Kung Fu Panda 4 (PG )

Jack Black returns as the voice of Po, the panda who is here to kick butt and eat dumplings, in Kung Fu Panda 4, a competent and enjoyable entry in this series.

Dragon Warrior Po was given the staff of wisdom in the third movie and his instructor Shifu (voice of Dustin Hoffman) thinks this means it’s time for Po to start thinking about a promotion to spiritual leader of the Valley of Peace, meaning he’d have to pick a new Dragon Warrior. But Po loves being the Dragon Warrior; it sounds cool and it helps his dads — panda dad Li (voice of Brian Cranston) and goose dad Ping (voice of James Han), who have become friends are are now in business together — drum up a crowd for the opening of their new noodle stand. But Shifu urges him to do more with his powers.

With the Furious Five — animals voiced by actors who are not in this movie — out fighting other battles, Po is left to investigate alone when he hears that Tai Lung (voice of Ian McShane), villain from the first movie, has somehow returned from the spirit world. Maybe it’s not actually Tai Lung, suggests Zhen (voice of Awkwafina), a fox and a thief doing time at the Valley of Peace correctional facility after Po catches her trying to steal stuff from the kung fu headquarters Jade Palace. She tells Po a villain known as The Chameleon (voice of Viola Davis) has the ability to appear as anyone and is looking to spread her influence from her current power-center of Juniper City. Zhen convinces Po to let her come on his one-last-Dragon-Warrior quest to find The Chameleon, who is a powerful sorceress and seems to be messing with the spirit world in an attempt to gain kung fu skills. Country panda Po finds the big city bewildering and he’s a little too trusting for the gang of petty thieves Zhen considers her family. Meanwhile, his nervous dads take off after him, creating fun buddy road trip antics.

My kids were on board with this movie as soon as they saw the cutesy baby bunnies who hunger for violence in the trailer. The movie basically sticks to this tone of animal cuteness and solidly PG action (maybe occasionally scary for the littlest movie goers) and butt-kicking (skadoosh) mixed with overall silliness. Occasional moments of earnestness are never allowed to get too sweetsy and villainous evil is often cut with humor or a sense that someone with a legitimate beef has made, as they say at school, a wrong choice. B

Rated PG for martial arts action/mild violence, scary images and some mild rude humor, according to the MPA on filmratings.com. Directed by Mike Mitchell and Stephanie Ma Stine with a screenplay by Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Berger and Darren Lemke (with additional screenplay material by David Lindsay-Abaire and Lillian Yu), Kung Fu Panda 4 is an hour and 34 minutes long and is distributed by Universal Studios. Want to make sure the Kung Fu Panda universe is your kid’s thing before you shell out for theater tickets? According to JustWatch.com, find original Kung Fu Panda streaming on Peacock and Freevee, Kung Fu Panda 2 streaming on Peacock Premium, Kung Fu Panda 3 streaming on Netflix and all of those films available for rent or purchase. There is also an assortment of series and specials available on different streaming services (and a few specials not apparently available anywhere) but the most recent, Kung Fu Panda: The Dragon Knight, has three seasons available on Netflix, JustWatch.com said.

Featured photo: Kung Fu Panda 4.

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A preview of the Oscars

If I ran the Oscar ceremony — which will this year air on Sunday, March 10, at 7 p.m. on ABC — my goals for the annual event would be: (1) to convince people to watch movies, (2) to convince people to watch these, the nominated movies, and (3) to give the presenters and winners enough space to say funny or touching but mostly funny things.

To the last point, see Steven Yeun winning a Golden Globe this year (where he realizes his life mirrors the plot of Frozen) or Adam Sandler winning anything — this year’s People’s Icon, 2020’s Indie Spirit award. That’s what you want at an award ceremony. Maybe just give Adam Sandler some kind of award every year — at least you’d have all of New Hampshire tuning in.

To the movie-watching goals: The Oscars stand as the answer to everyone who complains nothing but superhero movies gets released anymore. Here are a bunch of movies, only two of which are Marvel-related — Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (nominated for visual effects; available for rent or purchase and on Disney+) and Spider-Man: Across the Universe(nominated for Animated Feature Film; available for rent or purchase and on Netflix) — that were in theaters (or will be, in a few cases) and are now largely available for your viewing pleasure in your house.

My case for movie watching and for the Oscars itself, would go something like this:

Oscar nominates popular movies! Including those aforementioned Marvel-character films, four of the films in the 2023 box office top 10 are nominated for Oscars, the other two being the two sides of the summer movie-going event known as Barbenheimer — Barbie (nominated in seven categories; rent or purchase and on Max) and Oppenheimer (nominated in 13 categories; rent or purchase and on Peacock). Also nominated are top-20-box-office earners Mission: Impossible — Dead Reckoning Part One(nominated for Sound; rent or purchase and on Paramount+) and Elemental (nominated for Animated Feature Film; rent or purchase and on Disney+). See? You’ve heard of those movies. You may not have liked Elemental — and I’d agree with you in that — but you’ve heard of it.

Oscar nominates fun movies! Barbie, my favorite movie of 2023 and my pick for Best Picture, is super fun — from its detailed attention to the toy-doll-ness of Barbie and her world to absolutely everything to do with Ryan Gosling’s Ken, including the song “I’m Just Ken,” which is nominated for Original Song and will likely be performed during the broadcast. Other fun films include Original Song nominee Flamin’ Hot (on Hulu & Disney+), the Eva Longoria-directed true-or-whatever story behind Flamin’ Hot Cheetos; its self-conscious tall-tale-ishness is goofy fun. The Creator (nominated for Sound and Visual Effects; rent or purchase and on Hulu) is a very wide-tent futuristic tale about AI robots and humanity’s difficult relationship with them. My pick for Animated Feature Film would be Nimona(nominated in that category and available on Netflix), a very fun underdog quest movie that my older elementary-and-up kids have watched multiple times (as the shape-shifting girl warrior Nimona would say, “metal”). I haven’t seen it yet but Godzilla Minus One (nominated in Visual Effects) is the first Godzilla movie to ever receive an Academy Award nomination and I am generally pro-Godzilla-movies.

Oscar nominates movies that make you appreciate your streaming services! Rustin, featuring the nominated lead actor performance by Colman Domingo; Nyad, nominated for Annette Bening’s performance in lead actress and for Jodie Foster’s very good performance in supporting actress; Society of Snow(an International Film and Makeup and Hairstyling nominee), and May December, nominated for original screenplay, are all Netflix movies (where you can still find them), as is Best Picture nominee Maestro(also a nominee in six other categories). Napoleon(nominated in Costume Design, Visual Effects and Production Design), the bloated biopic that isn’t a terrible watch, and Killers of the Flower Moon, a solid Martin Scorsese movie (nominated in Best Picture and nine other categories, including the outstanding Lily Gladstone for best actress), are both Apple Films, and while they had an initial theatrical run they are now available to Apple TV+ subscribers to watch (as well as for purchase).

Oscar’s Best Picture list includes some comedies! American Fiction(five total nominations; available for purchase) and The Holdovers (five nominations; rent or purchase and on Peacock) are both solid, laugh-out-loud for-grown-ups comedies. Past Lives(two nominations; rent or purchase and on Showtime) also has its funny moments, even though it is a quieter almost-love story. I heartily recommend all three.

Oscar, of course, nominates serious films for when you want to get serious and watch films. The Zone of Interest(nominated in five categories; available for purchase) is a harrowing movie about a really horrifying thing (the Holocaust and the willing participation of one family therein) and yet it was also excellently well done and totally worth seeing. The same could be said of documentaries Four Daughters (rent or purchase and via Kinko Film Collection), about one Tunisian family’s difficult history, and 20 Days in Mariupol(rent or purchase and via PBS.org), about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the two strongest of the three documentary nominees I’ve seen. They are difficult to watch yet important and well done films. The Eternal Memory(for rent or purchase and on Paramount+) is also heartbreaking — the tale of a couple trying to hold on to each other even as one is losing his connection to himself from Alzheimer’s. Of the other documentaries Bobi Wine: The People’s Presidentis available on Disney+ and To Kill A Tigerdoes not yet appear to be available.

Back to the best picture nominees: Anatomy of a Fall (nominated in four other categories; available for rent or purchase) is a serious drama that examines the unknowability of a relationship via a murder trial. The previously mentioned Killers of the Flower Moon is at its strongest when it is telling the story of the Osage and attempts to steal their oil money. Poor Things (11 total nominations; available for purchase) is maybe my second least favorite Best Picture nominee (after Maestro) but perhaps this is a movie I need to give a second look to. And even if I don’t ultimately love — or even like — it, arguing about your serious films is a fun part of the movie fan experience.

Oscar reminds you that interesting movies can come in all sizes. The 15 movies nominated in the three shorts categories — animated, documentary and live action — are a good reminder that film is a storytelling medium that creators can use in all sorts of ways. See shorts.tv/theoscarshorts for updates about watching the packages of films at home. Individually, films you can watch now include all the documentary nominees — The ABC’s of Book Banning (Paramount+), The Barber of Little Rock (via The New Yorker), Island in Between (via The New York Times), Nǎi Nai and Wài Pó (Disney+) and The Last Repair Shop(Disney+), my favorite of the ones I’ve seen from this very strong bunch, which is about kids, their musical instruments and the people who fix them. In the animated short category, I could find Letter to a Pig(for rent via Vimeo), Ninety-Five Senses(find it via docplus.com) and Pachyderme(for rent via Vimeo). In the live action category, I found The After (Netflix), Invincible(for rent via Vimeo), Knight of Fortune (for rent via Vimeo), Red, White and Blue(for rent via Vimeo) and The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar(Netflix).

Oscar can remind you of all the other movies you can see. Go to abc.com/shows/oscars and print out your ballot. Sure, you can use it on March 10 to predict the winners and place your friendly snack-based bets with your fellow Oscar watchers. But you can also use it as a “what to watch” guide the next time you’re fruitlessly scrolling through your streaming services. And then head to filmindependent.org/spirit-awards for their list of 2024 nominees — you’ll find some overlap (American Fiction and Past Lives are also in their Best Feature category) but you’ll also find new movies to check out. Ditto the Screen Actors Guild Awards (sagawards.org), which has more overlap but also TV nominees; the Bafta Awards (bafta.org), Oscar’s British equivalent, and the Golden Globes (goldenglobes.com/nominations/2024) with its drama, comedy and “Cinematic and Box Office Achievement” categories. Watch these movies, watch other movies, just keep watching movies.

Dune: Part Two (PG-13)

The Fremen help Paul Atreides, gifted with both visions of the future and preternaturally good hair, fight the weirdos of House Harkonnen in Dune: Part Two, a movie about sand and vibes.

Previously on Dune: Paul (Timothée Chalamet) and his mom Lady Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), who is pregnant, had to run off and hide in the deserts of Arrakis, the planet from which comes Spice — a space fuel that can also make your eyes blue. House Harkonnen, which had controlled Arrakis but was stripped of the Spice trade by the Emperor, attacked the Atreides base on Arrakis and killed Paul’s very hot father Leto (Oscar Issac), previously head of House Atreides and Duke of Arrakis. The Harkonnen are now back in charge of Arrakis but are fighting an insurgent war with the Fremen, the indigenous people of Arrakis who would like all of these Spice-hungry imperial families to just go home.

Paul and Lady Jessica are hanging out with the Fremen in part because that’s the only way they can survive the desert, in part because some of the Fremen think Paul might be their messiah and in part because Paul has been dreaming about Chani (Zendaya), a Fremen girl who he’d like to ask “hey, how you doin’?” Stilgar (Javier Bardem), leader of that particular tribe or whatever of Fremen, is pretty sure Paul is the messiah and says increasingly crazy things about following him. Chani is not impressed with all this religious fervor her maybe-boyfriend is inspiring — and how much worse it could be in the fundamentalist south of the planet — but she doesn’t seem to let that get in the way of sharing a tent with Paul.
Meanwhile, Lady Jessica, a member of the order of magic-y religious-y ladies called the Bene Gesserit, spends a lot of time talking to her unborn daughter, who talks back and can also talk with Paul sometimes via dreams (I think?). Jessica has been made a Reverend Mother of Arrakis, which is helping her push this whole “Paul is the Messiah” thing which she does a bit out of genuine belief maybe but mostly out of a sense that it will help him survive and gain the power that comes with a Fremen army.

Also meanwhile, the Harkonnens are finding themselves losing Spice production equipment to the Fremen rebels. When Glossu Rabban Harkonnen (Dave Bautista) can’t get the Fremen in line, his way-crazier, even creepier younger brother Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen (Austin Butler) shows up to bomb stuff and be super evil.

Further meanwhile, the Emperor (Christopher Walken, whose character has a more elaborate name but who I always just thought of as “Emperor Christopher Walker”) is watching all this drama from afar, afraid that the other families will find out he was behind the fall of House Atreides. His daughter Princess Irulan (Florence Pugh) helpfully narrates some of this information; she mostly hangs around and looks concerned until the end when it becomes clear that she will have more to do next time if there is a next time.

Which I suspect there will be, as Dune: Part Two, for all that I will forget most of that plot by the time Part Three shows up, made $82 million in its opening weekend, according to IMDb. And I predict it will likely match Dune: Part One’sbig Oscar nomination haul next year — Part One had 10 nods, with six wins: Production Design, Sound, Visual Effects, Original Score, Cinematography and Film Editing. I fully expect it to be very competitive in those categories again, as well as Costume Design and Makeup and Hairstyling (two categories it was nominated in in 2022 but didn’t win). Will it get Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay nominations like it did last time too? Maybe, why not — it straddles the line between beautiful art and movie that gets its own commemorative popcorn box. Part Two looks beautiful, just as Part One did, but maybe feels like even more of a feat because this world isn’t brand new and we get more of the shades-of-brown Arrakis and the black-and-white Harkonnen home world. It’s lovely and creepy, according to what it needs to be, and I really did find myself dazzled by little details like the Bene Gesserit robes given to Lady Jessica or the fancy if kinda stupid headpieces worn by Princess Irulan. I mean, a lot of this doesn’t hold up to deep thought — it’s 10,000 years in the future and we’re still doing billowy capes? — but don’t ask a lot of questions and it looks great.

I feel like Part Two is also an improvement on Part One’s glacial pace. Sure, a merciless editor could have tightened this puppy up a good hour and we wouldn’t have lost anything, but I didn’t mind spending time in this world. The push and pull between Paul’s desires for Freman support but uneasiness with Fremen worship is moderately interesting and I am not too bothered by the generally chilly relationship between Paul and Chani because they’re both fully Movie Stars. Which I guess is how I feel about all of the characters. Everybody looks great — does not in any way resemble a human person and not just a game board piece — but they look great and hold your attention while on screen.

It’s all fine, is what I’m saying, Dune: Part Two is fine — like, better than average for a popcorn movie if not dazzling me with brilliant story or dialogue. But is that really why most of us are here? The big worms are cool, the “waaah”s on the soundtrack are unsettling and the sand looks so much more photogenic than sand is in real life. B

Rated PG-13 for sequences of strong violence, some suggestive material and brief strong language, according to the MPA on filmratings.com. Directed by Denis Villeneuve with a screenplay by Denis Villeneuve and Jon Spaihts, based on the novel by Frank Herbert, Dune: Part Two is two hours and 46 minutes long and released in theaters this time by Legendary Features Productions and Warner Bros.

Featured photo: Dune: Part Two.

Drive-Away Dolls (R)

A pair of friends, one recently dumped by her girlfriend and one getting burned out at work, decide to take a road trip and become unwitting participants in a caper involving a group of tough guys and a couple of suitcases in the 1999-set Drive-Away Dolls.

Marian (the always fun Geraldine Viswanathan) is prickly at work and seems sort of exhausted by the idea of a romantic life, hers having petered out after a breakup with a serious girlfriend (who 1990s-ily worked for Ralph Nader) years earlier.

We learn Jamie’s (Margaret Qualley) whole deal while she’s in bed with one girl and on the phone with her live-in girlfriend Sukie (Beanie Feldstein). When Sukie kicks Jamie out of their apartment, Jamie decides that she will accompany Marian on an impromptu road trip to Tallahassee. Marian’s plan is to visit an aunt and do some birdwatching. Jamie’s plan is that they hit as many lesbian bars on the drive down as they can. Both of them decide to take the trip in a “drive-away” — a car-share-type situation where they drive down a car that someone else has asked to have transported.

As it happens, they show up at the drive-away shop declaring their desire to go to Tallahassee just after its owner, Curlie (Bill Camp), is told in a shadowy phone call to expect people to take a car, and a “package” hidden inside, to Tallahassee. He thinks Marian and Jamie are those people, which is how these two twentysomething-ish girls looking for relaxation and romance end up in a car with a BEEP and a briefcase full of BEEP in the truck.

We know something’s in the trunk but it would spoil a couple of enjoyably dumb moments to tell you what it is.

Initially, I found Qualley’s Jamie deeply aggravating, Juno’s Juno dipped in a coating of Pulp Fiction. There is purposefully cartoony and then there is the Texas accent and devil-may-care affectations of this character and I just wanted Jamie to calm down — a vibe that extended to the movie overall. But then, at about the halfway point, the movie started to click. It found the key that it was meant to be in; it got how to mix the stuff about Marian and Jamie — their individual issues, their friendship-and-maybe-more with each other — with the crime caper. It wandered fully into the land of nuttiness and it dragged Colman Domingo, Matt Damon and Miley Cyrus with it. It gave in, or maybe I gave in, to the 2020s approach to the 1990s-ish take on the 1970s dirtbag indie tone of it all.

And I found it all kind of cute, sweet even.

Drive-Away Dolls doesn’t quite fill its 84 minutes; there is some bagginess that I wish the movie could have filled with more character detail or humor or something other than the banter that feels particularly loud and heavy in the beginning. But by the end, this movie won me over. B-

Rated R for crude sexual content, full nudity, language and some violent content, according to the MPA on filmratings.com. Directed by Ethan Coen with a screenplay by Ethan Coen and Tricia Cooke, Drive-Away Dolls is an hour and 24 minutes long and is released in theaters by Focus Features.

Featured photo: Drive-Away-Dolls.

Madame Web (PG-13)

A paramedic briefly dies, which somehow kickstarts her ability to see into the future, in Madame Web, one of those Sony Marvel joints.

As you may have heard, Constance Webb (Kerry Bishé) was researching spiders in the Amazon in 1973 when she gave birth to a daughter and then immediately died.

Years later (2003), Cassie Webb (Dakota Johnson) is an EMT in Queens. She is a loner who doesn’t know how to deal with people in general and maybe men and children specifically. When her EMT partner Ben (Adam Scott) tells her he’s met someone, there’s maybe an undercurrent that there was something between them once? Between Ben, excuse me, BEN and Cassie? What’s BEN’s new girlfriend’s name? We don’t learn that, nor do we learn the name of BEN’s brother (Richard) and sister-in-law’s (Mary) soon-to-be-born child, one who would make BEN an UNCLE who lives in QUEENS. The movie nudge-nudge-wink-winks at this whole storyline so hard and says BEN so many times you think the Spidey of it all is going to matter but it doesn’t.

Anyway, it is BEN who pulls Cassie from the water when she accidentally falls into the river while making a rescue. He resuscitates her and strongly suggests she see a doctor but she doesn’t take this suggestion until after she experiences some very strong premonitions. Premonitions that include seeing a friend killed in a car crash moments before it happens for real.

There’s nothing medically wrong with her — maybe it’s a combination of a response to the trauma of dying and the grief over her friend? She boards the train to head to his funeral and finds herself in a train car with Julia Cornwall (Sydney Sweeney), Anya Corazon (Isabela Merced) and Mattie Franklin (Celeste O’Connor), three teen girls who don’t know each other and just randomly happen to be on that train.

To Ezekiel Sims (Tahar Rahim), these three girls aren’t just random passengers but members of the superpower-having trio that will one day murder him. You see, he was also “in the Amazon with my mom” and secretly a bad guy looking for the same spider with powerful healing properties that Constance was. Yada yada (the movie glosses over the how and why here) and now he has super strength and can walk on walls, not unlike Las Arañas, a Peruvian-Amazon-based group of vigilantes who found and attempted to save Constance after Ezekiel shot her and helped bring baby Cassie into the world.

Anyway, Ezekiel shows up at the train, ready to kill the teens before they can become superpowered women. But Cassie sees his attack from a few angles before it happens, enough that she is able to get the girls off the train. They understandably have questions: who is this crazy lady, why is she dragging them off the train, who is that guy in a head-to-toe latex suit, and why can he crawl upside down along the ceiling?

Cassie also has questions, like why she can see the future and why she is suddenly the one to help these girls. Maybe it has to do with learning to take this RESPONSIBILITY, which could give her access to a GREAT POWER she’s had all along.

Madame Web isn’t a terrible concept on its face. I don’t have any background with this character but who she is and who she becomes by the end of the movie is fine story material to work with — even if she feels like a variant on other Marvel and DC characters. But the movie is goopy, goopy like children’s play slime, goopyness that has somehow been taped together into the shape of a movie, and is just not good — not smart, not fun, not even “ha that’s something” the way parts of the Venom movies can be. I recently attempted making a dessert that was clearly going sideways about halfway through the baking process. “I don’t know, maybe more sugar here? Maybe some jam there?” The result wasn’t inedible but it was definitely not what I intended. And thus with Madame Web, a movie that needed different ingredients (or ingredients in different amounts) and a different method.

Dakota Johnson is OK — not great but nearly adequate and I think with better dialogue she could have bumped it up to good. Johnson’s style of emotionally closed off roboticism kind of works with who her character is. The three teen girls are also fine, though the movie could have used more of them and I think would have been better if it had let their characters develop beyond the basics of their exposition and let their relationship with each other develop as well.

Rahim as Ezekiel didn’t work for me at all — he is a flat, uninteresting villain whose whole persona and motivation feels extremely underwritten.

Unlike the “there are things here to work with” story and characters, the visual effects and overall look of this movie are quite bad. There is not an action scene, a chase or a fight that doesn’t look cheap and unfinished, like we’re seeing the storyboard sketch of what should be happening instead of a finished product. I found myself wondering how this movie would be different if it had kept its effects practical instead of computer-generated and confined itself to Queens-ish locales.

Madame Web does give the appearance of being a self-contained thing — there is no post-credits sequence here, even though all of us in the theater stayed waiting for one. But I wish the movie had really gone for broke with how it told its story and not left ends flapping like it was hoping for a sequel. C-

Rated PG-13 for violence/action and language, according to the MPA on filmratings.com. Directed by S.J. Clarkson with a screenplay by Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless and Claire Parker & S.J. Clarkson, Madame Web is an hour and 57 minutes long and distributed in theaters by Columbia Pictures.

The Zone of Interest (PG-13)

A husband, a wife and their five children enjoy an idyllic-seeming life in a house with a large garden, situated by a scenic forest and also jammed up next to the horrors of Auschwitz, in The Zone of Interest, a fascinating movie rightly nominated for a Best Picture Oscar.

We first see Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), Nazi SS officer and Auschwitz concentration camp commandant, and his wife Hedwig (Sandra Hüller, turning in one of two great Best Picture performances for this year — the other is in Anatomy of a Fall, for which she also has an acting nod) and their kids swimming in a river and generally enjoying the outdoors. They return to their house and we see Höss checking doors and turning off lights as his family goes to bed, but the walls in the garden on the side of his house have barbed wire on top and behind them we can hear gunshots, screams and barking dogs.

This hellishness is all around them all the time, literally in the air that they breathe, as we constantly see smoke from crematoriums filling the sky. When Höss arrives home, he takes his boots off outside and one of the prisoners working at his house washes them, letting us briefly see the blood running off them. Neither Höss nor Hedwig seems blind to the vast human misery or compartmentalizing it away from their daily thoughts. (Being more efficient with murder is literally Höss’ job.) They are perfectly fine with what’s happening — proud of themselves, even, for building such a life.

Hedwig seems pretty happy to swan around this house with a pool and a well-tended garden, full of what she seems to think of as domestic help — if not people held captive at the camps then people from the countryside who seem to have little say in their presence there or what they do. Hedwig knows full well about the constant murder surrounding her and seems mostly just delighted with its perks. She happily receives a bag of silky lingerie that she and the women who work in her house pick through as well as an elegant fur coat brought just for her, complete with its rightful owner’s lipstick still in a pocket. She brags about being called the queen of Auschwitz, and when her mother comes to visit they have an indifferent chat about a Jewish woman her mother once knew who might be held there. The mother had tried but failed to buy the woman’s curtains when they were auctioned off after her family was deported; losing the curtains clearly troubles her more than what might have happened to the woman. Meanwhile, Hedwig’s oldest son plays with teeth and gold fillings as casually as his younger brother plays with toy soldiers.

It’s not particularly original to say that the monstrousness of everything we see is underlined by how banal the day-to-day lives of these family members are — Höss’ meetings with other SS officers, the department politics that have him sent to another camp for a while, the marital politics that have Hedwig demanding to stay at Auschwitz so their children can continue having this “good life.” The skill of the movie is that it never lets us forget what we’re experiencing — nearly every scene has smoke, distant screams, gunshots, prisoners, ashes — but it doesn’t need to dramatize it in some big way. The bare facts and tiny details of what’s happening are horrible enough without any embellishment and the Höss family’s “shrug, but of course” attitude really drives home how easily they don’t just accept but embrace every atrocious thing happening around them.

There is one moment when the movie pulls back and suggests that Rudolf Höss is fully aware of how enormous the evil he is a part of is. But that stretch, rather brilliantly, sets itself against matter-of-fact domestic work — women in the present day at the Auschwitz museum diligently clean the glass behind which sit massive piles of shoes and luggage representing the million-plus people murdered there. The scene feels as much like a warning for how easily such a horror can be put behind glass as it is an indictment of the people who committed these crimes.

The Zone of Interest isn’t fun movie times, obviously, but it isn’t homework either. It’s a fascinating character study that smartly sets the ordinary against the horrific. A

Rated PG-13 for thematic material, some suggestive material and smoking, according to the MPA at filmratings.com. Directed by Jonathan Glazer with a screenplay by Glazer (based loosely on the book by Martin Amis),The Zone of Interest is an hour and 45 minutes long and distributed in theaters by A24. It is slated to be released on VOD on Feb. 20.

Featured photo: Lisa Frankenstein.

Lisa Frankenstein (PG-13)

A 1980s teen, like, totally grieving for her deceased mother while everybody, even her father, has moved on, finds a friend in a long dead, suddenly reanimated floopy-haired boy who looks good in a Violent Femmes shirt in Lisa Frankenstein, a movie written by Diablo Cody and directed by Zelda Williams (daughter of Robin).

Lisa Swallows (Kathryn Newton) is the new kid in school, in this her senior year, because she and her dad (Joe Chrest) have moved in with his new wife Janet (Carla Gugino) and her teen daughter Taffy (Liza Soberano). Lisa was already deeply traumatized by her mother’s death — at the hands of a serial killer while Lisa hid in a nearby closet, according to Taffy — and seems further traumatized by her father’s remarrying within months and then moving them to a new town. Lisa barely speaks and doesn’t socialize much despite popular Taffy’s genuine and basically good-hearted attempts to pull her out into high school society.

Lisa does allow herself to be dragged to a party where she sees Michael Trent (Henry Eikenberry), head of the high school’s literary magazine, who she is crushing on. Attempts to flirt with him get sidetracked by Tamara (Joey Bree Harris), a gothy girl clearly also crushing on Mike. Tamara sarcastically offers Lisa her drink and Lisa, to prove she’s not the quiet shut-in everyone thinks she is, takes a big swig of it. Unfortunately, it’s a weird high school “wine punch”-or-something drink and she immediately finds herself drunk or high or maybe both. After some puking and dodging a boy who tries to get nonconsensual, Lisa runs out of the party and into a nearby overgrown graveyard.

Luckily, Lisa is familiar with Bachelor Grove Graveyard — she often hangs out there taking rubbings of the headstones and doing other sad-girl things. She even has a favorite headstone, the headstone of a man (the only part of his name we can see is the “ein” end of his last name) whose monument includes a bust with his sad pale face.

As we learned in the movie’s opening shadow-puppet credits, this man was an old-timey unmarried guy who played piano and fell in love with a woman who left him for what I think was a mandolin player. He mopes around and is later killed by a lightning strike.

In the present (late 1980s) day, as Lisa is stumbling around the graveyard, she finds his grave. She had given him her mother’s rosary and as she contemplates her crappy night she makes a wish that she could be with him. Meaning, as she later explains, that she wishes she could be six feet under. But the universe and a mysterious green lightning strike takes it the other way and sends the somewhat decomposed and missing-some-parts man, listed in IMDb as The Creature (Cole Sprouse), back above ground.

The next evening, as Lisa watches a scary movie, the Creature comes stumbling and moaning into her house. She is at first all screaming and running and throwing horrible Janet’s horrible Precious Moments figurines at him. But then she figures out who he is — thanks to a grave rubbing and some pointing (a tongue is one of the parts the Creature is missing). She gets him to take a shower and to keep the crying to a minimum — his tears smell like a hot carnival toilet, she says — and change clothes, eventually finding the kind of blazer-and-band-shirt combo you could picture on a John Cusack character of the same vintage. The Creature becomes someone she can talk to about her feelings and her crush on Michael. He is so nice that when he semi-accidentally kills Janet, Lisa helps him bury Janet’s body and sew Janet’s ear on to the spot where one of his ears has gone missing. At first it doesn’t fully become a part of him but then Lisa remembers Taffy’s malfunctioning tanning bed that electrocutes everybody who uses it.

As the Creature continues to replace his missing parts, he also helps Lisa improve her fashion sense, going from “clothes that make you invisible” to “late 1980s Winona Ryder character at the prom.” He also gets hotter every time he electrocutes himself, going from “obviously undead” to “lightly made-up goth boy.”

There’s a lot here in this emo rom-com with a Heathers throwback vibe that reaches the level of “cute” or even “sorta funny” and there is a genuine human relationship between Lisa and Taffy that you could really build something on. The movie sets a tone that had me willing to go along with whatever silliness it wanted to give me. But, unlike the Creature, this thing never quite zapped to life for me, the nostalgic setting and classic horror movie allusions and extreme examples of crimped hair just didn’t pull together into something that was more than what you get just by hearing the phrase “Diablo Cody writes an ’80s set horror comedy love teen story.” There is a sharpness missing in the comedy or in the romance or somewhere in the mix of this movie that would elevate it from just a throwback curio.

Even though I’d place this movie at around a C+ I’m ultimately not sorry I watched it and, when it is inevitably available for streaming at home, I suspect it will feel like a passable B-.

Rated PG-13 for violent content, bloody images, sexual material, language, sexual assault, teen drinking and drug content, according to the MPA on filmratings.com. Directed by Zelda Williams with a screenplay by Diablo Cody, Lisa Frankenstein is an hour and 41 minutes long and distributed in theaters by Focus Features.

Featured photo: Lisa Frankenstein.

At the Sofaplex

Orion and the Dark (TV-Y7)

Voices of Paul Walter Hauser, Jacob Tremblay.

Based on the book of the same name by Emma Yarlett, this animated movie tells the story of Orion (Tremblay), an 11-year-old boy who is afraid of so many things — murder clowns, cell phone radiation, aging planetarium displays, girls, people in general, Sally a girl in his class in particular and especially dark. He plugs in half a dozen night lights and begs his parents to leave the door open but if his room goes dark he screams.

Enough with the screaming, says Dark (voice of Hauser). A large cloaked yet sort of cuddly entity, Dark is tired of being hated by everybody but he is especially tired of hearing Orion yell and scream every night. So he decides that the best way to help Orion conquer his fear of the dark — and of Dark — is to take Orion with him for a 24-hour trip around the world. Dark introduces Orion to other nighttime entities: Insomnia (voice of Nat Faxon), Unexplained Noises (Golda Rosheuvel), Quiet (Aparna Nancheria), Sleep (Natasia Demetriou) and Sweet Dreams (voice of Angela Bassett). Some of their tasks are a little odd — Unexplained Noises decide that a crash with a hint of scraping is what’s needed outside one house — but they are part of the rhythms of life. And they have to keep going so that Light (voice of Ike Barinholtz) doesn’t overtake them. Light would knock Dark out of existence.

As Orion travels with Dark and friends, he slowly and sometimes indirectly overcomes or at least faces a variety of fears. The Dark — like other things in life — can be scary and sometimes we will be afraid but we have to keep going and not let fear itself overtake us, is generally the message here. But the movie makes its points with a swirl of sweetness and cleverness that, in a particularly Charlie Kaufman way (he is the screenwriter), lets the story comment on itself. The result is a story full of fun cartoony kid adventure but nice moments for adults as well. B+ Netflix

Self Reliance (R)

Jake Johnson, Anna Kendrick.

Johnson also wrote and directed this dark comedy. Tommy plays a familiar Johnson character — sort of loveable shell-shocked goober in a life funk. He recently ended a two-decade-plus relationship and now lives with his mom, working a job that appears to barely keep him awake. Walking home from work one day, Tommy sees a limo pull up next to him with Andy Samberg (Andy Samberg) in the back. Andy, reading a script, offers Tommy a chance to compete in a dark web reality show. As he learns when he talks to the show’s creators, all Tommy has to do is stay alive for the next 30 days and he’ll win a million dollars. The catch is that other people — hunters — will be trying to kill him. The loophole is that he can’t be killed if he’s with other people. Tommy decides that not only does the loophole make the game winnable, it might actually be the reason to compete, so he says yes.

He explains to his mother (an excellent Nancy Lenehan, who at one point refers to “Sandy Amberg,” which is maybe my favorite part of the movie), sisters (Mary Holland, Emily Hampshire) and brother-in-law (Daryl L. Johnson) that they will need to trade off being with him around the clock to make it work. His family thinks he’s nuts and says absolutely not, leading Jake to hire a random guy he calls James (Biff Wiff) to follow him around. He also posts a call for someone to hang with on Craigslist — which is how he meets Maddy (Kendrick), who explains she’s also playing the game.

The movie quickly reaches a point of unhingedness when not only the characters, including Tommy, but we in the audience are not sure if Tommy is really competing for a million dollars or if he is in the midst of some kind of serious mental breakdown. It is, at times, unsettling but there is something about Johnson and his particular blend of earnestness, nuttiness, kindness and weirdness that makes it all work more often than not. B- Hulu

The Underdoggs (R)

Snoop Dogg, Tika Sumpter.

In The Mighty Ducks/Bad News Bears fashion, onetime football star Jaycen Jennings (Mr. Dogg) winds up coaching a down at the heels, down on its luck Long Beach kiddie football team. Actually, Jaycen is sentenced to do community service picking up poop at a Long Beach park (after crashing his car into a city bus due to unnecessary rage and some truly terrible driving) but when he sees high school sweetheart Cherise (Sumpter) pick up her young son Tre (Jonigan Booth) from the practice, he takes the advice of old friend Kareem (Mike Epps) to volunteer to coach to pull a Mighty Ducks and woo Cherise. Jaycen is at first just as selfish as a coach as he was as a player but slowly he learns about the beauty of teamwork and to truly root for these kids.

The kids in Underdoggs are young enough that this movie, with some slicing away of R-rated material (a lot of language and also weed talk), would make a fun family film. And really that’s what it should be. There’s only so “R “ you can be in an upbeat sports comedy about a kid team and I don’t think the movie benefits from the R-ness enough to make up for losing its natural family-film audience. As it is the movie feels like a fine-minus version of so many sports movies before it. C+ (the + is in part because it introduced me to the fact that Snoop Dogg actually has long supported a youth football league in the L.A. area and there is apparently a Netflix documentary series about it called Coach Snoop) Prime Video

Role Play (R)

Kaley Cuoco, David Oyelowo.

David (Oyelowo) and Emma (Cuoco) have a nice life with two children — Wyatt (Regan Bryan-Gudgeon) and Caroline (Lucia Aliu) — and a suburban house and a marriage that seems solid if a bit flat due to usual work-life balance stuff. Emma returns exhausted from a work trip to realize that the fancy dinner her husband has arranged is in celebration of their anniversary — which she completely forgot about. To spice things up they decide to head into the city and spend a night at a hotel — after first “meeting” in the bar playing the roles of new people, with the flirting etc.

Actually, inventing new identities is easier for Emma than David realizes. Her “work trip” wasn’t to the Midwest to talk to corporate middle managers. She went abroad to do a little light murdering. She works as an assassin, taking a contract or two every few weeks to help pay Raj (Rudi Dharmalingam), her handler who helps keep her image scrubbed from the internet and just generally keep her off the radar of Sovereign, the international assassination concern she used to work for before giving it all up for David and family life.

Before the couple can do their little sexy role play at the bar, Bob (Bill Nighy) buys Emma a drink and comes over to hit on her, drunken businessman style. Except not really, which Emma realizes. Eventually, Emma and David — pretending to be Alice and “Jack Dawson,” because David is bad at fake names — shoo Bob away and have their fancy meal. Later, when David falls asleep in their room, Emma goes to find Bob to deal with him, which doesn’t go as cleanly as she hopes. Soon there is police involvement and Emma is exposed for the secret assassin she really is. David isn’t sure what he believes, but he’s not entirely ready to turn his wife in to Gwen Carver (Connie Nielsen), the woman investigating Emma, who is really named Anna.

Not long ago, Mark Wahlberg starred in a similar super-assassin-turned-family-guy movie The Family Plan. That movie wasn’t great, but it had a more consistently comic tone. Role Play can’t quite decide if it is an action comedy or something darker, a drama with occasional comic hints but also kids in peril. Oyelowo seems to think he is in a comedy, Cuoco seems to think she’s in the darker thing. The actors are engaging enough together but they often seem like they’re operating on different frequencies. C+ Prime Video

Featured photo: Orion and the dark.

Argylle (PG-13)

A successful writer of spy novels finds herself hunted by real-life spies in Argylle, an action romantic comedy thing that feels more like cool images and parts of ideas pinned to a bulletin board than an actual movie.

The suave, James-Bond-like Agent Argylle (Henry Cavill with just some of the most unfortunate hair ever given to a man so handsome) is on the trail of a hard drive that will expose the Directorate, the super spy organization he works for. Once a good guy organization, the Directorate is now in league with bad guys, and Argylle wants to bring them down.

But Elly Conway (Bryce Dallas Howard), author of four published books and one unfinished book about fictional spy Argylle, is just sort of stuck when it comes to how the last part of Conway’s journey should unfold. On a phone call with her mom (Catherine O’Hara) she explains that her book ends on a cliffhanger. But her mom insists that she needs to finish the story — have Argylle go to London to meet the hacker, get the drive and take down his bosses. Elly tries but eventually Argylle is just standing on an empty page, giving her a confused look (possibly confused about why he would be given such a dumb green velvet-I-think suit and such terrible hair).

Elly decides to take a train to see her parents and is quickly accosted by a long-haired weirdo (Sam Rockwell) who claims to be a fan — well, first he says he’s a fan, then he says he’s a spy and he’s there to protect her. Before she can grab the cat-carrier-backpack containing her cat Archie and run, another “fan” stops at her seat to get an autograph — but the pen is really a stiletto and he seems ready to stab her. Long-hair fights him off and then fights off a series of other would-be kidnappers and/or assassins before grabbing Elly and parachuting her out of the train as it goes over a bridge.

When she awakens in some random cabin, long-hair is now shaven and shorn and says his name is Adrian Wilde. Adrian tells her that he is a spy who, like her characters, needs to find a hard drive to bring down the Division, a super secret spy agency very close to the one she described. The Division is who has sent its operatives after her because it, led by Director Ritter (Bryan Cranston), has read her fifth, unpublished book and wants to know how it ends, believing it will help him find the real-life hacker.

Adrian, looking for the hard drive just like Argylle, takes Elly to London so she can “write” what happens next and help him figure out where the hacker with all the Division-destroying information is. The Division remains hot on their trail, leading to a variety of shootouts and fight scenes and so much slow-mo this movie, played entirely at regular speed, is probably at least 15 minutes shorter.

In addition to Cavill, John Cena, Ariana DeBose and Dua Lipa play characters in Elly’s books, with Samuel L. Jackson and, briefly, Rob Delaney showing up in “real life.”

Argylle is a mess. Just writing the plot description, there are things we learn at the beginning of the movie that actually make no sense with what we learn later on or are just clunky or unnecessary. The movie doesn’t seem to figure out its vibe, maybe ever. It goes from wacky quiet-writer-lady-adventure (similar to Sandra Bullock in The Lost City) to full-on action cartoon like director Matthew Vaughn’s Kingsman movies. I think, based on where this movie goes, maybe more of that cartoony action all the way through would be the way to go here. Instead that shows up just long enough to suggest a more tonally coherent version of this movie but not long enough to make Argylle actually be that version.

There are other problems. Howard is fine I guess, Rockwell is charming — together they are basically sparkless. Cranston feels like he belongs in the cartoonier version of this movie. Here, he feels en-dumb-ened by the movie, like his scary villain boss character, in absence of a more comic-book-y world around him, feels not smart enough for the job we’re supposed to believe he has. O’Hara just feels sort of ill served by everything the movie asks her to do — every scene she’s in had the potential to be funny or fun or weird in that delightful O’Hara way but the movie chooses a direction that just sort of dims her star.

This whole movie has, not potential exactly, but maybe the possibility to have potential. There are ideas that reach “hey, maybe there’s something in that?” stage but don’t go beyond that. As a result, I found myself not really enjoying this movie or even wanting to enjoy it but wishing it was a movie that I could potentially enjoy. C+, with the plus being largely for Sam Rockwell and his dislike of Archie, who looked like a mostly CGI cat, though a cat named Chip (the cat of Vaughn and his wife Claudia Schiffer) is credited on IMDb. (Meanwhile: There is apparently a mid-credits scene, which I did not stay for but read about later, and everything about it sounds exhausting.)

Rated PG-13 because these things are always rated PG-13 but officially for strong violence and action and some strong language, according to the MPA on filmratings.com. Directed by Matthew Vaughn and written by Jason Fuchs (though the “written by” has its own story, feel free to Google, that somehow pulls in Taylor Swift because I guess everything has a Swiftian element now), Argylle is an unnecessary two hours and 19 minutes long and is distributed in theaters by Universal.

Featured photo: Aargylle.

American Fiction (R)

A writer creates a drunken joke that wins wide acclaim in American Fiction.

Fun note: that’s also kind of the plot to The Hunger Games: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes and American Fiction also shares some structural similarities with Weird: The Al Yankovic Story and both those things make me love this movie even more.

We meet author Thelonious Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), called Monk by nearly everybody, as he tangles with a college student (who is white) in the class he’s teaching over assigned readings that use racial epithets. It’s literature of the American South, his prickly explanation goes, if he can get over it so can she. She leaves the class in tears and Monk is called into a meeting with various deans where it’s explained that maybe he should take some mandatory time off. He heads to a book festival in Boston where he finds himself on panel discussion with an audience that could be generously described as a “smattering” of people. He learns his panel is at the same time as an event featuring Sintara Golden (Issa Rae), whose book We’s Lives in Da Ghetto is the hot book of the moment. It’s gritty and real and honest and raw, says everybody. To Monk, it’s a crass money grab by Golden, an Oberlin graduate who works in publishing, who is just feeding white editors and white readers a stereotype of Black life.

Monk’s life frustrations continue as he spends time with his family: his sister Lisa (Tracee Ellis Ross) is a busy doctor still recovering financially from her divorce and caring for their widowed mother Agnes (Leslie Uggums), who lives in the family home with longtime housekeeper Lorraine (Myra Lucretia Taylor). Lisa tries to explain that Monk and brother Clifford (Sterling K. Brown), who lives in Tucson (Monk lives in L.A.), haven’t been home enough to realize that their mom seems to be fading in terms of her memory and possibly her ability to live alone. When Lisa suddenly dies, Monk finds himself basically out of work and dealing with a mother who possibly needs very expensive care. With Lisa gone, Clifford struggling after his own divorce and Monk not receiving money, his only hope is his recent book, which agent Arthur (John Ortiz) is struggling to find a publisher for. It’s not “Black enough,” is what Arthur says he’s being told by the publishers, despite Monk’s arguments that he is Black and these are his stories.

Thus does a beleaguered Monk get drunk and get writing. He pens a story called My Pafology (after starting with “My Pathology”) full of every stereotype and flat depiction of hacky portrayals of African American life he can think of, with bad dialogue we see his characters work out in front of him. He jokingly sends it to Arthur and later tells him to send it around as something between a prank and a protest over what publishers seem to think constitutes “Black stories.” Except, of course, a publisher loves it, offers him more money than he’s ever been paid before for a book and quickly there’s talk of a film.

While the book by “Stagg R. Leigh” (Monk’s pen name for his prank) is receiving increasing acclaim (and even FBI interest because Arthur decides on the fly that “Stagg” is a criminal on the run), an ill-at-ease Monk is trying to find the nicest possible assisted living facility for his mom. He’s not delighted that cheeseball producer Wiley Valdespino (just a perfect Adam Brody) is looking to make a movie of his book but he also isn’t in a position to turn down an offer that includes the word “million.”

Of course the horrible thing is going to be the thing that hits — The Producers and 30+ years of the internet have taught us all this — but American Fiction tells this story through the lens of Monk’s late middle-age frustrations at all the things that have not worked out. Monk is funny like a sad three-legged dog, is how Clifford describes him to Coraline (Erika Alexander), the woman Monk starts dating. Jeffrey Wright perfectly captures this, sort of the quality of a guy tangled up in his own sweater and not able to fight his way out. He tries to operate as somebody on a higher plane, somebody who doesn’t see race (as he explains while not getting a cab that instead stops for the white guy half a block away) and doesn’t tolerate Gen Z discomfort. But he is also delightfully petty (attempting to move his books in a chain bookstore and getting into a fight with a college colleague about the quality of the colleague’s “airport novels”) and, as his family points out, is more emotionally detached than evolved. Even his frustrations with Sintara, who he eventually sits on a judging panel with, seem to have as much to do with the fact that she’s successful (and at such a young age, comparatively) as with his feelings about how she found that success.

The comedy of American Fiction is, of course, fun and has its laugh-out-loud moments. But the movie also has a lot of truly poignant little bits about family — the way Monk relates to his siblings, the way the family is still operating with the memory of their father who died years earlier, what it means to become a parent’s caretaker. And it’s all delivered via one killer performance after another. Wright and Brown both received Oscar nominations (for actor and supporting actor, respectively; the movie is also nominated for adapted screenplay and best picture) but Tracee Ellis Ross and even smaller roles, like Keith David’s appearance as a character Monk conjures up for his book, hit their notes just right. A

Rated R for language throughout, some drug use, sexual references and brief violence, according to the MPA on filmratings.com. Written and directed by Cord Jefferson (and based on the novel Erasure by Percival Everett), American Fiction is an hour and 57 minutes long and distributed in theaters by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures & Orion Releasing.

Featured photo: American Fiction.

Catching up with Oscar

A look at some of the films on the nomination list

First and foremost, Oscar nominations are a list of movies worth checking out.

While the Oscar nerds among us might still be arguing whether Gretas Gerwig and Lee were robbed (yes) or if Saltburn should have been a contender somewhere (eh), it’s nice to occasionally remind oneself (me) that the Oscars can also help you catch up on the movies from the previous year you may have missed and the movies, like most of the International Film list and pretty much all but one of the shorts, that you (I) haven’t even heard of. (Find a list of all the nominees, announced last week, at oscars.org.)

And, many of these films are available at home.

Of the 10 Best Picture nominees, currently, American FictionandPoor Things (in theaters) and The Zone of Interest (in theaters in Boston and slated to come to Red River Theatres in Concord in February) are not available for home viewing. (The Zone of Interest is the one movie on the list of 10 I haven’t seen yet.) Anatomy of a Fall, Past Livesand Oppenheimer are available for rent or purchase. Barbie (Max), The Holdovers (Peacock) and Killers of the Flower Moon(Apple TV+) are available via VOD and through a streaming service. Maestro is only on Netflix.

Plenty other nominees are also available for home viewing.

Rustin (Netflix) was the one movie on the list of five acting nominees I hadn’t seen yet (and the only one that doesn’t have a movie in the “best picture” category). Colman Domingo plays Bayard Rustin, a civil rights activist for the middle chunk of the 20th century who had a hand in a variety of movements for racial and workers rights, including, as documented here, in the 1963 March on Washington. Rustin was smart, funny, highly competent — and gay, a fact that made him a target for those in (old guard politicians) and out (the FBI) of the movement. Though this movie was written by Julian Breece and Dustin Lance Black, it has that very Aaron Sorkin feel — with people listing off accomplishments, learning to compromise, finding common ground. I don’t know if that makes it competence porn, exactly, but there is a very “chicken soup for a politically liberal soul” feel to the way it shows Rustin working with all the coalitions involved in the event. We also get his friendship with Martin Luther King Jr. (Aml Ameen), drawn in a way that helps to remind you that this iconic figure was also a political person, who had to deal with the same pushes and pulls that would be familiar today. B+

Nyad (Netflix) is the actress category version of this (biopic, no Best Picture nomination, I hadn’t seen it yet). Annette Bening is Diana Nyad, an athlete whose claims to fame include distance swimming. After trying but failing to swim from Cuba to Florida as a twenty-something in the 1970s, she decides to try again in the 2010s, shortly after turning 60. This requires Nyad to train for distance swims again — first spending hours in a pool and then heading to more open water. In addition to just the physical differences of being 60, other challenges of the swim include strong (and changing) currents, weather, sharks and jellyfish. Jodie Foster, playing Nyad’s longtime friend and an athletic trainer who agrees to help Nyad train Bonnie Stoll, is also nominated for a supporting actress award. Bonnie and Diana are, as they both explain at various parts in the movie, each other’s person. Though not a romantic couple, they help to get each other through and bolster each other. Bonnie also helps Diana be more of a human who can relate to other humans. Diana Nyad as shown here is the personification of the phrase “she’s A Lot.” At a toast with her crew before one Cuban attempt, Nyad basically talks about herself and how great this is for her, with Bonnie having to step in to thank the team. Nyad is driven, sometimes to the exclusion of everyone around her. She is also extremely hard on herself and carries all sorts of baggage from a turbulent childhood and sexual assault by her swimming coach as a teen. Bening’s performance is a solid “great but flawed” athlete performance but there really is something extra to what Foster’s doing, something that gets to the emotions of a long-term partnership. B+

The only other acting nomination going to someone not in a Best Picture nominee is Danielle Brooks’ supporting actress nomination for The Color Purple, the musical based on the book of the same name and currently available via VOD and on Max. I reviewed the movie last week and thought it was fine, with Brooks definitely a standout performance.

In the writing categories — original and adapted — there is only one nominee not up for a Best Picture nod. Killers of the Flower Moon did not get a writing nod, but May December (Netflix) did. With a screenplay by Samy Burch, this Todd Haynes-directed movie (which I reviewed a while back) stars Natalie Portman playing an actress who has come to meet and study a woman (Julianne Moore) who decades earlier as a thirty-something had an affair/criminal relationship with a 13-year-old boy that sent her to jail. They later married; the movie is set when their youngest children are graduating from high school. It’s a dark, occasionally bleakly funny movie but it is also extremely hard to watch.

Some of the other nominees I’ve caught up with recently:

The Creator(VOD and Hulu) This sci-fi movie starring John David Washington is set in a future where America is at war with a country called New Asia where AI robots of all sorts — from robots that kind of resemble those pointed-headed Phantom Menace bots to simulants that look almost human — live in relative peace with the human population. America is dead set on eliminating AI creatures and is on the hunt for a rumored weapon that could take down the U.S.’s NOMAD aircraft, a giant metaphor for drones, I mean, a large plane thing that blows up villages with both precision and widespread destruction. Washington plays a former Army sergeant lured back for one more mission with the hope that he will be able to find Maya (Gemma Chan), the wife he thought had died years earlier. It is a solid adventure story and is nominated in the sound and visual effects categories. B+

The Last Repair Shop (Hulu & Disney+) Nominated in the Documentary Short Film category, this 39-minute film about Los Angeles students, the instruments they play and the adults who fix those instruments is a charmer. We hear the stories of kids talking about what music means to them and we hear from the adults talking about how they came to repair instruments, many with their own musical journeys. A

The ABCs Of Book Banning (Paramount+) Another short that makes good use of kid interview subjects, this Documentary Short Film (27 minutes) talks to kids about books that have been banned, challenged or restricted at public school libraries. The standouts here are the incredibly thoughtful kids who don’t get why a picture book about two penguins adopting a baby penguin (And Tango Makes Three) or, for older kids, books about the Holocaust (The Diary of Anne Frank, Maus) are not appropriate. The other star: a 100-year-old World War II soldier’s widow speaking at a school board meeting against book banning. That lady deserves her own doc. B

Ninety-Five Senses (on smallscreenings.org/mast/ninety-five-senses/film) I found this Animated Short Film nominee thanks to the Oscar movies guide on AllYourScreens.com. Tim Blake Nelson’s voice accompanies the beautiful watercolor and sketch visuals of the story. A man on what we come to learn is his last day discusses his life as connected to his five senses. B+

The After (Netflix) This Live Action Short Film nominee (18 minutes) stars David Oyelowo as a grief-overwhelmed man just trying to get through his day as a driver for a ride service and facing what finally breaks him. Oyelowo’s performance makes the movie. B

Four Daughters (rent or purchase or streaming on Kino Film Collection) A Documentary Feature Film nominee, this movie about a Tunisian mother, Olfa, and her four daughters is a blend of documentary and reenactment, with actors playing her two oldest daughters, who ran away to join ISIS (and are now in jail in Libya), the real life younger daughters and another actor occasionally playing Olfa. The movie is not what you think at first, not a straightforward afterschool special-ish take on teen girls being sucked in by a dangerous organization — there are shipping containers of baggage related to Olfa’s young life, her turbulent relationship with her daughters, the violent men who were in their lives and the violence that was a part of their lives out in the world. The movie is mournful and disturbing but you also can’t look away. B+

20 Days in Mariupol (available for rent or purchase and at pbs.org) This Documentary Feature Film nominee features footage shot by AP journalist Mstyslav Chernov, one of the very few journalists in Mariupol, Ukraine, during the Russian invasion. Though we hear some of Chernov narrating what he’s seeing or how the war makes him worry about his own family elsewhere, the documentary is at its strongest when it’s just showing regular people trying to get through the war — sheltering underground, trying to get information about how to keep their families safe, trying to get medical help after a bombing. Footage of a mother crying “why, why” after hospital staff telling her they couldn’t save her child or a father sobbing “my son, my son” after his teenager is pronounced dead — both children killed in bombings — is among the movie’s most impactful moments. B+

Featured photo: The Creator.

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