Kingsley Ben-Adir in Bob Marley: One Love


Just how good is Kingsley Ben-Adir as the title character in Bob Marley: One Love? So good that I couldn't make out half of what he was saying.

Honestly, this isn't snark. Watching interview footage, I can't discern half of what the actual Marley said, either. Yet through that beautifully rolling Jamaican patois of his, which was certainly thick but never heavy, the intent and meaning behind the reggae artist's words were always felt, and Ben-Adir pulls off the same feat in director Reinaldo Marcus Green's bio-pic. While you may watch the actor wishing that your screening came with a subtitles option, Marley's personality and soul radiate so strongly through Ben-Adir's interpretation that it's okay if you miss a lot of his dialogue (and the dialogue we do hear might make you wish we heard less of it). I routinely found myself leaning forward in my seat to not miss a syllable of exquisitely cadenced verbiage. And during the music-centric scenes, with Ben-Adir lip-syncing the concert sequences and performing acoustic numbers himself, I simply leaned back and let the joy of the Marley oeuvre wash over me. Green's latest may not be a great movie, but it is a pretty great time.

Wisely eschewing the traditional cradle-to-the-grave format of many works in its genre, One Love keeps its focus nice 'n' narrow, covering the period between the 1976 assassination attempt in which Marley, his wife Rita, and several bandmates were shot and Marley's 1978 homecoming concert in Jamaica after two years spent exiled in London. As someone who frequently bemoans the Wikipedia approach to screen biographies – this happened then this happened then this happened … – I was completely on-board with taking its subject's musical genius and superstardom as givens, and looked forward to a presumed deep dive on Exodus, the 1977 album widely considered to be Bob Marley & the Wailers' masterpiece. That isn't quite what we get, as we rarely witness any of the musicians actively working on their material. The songs just kind of appear, as if wafting in on gentle clouds of marijuana smoke.

Meanwhile, if you're hoping that the film's two-years-and-done methodology will result in more specific insight regarding this period in Marley's life, you'll be left wanting there, too. A few awkwardly incorporated flashbacks to the musician's youth – including an overused fantasy motif in which pre-teen Bob confronts his horse-riding father in a burning field – provide little emotional or motivational understanding. Scenes depicting Marley's shrewd business acumen are kept to a minimum. And forget about receiving any kind of exposé exploring unflattering aspects of the artist's life. We see Marley lose his shit exactly once, when justifiably attacking a manager for skimming from the band's profits, and only in one of his wife's outbursts is there any reference to Marley's affairs and the children he had with other women. Widow Rita, daughter Cedelia, and son Ziggy are counted among One Love's producers, with Ziggy even offering an on-screen welcome to the audience, and it's evident from the start that the film's priority lies in further burnishing Bob's legend and celebrating his artistry and humanity. That's by no means an unworthy reason to make the movie, but you really have to read between the lines to glean any hint of character-based criticism. When Marley is reunited with his children after his years in England and, for their purported safety, their years in the United States, it's an explosive outpouring of adoration for all involved. Were those kids at all upset that, as implied, at no point during their separation did dad speak to his children on the phone, let alone visit?

Lashana Lynch and Kingsley Ben-Adir in Bob Marley: One Love

That said, most musical bio-pics are inherently unsatisfying in one way or another, and I was content to enjoy Green's for the many random pleasures it delivered. A significant number of them, it should go without saying, take place in concert venues and recording studios, with Ben-Adir's loose-limbed approximation of Marley's gloriously flailing “dance moves” a particular, happily repeated delight. (His physicality suggests an unbridled spirit attempting to escape its human host.) But while she's saddled with much of the script's flattest conversation and most aggressively on-the-nose declarations, just about everything involving Lashana Lynch, as Rita, is also a sit-up-and-take-notice moment. This wondrously expressive performer consistently fills in the screenplay's emotional blanks, and two of Lynch's set pieces are genuine knockouts: Rita's blistering tirade against Bob's unacknowledged selfishness (a sequence reminiscent of Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor cutting Will Smith down to size in Green's King Richard), and the heartbreaking image of Rita, as one of Marley's background singers, forced to sing “No Woman No Cry” even though all she wants to do, in that moment, is cry.

I can't say I learned a lot at One Love – with the considerable exception of discovering that the artist received his skin-cancer diagnosis as the result of a minor soccer injury – and, as in many a bio-pic, a bunch of the movie's “facts” seem shaky, if not downright suspect. (Did Marley truly title his album Exodus mere seconds after overhearing two Wailers listening to the 1960 film's soundtrack?) Yet unless it's a legitimate documentary, I don't generally go to the movies to learn. I go to feel, and Green's release made me feel a lot: edgy discomfort in the intensely staged assassination attempt; deep melancholy in Marley facing his mortality; and supreme relaxation and joy nearly every time its star sang or spoke or merely smiled. Marley's complexity doesn't get much of a workout here, but his peace-minded spirituality certainly does, and Bob Marley: One Love treats audiences to a fantastically inspired vessel for that soulfulness. A friend recently, jokingly asked what it would take to get Kingsley Ben-Adir to do a buddy comedy opposite Sir Ben Kingsley. I'm not sure. But considering this incredible British talent has recently been equally credible as Bob Marley, Malcolm X (in 2020's One Night in Miami ...), and an ambulatory Ken doll, I'm betting he'd knock that proposed project clear out of the park.

Dakota Johnson in Madame Web


My chief problem with the releases in Sony's Spider-Man Universe – Venom and its There Will Be Carnage sequel, Morbius, and the new Madame Web – isn't that the SSU appears incapable of delivering a decent superhero movie. It's that Sony appears incapable of delivering a decent movie. You know: one with a reasonably coherent narrative and recognizable stakes and engaging presentation and dialogue that doesn't make you want to puke into your bag of popcorn? If you planned to attend the SSU's latest just to hear Dakota Johnson utter that deliciously painful expository sentence immortalized in the trailer – “He was in the Amazon with my mom when she was researching spiders right before she died” – I'm sorry to say you're out of luck; the line was apparently a preview-only thing. But connoisseurs of crap will find so much else to thoroughly detest in director/co-writer S.J. Clarkson's origin story that only someone expecting cinematic decency could possibly go home disappointed.

As I don't know how my list of grievances could ever end, it's almost impossible to know where to start, and the last thing Madame Web needs is even more reviewers piling on. (The film is currently sitting at a 13-percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The creative team behind Morbius, with its 15 percent, must be feeling mighty smug these days.) So let's begin my brief assault with the one genuine credit I'll give Clarkson's movie, because against impossible odds, Johnson is fairly enjoyable in it. Playing our heroic paramedic, inevitably named Cassandra, who discovers powers of clairvoyance following a near-death experience, Johnson is able to employ her reliable freshness and naturalism even to scenes – and they're just about the only ones she gets – that threaten to annihilate her inherent charm. During one sequence in which Cassandra, in the midst of a baby shower, absentmindedly rambled on about her pregnant mother's death, Johnson even got me to laugh – and, in a shock, not at the movie. The performer continues to demonstrate remarkable sense, or at least a bone-deep sense of self-preservation, by refusing to take any aspect of the plotting seriously, rolling her eyes at the buffoonish things she's forced to say, and treating Cassandra's accidental teen charges (future Spider-Women played by the overqualified Sydney Sweeney, Isabela Merced, and Celeste O'Connor) as anything beyond the nattering, shrieking, profoundly dippy irritants they are. There are many things to hate about Madame Web. Dakota Johnson isn't remotely among them.

Celeste O'Connor, Dakota Johnson, Isabela Merced, and Sydney Sweeney in Madame Web

Everything else, however, is fair game, from the unfinished-looking visual effects to the ineptly choreographed chases and fight sequences to the ludicrously coy game of peekaboo that occurs whenever Spider-Man lore is referenced but, for legal reasons involving the SSU's Marvel equivalent, not allowed to be directly referenced. (With Madame Web set, distractingly and unconvincingly, in 2003, Adam Scott plays Cassandra's work partner Ben Parker, and he's got a new girlfriend he's crazy about, and his pregnant sister-in-law is expecting a baby boy, and one of the teens mentions her uncle Jonah … . Garsh, who could all of these unspecified figures possibly be?!) Yet with so much deserved ire to be released, I'm going to restrict my bile to four, maybe five elements that caused my jaw to drop, and not in ways the SSU would have appreciated.

For one thing, gifted French actor Tahar Rahim plays the heavy, but only mostly. Barring whomever donned his character's evil-Spidey costume during the negligible battles, it's clearly him on-screen. But whenever Rahim's Ezekiel Sims speaks, you can't help noticing that the words don't match the movements of the performer's mouth, and the inflections don't match his facial expressions, either. Ezekiel's dialogue has clearly been looped in throughout, and not, I'm guessing, by Rahim himself; it's like watching a hideously dubbed Godzilla flick circa 1959. (If you're suckered into seeing Madame Web, pay attention to how little we see of Ezekiel's face when he talks.)

Yet in terms of unqualified embarrassments, that movie-long headache stands toe to toe with the insufferable teens, all of them dressed like they're auditioning for a sequel to Zack Snyder's Sucker Punch, ignoring Cassandra's pleas to stay incognito by dancing for horny college dudes on a roadside-diner tabletop. And Cassie making a last-minute trip to her late mom's old stomping grounds of the Peruvian jungle, learning from an English-speaking tribal elder that she'll have to spend years mastering her powers – and then mastering them in the very next scene. And Cassie and company entering an abandoned Pepsi-Cola factory (oh, the relentless Pepsi product placement in this thing!) to find the place teeming with hilariously convenient boxes of unused fireworks. But perhaps the biggest, best moment of WTF?!? in the whole of the staggeringly insipid Madame Web? The final pre-credits image. It's the shot that promises sequels. Which will no doubt prove to be the most unintentionally laughable shot of them all.

Our Uniform


Have I mentioned lately that I love Davenport's recently opened The Last Picture House? Because I love Davenport's recently opened The Last Picture House, and love it all the more for the venue, in what I believe is a first for the Quad Cities, booking all of the nominees in this year's Academy Awards races for Best Animated and Live-Action Short Film.

Iowa City's FilmScene, bless them, has been screening these annual collections (including the program for Oscar-cited documentary shorts) for years, and 2024 is no exception. But even when I've been antsy to attend, the showtimes never quite aligned in ways that would've made sense given the two-hour commute, as the screenings seemed to always necessitate a second two-hour commute the next day to catch all three presentations. As The Last Picture House is a five-minute drive from my apartment, no such hindrances stood in my way this year. So with deep gratitude: Thank you, TLPH peeps! I'm not even upset that the doc titles are still unavailable to us, as all of them are apparently available via streaming options. And I'm not even annoyed that I only really liked two of the five nominated animated outings!

That particular lineup begins with Our Uniform, a slice of present-day life from Iranian director Yegane Moghaddam that is easily the weakest – if not the most obnoxious – entry in the bunch. I'm sure it was probably challenging, and maybe even dangerous, for Moghaddam to create and release this seven-minute work in which the traditional wardrobe for Iranian females is shown as a mandated straight jacket that essentially designates who women are to fellow Iranians, and how they're seen by others in contact with them. And the animation style is appealing, with most of the film composed of hand-drawn figures engaging in daily activities – riding the bus to school, privately rocking out in their bedrooms – while traversing the seams of pants and the tangled flow of hair ribbons and so on. The film looks like something. It just doesn't tell us anything, or at least anything new, and the voiceover narration is so lacking in emotional color that I wasn't sure how to take any of Our Uniform except as a “That was kinda neat” time-waster. Eh, it was only seven minutes. I've had my time wasted at the movies for way longer than that.

Letter to a Pig

The collection's second outing was far better; it might be my favorite among the nominees. Directed by Tal Kantor, Letter to a Pig is a mostly hand-drawn, black-and-white short with occasional watercolor flourishes and real-life representations, and it largely concerns an aged Holocaust survivor recalling his experiences to a classroom of grade-schoolers. During the 17-minute release's first half and a bit beyond, Kantor's achievement wrecked me. Having recently seen Germany's Oscar-nominated International Feature Film contender The Teachers' Lounge, I knew there was no way the students here were going to be hospitable to the nightmarish recollections of an aged Jew once he began reading his titular letter, one that reveals how an apparently empathetic pig saved his life when hunted by Nazis. The kids giggled, one got sent to the principal's office, and the Holocaust survivor scared the crap out of his audience by highly insinuating that, later in life, he actually murdered one of his tormentors. I admired all of this. In the last five-ish minutes, with our audience-surrogate schoolgirl learning to vanquish her fears and understand swine metaphorically, Letter to a Pig kind of lost me. But like the rest of the work, it was always gorgeously, evocatively animated, and I wouldn't be at all surprised if it netted this year's animated-short Oscar.

I suppose director Stéphanie Clément's Pachyrdeme could, as well. A hand-painted animation, it tells of a prepubescent girl's annual summer stays with grandparents while her folks vacationed elsewhere, and at first, it seems like a typical tale of a youth in largely unfamiliar surroundings: the kid details her daily nature-minded field trips with Grandpa; she gets nervous about unfamiliar sounds coming from the floorboards of this rustic house. But the upsetting sound design keeps you in fear about character motivation, and by the mid-point of Clément's 11-minute work, you progress from Oh no … is this movie about what I think it's about? to Oh God … it's precisely what I think it's about. Admittedly, I didn't particularly care for Pachyderme on a first viewing; while it was hauntingly rendered, it was a little bland, and a little dull. Which was my precise reaction to the current, Academy Award-nominated The Zone of Interest. And just like with Jonathan Glazer's Holocaust drama, I'm now recalling a bunch of scenes from this animated short that are making me crave another viewing so I can fairly re-evaluate the thing.

Ninety-Five Senses

My guess is that a bigger threat to an Oscar-night Letter to a Pig victory is Ninety-Five Senses, a completely enjoyable, not-completely-successful 11 minutes by married directors Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite himself!) and Jerusha Hess. In it, an elderly death-row inmate recounts the events that led to his final night on Earth by explaining how sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell impacted his upbringing and eventual fate. All five senses, in their recollection, are visualized by different animators, and I'm ashamed to say I didn't notice much difference – the segments all seem to follow a similar blueprint in ways that, say, the introductions to all those different Spider-Folk in Across the Universe didn't. Plus, despite the short going to great lengths to establish our protagonist's hillbilly bona fides, his eventually revealed committed crime doesn't seem like something someone could be executed for in any U.S. state … though that may be part of the film's point. Ninety-Five Senses may feel like a riff on the titular tale in the Coen brothers' The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; it even has Tim Blake Nelson voicing our incarcerated lead! But it's filled with wonderfully nutty, accidentally profound, heavily accented metaphysical soliloquies that no one delivers quite like Tim Blake Nelson. And while I was hoping for a stronger ending, the one we get is solid, with the final few minutes nicely explaining the title. I appreciated the information regarding a prisoner's final meal, too. Learned some stuff, and promise to be even-more devoted to not committing capital crimes in the future.

Understandably, yet kind of perversely, the team behind the 2024 Animated Shorts release chose to save the category's least-effective entry for last – kinda. (More on that after this paragraph.) As directed by Dave Mullins, War Is Over!: Inspired by the Music of John & Yoko already has everything you'll either love or hate about it baked into the title. A take on World War I's famed “Christmas Truce of 1914,” which has already been visualized in countless movies and stage works over a century-plus, this 11-minute outing follows a devoted carrier pigeon as it relays chess moves from one side's player to another's, until full-scale combat forces the separated-in-every-way competitors, and their fellow troops, to engage in direct physical conflict. The computer animation is rather stunning. The sound effects are even better. The score is exactly as professional and on-point as you'd expect from 15-times-an-Academy-bridesmaid Thomas Newman. I loathed nearly every second of it, from the grossly telegraphed death of a central figure to Newman's maddeningly pushy score to its employment of a John-and-Yoko standard that I was frankly embarrassed to hear in War Is Over!'s context. I'm a super-easy crier at the movies, and Mullins' blandly manipulative, blessedly short short didn't make me misty-eyed even once. Watch the damned thing win on March 10.

I'm Hip

Happily, however, the animated-short procurers don't leave us (well, me) on such a disappointed note. Because in addition to the five nominees, we're also treated to two “special mention” titles that I, for one, appreciated more than three actual contenders. First up is directors Karni Arieli's and Saul Freed's Wild Summon, which finds British singer Marianne Faithfull narrating the plight of its titular creatures who are born on a river bank, make their way to the ocean, and return home to lay eggs in the exact place of their birth. As a discarded can of food makes (too-) obvious, the title is a play on “wild salmon,” and instead of fish, the “summon” here are portrayed by human actors with oddly shaped figures and mouths that literally go from ear to ear. They're unsettling as hell, and several of them are dispatched in shockingly gory ways. But this 14-minute animated-with-live-action metaphor – the closest this program has to a Marcel the Shell with Shoes On – is an absolutely fascinating achievement imaginatively filmed, and designed to make you think twice about the journey required to get your meals to the table. (Still ended my viewing craving salmon, though.) And the final short is director John Musker's hand-drawn I'm Hip, which is nothing more, or less, than three minutes of a chubby tabby proclaiming through song his questionable coolness to an increasingly unconvinced audience. The pace is zippy; the lyrics funny; the presentation lively; the climactic crooning atrocious. I totally ate it up.

Like the animated collection, the 2024 Oscar-Nominated Short Films: Live Action program opens with its slightest offering – but, in a welcome surprise, there are no inferior ones to come. In truth, director Misan Harriman's The After isn't necessarily inferior, either. It's merely one-note, and not terribly insightful. In the first half of its 18 minutes, this short is also horrifying and depressing as eff, with David Oyelowo's Dayo suffering a sickening dual tragedy before emotionally shutting down in his job as a nearly mute Uber driver. I'll readily admit that the cause of Dayo's breakdown was so harrowing that I shut down emotionally, too; days later, I still can't get the scene's abhorrent, senseless violence out of my head, and wish desperately that I could. Yet despite Harriman's compositional skill and Oyelowo's intentionally cloistered portrayal that eventually turns nearly operatic, there's unfortunately not enough going on in The After, and it was rather disheartening to realize, at the end, that the only thing Dayo needed to begin the healing process was a hug.

Brittany Snow in Red, White & Blue

Far more successful was writer/director Nazrin Choudhury's Red, White & Blue, which boasts a pair of quietly annihilating performances and is easily the most overtly political work of the live-action bunch. In it, the ever-underrated Brittany Snow plays a waitress in small-town, present-day Arkansas who travels to Illinois with her 11-year-old daughter (Juliet Donenfeld) to procure an abortion now illegal in her home state. Despite its churning reserves of anger, Chordhury's film stands as a lovely, graceful demonstration of familial love and the unexpected kindness of strangers, and it completely waylays you with an unanticipated narrative development that, to my ears, caused a number of fellow Last Picture House patrons to instantly start sniffling. Were I not so deep in the tank for the live-action program's final installment, this would've been my favorite of the nominated titles, and Snow and Donenfeld are so effortlessly, radiantly believable as mother and daughter that I kind of hope the former, in real life, winds up adopting the latter. I have no idea of the girl's current situation, but I'm thinking that after seeing Red, White & Blue, even Donenfeld's folks might endorse the notion.

As you've probably surmised, there aren't a load of laughs to be found in the live-action showcase. Yet nervous chuckles were certainly shared in writer/director Rudder Lykke's Danish-language Knight of Fortune, which takes a gallows-humor approach to bereavement. Emotionally unable to view his wife's corpse, late-middle-aged Karl (Leif Andrée) retreats to the morgue's men's room, where fellow widower Torben (Jens Jørn Spottag), sitting in the adjoining stall, shares a similar predicament. The two men bond, sort of, as one set of darkly comic set pieces lead to the next, and while I'm not aware of filmmaker Lykke's previous credits, he seems well on his way to Martin McDonagh territory. Boasting subtly affection performances by its leads, Knight of Fortune is, by turns, strange (the room housing Karl's late wife is straight out of the Twin Peaks pilot), sentimental, cringe-funny, and surreptitiously touching, and I'm already excited to see Lykke's evident artistry on a canvas larger than this film's impressive 24 minutes provide.

Léokim Beaumier-Lépine in Invincible

Running six minutes longer, writer/director Vincent René-Lortie's French-Canadian drama Invincible is the sort of short you can imagine having been – or potentially becoming – a feature-length release, though it's kind of ideal in the half-hour presentation we're given. The startlingly charismatic teen Léokim Beaumier-Lépine plays Marc-Antoine, an intelligent, crafty youth in juvenile detention whose only goal is to escape incarceration through any means possible. Despite its brevity, the film is flooded with detail: on the detention center's daily regimen; on Marc-Antoine's former and present home life with his family; on how many opportunities the kid has for freedom that he wisely opts against. The one thing we really never know is why Marc-Antoine is incarcerated in the first place. But that info isn't required when Beaumier-Lépine's intense watchfulness is forever expanding the possibilities in your head, and although Invincible's finale is revealed in the short's opening minutes, it's heartrending to ultimately see the same climax played through a different set of perspectives.

As you maybe don't need to be told, the live-action repertoire is completed by Wes Anderson's The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, the Roald Dahl adaptation that's been streaming on Netflix for months, and which I already extensively wrote about – even citing the film (along with its three Dahl-ian cohorts The Swan, The Rat Catcher, and Poison) as my second-favorite cinematic entertainment of 2023. I won't belabor the point: The film is magical. I will add, however, that cinematographer Robert Yeoman's intentionally fuzzy images aren't aided by the transfer to a bigger screen; unexpectedly, Anderson's 39-minute outing looks less professionally polished than the four shorts preceding it. Yet that's my sole quibble. The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar is visually ingenious and deliriously verbose, and it's all but assured an Oscar-night victory for its singular creative force who earned his first Academy recognition 22 years ago and has yet to win. But who's to say? I correctly predicted all of last year's short-film winners without having seen any of the nominees. I'm a tad anxious about the threat of personal experience making me look dumber.

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