The screen critic: From Oscar worthy performances to easy watching

Jan 27, 2023
Whitney Houston in I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Sony); Jenna Ortega as Wednesday (Netflix)

With the Oscar nominations still ringing in our ears, all eyes are on Cate Blanchett’s star turn in Tár, a pretty heavy, drawn-out drama in which she plays Lydia Tár, a world-famous classical music conductor and composer whose stellar career comes under fire for favouritism and poor people skills.

Sounds intriguing, and the first half hour or so sees Blanchett at her best, imbuing the character with great fire and passion as she faces a New Yorker interview, presides over a business lunch, and teaches a class at Juliard. It’s compelling stuff.

If only writer/director Todd Field (In the Bedroom; Little Children) had kept up the momentum and not allowed the film to descend into an episodic slog.

The story touches on issues such as cancel culture and intense workplace rivalry but there’s very little dramatic tension and you really begin to feel the film’s inordinate 158-minute length, despite Blanchett’s bravura performance.    

Another hot Best Actor Oscar nominee is Brendan Fraser, who puts in a remarkable, touching performance as a pathetic, chronically obese loner in The Whale (Opens Feb 2). 

Stuck in his apartment and working as an online writing teacher (always with the cam off), Charlie’s terminal blood pressure reading and suicidal food intake has his nurse Liz (Hong Chau, also up for Best Supporting Actress) worried that his heart is about to implode.

Realizing he is likely in the last few days of his life, he desperately tries reconnecting with his estranged daughter Ellie (Sadie Sink) who is deeply resentful over how Charlie abandoned her and her mother (Samantha Morton) to take up with a male lover.

Set mainly in Charlie’s unkempt, dimly lit apartment, director Darren Aronofsky (Black Swan; Mother; The Wrestler) doesn’t care much about hiding the film’s theatrical origins, being based on the 2012 play by screenwriter Samuel D Hunter.

Still, he does elicit a raft of highly emotive performances in what is essentially a dark tale of a man looking for one last spark of hope before the lights go out.

Also spangled with Oscar love is The Fabelmans, Steven Spielberg’s semi-fictitious account of his formative years before entering the Hollywood swamp.

Obsessed with cinema after seeing The Greatest Show on Earth, young Sammy (Gabriel LaBelle) discovers the power a camera has to enchant, entertain and uncover hidden truths about his flamboyant mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams, nommed for Best Supporting Actress).  

Though it’s likeable and boasts great Oscar-nominated period production values, it is a meandering tale that, frankly, doesn’t have the drive we usually associate with Spielberg films.

Ironically, the film’s other nominations for best film, director, supporting actor (Judd Hirsch), original screenplay, and original score don’t reflect the rather sobering fact that The Fabelmans has opened to the smaller public in Spielberg’s career. At an overly generous 150 minutes, it’s yet another high-profile film that will probably play better at home when you can hit pause.  

Somebody who was curiously snubbed by Oscar is Tom Hanks, despite registering a typically affecting performance in A Man Called Otto, playing a suicidal curmudgeon who strikes up an unusual friendship with his new neighbours.

An American remake of the 2015 Swedish film A Man Called Ove, Otto is an ultimately uplifting comedy-drama that carries a heartfelt message about how the autumn years of life need not be overshadowed by gloom and regret. And Hanks is marvellous, Oscar or no Oscar.

Designed for the many millions who adore Whitney Houston, I Wanna Dance With Somebody offers a boisterous celebration of the phenomenally successful pop diva, whose instinct for picking hits allowed her to defy all sorts of racial barriers and break sales records, including one set by The Beatles.  

Built on a very convincing performance by Naomi Ackie, and with Stanley Tucci doing sterling support work as her wily manager, the film provides a giddy glide through Houston’s triumphant and troubled life, with the emphasis on her highs rather than her lows.

That drugs and alcohol destroyed the life of one of the most distinctive voices in modern music is in the film, however fleetingly. 

Why? The producers didn’t want anyone feeling glum after watching this biopic, the clear purpose of which is to invite people to fall in love with Whitney all over again. And on that score, the film succeeds admirably.

Easily one of the most enjoyable and inventive offerings in the stream right now is Wednesday, an eight-episode supernatural horror comedy that colours in the backstory of Wednesday Addams from The Addams Family.

Having caused havoc at a normal high school by releasing piranhas into the swimming pool, Wednesday (superbly played by Jenna Ortega) is sent to a special school more suited to her outsider status.

Even then she gets caught up in a swirl of trouble, not the least of which involves a mysterious monster lurking in the woods next to the castle-like school.

The first four episodes of this addictive show were directed by Goth maestro, Tim Burton (Edward Scissorhands; The Nightmare Before Christmas; Batman; Corpse Bride), who makes the most of the film’s playful Halloween mindset as Wednesday learns how all the best heroes are outcasts at heart.

For more visit with updates on Twitter at @jimschembri


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