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Capsule reviews of Best Picture Oscar nominees

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Capsule reviews of Best Picture Oscar nominees

NEW YORK (CNS) — This year’s Academy Award nominations were announced March 15. Following, in alphabetical order, are capsule reviews of the eight films contending for Best Picture. The Oscars ceremony will take place April 25 in Los Angeles.

“The Father” (Sony Classics)

While this drama has nothing new to say about the challenges of dementia, it does present the difficulties resulting from that illness in an innovative way. In adapting his play with co-screenwriter Christopher Hampton, director Florian Zeller portrays the mental confusion of a man in his 80s (Anthony Hopkins) by keeping the viewer off-balance as well. Thus Hopkins’ character sometimes sees different women (Olivia Colman or Olivia Williams) as the daughter with whom he lives. And he’s often taunted by a strange man (Mark Gatiss) who announces that he also lives in their London apartment. Skillfully understated performances by Hopkins and Colman make this a deeply moving experience, especially for anyone who has cared for an elderly parent at home. Though some may see the proceedings as having a somewhat polite veneer — the protagonist is never violent, only fearful like a child — the film is admirably courageous in other respects, delving into moral depths and laying bare family relationships. Mature themes, fleeting coarse language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” (Warner Bros.)

Compelling fact-based drama, set in the late 1960s, in which a Chicago car thief (Lakeith Stanfield) facing a long prison term agrees to infiltrate the local chapter of the Black Panther Party and supply information to an FBI agent (Jesse Plemons) about the activities of its charismatic chairman, Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya). As he tries to evade detection as an informer, he becomes increasingly reluctant to support the law-flouting tactics of the bureau whose racist director, J. Edgar Hoover (Martin Sheen), views the Panthers as a grave threat to national security. Working from a script he co-wrote with Will Berson, debuting director Shaka King skillfully maintains interest in this personality-rich study of conflicted loyalties and in the budding romance between Hampton and one of his followers (Dominique Fishback). But the concerns raised by the use of force in response to violent police misconduct toward minority communities as well as the avowedly Marxist ideology underpinning the Panthers’ outlook require careful discernment by mature viewers. They’ll also need to withstand a torrent of vulgar dialogue. Considerable violence with some gore, a premarital relationship and out-of-wedlock pregnancy, frequent profanities, pervasive rough and crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

“Mank” (Netflix)

The thesis of this historical drama is that the principal credit for the landmark 1941 film “Citizen Kane” ought to be given to screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) rather than to the movie’s director, co-writer and producer, 25-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles (Tom Burke). As penned by his father, Jack, David Fincher’s picture is chockablock with high-profile figures from Hollywood’s Golden Age — MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), Kane’s prototype, newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), Hearst’s mistress, actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), and Mankiewicz’s younger brother and fellow screen scribe, Joseph (Tom Pelphrey) — none of whom are ever shown to be having a good time. Devotees of classic cinema who may not care too much about the nuances of past personalities and events will likely appreciate this vinegary retrospective, despite its joyless approach and assiduous focus on the pain involved in creativity. Mature themes, including adultery, some crude and crass language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

“Minari” (A24)

Set in the 1980s, and loosely based on the childhood experiences of writer-director Lee Isaac Chung, this gentle mix of drama and comedy explores the immigrant experience from a Korean-American perspective while also charting the struggles and triumphs of family life. An aspiring produce farmer (Steven Yeun), his wife (Yeri Han) and their two children (Alan Kim and Noel Kate Cho) move from California to rural Arkansas where the tedious nature of the couple’s work in a chicken hatchery, together with the outlay of money Dad dedicates to his dream, inspires constant bickering. Another source of friction is introduced when the children’s maternal grandmother (Yuh-jung Youn) relocates from Korea and joins the household to help look after them. The film’s strength lies in its understated presentation of universal themes concerning marriage, parenting, and familial bonds in general. Probably acceptable for mature adolescents. Fleeting crude and crass language, a suicide reference. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association rating is PG-13 — parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

“Nomadland” (Searchlight)

A sense of loneliness pervades this poignant drama in which Frances McDormand gives a bravura performance as a working-class widow from a failed factory town who takes to the road in search of seasonal employment, becoming part of a subculture of marginalized nomads who move from one trailer park to the next in their struggle to evade economic ruin. Though she forms friendships along the way, including with a few real-life sojourners playing themselves, she resists possible romance with another fellow migrant (David Strathairn) and a couple of opportunities to abandon her travels and settle down in one place. Drawing on journalist Jessica Bruder’s 2017 book, writer-director Chloe Zhao highlights how momentary encounters and emotional connection help to relieve the cycle of menial labor and anxiety for the future her vulnerable but resilient protagonist endures. She also emphasizes the spiritual lineage all her travelers share with the pioneers of old. Parents will have to weigh whether delicately handled elements that would normally bar younger viewership should be overlooked in the case of mature teens. Brief full and partial female nudity in nonsexual contexts, mature themes, including suicide and euthanasia, fleeting scatological material, at least one profanity and a milder oath, a single crude and a couple of crass terms. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

“Promising Young Woman” (Focus)

Vengeance-driven vigilantism is the order of the day in this black comedy-tinged drama from writer-director Emerald Fennell. Traumatized and embittered by the sexual victimization and subsequent death of a childhood friend during their time attending medical school together, a barista (Carey Mulligan) who has abandoned her ambition to become a doctor spends her nights in various watering holes pretending to be too drunk to care for herself, then punishing the men (including Adam Brody and Christopher Mintz-Plasse) who try to prey on her vulnerability. Romance with a pediatric surgeon (Bo Burnham), another colleague from med school with whom she accidentally reconnects, leads her to consider abandoning her vendetta. But the chance to exact revenge on the physician (Chris Lowell) she holds most responsible for her pal’s demise proves a difficult temptation to resist. While Fennell invites viewers to take her heroine’s campaign of often-fatal feminism lightheartedly, the underlying message that her targets had it coming remains, wasting the opportunity for this cinematically impressive work to make morally legitimate points about a genuine social evil. Skewed values, intense but almost bloodless violence, a rape theme, a premarital situation, drug use, a few profanities, several milder oaths, pervasive rough and some crude language, an obscene gesture. The Catholic News Service classification is O — morally offensive. The Motion Picture Association rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

“Sound of Metal” (Amazon)

Hard-hitting drama about a heavy-metal drummer and recovering drug addict (Riz Ahmed) who experiences sudden hearing loss. To preserve his sobriety in this crisis, his live-in girlfriend and bandmate (Olivia Cooke) insists that he join a church-sponsored residential community of formerly dependent deaf people (led by Paul Raci), despite the fact that the rules of the shelter will require them to separate temporarily. Director and co-writer Darius Marder makes creative use of the film’s audio track to drive home to viewers the bewildering challenges his main character unexpectedly faces, and both Ahmed and Raci turn in memorably intense performances. But, while charming and touching at times, this is a story replete with elements unsuitable for youngsters. Cohabitation, sexual imagery, brief sensuality, mature themes and references, including narcotics use and alcoholism, a lesbian character, at least one profanity, a milder oath, pervasive rough and some crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

“The Trial of the Chicago 7” (Netflix)

Sharp-witted, taut dramatization of the prosecution (led by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) of the titular group of left-wing activists, most prominently Abbie Hoffman (Sacha Baron Cohen) and Tom Hayden (Eddie Redmayne), for conspiracy to incite rioting outside the 1968 Democratic Convention. As their adroit attorney (Mark Rylance) works to defend them in a courtroom presided over by a bizarrely biased judge (Frank Langella),  the eighth defendant, Black Panther leader Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), protests the absence of his hospitalized lawyer while fissures emerge between Hoffman’s unkempt “Yippies” (also represented by Jeremy Strong) and Hayden’s jacket and tie-sporting Students for a Democratic Society (Alex Sharp plays his leading colleague and best friend). Writer-director Aaron Sorkin skillfully evokes the tensions of a troubled era and performances are uniformly impressive though some nonlethal mayhem and consistently vulgar dialogue make his film suitable only for grown-ups. Violent civic clashes with some gore, a nongraphic sexual assault, drug use, fleeting irreverence, about a dozen uses of profanity, a couple of milder oaths, pervasive rough and occasional crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

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Mulderig is on the staff of Catholic News Service.

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