Sunday, February 19, 2017

Everyone Put Your Flags Down for a Minute, and Let's Talk about the Oscars!

Politically, racially, and gendered-charged year.  2016.  After the #OscarsSoWhite scandal last year, and the push for more diversity within the membership of the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences (as well as new guidelines meant to exclude previous members who weren’t considered “active” in the industry anymore), what we are seeing in this year’s nominees is a distinctive divide between the more conservative (and possibly older) members of the Academy and the more liberal (as well as younger and more diverse) members.  So, while initially I was scratching my head at some of these nominees, I eventually came to the sad realization that there’s a lot going on this year that doesn’t really have anything to do with (or at least the focus isn’t) the artistic merit of a film.  What you have is people voting with their politics.  When one couples the fact that it’s the industry voting on its own as well as money as well as feeling the need for art to represent / reflect the times it was created in, I’m coming closer and closer to treating the Oscars as being mostly superfluous.  I still had a lot of fun watching these films, and I have seen almost all of the films up for nominations (I will note after the category which films I didn’t see, so assume all others I did see).  Your immediate counterargument to this, as my lovely wife noted, is “no one said you have to watch them all.”  However, I’m also noticing (and maybe this runs parallel with the whole politicizing of art) that a lot of commentary associated with talking about Oscar nominations this year includes the phrase “well, I haven’t seen the movie, but …”  People are firing off a lot of opinions on films that they haven’t seen, which is unfair and ignorant.  So, I’m not going to be one of those people.  Already, in more than one instance, I’ve had my mind changed on what I expected to see and what I actually saw (and it was extremely pleasant and affirming).  I’ve also had those moments in prior years.  So, I have an overall personal feeling of responsibility and respect.  I’m not going to sell these films short.  Onward!

Actor in a Leading Role:  The SAG Award went to Washington.  I don’t understand that.  There seems to be a lot of love for Washington out there.  There is also a lot of backlash with sexual harassment scandals involving AffleckFor the American Society of Cinematographers, Washington won their Board of Governers Award.  Holy shit.  He’s never even done cinematography for a film.  I know it’s about a lifetime of contribution, but really?  He’s 62.  He has plenty more years of film work in front of him.  There’s something about his performances that always have a kernel of similarity to all his other performances.  I realize I’m biased because I hate the character he plays (Troy Maxson), but when you put his performance up next to Casey Affleck’s outstanding job in Manchester by the Sea, it should literally be a no-brainer.  As much as I like Ryan Gosling, I’m not sure why he’s nominated.  He did a solid job, and his dancing was great (singing was ok).  But, best actor?  It is interesting that Viggo Mortensen is nominated.  His work in Captain Fantastic is very good – a different kind of contained that what Affleck does.  It’s a great film.  However, the ending was really stupid (You think Frank Langella isn’t going to try to track down those kids?  Fat chance.).  Of course, the ending has nothing to do with Mortensen’s competent work in the film.  That leaves Andrew Garfield, who had two physically and mentally brutal performances last year:  Silence and Hacksaw Ridge.  Both are outstanding, courageous pieces of work.  Based on merit, the order should be:  Casey Affleck, Andrew Garfield, Viggo Mortensen, Denzel Washington, Ryan Gosling.

Actress in a Leading Role (I didn’t see Elle):  I find this category odd.  I don’t know why Viola Davis isn’t up for it.  I don’t see her role as supporting.  If she were in this category, she would still win.  I’m at a marked deficit because from what I’ve seen of trailers, Isabelle Huppert did a wonderful job.  As for the others in this category, I have issues with 3 of 4.  The first is Meryl Streep.  I didn’t like Florence Foster Jenkins.  In fact, it made me a little angry.  I get that you love someone so much you want to shield them from negativity, but the amount of effort put into keeping the fact that Jenkins, who was already suffering from dementia brought on by syphilis, was a horrible singer yet still wanted to perform, was really ridiculous and wasteful.  That may sound callous on my part, and I know this was based on a true story, but not only was the original situation ludicrous, but making a movie about it was further indulgent.  My guess is her performance is spot-on to the actual Jenkins, but ultimately, I didn’t care.  Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Jackie Kennedy was, as Streep’s, well-studied.  From archival footage, she sounded and acted just like Jackie.  I don’t know much about the historical JKO, so I was hoping that this film would help me understand her a little bit better.  It didn’t.  I walked out feeling mostly uninformed.  And, I think, that might have been part of the film’s point.  I don’t think it was trying to answer questions.  It was a film I was thinking about days after I saw it.  So, yeah, Portman did a great job.  The third issue has to do with Ruth Negga’s nomination for Loving.  Like Washington and Davis in Fences, I don’t think you could have had a successful movie in Loving without both Negga’s and Edgerton’s portrayals of Richard and Mildred Loving.  Both of them did outstanding work which was the opposite of what happens in Fences.  It’s a very quiet film.  Very respectful of its subject.  So, why isn’t Edgerton nominated, yet Negga is?  It isn’t right.  I don’t have a problem with Stone’s nomination, and she did practically sparkle in every scene she was in.  She did win the SAG award for best actress.  So, not only is it a safe bet, but it’s pretty accurate.  Merit:  Stone, Portman, Negga, Streep (cannot place Huppert).

Best Supporting Actor:  This one is tough.  This may actually be more challenging than Best Actor.  My clear and very easy choice is Michael Shannon, because his work in Nocturnal Animals is so ridiculously good (as well as the, no kidding, 9 other films he was in in 2016).  I don’t think Jeff Bridges should win.  He’s essentially doing a more hard-core version of Tommy Lee Jones’ Ed Bell character from No Country for Old Men (2007).  Not a big deal, especially for Bridges.  I’m not really sure why Hedges is nominated, other than trying to get someone nominated that’s under the age of 30.  Yeah, he does fine in Manchester, but I don’t see a lot of acting (maybe in one or two scenes).  It doesn’t help that he’s working next to Affleck and how great Affleck is in the film.  Mahershala Ali won the SAG award, and his performance was good.  But really who it should go to is Dev Patel.  His work in Lion is raw and emotional.  He should share the nomination with Sunny Pawar, the little boy who plays the young Saroo in the first part of the film.  Merit:  Dev Patel, Michael Shannon, Mahershala Ali, Lucas Hedges, Jeff Bridges.

Actress in a Supporting Role:  The work done in this category was very strong.  Viola Davis’ Rose tore at my heart.  As I argued previously, she should be up for Best Actress.  This was not a supporting role.  Naomie Harris’ work in Moonlight, while clichéd, was solid.  When you find out she did all of her scenes in three days, it makes her work shine even more.  She’s the only actor that is in all three parts of Moonlight.  She’s the through-line.  Octavia Spencer is stalworth, but to me, she sort of has only two modes in this film:  steadfast friend and chin-up-in-the-face-of-discrimination.  I don’t see a lot of range in what she does in the film.  The one that did have the most range, even though she’s not in the movie all that much, is Nicole Kidman.  You see so many sides to that character and understand so much of what she has been through.  That’s talent to convey all those states of mind.  While Michelle Williams was good, she’s in so very little of Manchester by the Sea that I don’t think this is a fair nomination.  Some have likened her nomination to that of Judi Dench’s Shakespeare in Love or Viola Davis’ Doubt nominations for 8 minutes of screen time.  I’m not trying to say the work wasn’t good.  But there’s a reason why the word “supporting” is in this category.  I think there should be more significant contribution to the film overall.  Order:  Viola Davis, Naomie Harris, Nicole Kidman, Octavia Spencer, Michelle Williams (hey!  alphabetical order!).

Animated Feature Film (My Life as a Zucchini won’t be released near me until after the awards):  I really enjoyed the films in this category, some of which surprised me.  Kubo and the Two Strings was masterful.  That’s the first one I saw in the category.  When I saw that, I felt that none of the others would be able to hold a candle.  Next, I saw Moana.  As much as I’d like to poo-poo the juggernaut that is Disney, I couldn’t help but find the film adorable.  Princess Moana has come a long way from the princesses of Disney past.  When I’d see posters for Zootopia, it just looked too goofy to be good.  When it won the Golden Globe for best animated feature, I was shocked.  So, I watched it.  It was so relevant to what is going on now with Trump’s all-out policies on immigrants and Muslims, yet also folded in gender politics and perseverance.  The film has so much heart to it.  It was wonderful storytelling.  I was disappointed in The Red Turtle, which I fully expected to be at my top, because it is produced by Studio Ghibli (even though it was made by a Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit) and executive produced by my all-time favorite, Isao Takahata.  The film was beautiful (looked like a modern Japanese wood-block print), but it was also pretty slow and overly metaphorical while not always maintaining the metaphors.  The trailer for My Life as a Zucchini looks amazing and deals with children living in a foster home.  Pretty serious stuff.  But, nothing’s going to beat Zootopia.  Merit:  Zootopia, Kubo and the Two Strings, Moana, The Red Turtle (cannot place My Life as a Zucchini).

Cinematography (Did not see Silence – sorry, Marty):  This got more interesting when the ASC gave their award to Lion.  But when you couple that with the fact that Greig Fraser was also DP on Rogue One:  A Star Wars Story in the same year, that’s pretty impressive.  The dream-ish sequences in Lion are striking.  The camera work in Arrival and Moonlight is also appropriate and effective, each evoking a tonal sense for the films.  From what I’ve heard about the production of Silence, it was a Bataan Death March in Taiwan.  It sounded horrible.  Mud.  Typhoons.  Constant rain.  Short shooting schedule.  Poor Marty.  But I don’t see how anyone can fail to acknowledge how drop-dead beautiful La La Land was.  Linus Sandgren did an amazing job.  He’s also DPed David O. Russell’s last two films.  Loved his work on American Hustle.  This should be his award to lose.  Order:  Sandgren (La La Land), geez this is hard … um … Fraser (Lion), Young (Arrival), Laxton (Moonlight) (cannot place Prieto).

Costume Design (didn’t see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them):  When you think of costume design, you usually think of period pieces or fantasy.  In fact, they actually break down their awards into different categories based on genre.  Clever.  Their ceremony is a week before the Oscars.  Their nominees are really interesting.  I don’t know if I’d consider La La Land fantasy, so it’s an odd duck in this category.  But the CDG has a category for contemporary, so there you go.  Marion Cotillard’s gowns in Allied were indeed beautiful, and I know a lot of work went into the costumes for that film.  So, I have to divorce my apathy to that film when I consider this.  Yeah, the costumes in Beasts were interesting.  As were the costumes in FFJ.  And Jackie.  Merit:  Jackie, Allied, La La Land, FFJ (cannot place Beasts).

Directing:  DAMIEN CHAZELLE!!!  You can practically see the love in each frame of that film.  The other films are well-directed, without a doubt.  Learning about Lonegan’s coming off of the nightmare litigations with Margaret (2011) and him taking over this film and how hard this film is bears true testimony to his adherence to his craft.  Barry Jenkins’ personal attachment to the story of Chiron also shows the depth of responsibility and reverence for the materials he worked with.  The full commitment of Mel Gibson to tell the story of Desmond Doss in Hacksaw Ridge was inspiring.  The body of work Denis Villeneuve is amassing displays significant talent.  All of these films are good.  But, when I think about what I will buy and rewatch, this is easy.  Order:  Chazelle (La La Land), Lonegan (Manchester by the Sea), Villeneuve (Arrival), Gibson (Hacksaw Ridge), Jenkins (Moonlight).

Documentary – Feature (Fuck you, Academy.  I am not watching 7 hours and 47 minutes of what is essentially an ESPN documentary mini-series.  Just because it was shown in theaters a few times does not make it a movie.):  I think this is where you will see politics in total play here, and it will give liberals an anxiety attack to judge whether they should give the award to a film about Lampedusa, a city in Sicily that processes refugees fleeing Africa and the Middle East on boats across the Mediterranean Sea, mostly with disastrous results, or one of three documentaries on the African-American experience.  The darkest horse in the group is Life, Animated, which tells the story of an autistic boy who uses Disney films to communicate.  In light of the other four films nominated, this one comes off as kind of a joke.  I honestly did not get Fire at Sea beyond the obvious juxtaposition of everyday life in Lampedusa to the horrors of the refugees.  The long passages following the boy around were so slow and wasteful.  What should win, and what everyone should see is I Am Not Your Negro.  James Baldwin’s eloquence is so beautiful and painful.  Expertly edited archival footage, coupled with Samuel L. Jackson’s almost-whispered readings of Baldwin’s text is, in my estimation, one of the best films of the entire year.  It really makes 13th look pale in comparison.  Order:  I Am Not Your Negro, and forget the rest, really.

Documentary – Short Subject:  I won’t be seeing these until Mom gets here next weekend, so, my apologies.

Film Editing:  Films are made and broken in post-production.  One thing I am learning from listening to interviews with producers, directors, and editors is that the films they want to make are not the films we end up seeing.  So much gets compromised.  This is essentially the same list as best director, only with Manchester by the Sea swapped out with Hell or High Water.  Why is that?  Is it because there were bank robberies and car chases?  That seems a bit lame.  The non-linear storytelling in Manchester was quite compelling and, by extension, well-edited.  Anyways.  Normally when I think of something as being “well-edited,” I’m looking at action sequences or dance numbers.  Not sure why Moonlight is here.  It really should come down to Hacksaw Ridge and La La Land.  And since there’s a lot of long takes in La La Land, the really tight editing in that film comes in the sequences at the end (the “what-could-have-been,” which was highly effective).  What the American Cinema Editors’ Eddie Awards did was give Arrival best edited dramatic feature and La La Land best comedy feature.  (My) Order:  John Gilbert (Hacksaw Ridge), Tom Cross (La La Land), Joe Walker (Arrival), Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon (Moonlight), Jake Roberts (Hell or High Water).

Foreign Language Film (Land of Mine will not be released in my area until after the awards.  Was going to see Toni Erdmann, but was always put off by the fact that it is 2 hours and 42 minutes long):  I realize only seeing 3 of 5 nominees puts me at a disadvantage here.  I’m still rather puzzled why, after all the attention it got, The Handmaiden was not nominated for this category (edit 2/21/17:  Apparently, South Korea didn't submit it.  Why?  Beats me.).  For me, watching A Man Called Ove was a very similar experience to watching The 100-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, which was a Swedish film up for best makeup in 2014.  Both films are very similar:  an actor is aged through makeup to look at various parts of his life.  While 100 got really goofy after a while, this other Swedish film (oddly enough, not made by the same people but being really tonally similar), was a better film of the two.  Tanna was Romeo and Juliet in the jungle.  It was beautiful (the shots that included the lava flying from the volcano were amazing), and the Nauvhal language is so alien, like most of the world we see in the film.  The Salesman, directed by Asghar Farhadi, whose 2011 film A Separation won in this same category, was really built-up, so when I watched it, I couldn’t figure out what the big deal was.  Yes, it was a good story (sort of, maybe), but I don’t see anything particularly innovative here.  So … I’m assuming that film will win, simply due to the fact that it was made in Iran.  None of the films I saw really impressed me.  From what I’ve seen of Land of Mine, it tells an amazing story.  I don’t think I’ll vote on this category here.

Make-up and Hairstyling:  Um … I only saw A Man Called Ove.  I wasn’t going to watch Suicide Squad or Star Trek Beyond just for this category.  So, a superhero movie, a science fiction movie, and a quirky Swedish film.  It’d be great to see the Swedish film win, just for giggles.

Original Music Score (did not see Passengers):  The score for Lion really stands out to me here.  I realize this is Thomas Newman’s (Passengers) 13th nomination, but that film got little attention.  Since I’m fairly sure Justin Hurwitz is going to win in the Best Original Song category, he may get a pass on his score (splitting the vote could be an issue for him, too).  I’d say another strong contender is Britell.  The music in Moonlight really heightened individual scene moods.  But, I could say the same thing for Lion.  This is another really tough one.  Merit:  Moonlight, Lion, La La Land, Jackie.  (cannot place Passengers)

Best Song:  Normally, I don’t care at all about this category.  I think it’s a waste of time.  NOT THIS YEAR!  The Academy should go to “You’re Welcome” from Moana, but it’s not up.  If you ever see Kim, please let her how sorry you are for her that she has to listen to me sing this all the time.  I didn’t see Trolls, but I listened to “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” which is a fun song.  And everyone loves Justin Timberlake.  That’s not winning, but it will make it fun for Timberlake to perform at the ceremonies.  Also, I didn’t see Jim:  The James Foley Story, but I listened to “The Empty Chair” by Sting, and … Sting’s getting old.  Initially, I didn’t know if it was him singing or whoever J. Ralph was.  Also, why wasn’t that film nominated for best documentary?  Sounds like it was pretty good.  I could venture a guess.  The song is very sad, and in the face of all these other fun songs, there’s no way it has a chance.  So, that leaves the two songs from La La Land and “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana.  I’d go:  “City of Stars,” “Audition,” “How Far I’ll Go,” “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” and “The Empty Chair.”


Production Design (did not see Beasts or Passengers):  Yeesh, another tough one.  There are some specific worlds created here.  I’d say La La Land is the least worthy, since most of its locations were real.  Hail, Caesar! is another movie about movies, and it was a period piece, and the movie within a movie was a Roman epic, so they had harder work to tackle.  That leaves you with the fantasy world of Beasts, the completely outer space Passengers and the interior spaceship of ArrivalLike costumes, the Art Directors Guild also breaks down their awards into contemporary, period and fantasyThey recognized (read: nominated) Nocturnal AnimalsThey get it.  As far as what to pick that’s actually up:  Arrival, Hail, Caesar!, La La Land.  (cannot place the other two)

Short Animated Film:  I won’t be seeing these until Mom gets here next weekend, so, my apologies.

Short Live Action Film:  I won’t be seeing these until Mom gets here next weekend, so, my apologies.

Sound Editing (This is the only award Sully is up for, and I’m not going to watch that movie just for this.):  I thought Hacksaw Ridge had this in the bag.  Then I saw Deepwater Horizon.  Ho-ly shit.  Wow.  Damn.  Merit:  Deepwater Horizon, Hacksaw Ridge, Arrival, La La Land.  (cannot place Sully)

Sound Mixing:  I thought Hacksaw Ridge had this in the bag.  Then I saw 13 Hours:  The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi.  Wow.  Damn.  That was pretty similar.  However, whereas HR has part of the film that is not in combat, almost all of 13 Hours is either waiting to get attacked or getting crazy attacked.  And that film is 2 hours and 24 minutes long.  Merit:  13 Hours, Hacksaw Ridge, Arrival, Rogue One, La La Land.

Visual Effects:  I thought Dr. Strange had this in the bag.  Then I saw Deepwater Horizon.  I still think Dr. Strange was amazing.  But it was amazing fantasy.  Watching Horizon, I feel like I know what those men and women went through during that disaster.  The realism was incredible.  I am quite tickled / pleased that Kubo and the Two Strings was given a nod here.  That’s extremely rare to see for an animated film.  However, the stop motion work they did on Kubo was astoundingWhile The Jungle Book won most of the Visual Effects Society awards (for photoreal categories), Kubo won for best animated visual effects.  It’s nice to see someone other than Disney win something.  That’s respect.  I love VFX.  These awards are cool.  Merit:  everyone.  Even though I didn’t like The Jungle Book, I have no problem saying the VFX were impressive.

Best Adapted Screenplay:  So, THIS IS MY CATEGORY.  However, out of the 5, I’ve only read one.  The weirdness is, I’ve taught that one.  I’m of course talking about Fences.  And I would be an idiot to hate on August Wilson.  I’ve loved this play since I first encountered it.  However, there are better stories being told here.  Not going to lie – Luke Davies adaptation of the real story of Lion is what should win.  Sorry, but this is too compelling and blows away the other four.  After that, this gets complicated.  Technically, Hidden Figures should come second, given how amazing that true story is.  That leaves you with Arrival and Moonlight.  Order:  Lion, Fences, Moonlight, Hidden Figures, Arrival.

Best Original Screenplay (did not see 20th Century Women):  There are two real contenders here:  La La Land and Manchester by the SeaHell or High Water was good, but the acting in it made the writing shine more than it did (though you could say the same for Manchester).  The Lobster is one of the worst movies I’ve seen in years (not from an execution point of view but a “Do I Give A Fuck About The Human Species?” point of view).  I will seriously come in conflict with you if you say you liked this film to my face, or at least lose some respect.  Merit:  Manchester by the Sea, La La Land, Hell or High Water.  (cannot place 20th Century and will not dignify Lobster by doing so)

Best Picture:

There’s so many different ways to define what a movie is.  Is it artistic?  Emotional?  Important for its time / place?  Gut reaction?  Aesthetic?  So many different things to consider.  Here’s mine, with my honest opinions.  I’d like to think I focus on craft, but maybe I’m fooling myself.

9.  Hidden Figures – This is my no means a bad movie.  In fact, all the movies nominated this year are good films.  But I would say there is a marked difference between a “good” film and a “great” film.  For example, when I look at the films I own on DVD from last year, they are:  The Big Short, Mad Max:  Fury Road, and Spotlight.  Guess what I have reserved for purchase this year?  Nocturnal Animals and La La Land.  So, what does that say?  Quite a lot. This film is a story that needs to be told.  My position:   this would have made an amazing documentary.  However, they went the dramatic route.  The performances were solid, but this writing was aw-ful.  “We all pee the same color.”  Maybe that line was actually spoken in the real world during this incident, but that shouldn’t have been in final cut, instead of a rousing point.  This is a paint-by-numbers film.  A TV film.  Not best pic material.

8.  Hell or High Water – This should be a testament as to how good the movies are this year.  This is my #8.  If someone wanted to ask me why Trump was president right now, I’d tell them to go watch this movie.  I don’t know how many of the “coastal elite” understand what it is like for people to be out of work for a long period of time.  This film stretches back long before current times, to the housing collapse of 2008 and even before, but it relates directly to what we are seeing today as the aftermath.  The most telling scene of this film is when Hamilton comes to Howard’s porch at the end of the film, and Howard explains that he’s been poor all his life, and here was an opportunity to reverse that for his own children.  I know a lot has been made of this being a modern-day western, but it really isn’t.  It is about what is happening now.  It is about a rural America desperate for America being great again.  And, they don’t know (or want to know) how much they’ve been lied to in order to make that happen.  This movie is incredibly well-executed.  This is film is thoughtful.  But, it may be too subtle.  Do you realize that as of 2/3/17, this film has made $27 million against a $12 million budget?  Do you understand how sad that is?

7.  Fences – August Wilson is an undisputed genius.  And this play is perhaps within the top 10 plays of the 20th Century (and if you know me, that’s a big claim).  The characters are what make this.  As stated previously, I think Troy is a horrible person.  Just like I think Willy Loman is a horrible person.  I see a bit of my father in both men.  Very depressing.  Kim made an astute and important point about the Madonna / Whore complex and how it relates to Rose (and also Linda Loman).  Why do we have to make these women such martyrs?  She’s got a point.  Up until now, my affinity for Rose has been very solid.  However, why does she have to be so “good”?  So “long-suffering?”  Men = bad, women = good (or necessary to be good in order to stay with these dirtbags).  Why?  I used to think Wilson was a visionary for how he depicted women.  Now, I think it may be a cop-out.

6.  Arrival – This a great film.  However, I found it lacking.  I just felt it got away with things too easily.  And, that’s a problem with time-travel, sci-fi movies.  It takes something that is meant to save the world, and looks at how it can save an individual.  I wanted to love it, for its humanity.  But, it got too ridiculous.  So, I don’t begrudge this film a minute, but it needed to be tighter.

5.  Hacksaw Ridge – This is outstanding, and if you didn’t see it in a theater, you missed it.  This needed to be seen in a theater.  However, this film is not for everyone.  It is a very gory, violent film.  But the story it tells is so uplifting and honorable, it is worth watching.  Also, it is technically well-made.  As much as people want to throw shit at Mel Gibson, he did a masterful job with this film.  So did all the actors.  Out of all the films nominated for best picture, this is by far the most intense.

4.  Moonlight – What I appreciate about this film is its subtlety and its confidence that you will do with the characters what you will.  No one “wins” in this film.  If you are human, it should hurt you.  It’s a very beautiful film.  However, it is also heavily clichéd and formulaic.  So, it turns me off.  This is not a limit of the filmmakers.  Well, perhaps. Actually, yeah, that’s what I’m saying.

3.  Manchester by the Sea – This movie is physically debilitating.  I came out of it feeling I had been beaten up. So many scenes that were so powerful and real.  It is a very deliberate film.  I respect what everyone was trying to do.  Yes, it is depressing. But, it is so human, you can’t but help to watch and identify.  If you haven’t seen it, GO NOW.  Pay respect to amazing filmmaking.

2.  Lion – When you think about movies, you think about the stories they tell. This one, Arrival, and my #1 have the best stories.  A man, who has grown up in affluence when he could have been discarded like so many others, is so tormented by the pain he has most certainly left behind that he is compelled to go back.  While I love La La Land, this story is much better.  And, the filmmaking is so careful and respectful of the real people it depicts (much like Loving).


1.  La La Land – You don’t like this film?  Think it was overhyped?  Fine.  Go ahead.  Sorry about your cynicism.  I’m a cynic.  And a pessimist.  And I loved this film.  Why?  Because I’m also an idealist at heart.  I really do want to believe in the good of everyone. And yet, in the face of its flights of fancy, there is some realism.  From all the audition rejections to the shattering of dreams (a great jazz bar now a tapas place?), the alternate “Hollywood” ending and what Chazelle does with it.  This is beautiful and life-affirming.  NONE of the other films makes you feel good once you leave (well, maybe Lion, a little bit).  This one does.  Does it matter?  TAKE A LOOK AROUND YOU RIGHT NOW.  Yes, it matters.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Does Your Film Have A Soul?

I was reading a book review of Sarah Cooper’s The Soul of Film Theory (2013), which brought up something I haven’t thought of for a long time (although, I must have encountered somewhere in grad school) regarding the concept of the “soul” and how it evolved in film theory, from “classical” to “signifying” to “body and.”  The article talks about how, in a post-structuralism world, the concept of the “soul” has become too … um … demonstrative for us.  Perhaps not so much in the flotsam of everyday life but certainly in academia.  Yet this was a very real concept in previous decades and was attached to semiotics related to ethical and political views.  I would argue that a more secular society is still operating underneath some sort of schema (albeit perhaps restricted in some senses by the empirical), but I doubt the sorts of morality found in a predominantly liberal Hollywood adheres to ideals that are equally as touchy-feely as any religious doctrine.  And, are they really exercised all that differently?  Both sides would say they are all about inclusion, and both sides are more than quick enough to exclude those who have opposing viewpoints.  What becomes interesting, from a critical standpoint, is how these views are either exercised, or subconsciously bubble over into, our various avenues of popular culture.  We go into this a bit when discussing ideology in my Film 101 class (films trying to be subtle, overt or staying away from broadcasting an agenda).


But, it’s still an interesting question to toy with.  When looking at something like It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) or A Christmas Story (1983), it isn’t hard to look into the work to find a sort of “soul” or spiritual repository of the work.  Is that different from theme?  Theme is the main idea.  If I say “It’s a Wonderful Life is about the importance of a life and how it touches others,” do I tamp down on its soul?  That message appears to be immortal, as subsequent generations come in contact with the film, even long after the people associated with making the film have passed on.  What we take away from films (or books or pieces of music or other art), the overall meaning, the values and virtues it extols, can be grasped, so long as there is an audience to perceive.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Truth #1044 - Star Wars: Rogue One

Stormtroopers are the most useless things in the galaxy.

Donnie Yen as a Chinese Zatoichi will kick your ass.

He is also his own anti-aircraft gun.

Always watch the towers.

Technology can raise the dead (or at least animate them).

I love how Disney is paying Mads Mikkelsen.  Just wish they'd give him bigger parts.  But then again, so much of this film is contained in short bursts, no one gets much time.  They count down, then the actor has to blurt out as much information in as little time as possible.  Not really a lot of acting here - just a lot of relating exposition.

Ping (after first appearance of K-2SO, leans over and whispers):  "Favorite character so far."

Ping (about halfway through film, after another scene with K-2SO, leans over and whispers):  "Still favorite character so far."

::SPOILER::  Not too long into the beach battle finale, I got hit with the realization that, unlike in other movies that declare something a suicide mission, but some people make it back, no one was going to make it back on this one.  The gravity of how many people sacrificed everything for the mission to get the plans, and just how blind they were going into the mission, really created a lot of gravity that made this film better.  This was written very well.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Five Movies, One Weekend

I haven’t done a movie binge weekend like this in a while, and as you can imagine, I had a blast.  Not saying everything I saw was good, but it was fun to be in five theaters with decent-sized audiences (and a few surprises).  I’ll put them in the order I liked them most, so last one is last place.

Nocturnal Animals – My one trip to AFI Silver this weekend (everything else I saw at Regal 20 Silver Spring).  This was the most “filmic” film I saw (read “artsy”).  You may already know that the director and screenwriter (based on the novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright) and producer is the fashion designer Tom Ford.  I know nothing about fashion and haven’t seen Ford’s other film A Single Man (2009), but I will definitely check it out.  You get hit in the face at the beginning with a Lynchian credit sequence, then slide into style (beautiful sets and costumes, dim lights, Amy Adams wearing a lot of eye makeup, overhead canted angles).  This is a story within a story.  The frame is that Susan (Adams) is an art dealer, and her husband Hutton (Armie Hammer) is some sort of business man.  There’s some financial strain between them (and even more issues, as the film reveals), and Hutton must leave town for the weekend.  Conveniently, Susan is sent a draft of her ex-husband Edward’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) first novel to read.  He’s going to be in town this weekend, and maybe they could get together?  What happened in Susan and Tony’s past eventually comes out, as the audience is given pieces of the frame story as Susan begins reading the novel.

The story of the novel, which is far more interesting than the frame story (but also more straightforward and intense), is a family (the dad [Tony – also played by Gyllenhaal], mom [Laura – played by Isla Fisher] and young teenage daughter [India – played by Ellie Bamber]) is driving through West Texas when they are forced off the road by three men.  The men kidnap Laura and India, leaving Tony out in the middle of the desert.  Tony makes it back to a town and gets in touch with the local law enforcement.  The rest of the novel’s story is Tony and Bobby (Michael Shannon) trying to bring the men to justice.

I don’t really want to say too much else about the movie, in case you want to go see it.  I recommend not reading or watching any reviews of the film because I don’t think you’d find it as interesting if you knew what was going to happen.  I will say that Michael Shannon is the best part of this film.  There’s a lot of stereotypes masquerading as characters in this movie, which is probably its biggest weakness, and sometimes the ambiance can stray a little too far to pretentious, but it’s still the best thing I saw all weekend.  And, while I didn’t have any problem with the ending, apparently some people do.  I had one person in the theater I saw it in (which was over half full) actually say out loud “That’s it?  Retarded!” when the credits started rolling.  Classy.

Manchester by the Sea – 2 of the 5 movies I saw (this one and Nocturnal Animals) were about people who had really bad things happen to them in the past, 2 of the 5 had bad things happening in the characters’ present time (Moonlight and Allied), and 1 of the 5 dealt with bad things that would happen in the future (Arrival).  None of these films are going to send you home lighter on your feet than when you arrived.  Out of all five, this film imparted the most emotional damage.  It also had the best acting.  Casey Affleck really deserves serious attention for what he did in this film.  It’s a very honest film.  However, I got so annoyed watching it.  This goes back to something I talk about in Film 101 about the use of soundtrack.  The two schools of thought are that either the music should not be intrusive or be very present and aid what is happening.  All too often, music is used to intensify the emotions on the screen at that moment.  And in some cases, it will hammer what you are supposed to be feeling into your skull.  The saddest piece of music ever is Adagio in G Minor for Strings & Organ by Tomaso Albinoli.  The way it is used (and the whole thing is used) in this picture was over-the-top ridiculous.  It didn’t need to do that.  This film would have been the top spot if it hadn’t been for this.

Moonlight – This barely edged out Arrival.  I’ve heard the comment made that this film did a better job at portraying the growing up of a boy than Boyhood (2014).  While I like Richard Linklater, I couldn’t stand Boyhood.  However, comparing that film with this one is ludicrous.  There’s plenty of films that deal with growing up.  This is the story of Chiron, a boy growing up in the ghettos of Miami.  Chiron is small (he is nicknamed Little) and gay (though how he gets pegged with this so early on is a mystery to me – his mom says it’s because of the way he runs?), so he gets bullied relentlessly.  Oh, and also, his mom is a crack addict.  Chiron takes refuge in a crack house, where he encounters Juan (Mahershala Ali), a drug dealer who treats him like a lost puppy, feeds him and takes him home.  At home is Teresa, who will continue to intermittently offer Chiron a stable environment he occasionally stays at into high school.  I want to like this film more, but there’s two big issues with it.  One is a similar issue with Nocturnal Animals.  There are no characters here – only stereotypes.  Instead of a hooker with a heart of gold, we have a drug dealer with a paternal bent.  Mom’s a crack addict who takes Chiron’s money and pawns household appliances for drugs (in one scene, Chiron must boil water to take a bath, because the hot water’s been turned off).  Later in the film, when he visits her in rehab, you get the standard “I’m so sorry, I done you wrong” speech.  Reminiscent of Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy,” Chiron finally snaps one day and breaks a chair over the main bully’s back, which lands him in juvenile detention and eventually jail.  He makes contacts in jail and ends up doing the very same thing that Juan did, running traps in Atlanta.  The only thing that sets this film apart slightly is that Chiron is gay, so you add more tragedy into the already tragic circumstances.  Two, this is poverty porn with a LGBT twist.  Last year, with the Oscars So White Movement, I was hoping to see more diversity in the types of stories we see on screen.  And while there may be more creeping through, we are still seeming to get two extremes:  Boo:  A Madea Halloween and Almost Christmas or Moonlight.  I’m hoping films like Hidden Figures and Fences are the beginnings of turning this trend around.  But seriously, there are more than two stories to tell in the African American community.  I’m still worried that the people who control the money haven’t gotten the message yet.  Just throwing Forest Whitaker in a film is not a sufficient enough move, Hollywood.

Arrival  - Speaking of Forest Whitaker (and he’s going to be in next week’s Rogue One, along with Donnie Yen and Diego Luna – all boxes checked, including having a female lead), he’s in this one.  Out of the two Amy Adams movies I saw, her performance in this one is way better (in fact, comparing the two, I’m fairly sure she was probably bored with what she had to do in Nocturnal).  To be up front with you, I’m not a very big fan of sci-fi, mostly because there are plot holes and leaps of faith one must do to buy what’s going on.  This one’s no different.  So, twelve alien ships come to Earth around the globe to make humanity work together.  That’s their whole goal.  And, it comes dangerously close to not working.  But luckily, Earth has Amy Adams (sorry, I mean Louise Banks) to figure out alien communication.  And, when she is able to figure out language, it unlocks time.  It allows Louise to see into her future.  The upshot of this is that the Chinese general that is dead set on blowing up the aliens in his part of the world tells her at a party in the future (which, since she figured out the language, she can see really specific things), she’s able to speak the general’s wife’s final words, proving that he really needs to listen to her (something he says he doesn’t even do with his supervisors – how does that work in Communism?).  Anyway, the downside is that she can see that she will marry Jeremy Renner (sorry, Ian Donnelly), have a baby together who will get cancer.  She sees this and knows this but chooses to do this anyways.  So, is this a film about how aliens help humanity to work together and join us all in a kumbaya future so that we can help the aliens out in 3,000 years?  Or, is this a film that asks, as Louise asks at the end of the film, “if you could see your life from start to finish, would you change anything?”  With Louise, this is a very serious dilemma, since it will involve her falling in and out of love with Ian and having a wonderful daughter that dies young.  The thing is, it sometimes looks like the movie is trying to make the decision about what it wants to be during the film.  The pacing is pretty slow.  I know it bored the guys next to me, as they were popping out their cell phones all throughout (that was the only audience that did that while the film was playing, and there was a pretty full audience for Arrival, which surprised me, given it is now in its fifth week of release).  It’s not a bad film, but it’s very deliberate, like it’s trying not to lose you.

Allied – Ugh.  To share a text message I had with my friend, I told her she could skip this film, and she said “looks like Mr. and Mrs. Smith Redux.”  I wrote back, “with Nazis.”  This is not a bad plot.  These are not bad actors.  I have to blame two things:  Robert Zemeckis and the editors.  Dear Robert Zemeckis:  Back to the Future was a long time ago.  So was Who Framed Roger Rabbit.  I’m sorry, but I think your freshness date has expired.  This film was so flat.  And boring.  Someone in the row behind me actually snored.  It did get good towards the end, but then when Marianne is writing the letter to her daughter at the end, I was like “was this necessary?”  Any comparisons of this movie to Casablanca (1942) is foolhardy (just because the first part is set in Casablanca during WWII doesn’t mean the two should be set side by side).  I will say the costumes were quite nice.


I’m planning to watch Moana some time this week, and I’ve got my ticket for Rogue One Thursday night.  I’m pretty sure that catches me up to what I want to see.  But, some good films are in the pipeline in the upcoming weeks.  Once I get my final grades in, it’s back to the theater!

Monday, August 8, 2016

Um ... Wow

This was done in one take.  Not sure what to do with it, but the actor sure went for it, and you have to respect that.



Thunder Road from Jim Cummings on Vimeo.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

My Mind Just Got Blowed Up

Getting ready for a podcast tomorrow morning on The Wild Bunch (1969) and looking up information on Peckinpah when I find ... wait a minute ... this can't be right ...

Sam Peckinpah directed Julian Lennon's first two MUSIC VIDEOS?!?!






Peckinpah died two months after.

Fuck.  Me.