sense and deserving of the Academy Award for Best Lead Actress. And unless some ladies mentioned a little later in this preview really blow audiences away, she may very well win that in a few months. I for one have been onboard the KStew Train ever since she captivated me with her intricate work in Clouds of Sils Maria, so seeing her become a likely Academy Award winner in a few months has been pretty vindicating. I’m excited to see this for myself soon.

PASSING – On Netflix November 10

Netflix

Directed by Rebecca Hall

Starring Tessa Thompson, with Ruth Negga and André Holland

What is it about? An unexpected reunion of two high school friends ignites a mutual obsession that threatens both of their carefully constructed realities.

How am I feelin’ about this one? I’m cheating a little bit, since Passing technically started a limited theatrical release last week, but I forgot to include it in October’s preview article and we have to talk about this. Not only because Ruth Negga has emerged as a serious threat to win Best Supporting Actress, but the movie itself has been the subject of intense debate surrounding not only its subject matter but also the apparently unusual way actress Rebecca Hall, making her directorial debut, decided to adapt Nella Larsen’s 1929 novel about the tension-filled relationship between two women when one of them lives her life “passing” as a white woman.

Joey himself was conflicted in his feelings for the movie, having nothing but effusive praise for the performances of Thompson and Negga but finding himself struggling to gel with Rebecca Hall’s elliptical narrative and presentation choices. He’s not alone, but he’s also not unopposed in this assessment, either. Plenty of other reviews have declared Hall’s approach uniquely thoughtful, declaring it one of the best films of the year.

In a weird way, this might help its awards prospects. The age of social media has rewarded films that have inspired divided reactions and conflicting assessments in recent years; just look at Joker and Vice for two recent examples of Best Picture nominees that hardly built a consensus on their quality in either direction, but had enough of a contingent of passionate fans to put them over the line when it came time to vote. It didn’t hurt that those two movies showcased performances attracting “well, even I have to admit” praise from even their biggest detractors, and would you look at that, Negga and co-star Tessa Thompson have been enjoying the same treatment.

Thompson may have trouble breaking into a pretty competitive Best Lead Actress field in a few months, but Negga has been pegged by pretty much everyone who has seen the film as a likely frontrunner for Best Supporting Actress. More interestingly, virtually everyone (including critics who aren’t suckers for dishonest FYC campaigns) saying this are also insisting that it wouldn’t be category fraud if she made it in… or at least, it’s a debatable borderline situation. Which, if true, only lends to the unorthodox narrative Hall went with for Passing in my opinion.

Either way, I have a feeling this will emerge as one of the 2021 movies everyone will be expected to have watched and formed an opinion on, positive or negative.

BELFAST – In Theaters November 12

Focus Features

Directed by Kenneth Branagh

Starring Jude Hill, with Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan

What is it about? A young boy and his working-class family experience the tumultuous late 1960’s.

How am I feelin’ about this one? Shifting to a movie more universally beloved by critics and festivalgoers, Kenneth Branagh’s semi-autobiographical black-and-white coming-of-age story about a young boy growing up during The Troubles in, well, Belfast, has been the darling of the festival circuit, winning a rave from our own Joey in the process. It was the most popular screening of the Telluride Film Festival and even more importantly, it won the coveted People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival. For those of you who don’t know why that’s a big deal for a movie vying for Oscars, the TIFF People’s Choice Award is to the Oscar race like South Carolina is to the Democratic Party presidential primaries – it doesn’t guarantee getting elected to the top spot, but it’s about as close to a guarantee as one can hope for when trying to read the tea leaves. In the last decade, all but one winner of this award went on to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Four of them (Nomadland, Green Book, 12 Years a Slave, and The King’s Speech) went on to win it.

Will Belfast follow a similar trajectory? Nomination-wise, almost without question yes. Branagh has apparently been a delight at every screening and interview this year, and no one is going to be unhappy rewarding a respected actor and filmmaker who has been working in the industry for over thirty years. In terms of winning? That’s a little less certain, since any movie that gets placed up so far ahead on the racetrack makes itself a target for the dreaded BaCkLaSh. One criticism that has already been lobbed its way, both in reviews and the Q&A’s, is that this is just a more audience-friendly rip-off of Roma, a black-and-white semi-autobiographical drama from Alfonso Cuarón that was also nominated for and won several Oscars.

As someone who has not seen Belfast yet, I have to say this dig at the movie seems unfair, and not just because I don’t think “rip-off” is a dirty word. Established filmmakers leveraging their clout to produce cinematic roman à clefs of their childhoods was not invented out of whole cloth by Cuarón three years ago, and even if watching Roma did inspire Branagh to set out making his own version it, that is an unambiguously positive development in my eyes. Looking back on the joyous fleeting snapshots of our formative years with the hindsight of adulthood and a greater awareness of the harsh realities of a bygone era is a universal human experience, one that another filmmaker is setting out to do in a movie I’ll be covering a little later in this piece and that Steven Spielberg himself is going to tackle next. Can we please not be CinemaSins pedants and discourage that instinct?

One other thing to ponder is the possible acting plaudits, and there are apparently going to be quite a few in contention in just this one project. Focus Features has made the decision to present the movie as having one lead and one lead only: young Jude Hill playing the Branagh analog Buddy. Parents Caitríona Balfe and Jamie Dornan, and grandparents Ciarán Hinds and Judi Dench, will all be campaigned as supporting performers. I’ll have to see for myself if all or even most of those placements are justified, but this will present some interesting decision points for precursors and critics groups possibly aiming to lobby for a particular “supporting” performer over another. I’d personally be surprised if Hill gets in the field, mainly because of how hard it is for such young male actors in lead roles to be recognized by the Academy at all. The last time someone close to his age was nominated for Best Lead Actor was Jackie Cooperninety years ago.

PRAYERS FOR THE STOLEN – In Theaters November 12, On Netflix November 17

Netflix

Directed by Tatiana Huezo

Starring Ana Cristina Ordóñez González, with Marya Membreño and Mayra Batalla

What is it about? Life in a rural village dominated by drug smuggling and human trafficking is seen through the eyes of three young girls on the path to adolescence.

How am I feelin’ about this one? Hey there, did you know there are movies produced outside of the United States and United Kingdom? I mean, of course you do, you remember Parasite. But also! That Academy Award for Best International Feature Film is still a thing, and we’re starting to see the official submissions from various host countries. Spain, predictably, gave the middle finger to Pedro Almodóvar in favor of Fernando León de Aranoa’s The Good Boss. Iran, very predictably, will be sending A Hero for consideration. France, unpredictably, selected the Palme d’Or-winning body horror thriller Titane over the Golden Lion-winning abortion drama Happening. Iceland is submitting unexpected arthouse sleeper hit Lamb. Other high-profile submissions include Austria’s Great Freedom, Slovakia’s 107 Mothers, Norway’s The Worst Person in the World, Denmark’s Flee, and Portugal’s The Metamorphosis of Birds.

Mexico will be sending Prayers for the Stolen, a reportedly brutal bildungsroman that received a Special Mention in the Un Certain Regard competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Early reviews have been very strong, though most critics warn that it is a tough watch, which may make it a difficult sell to a voting body that recently reorganized its selection process in a way that will likely make it harder for darker or more overtly upsetting movies like this one to make the final shortlist.

Mexico itself hasn’t had the best track record with their submissions, with only Macario, The Important Man, Tlayucan, Letters from Marusia, Amores Perros, The Crime of Father Amaro, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Biutiful making the final five nominees, and a grand total of just one winner in their country’s history of competing there: Roma. So Prayers for the Stolen will have an uphill climb unless critics and its U.S. distributor rally behind it in a big way. Buena suerte.

tick, tick… BOOM! – In Theaters November 12, On Netflix November 19

Netflix

Directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Starring Andrew Garfield, with Vanessa Hudgens and Bradley Whitford

What is it about? Aspiring theatre composer Jonathan Larson endures a quarter-life crisis as he approaches 30 and does not feel close to his dream.

How am I feelin’ about this one? I’m… I’m sorry, is that the actual premise of this movie? The story of Jonathan Larson’s “quarter-life crisis?” He doesn’t feel “close to his dream” as he approaches 30?

Give me a goddamned break, dude. Seriously.

THE POWER OF THE DOG – In Theaters November 17, On Netflix December 1

Netflix

Directed by Jane Campion

Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, with Kirsten Dunst and Jesse Plemons

What is it about? When a ruthless rancher’s brother brings home a new wife and her son, he torments them until he finds himself exposed to the possibility of love.

How am I feelin’ about this one? I try to be more of an analyst and less of a fanboy for these preview articles. I strive to give an objective assessment of how a movie may or may not be a contender for Academy Awards, offer an interesting behind-the-scenes scoop on its production and/or marketing, and maybe ruminate on the broader cultural implications that its release possibly reflects. Whenever possible, I avoid expressing outright giddiness about how excited I am for an impending release.

But reader, I am only human, and sometimes I just have to let my professional guard down. I will be doing it twice in this preview article; please forgive me. Because hot damn, Jane Campion is back! She is back with her first feature directorial effort in twelve-friggin’-years! And The Power of the Dog has been getting rave reviews, with critics hailing her newest film as boasting a smart screenplay, outstanding performances across-the-board, and Campion’s trademark piercing directorial approach driving an emotional stake through their hearts; including Joey, who was similarly bowled over by its intensity.

The reception has been so good, in fact, that Jane Campion has a very real chance at becoming the first woman, ever, to be nominated for the Best Director Academy Award a second time. Did you know that? Of the seven women who have been nominated for Best Director – Lina Wertmüller, Sofia Coppola, Kathryn Bigelow (who won), Greta Gerwig, Emerald Fennell (the first to be nominated for her directorial debut), Chloé Zhao (who also won), and of course Campion herself – not a single one of them was ever nominated for this award again. That could change in just three months, and while it’s a shame it’s taken so long for that barrier to be broken, I can’t think of a woman better suited to accomplish this feat. The Piano is one of the unimpeachable stone-cold masterpieces of the 1990’s, and Campion has been able to stake out a name for herself in a male-dominated industry by steadfastly marrying her sensibilities to women’s stories and the emotional storms of femininity for decades.

Until now. According to her, the changes spurred on by the “Me Too” movement motivated her to finally turn her one-of-a-kind lens to examine masculinity, embodied by English actor Benedict Cumberbatch in a performance that reportedly would have been a top contender for the Best Lead Actor Oscar, but for… well, we’ll get to that in a minute. For now, I feel confident in predicting that his name will definitely be one of the five announced on February 8th, 2022. Two other names we will likely hear on nomination morning are Kodi Smit-McPhee for Best Supporting Actor and Kirsten Dunst for Best Supporting Actress, which would be a lovely career highlight for two former child actors who both thankfully avoided the pitfalls of breaking into the movie business at such a young age. Dunst, in particular, has been overdue for Academy recognition for a long time, and being on track to finally getting a nomination and maybe even a win will justifiably carry a “FINALLY!” reaction from her perpetually frustrated fans.

KING RICHARD – In Theaters and HBO Max November 19

Warner Bros.

Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green

Starring Will Smith, with Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton

What is it about? A look at how tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams became who they are after the coaching from their father Richard Williams.

How am I feelin’ about this one? If you’re wondering who will most likely deny Cumberbatch his Oscar next year, here you go. Will Smith, one of the last pure Movie Stars™ of a Hollywood that has shifted to brand names and franchises as the selling point for their blockbusters, is getting the kind of role seemingly tailor-made to win his first competitive Academy Award from a grateful industry. Some of this automatic frontrunner status is undeniably a “career honor” for a distinguished entertainment industry icon. I would almost go so far as to say Smith winning an Academy Award was inevitable; if not for this, then it would be for something else. He is the only actor to star in eight – count ‘em, eight – consecutive movies that grossed over $100 million at the domestic box office and eight consecutive movies opening at #1. His movies have made $7.5 billion worldwide. Only four movies featuring him in a starring role didn’t go on to be a hit.

So yeah, like Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne before him, you don’t get to become a pop culture icon and bankable leading man at the level the former Fresh Prince of Bel Air has achieved without getting Hollywood’s most prestigious honor eventually. But luckily, it looks like this likely steamroll to Oscar glory this season is not purely a thank you note for his career successes. Critics seem to be in agreement that his performance in King Richard as the obsessively devoted father of G.O.A.T. tennis champs Venus and Serena Williams is heartfelt and authentically affecting. Joey was so impressed with Smith’s characterization that it helped him get through what he felt was an occasionally paint-by-numbers inspirational sports drama.

So yeah, he’s the frontrunner. No question. But will the movie be recognized anywhere else? Or will it be like Judy and The Last King of Scotland and just catapult its leading performance to an Oscar and literally nothing else? This is a more difficult question to answer because it varies depending on who you talk to. Joey didn’t feel the movie quite matched the highs of Smith’s commanding performance, but others claim that the movie around him is also quite good. Some critics say Aunjanue Ellis is the underrated M.V.P. of the movie, while others complain she doesn’t get enough to do. Personally, I think Zach Baylin has a decent shot at a Best Original Screenplay nod, but the rest of its chances will depend on how much of Smith’s box office magic can boost this movie’s financial performance outside of the awards season bubble.

C’MON C’MON – In Theaters November 19

A24

Directed by Mike Mills

Starring Joaquin Phoenix, with Woody Norman and Gaby Hoffmann

What is it about? A radio journalist embarks on a cross-country trip with his young nephew.

How am I feelin’ about this one? Here’s the second one. Here’s the other movie I will not be able to hide my fanboyish excitement for. I can’t actually imagine a movie written and directed by Mike Mills that I wouldn’t be hugely anticipating with barely-contained enthusiasm. This is the man responsible for my favorite film of 2016 and one of my favorite movies of the entire previous decade. 20th Century Women is as profound and insightful a cinematic exploration of family, community, men, women, relationships, and a specific era matched by very few movies produced in my lifetime. It is a vivacious celebration of human beings in all their complexities and contradictions, articulated by an across-the-board stellar acting ensemble headed up by, in my eyes, the definitive Annette Bening performance.

So after that deeply touching masterpiece, he could announce he was writing and directing another Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot as his follow-up and I would still be chomping at the bit to see it. Luckily, he has opted for another small-scale intimate character drama called C’mon C’mon, this time focusing on a mild-mannered radio journalist, played by Joaquin Phoenix in his first feature film role after winning an Oscar for Living In A Society. This looks like a complete 180° from that intense performance, gaining back some of the weight he lost for Joker and performing in a more receptive, delicate register, at least if the trailer is any indication. He joins Gaby Hoffmann as his semi-estranged sister and Woody Norman as his nephew.

Joey, for his part, loved the movie and reassured Mills fans like me that the man has lost none of the humanistic signatures that made Beginners and 20th Century Women so wonderful. He was unsure of the movie’s odds of being an Oscar contender, but also came to the conclusion that it didn’t really matter in the face of something so personally affecting. Then again, that was my reaction after seeing 20th Century Women and it ended up with a well-deserved Best Original Screenplay nod. So it looks like Joey and I may not be as alone as we think we are in our affection for this empathic filmmaker.

ENCANTO – In Theaters November 24

Disney

Directed by Byron Howard and Jared Bush

Starring the voices of Stephanie Beatriz, with John Leguizamo and María Cecilia Botero

What is it about? A young Colombian girl has to face the frustration of being the only member of her family without magical powers.

How am I feelin’ about this one? Is it just me, or is the Best Animated Feature Film race shaping up to be kind of… weird, this season? For the first time since arguably 2016, I don’t think any release has secured itself as a probable frontrunner at all. I’m having a hard time accepting the fact that Extinct, Cryptozoo, Wish Dragon, and Spirit Untamed even exist, even though I sort of have to acknowledge on a molecular level that they do. America: The Motion Picture was reviled by critics and Trollhunters: Rise of the Titans was reviled by fans. Vivo seems to have received mostly “yeah, that was okay, I guess” reviews. Did you know they made a sequel to The Boss Baby? And it was released last summer? They also released a sequel to that animated Addams Family movie which is weird because I distinctly remember everyone hating the first one since, really, how can you not hate a movie where Oscar Isaac…’s voice plays Gomez Addams? That would be like casting Anya Taylor-Joy’s voice as Princess Peach for an animated Super Mario movie. God, can you imagine?

The only animated releases that have gained any sort of critical momentum at all have been The Mitchells vs. the Machines and Luca, but neither of them seem like they’ve attained the kind of passionate reception that usually greets eventual winners. In my eyes, there are only two more animated releases that are likely contenders for this prize. One of which is shaping up to be a major Cinderella little-movie-that-could that’s actually competing in multiple categories… we’ll talk more about that one next month. For now, I want to turn our attention to the other remaining likely contender: Encanto, from Walt Disney Animation Studios. 

It looks colorful. It looks high energy. It could be very good. I’m getting a little weary of yet another movie about characters with superpowers, but whatever, that’s more of a “me” problem and I have made my peace with that. It also has quite a few original songs written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, and there is no doubt in my mind that the Academy is desperate to give him an Oscar for something, and I’m sorry, I know it has dedicated fans, but In the Heights is probably not going anywhere, Oscar-wise. Walt Disney Animation Studios hasn’t had a winner here since their mega-hit song “Let It Go” from Frozen, and if one number from Encanto becomes even half as popular, I have a feeling they’ll push it hard.

HOUSE OF GUCCI – In Theaters November 24

MGM

Directed by Ridley Scott

Starring Lady Gaga, with Adam Driver and Jared Leto

What is it about? Spanning three decades of love, betrayal, decadence, revenge, and ultimately murder, we see what a name means, what it’s worth, and how far a family will go for control.

How am I feelin’ about this one? Now we arrive at a movie that looks a) awesome, and b) weirdly hyped-up as an Oscar contender despite not coming off in any way as something that would appeal to any awards branch at all. I want to be clear on this: I’m stoked for House of Gucci. It looks like extremely My Shit. But what possessed so many people to declare it a legitimate threat for Academy Awards? The new trailer for it screams “Camp Classic,” not “Best Picture” to me.

“But Robert, it’s directed by the legendary Ridley Scott!” Oh, you mean the director of The Counselor, Exodus: Gods and Kings, and Alien: Covenant? Whose last movie was far more in line with AMPAS’s sensibilities and bombed horribly at the box office? “But Robert, it has Academy Award-winning actors Al Pacino and Jared Leto in heavy makeup playing real people!” First of all, stop reminding me Leto has an Academy Award. But more importantly, watch that trailer again. Listen to those accents. Those aren’t Joe Pesci in The Irishman-level supporting performances, those are Robert Pattinson in The King-level supporting performances. And I loved Pattinson in The King! But he very much played a cartoon character in that movie, and so are Pacino and Leto in House of Gucci. Are we really believing, hand-on-heart, that they are actually doing anything beyond chewing on juicy slices of ham, and that they’re going to be real threats to the men of Belfast and Mass?

“Ah, but Lady Gaga could still make it in Best Lead Actress!” I’ll give you that. She’s a previous acting nominee and the Academy has gone, erm, gaga over ridiculously scene-chewing campy performances from leading ladies before. She looks deliciously absurd here. I mean, look at that picture of her up there. She is in her element and I am so here for it.

House of Gucci looks awesome, but in the same way that Malignant was awesome. I want it to be a big hit and the most crowd-pleasing movie Sir Scott has directed in years. But I’m going to play the skeptic for anyone pegging it as some critical darling awards contender.

BRUISED – On Netflix November 24

Netflix

Directed by Halle Berry

Starring Halle Berry, with Shamier Anderson and Stephen McKinley Henderson

What is it about? A disgraced MMA fighter finds redemption in the cage and the courage to face her demons when the son she had given up as an infant unexpectedly reenters her life.

How am I feelin’ about this one? I cannot find the interview, so I apologize for failing to cite my source here, but I know for a fact that Halle Berry once publicly expressed a great deal of disappointment recently that she is still, to this day, the only black woman to have won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role, twenty years after her historic achievement. Twenty years! I wasn’t even in high school yet when I saw her giving her tearful acceptance speech. She said she sometimes gets really excited for a possible contender, thinking this will be the second one, finally… and then it doesn’t work out.

I sympathize, and I cannot help but suspect a lot (not all, but a decent chunk) of Academy members who decided to finally award Meryl Streep her “overdue” third Oscar by passing over Viola Davis in 2012, or when they were more comfortable nominating Renée Zellweger’s celebrity mimicry in a movie no one remembers now over the far more memorable dual performance from Lupita Nyong’o in a movie people actually saw in 2019, have adopted a similar mindset that Obama-to-Trump voters did in 2016: “Hey, I voted for Halle Berry, so I’m officially Not Racist, anymore! Why are these uppity blacks still complaining?!”

To add insult to injury, it seems like the highest honor in the American film industry hasn’t been much of a boon to her career. Her Storm was a minor supporting character in all of the X-Men films she was in, Die Another Day failed to launch that spinoff Agent Jinx franchise Eon was apparently expecting, Catwoman was a huge bomb (although I guess it now has a dedicated cult following???), Perfect Stranger and Gothika are two of the absolute worst movies of the Aughts, Movie 43 is one of the absolute worst movies of the 2010’s, and her attempts to remind people of her considerable acting chops in Things We Lost In The Fire, Frankie & Alice, Cloud Atlas, and Kings… didn’t seem to catch on with general audiences.

So it makes sense that she would get fed up and take her career into her own hands now that she is in her mid-50’s (yes, really) and make her directorial debut in the gritty MMA drama Bruised, about a deadbeat mom who wants to make a comeback in an unsanctioned one-on-one match. Obviously not the most original premise ever, and the trailer doesn’t promise anything groundbreaking, but there’s something undeniably sincere about it, right? Clearly, this is a movie that was made by Berry as nothing other than a story she needed to tell and a role that would allow her to display her considerable talents in a way the film industry hasn’t in many years. I imagine she doesn’t give a damn if this movie gets Oscar attention, but if she really knocks it out of the park in her performance, Oscar attention may come to her anyway, both as a lead actress and a filmmaker.

LICORICE PIZZA – In Theaters November 26, Expanding Wide December 25

MGM

Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring Alana Haim, with Cooper Hoffman and Bradley Cooper

What is it about? The story of Alana Kane and Gary Valentine growing up, running around and going through the treacherous navigation of first love in the San Fernando Valley, 1973.

How am I feelin’ about this one? Ah, Paul Thomas Anderson. Always an Event™ when he releases a movie. Interestingly, he became more of a threat for Oscar nominations when he shifted from the exuberant ensemble movies of his early career and into the more inscrutable character studies that There Will Be Blood kicked off. It seems like the tremendous weight of directing Daniel Day-Lewis’ final film performance has prompted him to at least semi-return to that early interest in sprawling lively multi-character dramas in the vein of Boogie Nights and Magnolia.

This time there’s a more personal touch: much like Kenneth Branagh’s Belfast, Licorice Pizza (yes, that’s the official title) is a kind of semi-memoir of the director’s formative years. The stand-in for him is being played by Cooper Hoffman in his feature film debut. As in, son of the late Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. I’ve spoken before about my grudging acceptance of the omnipresence of nepotism in the entertainment industry. I’m sure Hoffman’s connection to a sadly-departed actor that Anderson repeatedly worked with helped to secure him a leading role in this movie, and I don’t think that makes him any less of an actor or any less deserving of an opportunity to show off his abilities to audiences for the first time. All successful people use connections and advantages available to them to get ahead and that’s the fault of the system establishing wealth and connections as such a considerable barrier to success, not his.

Hoffman will be portraying teenage actor Gary navigating his romantic relationship with Alana, played by Alana Haim. As in, member of the all-sisters pop rock group HAIM. This is also likely the result of a personal connection to Anderson since he has been a longtime fan of the band, directing several of their music videos and even putting together a documentary about the production of their second studio album. She is making her acting debut here as well, and – in an observation that I’m sure will make me a sworn enemy of poor Ben Platt – surprisingly looks pretty convincingly a decade younger than her actual age of 29 years-old. As I said before, genetics is a strange phenomenon.

Then there are the adults around them, played by more established veterans Ben Stiller, John C. Reilly, Maya Rudolph, Sean Penn, and most conspicuously, Bradley Cooper as infamous film producer Jon Peters. For those of you who have not seen An Evening with Kevin Smith or The Death of Superman Lives, Mr. Peters is a bit of a… “character.” He’s semi-retired now for reasons I’ll get into later, but he started out in Hollywood as Barbra Streisand’s hairdresser and leveraged that to become a producer responsible for the 1976 remake of A Star Is Born, Eyes of Laura Mars, The Witches of Eastwick, and Tim Burton’s Batman. He also bought the rights to Superman sometime in the 90’s and attempted to get a reboot of the property off the ground with screenwriter Kevin Smith in a film called Superman Lives. In this proposed movie, Superman didn’t fly, didn’t wear his iconic outfit, and had to fight a giant spider in the climax. The main villain, Brainiac, also was supposed to have a dog similar to Chewbacca and a stereotypically gay robot sidekick with the voice of Dwight Ewell from Chasing Amy. The project never got past pre-production and he eventually settled for shoving a giant spider into Wild Wild West, which was such an embarrassment for everyone involved that he was reduced to being a producer-in-name-only on the interminably boring Superman Returns, and a few years later had to pay a major settlement to a former assistant he repeatedly sexually harassed during the production of that movie (oh Jesus, I just realized… can you imagine working on a film set with that man, plus Bryan Singer, plus Kevin Spacey all together?), which effectively ended his career. He was credited as a producer on Man of Steel and the 2018 remake of A Star Is Born because he still held the rights to both properties, but was not involved in either production in any meaningful way.

So… yeah, that’s a pretty wild personality to depict in a movie, especially when he was in his “Do You Know Who I Am?!” hubris phase of his early career. Just from the trailer, you can tell Cooper is not passing up the opportunity to lean really hard into the more flamboyant aspects of this man. Whether that results in a Best Supporting Actor nod depends largely on how competitive this category will shape up to be. Belfast and Mass alone account for four competitors who will be heavily campaigned, and then there’s Ben Affleck in The Tender Bar, Kodi Smit-McPhee in The Power of the Dog, Colman Domingo in Zola, Troy Kotsur in CODA, Corey Hawkins in The Tragedy of Macbeth, and a number of possibilities from Don’t Look Up and Being the Ricardos. It all really depends on how the movie is received.

And that is where Licorice Pizza stumps me, personally. I have absolutely no idea if this is going to be a contender for several Academy Awards, or for nothing at all but the adulation of a small but dedicated cult following. It’s the wild card of the season. His films have gone in both directions over the last twenty years, and this looks evocative of neither the ambitious sprawl of Magnolia nor the pedigree of Phantom Thread. This looks like it was made for… well, Paul Thomas Anderson. Either way, finally getting to see this bildungsroman will be something special and worthy of grappling with.

So how are you grappling with this month’s upcoming releases? What are you most looking forward to see? Let us know in the comments!

Associate Writer at

Formerly an associate writer for recently-retired Award Circuit, Robert Hamer is a U.S. Navy veteran and current Washington, D.C. bean-counter who spends his time obsessing over movies and pop politics.

He is returning to film and awards season commentary to return to a sense of normalcy in these plague-ridden times of rising fascism and late-stage capitalist dystopia. Join him, won't you, in these unorthodox attempts at cinematic therapy?

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Written by Robert Hamer

Formerly an associate writer for recently-retired Award Circuit, Robert Hamer is a U.S. Navy veteran and current Washington, D.C. bean-counter who spends his time obsessing over movies and pop politics.

He is returning to film and awards season commentary to return to a sense of normalcy in these plague-ridden times of rising fascism and late-stage capitalist dystopia. Join him, won't you, in these unorthodox attempts at cinematic therapy?

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