Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, February 29, 2016

MEMORIES: SciFilm.org







I first got on the internet in 1999 and was quickly hooked. Like many of you, I work online, get my news online, and communicate with most of my friends online. I have probably spent way too much of my life staring at a computer screen. Anybody who has been on the internet as long as I have, and has seen the media change in immeasurable ways, probably has a few defunct websites they recall with fondness. Many web pages have come and gone from my Bookmarks folder, cast into the internet neither world, never to be seen again. Sometimes ownership changes hands, the original site being absorbed into a bigger conglomerate, which is what happened to Reel.com. Sometimes the proprietor of the site simply looses interest in the topic at hand or no longer has the time for it, which is what happened to Blitzkrieg. A long gone website that I think about often, one that changed my taste in film and influenced my decisions as a film reviewer, is “SciFilm.org.”

Back then, my sensibilities as a movie fan was only beginning to form. I had never even heard of many of the obscure horror movies, eighties action flicks, and bizarro animation that I love today. A fan boy devotion to “Mystery Science Theater 3000” fostered an interest in “bad” movies: Pictures that lack traditional aesthetic value but remain entertaining. Or represent a specific, unusual vision of an outsider filmmaker. That interest led me to “Badmovies.org,” a website that still exists but hasn’t been updated in years. Link pages are less common now but, back then, any mildly popular website had one. Usually used to advertise friends' pages or other projects, sometimes link pages existed just to point people towards similarly themed websites. Listed among Badmovies.org’s link page, and accompanied by a hearty recommendation, was SciFilm.org. Based on the suggestion, I checked it out.







SciFilm.org was a website devoted to sci-fi, fantasy, and horror cinema. In other words, “genre” films. Among the site’s features was an extensive collection of film reviews, including an entire section devoted to the writing of genre archivist Dave Sindelar. There were reviews of old TV shows, news about upcoming films, and announcements concerning new DVD releases. The site was created by a man named Gerry Carpenter. In his own words, which he was happy to supply me with:

I started Scifilm in 2001 on a whim. I was watching a lot of sci-fi, fantasy and horror movies and decided I had something to say about them. I was young enough and foolish enough to start a website devoted to that topic. It actually began life first as the Scifilm Yahoo Group and then only became a website a little later when I decided I wanted to build something more than just a mailing list.

The inspiration for my site was actually Andrew Borntreger’s Badmovies.org site. I loved reading his hilarious reviews about truly bad movies and enjoyed participating on his Bad Movies forum. However, in addition to the terrible movies I liked watching, there were also a lot of good ones I liked. I didn’t want to just talk about bad movies, but good ones as well. And some times I wanted to talk seriously about bad ones and not just mock them.

Mr. Sindelar said this about the site’s formation:

I came on board due to an invitation from Gerry. We’d first met on the Sinister Cinema site, which as time passed deteriorated into endless bickering and invasions by trolls. SciFilm.org was a breath of fresh air; it was a well-maintained, cleanly run site.  On top of serving as an archive for my own set of reviews, there was also a review site for others, as well as Jase’s excellent group of TV show reviews.






While SciFilm.org covered films from every era and decade, the site’s focus was primarily on classic cinema. At the time, I was obsessed with the classic Universal Monster movies – still am, I suppose – and similar pictures from the same time. I loved, love, these things but there weren’t too many places to discuss them then. SciFilm.org represented a wellspring of knowledge for me, allowing me to discover new movies I would come to love and foster a new appreciation in films I already loved.

In truth, SciFilm.org introduced me to many types of genre cinema that I now adore. I had heard of filmmakers like Dario Argento, Lucio Fulci, and Mario Bava but SciFilm’s reviews made it clear that Italian horror was different than regular horror. Reviews for movies like “The Car,” “The Beast Within,” “Fantastic Planet,” and “Eraserhead” intrigued me so much that I had to seek them out. One feature that truly made an impression on me was a team-up between SciFilm, Badmovies.org, and several other sites focused on “death sports” movies, such as “Rollerball.” I have no doubt that my current affinity for this type of movie can be traced back to SciFilm. This was the first place I read about obscure Asian, Italian, and Spanish movies, such as the Blind Dead series. The site would also spotlight independent film and home made efforts. I still wonder if I’ll ever find a copy of “Shadows in the Garden.”











SciFilm didn’t just implore me to seek out weird and wonderful things I might not have discovered otherwise. The insights of the reviewers influenced my own writing style. Most of SciFilm’s reviews were broken down into an easily readable format. There was an introduction, a brief plot synopsis, a collection of elements the reviewer thought worked, and some element they didn’t think worked. I employ a similar tactic with my own reviews to this day. Moreover, the reviewers didn’t just discuss a given film’s technical aspects. They would talk about the emotional impact it had on them, such as IronWolfe’s review of “Last House on the Left.” The deeper meanings and potential subtext of stories were frequently a topic of discussion, like in their review of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.” The time period a film was made in, and how that affected the finished product, was never ignored. Reviewers with names like Dr. Malty, Chadzilla, Bear, and MindFlash became experts that I respected, whose opinions I sought out. Gerry Carpenter had this to say about the site’s contributors:

I also always had a sense that I wanted Scifilm to be a community, so I soon invited just about anyone who was interested to write full movie reviews for the site. This greatly enriched the output of the site and introduced me personally to some great films that I likely wouldn’t have seen otherwise.

Two major contributors to the site were Dave Sindelar and Jason “Jase” Warren. Scifilm became the archive site for Dave Sindelar’s Fantastic Movie Musings and Ramblings, which I had first been introduced to on the Sinister Cinema message board (long defunct) when Dave posted his first article. Jason Warren’s specialty was writing about fantastic TV series, everything from "The Adventures of Superman" to more modern offerings like the animated "X-Men: Evolution" series. Both author’s writings quickly became large sections of the site.

The combination of the obvious passion the writers had for these movies and the easily digestable format made me consider writing my own reviews. Many of the essays and thoughts on SciFilm were written and submitted by readers. If I had submitted something, I’m sure Gerry would have posted it. Lost forever is about half a review of “May” I wrote with the hopes of getting it on SciFilm. Considering my style was very crude at the time, it’s probably for the best that such a thing never surfaced.



As much as I loved the main SciFilm website, there was another element to the site that kept me coming back. Back in the day, SciFilm had a very active forum. The forum technology might seem antiqued by modern standards. At the time, the straight-forward format – usually a collection of topics stacked in an easy-to-read structure – was very appealing to me. A lively reader base kept the forum changing often. Fans and writers would share reviews, thoughts, and ideas among themselves. There were two reoccurring forum features that I recall with a great deal of fondness. A forum member called Jase would post weekly threads, discussing the best sci-fi, fantasy, or horror film for a long ago year. Forum members would vote on their favorite picks and, at the end of the week, Jase would present a winner, a best film from that year. These threads were appointment viewing for me and I can remember at least one day where I got up early so I could vote. (The forum also introduced me to Mr. Lobo, someone I still run into occasionally.)

The Internet Archive has preserved large swathes of the SciFilm forum but much of it is lost. Another forum game I loved that I can’t find were the annual Monster Wars. Essentially tournament style match-ups between classic monsters, in both giant and human-sized varieties, I absolutely adored these events. While I couldn’t find the original forum threads, I did write down the results of the Monster Wars. Amazingly, I still have those papers. Unsurprisingly, Godzilla was a two time champ of the Giant Monster Wars while Dracula emerged victorious in the human-sized class.



The forums weren’t just a fun place to hang out. After a while, it began to feel like a family of sorts. I checked the forum usually multiple times a day. About the on-line sense of community that formed around SciFilm, Gerry Carpenter said this:

I was very fortunate that my invitations to join this new board was joined very early on by a bunch of great people who would to go on to become real friends. I certainly can’t remember everyone who joined right from the start, but from the very first days of the forum I was having conversations with great folks like Chadzilla, Andrew Kidd, Dr. Mality, Jase, and of course Dave Sindelar.

The forum was always the heart of the site. Everyday, there were interesting and engaging conversations going on. I remember one series of conversations that I had that were extremely literary analyses of the BBC’s series of Ghost Stories for Christmas and their source material—most of which were written by M.R. James and one, “The Sentinel,” by Charles Dickens. This is just one example of the many thousands of fascinating conversations by many highly intelligent and passionate people.

Dave Sindelar said about the forum:

Perhaps more than any other forum I’ve visited, it felt like a good group of friends.  Flare-ups and fights were rare, and Gerry was an excellent administrator. The “Best of” threads and the Monster Wars, as you mentioned, were both highlights. Quite frankly, no other forum I’ve ever visited has felt more like “home” than that one. After Gerry left and the site transmogrified into what it is now, we went off in our several different directions and I miss many of these people.



As the saying goes, all good things come to an end. SciFilm launched in 2001 and, from looking at the archived pages, I believe I joined around 2004. By 2006, Carpenter made the decision to shut down the site. His reasoning was:

As the site grew, both in terms of content and in traffic, it quickly became a part time job. I spent 3-4 hours a day keeping it updated. It was fun and engaging but not necessarily conducive to a positive home environment. Ultimately in late 2007, I decided it was time to hang up my hat and retire. I had discussions with many people who kindly encouraged me to continue and offered me solutions to keep the site alive. In the end, Dave Sindelar and I decided to convert the site to a permanent and dedicated home for his Fantastic Movies Musings and Ramblings.

The closure of the site bummed me out. After the ending announcement, I can remember writing down every film SciFilm had recommended that I hadn’t yet seen. The forum was a real loss. Thanks to social media, it’s easier than ever to connect to people who like the same things you do. It was a little different a decade ago. Many of the forum regulars migrated to the Badmovies.org forum. Though I tried to integrate myself there, it wasn’t the same. I’m sad to say I’ve lost touch with many of those people.








  You’ll notice that the SciFilm domain name is still active. As mentioned above, the site remains as an archive for Dave Sindelar’s writing. Dave is another fine writer and his quixotic quest to review every sci-fi, fantasy, or horror film made continues even now. He’s been reviewing a different film every day for over a decade. SciFilm is now a nearly comprehensive collection of the genre’s history. Just about any classic film you can think of has been covered, with Dave providing entertaining and thoughtful insight. About the site’s current form, Gerry said:

At over 5,000 titles, Scifilm.org is surely one of the most comprehensive sources of critical writing about fantastic movies on the internet today. Dave’s articles are always interesting, engaging, and fair. It is truly an amazing body of work. I’m proud to have played some small part in its development. The platform the site is built on is aging, and some day it will surely go the way of all the earth, but Scifilm.org is a small part of the history of the internet that will always be dear to my heart.

I’m fairly certain that, without SciFilm, there would be no Film Thoughts. The site was a big deal for me. Dave’s current page is, of course, wonderful. Yet I frequently find myself nostalgic for the old site. It was one of those situations were you wish something could have lasted longer. For whatever it's worth, I've done my part to keep the legacy of a site and community I loved alive.

(A very heartfelt thank you must be extended to Gerry Carpenter and Dave Sindelar for helping make this article possible.)

Bangers n' Mash 83: Monsters 101


The latest episode of the Bangers n' Mash Show - and the last for February of 2016 - actually went up early today but I didn't want to interfere with my Oscar live-blog thing. Now that award season is totally and thankfully behind us, you can enjoy some horror nerd goodness from Mr. Mash and I.

Yep, this podcast is both devoted to and inspired by my co-host and I arguing about the nerdy details concerning various monsters. For the sake of brevity, we've narrow down to four major classic monster archetypes: Vampires, werewolves, zombies, and ghosts. We discuss their weakness, their different attributes, and the many variations of the associated myths. I'm actually fairly pleased with how this one turned out. Give it a listen, if you're so inclined!


Sunday, February 28, 2016

OSCARS 2016 LIVE BLOG

8:22 - Welcome to Film Thoughts' seventh annual Academy Award live-blog!

8:24 - What am I looking forward to at the show tonight? I have no idea. I barely remember Chris Rock's last gig hosting and recall finding his style an awkward fit for the ceremony. With all the diversity controversy during Oscar season this year, I bet it's going to be even more awkward.

8:25 - Is there time for some last minute predictions? My thoughts haven't changed much since my wildly inaccurate predictions back in January. "The Revenant" is still the favorite to win Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Picture. "The Big Short" might sneak in on the latter category but I'm not expecting it.

8:27 - Brie Larson is still the fave win Best Actress, Alicia Vikaner will probably still win Best Supporting Actress, Stallone is still the favorite to win Best Supporting Actor, "Fury Road" will still sweep the technical categories.

8:28 - If you're wondering why I reviewed all the major Oscar nominees EXCEPT for "Creed," it's because I'm planning a second Sylvester Semester in August where I'll discuss Sly's biggest franchises. WATCH FOR IT!

8:29 - And, yes, I've already had something to drink. A white wine is pairing well thus far with my antipathy towards the evening. I'm sure I'll need something heavier before the night is up.

8:30 - Let's get started with some symbolic CGI animation.

8:31 - Here's some clips from some movies that aren't nominated tonight.

8:32 - Seriously, like a third of these movies are nominated. What was the logic behind picking these clips?

8:33 - Chris' tux is as white as the nominees.

8:34 - I was going to take a shot every time a racial diversity joke is cracked but I already realize I'll be wrecked too quickly that way.

8:36 -  Wait, why was there a random close-up of Chris Rock's pocket? Also, all these lynching jokes are going over great.

8:37 - If the rest of the evening is as long as this opening monologue, we'll be here until two in the morning.

8:41 - Yes, Chris, thank you for trying out this one joke.

8:44 - Granted, George Clooney wearing a lime green tux and an anal swan WOULD be an event.

8:45 - Pause so the writers can applaud.

8:46 - Oh cool, they've brought the "Show footage from the movie with the screenplay overlaid it." I'm a big fan of that feature.

Who will win Best Original Screenplay?: Spotlight. Who should win?: Inside Out or Ex Machina.

8:47 - Called it!

8:48 - In hopes of keeping the acceptance speeches from being a long list of "Thank yous!," the Academy has introduced a new feature where the "thank yous" are rolled in a tinker at the bottom of the screen. Clearly, this is working out so far.

And that was first time tonight somehow is played off the stage. That's a shot.

8:50 -  I can't tell if Crowe's exasperation is acting or real.

Who will win Best Adapted Screenplay?:  The Big Short. Who should win?: The Martian. Most of these scripts are pretty great but that was the one with the sharpest writing, in my opinion.

8:52 - Damn, two in a row! I'm off to quite the night.

8:53 - Unsurprisingly, that speech got political. I don't think Adam McKay will be voting for Donald Trump.

8:57 - Did you enjoy that commercial break? Because I did.

8:58 - Oh yes, this sketch is a good use of the broadcast time.This was definitely worth doing instead of including all the Best Song performances.

9:00 - The LGBT community is going to love that bit about Tracy Morgan in a dress.

9:01 - Yes, Sarah Silverman, it was a good idea to bring your usual "I had sex!" comedy to the Oscars.

9:03 - That bit about Bond not being "street enough" was funny and got zero laughs. Yea, there's the Bond theme nobody liked!

9:04 - Those are some sick dance moves you've got there, Sam. Slowly swaying back and forth like a nervous kindergartener on the first day of school was a bold move.

9:06 -  So is anybody going to be comfortable on stage tonight? Everyone seems incredibly uncomfortable.

That George Michael joke went over great, Rock.

9:07 - I approve of the use of Bowie in "The Martian" clip.

9:09 - So they just ditched that "Nominees in the order of film production" after the first bit? Also, the cameraman can't stop jittering back and forth. HOLD STILL.

9:10 - Who will win Best Supporting Actress?: Alicia Vikander for "The Danish Girl." Who should win? Rooney Mara for "Carol."

That scene in "Spotlight" where the old priest casually admits to molesting kids was a hard-hitting moment.

9:11 - Kate Winslet's Polish accent should definitely get some sort of award.

9:12 - And that's three for three for me so far.

9:13 - Thus far the ceremony has been a mixture of snore worthy acceptance speeches and some hugely uncomfortable jokes from Chris Rock, all of which have hit with a shallow thud. It's going to be a long night.

9:18 - The orchestral remixes of famous soundtrack songs have been pretty good tonight.

9:19 - Chris Rock's girl-on-girl joke didn't get a single laugh and rightfully so. Cate Blanchette looks pretty tonight.

I don't really know whose going to win Best Costume Design.

9:20 - "Mad Max: Fury Road" winning Best Costume Design will surely be the first of many technical awards that film takes home tonight.

9:21 - We don't care about your opinions on the atmosphere, lady! PLAY HER OFF!

That was a pretty bitchin' jacket she had on, though.

9:22 - Tina Fey is hilarious every year she presents. How much money do they need to pay her just to get her to host the whole damn show? Also, "Fury Road" isn't steampunk.

9:24 - With all these Oscars, the production staff of "Fury Road" will ride, shiny and chrome, into Valhalla.

I liked that speech because it was short.

9:25 - In order to prepare for his role as an award presenter, Jared Leto gave away random awards to homeless people on the street. Something something dead pig something.

9:27 - Thus far, I am pleased by "The Revenant" being totally locked out of the technical categories - what with it being MEDIOCRE! and all that - but these aren't the categories it was destined to win in anyway.

9:28 - Benicio del Toro definitely seems like a "Let's Go Fly a Kite" kind of guy.

9:29 - The guy in the bear suit... Well, I'm not going to say it's a "nice" touch but it made me laugh.

9:34 - This is a genuinely nice gesture: Pointing out the real people some of the films are based on. And it finishes with that lousy gag about Suge Knight.

9:36 - I really hope "The Hateful Eight" wins for Best Cinematography but there are so many good looking films on display tonight. "Carol" was also incredibly beautiful. Hard to pick just one.

9:38 - Was "The Revenant" really that nice looking a film? It was very blue and muddy.

9:39 - Who will win Best Editing? "The Big Short." Who should win Best Editing? "Mad Max: Fury Road."

9:40 - Okay, I was wrong but I'm still chalking that one up as a win for me.

9:41 - Okay, that was the first decent acceptance speech of the night - mixing "Thank yous" with genuine heart - and they fucking played her off. Ugh, Academy. UGH.

9:42 - "Shark Tale:" Oscar-nominated movie. NEVER FORGET.

9:43 - What does the Academy Awards and my Facebook feed have in common? The Minions are there and I desperately do not want them to be there.

9:47 - What are the odds that we'll get through this presentation without a Black Panther joke?

Also, maybe they should have a feature explaining the difference between Sound Editing and Sound Mixing, since apparently nobody knows what these categories are.

9:49 - Do you think they yelled at the audience just to wake us up?

9:50 - Timing the words on-screen with the bullets from "Bridge of Spies" was pretty clever.

9:53 - "Fury Road' winning most of the technical awards it's up for is cool. However, will it actually win in any of the big categories? That remains to be seen.

9:55 - Here comes Andy Serkis to fuck your shit up, Academy Awards!

"Fury Road' probably deserves to win Best Visual Effects but I'm rooting for "Ex Machina."

9:56 - Well, I'm glad I'm not the only person who thought so.

9:58 - Shit, that guy didn't even get in a word before they played him off the stage.

9:59 - Olivia Munn's deadpan delivery was highly amusing.

YEAH, IT'S BB-8!

10:00 - WHY DON'T THEY LET BB-8 PRESENT ALL THE AWARDS?

10:01 - That skit definitely needed more BB-8. THERE'S NO SUCH THING AS TOO MUCH BB-8!

10:05 - I just looked at John Williams' IMDb page and the robots were right. He's been nominated a bunch of times.

10:06 - Chris Rock's daughters selling Girl Scout cookies is not as good as Ellen ordering pizza for everyone. But, hey, Lou Gossit Jr.!

10:07 - Oh Christ, it's the Minions. BURN IT! BURN IT WITH FIRE!

This is awful. Please, sweet booze, end this torture.

10:08 - "World of Tomorrow" will probably win but I'm rooting for "We Can't Live Without Cosmos."

There's a total upset. Nobody in my Facebook film group voted for "Bear Story" and yet it won Best Animated Short. Complete surprise.

10:10 - The Oscar announcer shouted "Woody!" with a little too much enthusiasm for my taste.

10:11 - Christ, even the cartoons are awkward at the Academy Awards.

10:12 - "Inside Out" winning Best Animated Feature was entirely expected. Don't get me wrong, it's a fantastic film and I loved it. But I was rooting for "When Marnie Was There" to win, just cause I liked it so much.

10:13 - As always, Pete Doctor gives the best speech of the night.

10:14 - No, Kevin Hart, I will not make some noise for Chris Rock.

10:15 - Is the Weekend going to randomly pepper this performance with shouts of "Shit!" I'd be disappointed if he didn't.

Oh wow, that hair. And that S&M aerial silks mummy hanging above him. Wow. Just wow, you guys.

10:17 - This is like "Alien vs. Predator." I'm not a fan of the song but the Weekend just brutalized Sam Smith. No matter who wins, we loose.

10:22 - I had no idea Reese Witherspoon was so tiny and dainty. Winslet could crush her between her thumbs.

10:24 - Was that a split second of cellphone Youtube video handheld vision there?

10:27 - "Superfly" wasn't nominated for an Oscar either.

It's not like "Bridge of Spies" was some obscure shit. It got a wide release.

10:28 - Seriously, why the fuck does the camera not stand still during the Supporting announcements? Who made that decision?

10:29 - Also, we're minutes away from Sylvester Stallone winning an Academy Award and I am pumped about it.

The sooner we can forget about Tom Hardy's "Revenant" accent, the better.

10:31 - Okay, never mind.

I know several people were rooting for Rylance and he gave a fine performance. However, the idea of Sylvester Stallone - a punch line for so many years because of his acting - winning an Oscar was irresistible. I am disappointed.

10:33 - That was a good speech. And, holy cow, that's the "Casino Royale" theme song they're playing right now!

10:37 - Oh boy, the Best Documentary Short, the one category I never see anything from because the films are never included in the nominated shorts package.

10:38 - I know he would never do it but Louis C.K. should host next year. This presentation is like a shot of Expresso during an all-nighter.

10:40 - Damn, Louie is killing it.

10:41 - Gee, the winner gets political and they immediately start to play her off the stage. You're shameless, Oscar.

10:42 - I'll be honest. "Cartel Land" was the only Documentary nominee I saw. I wanted to see more but time just ran out. I'll do better next year, I swear.

10:43 - "Amy" was the favorite to win right from the beginning but I know many people believe "The Look of Silence" to be the better film. I haven't seen either so I don't have a dog in this fight.

10:44 - Oh yeah, during a year when race is the hottest topic of the night, let's make a "Chinese people are good at math!" joke. Stay classy, Mr. Rock.

10:49 - That groan in the audience just now was totally worth it.

10:50 - Yes, that Suge Knight joke was definitely worth revisiting.

10:51 - Yeah, that honorary Oscar will placate Spike. Sure it will, Oscar. Go with that.

10:54 - This year's ceremony should have been subtitled "We're really sorry about not nominating any black people."

10:55 - YEAH, LOU GOSSETT JR.!

What are the odds that Roddy Piper, Angus Scrimm, and Gunnar Hensen will appear during the In Memorium montage?

10:56 - Nah, that Christopher Lee clip didn't make me tear up a little. I'M NOT CRYING! YOU'RE CRYING!

10:59 - Well, Piper, Scrimm, and Hensen got the shaft - as expected - but David Bowie and Leonard Nimoy were treated with respect. At least one thing was well done this evening.

11:03 - So is it hard to read a teleprompter? Seems like there's been an unusual number of slip-ups this year.

11:04 - Aww, these kids don't know how close they should stand to the microphone. Adorable.

"Everything Will Be Okay" is my pick for Best Live Action Short.

11:05 - "Stutterer" was cute too. The balance between seriousness and drippiness in this category is very hard to calculate.

11:06 - Damn, Byung-Hun Lee and Sofia Vergara would make pretty babies.

11:07 - Not proud to admit that I haven't seen any of the foreign film nominations. I really wanted to see "Mustang" and "A War."

11:09 - Everybody, shut the fuck up! IT'S DIAMOND JOE BIDEN!

11:10 - Joe Biden, taking the controversial stance on being against rape.

11:13 - Stop starring at me, Gaga.

I'm sorry. It's just so overwrought and ridiculous. Not that I'd expect subtly from someone like Lady Gaga, even if its a serious subject that obviously deserves a gentle approach.

11:14 - "LOOK AT HOW HARD I CARE ABOUT THIS!"

Boy, Liza with a Z sure is touched.

11:20 - Quincy Jones looks like he's having fun.

While the Best Song field is extremely weak this year, the score field is fantastic. I don't know who I want to win more, "Carol" or "The Hateful Eight." Both phenomenal works of music.

11:22 - BEST SCORE FOR ENNIO MORRICONE! IT'S ABOUT FUCKING TIME. 

Pretty good for a score that was made of leftovers from "The Thing."

11:24 - When they gave Ennio his Honorary Oscar, they didn't even bother to bring along a translator. This time, he has a translator but not a big enough microphone.

11:25 - "Simple Song" and "Manta Ray" were the best of the Best Song nominees and they didn't get performed so Oscar had more time for Chris Rock's stupid man-on-the-street and Girl Scout Cookies gags.

11:27 - Shit, can I just pretend that the rejected Radiohead "Spectre" theme won instead?

11:28 - Well, his speech had more confidence than his performance anyway.

11:29 - Oh fuck, it's Ali G.

That equal mixture of laughs and groans in the audience shows that Cohen is doing it right. "Idris Elbow." Snort.

11:30 - As amusing as Cohen's bit was, him awkwardly standing there while "Brooklyn's" nominee is presented is equally hilarious.

11:32 - Saoirse Ronan is so strikingly beautiful that it makes me kind of angry.

11:35 - Oh thank god, there's only a half-hour left.

11:36 - J. J. Abrams knows a lot about staying true to other people's visions.

Whether or not George Miller wins Best Director will predict the rest of the night.

11:37 - CURSE YOU ALEJANDRO!

In retrospect, it was naive for any of us to think that George Miller had a shot at winning Best Director.

11:39 - Fuck you, Birdguy! You've already had your Best Director speech! "FLIGHT OF THE VALKYRIES!" UNTIL YOU SHUT UP!

11:40 - I am definitely not drunk enough to see Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu win another Best Picture award.

11:43 - All right, we're in the final stretch, guys.

11:44 - I hope you get laid, Harold.

11:45 - Best Actress is the hardest field this year. Everyone - I mean, even Jennifer Lawrence - gave fantastic performances.

11:46 - I fully expect Larson to win and she was great but Saoirse won my heart. Christ, that accent, you guys! Ugh, so damn pretty.

11:47 - Well, seems like I predicted all the major categories. Not that it was hard to do so.

11:48 - Brie Larson is going to be cast as Captain Marvel now, right?

11:49 - I'm kind of doubting that my favorite film will take home the Oscar, Anonymous Announcer Lady.

11:52 - Leo's inner monologue: "I ate a bison liver, goddamn it! GIMME GIMME GIMME!"

11:53 - As strong as the Actress field is, the Actor field is weak in comparison. I guess Fassbender gave my favorite of these performances? None of them stand out much.

11:55 - Leo will deeply kiss his Oscar tonight, on the lips, and whisper about how he doesn't ever have to crawl inside a dead horse again. It's all coasting from here on out, baby!

11:56 - Okay, Leo, we get it, you liked this movie you were in. "Transcendent" is a bit much.

11:57 - And NEVER FORGET that Leo's first movie was "Critters 3!"

Leonardo referencing climate change was a panel on Oscar Bingo, right?

11:58 - You know things are serious when Morgan Freeman are intoning deep from above high.

11:59 - "This is the voice of God speaking. Give the Oscar to that bear movie."

Damn it, had to dash my Oscar ballot at the last minute, didn't you?

12:00 - It's not "Mad Max" taking the top prize but at least "Spotlight" was actually a good movie and not a self important mediocrity like "The Revenant." That counts for something.

12:02 - Oh thank god, it's over.

So how was the ceremony? Leaning so hard on Chris Rock's shtick in the early going was definitely a mistake. As usual, the show picked up in the second half just because we knew it was half-way over.

12:03 - Most of the comedy bits were hard to swallow. Only Louis C.K., Tina Fey, and Ali G made me laugh. With the exception of the In Memorium segment, the musical productions were all overdone and I'm still annoyed that they cut out the two actually good song nominees. At least they cut down on self-congratulatory montages this year.

12:05 - As for the winners and losers, they're were many expected reveals and a few surprises, not all of them pleasant. "Fury Road" sweeping the technical categories but George Miller going home empty handed seems like a slap in the face. "Spotlight" going home with Best Picture seems somewhat random but I'll take it over "The Revenant" winning.

12:07 - And the Wookie takes us out. Thank you for reading and watching along with me. I'm so glad Oscar Season is over. I'll be back tomorrow with a new podcast episode and a new Memories article. Until then, I'm going to drink a little more. Thank you and good night.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

OSCARS 2016: Carol (2015)


"Carol" is one of the few Oscar-nominated films this year I saw before the nominations were announced. A story of forbidden love between two lesbians in the fifties may not seem like something a horror/sci-fi/action nerd like me would normally watch. The truth is I’ve been a fan of Todd Haynes ever since watching a fairly rough bootleg VHS tape of “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” in high school. Based on a rapturous reception at Cannes, the film was bookmarked as an early Oscar contender. Perhaps because the Academy is terrified of gay people, the film did not score as many nominations as some expected. This hasn’t changed the fact that the movie is still pretty good.

In the early 1950s, Terese works as a shop girl. Despite having a gaggle of friends and a potential boyfriend, Terese feels something is missing in her life. During the Christmas shopping season, an older woman named Carol enters the store, looking for a gift for her daughter. The two immediately feel a chemistry between them. During a holiday road trip, Carol and Terese consummate their relationship. However, the narrow-minded views of the time rear their head when Carol’s embittered ex-husband threaten to take her daughter away.

As in “Far from Heaven,” Haynes recalls the opulent design of fifties melodramas in “Carol.” The film’s production design and costumes are gorgeous. The cinematography is lavish. Carter Burwell’s score is touching and powerful, a low tone lending a sense of melancholy while the mounting strings build tension. The opulent design creates an intentional separation between the audience and the story. Carol and Terese’s romance begins as furtive glances across rooms. This escalates to dinners and awkward visits at Carol’s home, both longing to touch but not being able to. When finally left alone in a private place, “Carol” oozes a slow eroticism. The love scenes are intimate, focused on the contours of the bodies, intertwining limbs, and close faces. By taking its time leading up to the sex scene, “Carol” earns the passion of those scenes. The careful approach also deflects any possibility of exploitation.

“Carol” is also an actors’ film. Rooney Mara, with her pageboy hair cut and mousy clothes, seems even younger than she is. Mara does an incredibly subtle thing, expressing her character’s inner life through her outside actions. Terese puts up a shield around other people, protecting her feelings, thoughts, and desires. When around Carol, she’s allowed to be herself. The relationship makes her more bold, allowing herself to stand up against her would-be suitor. Cate Blanchette is more self-assured as the titular character. When things gets rough, her nerves rattle to the surface. Yet Blanchette’s sense of self-assuredness is also impressive, especially during the film’s emotional climax. “Carol” features two extraordinary performances.

“Carol” was in production for many years before cameras ever rolled. It’s apropos that the film came out when it did, when LGBT rights are a hotter button issue than ever before. When gay couples have more rights than ever – rights they have to continue to struggle to defend – it’s meaningful to look back. In “Carol,” the title character’s husband conspires to remove Carol’s daughter from her home. After a private detective spies on Carol and Terese during their trip, Carol’s husband intends to use the information against her. (Whether or not Carol’s powerful speech near the film’s end makes a difference or not is left up to the audience.) Throughout the story, the two have to keep their relationship a complete secret, fearful that a glance or fleeting touch might give them away. This is how it was in the fifties. Though we’ve come a long way since then, the struggle of the story implicitly suggest that there’s still roads to travel.

Beautifully directed and executed, with fantastic performances and music, “Carol” is quite good. In a fairer world, it would win several Oscars. In our world, it’s unlikely to pick up any statues on Sunday night. This is even putting aside the category fraud, of Rooney Mara being nominated in the Supporting category despite clearly being the lead. Still, making a lovely film that was extremely well received probably still makes Haynes proud. [8/10]

Thursday, February 25, 2016

OSCARS 2016: The 2016 Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts


I like cartoons. Any long-time readers of the blog will know this already. Unlike the Best Animated Features category, which is usually filled out by studio fair and one or two indie efforts, the Animated Shorts are usually smaller productions. Produced by filmmakers outside of America or by emerging talent, the shorts contain their share of surprises.

Over the past three years, the Animated and Live Action shorts have been packaged separately. I order the shorts through my cable provider, which is the easiest way for me to see them. For some reason, this year, both categories were packaged together. This meant two of the animated shorts were excised and none of the Highly Commended shorts were included. Luckily, I was still able to see the other nominated shorts.


 
Bear Story 
Historia de un oso

Hailing from Chile, “Bear Story” follows an elderly bear living alone in an apartment. During the day, he lugs a mechanical box into town. After catching the attention of a young customer, the bear winds a crank and activates an elaborate puppet show inside the box. There, we see the story of a bear being abducted by a mob-like circus, forced to perform under threats of violence. Eventually, the bear escapes captivity and returns to his family. After the puppet show ends, the bear goes back to his empty apartment.

“Bear Story” is quite visually inventive. The story is brought to life by computer generated graphics. Since the bulk of the film is made up of mechanical marionettes enacting a story, that brings in a totally different visual angle than what we’re used to seeing in CGI. Watching the different gears crank up and platforms unfold is interesting. The film also tells a deeply sad story. In the bear’s puppet show, the hero is reunited with his wife and child. In real life, he’s alone. The author often corrects the wrongs of his real life in his fiction. “Historia de un oso” may also be a political allegory, as the jag-booted, thug-like circus manager brings certain connotations. The interesting animation and touching story makes it worth seeing. [7/10]



World of Tomorrow

Of all the nominated shorts, “World of Tomorrow” is the most hyped. Not only is it easily the best received film of these nominees, some critics even listed it as one of the best films of last year. “World of Tomorrow” follows a toddler named Emily, who is contacted by a version of herself from the future. Actually, it’s a third generation clone of herself as, in the future, people are impregnated with clones of themselves. In extended detail, the older Emily explains many of the odd, strange changes of the future while exploring her own journey.

Maybe the hype didn’t help but I was mostly baffled by “World of Tomorrow.” The short film has roughly ten thousand ideas. There’s the issue of cloning, memory, and the value of love and human life. The future Emily explains an art installation about a clone body being placed in a glass box, aging in real time. She discusses the Outer-Net, an advanced, physical internet where people can interact with their own thoughts. In the future, rich people have their consciousness transferred into computerized boxes, which seems to inevitably drive them insane. She explains the perils of time travel and space travel. During her tenure as a robot manager on the moon, she discusses programming machines to have a fear of death. Future-Emily also flirts with objectophilia, falling in love with both a moon rock and a utility box. Also, Earth is doomed, as a giant meteor is headed on a collision course with the planet.

That’s a lot to unpack in seventeen minutes. “World of Tomorrow” briefly pauses to consider some of these ideas but it's mostly too busy being endlessly inventive. The short also has an abrasive sense of humor. Little Emily clearly doesn’t grasp what her older clone is saying, often responding how you’d expect a little child to respond to such things. Sometimes this produces laughs. More often, it produces confusion. Such as an extended sequence devoted to an annoying creature Emily befriends while in outer space. “World of Tomorrow’s” minimalist animation is interesting and the short clearly has a lot on its mind. Yet I feel this probably should have been a book instead of a movie, where its countless ideas – about the future, about life – could have been more fully explored. [7/10]



Prologue

After the heady plotting of “World of Tomorrow,” “Prologue” has such a simple story that it’s nearly plotless. Two pairs of Spartan and Athenian solders meet on the battle field. The Spartans are entirely nude, save for their swords and shields. The Athenians attack with bows and arrows. What follows is a brutal battle between the four men, all of them being struck down by blades and arrowheads.

With such a threadbare story, “Prologue” is instead a technical exercise. And it’s a fairly impressive one at that. The film studies the conflict in a very intimate fashion, focusing on the faces of the combatants. The camera whirls around the battle field, making the length of a sword as long as a road, pushing in and out on the soldiers’ bodies. The short is animated in such a way as to resemble hand-drawn sketches leaping to life. The effect is striking, bringing both an element of stillness and an incredible sense of motion. The violence in “Prologue” is brutal, often emphasized by the frontal male nudity. Since the short is primarily black and white, the red of the blood immediately draws the eye. The strike of the swords and arrows have a visceral impact, especially the squeamish way the final solider is dispatched. While I’m not entirely sure what it all means, “Prologue” is definitely a memorable experience. [7/10]



Sanjay’s Super Team

I was a fan of Pixar’s “The Good Dinosaur” but even I’ll concede to the consensus that the proceeding short, “Sanjay’s Super Team,” was superior. While Sanjay’s devout, calm father kneels at his prayer box, Sanjay watches a superhero cartoon on TV. Father and son soon come into conflict, Sanjay’s dad demanding silence while he prayers. Forced to sit with his father, Sanjay imagines a vivid fantasy, where the gods his dad prays to transforms into superheroes of their own.

Visually, “Sanjay’s Super Team” nicely combines computer-generated and traditional animation. Sanjay’s superhero cartoon is animated in 2D and, when his father’s icons leap to life inside Sanjay’s mind, they’re animated in a similar fashion. As an action cartoon, “Sanjay’s Super Team” is pretty cool. The smoky monster tossing blades and staffs are cleverly deflected by the superhero-ized gods. (I know enough about Hinduism to recognize Vishnu and Hanuman but I’m not sure who the female is suppose to be.) Sanjay’s scenario – re-imaging something that bores him as something that interest him – is a common habit of childhood, from what I remember. “Sanjay’s Super Team” is also a  touching story of a son and father finding common ground between their two beliefs. It’s touching without being sappy, exciting and fun to watch. Really my only criticism is the character designs of Sanjay and his dad, who have weirdly large heads. [7/10]



We Can’t Live Without Cosmos
Mi ne mozhem zhit bez kosmosa

“We Can’t Live Without Cosmos” isn’t included in the Short Film package seemingly because its rights holders have made it freely available online. The short follows two astronauts-in-training, who are as close as any friends can be. They race down the halls on each others' backs, finish the swimming trials at the same times, and goof around at the lunch table together. Before lights out, each night, they jump up and down on their beds, trying to launch themselves into orbit. Going into space is a childhood dream for both of them. Their commitment to their goal has them succeeding in the space program. One of the men is selected to pilot a rocket into space, the other being the reserve cosmonaut. When something goes wrong with the mission, it forces one half of the duo to reconsider his life decisions.

“We Can’t Live Without Cosmos” is both funny and heart-breaking. It’s amusing that men as seemingly serious as astronauts would have the child-like glee the characters in this film do. Despite being the best men for the job, their goofy antics still get them in trouble with their superiors. The movie also does an excellent job of showing how important this goal is for them. They’ve built their entire life around becoming astronauts. It’s not difficult to see that this brotherhood will be severed by the story’s events. The film conveys the loss and sadness with the same light touch as the rest of the story. The ending moves into a different direction, becoming an exploration of grief, depression, and ultimately escape. “We Can’t Live Without Cosmos” is not the flashiest of the nominated shorts but it is easily my favorite. [8/10]


Pixar tends to dominate in the animation categories. If “Sanjay’s Super Team” wins best short, I won’t be upset. As with the live action nominees, all of the shorts this year are pretty good. Once again, I’m happy to see a mixture of styles, traditional animation and CGI co-existing next to each other, big studios like Pixar being lauded alongside independent filmmakers like Don Hertzfeldt. Truthfully, a win for any of these films is a win for ingenuity and creativity.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

OSCARS 2016: The 2016 Oscar-Nominated Live Action Shorts


One of the most exciting things about Oscar season for me is the oppretunity to watch films I would never otherwise see. There is no other category at the Academy Awards more overlooked than the short films. I’ve heard people dismiss short films as “not real movies.” Considering that even many cinephilies skip the short nominees despite the films being more available now than ever, that isn’t an uncommon opinion. It’s also a bunch of bullshit. If you can’t tell a good story in ten minutes, you can’t tell a good story in two hours. Filmmakers who make shorts are the future of the industry.

Most years, I start with the animated shorts because I usually enjoy them more. However, instead of distributing the shorts to OnDemand services separately, this year both categories are packaged together. The reason I usually save the live action shorts for later… Well, there’s no good way to say this. Films in this category are usually downers, dealing with depressing real world topics. 2016 is no different in that regard. Religious conflict, the war atrocities in Kosovo, the on-going conflict in the Middle East, divorce, and stuttering are all topics on display this evening. The big difference is that 2016’s batch of nominated shorts are all pretty good!


Ave Maria

The first of the nominees this year is also the most light-hearted. You’ll be forgiven for not expecting that, considering “Ave Maria” is about different religious beliefs colliding in Palestine. A Catholic nunnery in the West Bank of Palestine is home to five nuns, each undergoing a vow of silence. This is interrupted when Israeli travelers suffer some automobile problems, crashing into their statue of the Virgin Mary. With Shabbat just starting, the devout husband can’t operate machinery. The grandmother grips at everyone while the wife mostly sits back. Despite their conflicting beliefs, the two groups eventually work out a solution.

“Ave Maria’ is a culture clash comedy and gets some decent laughs out of that set-up. The youngest nun is the first to break the vow of silence and continues to subtly strive against her beliefs. After the statue of Mary is decapitated, the wife ties the head back on with her scarf. Being unable to operate machinery because of the Sabbath, the husband insist the nun holds a phone up to his mouth. His reaction to realizing that the nuns eat ham is very funny. The final sequence in the film, where the travelers receive a new vehicle that doesn’t fit them, is an amusing note to take us out on. The low-key, character-oriented atmosphere cements the bigger gags. The comedy allows an important message, of religious tolerance and peaceful co-existence, to land softly and effectively. [7/10]


Friend
Shok

“Shok” begins with two men riding through the Albanian countryside, one man stopping to pick up a bicycle in the road. After that, “Shok” flashes back to the Kosovo War of the late nineties. Two Albanian boys, Petrit and Oki, try to have normal lives during the Serbian occupation. Petrit is selling the Serbian soldiers rolling papers for cigarettes, behavior that makes Oki nervous. An especially tense encounter has the soldiers stealing Oki’s new bicycle. The friendship is strained but eventually healed after another stand-off with the soldiers. Tragedy intervenes by the film’s end.

“Friend” is heavy, obviously, dealing with a dark and ugly part of world history. Jamie Donoughue’s story does a good job of grounding a conflict most Americans probably aren’t familiar with in common humanity. The story of Petrit and Oki’s changing friendship is something any one can relate too. The presence of the Serbian army creates a mounting tension, a fear in the audience that something bad will eventually happen. It does, of course, but Donoughue doesn’t overdo it, allowing a shocking moment to speak for itself. Andi Bajgora and Lum Veseli’s performances are very good and the final shot is haunting. [7/10]


Everything Will Be Okay
Alles wird gut

Like “Shok,” “Everything Will Be Okay” also has a quiet tension running through the entire film. Recently divorced from his wife, Michael picks up their young daughter Lea for a father-daughter’s day out. They head to the toy store, Michael buying the girl whatever she wants, regardless of price. Soon, it becomes apparent that Michael has other plans. On the way to the fair, he stops by an office and signs emergency passports. After spending some time at the bumper cars, Michael takes Lea to the airport. By this point, even the little girl realizes what is happening. Michael is kidnapping his own daughter. A delayed flight and Lea taking action cause an inevitable confrontation between Michael and his ex-wife.

“Everything Will Be Okay” benefits from a naturalistic approach. There’s very little music. Julia Pointner acts like a real little girl as Lea. Scenes of her eating chicken McNuggets in the car or goofing around inside a picture booth makes her feel like a real person. These scenes also establish how much Michael cares about his daughter. The first scene has him nervously pacing outside his ex-wife’s home, waiting for her to bring the girl out. This sets up an early sense of anxiety. Both of these feeling reach a climax during the devastating ending. After Lea calls her mother, the police knock at the door of Michael’s hotel room. Weeping, he hugs his young daughter, trying to make her understand how he’ll have nothing left without her. The police have to pry them apart, a heartbreaking moment. Michael is pathetic and deeply human, though your sympathy for him is limited, considering what he’s doing. Mostly, the short film left me feeling bad for little Lea. Despite the title being repeated within the film twice, it’s clear that everything will not be okay for her. “Everything Will Be Okay” is powerful and deeply sad, easily the best of the nominees. [9/10]


Stutterer

“Stutterer’s” title indicates its topic. Greenwood is a young man crippled by his stutter. The first scene has him struggling to pay his internet bill over the phone, unable to spit out more than a few words. Conversations with his father are strangled. Because of his speech impediment, Greenwood pursues online relationships. He’s currently courting a girl named Ellie, who he’s been e-mailing for six months. When Ellie asks to meet in person, Greenwood has a crisis. Should he risk loosing this meaningful relationship because of his inability to speak?

“Stutterer” has a wonderful lead performance from Matthew Needham. He’s charming in his awkwardness without loosing the deep affect his condition has on him. Something I really like about “Stutterer” is how it illustrates thought. In his head, Greenwood speaks clearly, making snide comments about people around him. Yet the thoughts in his head are rarely concise or focused, frequently overlapping. You know, the way people actually think. There’s not too much substance to “Stutterer” but it’s not telling a complex story. Instead, it’s a sweet story leading to an incredibly nice conclusion. [8/10]


Day One

In a slight irony, the only U.S.A. produced short this year still features dialogue that is mostly subtitled. Feda is starting her first day as an interpreter for the U.S. Army, her first job. In Afghanistan, she quickly becomes the middleman in a tense situation. While searching a home for explosives, a man’s pregnant wife goes into labor. The baby is breached and, at first, believed dead. Feda has to fill a position she isn’t trained for, that of a doctor, attempting to save the life of both the woman and her unborn child.

The best aspect of “Day One” is how inexperienced Feda is. The short begins with her getting her period in the shower. While other soldiers lead her up a hill, the thinner oxygen causes her to struggle to breath. After a road side bomb goes off, she runs away from the explosion, terrified. Once the attention turns towards the pregnancy, it’s clear that Feda is over her head. Yet she also has skills of her own. While the soldiers detain the man, Feda talks candidly with his young niece, cowering in a corner. Eventually, “Day One” becomes a little too maudlin for its own good. The ending is unnecessarily down-beat. Yet Layla Alizada’s lead performance is very good and the film progresses nicely. [7/10]


Unlike the feature categories, it’s much harder to predict who will win in the short film categories. “Everything Will Be Okay” is clearly my favorite of the nominees while I also liked “Stutterer” a lot. Yet I can imagine the heaviness of “Friend” or “Day One” appealing to Academy voters. Who knows. Either way, I mostly enjoyed this year’s crop of films, each one doing something well.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

OSCARS 2016: Trumbo (2015)


As referenced many times before, Hollywood loves nothing more than a story about Hollywood. As happily pointed out by numerous sources, the Oscars are a self-congratulatory pat-on-the-back-a-thon for the film industry. So I’m not shocked that someone would overturn the story of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo in search of Academy gold. A screenwriting hero, Trumbo was already previously the topic of an identically entitled documentary in 2007. “Trumbo” reeled in an all-star cast and director Jay Roach, a filmmaker better known for gag-filled comedies. The reviews were soft, many dismissing the film as the blatant Oscar bait it is, but that didn’t stop the movie from scoring a nomination anyway.

In the early forties, Dalton Trumbo is one of the highest paid screenwriters in Hollywood. While his films are successful and critically acclaimed, his politics attract controversy. As the Cold War grows hotter, Trumbo’s blatant Communist beliefs make him a target for the House Committee on Un-American Activities. His name winds up on the Hollywood Blacklist, unable to find work under his own name. After being held in contempt by the Supreme Court, Trumbo spends some time in prison. Upon being set free, he gets jobs writing B-movies which eventually takes him back to Hollywood, where his name and opinion continues to attract problems.

Bryan Cranston’s career journey has been nearly as fascinating as Trumbo’s own. The beginning of his career had him doing voice-over work for anime dubs and “Power Rangers” episodes. Eventually, he became recognized as the manic, child-like dad on “Malcolm in the Middle.” After that series ended, the starring role on “Breaking Bad” made him a critical darling and a household name. As Dalton Trumbo, Cranston sports a bushy mustache and several prosthetic moles. Cranston is good when spitting Trumbo’s rascally dialogue. An exchange with John Wayne or interviews with journalist are especially memorable. The script gives Cranston all the expected Oscar highlights. A moment, when yelling about what he hopes to accomplish while working on the Blacklist, is sure to be the clip played during the nomination announcements. Despite the conventionality of the script, Cranston still gives a good performance. He makes the part more than a collection of quirks, making his Trumbo a memorable character.

Like any respectable Oscar bait, “Trumbo” loads its supporting cast with many recognizable names. Diane Lane plays Dalton’s long suffering wife, working best when quietly explaining her strife as the spouse to a difficult man. Helne Mirren has a nearly cartoonish part as Hedda Hopper, who the film treats as practically a supervillain. Yet Mirren is good at getting some juicy fun out of even a ridiculous part like this. Louis C.K. plays Arlen Hird, a composite character dying of cancer. C.K. has a couple good scenes opposite Cranston, enlivening stale material. David James Elliott does a mediocre John Wayne impersonation. Michael Stuhlbarg does not attempt to emulate Edward G. Robinson’s beloved speech patterns. Christian Berkel goes in the opposite direction, doing a comic book version of Otto Preminger. Only Dean O’Gorman is uncanny as Kirk Douglas, looking and sounding just like him. Of the supporting parts, a thunderous John Goodman is the best, especially when decimating his office with a baseball bat. I wish Elle Fanning was given more to do as Trumbo’s put-upon daughter.

“Trumbo” is not satisfied being just a biography of a famous screenwriter. Like many movies primed for Oscar gold, the film has to be about Something Important. In this case, “Trumbo” focuses on the rise and fall of the Hollywood Blacklist. Much attention is paid to the effect being blacklisted has on Trumbo and his fellow writers/Communists. Trumbo and others are imprison and some die. The Red Scare is shown as an unreasonable witch hunt, destroying lives for little to no reason. Which it was, basically. Yet the film’s tendency to paint McCarthy and his goons in such broad, simplified strokes does a disservice to history. Similarly, Trumbo’s struggle to find work, how he subverts the system by working for B-companies, and his long journey to receiving credit is painted as an epic fight. Because “Trumbo” isn’t done ticking off check boxes, it also shows how divided Dalton’s family becomes from his overworking. It borders on melodrama at times. The film’s attempts to be Important are shallow and obvious.

That comes with the territory, I suppose, and most critics happily dismissed “Trumbo” as just that. Oscar obviously isn’t above being pandered too, considering Cranston earned a nomination.  Yet “Trumbo” isn’t a bad movie either, as it features some alright performance and one or two amusing moment. I don’t expect to remember the movie in a few weeks but I’ve definitely seem more embarrassing, less effective, more nakedly ambitious Oscar Bait in my time. [6/10]

Monday, February 22, 2016

OSCARS 2016: When Marnie Was There (2014)


When Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata announced their retirement two years ago, it sent a wave of mourning through both anime circles and the hardcore animation fandom. Not helping matters was the hiatus Studio Ghibli announced afterwards, many fans worrying that the studio would be shutting its doors forever. The panic overshadowed what may be the final Ghibli film. “When Marnie Was There” was directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who previously made the wonderful “Secret World of Arrietty.” Like that film, “When Marnie Was There” is based on an English-language children’s novel. While the box office in Japan did not match prior Ghibli successes, “Marnie” still grabbed an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature.

Anna is a withdrawn, shy twelve year old girl. Her asthma and a deep anxiety about her foster parents pushes her away from the girls that could be her friend. After an especially serious asthma attack, Anna is shipped off to live with relatives of her parents in the country. While there, Anna becomes fascinated with an abandoned house in the marshlands. Only at night during high-tide, Anna sees a beautiful little girl living in the home. After discovering her name is Marnie, the two become extremely close, secret friends. Yet nobody else notices Marnie and, soon, an entirely different family moves into the house. Anna realizes that her new best friend is a ghost.

What’s most impressive about “When Marnie Was There” is how accurately it captures the loneliness of childhood. Anna has no friends of her own. She’s introduced sitting on a park bench, watching healthier children play. She’s an extraordinary sketch artist but is too shy to share her work. Self-loathing thoughts fill her head constantly. Being around people makes her viscerally, painfully uncomfortable. During a suspiciously Halloween-like sequence, Anna potentially makes some friends with the local girls. Her anxiety quickly bubbles up and she lashes out at the girls, receiving a cruel teasing in return. It’s not that she’d rather be alone. Being around people is something she can’t even stand. Anybody who has ever experienced anxiety as a child is going to see a lot of themselves in Anna.

The reason Anna and Marnie become such close friends, so quickly, is they both have an innate, mutual understanding of one another. They both enjoy the quiet. They both dislike crowds. It’s apparent to the audience quickly that Marnie is a ghost. Yet this is not a typical haunting. When Anna meets with Marnie, she seemingly slips into the past. As the story goes on, it becomes clearer that Marnie exist in a repeating fantasy, a memory that can be interacted with and repeats infinitely. Ghosts are the shadows of the past. This become even more obvious when we realize Marnie has a personal connection to Anna. There are hints at abuse and death, when Marnie talks about her cruel grandmother or the bullying maids. Cruel acts echo through history. As a meloncholey family film, “When Marnie Was There” isn’t afraid to get a little spooky either. Anna and Marnie’s journey to a dilapidated grain silo is surprisingly creepy. The film’s fantasy element allows memories and regrets, ghosts and the dead, to come to life and interact with the living.

The biggest joy of “When Marnie Was There” is watching Anna come out of her shell. When with Marnie, the girl’s shy face lights up. Marnie teaches her how to row a boat. They share secret conversations late at night, outside the collapsing mansion. Marine’s parents throw opulent parties, which Anna fills horribly out of place at. Afterwards, Marnie and Anna share a dance, laughing and swaying back and forth in the night air. It’s not impossible to read Anna and Marie’s relationship in a romantic sense, given Anna’s tom-boyish tendencies and uncomfortable reaction to Marnie’s male love interest. The two hug a lot too. However you interpret their feelings, watching Anna learn to care about something more than herself is touching and beautifully realized. Exploring the mystery of Marnie’s fate also causes a friendship between Anna and Sayaka, the girl who moves into Marnie’s old home, to form. In a round-about way, Marnie leads Anna to find other friends, enriching the girl’s life.

“When Marnie Was There” is, of course, gorgeously animated. Two sequences feature a tomato and a watermelon and both are so ripe looking, you want to eat them. The waves of the water move with a life like motion. Priscilla Ahn’s theme song, “Fine on the Outside,” is beautiful and heart-breaking. I’m not a huge fan of how the story resolves itself, flatly explaining some information in a heavy handed way. Yet “When Marnie Was There” is still a touching, fantastically done story. If it is indeed the final Studio Ghibli movie, it’s a powerful statement to go out on. [8/10]

Sunday, February 21, 2016

OSCARS 2016: Steve Jobs (2015)


My sister does all the computer stuff in my family. She’s the expert. Computer stuff is her job. When Steve Jobs, the person, died a few years back, she took many opportunities to expound on why she didn’t admire Jobs and why nobody else should either. I don’t have an opinion about Steve Jobs, the person. The main reason I’m writing this on a PC is because it’s what I’ve always used and the only thing I fear more than change is giant centipedes. I do, however, have some opinions about “Steve Jobs,” the movie. Originally slated to be directed by David Fincher and star Christian Bale, the project was eventually made by Danny Boyle and starred Michael Fassbender, after Leo DiCaprio passed. The combination of the overly flashy Boyle and Aaron Sorkin, a sometimes talented writer who doesn’t do himself any favors by never shutting the fuck up, did not endear the film to me. But then it got nominated for some Oscars and here we are now.

Because “Steve Jobs” is an Aaron Sorkin movie, it has a story structure that draws a lot of attention to itself. As widely publicized, the film covers behind-the-scenes events at three product launches over the course of sixteen years in Jobs’ life. The first occurs in 1984, before the launch of the Macintosh, when Jobs is most concerned about getting the demo computer to talk, while also discussing issues with his daughter’s mother and a TIME magazine cover. In 1988, before the unveiling of NeXT, Jobs argues with his mentor, banters with a computer, and also talks with his daughter. In 1998, before the launch of the iMac, Jobs argues with former colleague Steve Wozniak and re-connects with the aforementioned daughter and mentor.

Michael Fassbender does not resemble Steve Jobs very much. His broad-shouldered frame and defined jawline doesn’t have much in common with Jobs’ slim figure and round face. Fassbender doesn’t do an impersonation of Jobs either, only adding a slight affection to his voice. Instead, he plays the man as someone incredibly committed to his vision, even at the cost of personal friendships and company money. Fassbender has no problem spitting Sorkin’s thunderous dialogue and imbues the part with as much passion as he does quirk. Kate Winslet is also Oscar nominated for her role as Joanna Hoffman, Jobs’ long-suffering executive manager. Speaking with a subtle Polish accent, Winslet plays Hoffman as infinitely patient. Winslet is more than able to keep up with Sorkin’s circular screenplay, displaying a strong personality in a film full of them. I also thought Seth Rogan was brilliantly deployed as Wozniak, taking punishment with a smile before finally cracking near the film’s end. Only Jeff Daniels seems to be overdoing it. Say what you will about “Steve Jobs” but most of the performances are fantastic.

As written, “Steve Jobs” is not inherently cinematic. The raw story is mostly devoted to people arguing in hallways. Danny Boyle desperately strains to make the story more filmic. As Jobs and Sculley recite a song, the lyrics flash on-screen around them. The film’s three sequences are shot on corresponding film grains: 16mm in 1984, 35mm in 1988, and digital in 1998. Each act is preceded by quickly edited prologues, incorporating news stories and fancy split-screen techniques. Occasionally, seconds-long flashes of scenes from earlier in the movie will interrupt the current action. For that matter, Boyle frequently cuts back and forth between the then-present and the flashbacks. It’s clear that Boyle’s hands were tied by the perfectionist Sorkin and the director did everything he could to make the project his own. Mostly, it comes off as unnecessary flourishes on a story that didn’t need them.

“Steve Jobs” goes out of its way not to be a hagiography. Most of the film is devoted to what a massive asshole Jobs was. He bickers and picks at everyone around him. In the first half, he outright refuses to claim his daughter as his own. He belittles Wozniak’s contributions every chance he gets. Yet as big of a prick as “Steve Jobs’” subject is, the film can’t help giving the tech icon a redemptive arc. By the end of the film, Jobs reconciles with his daughter and his mentor. An especially thudding sequence has Daniels as Sculley admiring Jobs’ genius. The film makes it entirely clear that, as shitty as Jobs was, what he accomplished made it worthwhile for everyone around him. Considering Sorkin’s script is all too willing to paint Jobs’ ex-wife as a crazy bitch, it still doesn’t come off as very fair. The screenplay even provides Jobs with a Freudian excuse for his behavior, involving the way his foster parents treated him as a child. I’d like to say “You’d think someone like Aaron Sorkin would be self-aware enough to avoid such clich├ęs” but I don’t think self-awareness has ever been Sorkin’s strong suit.

Still, the powerful performances of Fassbender, Winslet, and Rogan count for a lot. “Steve Jobs” is definitely written with a heavy hand at times and Boyle’s overly self-conscious direction doesn’t add very much. Yet the movie is better than its mediocre box office performance suggests. Sorkin does have an ear for memorable dialogue, Fassbender works hard to get at the soul of a complex man and the movie is quickly paced despite its two hour run time. [6/10]

Friday, February 19, 2016

OSCARS 2016: The Danish Girl (2016)


Like all Oscar seasons, 2016 has had its share of controversy. Most of the discontent has focused on the overwhelming whiteness of the nominees. A smaller controversy has centered around “The Danish Girl.” A film about the first person to undergo a male-to-female sex reassignment surgery, the movie has been badly received by those actually within the trans community. I’m a white, straight, cis male and do not have any special insight or understanding of being trans. I don’t intend to approach this review from that angle so please forgive me if I don’t discuss “The Danish Girl’s” social or political ramifications. Instead, I’ll discuss the movie as a handsomely-produced if shallow biopic.

Einar and Gerda Wegener are a married couple living in turn-of-the-century Copenhagen. Though both are painters, Einar’s landscapes have gained more success than Gerda’s more intimate portraits. The two love each other dearly but Gerda doesn’t realize that Einar is actually transgender. What starts as kinky cross-dressing games re-awaken Einar’s desire to become Lili, the female inside. This realization challenges their marriage, Lili’s physical and psychological health, and Gerda’s feelings for her husband. The journey eventually leads Lili to a controversy doctor that can change Lili’s body to match the person she actually is.

It should be noted that “The Danish Girl” is only inspired by history, based on a fictionalized book written eight decades after the portrayed events happened. Perhaps in the interest of making a sometimes difficult to understand subject palatable for a wider audience, “The Danish Girl” re-frames Lili’s story around the marriage to Gerda. Gerda is portrayed as a very understanding wife. When Einar undresses to reveal female undergarments, Gerda isn’t shocked. Instead, she plays along. Later in the film, as Einar makes it clear that Lili is the true identity, Gerda struggles at times. However, she is always on her husband’s side. As doctors try to chemically castrate Lili or lock Lili away in a mental hospital, she defends her husband. The trip to France, saving Lili from imprisonment, saves them both. As Lili undergoes surgery, physically changing, Gerda remains a companion until the end. Politics aside, the portrayal of a faithful, ever-true marriage is awfully touching.

From the Academy’s point of view, they clearly see “The Danish Girl” as an actor’s movie. Eddie Redmayne is the kind of highly visibly physical performer that Oscar loves. In the early part of the film, when his character is nervous about revealing a secret side, Redmayne twitches and trembles. The point when Einar decides to live as Lili is symbolized during an overwrought sequence where Redmayne stripes down and tucks his penis between his thighs. Redmayne spends the rest of the movie whispering in a quasi-falsetto, beaming with his big eyes. It’s an incredibly overdone performance, mannered and showy, but less distracting than Redmayne's Oscar-winning turn in "The Theory of Everything." (Redmayne’s British-ness, his natural androgyny, and his tendency towards dramatic performance all but guarantees that he’ll star in a damnably conventional biopic of David Bowie someday.) Alicia Vikander gives the superior performance, subtly showing the conflict with her eyes without drawing undue attention to herself. I happen to disagree with the Academy. The acting you don’t see is the best acting. Vikander is still the favorite to win, where she’s nominated in the Supporting category despite obviously being a lead.

“The Danish Girl” is directed by Tom Hooper, a filmmaker who makes movies I don’t usually like. I only about half-like “The Danish Girl” but it sure is a pretty looking movie. The cinematography is gorgeous. All the actors are shot in a way so that their skin is semi-translucent, making them look like vampires. The final shot of the movie, a scarf dancing through the air on a wind, is leaden with meaning. Yet “The Danish Girl” still looks incredible, all the buildings and landscapes appropriately framed like paintings. The muted color palette is an odd decision but makes the brighter colors pop. The costume design is incredible, all the colors and design choices made to make a statement. They’re undeniably eye-catching. That Oscar prestige money is up on the screen. I’m not above liking a pretty picture.

My biggest issue with “The Danish Girl” is how determined it is to be Important, filled with an overly pointed script and acting-for-acting’s-sake from Redmayne. But it’s not a bad movie either, as Vikander is quite good and the movie contains some interesting visual choices. How the film will be received in ten years, when we’re hopefully more educated and accepting of trans people, I do not know. As it sits now, it’s more-or-less a typical bit of Oscar bait with a few recommendable things about it. [6/10]