Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Friday, February 27, 2015

Bangers n' Mash 59: Tremors - Return to Perfection

Thus we reach the conclusion of my informal "Tremors" week. As you might have expected, my week of reviews were building up to a podcast episode about the series. I originally hadn't plan on posting my reviews of the films here... Yes, I really do sometimes just write reviews in order to mine them for podcast notes. It helps me if I organize my thoughts first. Yes, this amount of research and work goes in most every episode of the Bangers n' Mash Show. However, after utterly wrecking my brain on Oscar movies, I thought the fun-for-fun-sakes "Tremors" series would be a good way to bounce back from Oscar bloat. And why not?

Anyway, here's the podcast. In addition to the four films reviewed here, JD and I also discuss the short-lived TV series and the upcoming fifth film, which I'll probably review when it comes out in October. The episode is short too, coming in at a half-hour.

Here's the plan: Three episodes of the podcast next month, one of which will be a crappy commentary. Also, a new Report Card, a pretty big one. Unless there's some unforeseen disaster, this is the plan.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Recent Watches: Tremors 4: The Legend Begins (2004)

Prequels are not usually well regarded in nerdy fandoms. On paper, learning more about a character’s past could be fascinating. However, more often then not, prequels just tell us things we already now. “Tremors 4: The Legend Begins” even saddles itself with a lame, generic subtitle. However, the title is actually apt in this scenario. The fourth film reveals that the events of the first film were not the first encounter with the Graboids. Considering the species is millions of years old, it makes sense that they would have squirmed out of the ground at some point before the early nineties. By going so far back into the past, “Tremors 4” brings something new to the series without sacrificing what makes it special.

In 1889, the small mining community of what was then known as Rejection, Nevada, was shaken. Numerous miners have died strangely, causing most of the townsfolk to flee. Essentially, only the Chinese family that runs the local shop, the hotel owner, an Indian and a Mexican, and a handful of miners are left in Rejection. Hiram Gummer, the mine’s owner, shows up to figure out what the heck is going on. Soon, the residents discover the monstrous worms responsible for the deaths. They have to band together to defeat the creatures, for the sake of their lives and their home town.

The “Tremors” series has always been based in Nevada, providing a western atmosphere. So making a film in the series that is literally a western isn’t a bad idea. The film has fun contrasting traditional western tropes with the expected Graboids shenanigans. The Chang family is shown to have roots in the town, filling the role of the traditional Asian shop owners. A telegraph plays a key role in one scene. Without concrete foundations to protect them, the main characters are more exposed to the monsters. One sequence has a Graboid slowly pulling thick wooden planks out of a building with its tongues. Most obviously, an old fashioned gunslinger, Black Hand Kelly played by veteran B-movie actor Billy Drago, is an important supporting character. His jangling spurs get him in trouble and, yes, we get to see a cowboy shoot at a Graboid. There’s a certain pulpy glee to that.

As established in my previous reviews, what makes the “Tremors” franchise so lovable is its cast of characters. Removing that cast presents a problem for “The Legend Begins.” I’m not a huge fan of the trope of a famous character having an identical ancestor. However, ‘Tremors 4” has fun with this set-up, while introducing a new batch of lovable characters. Michael Gross, by now the face of the franchise, returns as Burt Gummer’s great-grandfather. Hiram Gummer is the exact opposite of his great-grandson. He’s a foppish dandy, dressed in a fine suit and bowler hat with a gold stopwatch and diamond cup links. At first, he’s a boorish louse, even stealing the youngest kid’s cake. This gives Gummer an expected character arc of loosening up and no longer being a jerk. There’s even a protracted moment where he leaves town before returning at the very end, deciding to defend his new home. Yet Gross is great in the part and seems to relish playing a different sort of character. Hiram does not share his great-grandson’s love of firearms… At least until the movie’s incredibly charming final scene. (He does share his great-grandson’s affinity for redheads though.)

The supporting cast is fun too and equally full of fun callbacks to the franchise’s history. The Changs, despite not entirely rejecting Asian stereotypes, are a lovable bunch. Kid Fu Yien, played by Sam Ly, is probably the most fun of the lot. His conversations with Gummer are very entertaining. But I also liked the superstitious Lu Wan, played by Lydia Look, and her relaxed husband Pyong Lien, played by Ming Lo. Juan Pedilla may or may not be an ancestor of part one’s Miguel. Either way, he’s a fun character, especially his line about the Alamo. Sara Botsford as Christine has solid chemistry with Gross. Their slap-slap-kiss is fun to watch. My two favorite characters in the the film are Black Hand Kelly, played by Billy Drago doing his usual marvelous thing, and August Schellenberg as Tecopa, the town’s local Indian. Tecopa is a warm, pleasant presence and that’s mostly thanks to Schellenberg’s fatherly persona.

By this point in the series, it was tradition that each new “Tremors” movie feature a new form of the series’ monster. “Aftershocks” beget Shriekers. “Back to Perfection” beget Ass-blasters. “The Legend Begins” gets back to basic, featuring only the Graboids. Unlike the CGI heavy part three, the monsters are mostly brought to life through old fashion creature effects. (There is still some CGI but it’s not horribly distracting.) Referenced for the first time since the original is the worms’ pungent odor. The Graboids are given some fun stuff to do, like bursting through floorboards or dragging miners around. Despite its back to basic approaches, “Tremors 4” can’t resist throwing in something like a new evolution. We see baby Graboids, which are sort of adorable. They leap into the air like flying fish, snatching people’s limbs and pulling them under. This is one of the best sequences in the film.

“Tremors 4” climaxes with a showdown between the film’s heroes and the subterranean troubles. This is surprisingly intense, considering how low-stakes the movies always kind of are. It also extends the old west atmosphere. Because of its period setting, part four can’t dispose of the monsters with machine guns and high explosives. This requires some creativity on the writers’ behalves. One graboid is taken out with an enormous punt gun, which was a real thing. Another is dispatched with clever use of a long saw. Lastly, a good old fashion steam engine is used to finish off the final Graboid, but probably not in the way you’d expect.

I wouldn’t have guessed it going in but “Tremors 4: The Legend Begins” might be the second best film in the series. Its loads of fun and delivers on everything we expect from a “Tremors” movie. Yet it also does enough things differently, adding a sense of fun and creativity to the proceedings. As the series has done from the beginning, potential gimmickry is deflected by clever execution, a likable cast, and a sense of sincere fun. [7/10]

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Recent Watches: Tremors 3: Back to Perfection (2001)

By 2001, the “Tremors” franchise was well ingrained as a cable favorite. The movies were in constant rotation and probably did a-okay on video shelves. Four years after the last one, “Tremors 3: Back to Perfection” burst out of the ground. I remember the movie’s television premiere, on either the Sci-Fi Channel or the USA Network, and how it was a pretty big deal for my nerdy friends and me. We were big fans of the series up to that point and the third one only increased that fandom. The endless marathons just made me a bigger nerd. However, out of all of the films in the series, “Back to Perfection” holds up the least well.

As the quippy subtitle promises, the third film returns to the original “Tremors’” location, Perfection Valley in Nevada. After going on a Shrieker-hunting expedition abroad, Burt Gummer returns home, greeting some new and old friends alike. Unfortunately for our hero, a new batch of graboids have hatched. The government, declaring the worms an endangered species, move in to protect the critters. This goes spectacularly wrong, allowing the monsters to evolve further then ever before, into a new, especially dangerous airborne form.

“Back to Perfection” develops the story in some natural directions while also throwing in many callbacks to the original film. Burt Gummer becoming a much-sought-after monster expert makes perfect sense. The government becoming involved also makes a lot of sense. Perfection, NV has become a tourist trap, with fake monster tours and a big graboid sign out front. Most fun for me is how the Chang store has developed into Graboid central, full of all sorts of merchandise. From Dark Horse comic books (which poke fun at the company’s “Aliens vs. Predator” franchise and, sadly, don’t actually exist), to books, toys, pinatas, and – my favorite – a graboid hand puppet. In addition to returning to Perfection Valley, the film throws in small references to “Tremors” lore. Earl and Grady are said to have started the theme park they kept talking about last time. Rhonda, Kevin Bacon’s love interest, wrote a best-selling series of books about the graboids. Even Nestor, the ill-fated redneck from part one, gets a shout-out. His old trailer is a plot point!

The tight continuity and fan-friendly callbacks aren’t the main attraction though. The secret weapon of the “Tremors” series has always been the lovable, memorable cast of characters. From his breakout performance in the first movie, Burt Gummer becoming the series’ de-facto hero was inevitable. It’s fun to see that his conspiracy theorist leanings haven’t soften any over the years. Plenty of old faces are back. Tony Genaro as Miguel and Charlotte Stewert as Nancy, always under appreciated bits of the “Tremors” ensemble, are back. I’m happy to see them, especially Stewert. The movie even went the extra mile and got Arianna Richards and Robert Jayne back, as the now adult Melvin and teenage Mindy. Melvin’s development into the despised penny-pincher of the group and Mindy’s tough and capable, if still girly, teenage girl act both work fine. The new additions to the cast are welcomed as well. Susan Chuang, as Walter Chang’s previously unmentioned niece, is a deeply convinced businesswoman, always looking for ways to expand her brand. She’d love Twitter. Even Shawn Christian as Jack fills the role provided by Val and Grady in the past.

The biggest stars are the monsters, of course. “Tremors II: Aftershocks” set a precedence. The strictly subterranean Graboids evolved into the speedy, above-ground Shriekers. “Back to Perfection” sees the monsters heading into the skies. The absurdly named Ass-Blasters are the next stage of evolution. The monsters (which the film, in a really funny moment, clarifies are NOT called Tremors) learning to fly is fairly ridiculous. Yet the plot mostly justifies it. Series creators S. S. Wilson and Brent Maddock, who directs this time out, are clearly fascinated by the monsters’ biology. They cook up a decent excuse as to why this happens, if not a how. See, the Shriekers grow wings and a self-propelled flight system so they can carry eggs to a new area. At the very least, monsters that fly with fart-rockets are a fun addition to the series. The Ass-Blasters, if we must call them that, look cool too, a more avian-like, stream-liked take on the pudgy Shriekers.

Like the rest of “Tremors” franchise, “Back to Perfection” is cozy, creature-filled fun. However, it’s easily the most flawed of the series. The special effects are the least consistent. Shaky CGI, which did not even look good at the time, is employed repeatedly. The Ass-Blasters are mostly brought to life this way. The lower budget is evident in other ways too. The government agents are killed off-screen. Most of the film takes place in a few, in-door locations. The plot is fairly derivative. The heroes have to adapt to a new set of monster rules. The ever-evolving graboids puts the usually-well-prepared Burt at a disadvantage. This has become a disappointing running gag, which can also be said for monster guts raining down on the heroes. “Tremors 3” mostly existed to set up the forthcoming TV series. Accordingly, the film feels too much like a TV show, in presentation and writing.

For its flaws, there’s still plenty to enjoy about the film. Michael Gross gets eaten by a worm but survives. El Blanco, the sorta’-friendly graboid mascot of the series, gets an introduction. The “Tremors” series’ endless, lovable, and innate creativity is still around but lower budgets and a same-old, same-old feeling is beginning to set in. If this is the weakest link in the “Tremors” franchise, I’d say that’s still a pretty good track record. [7/10]

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Recent Watches: Tremors II: Aftershocks (1996)

In the nineties, video stores were at the peak of their popularity. At the same time, the horror genre was experiencing a lull. These combined factors allowed unexpected genre successes to grow into straight-to-video franchises. That’s how they made ten “Puppet Master” movies. Knowing all this, it’s still surprising that a sequel to “Tremors” didn’t come until 1996. Originally planned for a theatrical release on the strengths of the script, the film suffered budget cut-backs, location shifts, and production turnarounds, explaining the six year delay. It’s just as well. Considering the first film found its audience through rentals and television screenings, “Tremors II: Aftershocks” was destined for the video market.

In the aftermath of the first film, Earl Bassett, Valentine, and the giant worm monsters of Perfection, Nevada, gained a level of fame. However, Valentine ran off and Earl squandered what exposure he achieved. Six years later, he’s bitter and washed-up. That’s when an oil company from Mexico, themselves having a Graboid problem, enlist Earl to clear out the pests. Teaming up with young buck Grady, geologist Kate, and old friend Burt, Earl heads to Mexico, hoping to make some cash monster-hunting. The Graboids have some surprises in store though, changing the game.

The first third of “Tremors II” is about as good a sequel as fans could have asked for. Putting Earl back at zero gives him a new goal. Instead of trying to make it out of this crappy town, he’s looking for that “second chance” at success and happiness. The change of scenery, from the American desert to the green rolling hills of Mexico, was a nice touch too. The early scenes, of Earl and Grady blasting worms with remote control cars, is a good time, recapturing the sense of Southern-fried fun the first film had. Series creator S. S. Wilson is in the director’s chair this time and maintains the original’s inventive streak. There’s plenty of fun sequences here. A graboid grabs a truck by a chain, dragging it around the area. One worm swallowed a radio, so his appearance is proceeded by muffled music playing from underground. A small, funny moment has an off-screen coyote meeting a nasty fate. One of the things that made the first one fun – a breezy sense of humor and a willingness to explore the central premise – makes this sequel fun too.

The cast was such an important part of the first “Tremor’s” success. There were some losses for this sequel. Kevin Bacon was never coming back, that was certain. Reba McEntire probably didn’t have any place in a straight-to-video monster movie either. Both characters’ absences are noted, the film writing them out in smart ways. Luckily, “Aftershocks” brings back several key cast members. Fred Ward steps into the lead role. Earl is as much of a cowboy as before, being introduced here by lassoing an ostrich. Ward has lost none of his rascally charm, easily carrying the film. Most importantly, Michael Gross returns as Burt Gummer. It’s good to see Burt again. His introduction, watching war footage on a TV while a graboid head is mounted on the wall, says so much about the character. He gets some of the funniest moments in the film, such as his repeated bitching that he was not properly briefed for this adventure and had no way to know certain details. Gross remains the franchise’s MVP.

Luckily, and surprisingly, the new characters introduced in “Tremors II” are nearly as charming as the returning cast members. To make up for the lack of Bacon, Chris Gartin as Grady is brought in. Though the relationship they have is similar, Earl and Grady have a different back-and-forth. Grady is a fanboy of Earl and Burt’s shenanigans and excited by the monsters and worm blasting. The age appropriate love interest introduced for Earl is Kate, played by Helen Shaver. Shaver is cute and, despite delivering some blatant exposition, remains charming and engaging. In the final lap, when the four main characters are banding together to survive the monster attack, “Aftershocks” creates the same ensemble-driven sense of whimsical fun and adventure the first had. (The cast is extremely tight. There’s less then ten actors credited on the film’s IMDb page.)

The biggest change part two makes is to the monsters themselves. And that’s a change I don’t know how I feel about. The Graboids are revealed as the first form in a biological life cycle. The giant worms violently give birth, exploding from the inside-out, to smaller two-legged monsters. Eventually dubbed Shriekers, these monsters have a completely different physiology then the Graboids. They’re small and bipedal, with a velociraptor-style physique. The iconic Graboid-style head is kept but the creatures’ navigated different. They seek by heat, with cool sensory organs on their heads. They reproduce quickly, spitting up babies after eating enough. It removes the film’s central gimmick, less “tremors” then “pack hunters.” The Shriekers are cool looking. Watching them explode or get torn apart is fun too. However, they aren’t as novel or engaging as the Graboids. The puppet effects remain top notch. Yet shaky CGI is used several times to bring the creatures to life. That hasn’t aged well. I admire the filmmakers for deciding to do something different. That change also makes “Aftershocks” a little less pure then the first.

Still, the movie is way better then a six-years-later, direct-to-video sequel had any right to be. The result is a little less polished but the film smartly keeps what’s important about the first film. That being the charm, a creative sense of fun, monsters, and a likable cast of characters. I’m a fan. This one was endlessly replayed on cable back in the day too. Like the first, I’ve seen it many times. Somehow, its small charms remain intact. [7/10]

Monday, February 23, 2015

Recent Watches: Tremors (1990)

The early nineties was the last hurrah for the traditional monster movie. By the end of the decade, the latex and robotic monstrosity, so beloved by fanboys like myself, would be entirely replaced with computer-generated creatures. Arriving in this environment was “Tremors,” a clever throwback to creature features released during the dying days of the slasher film. The film was a minor commercial hit upon release but would, through repeated cable airings (Seemed like the Sci-Fi Channel showed the movie on a near weekly basis at one point), develop a faithful cult audience. I’ve watched the movie a lot over the years. “Tremors” is the definition of a cozy summer favorite, a movie I can watch at any time and that always puts a smile on my face.

“Tremors” takes place in Perfection, Nevada, an ironically named little town in the middle of the desert. It’s isolated from the rest of the world and seemingly populated solely by a ragtag collection of rednecks, weirdos, and people passing through. Valentine and his heterosexual life partner Earl fall into the final category, as the would-be businessmen are headed out of Perfection. However, their vacation plans are interrupted by the mysterious deaths of several local residents. The responsible party is a suddenly emerged species of giant subterranean worms that sense by sound, sped through the dirt like rockets, and devour their pray with prehensile tongues. Now the dispersant population of Perfection has to work together to survive the invading monsters from below.

The biggest attribute “Tremors” has is it’s a super likable cast. Though Val and Earl are clearly the heroes of the picture, it’s an ensemble cast with a diverse selection of characters. Kevin Bacon, still poised for major stardom at the time, is amusing as Valentine, bringing plenty of roguish charm to the part. He has especially good chemistry with Fred Ward, another failed movie star who found better work as a character actor. Ward chums it up as a blue collar guy who dreams of being a cowboy and is constantly chastising himself for his bad language. The unexpected breakout character of “Tremors’ would be Burt Gummer, played by Michael Gross. Gross, still best known at the time as the ex-hippy dad on “Family Ties,” was cast against type as an extreme survivalist type. Gross is a blast in the part, making Burt’s extreme political beliefs and extensive firearm collection charming rather then off-putting. It’s not horribly shocking that the budding “Tremors” franchise would build itself around him. Reba MacEntire, still unproven as an actor at the time, is solid as Burt’s patient wife. Her best moment shows her talking Burt down from an argument. Reba is a natural in the part. A typically eccentric Victor Wong is great, as are Bobby Jacoby as annoying kid Melvin, Ariana Richards as new-age-y mom Nancy, and Tony Genaro as token Hispanic guy Miguel. The weak link in the cast is Finn Carter as Bacon’s love interest and the brains of the outfit, Rhonda. And even Carter is still pretty likable. The back-and-forth between the cast is really what makes “Tremors” shine.

It would be charitable to call “Tremors” a horror movie. Instead, its better describe as a monster movie, a distinct label. The underground dwelling threats of “Tremors” are a clever creation. There had been giant worms in fiction before, most notably in “Dune,” but we’d never seen a whole movie devoted to them as the primary threat before. Taking a cue from “Jaws,” “Tremors’ is cagey about its monsters at first. (It even uses “Jaws’” patented monster POV-shots at one point) In the beginning, we only see the aftermath of their attacks. Like a dead body stranded in a telephone pole, sheep sucked under, a decapitated head left in a field. The creatures are proceeded by a puff of dirt fired from the ground. The most traditional horror moment is when the worm sucks a car under the ground, the drivers still inside. They are clever creation and the movie bolsters them by treating them in a clever, interesting fashion. (Screenwriter S. S. Wilson specializes in clever creations like this, as in the short “Recorded Live,” “*batteries not included,” the “Short Circuit” movies, and, uh, “Wild Wild West.”)

When the beasties, later saddled with the goofy moniker “Graboids,” do pop their heads out, they are impressive creations. The prehensile tongues are topped off with nasty little heads, with mouths full of teeth. The movie, and the trailers and posters bolsters this, makes you think these are the monsters are first. Soon enough, the whole Graboid is revealed. They are giant worms, covered with feelers and topped off with a snapping, tri-sected mouth. They hunt by sound, a novel idea that lends itself to several suspenseful scenes. Cleverly, the film never bothers to give the Graboids an origin. They’re here now and that’s all that matters. Fans love these things and they really filled the “giant killer worm” niche all monster kids didn’t know they needed filling.

“Tremors” has a lot of good, funny ideas and uses most of them. The middle section creates some okay suspense, as the remaining residents of Perfection climb up on roofs and attempt to make as little sound as possible. The confrontation in Burt’s gun-filled basement is one of the best moments in the film, that escalates fantastically while giving us a great look at the monster. The Graboids aren’t just dumb monsters and prove harder to outsmart then expected. The finale, which has the heroes on a rock pitching home-made bombs into the desert, is a good time. That the film’s survivors constantly have to think up new ways to kill off the creatures shows how smart and inventive “Tremors” is capable of. It maintains that humor as it goes too, always being breezy and relatable. (My favorite line? “What’s that for?” “For my cannon,” stated matter-of-factly.)

Calling “Tremors” a masterpiece is presumptuous. It really isn’t. Instead, it’s a pleasant, funny, smart, well cast, easily rewatched creature feature. Considering its humble attributes, I’m surprised I’ve come to love this movie as much as I do. Really, some cool monsters, a decent cast, one or two funny lines, and some amusing ideas are all we monster fans ask for. That was enough to turn “Tremors” into a beloved cult classic. [8/10]

Sunday, February 22, 2015


8:29 - Welcome to the Sixth Annual Film Thoughts Academy Award Live Blog! I've been doing this long enough that each year I look forward to the ceremony with equal amounts of excitement and horror. The ceremony is always too long, full of awkward moments of intense boredom. Yet occasionally, we see a genuinely touching moment of sincerity or something unexpected and hilarious.

Usually though, I drink too much, bitch too much, am more snarky then insightful, and feel depressed and angry by the end. Oh well. 87th Academy Awards, here we come.

8:30 - Wow, the Dolby Theater is sparkly tonight.

8:31 - Oh boy, the first musical number of what is sure to be many tonight. I was really worried that Neil Patrick Harris would be overly sing-y and broad. Way to defy expectations, Dr. Horrible.

8:33 - Wow, a call out to "Clue: The Movie."

While I'm here, the appeal of this Anna Kendrick girl has escaped me thus far

8:34 - Photoshopping NPH into various film scenes was clever. Yet how many of those actual won awards? Seems like they favored popularity over actual Oscar history.

8:35 - And it's nice that Jack Black sang what we were all thinking.

"And turn! And kick! And turn! And kick!" The thematically dressed dancers are awful.

8:36 - Eddie Murphy looks confused as hell.

Every year, I use the Oscars as an excuse to drink too much, usually by making up rules to drink. So every time there's a musical number, I can down a big gulp, right? Right.


8:38 - I'm glad NPH took the time to kick at his own subpar filmography there.

8:39 -  Lupito looks classy as hell.

Jumping right into Best Supporting Actor. So why was Robert Duvall nominated? Was it just a legacy nod?

8:40 - Everybody clap for the coolest dad in the world. If Simmons wasn't such an unstoppable force of nature, Hawke would be my choice.

Norton was all right but I wish they went further to parody his own image as a difficult ass to work with.

8:41 - I'll repeat: Ruffalo was good but how did he get nominated over Chan-Chan Ta-ta?

Hey, they found a moment in "Whiplash" where J.K. wasn't swearing!

"The Actor goes to.." Har.

8:42 - As if there was any other choice. Good to know the ceremony is starting on the most correct choice.

8:43 - "Above average children." Simmons is a class act. "A reflection of your mother." It's good to know that J.K. is as exactly as funny and charming in real life as you imagine him to be. Slightly off-topic speech but a good one.

8:44 - Was "He won an Oscar, dum-de-dum-de-dum" a musical number? Close enough for me to drink.

8:46 - Wow, this bit is going on too long.

All of you bathe in Liam Neeson's lovely natural accent.

8:47 - Who was moving stuff behind Bradley Cooper's head?

8:48 - I like how they're contrasting one of the best nominees and the absolute worst here. If "Grand Budapest Hotel" doesn't win Best Production Design, I'll be hella' disappointed.

8:49 - Oh boy, the lady from "Fifty Shades of Grey." Just who I wanted to see.

8:50 - There were several lovely songs in "Begin Again" and I'm disappointed that the Academy nominated this one. "Like a Fool" was fantastic. Wouldn't you rather look at Keira Knightley then the Weasel Boy from Maroon 5?

8:51 - Adam Levine's voice is horribly unappealing. All nasally and throat-trembling. I'm digging how stripped down the production is here. No big production numbers, just the band singing on stage. I'll give 'em that much.

8:53 - COMMERCIAL BREAK. Hi Chris.

8:54 - So while we're here, let me update my predictions or something. "Birdman" is looking to be the Best Picture winner which is the wrong choice. My top pick, "Whiplash," had no chance of winning but I was hoping "The Grand Budapest Hotel" could have pulled off a surprise win. I'm not a big fan of "Boyhood" but I'll take it over "Birdman," which was so obvious and ham-handed.

8:56 - Okay, "The Dependent Spirits Award" made me laugh. And "Everyone calls him Chris Pine" did too.

8:57 - Is J. Lo holding in a fart? Though we're all glad the star of "The Boy Next Door" could attend.

I am enjoying the interstitial artwork tonight.

8:58 - So at least the "Grand Budapest Hotel" won't go home empty-handed tonight.

8:59 - The costumes sure were pretty in "Grand Budapest Hotel." Everything about the movie was pretty.

Good, right-to-the-point speech. Wes Anderson's smile was delightful.

9:00 - "With a spoon." Hooray, pun humor! Reese Witherspoon probably knows a lot about being vain. (J/K Reese, I wuv you.)

9:01 - "Guardians of the Galaxy" honestly probably deserved the Make-up award but I'm a-okay with "Grand Budapest Hotel" sweeping the technical categories.

9:02 - Why are all the speech givers off-center? Big points for the shout-out to Dick Smith.

9:03 - It's okay, Chan-Chan. You didn't get nominated but at least the host hit on you.

9:04 - We have no idea who any of these people are but it's really nice that they let them stand on stage.

9:08 - COMMERCIAL BREAK. In further wildly inaccurate predictions, I'll talk about how wrong I may or may not be about the Best Actor category. Michael Keaton could still win and, even though "Birdman" was just barely passable, I would like to see it. Come on, guys, he's Batman. How cool would it be if Batman won an Oscars? However, Eddie Redmayne was impressive in "The Theory of Everything," an otherwise forgettable film. I suppose Steve Carell would be my personal pick. I would never imagine he could be as creepy as he was in "Foxcatcher." Bradley Cooper obviously wins the "How the Fuck Did He Get Nominated?" award. David Oyelowo really should have gotten it instead.

9:09 - "Together they fight crime!" Oh boy, this skit sounds dire.

Oh thank Christ, they really didn't dress them up as each other.

I really wanted to see more of the Best Foreign Film Nominations. ("Wild Tales" looked fun.) "Ida" was excellent though, so I'm rooting for it.

9:10 - And it just so worked out that the one nominee I saw one. I'm happy it happened.

9:11 - The director's genuine excitement is endearing.

9:12 - And the first time this night someone got played off stage. Go for it, Polish Guy! He outlasted the music! Go for it, man. It's your moment!

9:13 - Well, that was the best speech of the night based just on that guy's chutzpah. I can't imagine anyone will top it.

Shirley Maclaine looks nice, all things considered. The line about "Love being the greatest mystery!" was a groaner though.

9:14 - Look at Michael Keaton, chewing gum at the Oscars.

9:15 - So wait, will Redmayne accept his award using the computer voice?

The best thing about "Birdman" is that it made me want to see one of the actual "Birdman" movies. Who is Birdman's archenemy? The Hunter?

9:16 - NPH's skits have been hot-and-cold tonight but I am enjoying these interviews with the seat-fillers. Going into the audience is a thing hosts should continue to do more often.

9:17 - Aw, Coltier saying "Everything is Awesome" made me sort of love her.

The "Awesome Possum" dancer was a nice touch. I feel like this entire musical number is a jab at the movie's snub in the Best Animated Film category. What with handing out the Lego statues.

9:19 - YES! BATMAN! "DARKNESS! NO PARENTS!" And Mark Mothersbough wore the Energy Dome!

That number really successfully captured the tone of the movie with its handmade category. I don't know if that will win Best Song but it should definitely win Best Musical Number at the Oscars.

9:22 - COMMERCIAL BREAK! Continuing my thoughts on my wildly inaccurate predictions, let's come to Best Actress. It's more or less guaranteed to go to Julianne Moore. I maintain "Still Alice" was mediocre and that Moore's win tonight will be a Legacy Win. Witherspoon has no shot of winning but she was my favorite. Coltier was also fantastic but I don't think it's her year. I didn't get to "Gone Girl," I'm ashamed to say, so I can't comment on Rosamund Pike's nomination. I really didn't see anything special about Felicity Jones in "The Theory of Everything" though. Redmayne was the only standout acting in that.

9:24 - Chan-Chan is loving on that Lego Oscar. I feel you, brah.

Kerry Washington is purdy.

9:25 - And here's where I remind everyone that I didn't get to see the Live Action Shorts this year because Comcast sucks ass. It's bad enough that I don't get to see the Documentary Shorts.

9:26 - This guy wins Best Accent of the night. This speech is hella' meta. I appreciate that.

9:27 - Are winners saying "Fuck off!" to the music going to be a reoccurring theme tonight? That would be swell. Let them have their time, Academy. Trying to force people off-stage is obnoxious.

9:28 - Both of these winners have been telephone themed. I wish I could comment more but I didn't see any of the nominees.

9:29 -  Wait, why is that lady wearing black balls on her dress? I also love that they started playing her off but then she mentioned her son committed suicide and Oscar was like, "Oh fuck. SHUT UP THE MUSIC."

9:31 - I keep forgetting that Viola Davis has never won before.

I love you Viola but you just mangle Hayao Miyazaki's name there.

9:32 - I'm glad Miyazaki didn't use his speech to let everyone know that Anime Was a Mistake.

9:33 - "Oh sure, now you'll like 'em." Sick burn, NPH.

9:34 - Oyelowo's red bow tie is hot as hell, brah.

9:35 - That skit about accents was useless but still a bit funny. Paltrow has a pink rose growing out of her shoulder.

9:36 - Okay, allow me to sound like a massive cock here. Really, I don't mind. I find the production of "I'm Not Going to Miss You" to be really overdone. Campbell's voice is far too twangy for my sake. I know this is horribly disrespectful to what he's going through with his family and all that. Sorry. IT'S MY OPINION, MAN.

9:39 - I do respect the Academy for sticking to the lo-fi approach to the songs tonight. Except for "Everything is Awesome," which obviously demanded a huge production number. Just having the performer sing their song, not obscured or covered up by flashiness, is a very respectful choice.

9:41 - Annnnd we're back.

9:42 - If a found footage movie exploded in the middle of the Oscars, with like ghosts or zombies or the Slender Man attacking NPH, that would be swell.

9:43 - Instead, we got a fairly uninspired Birdman/Whiplash mash-up. He was doing better up to this point.

9:44 - Our next presenters, the future Harley Quinn and Mr. Fantastic.

In all seriousness, Miles Teller really was robbed a nomination for "Whiplash." I mean, for the drum solo alone.

9:45 - Also, Margot Robbie is apparently Australian? I did not know that.

9:46 - Chris Pine and Chris Evans have been presenters tonight. Will Oscar go for the Chris Hat Trick and get Chris Pratt or Chris Hemsworth to present?

9:47 - "Whiplash" winning the Sound Mixing award was not a gurantee but I'm so glad it happened. Obviously, this is the movie that deserved it.

9:48 - Damn, these guys are really nervous. I shouldn't give them shit though. If I ever won an Oscar, I probably would not be able to speak.

Are they really going to say the full title of "Birdman" every time tonight? Damn, man, I feel sorry for you.

9:49 - Let's all hope that this is the only win "American Sniper" takes home tonight.

Margot awkwardly handing that guy his award was a good, just off-screen moment.

9:50 - Clint looks surly. I think his face got stuck that way.

Jared Leto is here to play us an acoustic guitar song about dolphins.

9:51 - A well deserved "Fuck you!" to Streep there.

Out of the Best Supporting Actress category, I'm really rooting for Laura Dern. If she was Mason's dad, he'd have both the Coolest Dad Ever and the Greatest Mom Ever. Arquette will probably get it.

9:52 - Knightley was underrated. I hope she wins it someday.

9:53 - Emma Stone looks beautiful, holding her Lego Oscar.

Just based on this clip, I'm really glad I didn't bother watching "Into the Woods."

9:54 - I think I have correctly guessed all the major categories so far? They've all been super obvious though.

I wouldn't have given her the award for "Boyhood" but I have long been a fan of Patricia Arquette. It is neat that she won an Oscar. I wouldn't have guessed she would ever get one say, ten years ago. The amount of passion in her speech was admirable.

9:55 - Mason looks incredibly bored.

9:59 - I'm so glad they returned to this skit about Neil's predictions. Robert Duvall's confused reaction was priceless though.

10:00 - I literally had heard nothing about this "Beyond the Lights" movie before it was nominated. It always surprises me how Oscar sometimes picks something out of nowhere like that.

10:01 - Holy crap, I didn't know there'd be a laser show!

10:02 - All the musical numbers this evening have been completely gaff free. Gee whiz, Oscar, you've only been doing this for 87 years. I'm glad you finally figured it out.

J. Lo looked PISSED, probably because this song is the sort of thing she'd normally do.

10:03 - All the ChloBros out there, get ready. Here comes your waifu. And I think she's 18 now? So feel free to say as many creepy things about her as you want, Internet People.

10:04 - That was one I called. The Visual Effects field was packed with fantastic work this year. "Interstellar" was the biggest so of course it won.

Did Chloe just hand that guy a rain check for his Oscar?

10:05 - Wait, getting an Oscar wins you a free drink? Now I want an Oscar even more then before.

10:06 - "Kevin Hart Being in A Lot of Movies" jokes will never get old.

I'm really rooting for "The Dam Keeper" to win. It was beautiful. "Feast" will probably get it though.

10:07 - Yep, I figured. I liked "Feast" plenty but it didn't make me weep like a baby the way "The Dam Keeper" did.

10:08 - Isn't it interesting that winners in the least talked about categories tend to give the best speeches?

10:09 - I'll admit, I was skeptical but Neil has been doing a good job tonight. His jokes have been consistently amusing.

Dwayne "Please Do Not Call Me the Rock" Johnson has the most infectiously fun big goofy grin.

10:10 - I really wish I had seen "Song of the Sea."

I'm happy "Big Hero 6" won over "How to Train Your Dragon 2." I personally preferred it.

10:11 - I wonder if the writer who came up with the Big Hero 6 characters in some obscure Marvel comic will get any bonuses for this.

10:16 - Not all the winners have been perfect tonight but Oscars actually doing all right. 

10:17 - I wasn't sure at first but the old-timey movie house backdrop has grown on me tonight. 

10:18 - Wait, is this lady giving an anti-GamerGate speech? Cutting to Harvey Weinstein was maybe a poor decision.

10:19 - I agree with her points but this speech is fucking putting me to sleep.

10:20 - Is Eddie Murphy just incapable of smiling tonight? Why'd you even show up, Buckwheat?

Christ Pratt! I just won The Chris Bingo!

10:21 - I'm not usually this passionate about the Production Design category but, seriously guys, "Grand Budapest Hotel" should fucking win.

10:22 - Damn straight.

I have drank surprisingly little tonight. Tonight's show is rolling by very smoothly and many of the wins have been deserved. My liver is thankful.

10:23 - Dick move, Academy, playing music over that nice lady's voice.

Neil Patrick Harris' self-deprecating streak tonight has been most appreciated. I don't think Seth MacFarlane would have told those jokes.

10:24 - Really, the parenthesis in "Birdman's" subtitle have got to go.

10:25 - I was really hoping Dick Pope would win just so we could make one more Dick Poop joke before Oscar season is over.

10:26 - Really not shocked that the fake-one-take gimmick impressed Oscar. "Birdman" hasn't won anything else tonight but we haven't gotten to many of the higher categories yet.

10:30 - It's hard to believe that Meryl Streep has only won three Oscars. I thought she won every Oscar ever?

10:31 - So who is going to be left out of the Rest in Peace montage this year?

10:32 - Oh Mickey Rooney. For so many years you were my archenemy but now I'm sort of sad you're gone.

James Garner was a rough one. Edward Herrmann too. They'll both be seriously missed.

10:33 - I'm glad H.R. Giger wasn't left out. Let's give the Xenomorph it's due.

10:34 - I actually rather liked the In Memorium montage this year. You wouldn't think it would be a hard thing to screw up but the Academy has done it before. This was solemn but not overblown, respectful and heartfelt.

10:35 - Oh, I take it back. Here comes some awfully overblown musical number to squash all the sincerity of the proceeding several minutes.

10:37 - There's some sound issue here. Her voice is really muffled. I can't understand any thing she's singing. Not that I want to. Performances like this are all about the singer, not the deceased. Listen to her belting it out. She's not thinking about paying tribute to those we've lost. She's thinking about how huge she can make her voice. Disrespectful, Academy.

10:39 - I guess the Oscars is the wrong place to expect subtlety but, really, is it too much to ask?

10:42 - I'm still hoping someone will gloriously mispronounce Benedict Cumberbatch's name at some point tonight.

10:43 - I'm rooting for "Whiplash" to win best editing.

10:44 - And so it did. Sweet. I'm really glad that my favorite film of last year is going home with at least three Oscars tonight.

10:45 - Oh come on, Oscar. He was giving a nice speech there and you just had to play him off. You can't help yourself, can you?

10:46 - I think Terence Howard forgot his lines.

10:47 - And, damn, people can't keep their hands off the microphone stand tonight.

10:48 - The bloody drumsticks on "Whiplash's" title card was a nice touch.

10:49 - I was really hoping to see more of the Documentary nominees too. "Virunga," for one, sounded fascinating. All the more so since "Citizenfour" underwhelmed me.

10:50 - I'll reiterate: "Citizenfour" is an important movie for documenting history as it happened. It is not a compelling or particularly interesting film.

10:52 - I was expecting the "Citizenfour" people to get political in her speech. There have been a lot of political speeches at the Oscar tonight. I don't know how to feel about that.

10:53 - They keep mentioning this upcoming performance from Lady Gaga like it's some sort of threat. Also, was "Best Sauce" a mistake or was NPH making some sort of joke?

10:57 - Harris has been doing a solid job hosting thus far but this reoccuring sketch about the Oscar prediction is super lame. I wish they would have dropped that one.

10:58 - I also just realized that, besides from the In Memorium montage, this ceremony has completely lacked self-congratulatory montages. That's a good thing.

10:59 - "Glory" is a powerful, fantastic song, even if Common's rapping sticks out. I fully expect it to win Best Song and it wouldn't be a bad choice. "Everything is Awesome" already won the night, anyway.

11:00 - Though recreating the crossing at the bridge for a musical number is in questionable taste, I think.

11:02 - John Legend gets it. He knows how to bolster a song with powerful lyrics without overwhelming it and stripping away any intent behind the music. That was a fantastic performance.

11:03 - Here's some levity. David Oyelowo says to Oprah: "Please don't touch my face, Oprah."

11:04 - Man, they are running with that "John Travoltra Mispronounces Things" joke. It was pretty funny so I'll allow it.

11:05 - Showing the titles as if they were on old record sleeves is a nice touch. The art design of tonight's show is quite good.

A win for "Everything is Awesome" would have been swell but I didn't foresee it. "Glory" is a fine song though.

11:07 - Wow, both of these speeches are powerful and fantastic. Common's acceptance speech was especially powerful. Legend's receive some uncertain applause there. Maybe right after saying thousands of people are in prison was not the best time to clap.

11:08 - There's another reference to the upcoming Lady Gaga performance. Can we just skip that, please?

11:12 - ScarJo's dress there is conceptually interesting. Also: Boobs.

11:14 - Okay, I take it back. We almost got through the ceremony without an unnecessary montage to something. I mean, "The Sound of Music" is a pretty good movie but I'm not sure this was needed. 

11:15 - Lady Gaga isn't covered in raw meat so I guess this could have been worst. I'm not sure about that silver wig.

11:17 - This isn't terrible but the song does seem to be slightly out of Gaga's range.

11:19 - I could have done without the upbeat rendition of "My Favorite Things" but that was relatively inoffensive.

11:21 - I liked Julia Andrews even more after I found out she apparently swears like a sailor when off-screen. They also got through that without mentioning how much Christopher Plummer hates "The Sound of Music."

11:22 - Obviously, I'm rooting for "Grand Budapest Hotel" to win Best Score but I think "The Theory of Everything" is most likely to take it. That one has a good score too. Aside from the atonal screeching of "Mr. Turner," this was a fantastic crop of scores this year.

11:23 - "The Grand Budapest Hotel" is doing fantastically. Is a Best Picture win out of the question? Probably but I'm keeping up hope.

11:25 - So we're heading into the final stretch here. Just the writing awards, actor, actress, director, and picture left by my count. I'm actually getting pretty excited about it. This year's ceremony has been rolling around at a really smooth pace.

11:29 - Isn't Eddie Murphy also one of the most consistently overpaid actors in movie history too? Funny how they left that factoid out, isn't it?

11:30 - "The Grand Budapest Hotel" really should win Best Screenplay and it's odds are seeming better and better.

And "Birdman" got it. I do believe I called that one. Well, Wes Anderson still has Best Director and Best Picture to pull an upset.

11:32 - I have managed to completely forget that Naomi Watts was in "Birdman." And Michael Keaton is still chewing on that gum. It was be loosing its flavor by now.

11:33 - Awwww, he thanked his dog. That's genuinely adorable.

11:34 - Where do you think Oprah puts "Academy Award Nominee" on her list of accomplishments?

I'm really bummed I didn't get to see "Inherent Vice" before the nominees. Sorry guys, there was a snow storm and I had a lot of other shit to do suddenly.

11:35 - During a night that has been low on surprises, "The Imitation Game" winning Best Adapted Screenplay was one I really didn't see coming. Huh? I liked the movie, probably more then most did, but it's script isn't one of the things I lauded itself for.

11:36 - Going from cracking jokes about Oprah to talking about teenage suicide attempts is quite a tonal shift but I have to admit that speech hit me right in the feels.

11:41 - "Bitches Be Trippin', Yo?" Ouch. That was bad, NPH. You're better then that.

11:42 - Well, here it is. Will "Birdman" win Best Director on the way to Best Picture? Will Richard Linklater take home an award for ambition? Will Wes Anderson get a long overdue surprise win?

11:43 - Hmm. Pretty disappointed in this. I suppose this seals the deal on "Birdman" winning Best Picture? It's hard to believe that the once assumed shoo-in for Best Picture will now likely only go home with Best Supporting Actress.

11:44 - The direction on "Birdman" was flashy as hell so a surprise isn't a shock. I just wish it had been for a better movie.

11:45 - Emma Stone is radiantly beautiful. Sorry, had to pause and acknowledge that.

11:48 - Oh yeah, Cate Blanchette did win an Oscar last year. I had all ready managed to forget about "Blue Jasmine."

11:49 - "Birdman" is coming close to taking home all the top prizes which raises my hopes that Michael Keaton will win Best Actor, since he was the only thing about "Birdman" that I really, really liked.

11:50 - Damn, Oscar. Missed oppretunity to use the Fake Baby scene from "American Sniper."

11:51 - "Okie dokey, smoky?" Redmayne did give a very good performance but "The Theory of Everything" was just so damn boring. Eddie is freaking the fuck out and it's charming.

11:52 - It's amazing how things can change over the course of a month. Back in January, Michael Keaton was considered the obvious winner and he ended up going home empty-handed. There's always next year, Batman.

11:53 - I'm cracking the tape on this Scotch. Now seems like the time.

11:54 - Burns good! Also, thanks Matt for referencing Ebert, whose movie did not get nominated.

Marion Coltier is my official pick for Oscar upset. Her performance in "Two Days, One Night" was devastating. It probably won't happen but I sure would like to see that happen.

11:56 - Reese was definitely the most likable of all the performances. Her character was the only one that I really would want to hang out with afterwards.

11:57 - No surprise there. I guess this is the year of debilitating disease taking home the top acting categories? I fully expect the "Still Alice" backlash to begin tomorrow.

11:58 - Moore has given so many phenomenal performances over the years that it's a shame that she had to win for such a maudlin, manipulative piece of blatant Oscar bait. Just consider this a make-up award for "Boogie Nights, "Magnolia," and any number of other fantastic performances.

11:59 - Wait, did she just say her husband's name is Bort?

12:01 - Oh boy, here's the climax to what is obviously the most belabored joke of the night.

Not a damn laugh for that "dos for dos" joke.

12:02 - That was not worth the time spent on it. Let's get to Best Picture please.

12:03 - "It doesn't matter how much they were made or how much they made at the Box Office?" CITATION NEEDED.

12:04 - Hoping against hope for an upset in favor of "The Grand Budapest Hotel" but expecting "Birdman' to win it.

Could have been worst. Could have been "American Sniper."

12:05 - Man, Scott Tobias must be PISSED right now.

So a movie about movies won Best Picture. Not exactly a shock but I was really hoping for someone else.

12:07 - All right, guys. The show is over, more or less. "Boyhood" being shut out of the major copies was a surprise. I thought Linklater would have won for sure. It's odd that out of all the awards "Birdman" won, the one it really deserves - Best Actor - went to someone else.

12:08 - "The Grand Budapest Hotel" sweeping the technical awards was delightful. If only it had won in some of the important categories. I was happy to see "Whiplash" go home with a few awards beyond the obvious one.

12:09 - "The Imitation Game" winning Best Adapted Screenplay was definitely the biggest surprise. Did anyone see that one coming? Most of my prediction except for the really important ones were on spot. So that's cool.

12:12 - And what about the show? Surprisingly good. Neil Patrick Harris was a generally affable host. A few of his jokes and bits were stale but he came off fairly well. I wouldn't mind having him back next year. The show was relatively low on bullshit, aside from Jennifer Hudson stomping all over the dead and a mostly unneeded trip down ass-kissing lane for "The Sound of Music." The pacing was speedy. The jokes were decent. Many of the speeches were solid. The musical performances were excellent more often then not. No major gaffs happened. I went in skeptical but I have to think this year's ceremony went off great.

12:14 - Oscar season was rough on me for no particular reason. Just seemed like it was a real struggle to get through. However, I did see more Oscar movies this year then last, watching 13 nominated films over last year's 11. Here's to next year being better. Mostly, I'm really looking forward to not watching any super-important, very long dramas for a while.

Good night everyone. I'm going to drink some more Scotch and probably fall asleep. Thank you, Chris, for making this my most commented upon post. Thank you to anyone else who read. Hooray for Hollywood. See you again real soon. Good night and good luck.

Recent Watches: Boyhood (2014)

Since “Boyhood” is a movie about growing up and making memories, I’ll share an anecdote. About a decade ago, I started my Director Report Card project. Yes, folks, I’ve been at it that long. Anyway, Richard Linklater was on my list at the time. (He’s since fallen off.) I remember looking him up on IMDb and seeing a listing for “Untitled Boyhood Project.” For a long time, I assumed this thing was never going to come out. When “Boyhood” was released, I was surprised by the wave of praise that greeted it. I’ve always been hot-and-cold on Linklater so I went in skeptical. Typically, on my first viewing, I was underwhelmed by “Boyhood.” Yeah, it was good, but I didn’t exactly get what the big deal was. Separated two months from the “Best Movie of the Year” hype, it plays a little better. Does it deserve to win Best Picture? No. But it’s slightly better then my first impression.

One of my remaining issues with “Boyhood,” and many of Linklater’s films in general, is that there’s no real plot. We watch Mason grow up over the course of twelve years, starting at the age of five. The early portion of the film, focused on Mason’s youngest years, works the best for me. We see the kid’s eye perspective on adult problems, glancing at his mom arguing with her boyfriend of the moment. Or when Mason and his sister watch their parents have a spat, dashing all their hopes that mom and dad will ever reunite. We see him working his way for school. One of my favorite moments is, after his mom plucks her kids out of another bad household, she drops Mason off at a new school. All the other kids in the class turn to look at the new kid as he sits down. Mason’s early years are defined by his relationship with his parents and his sisters. He never has a lot of friends. Comprising about the first half-hour, the film captures the spirit of childhood, lazing around and doing nothing all the time and the spectre of adulthood being a far off, ambiguous thing.

As Mason grows into a teenager, “Boyhood” falters for me. In middle school, Mason is hanging out with older kids, talking pussy and swilling beers. The next year, he’s smoking pot and making out with a girl in the back of his friend’s car. During his graduation party, we meet what is supposedly Mason’s best friend. We have to take the movie’s word for it. As far as we know, Mason never has a social life. Friends are the most important thing to a teenager but they don’t rank high in “Boyhood.” One scene comprises his work history, when a manager tells him to step up. That manager is a lot like Mason’s photography teacher, always giving him sage advice to focus and work hard, that raw talent isn’t enough to succeed. High school is barely focused on in favor of college. Mason gets briefly bullied by some assholes in the boys’ bathroom but he brushes it off. Do teenagers really act like that? Where’s the crippling doubt? The anxiety? The social pressures? The difficult balance of school work, personal life, and social life? We don’t see Mason get his driving license, get his first job, his first kiss, loose his virginity, crash his car for the first time, or hang out with his best friend in a meaningful way. “Boyhood” attempts to chronicle a young life via a series of moments. But they’re not the moments anyone actually remembers.

The focus is instead on his family, I suppose. Mason is lucky to have the coolest dad in the world. I mean, holy shit, Ethan Hawke is cool. He drives a cool car. He takes his kids on cool trips to the bowling alley or the zoo. Or he takes them camping. More importantly, he always levels with them on a meaningful way. My favorite moments are either when he gets his kids to come out of their preteen shells during a heart-to-heart in the car. Or when he explains that whales are magic. It’s not overdone. His advice is realistic, not idealized. Even after he gets remarried, has another kid, buys a minivan, and grows a dad ‘stache, he remains casual, relaxed, but observant, understanding, and good humored.

Mason’s mom, on the other hand, does her best. She’s always focused on the future, going to school to get a job to support her family. Unfortunately, this causes her to serially overlook the present. It’s interesting to note: I watched “Boyhood” with my mom. The big moment that has been getting Patricia Arquette praise, and a likely Oscar, is when Mason is getting ready to move out. Struggling with empty nest syndrome, she yells at her son, feeling like her life is over now. My Mom, however, found this moment to be laughably selfish. “Way to take a moment that’s about your child and make it all about you,” she said. Interesting. Of course, Mason’s mom does have a positive affect on the people around her, like when a tossed-off piece of advice changes the life of her Mexican handyman. Natural, touching moments like that should have been more present.

“Boyhood” has been widely praised for its twelve year gimmick. Just on a practical level, yes, this is impressive. I can’t watch movies like that though. All that matters is what’s on the screen. To my eyes, Linklater overdid the cultural signifiers. As a six year old, Mason watches “Dragon Ball Z” and sleeps in similarly themed bed sheets. His sister sings Britney Spears. In school he plays “The Oregon Trail” on an iMac. He attends the midnight release of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” One moment has him playing on a Gameboy Advance. For that matter, we see him progress through video game system. He frags his stepbrother in “Halo” on an original Xbox. He tries out boxing in Wii Sports. He watches the Will Ferrell “Land Lord” video on his laptop. His sister watches a Lady Gaga music video on her cellphone. (“Boyhood” could have been subtitled “Raise of the Touch Phone” as you slowly watch the technology become ubiquitous.) His dad has him hammering Obama signs onto front yards during the 2005 elections. The soundtrack is equally too-on-the-nose. Coldplay! Flaming Lips! Sheryl Crow! Even, god forbid, “Crank Dat Soulja Boy!” Over the twelve years, Linklater picked the most obvious bits of cultural recognition to emphasize. Never once do we see Mason obsess over a weird, fly-by moment like kids are wont to. The focus should have been far more on the kid’s personal little hobbies, like his arrow head collection that disappears before he turns twelve, instead of pointing out to audiences “This is now 2006!” And bafflingly, all pop culture signifiers vanish when Mason turns into a teenager, as if teenagers don’t care about pop culture.

And while I’m yelling at the movie, let me take some time to point out how hard it leans on the “Drunken Asshole Stepdad” troupe. As soon as his mom meets Bill, her college psychology professor, we know he’s trouble. He seems a little too interested in his student, in a slightly predatory manner. Because the movie leaps around so much, we go from their first date to the day after their honeymoon. Not long after that, the obvious suspicion is confirmed. Bill is an asshole who drinks too much, bosses the kids around like a general, enforces dickish rules, pulls dickish stunts, and, yes, smacks his wife around. No shit, Patricia. Mom seemingly turns her life around after that, getting a decent job as a college professor herself. Then comes the next drunken stepdad, a Gulf War vet that was one of Olivia’s students. His abuse is much more subtle, in the form of taking down Mason’s confidence or acting like the big macho man of the house. (One good moment here: We see Jim wearing a uniform of some sort throughout the film. We assume he’s a cop. After a drunken argument with Mason, he turns around, revealing a big “CORRECTIONS” sign on his back. A prison guard is a considerably lower level of authority and makes Jim’s overbearing behavior more obnoxious.) Considering how bold “Boyhood” is suppose to be, it leans on familiar troupes a little hard.

The movie is too long, running well over two hours. The final act, devoted to Mason’s relationship problems, career future, and college plans, are a snore. Linklater falls into his worst habit, that has haunted him since “Slacker,” where he lets his camera drift off to unrelated, uninteresting local eccentrics. This is a bad side effect of him loving Austin too fucking much. The last scene, in particular, is awful. Mason moves into his dorm room, meets a cool friend, and hangs out with a girl. A lot of his problems seem to melt away. The movie furthers the false belief that college actually changes a person, that it’s the next step in your life, instead of just moving the same shit into a bigger building. The girl, who will obviously become his next girlfriend, shares her opinion that life is a collection of meaningful moments. Gee whiz, Linklater, way to flat-out tell your audience what the movie’s theme is, as if we couldn’t figure it out on our own. It really ends “Boyhood” on a sour, obvious, ham-handed note.

Despite these concerns, “Boyhood” is a good movie. The acting is uniformly great, especially from Ellar Coltrane as Mason, who gives a calm, focused performance. Hawke is excellent and Arquette is quite good. Linklater’s direction is naturalistic and relaxed, staying out of the characters’ way and pulling the audience into this world. That he kept this up for over a decade, when anyone could have walked away and sunk the whole thing at any point, is impressive. Taken as a whole, it’s not the definitive coming-of-age story. What it does best has nothing to do with coming-of-age. Would I prefer it win Best Picture over “Birdman?” Oh fuck yeah. But does it deserve to win at all? I don’t think it does. [7/10]

The Oscars start in twenty minutes. Because I’m swell at time management, here’s my ranking of the Best Picture nominees.

Whiplash: 9/10
The Grand Budapest Hotel: 9/10
Selma: 7/10
The Imitation Game: 7/10
Boyhood: 7/10
The Theory of Everything: 6/10
Birdman: 5/10
American Sniper: 5/10

Come back in a few minutes, probably, for my annual Live Blog of the ceremony. Bring booze because I’ll definitely need it.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Recent Watches: Foxcatcher (2014)

So the story goes: An actor primarily known for comedic performances decides to do a serious drama. For extra bonus points, the movie is based on a true story and the actor covers his face with extensive make-up. “Foxcatcher” boasts all of these elements. The murder of David Schultz by eccentric millionaire John du Pont is truly one of those “fact-is-stranger-than-fiction” stories. Steve Carell, a once promising actor who has slummed it a lot over the years, has earned plenty of critical acclaim for his part, presumably not just because he wore a fake nose. Channing Tatum earned a fair amount of praise too, finally putting his image as just a pretty face (or set of abs) behind him. “Foxcatcher” genuinely captures the intensity of the personalities involved and the unpredictable oddness of what happened.

John du Pont, the heir of the du Pont fortune, is a man of many interests: Birds, stamps, science, guns, military histories. But, above all else, Olympic wrestling. He wants to establish himself as a serious wrestling coach and investor. To further this goal, he recruits Mark Schultz, a gold medal winning wrestler with a troubled personal life. At first, the relationship is beneficial for both. du Pont earns respectability as a wrestling coach and Schutlz feels wanted and useful. Mark’s older brother David, also a gold medal winner, is also soon recruited. This forces Mark and John apart, leading to a disastrous match, which ends in murder.

The strongest attribute of “Foxcatcher” is the film’s chilly atmosphere. From the beginning, a tone of disquiet and isolation is established. There’s very little music for the first half, establishing a mood of quiet unease. The loneliness and off-putting eccentricities of the characters are emphasized. From the beginning of the film, we know that something is going to go wrong, that this will end in bloodshed. However, “Foxcatcher” is not truly a thriller. Pursuing the real event’s Wikipedia page lets you know what will happen. It’s not suspense the movie generates. Instead, “Foxcatcher” is an examination of loneliness and psychological frustration. du Pont wants to earn respect at something he loves, as a way to get back at his distant mother but also to impress her. Mark lives in his brother’s shadow and wants to break away. Yet neurosis and ego get in the way, leading to both men’s downfall. The film’s presentation does a good job of putting the viewer in the mind of these troubled people.

The film is built around three effective performances. Steve Carell’s role as du Pont is mesmerizingly odd. The make-up makes Carell more rat-like, with a bigger nose, more prominent teeth, and beadier eyes. du Pont slouches in big chairs and speaks with an odd, nasally whine. His fascination with wrestling doesn’t fit his white collar background. John, at one point, insists Mark calls him “Golden Eagle.” He bitches out the people he just bought a tank from because of its factually inaccurate gun. He introduces the boy to cocaine, which du Pont sniffs casually and frequently. He writes verbose speeches for the monosyllabic Mark to say. Despite being a pudgy old man, du Pont takes up wrestling himself, in the over-fifty league. (A real thing that apparently exists.) He, more then once, wrestles with the buff young men, crawling on them. The film infers, without confirming, that du Pont’s interest in wrestling is homoerotic in nature. The only time du Pont let’s his carefully constructed shield down is when he tells Mark that he is his first, real friend. He’s such a bizarre character with so many strange attributes that all an actor can do is inhabit them honestly. Carell succeeds at this, making du Pont as uncomfortable and creepy as he probably was in real life.

If “Foxcatcher” focused solely on du Pont’s eccentricity, it would have a lot less value as a film. The Schultz brothers' own story of rivalry and depression compliments du Pont’s oddness. Despite being an Olympic athlete, Mark Schultz lives a miserable life. He gives speeches to an auditorium full of bored school kids. He eats instant ramen and passes the time playing Gameboy. His brother, meanwhile, has a wife and two kids. He seems much happier. Mark envies David. When du Pont calls on him, despite the old man’s strange behavior, it still makes Mark feel special. Channing Tatum plays Mark as a shallow lug of a man. He’s not a deep person, so all his hurt and frustration are right on his face. After fowling a wrestling match, he wrecks his hotel room, beats himself up, and binge eats. He’s as uncomfortable in du Pont’s world as du Pont is everywhere. Mark Ruffalo, beefed up to bear-like proportions, is lovable, focused, and happy. It’s easy to see while David seems so well-adjusted and how that could make his brother petty and jealous. Ruffalo is good but I don’t how he was nominated over Tatum, whose performance is desperate, sad, and brutally honest.

As the relationship between the men degrades, “Foxcatcher’s” status as a sad tragedy falls into place. Mark’s performance offends du Pont who begins to favor his brother. Falling into a depression, Mark slacks on his wrestling. Seeing his brother is troubled, David proves how swell a guy he is. He forces Mark onto a bike and has him dropping six pounds in ninety minutes. Yet it’s not enough and Mark still chokes on the game. The film doesn’t explore what happens much in detail. Why did du Pont target David? His fragile ego was obviously shattered by the loss. Yet why would he kill David instead of Mark? Why would he do it in public? How much did drugs and depression influence his decision? “Foxcatcher” doesn’t seek answers. Carell’s du Pont remains a question mark through to the end. The ambiguity enhances the film’s disquieting effect. The film doesn’t explore the story much after the shooting, not du Pont’s stand-off with police, the court case, or Mark’s reaction to his brother’s death. Instead, the act of violence is the sad, inevitable conclusion to this dark, strange tale.

Well, there is one more scene before the credits. It seems to suggest that Mark is still looking for validation and for someone to love him, in some way. “Foxcatcher” is beguiling, creeping, and odd. The performances are top notch. The musical score, when it appears at all, is well utilized. The chilly cinematography cements the movie’s intention. But it’s the script, which never backs away from the complex, unusual, or off-putting material, that should be most commended here. [8/10]

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Recent Watches: 2015 Oscar-Nominated Animated Shorts

I’ve gotten quite use to watching the Oscar-nominated short films. Over the last few years, video-on-demand distribution has allowed the shorts to be widely seen. This way, cinephiles can experience films that were formally really seen outside of the Academy. I especially look forward to the Animated Shorts, as there’s usually one incredible gem each year.

This year, however, something went screwy. My cable provider screwed up. The sound on the Animated Shorts was barely passable. For some reason, the dialogue would fluctuate wildly between normal, barely audible, and completely silent. For the animated shorts, which usually feature little dialogue and instead focus on music, this was more of an annoyance then a straight-up inhibitor. Unfortunately, it made the live action shorts completely unwatchable, forcing me to give up within minutes. So unless Comcast gets its shit together by tomorrow afternoon, it’s unlikely I will see the Live Action Shorts. I’m pretty pissed off about this.

Anyway, here’s the review of the animated shorts. Like every year, it’s an uneven batch but there are a few worthwhile entries.

Me and My Moulton

“Me and My Moulton” is a bittersweet story of childhood. The middle daughter, right between her oldest and youngest sisters, wonders about her parents. Her father is the only man in Norway with a mustache and blind in one eye. Her mother fills the house with modern architecture, such as three-legged chairs that frequently fall over. Her parent’s eccentric behavior embarrasses the girl though she’s not sure why. Her best friend down stair has a manly father, a great dog, and awesome bike. When the daughters ask their parents for a bike, they are gifted with a Moulton, a bizarre, impractical model. The daughters are disappointed but pretend to love it anyway.

“Me and Moulton” has a deceptively simple animation style. The character designs aren’t much more then simple stick figures with some slight details. However, eventually more depth is reveal. The leaves on the tree look like stained glass and change colors with the season. The look of the film takes some getting used to but it eventually grew on me.

As for the story, “Me and My Moulton” does a good job of suggesting the meloncholey of childhood. The girl is baffled by her parent’s choices and sometimes actively resents them. She can’t express these feelings because she does love her parents. They move inward, actually causing the girl clinical depression. Something else I like about the film is the way it contrasts the seemingly sunny childhood with unexpected darkness. An anecdote from her grandmother causes the girl to imagine her house burning down and standing in the nude outside. The story behind the name of the neighbor’s dog casually mentions death and starvation. For all its confusion and meloncholey, the tone of “Me and My Moulton” is ultimately happy, the short ending on a memory of a joyous Christmas morning. While the presentation is slightly off-putting, this is a mostly successful story about a child learning about compromise for the first time. [6/10]

The Bigger Picture

A British short, “The Bigger Picture” tells a simple story. Two brothers live with their elderly mother. One brother is more successful while the other doesn’t work, staying at home and taking care of his ailing mom. He resents his brother’s success. Mom’s health worsens, forcing the two of them to put their differences aside.

I suspect “The Bigger Picture” got nominated not for its story but for its visual presentation. The short mixes traditional animation with stop-motion. So the characters are usually flat illustrations but when they move forward, their arms are clay-mation. The best use of this visual gimmick is when water is portrayed as vibrating clear foil. However, the gimmick can’t disguise the horribly unappealing character designs. Moreover,“The Bigger Picture” is saddled with horribly unlikable characters and a depressing tone. The older brother is a pompous snob. The younger brother is hateful and mean-spirited. The mother, of course, dies. The ending suggests the brothers might be happy that their mom is dead. Eww. Though somewhat interesting to look at, this short is ultimately unpleasant to watch. [5/10]

A Single Life

“A Single Life” is the shortest of the presented films, running a whole two minutes. It’s a clever, gag-based toon. A single woman has a new record arrive on her doorstep. She notices that, by moving the needle up and down the single, she travels backwards or forward through time. She quickly visits her childhood before leaping ahead to marriage, pregnancy, and being old. The punchline is expected but delivered amusingly.

The animation of “A Single Life” is CGI but suggests stop-motion. The look of the main character, a nice balance between cartoony and ugly, is appealing. The central joke of the short is delivered totally visually, as there’s no dialogue in the short at all. The audience figures out what’s happening at the same time the character does, which makes for a nice surprise. Yes, the title is a pun but one that takes a minute to catch. If stretch any longer, “A Single Life” probably wouldn’t have worked but two minutes is the perfect length for it. The short is a nice dose of cartoonish humor, especially needed after the dour “The Bigger Picture.” [7/10]

The Dam Keeper

“The Dam Keeper” is the longest of the evening’s shorts, running a little over twenty minutes. The keeper of the dam is a cute, cartoon pig of elementary school age. The overlooks an idyllic little town. He makes sure the windmill at the top of the dam keeps spinning. If it stops, a black smoke will consume the village. The job leaves the little pig covered in soot and grim, making him unpopular at school. He is frequently teased and bullied because of this. He might have finally found a friend when he meets a little fox that likes to draw with charcoal, who doesn’t mind soot and dirt. Things don’t always go smoothly though.

“The Dam Keeper” is an emotional roller coaster that left me in tatters. Anyone who was bullied in school will probably relate far too much to the little pig’s plight. As he steps onto the school bus, he is pelted with trash and called names. One especially cruel rejection comes when a girl places her bag on the seat next to her. The little pig has to sit alone in the back of the bus. The fact that I’ve always loved pigs just makes me like him more and find the cruelty he faces more effective. Gaining a friend, in the form of the illustrating fox (whose name is, amusingly just Fox), is enough to lift his spirits. A sequence that has the two mocking a pair of bullies is both funny and really touching. However, things go wrong. A black smog drifting over the town, blotting everything in darkness, is a perfectly suitable visual metaphor for how depression feels. I was really wondering how dark “The Dam Keeper” would go but, luckily, it has a happy ending. I really wanted everything to work out for the little guy.

The animation is lovely, done in a sketchy, painterly style. The animals of the story have the right balance of cute and natural. Save for an opening-and-closing narration, there’s no dialogue in the film. Thus, the film relies on the expressive, nuanced musical score to emphasize its strong emotions. A film making me both laugh and cry with this much skill is a real sign of quality. Just like its porcine protagonists, I’m really rooting for “The Dam Keeper” to win on Sunday night. [9/10]


Not included with the on-demand package is “Feast,” the animated short that played in front of Disney’s “Big Hero 6” last year. The short is told from the perspective of Winston, an adorable Boston Terrier. From his earliest day, the pup has loved food. His guardian indulges this but always pouring a generous amount of his meals onto the dog’s food. As he grows, Winston develops quite the appetite for all sorts of food. When his owner starts dating the cute waitress from the restaurant down the street, things start to change. The girlfriend is a vegetarian, which means the guy becomes a vegetarian too. And since Winston eats what his owner eats, he is suddenly subsisting on Brussels sprouts and leeks. The dog is none too pleased about this. Yet, when the relationship seemingly ends, and the man’s slovenly diet resumes, Winston’s joy is short lived.

As with 2013’s “Paperman,” “Feast” is brought to life with cell-shaded animation which nicely splits the difference between traditional animation and computer generated animation. This gives it a colorful, playful tone. Disney is especially good about creating lovable animals. Winston is no different. His eyes and face are especially expressive. Its successful exaggerates the already expressive face dogs already have. This is the way cartoons are supposed to work. If you’ll excuse the pun, “Feast” is definitely a feast for the eyes.

“Feast’s” story is cute and funny. The dog’s love of food is nicely conveyed, especially in the way he gorges himself on bacon and eggs or cheesy nachos. We see his master’s life grow through the dog’s eyes, which is a nice touch. As someone who raised by a vegetarian, but could never subsist on a vegetarian diet, I can definitely relate to Winston’s frustration with the change of menu. The last act does a good job of illustrating how we grow accustomed to the people around us. The conclusion is very cute and somewhat touching. “Feast” will probably win the Oscar, even though it’s not the best of the presented shorts, but it’s still a delightful little film. [8/10]

Every year, includes some highly commended shorts along with the nominated ones. “Sweet Cocoon” is a very goofy French short about a chubby caterpillar unable to get in his cocoon. The humor is slapstick-y and the CGI animation is a bit too stretchy for my taste. The punchline is amusing though. Bill Plymton’s “Footsteps” is imaginative, full of the director’s beautiful hand-drawn animation, and ends fantastically. I’m not sure why it wasn’t nominated. “Duet” is a fluid bit of animation showing the parallel lives of two young people through abstract, star-like shape. It’s lovely and sweet but too minor to be nominated. “Bus Story” is the most dialogue heavy of the shorts which means it was the most hampered by my technical problems. Even if I heard all of it, I probably wouldn’t like it. The character designs are ugly, the humor is mean-spirited, and I didn’t care for the story much.

The best thing about seeing the Oscar-nominated shorts is that there’s usually one genuine classic every year. Sometimes there are duds too but this is unavoidable. I won’t miss “The Bigger Picture” but I’d gladly return to “The Dam Keeper” or “Feast.” That’s the joy of discovery, man.