As we head into December, Oscar night— 27 March 2022 — is still months away. It would seem that the 5 Best Actor nominees will have to come from films that generate – and sustain – recognition. Well reviewed, even raved-about pictures that have no box-office traction (or streaming impact) will disappear into the haze. What does that mean for this week’s leading candidates? A steady string of appearances, local honors (from Palm Beach, Santa Barbara, the Gotham Awards, critics groups) and an iron constitution to, like all the best actors, sound fresh when talking about the same subject for not just weeks but months. Already seen and included in a Most Likely to be Nominated list then:
England’s Benedict Cumberbatch in ‘The Power of the Dog,’ playing a super macho cowboy in 1925 Montana who drives his sister-in-law to drink and bullies her obviously gay son,
Two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington in the dramatic, intensely stylized Joel Coen adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘The Tragedy of Macbeth,’
Two-time Oscar nominee Will Smith as the controversial Richard Williams, the father, coach and inspiration for his 2 daughters to become the greatest tennis players the world had ever seen, in ‘King Richard,’
Peter Dinklage in Joe Wright’s refashioned, musical ‘Cyrano’ which is simply sensational and deeply influenced by ‘Les Miz.’
The 5th slot could be Bradley Cooper, Oscar’s 4 time acting nominee. Only no one has yet seen ‘Nightmare Alley,’ a remake of a revered 1947 film noir that was the passion project of matinee idol Tyrone Power who hoped this dark portrait of an ambitious carny would upgrade his dashing sword-wielding image that had made him 20th Century-Fox’s top male star. This remake is a passion project of Guillermo Del Toro; it screens soon after the Thanksgiving weekend, meaning the buzz on Cooper’s chances will be immediate.
It might be strange to say this but I’ve seen ‘Home,’ the writing-directing debut of Germany’s Franka Potente (‘Run Lola Run’) which is set in arid California and stars Kathy Bates as an embittered mother. Jake McLaughlin, an actor I’ve never heard of much less seen, is her just released from prison son. McLaughlin’s low-key, intensely vital and compelling work reminded me when I saw Daniel Day-Lewis in ‘My Left Foot’ – you can’t take your eyes off him. He can be very still and yet he’s churning. It’s easily the best performance by any actor I’ve seen this year. ‘Home’ opens Dec. 3. Check it out.
BEATTY AT HIS BEST There’s a reason Warren Beatty has matched Orson Welles in kudos – he’s an amazing, gifted filmmaker. Proof, if needed, is evident in 2 of his great triumphs: The sweetly melancholy fantasy ‘Heaven Can Wait’ (Blu-ray + Digital Code, Paramount, PG) and his crowning achievement ‘Reds’ (Blu-ray + Digital Code, Paramount, PG), the 1981 epic about American journalist John Reed in Russia during the Revolution. ‘Heaven’ is a remake of a 1940s wartime fantasy. When millions of men were dying in a global battle, it turned out a fantasy about what happens after we die was popular. In Beatty’s bucolic contemporary remake, the setting is the football field where LA Rams QB Joe is ready to lead the team to the Super Bowl. Only an overzealous guardian angel has plucked Joe from the living. The mistake is corrected when Joe returns as a millionaire industrialist who is challenged in several ways. This was Beatty’s second teaming with Julie Christie (‘Shampoo’) and they generate a chemistry unseen since the glory days of Garbo and Gilbert. The pitch-perfect farceurs and angels include James Mason (Beatty’s pursuit of Cary Grant failed to draw the icon out of retirement), Dyan Cannon (who was married to Grant but not at this time) and Jack Warden. Beatty supervised this first ever Blu-ray transfer. With ‘Reds’ Beatty tackled the great bugaboo of postwar politics – Communism! – by presenting its historical context. Beatty’s most brilliant coup was having the real life ‘witnesses’ of the Russian Revolution, now aged and frail, testify directly to the camera. Nominated for 12 Oscars, ‘Reds,’ directed, co-written, produced by and starring Beatty, won the filmmaker his Best Director Academy Award. Veteran Maureen Stapleton was awarded the Best Supporting Actress Oscar. An hour-plus of bonus features.
CAPRA’S MOST ENDURING Famously a flop when first released, Frank Capra’s 1946 ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ (Blu-ray, 2 discs, Paramount, PG) has become, like ‘The Wizard of Oz,’ among Hollywood’s most beloved classics. James Stewart had already scored working with Capra, first on the farcical 1938 comedy ‘You Can’t Take It With You’ and then a year later on ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,’ the drama that catapulted him to stardom. Both men had been changed by the war and ‘Life’ reflects gravely on matters of life and death. In the limited edition Blu-ray box set, the black-and-white original is here and on the other disc a colorized version. There are recipe cards from ‘The Official Bailey Family Cookbook,’ featurettes on the restoration, ‘Secrets from the Vault.’
“IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE” Pictured: James Stewart, Donna Reed. Courtesy of NBC Photo
TRAGIC OLYMPIC TERRORISM To watch ‘21 Hours at Munich’ (Blu-ray, KL Studio Classics, Not Rated) is to be reminded how naïve we Americans, an ocean away, once were about Middle East terrorism. The Black September assault on the Israeli Olympic team at the 1972 Games began with 2 murdered, the rest taken hostage. As negotiations continued, a horrified world watched – as the Games went on! This excellent docu-drama, a 1976 TV movie with William Holden (fresh from ‘Network’) as the Munich police chief in charge and the Italian matinee idol Franco Nero (‘Camelot’) as Issa, the terrorist commander. It was filmed in the exact locations where this tragedy unfolded. One fatal irony was that the Germans, so eager to eliminate their Nazi era image as thugs and offer the world a benign vision of their country, had reduced conspicuous security and surveillance, a fact that concerned the Israelis. Steven Spielberg’s magnificent ‘Munich’ (2005) is the second chapter – charting Israel’s revenge by hunting down and killing those responsible. To watch now, a half century later and decades after 9/11, is to continue to be shaken by the hatred, violence and lawlessness. One thing ’21 Hours’ clarifies is why it ended so badly. No one knew, until the Red September militants disembarked from helicopters to board planes (that would never leave the ground), how many terrorists there were. The German snipers simply failed to eliminate their targets — and every Israeli hostage died. Bonus: A revelatory behind the scenes audio commentary that details the tightrope director William A. Graham had to walk in order to be ‘objective’ and not demonize the terrorists. Released in Europe as a feature film, ’21 Hours’ can be seen in both the American boxy TV version and the overseas widescreen.
A member of the Black September group which seized members of the Israeli Olympic Team at their quarters at the Munich Olympic Village September 5, 1972 appears with a hood over his face on the balcony of the village building where the commandos held several members of the Israeli team hostage. (AP Photo/Kurt Strumpf)
NAZIS & SURVIVAL A few years ago there was a terrific WWII thriller ‘The Good Nazi’ with one of Christopher Plummer’s late great performances. The title and the plot suggested that there were Nazis who had little choice or little joy serving the Fuhrer. Maya Sarfaty, an Oscar winning Israeli documentarian, goes to the heart of this in ‘Love It Was Not’ (DVD, Greenwich, Not Rated). In 1942 Helena Citron was among the first group of women in the notorious Auschwitz extermination camp. Franz Wunsch, a high-ranking Austrian Nazi, was attracted to her – partly because he liked the way she sang a German song, ‘Love It Was Not.’ Throughout the war he protected her, did favors including saving Helena’s sister Roza. Thirty years later Helena receives a letter from Wunsch’s wife. He is on trial for war crimes – would Citron testify in his behalf? In German, Hebrew & English with optional English subtitles.
CHARLES ADDAMS’S GHOULISH THRILLS John Astin and Carolyn Jones led the first invasion of the ‘creepy and kooky’ Addams Family into American pop culture with just 2 seasons in the mid-‘60s. In 1991 ‘The Addams Family’ (4K Ultra HD + Digital Code, Paramount, PG-13) revived the franchise with an elaborately designed and crafted picture that redefined what a ‘family’ film could be. Very naughty indeed! No one will ever match the insouciant grace Carolyn Jones brought to Morticia but Anjelica Huston has stylish elegance to spare. The late Raul Julia makes a heartbreaking romantic of Gomez. The scene stealer: Christina Ricci’s morbidly mesmerizing Wednesday. Special Features: Director Barry Sonnenfeld’s unrated version, an archival featurette.
ALDA’S DOUBLE WHAMMY Alan Alda became the Thinking Woman’s Hottie in the ‘70s, thanks to his support of burgeoning feminism, enduring marriage and unabashed sex appeal as Hawkeye in TV’s long running ‘M*A*S*H.’ He took breaks from the series, first by writing and starring in the 1979 political drama ‘The Seduction of Joe Tynan’ (Blu-ray, KL Studio Classics, R) where he is a politician married to Barbara Harris (‘Nashville’) but interested in civil rights activist (Meryl Streep). Yes, Alda’s Tynan has choices to make, principles to keep. Or abandon. In 1981 Alda wrote, directed and stars in ‘The Four Seasons’ (Blu-ray, KL Studio Classics, PG) opposite Carol Burnett. Again, the notion of what adultery does to a close-knit group of 40somethings propels each of these ‘Seasons.’ Rita Moreno, Sandy Dennis and Jack Weston co-star. Bonus on both films: Audio commentaries.
Meryl Streep and Alan Alda, UK, 30th January 1980. (Photo by Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
MARVEL’S CHINESE MARVEL Surprisingly good and a box-office smash ‘Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings’ (4K Ultra HD + Blu-ray +Digital, Marvel Studios, PG-13) marks an expansion of the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) with this Asian-set tale of magic, father-son relations and a scene-stealing, very droll Awkwafina. It begins with a sensational, elaborately staged battle aboard a San Francisco bus that is our first clue that Shang-Chi (Simu Liu in a star-making turn) is, like Clark Kent, not what he seems. Bonus: Deleted scenes, gag reel, audio commentary, ‘Building a Legacy’ and a look at the background of Shang-Chi.
Simu Liu in the Marvel Studios film, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” (Jasin Boland/Marvel Studios/TNS)
JOHN HUGHES’ GREATEST?? Beloved by Boomers, John Hughes’ 1987 ‘Planes, Trains and Automobiles’ (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital, 2 discs, Paramount, R) stands apart from his teen comedies with its R rating and a story that revolves around 40something ad man Neal Page (Steve Martin) who is desperately trying to get home for Christmas despite seemingly insurmountable obstacles, including the big goofy guy Del Griffith (John Candy) who becomes his traveling companion. Hughes was himself approaching 40 when he made his masterwork. Special Features, all previously released: A Hughes career retrospective, tribute to Candy, ‘John Hughes for Adults.’ A Limited Edition Blu-ray SteelBook is available.
PEARCE DOWN HOME Born in the UK, Guy Pearce became a star – and teen idol — Down Under while in his teens. In the decades since, Pearce has proven to be one of our most versatile actors playing everything from a flamboyant drag queen (‘The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’) to Andy Warhol and Harry Houdini to the unrequited lover of ‘Mare of Easttown.’ But the homegrown ‘Jack Irish Season 3’ (Blu-ray, 4 episodes, 2 discs, AcornTV, Not Rated) series seems written specifically for him. It wasn’t. Irish was introduced in 2012 with the first of 3 feature length films. It then became a series for 3 seasons. Irish is a former criminal lawyer whose wife was murdered by a crazy client. He’s wracked by survivor guilt, becomes a debt collector, private eye, walking wounded. ‘Jack Irish’ has loads of local color as Jack manages an awkward on & off relationship with Marta Dusseldorp’s reporter. Then comes this final case, helping a friend that leads to revelations about his wife’s murder 20 years earlier and disturbing police corruption.
WHERE IS THE LOVE There’s a classic Stephen Sondheim musical called ‘Company’ (it’s being revived this Broadway season with a feminine gender twist) where our 30something hero wonders about his life as his friends settle down with marriage and kids. That’s the same set-up with ‘For the Love of Jason: Season 1’ (DVD, allblk.TV, Not Rated). Jason Grant (Trell Woodberry), smart, successful, stable, sees his friends passing him by, coupling, raising families. How strange is it now for Jason to go on dates? What kind of pressure does he feel – to change his life or to continue the single life?
HIP HORROR HISTORY ‘Eli Roth’s History of Horror Season 2’ (Blu-ray, AMC Studios, Not Rated) is exactly as its title suggests. A horror film director, writer, producer (and actor!), Roth leads with an insider’s perspective on a variety of topics while corralling leading lights within the genre for interviews: Stephen King, Quentin Tarantino, Bill Hader, Piper Laurie (‘Carrie’ Oscar nominee), Nancy Allen (‘Blow Out’), Slash and Rob Zombie. Special Features: CGI vs Practical Effects, Chilling Children of Horror and Movies That Scared My Pants Off.
Slash and Eli Roth speak during Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios Hollywood on September 12, 2019 in Universal City, California. (Photo by Joshua Blanchard/Getty Images for Universal Studios Hollywood)