Monday, January 30, 2023

80 for Brady is an agreeable, though not especially memorable, star-studded comedy


The trailer and other marketing materials for 80 for Brady offer a fairly accurate picture of what to expect from this comedy. This is a featherweight movie that's been built from the ground up to be light and breezy, with many of the gags emanating from seeing esteemed performers like Jane Fonda and Sally Field engaging in wacky shenanigans like accidentally ingesting drugs or dancing. There aren't really any surprises in here, which does ensure that you won't be quoting or referencing 80 for Brady long after you watch it. But while it's flickering on the screen, it's a pleasant distraction that matches expectations. It's always better when a film surprises you, but it's not a crime to be perfectly cromulent.

Inspired by a true story (though I presume it has as much to do with its inspiration as Tag did with its own real-life source material), 80 for Brady follows a quartet of New England Patriots fans, Lou (Lily Tomlin), Trish (Jane Fonda), Maura (Rita Moreno), and Betty (Sally Field) who would rather die than miss a game or a play from Tom Brady. Spurred on by the passion of Lou, this gaggle of pals decides to make a trek to Houston, Texas to watch Super Bowl LI, a game where Brady and the Patriots will be playing. Traveling to the lone star state was easy, but keeping track of their tickets and staying out of trouble before the big game, those will be the real challenges for these die-hard fans.

If nothing else, 80 for Brady is a welcome demonstration that its primary actors won't sleepwalk even through material that's often beneath them. Sarah Haskins and Emily Halpern have delivered a script that often alternates between being a formulaic comedy and a lengthy NFL commercial, but our primary leads are as awake and alert as ever. Even the supporting cast is putting in more effort than they probably should. Glynn Turman, especially, delivers a dramatic monologue in such a touching and subtly moving fashion, complete with the gradual introduction of real tears into the sequence, all in service of a very predictable gag involving Moreno's character. These kinds of performances don't make 80 for Brady a new comic gem, but they do give it a little more pep in its step than you'd expect. 

Most of the movie is pretty serviceable but deeply predictable fare, complete with celebrity references and nods to "youth culture" (are you ready to see Lily Tomlin dab?) that are probably five years out of date, at least. If the sight of older women dancing sounds hilarious to you, then buckle up, you're in for a good time. The script also has some very awkward beats, namely a subplot with Betty and her quietly pestering husband (played by Bob Balaban) that awkwardly peters out with no resolution. At least Haskins and Halpern wisely avoid giving this gaggle of friends any kind of traditional dramatic break-up at the end of the second act. There's conflict between these four chums, but they're never in danger of falling apart. After all, they've been friends for decades, will some Super Bowl-related problem really devastate their dynamic? It's a nice subtle touch in a movie that often defaults to the broad and familiar.

Their script also gets a second wind of life in the third act when it seems like all the major problems for our lead characters are solved. Without getting into spoiler territory, 80 for Brady eventually decides to make the saga of its lead character's a kind of Rogue One to Super Bowl LI's Star Wars: A New Hope. In other words, it becomes a behind-the-scenes saga involving ordinary people that reveals the circumstances that made a more famous story possible. It's a ludicrous flight of fancy, but it's a lot more inventive than the more generic shenanigans that populate the preceding story. We've all seen gags hinging on older ladies dancing before. Lily Tomlin anchoring NFL fan-fiction, now that's more novel.

Beyond this detour into historical revisionism, director Kyle Marvin's approach for 80 for Brady is keeping things easygoing, but not surprising. This very straightforward approach means the proceedings are never quite good enough to either be worthy of its four lead performers or make you forget that you're watching a 98-minute commercial for the NFL. Still, if this movie seems like it'll be your cup of tea from the promos, you'll likely have a good time. 80 for Brady is here to deliver on expectations and isn't interested in rocking the boat any more than that. 

Saturday, January 21, 2023

95th Academy Awards nominations predictions

An image from Moonfall, one of the most likely movies to prominently factor into the 95th Academy Awards nominations.

Well, it's time again. Award season has been going on for a few months now and the nominations for this year's edition of the Academy Awards are around the corner. This year's 95th Academy Awards are bound to be chaotic (though aren't they every year in some respect?) in terms of projected nominees. Questions like "how many sequels will there be?" or "will there be any women-directed movies?" linger over the Best Picture category alone. Meanwhile, there have been all kinds of reports that actors from major movies like The Fabelmans could end up nominated in different categories than the ones they were campaigned for.

When the nominations get announced Tuesday morning, we're bound to have lots to talk about and tons of controversy to unpack. For now, though, let's keep things simmered down by looking at my predictions for who will get nominated in every single category at the 95th Academy Awards. I've got some bold predictions in here, with my Best Picture picks alone featuring multiple foreign language nominees (if that happened, it'd be the first time in history that this category featured more than one title told in a language that isn't English) and no signs of the Na'vi. Let's march onward, folks, and see who I'm currently predicting to have some kind of role to play in the impending 95th Academy Awards.

One note before going forward: the movies and names in my Best Picture and Best Director predictions, respectively, are listed in alphabetical order, the rest of the movies in every other category are just randomly assorted.

Best Picture:

All Quiet on the Western Front

The Banshees of Inisherin


Everything Everywhere All at Once

The Fabelmans



Top Gun: Maverick

The Whale

Women Talking

Best Director:

Daniels (Everything Everywhere All at Once)

Todd Field (TAR)

Joseph Kosinski (Top Gun: Maverick)

Martin McDonagh (The Banshees of Inisherin)

S.S. Rajamouli (RRR)

Best Actress:

Cate Blanchett (TAR)

Viola Davis (The Woman King)

Ana de Armas (Blonde)

Danielle Deadwyler (Till)

Michelle Yeoh (Everything Everywhere All at Once)

Best Actor:

Austin Butler (Elvis)

Bill Nighy (Living)

Brendan Fraser (The Whale)

Colin Farrell (The Banshees of Inisherin)

Paul Mascal (Aftersun)

Best Supporting Actress:

Michelle Williams (The Fabelmans)

Angela Bassett (Black Panther: Wakanda Forever)

Stephanie Hsu (Everything Everywhere All at Once)

Jamie Lee Curtis (Everything Everywhere All at Once)

Dolly De Leon (Triangle of Sadness)

Best Supporting Actor:

Paul Dano (The Fabelmans)

Brendan Gleeson (The Banshees of Inisherin

Ke Huy Quan (Everything Everywhere All at Once)

Judd Hirsch (The Fabelmans)

Barry Keoghan (The Banshees of Inisherin)

Best Original Screenplay:

Everything Everywhere All at Once

The Fabelmans


The Banshees of Inisherin


Best Adapted Screenplay:

Women Talking

Glass Onion


The Whale

Top Gun: Maverick

Best Animated Feature:

Guillermo del Toro's Pinocchio

Turning Red

Marcel the Shell with Shoes On

Wendell & Wild

Puss in Boots: The Last Wish

Best Documentary Feature:

Bad Axe

All That Breathes


All the Beauty and the Bloodshed

Fire of Love

Best International Film:


All Quiet on the Western Front

Decision to Leave



Best Cinematography:

Top Gun: Maverick

Everything Everywhere All at Once

The Fabelmans 



Best Costume Design:

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever


The Fabelmans

The Woman King

Everything Everywhere All at Once

Best Film Editing:

Top Gun: Maverick


The Fabelmans 

Everything Everywhere All at Once 


Best Makeup and Hairstyling:

Crimes of the Future

The Whale



The Batman

Best Production Design:

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

Everything Everywhere All at Once

Glass Onion

The Fabelmans


Best Original Score:

Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

Women Talking


The Fabelmans

Everything Everywhere All at Once

Best Song:

"Tell It Like a Woman" from Applause

"Hold My Hand" from Top Gun: Maverick

"Lift Me Up" from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever

"This Is a Life" from Everything Everywhere All at Once

"Naatu Naatu" from RRR

Best Sound:

Top Gun: Maverick

Avatar: The Way of Water


Everything Everywhere All at Once


Best Visual Effects:


Thirteen Lives

Avatar: The Way of Water

Top Gun: Maverick

The Batman

Best Animated Short:

The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse

My Year of Dicks

Save Ralph

An Ostrich Told Me the World is Fake, and I Think I Believe It 

Ice Merchants

Best Live-Action Short:

La Pupille

The Red Suitcase

The Lone Wolf


An Irish Goodbye

Best Documentary Short:

The Martha Mitchelle Effect 

Nuisance Bear

The Elephant Whisperers

The Flagmakers

How Do You Measure a Year?

Let's see how my predictions fare come this Tuesday!

Some decent chuckles can't erase the major writing problems in You People

Kenya Barris has carved out a TV empire for himself thanks to being the creator of Black-ish and two of its spin-offs as well as an executive producer on a slew of Netflix TV programs. Barris has also had a recurring presence in film as a screenwriter but save for being one of the writers on the 2017 comedy Girls Trip, his writing credits have been for a wave of reboots/sequels from major studios like The Witches, Shaft, and that Disney+ Cheaper by the Dozen remake. Considering that he was one of several writers on all these films, not to mention that these were franchise pictures designed to please audience expectations rather than challenge them, it's fair to say Barris's voice hasn't been especially discernible in feature-length narratives up to this point.

With the Netflix comedy You People, Barris, who directs this movie and wrote the script with Jonah Hill, gets a chance to show off his chops at crafting a film without also having to worry about what audiences and studio executives want out of a project like Coming 2 America. The resulting feature shows a welcome willingness on Barris's part to engage in lofty ideas and put his actors in unique roles. Unfortunately, his skills at merging broad comedy with tearjerker moments (at least in the world of film) are so lacking that You People as a whole ends up floundering.

After an awkward mishap involving an Uber ride, podcaster/broker Ezra Cohen (Jonah Hill) and Amira Mohammed (Lauren London) have hit it off and become a couple. They love doing even the most frivolous things together, like brushing their teeth or watching ridiculous TV shows. What they don't love is how their respective families respond to their relationship, with these tensions flaring up as the duo prepares to get married. For Ezra, his mom, Shelley (Julia Lous-Dreyfus) is a perfect portrait of a clueless Liberal white lady. She's the sort of person who speaks about loving Black people but also sees them as just trophies she can use to prove how progressive she is. Meanwhile, Amira's dad, Akbar Mohammed (Eddie Murphy) has a very specific idea of who his daughter should marry and it isn't Ezra. He hates this guy from the get-go and Akbar is looking for any chance to prove to his daughter that Ezra would make a bad husband.

Shortly before my screening of You People started, I realized how long it'd been since I saw a Jonah Hill comedy on the big screen. "I can't wait to see this kind of yukfest theatrically again!" I thought to myself as the lights dimmed. Unfortunately, by the time You People reached its second instance of Hill stretching out an awkward conversation with heavily-improvised dialogue, I realized that I hadn't missed this Judd Apatow-style of comedy as much as I thought I had. Hill is an incredibly talented actor, and he gets to show off his skills in various other parts of You People. Unfortunately, relying on lengthy improvised lines has just never been his strong suit and it's a shame this movie immediately leans so hard on that trait.

From there, You People picks up a bit once Ezra and Amira begin dating and hitting it off. Hill and Barris nicely eschew any post-modernism winks to the camera as these two lovebirds tenderly play footsies on their first date or laugh together in a separate restaurant. The script has enough confidence to realize that committing to romantic sweetness is enough to get the audience on your side. You don't have to earn the trust of moviegoers by poking everybody in the ribs on how common these kinds of montages are. By playing straight-faced, You People immerses us in its central relationship and allows both Hill and London to flourish as actors by depicting the characters navigating the exciting early days of a budding romance.

Just as you need rain to go with the sunshine, so too does You People's script eventually pair this cutesy romance with extended bits of cringe comedy surrounding Ezra's parents socially interacting with Amira. Some of these gags work, especially when they involve David Duchovny playing against type as Ezra's dad who has a deep affection for Xzibit that he'll talk about at the drop of a hat. Still, there's a level of preciseness in timing needed to pull these kinds of sequences off. TV shows like The Rehearsal or The Eric Andre Show are masters at knowing how long cringe-inducing laughs should go on. Cut this type of comedy too short, it never reaches it full potential, but let it go on too long, and you just end up running your gags into the ground. You People, like so many Netflix original movies, unfortunately, has some major pacing issues that undercut the impact of its multiple stabs at cringe comedy. A sequence at a strip club in the third act involving supporting characters talking about Ezra's past, for instance, goes on forever and ever. I think it's still playing as I type up this review!

As You People goes on, it, unfortunately, gets worse, especially in its third act. The last 30-ish minutes of this movie boils down to a series of characters delivering lengthy monologues about their personal feelings. It's a didactic way of communicating information that's never interesting enough in its dialogue to justify why Ezra, Amira, and everyone else in the movie is suddenly turning to the camera to explain the lessons they want audiences to take away from the feature. The largely unimaginative filmmaking from Barris and cinematographer Mark Doering-Powell is especially apparent in these sequences. If these monologues are going to exist, they should feel momentous, but they're so flatly shot and lit. There's no difference between how Ezra and Amira are filmed pouring their hearts out compared to how they're shot just eating dinner together.

The emphasis on ham-fisted pathos in the third act underscores how few of the characters inhabiting You People really come off as, well, people. Amira is especially underserved by the script, with Barris and Hill's screenplay being shockingly uninterested in this character's life beyond her dynamic with Ezra and his family. We only see brief glimpses of her job and even briefer examinations of who her friends are. Eschewing these details leaves poor Lauren London often with nothing to do. Amira is emblematic of You People's greatest problem from a screenwriting perspective. The characters are so generically-defined and arch that attempts to wring poignancy out of them fall flat. Unfortunately, this feels like a more severe case of a similar problem with Hill's last feature film screenwriting credit, Mid90s, which also struggled to lend enough dimension to its respective characters to make pathos-heavy scenes feel earned.

That's all a shame since the actors in You People are not sleepwalking through this project. Eddie Murphy especially seems to be enjoying himself in a more restrained than usual part while Julia Louis-Dreyfus, a veteran of uncomfortable comedy thanks to Seinfeld, scores some glib chuckles in personifying White lady cluelessness. Solid performances and brief glimmers of more interesting examinations of weighty ideas keep You People from flaming out entirely. Alas, while it's nice to see Jonah Hill and Eddie Murphy headlining a feature-length comedy in 2023, You People comes up short more often than it proves amusing, especially in its poorly conceived third act. At least it's better than an earlier film penned by Barris, The Witches.

Sunday, January 8, 2023

Disastrous high frame rate aside, Avatar: The Way of Water is another remarkable James Cameron epic

In 2010, Brad Paisley released a cheeky country song called "Water." A simple title for an exceedingly simple song designed from the ground up to be played during summertime-themed Bud Light ads. In it, Paisley takes a chronological look at all the times water has played an influential part in his life, from playing in an inflatable pool as a kid to romping around in a river bank with friends as a teenager to a lake serving as a backdrop for a romantic rendezvous with a loved one. Even by the standards of Brad Paisley tunes released between 2000 and 2013, it's nothing outstanding (though it's better than "I'm Still a Guy", at least), but its very existence does suggest the kind of personal connections we all have to water. Somehow or another, water plays a major role in our lives without us even realizing it. "The way of water connects all things," a character in Avatar: The Way of Water intones in a line that could've hailed from a cut verse in Paisley's "Water." Moviegoers everywhere will no doubt agree even before they sit down to watch the latest Na'vi adventure.

Realizing the sheer power of water and the way it can intertwine with our personal lives is one of the many ways this latest James Cameron movie succeeds. Returning to the world of Pandora all these years later should just result in a bunch of stale leftovers. Instead, Avatar: The Way of Water is a dynamic and moving enterprise, with Cameron opting to use staggering visual effects technology on some incredibly quiet sequences.

The incredibly classical storytelling sensibilities of these Avatar movies are established immediately in The Way of Water's screenplay (penned by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver in addition to Cameron) through returning protagonist Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) narrating audiences through various events that have happened since the first Avatar. I've always said that the initial feature felt like a fable you'd tell around a campfire. Having Sully speak in hushed tones about the family he and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) have cultivated (with no in-universe explanation for where the narration is coming from, unlike its predecessor's narration) reinforces that vibe tremendously. 

Sully and Neytiri now have a whole gaggle of children, including Kiri (Sigourney Weaver), a daughter derived from the DNA of Dr. Grace Augustine, and Lo'ak (Britain Dalton), the troubled younger son of the family. Their life is tremendously fulfilling, but things get thrown for a loop when humans from Earth return to the glorious world of Pandora. Decimating the forest the Sully's and other Na'vi call home, the humans are also putting together a collection of Avatar specimens that utilize the consciousness of evil dead soldiers, such as the first Avatar's main baddie General Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). Now super tall and blue, Quaritch has a grudge against Sully that he'll pursue no matter what. With such violence on their tails, Sully and Neytiri pack up their family and look for a new home. Their travels eventually take them to a tribe of Na'vi that live in the Ocean.

There's a lot to digest in Avatar: The Way of Water as it journeys across multiple biomes and straddles so many characters at once. That 191-minute runtime isn't just for show! Shockingly, it's able to juggle most of its character-based elements quite nicely. Inevitably, some figures get stuck on the sidelines in the sprawling ensemble cast (I especially wanted more for Neytiri and Kate Winslet's Ronal) but the character beats that do get put into the foreground work nicely. Kiri is an especially wonderful creation and hands down the best character to emerge from the entire Avatar franchise. The idea of Sigourney Weaver playing a teenager should be a farce, but Weaver does great work making Kiri somebody evocative of Augustine but also discernibly her own character. Her awkwardness and sense of isolation as a "freak" no matter where she goes is also handled very well. I'm always a sucker for larger-than-life characters (in this case, a blue kitty cat alien teenager) grappling with everyday vulnerabilities and Kiri is a great example of why. It's just so emotionally fulfilling to get wrapped up in the humanity of something that doesn't initially look human.

It's also nifty that Cameron's creative trajectory has now shifted onto teenage characters, a great choice to immediately differentiate this Avatar installment from its predecessor. Not only that, but there's something so quietly tragic (though not deafeningly bleak as executed here) about watching these teens existing in a world that can turn into a warzone at the drop of a hat. When you're just watching these adolescent Na'vi chilling and talking under a palm tree together or talking to a space whale about how "I met a boy", you realize these are still kids. They should be concerned with petty squabbles and teenage nonsense, not threats of extermination from greedy humans that function as a physical embodiment of capitalism. These characters are forced to focus on survival, not personal fulfillment. Cameron doesn't rub the noses of viewers in this dark element of The Way of Water's narrative. However, the innate choice to center a plot that often becomes a war movie on teenagers can't help but lend the proceedings an extra bit of tragedy and depth.

The characters are fun, but of course, what anyone going into Avatar: The Way of Water craves is the visuals. Even with the high bar of its predecessor, The Way of Water delivers stunning images that'll make you want to run to the nearest beach. All that crystal blue water is just so gorgeous to watch consume a gigantic movie theater screen while the vidid lighting allows viewers to appreciate all the finer details hiding out on the margins of the frame. It's also interesting how the biggest sign of how far visual effects have come since the first Avatar is how much more of The Way of Water is focused on having CGI characters and live-action figures extensively interact. What served as primarily the emotional crescendo of the original Avatar (for the big emotional scene where Neytiri finally see's Sully's human form) is the norm for many scenes in The Way of Water, especially anything involving human child Spider (Jake Champion). It's staggering to watch this movie and realize how naturally the artificial and discernible human blend together, the Na'vi really do look like they're right there on a ship's deck or in a laboratory. 

Of course, all those visual feats would be even easier to appreciate if it weren't for the fatal flaw of Avatar: The Way of Water: high frame rate projection. As presented in my XD 3D showing (which is basically the equivalent to IMAX 3D at Cinemark movie theaters), large swathes of The Way of Water are shown in 48 frames per second, while the rest of the movie is shown in the traditional 24 frames per second. This choice is a tragedy on several fronts, including how it's just so distracting. Key moments of characters soaring through the sky or epic confrontations between good and evil just look like they're being fast-forwarded. Just as bad is how many sequences in this feature alternate between the two frame rates. Going from characters talking in 24 frames per second before they continue their conversation in 48 frames per second is disorienting and just highlights how much better the former format is. High-frame rate camerawork has its place in documentaries and for specific sequences in movies. But it's been clear long before The Way of Water that it doesn't work for the entirety or majority of narrative features. Pandora deserved better than looking like a football game on a display TV at Best Buy.

Other shortcomings in The Way of Water are of the more rudimentary variety. I'm not going to drag Jake Champion's performance as Spider since I feel like everybody's been doing that already (the downside of getting to a movie three weeks late cuz of COVID, I miss out on being a trailblazer in the discourse!), but his work is unquestionably weak. Champion had a difficult role to play here, the one teen who plays things passively in contrast to the other youngsters in the cast who get to rebel, not to mention he's separated from the cool water stuff audiences quickly latch onto. Even considering that, his line deliveries are often terrible and the performance leaves much to be desired. A third-act battle scene, meanwhile, starts off perfectly but does get bogged down in some weird repetition by the end as characters keep going back and forth to and from one location too often.

Those shortcomings and the grating presence of high frame rate weigh The Way of Water down in some respects, but by and large, this is, much like the first Avatar, another rip-roaring classical adventure full of robots, space dragons, and a bunch of cosmic critters you'll wish you could reach out and pet. All of its told with such earnestness that entire sequences of a teenage Na'vi and a whale bonding go by with nary a self-deprecating line in sight. That sincerity, a bunch of enjoyable teen protaganists, and tons of groundbreaking visual effects techniques (I know, a James Cameron movie that pushed the VFX envelope) make this just the kind of sweeping feature that makes for such a great time at the movies. Though it may be difficult for some to believe, Avatar: The Way of Water is a better artistic endeavor involving water than Brad Paisley's 2010 single "Water."