Neruda.

I admit to knowing less about how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences settles on its five nominees for Best Foreign Language Film than I do about the other major awards, so when I say I don’t understand how Neruda wasn’t nominated for the honor while A Man Called Ove was, I mean that quite literally. Not only is Neruda a smarter and better film, but I find it hard to accept that a large number of movie industry people saw both and said, hey, the mawkish claptrap about the grumpy old man is the better choice. (Neruda is available to rent on amazon and iTunes.)

Neruda, Chile’s submission for the prize for 2016, was directed by Pablo Larrain, who also directed Jackie, which earned Natalie Portman a well-deserved Best Actress nomination. It’s a fictional story that stars the very real and very famous Chilean poet, Senator, and dissident Pablo Neruda’s flight from an anti-communist government in Chile in 1948, first in exile within his country and eventually in France. Through the movie, he’s pursued by the obsessed detective/inspector Oscar Peluchonneau, but Neruda has a strange plan in place, taunting the inspector with copies of books and handwritten notes while always remaining one step ahead of his predator.

As a chase film, Neruda stinks, so don’t rent this one looking for high adventure; there’s more comedy in the cops’ regular failures to find Neruda, even when he’s right under their noses. This is a far more philosophical work, one that is even structured like a poem, and that meditates openly on the nature of character and even on whether we are ‘real’ or merely the fictional products of someone else’s imagination.

Larrain has adopted a specific visual style here, where he cuts conversations up by settings, so that characters in the middle of a deep dialogue will suddenly shift positions, rooms, even ending up outside, but appear oblivious to the change in scenery. Part of this seemed to be an attempt to mimic the free verse of Neruda’s poetry, while it also seemed to underline the metafictional aspects of the story – that is, since these jumps are clearly not possible in reality, are we to suspect that other portions, even entire characters, are not real, but are merely projections of the creative genius of Neruda.

The title character is played by Luis Gnecco as a corpulent, arrogant libertine, as sure of his flight plan as he is of his literary talent, and not above the occasional champagne-soaked orgy. (There’s something inherently amusing about a man who is overweight and balding attracting women in twos and threes by virtue of his words.) He brings two voices to Neruda, one for regular dialogue, one for his poems and speeches, a gearshift for a character who, in reality, was certainly aware of his public profile and eager to play a role in his country’s history.

Oscar, played by Gael García Bernal, is the more demanding role, however, as the cop undergoes an existential crisis during an assignment that will make his career or end it in humiliation. He plays it with the veneer of the noir detective, dashing in suit and hat, betraying little emotion, always confident that the next raid will corner his prey, but little details in the performance and even his look – the unmade ties, the collar askew – show the doubt beneath the surface. In a story that truly has just two characters and focuses on the dance between them that keeps them apart until the final few scenes, García Bernals performance was literally essential, giving life to a film that could have descended into caricature or farce.

Neruda is in Spanish, and a little French, with English subtitles, which I only mention because I’m fairly sure I lost some of the benefits of understanding Neruda’s speeches and poems in the original language because I was also reading the English to make sure I didn’t miss anything important. I can understand a little Spanish, but apparently the letter “s” is banned in Chile, so I found much of the dialogue hard to grasp. Perhaps I’ll need to see about a sabbatical in Santiago; I hear they have good food there.

The real Neruda’s flight was far less daring or courageous; he was smuggled from house to house for three years, didn’t appear in public, didn’t taunt his pursuers, and eventually fled to Argentina and then France on a friend’s passport. He also earned criticism within his lifetime for his refusal to condemn communist leaders who suppressed journalists and other writers, putting party over principle, so to speak. This film version, while flawed in his personal life and his general arrogance, is far more heroic than the actual Chilean was. It’s a forgivable offense because of what it brings us in the interplay between him and Oscar, who turns out to be the real star of the show.

Christine.

The 2016 film Christine is a good movie, not a great one, that gives some life and depth to a real person who’s only remembered today because she committed suicide on live television. The script itself plays pretty loose with the facts and fails to stick the landing, but succeeds at humanizing its subject and is bolstered by several extremely strong performances, notably that of its lead, Rebecca Hall. The movie is available to rent on amazon and iTunes.

Christine Chubbuck was a 29-year-old reporter for a local TV news program in Sarasota at the time she took her own life, a decision that seems to have come at the end of a series of personal and professional setbacks as well as the reemergence of an undertreated case of mental illness. Christine delves into those setbacks while also giving some depth to her character, but without romanticizing either her or her decision. She’s sympathetic despite obvious flaws here, without becoming just an object of curiosity for the ending we all know is coming.

Most of the film compresses Chubbuck’s professional and personal problems into a period of a few days or weeks prior to her suicide. Her station manager, Michael Nelson (played by Tracy Letts), is pushing everyone to chase more salacious stories, citing the “if it bleeds, it leads” maxim, to boost ratings, which shifts the kind of longform news pieces that Chubbuck wants to do on to the back burner, increasing her conflicts with Nelson, who is depicted here as anti-feminist but who understands that Chubbuck has untapped talent. She also has an unrequited crush on the show’s lead anchor, George Peter Ryan (a charismatic Michael C. Hall), and discovers that she has to have an ovary removed, reducing her chances of ever getting pregnant. (She really did have that operation, but it was a year before her suicide.)

Rebecca Hall plays Chubbuck as permanently tightly wound, regardless of mood, giving the impression that she’s bipolar rather than simply depressed, which fits her brother’s recollections of her rather than her diagnosis at the time. Hall’s Chubbuck is always in fourth gear, which makes her difficult to work with, but never a caricature of a “crazy” person; when the script calls for her to be erratic, Hall portrays her with self-control, like someone who’s internalizing the pain of her mental illness.

I had less issue with the film’s bending or fabricating of details – for example, the character Jean (Maria Dizzia, who is just waiting for her part in a Gilda Radner biopic) doesn’t seem to have existed, but here plays Christine’s closest friend at the station instead of sportscaster Andrea Kirby – than the film’s mawkish ending and cloying use of details to tie parts of the movie together. The movie doesn’t shy away from Chubbuck’s suicide, showing the shot from a distance but otherwise playing it straight, including the disbelieving reactions from coworkers who thought it was a prank at first. But it overdoes the aftermath by showing us Chubbuck’s mother watching the program (probably not true) and then a fabricated ending with Jean that serves no purpose but to tie back to a conversation the two women had earlier in the film. This last scene undermines the dramatic effects of the suicide and the seriousness of the portrayal of Chubbuck’s personal problems, but provides zero benefit in exchange.

Rebecca Hall’s performance here would be, at the moment, the second-best by a lead actress that I’ve seen in any 2016 film, just a shade behind Natalie Portman for Jackie and ahead of Oscar winner Emma Stone. She delivered nuance to a script that gave her enough latitude to play Chubbuck as unhinged or unlikable, even when working against a stock character like her mother (played by J. Smith Cameron, who, I just discovered, is married to Kenneth Lonergan). Hall hits this specific note of internal tension and holds it for almost the entire film, only letting it go briefly in scenes where Chubbuck goes to the local children’s hospital to do puppet shows for the kids (something Chubbuck did in real life). In a highly fictionalized biopic like Christine, a sloppy or bombastic lead performance would destroy the film, but Hall truly carries the picture and helps gloss over some of the script’s missteps.

Michael C. Hall is also surprisingly effective as the insecure, dumb-jock type who’s found his star on the ascendant because of his good looks and on-camera charm, while Letts is his usual workmanlike self, infusing a little depth to a character who’s largely one-note because he’s only seen when interacting with and usually just reacting to Christine. Dizzia probably has to do the most work with the least help, as her character is the hackneyed “best friend with no life of her own” type, stripping some character traits from Kirby (played by Kim Shaw), who is instead just the pretty face who gets the job and the guy that Chubbuck wanted.
I wish Christine had spent a little more time explaining the character’s struggles with mental illness, and hadn’t made her so dismissive of the topic in the one scene where it’s explicitly discussed; Chubbuck’s brother has said she was in treatment at the time of her suicide, which this film seems to contradict. But bipolar disorder (formerly called manic-depressive disorder) wasn’t in the DSM until after Chubbuck’s death, so she was only diagnosed with depression and thus was probably undertreated rather than untreated when she killed herself. The script instead focuses on her unhappiness in her love life and at work as the primary drivers of her suicide, backburnering the depression, when that was almost certainly the main cause.

Watch Christine for its strong lead performance, for the solid supporting actors, and for the film’s effort to fill out the story of a real person whose legacy has been limited to its shock value. The script has its flaws, but does manage to give the viewer a picture of Christine Chubbuck as a real person, and the decision not to sensationalize the suicide itself, instead making her character the center of the film, saved the movie from its handful of missteps.

Captain Fantastic.

I hadn’t even heard of Captain Fantastic until Viggo Mortensen grabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Actor for his performance here, but when it popped up on Amazon Prime this month and a couple of you recommended it, I figured I’d give it a shot, even though the reviews I’d seen before watching it were all pretty lukewarm. It’s really not a good movie at all, thanks to a mawkish, preachy script, saved in parts by some good performances and a lot of very funny quips that still aren’t enough to justify this movie’s one-sided existence. (It’s also available on iTunes.)

Mortensen plays Ben, a father of six who lives in an isolated cabin in the Pacific Northwest with his family, where he and his wife have home-schooled the kids and raised them off the grid, rearing a bunch of child prodigies with distinctly anti-capitalist, anti-religious, socially progressive views. When their mom, who is absent in the early parts of the film because she’s been hospitalized, kills herself, the brood end up taking a road trip south to New Mexico to attend her funeral, fight with her father, and engage in the obvious comedy of having the kids see American consumer culture for the first time.

It’s a cliche-ridden mess as a script, as a story, and in most of the things the family does outside of itself, which is to say that the only parts of the script that work are the interactions between Ned and his kids, or among the kids themselves. With six of them, there isn’t enough screen time to develop their individual characters, so five of them are cut from the same cloth and seem to represent different stages of development, with the oldest, Bo, the one who gets some depth, although the two sisters, Kielyr and Vespyr, have their moments. The actors playing the children are all quite good, and I would bet this film will one day be a novelty for the fact that a bunch of good actors were all in this as kids, but they don’t have a ton to work with.

The hippie material here provides a few good laughs, although some of them were easy targets, and the film overplays the humorous aspects of having a five-year-old spout Marxist ideology or Bo indignantly inform his father than he’s no longer a Trotskyist but a Maoist. But once the film puts them in direct contact with mainstream kids and adults, like Ben’s sister (played by Kathryn Hahn, who shows how great she can be even in a serious role) and her family, the film just goes for low-hanging fruit, and never recovers the energy it showed in spurts earlier in the film.

The ending is where the wheels truly come off the bus, pun intended; the story jumps too fast, spares us a lot of explanation we need for decisions the characters (mostly the kids) make, and gives us way too much of a feel-good ending for a setup that should give us something very ambiguous. This is a movie about parenting, about the choices we make as parents, about what it might be like to be there every minute of the day with your kids, and how we might raise children to be better humans, better aware of their effects on the environment and on others, more concerned about injustice and less concerned about material wealth. But parenting is hard, and raising kids with values like those, so far out of the mainstream of our culture, is extremely difficult, so giving us a pat ending where everything’s just fine – and, by the way, who’s paying for Bo’s choice at the film’s end – is inauthentic.

Mortensen’s very good in the film, but I would have given Joel Edgerton the nomination for Loving or even Michael Shannon for Midnight Special before him. Heck, even Rolf Lassgård, without whom A Man Called Ove would have failed completely as a film, was better.

Jackie.

Here are my abbreviated thoughts on Jackie, one of two movies released in 2016 from Chilean director Pablo Larraín:

1. Jackie isn’t that good of a film.
2. Natalie Portman deserved the Best Actress Oscar more than Emma Stone did.
3. And if Portman had won, the Best Picture screw-up would never have happened.

I might also add a 2a, that if this were a better movie she would have won, although I’m not entirely sure of the politics that go into who wins what award. But I do feel pretty strongly about her deserving the nod, even though I sort of argued against her winning when she did win (for Black Swan, beating out Jennifer Lawrence for Winter’s Bone). This movie sinks or swims with Portman’s performance, and she commits to it in every possible way, including mimicking Jackie Kennedy’s unique accent and intonation, taking us through the range of emotions that the widow of JFK faced in the immediate aftermath of her husband’s shocking death right next to her. (It’s on amazon and iTunes.)

Loosely based on an interview the former First Lady did with LIFE magazine a week after the murder, Jackie follows her in non-chronological fashion from the motorcade to the funeral, with very occasional flashbacks to prior events. It is a portrait of a woman in totally unexpected grief who also finds herself in front of the nation and yet about to be cast out of the White House with two young children in tow. JFK only appears briefly. No other character gets a fraction of the screen time Portman does. This script is trying to explore the nature of the response one of the most famous women in the world had to having her husband assassinated beside her, especially the public face she gave in the days that followed and in that interview.

That made it all the more shocking to me that the movie is so bland. Portman is superb, but the script itself feels incredibly cold toward its subject. This is a movie about a personal tragedy that was simultaneously a national one, but the script seems to treat it, and Jackie Kennedy’s response to it, as some sort of public policy question. I don’t think Jackie Kennedy comes off well or poorly in the film, but I also think we could have learned a lot more about her character than we did from this script. For example, there are hints of a divide between her and her husband’s family, but those lines are thrown in and never explored any futher. And if the goal was to present her as scheming for trying to ensure that the only major press coverage of her in her widowhood was positive, well, that’s hardly a character flaw.

Portman owns, though. Jackie Kennedy’s weird patrician Long Island accent is tough to listen to, and other than overdoing the breathiness, Portman nails it. She’s also effective at everything she needs to convey through tone, words, and gestures – the grief, the shock, the denial, the attention to trivial details, all come across as incredibly real, and the only emotion anyone shows in this film comes from Portman herself, not from her words but from how she grips and delivers them.

Some of the supporting performances are fine, although they exist in the shadow of the lead. John Hurt, in one of his last filmed performances, is typically wonderful as the Kennedy family priest Jackie consults on the day of the funeral. Peter Sarsgaard is excellent as Robert F. Kennedy, looking quite a bit like a young Kenneth Branagh, infusing some humanity into the character who is at once grieving for his own loss and providing the only measure of stability for the main character. Billy Beane … er, Crudup is playing an entirely fictional, unnamed reporter, giving some restraint and a little humor to a role that was written a bit too much like a giant blank. I also loved seeing Jack Valenti, who later headed the MPAA for three decades and fought to extend copyright law way beyond what such laws are supposed to protect and encourage, come off as an ambitious, smarmy jackass.

I’m looking forward to seeing Larraín’s other film from 2016, the Spanish-language Neruda, which was Chile’s submission for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar but didn’t even make the nine-title shortlist. It will be released in digital format later this month.

My Life as a Zucchini.

My Life as a Zucchini (original title: Ma Vie de Courgette) was one of the five nominees for this year’s Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, and the shortest of the nominated movies at just 66 minutes. It’s a stop-motion animation film with exaggerated, absurd-looking characters, boasting a wonderful story that strikes a perfect balance between sweetness and the sad reality beneath. (I saw the film in French, with English subtitles, but there is now an English version in theaters too, with Ron Swanson providing the voice of Raymond.)

Zucchini is the nickname of the main character, the orphan Icare, whom we meet at the beginning of the film in awful circumstances: He’s the neglected child of an alcoholic mother, apparently friendless, with only a kite and his collection of his mother’s discarded beer cans to keep him company. She sits in her living room all day, drinking and yelling at the television, but dies a few minutes into the film in an accident that Zucchini caused, which sends him to the orphanage by way of the cop Raymond’s office. At the orphanage, he meets the other kids who’ll soon become his friends, including Simon, the bully with a good heart beneath his exterior, and eventually Camille, the new girl with whom Zucchini falls in love.

Every one of these kids is there for some awful reason. Alice is there because her father molested her and is in jail. Bea is there because her mother was deported to Africa while Bea was in school. (Sound familiar?) Simon’s parents are drug addicts. There’s so much sadness underneath this story that it’s remarkable the film feels so light, but the script gives us everything through the eyes of the children, and it’s a world in which I wanted to spend so much more time. And how could you not care about these kids? The characters are all realistic – not in appearance, with their gigantic heads and arms that nearly reach the floor, but in conception and in their reactions to their circumstances. Even the rough stuff is played for laughs without diminishing the harsh reality beneath; for example, Simon is the only one who knows anything about sex (referred to just as “the thing”), but it’s because he saw pornographic films his parents would watch. It’s awful on its face, but his child’s understanding of what happened on screen is written so perfectly.

Squad goals
Zucchini’s motley crew.

While My Life as a Zucchini is an animated film, it’s not for kids. My daughter is ten, and I’m glad she passed on going with me, because I think the reasons the kids are in the orphanage would have upset her. (The sex talk would have just embarrassed her.) And while I smiled and laughed through most of the film, I was always aware of the sadness beneath the surface. Even the ending, which I won’t spoil except to say that it’s a happy one, still reminds you of the bleak situation these kids – who are in what I can only assume is the greatest orphan home in the world – face. They will always feel, as Simon said, that there was no one left to love them. Mining heart and humor from such fearsome material, based on a French-language book by Gilles Paris, is an impressive reminder of the power of a great work of fiction, whether book or movie, live-action or animated. My Life as a Zucchini can’t match the technical mastery of Oscar winner Zootopia, but its story is far more powerful.

Quick endnotes: If you see the movie, look for an homage to Spirited Away in the graffiti on the wall around the Les Fontaines orphanage very early in the film. Also, be sure to stay through the end credits (at least in the French version) for an absolutely precious vignette from the audition of the child who voiced Zucchini.

Long Way North.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences doesn’t release a shortlist of nominees for Best Animated Feature, instead simply listing all eligible films for a given year, with the 2016 list comprising 22 titles, five of which were eventually nominated. That’s how I stumbled on Long Way North, which is free to stream via Amazon Prime; directed by one of the assistants from the amazing 2009 film The Secret of Kells, Long Way North is a very old-fashioned sort of animated film, made in 2D Flash with a traditional feel and a strong, simple story for all ages. (You can also buy/rent it on iTunes).

Sasha is our heroine, the headstrong daughter of an ambitious Russian diplomat in the late 19th century, but after making a rather poor impression at her debutante ball, she chooses to run away from home to find out what happened to her adventurer grandfather, whose supposedly unsinkable ship never returned from an attempt to sail the Northeast Passage by way of the North Pole. She ends up on a merchant ship of tough guys who agree to search for her grandfather’s ship in hopes of collecting the enormous reward out for it, and, of course, she has to save the day through her courage and cleverness in figuring out where to look.

The movie succeeds on two core levels – the look and the story. The 2D rendering gives the movie a real old-school, almost comic-book feel, enhanced by the lack of contour lines in the film, giving the images a layered look, like paper or fabric pasted on backgrounds. In an era where we expect to be dazzled by animation – look at this year’s Oscar winner Zootopia, with its absurdly realistic rendering of animal fur, or Best Animated Short winner Piper‘s rendering of water – Long Way North delights with its minimalism. It’s a throwback in a good way, with an animation ethos like that of The Triplets of Belleville, where simplicity is given to us as an alternative to the near-perfection of Pixar. Once Sasha gets out of her parents’ dank mansion and into the world, the pictures explode with vibrant colors and sweeping fills that look painted on canvas.

The story is the real selling point in Long Way North, as it takes the coming-of-age framework and gives it a few more adult twists, even darker ones as Sasha and the crew face real life-or-death struggles as they approach the North Pole. Sasha is the center of the entire story and the only fully-realized character in the film, but her arc is more than just “spoiled kid meets adversity” or “child never gives up on dreams.” You know she’s not going to die in the Arctic, but the writers succeed in making her path from home to the Pole and back again matter in a way that gives us drama and tension without feeling forced, while also striking the right balance between rewarding Sasha’s blind faith in her grandfather and making her feel the consequences of the risks she’s taken.

The script itself has some really silly, avoidable mistakes in it. After an accident aboard the ship, one of the sailors rues the loss of all of their penicillin … which wasn’t discovered until about forty years after the time of this film. One scene has a character giving Sasha CPR, even though that technique was also decades away from invention. The Northeast Passage itself had already been sailed before the time of the story as well, by Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld, after several partial expeditions by Russian sailors. There’s even a glitch where the title of a book that’s part of the plot changes (by one word). It’s all rather sloppy, which is jarring in a film that looks so clean.

My daughter is a fan of any film that has a female protagonist, especially one who saves the day through cleverness or perseverance, and she loved Long Way North even though the opening exposition is a little confusing. I was more drawn in by the lush feel of the film at first, and didn’t find myself as caught up in the story as she was until the first third or so was over, and Sasha was in the small port town where she boards the mercenary ship. I would probably still recommend this over The Red Turtle, which was nominated for the Oscar over Long Way North, because it’s so much more accessible, with a better literal story (instead of TRT‘s more metaphorical one), and a brighter feast for the eyes as well. And in a related story, I’m hoping to catch My Life as a Zucchini, the only one of the five nominees for Best Animated Feature this year I haven’t seen yet, when it plays here in Wilmington this weekend.

Sing Street.

Sing Street is a coming-of-age story, set in the 1980s, that also serves as an homage to the distinctive pop and new-wave sounds of the first half of that decade along with the new medium of the music video. Written and directed by John Carney, who wrote and directed the wonderful 2007 film Once (now a Tony Award-winning musical), Sing Street uses largely unknown actors and original music that manages to evoke classic ’80s pop tunes without directly ripping them off, and includes all kinds of little visual cues to remind those of us who grew up in that era of the atmosphere of the time. The film earned a Golden Globe nomination for Best Musical or Comedy (it’s both), but didn’t earn a Best Song nomination, and was totally overlooked by the Oscars. I named it my #10 movie of 2016 on my post last weekend. It’s currently streaming on Netflix and available to rent on amazon and iTunes.

The film follows Conor, the youngest of three children of squabbling Robert (Aidan Gillen, a.k.a. Mayor Carcetti from The Wire) and Penny (Maria Doyle Kennedy, a.k.a. Mrs. S from Orphan Black), as he’s moved from a posh private school to a free school run by the Christian Brothers called Synge Street, named for the Dublin street on which it’s located. (The street and school are both real.) Conor’s bullied right away by the tough kids in the new school, but spots an attractive girl standing across the street – complete with ’80s big hair – and lies about being in a band to try to impress her, asking her to be in their first video. Then he has to make a band, which becomes Sing Street, and launches the remainder of the story, along with the film’s wonderful soundtrack.

Each Sing Street song is a thematic copy of something that’s popular at the moment, like Duran Duran’s “Rio” or Hall & Oates’ “Maneater.” If you remember the ’80s act Danny Wilson, who had a minor hit in the U.S. in 1988 called “Mary’s Prayer,” their lead singer Gary Clark wrote most of the music for Sing Street, and has a clear knack for this sort of knockoff – the song that sounds like some other song, but has enough of a hook to work on its own, with new and often quite clever lyrics. I’m far from the only person who thought “Drive It Like You Stole It” was robbed of an Oscar nomination – neither Sting’s version of the same song he’s been rewriting since “They Dance Alone” or that awful Timberlake song where he trolls the entire world deserved a spot over this one – but you could make a case for “Up” or closer “Brown Shoes” too.

The story itself is a little light, and we’re mostly just following the two main characters, Conor and Raphina, as they start to grow up a little, make some mistakes, and develop a sort of teenage crush. Everyone else is comic relief, including Conor’s manic, frustrated musician brother Brendan (played by American actor Jack Reynor, who’s great except for his bad Irish accent); Mark McKenna as rabbit-obsessed multi-instrumentalist wizard Eamon; and even class bully Barry, who has a predictably awful home life but gets his little moment in the sun. And Carney works in several ’80s music-video tropes, including shots of the main couple running out of a concert hall or the two of them running down the alley in the half-light, as well as clips of the band filming amateur music videos that imitate the stuff they’ve seen on TV.

Carney himself has said he regrets the ending, joking that he wishes he’d killed the two protagonists off, but I found his comments puzzling because, before I saw his comments, I didn’t think the ending was so unambiguously happy. Other than the clear reference to “Rio,” except for Conor getting poured on as opposed to Simon LeBon basking in sunshine, the ending seemed open-ended and doubtful to me. There’s no real reason to believe good things are going to happen to either character in what would hypothetically follow the final sequence. It’s an escape, because the film itself (and the music videos that inspired it) is an escape, but the characters are only escaping from, not escaping to. To compare it to the other great musical of 2016, La La Land, there’s probably no chance Conor and Raphina are staying together for long. They’re two kids in something like love, doing something rash and impetuous that probably won’t work out, but so what?

Ferdia Walsh-Peelo has a star-making turn as Conor, playing him with little flashes of the charisma of a lead singer, but primarily as a shy, slightly nerdy kid who’s barely coming into his own over the course of the film. He was 16 when it was filmed and won’t turn 18 until this October, if you want to wonder what you’ve done with your life. Lucy Boynton has less to do as Raphina, but she manages to pull off a solid combination of insecurity and superficial haughtiness, while also proving to be quite the chameleon as the costume and makeup folks run her through a series of looks that are unquestionably ’80s and best left there. (She’s also going to appear in the upcoming film version of Murder on the Orient Express.) Walsh-Peelo is the one I’d like to see some more, though, since he sang his own vocals and has a certain presence even behind his character’s meekness.

For more on how Carney & company created the convincing sounds of a band of teenagers who’ve just started playing together, I recommend this piece from MIX magazine.

Author: The JT Leroy Story.

I’ll be doing a Facebook Live event on Monday at 11 am ET as part of our buildup to the April 25th release of my book Smart Baseball. I also have a new boardgame review up at Paste, covering the cooperative game for kids Mole Rats in Space, from the designer of Pandemic.

Author: The JT Leroy Story is an unusual documentary because its subject, Laura Albert, recorded many of the phone calls she made during the time period where she was posing as the bestselling author who, it turned out, wasn’t real. Albert herself does most of the talking in the film, which makes it so much more compelling than many documentaries (but raises reasonable questions about the reliability of what we’re hearing), and makes the film’s revelation at the end that much more effective of a stomach-punch and an explanation for so much of what came before. The film was nominated for a Writers’ Guild award for Best Documentary Screenplay and is free on amazon prime.

JT Leroy was a fictional author who wrote real books, an HIV-positive teenager/young adult who had worked as a truck-stop prostitute and been pimped out by his drug-addicted prostitute mother, and who expressed genderfluid feelings before that was part of the common vernacular. He was either the creation of Albert, a woman in her mid-30s at the time of Leroy’s ascension, or a separate ‘avatar’ who expressed himself through her; Albert seems to vacillate between explanations, but is clear that this isn’t dissociative identity disorder, at least. She ‘became’ Leroy to write, and wrote fictional stories about what were supposedly his real-life experiences. Leroy’s first two novels, Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, were critically acclaimed and became best-sellers, earning the author a cult following that extended to the celebrity world, only some of whom appear to have been aware that Albert was the actual writer behind the works.

In 2005, a New York article outed Albert as the writer behind Leroy and her sister-in-law as the person acting as Leroy in public, with the New York Times later corroborating the story. Painted as a grand hoax, Albert’s authorship of Leroy’s works doesn’t seem analogous to hoaxers like James Frey or plagiarists like Q.R. Markham; Leroy’s novels were original works of fiction, and never presented to anyone as fact. At most, they were said to be based on fact, or inspired by it, which is false but shouldn’t alter anyone’s perceptions of the quality of the content. (I haven’t read any of Albert’s works under any name and thus have no opinion on whether any of it is good.)

Author attempts to answer two questions about the scandal. One is simply to tell everyone what happened, because the story was major news for a few weeks in 2005-06, and then faded away as such controversies do, especially since in this case the only harm done to anyone was to the film company that eventually sued Albert for fraud. (She signed the option contract as JT Leroy, rather than under her own name.) The documentary gives us the story from Albert’s perspective, punctuated by dozens recordings of phone calls with her publisher, her therapist, her friends, and celebrities who befriended Leroy or Albert (including Billy Corgan and Courtney Love), plus a few others who appear on camera to discuss their roles in helping bring Leroy to the reading public.

The second question is always the toughest for any documentary to answer – the reason(s) why – although in this case, Author at least gives us the central figure’s own explanation with some supporting evidence. The filmmakers here chose to leave the biggest revelation until the end of the film, a gimmick that I found extremely effective, because instead of essentially absolving Albert up front for everything that comes afterwards, Author tells you everything that happened (through Albert’s lens) and then finishes up by giving us a clue on what spark may have started the conflagration.

Author lacks the completeness that a thorough documentary requires; Savannah Knoop, who posed as Leroy in public, appears just once near the end of the film, and Geoff Knoop, Albert’s husband at the time, is nowhere to be found. All we’re getting is Albert’s retelling of the story, in which she takes some responsibility but also depicts herself as someone wronged by media coverage of Leroy as a “hoax” rather than an avatar of a pseudonymous writer. I admit to finding hoaxes fascinating, largely for the motivations of the perpetrators and their general belief that they won’t get caught, and Albert has a reasonable complaint that she’s been treated unfairly. If you thought the novel had literary merit, is that merit diminished at all just because the author wasn’t actually male, young, genderfluid, or HIV-positive?

A Man Called Ove.

A Man Called Ove was one of five nominees for this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, won by the preseason favorite, the Iranian movie The Salesman, whose director had won previously for the amazing film A Separation. Ove was Sweden’s submission for the award, and it is a perfectly serviceable movie but not remarkable in any way. It’s just very well-made and well-acted, but it’s based on a best-selling book of the same name that seems like the sort feel-good pablum that offers a superficial meaning-of-life message like “be nice to others.”

Ove is a grumpy old man, recently widowed, obsessed with following and enforcing rules, making enemies of everyone in his little planned community. He’s utterly miserable and tries multiple times in the film to kill himself to be with his beloved wife, Sonja. When a new family moves in, with the father Swedish and the mother, Parvaneh, of Iranian descent, they interrupt more than one of these suicide attempts, and the mother seems totally immune to his misanthropy, forcing herself into his life, making him teach her to drive and even to watch her kids one night, to the point where she cracks his exterior and gets him to tell her (and us) his life story. In the end, Ove becomes a changed man, a friend to all, a grandfather surrogate to her kids, and I’m sure you can guess what happens after that. (It’s available to rent on amazon and iTunes.)

This movie goes nowhere without the performance of Rolf Lassgård as Ove (pronounced “OOH-vuh”), a turn that won him the Swedish equivalent of the Academy Award for Best Actor. Ove is the only nuanced character in the entire film, a grumpy old man whose grumpiness is a cover for misery, loneliness, and a return to the chronic shyness that plagued him pre-Sonja. There’s something inexplicable in his resistance to kind overtures from neighbors, or simple requests from one woman he’s known for decades to help fix her radiator. (The reason turns out to be both funny and stupid at once.) It seems like Lassgård had a harder task because he was playing a character whose complexity was compromised by the absurdity of his behavior.

The story itself is faintly ridiculous, not least because the movie never gives us a single reason to think that Sonja, who is kind, intelligent, and very pretty, would have the slightest interest in the insular, moody, and unromantic Ove. He doesn’t so much pursue her as stalk her, and she responds by more or less leading him around by the nose. They have almost nothing in common, and their personalities are dead opposites. I can see why she illuminated Ove’s life to the point where he says there was nothing before Sonja and there is nothing after her, but what exactly did she see in him?

(Incidentally, part of why I found Sonja so compelling was her taste in literature. When they first meet, she’s reading The Master and Margarita, my favorite novel ever.)

Parvaneh is too relentlessly positive to be realistic, and the fact that she’s already very pregnant at the start of the movie means we know that baby is going to pop out before the film ends, probably at a dramatic or inopportune moment. (It’s like Chekhov’s gun.) The story checks all the boxes about modern prejudice – we see Ove get over his casual sexism, racism, and homophobia over the course of the film. And one of the various subplots in the story, the fate of Ove’s neighbor and former rival Rune, has an utterly ridiculous deus-ex sort of resolution that undermined all of the details that came before it. None of this made Ove’s revival in the film’s final 20 minutes any less emotional to watch, but when A Man Called Ove was done, I had the distinct feeling of having consumed a lot of empty calories.

Oscar picks and movie rankings.

It’s Oscars Sunday, and for the first time since the 2013 ceremony, I’ve seen the majority of the nominees for Best Picture and several other categories. Here are my rankings of all of the 2016 movies I saw, based on release date or Oscar eligibility. Any linked titles go to reviews. As I review a couple more of these this week, I’ll update this post to link to them.

1. La La Land
2. Moonlight
3. Manchester by the Sea
4. O.J.: Made in America
5. Tanna
6. Arrival
7. Everybody Wants Some!!
8. Tower
9. The Lobster
10. Sing Street
11. Fences
12. Loving
13. Zootopia
14. Hell or High Water
15. Moana
16. Hail Caesar
17. Fire At Sea
18. Love & Friendship
19. Kubo and the Two Strings
20. Author: The JT Leroy Story
21. Midnight Special
22. Louder than Bombs
23. Finding Dory
24. Life, Animated
25. I am Not Your Negro
26. A Man Called Ove
27. The Red Turtle
28. Hidden Figures
29. The 13th
30. Phantom Boy

I’ve still got a half-dozen or so 2016 movies I want to see, which I’ll mention as I go through the remainder of the post.

I don’t pretend to any insider knowledge of the Oscars, so any predictions here are just for fun, and I think I only managed to run the table of nominees in one category, so don’t take my opinions too seriously.

Best Picture

Who should win: I’ve got La La Land as the best movie of the year, although I think Moonlight is more than worthy too.

Who will win: The heavy betting has been on La La Land all year and I don’t pretend to know any better.

I haven’t seen: Lion, which I’ll see eventually, and Hacksaw Ridge, which I won’t see because the director is an anti-Semitic domestic abuser.

Who was snubbed: All the movies I have in my top ten that didn’t make the final nine nominees would have been extreme surprises if they’d earned nods. I think O.J.: Made in America was the best movie not nominated, but if we’re limiting to realistic candidates, then Loving would be my pick.

Best Director

See above. I know sometimes these two categories are split, but I usually don’t understand it when it happens, and can’t imagine that happening this year.

Best Actor

Who should win: Casey Affleck gave one of the best performances I’ve seen in years in Manchester by the Sea. The only reason I could see for him to lose out to Denzel Washington would be Affleck’s off-screen issues – he has been accused by multiple women of sexual harassment.

Who will win: I’d give Affleck 55/45 odds over Denzel.

I haven’t seen: Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic) or Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge).

Who was snubbed: Colin Farrell was terrific in The Lobster. And A Man Called Ove fails utterly without Rolf Lassgård’s performance as the title character.

Best Actress

Who should win: I think Emma Stone for La La Land, but I’ve only seen two of the five nominated performances.

Who will win: Stone seems like a lock.

I haven’t seen: Isabelle Huppert (Elle), Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins), or Natalie Portman (Jackie). That last film just hit digital last week, so when it becomes a rental option I’ll see it. I won’t see Elle.

Who was snubbed: Amy Adams for Arrival.

Best Supporting Actor

Who should win: Mahershala Ali for Moonlight.

Who will win: Mahershala Ali for Moonlight.

I haven’t seen: Dev Patel (Lion) or Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals). I’ll get Lion soon.

Who was snubbed: I thought Kevin Costner was pretty great in Hidden Figures, one of the only characters with any complexity in that film. Shannon was excellent in Midnight Special, but he’s just kind of great in everything.

Best Supporting Actress

Who should win: Viola Davis for Fences, which was really more of a lead performance. She owns the second half of that film.

Who will win: Davis.

I haven’t seen: Nicole Kidman (Lion).

Who was snubbed: Octavia Spencer got a nomination here for Hidden Figures, so was Taraji Henson submitted in the lead category for the same film? If Henson was eligible for this category, she was better in a harder role than Michelle Williams’ brief appearances in Manchester by the Sea. I also thought Rachel Weisz (The Lobster) and Lucy Boynton (Sing Street) were worthy.

Animated Feature

Who should win: Tough call for me, but of the four I’ve seen I’d give the nod to Zootopia for the best combination of animation quality, story, and voice acting.

Who will win: I think Zootopia wins this too.

I haven’t seen: My Life as a Zucchini opens in Philly this upcoming weekend and in Wilmington the following Friday. I’m dying to see it.

Who was snubbed: Finding Dory wasn’t a great film by Pixar standards but I think in many years it gets a nod, perhaps losing out because there were two other Disney films in the category.

Cinematography

Who should win: I think of the three nominees I’ve seen, I’d give the nod to Arrival.

Who will win: La La Land.

I haven’t seen: Lion or Silence. Adnan Virk loved Silence – I think he named it his top movie for 2016 – but I think I’ll pass given its length and my short attention span.

Who was snubbed: Hell or High Water was beautifully shot, with wide pans of the New Mexican landscapes.

Documentary Feature

Who should win: It’s almost unfair that the seven-hour O.J.: Made in America documentary (from ESPN) is eligible in this category, but it is, and it’s among the best documentaries I’ve ever seen regardless of length or format.

Who will win: O.J.: Made in America. If anything else wins, it’ll be a travesty.

I haven’t seen: None. I got all five here.

Who was snubbed: Tower was absolutely deserving of a spot over at least three of the other four nominees; I could see an argument Fire at Sea over Tower, even if I don’t agree with it.

Foreign Language Film

Who should win: I have only seen two of the five, and neither of the two that appear to be the critical favorites. Tanna would be more than worthy of the honor, but I can’t say if it’s better than the two leaders.

Who will win: It sounds like The Salesman is going to win, because it’s a great film and because of the Muslim ban’s effect on its director.

I haven’t seen: The Salesman, Toni Erdmann, or Land of Mine. I will probably have to wait for digital options for all three.

Who was snubbed: I haven’t seen any other foreign-language films from 2016, but am very interested in seeing two films on the shortlist, Neruda (from Chile), which I just missed the one weekend it was playing near me, and The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Mäki (from Finland), which hasn’t been released anywhere here or online that I can see. That latter film has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes through 13 reviews.

Music (original song)

Who should win: Tough call for me, but I think La La Land‘s “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” hits the right combination of great song and essential to the film’s story, over Moana‘s “How Far I’ll Go,” which I’d say is the better song outside the context of the movies. That said, Lin-Manuel Miranda is a national treasure and I will never be upset to see him give an acceptance speech.

Who will win: I get the sense “City of Stars” is the favorite here.

I haven’t seen: I didn’t see Jim: The James Foley Story but I’ve heard the nominated song, “The Empty Chair.”

Who was snubbed: Sing Street‘s total absence here is a farce. “Drive It Like You Stole It” was my favorite from the film, but I could argue for a couple of others as well. Also, my favorite song from Moana was actually “We Know the Way.”

Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

Who should win: This is Moonlight‘s to lose.

Who will win: Moonlight.

I haven’t seen: Lion.

Who was snubbed: The screenplay for Loving was deemed to be “adapted” by the Academy, although the Writers’ Guild classified it as original.

Writing (Original Screenplay)

Who should win: The Lobster.

Who will win: La La Land.

I haven’t seen: 20th Century Women.

Who was snubbed: Tanna.