Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Sunday, February 26, 2017


8:20 - Welcome to Film Thoughts' eighth annual Academy Awards live blog!

8:25 - In the run-up to tonight's ceremony, I originally had planned to watch a number of other films. Sadly, I've had a terrible sinus infection over the last seven days. I did get to see "20th Century Women" and "A Man Called Ove" and thought both were great but didn't have it in me to writer reviews. I didn't even get a chance to watch the short film nominees, like I always do.

8:30 - All of that aside, we are finally heading into the ceremony itself. Will there be lots of glamour? Will "La La Land" walk away with everything or will the backlash be strong enough for something else to emerge as the big winner? Let's find out. Here we go.

And here's Justin Timberlake. Why not start with a dance party?

8:32 - While Justin shimmies on-stage, let's look forward to roughly one hundred political speeches and Jimmy Kimmel cracking lots of bad jokes. I've got booze. Come drink with me.

8:34 - Michael Shannon's barely dancing!

That was a perfectly fine opening segment.

8:36 - Not sure what to make of Justin's pensive stares...

Because he hates the Jew, you know.

8:37 - Is a Matt Damon joke in-coming? Yeah, that's about the level of humor I was expecting.

8:38 - Though some people have said "The Great Wall" actually isn't too bad but who's keeping track?

Every time someone makes a joke about "La La Land" and jazz, I'm taking a shot.

8:40 - Oooh, that "happy ending" joke went over great. Sadly, a lot of Academy voters seem so apathetic about the actual Awards that a lot of them probably did not watch "Moonlight."

8:42 - Okay, we get it, dude. Nobody actually watches the nominated movies.

All right, I appreciate the digs at Streep though.

8:43 - Kimmel kids but I really do believe that Meryl gets nominated out of habit at this point. 

8:44 - Here we go with Best Supporting Actor and the first montage of the night. Sure to be one of many tonight. Ali still seems to be the favorite to win. Let's see how wrong I am, right out of the gate.

Miss Vikander, soon to be slumming her way through "Tomb Raider."

8:47 - "Hell or High Water," sure to be the best film nominated tonight that won't win anything.

8:48 - I'm rooting for Shannon but this doesn't appear to be his year. Unless it is. I'm usually wrong.

Eh, there's always next year, Mike. Not to take away from Ali, who did give a wonderful performance.

8:52 - That was a bit heavy on the "thank yous" but not bad as first speeches of the night go. I wonder if 'Moonlight" will actually walk away with any other awards?

I genuinely did like "La La Land" but seem many film fans picked "Moonlight" as their actual favorite film of the year.

8:54 - By the way, Kimmel has gotten me to laugh about six times so he's already doing better then I expected.

8:56 - Oh, Jimmy. I never have hope for the Oscars.

Lean into the microphone, Jason.

"A Man Called Ove" was a fantastic film, very funny and touching.

8:58 - Oh man, I'm sure there are so many people overjoyed that "Suicide Squad" can now call itself an OSCAR WINNING FILM.

9:00 - And there was my first shot for someone mentioning immigration in a speech and my first shot for someone getting played off stage. Off to a great start.

I loved the costumes in "Jackie" but its odds aren't looking great.

9:02 - "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:" Pretty good for a franchise entry no one is going to remember in ten years. The costumes were... Fine?

9:07 - I wouldn't exactly call it a great year for comic book movies. About average but what do I know? I'm not hosting the Oscars.

9:08 - The only Documentary nominations I got to see where "13th" and "Life, Animated." Both pretty good! I was going to watch " O.J.: Made in America" but, seriously guys, its seven hours long.

9:09 - Janelle Monae's dress is creating some pretty strong feelings in me.

9:11 - Not surprised "O.J.: Made in America" won but am still uncertain about the prospects of programming obviously designed for television sneaking into the Academy's territory.

9:13 - "Sorry," said the Oscars to the nice lady on-stage, "you don't get to say anything."

9:14 - It must be hard for Dwayne Johnson to find a tuxedo that fits him.

9:15 - As soon as I saw "Moana," I knew "How Far I'll Go" was going to get the nomination but, seriously you guys, "Shiny" was the best song in that movie.

9:17 - I hope the dancers waving those blue sheets got paid a lot.

9:19 - Auli'i did well. I couldn't have hit those high notes.

ABC has been promoting this Walmart receipt commercial thing super hard all night. That's my cue to go to the bathroom, I think.

9:22 - Win a Student Academy award, get to hand more famous people small statues.

9:25 - Every time someone flubs a teleprompter line on the Oscars, the "Price is Right" trombone sound should play.

9:26 - Pharell is both baffled and amused by his bag of candy.

9:28 - To anybody who goes on about how they don't care about the Sound categories: Fuck you. Movies wouldn't function without these people. Respect their contributions.

"Arrival's" use of sound was great so it probably deserve this statue. I'm surprised something flashier and more explosion filled, like "Sully" or "La La Land," didn't win.

9:29 - Today's controversy about "13 Hours'" sound editing nomination is the most anyone has thought about this movie in nearly a year.

9:30 - Ah, so the explosion-y choice won sound editing. Very surprised "La La Land" hasn't picked up any technical awards yet.

9:31 - Aww, this is a nice speech. I would thank my mom too.

9:32 - I believe you mean "The Prophet Sting will take the stage," announcer lady.

9:38 - Vince, these Jackie Chan jokes are baffling and bizarre. Please stop. Give me that hot Fredrick Wiseman action.

9:40 - Oh right, Mark Rylance did win last year. I keep forgetting.

9:41 -  So this is Viola's year, right? I wish her probable win - assuming an upset for Naomie or Michelle isn't forthcoming - was for an actual Supporting role, instead of a part that was clearly leading.

9:43 - While watching "Lion," I totally picked that as Nicole Kidman's Oscar clip moment. Called it, you guys.

9:45 - Viola's win was long overdue. She's a spectacular actress and was great in "Fences," a movie I'm happy I'll never have to watch again.

"And that's the graveyard." Gee, way to bring the crowd down, Miss Davis.

9:53 - Alright, we're back. Kimmel is doing a shockingly good job hosting.

9:55 - Charlize Theron laying on a bed, eating German pickles, sounds like a dream I had once.

9:56 - Shirley Maclaine for Oscar Host 2018.

Had a chance to see the other three Foreign Film nominees but just didn't get to them. It's been a hard week.

9:58 - As soon as Trump pulled his bullshit, "The Saleman's" win was guaranteed. It's a protest vote, no doubt. By all accounts, all five films were excellent - the two I saw were - so it's no foul. 

10:00 - It was so nice for Dev Patel to give a synopsis of a nominated movie that nobody knows anything about.

10:06 - I've got to tell you guys, the commercial breaks have been more painful this year then the actual ceremony. Are all of ABC's new shows terrible?

10:07 - Apparently Hailee Steinfeld has a side career as a pop star. Glad she's working.

10:09 - Hey, "Piper," the only one of the nominated animated shorts I've seen won. It's pretty cute but I wish I could've seen the others.

10:10 - *scathing anti-Trump statement* "Anyway, here's the nominees for Best Animated Feature."

10:11 - I was really hoping "Kubo" would pull off an upset but "Zootopia" has been the favorite to win pretty much from the beginning. Maybe Laika will win someday, assuming the Academy voters ever pull their heads out of their asses and watch something that isn't made by Disney or Pixar.

10:13 - The "Zootopia" had the best play-off of the night, so far.

10:14 - I had to look up who these two are. Oh! There the "50 Shades" couple!

And here's "La La Land's" first win of the night. I may be wrong about everything else but I bet it's not the last award it wins.

10:16 - That was a pretty good speech but, fuck you, we've got to make room for this terrible tour bus gag.

10:20 - Okay, this tour bus gag might have been worth for that interaction with Denzel. That woman's effervescent joy at getting to meet her favorite actor was awfully sweet.

10:23 - A "Special Oscars edition of Mean Tweets" is kind of what I was dreading Kimmel's entire hosting gig would be like.

10:28 - These foreign people have pretty boring taste in film. Except for the guy who said "Young Frankenstein." He can come over to my house for dinner.

10:30 - If "Jungle Book" beats "Doctor Strange" for best effects, I'm going to be annoyed. "Kubo" will also be acceptable.

10:31 - No, Oscar, that's the opposite of what I just said.

10:33 - How can the Academy voters look at the gorgeous special effects in "Kubo and the Two Strings" and "Doctor Strange" and give the award to the creepy, crunchy, plastic CGI animals in "The Jungle Book?" Bad move, Oscar.

10:35 - I'm glad Seth Rogan is having a good time.

10:36 - So "La La Land" has got Best Editing in the bag, right? Say what you will about the movie but it really deserved that one.

Okay, what the fuck?

10:38 - If "Hacksaw Ridge" wins any of the big awards, I'm going to be so pissed. Come on, shitheads, "La La Land" genuinely deserved Best Editing!

10:39 - I don't think this "Lion" kid has any clue what's going on.

10:44 - David Oyelowo's voice should get an award. It's very nice.

10:47 - It was very nice of Oscar not to play the Short Documentary filmmakers off. Their speech was very good.

10:50 - I, on the other hand, am not so concerned about our president's well being.

10:52 - This bit with John Chu is mildly amusing.

10:53 - That robotic horse puppet's parents are very proud of it.

10:57 - Come on, Javier, Meryl doesn't need the extra fellating.

10:58 - I would say "La La Land" has Cinematography in the bag but I just don't know what's happening anymore.

11:00 - Thank god my universe has been re-centered.

11:02 - I wrote the Eddie Redmanye one.

11:03 - I laughed at that Tilda Swinton one. I'm sorry, Tilda. Don't hurt me.

11:04 - Dude, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are RIGHT THERE. Why aren't they singing the songs they actually sang in the movie?

11:08 - Having said that, Legend's number was well done.

11:12 - Kimmel cracking jokes about "Hamilton" being hard to get into? Yeah, that sounds about right.

11:13 - Samuel L. Jackson's tux is very blue.

I would assume that even the people who bitched about "La La Land" would agree that it deserves Best Score.

11:16 - "La La Land's" composer gets it. Good acceptance speech!

11:17 - "City of Stars" is my favorite of the nominated song. I have no idea if it'll win.

11:18 - Pfffft. And you were worried that "La La Land" wasn't going to win anything. They even picked the better song! I was sure the big ballad would win.

11:19 - Oscar tries to play off a guy giving a heart-felt, lovely speech about his mom and the crowd cheers over the music. Yes, that is the correct reaction.

11:20 - I'm glad Bill Paxton got a mention. That one hurt. It's still hurting.

11:21 - George Kennedy: Great character actor who would appear in just about anything. God bless that man.

Glad Kenny Baker didn't get left out. Could've picked a better song.

11:27 - Okay, the "Jimmy Kimmel Hates Matt Damon" jokes are officially boring now.

11:30 - Not sure why "20th Century Women" didn't get more nominations. I fucking loved that movie.

11:32 - "Manchester by the Sea" was always the favorite to win Original Screenplay so I don't think this weakens "La La Land's" Best Picture chances. Not that I know anything.

11:34 - Pretty good speech from the "Moonlight" writers. I liked that guy's white tux.

11:41 - Chazelle seemed like the slam dunk win for Best Director at the beginning of the night. Now it's the moment of truth.

11:44 - Well, he won. I think Chazelle genuinely was the best director of the lot so I'm pleased, I suppose.

11:48 - Denzel was actually leading the Best Actor poll I looked at earlier but I still think Casey should and will win.

11:50 - At least things are lining up in the major categories.


11:54 - Leo is probably going to steal the Oscar and run off with it. He's unstoppable!

11:55 - Isabelle's chances of winning Best Actress is pretty much zero now but I would still love to see that happen. She was so great.

(And if anyone is wondering why I didn't review "Elle" this month, it's because I'm doing a Paul Verhoven retrospective in May. Expect a long form review then.)

11:56 - "Natalie Portman couldn't be here tonight, so here's a photo of her starring, dead-eyed, right into your soul."

11:57 - Well, Emma Stone is constantly delightful and has a magical screen presence. She's very good in "La La Land" but I honestly think this Oscar is just as much for her being an all-around wonderful seeming human being.

12:00 - I just want to smoosh Emma's face. She's so damn genuine!

12:03 - Warren Beatty looks like the bad guy at the end of "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade."

12:05 - The more I think about it, the more I dislike Denzel's character in "Fences." I understand that this was the point but doesn't make his character any less toxic.

12:06 - "Hell or High Water" was easily the Best Picture nominee I enjoyed the most. What an unexpectedly excellent film.

12:08 - My money is still on "La La Land."

12:09 - Looks like I called all the major categories. Don't be impressed. I parroted what everyone else was saying.

12:11 - Wait, what? What the fuck is happening?

12:12 - This is the weirdest moment in Oscar history.

Warren Beatty will never be allowed on-stage ever again.

12:14 - This should just give all the nominees the Best Picture Oscar. If this is the grabbastic way you're going to run your fucking ceremony, you jack-asses.

12:16 - Beatty's screw-up is going to launch genuine conspiracy theories. You'll be reading about that shit tomorrow.

12:17 - They should let the "La La Land" people keep their Oscar. Fuck it, we'll just have two winners this year.

12:18 -  FINAL THOUGHTS: I went in expecting to hate Jimmy Kimmel but found his schtick surprisingly amusing in the early going. However, as the show went on, Kimmel's antics started to ware on me very quickly. By the end, I was ready to see him gone.

Having said that, the ceremony didn't drag very much. The Academy didn't make too many poor choices. Most of the winners deserved the statues. Everything roll along pretty smoothly... Up until that twist ending, which people are going to be talking about for years and years.

Goodnight folks. I'm going to finish this drink and go to bed. Back to business as usual on the 1st. See you again soon, my dear Film Thoughts readers.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Bangers n' Mash 103: The World of Harry Potter

This one was JD's idea. Regular readers may recall the retrospective of the Harry Potter films I did a few months back. At the time, this was done as the lead-up to a podcast episode about this same topic. But, the production of the Bangers n' Mash Show being what it is, the episode kept getting pushed back. So now that "Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" is just a distant memory, here's an episode concerning the cinematic Potter-verse.

Through no extra planning, this might be one of our more entertaining episodes. Over not-quite-an-hour of audio, JD and I wander down some... Interesting conversational pathways. Such as the syntax of the phrase "big ass fucking snake," the correct pronunciation of the name "Dobby," British accents, the practical applications of an invisibility cloak, and what it means to be invested in a franchise. And along the way, I probably alienate both fans and non-fans of the "Harry Potter" series!

So now time for a tedious Film Thoughts update. As I'm sure you know, the Oscars are Sunday night. I had planned on posting four more reviews before the ceremony, including the reviews of the short films. The truth is this entire past week, I've had maybe the worst cold I have experienced in my entire life. This seriously cut into my productivity but I'm happy to say I'm finally getting better. I am unhappy to say there won't be any more Oscar reviews before my annual live-blog. I'll try and do better next year, you guys.

Monday, February 20, 2017

OSCARS 2017: Life, Animated (2016)

I've made references before to how the Academy favors movies that emphasize the importance of movies. The documentary categories are usually exempt from this but occasionally one slips through. “Life, Animated” is almost literally about how cinema can positively change somebody's life. Then again, this one is also an issue documentary in a way, since it's also about a young man living with autism. I don't know if this combination will lead the movie to Oscar gold, as there's more high profile nominees but the film's feel-good attributes may take it further then expected.  I went into “Life, Animated” with some expectations, as Gilbert Gottfried had mentioned the film and the true story behind it a few times on his podcast.

For the first two years of his life, Owen Suskind seemed like an ordinary little boy. Upon turning three, Owen's speech development halted entirely, leading to a long period of silence. Soon afterwards, he was diagnosed with autism. During these quiet years, Owen would become fascinated with Disney's Animated Features. After nearly giving up hope, Owen's parents would begin to talk to the boy by quoting his beloved cartoons. The tactic worked. Now in his twenties, and moving out on his own for the first time, Owen's obsession with Disney and other cartoons remains.

“Life, Animated” is as much about a film lover's connection with the media as it is autism. The laser-point-intense focus Owen displays for something seemingly trivial is not uncommon for his condition. Several times, the film points out just how much Owen sees the adult world through the lens of Disney, such as when his older brother nervously attempts to educate the boy about sex. Yet, in a way, the Disney stories enrich Owen's life. During his fraught high school years, Owen begins to relate to the various sidekick characters common in Disney cartoons. More touching is the way Owen's parents reconnect with their child, using the cartoons as a baseline. Watching his dad tear up, while describing using a puppet of Iago the Parrot to make a communication break-through with his son, shows the kind of real emotion you can't replicate.

As a movie partially concerned with animation, “Life, Animated” does feature some lively animated sequences. The film brings Owen's fantasy world to life. In a number of gorgeous moments, functioning like moving water color paintings, we see a young Owen sneak away into the woods, to the World of Sidekicks. There, he befriends his favorite cartoon characters – Iago, Rafiki, Baloo – and comes to protect them from an amorphous villain he names “Fuzz Butt.” The bad guy appears as an amorphous cloud that fogs up Owen's perception of the world, a suitable metaphor for how autism affects someone's ability to process stimulation. These stories are from Owen's own mind, giving us a keener peek into the boy's mind.

“Life, Animated” isn't just a feel-good flick about Disney cartoons helping a young man come out of his shell. It also focuses on the difficulties Owen has joining the adult world. After moving into his own home – a monitored apartment complex occupied by other autists – Owen paces from room to room, uncertain what to do. Suskind's girlfriend, who he has a seemingly chaste relationship with, lives above. When she breaks up with him, Owen goes into crisis mode. The boy's parents wonder to the camera what will happen to Owen when they die. Despite these struggles, the film ultimately ends on an uplifting note. Owen is doing what he can to make his own life and even finds himself in a position to help other individuals with autism.

If nothing else, it's pretty neat that Owen has gotten to meet Gottfried and Jonathan Freeman, the voice of Jafar, as it's obvious how much the boy admires them. “Life, Animated” definitely goes for the heart strings with a little too much gusto. A few of the interviews, between Owen and his parents, feel a little over rehearsed. Still, this is a charming, touching documentary that should especially speak to anybody who loves Disney or has ever been a little different. I doubt it'll take home the Oscars but I'm glad I had a chance to see it. [7/10]

Sunday, February 19, 2017

OSCARS 2017: Land of Mine (2016)

One of my favorite things about Oscar season is that it gives me an opportunity to see movies that I otherwise probably wouldn't watch. Though I pride myself upon my diverse taste in film, I'll admit, serious dramas from the reaches of Europe are not usually part of my cinematic diet.
One such picture is “Land of Mine,” the Dutch submission for Best Foreign Language Film at this year's Academy Awards. (That English title is actually a rather tacky pun. The original Dutch title – which translates as “Under the Sand” - is far more fitting) The film doesn't exactly reject the stereotypes of hyper-depressing, overly grim European art cinema but I'm still glad I watched it.

Following the end of World War II, the east coast of Denmark was littered with roughly two million landmines. In order to clean out the mines, and as punishment for their country's action, German P.O.W.s were forcefully recruited for this job. Many of them were teenage boys, drafted into the war, unaware or uncaring about the Nazi Party's objectives. “Land of Mine” follows one such unit. A group of fourteen boys comb the beaches with only metal rods and wooden frames. Their leader, Sgt. Rasmussen, is encouraged to treat the boys poorly. Yet, as the many of the kids loose life and limb on the job, he can't help but develop sympathy for them.

The first scene in “Land of Mine” involves Rasmussen attacking a P.O.W., grabbing the Dutch flag from his hands, and beating him up. The Danes feel little sympathy for the Germans who attacked them during the war. Perhaps understandably. The film, however, points out how cruel Rasmussen is the boys under his watch. He mocks them, yells at them, tells them to work when they are sick. After the sergeant's dog is killed by a mine, he humiliates one of the boys by making him bark and retrieve a ball. The mind sweepers being so young only draws attention to how they are paying for a crime they didn't commit. Through this curtain, “Land of Mine” becomes a film about the injustice of war and how cruelty is never justified, no matter the circumstances.

Though Rasmussen is often cruel to the boys, he does eventually start to feel sorry for them. Watching them practically starve to death and get blown apart by the mines stirs feelings in him. Considering his earlier cruelty, the scenes where he warms up to the kids – comforting the others after one dies, playing a game of soccer with them on the freshly cleared beach – feel earned. “Land of Mine” isn't a sentimental film, so Rasmussen's kindness is rare and often peppered with more cruelty. Yet, ultimately, it's clear he cares about the boys in some way. Maybe not as much as the boys care for themselves. Like so many war films, “Land of Mine” is also a story about camaraderie among soldiers. The teens cling to each other because they have too.

Inevitably, quite a few landmines go off. Director Martin Zandvliet orchestrates each act of violence so that it strikes the audience as sudden and powerful. The first explosion happens because the teen boy is ill, having a vomiting fit in the middle of deactivating the bomb. His arms are blown off by the blast. Compare this to the over-the-top movie violence in “Hacksaw Ridge.” The bloody, charred stubs that used to be this boy's arms are presented matter-of-factually, a grim but grounded depiction of the horrors of war. Yet more shocking explosions reverberate throughout “Land of Mine.” Because the film emphasizes the youth of these boys, and the quiet of the cost, each horrible loss of life deeply effects the audience.

“Land of Mine” is also beautifully photographed, the sudden explosions and militaristic cruelty often contrasted against the clean, white beaches and the flowing water beyond. The film could've easily been mawkish, considering its historic setting and young cast. The decision to hold back the emotions ultimately make a more effecting film, making the audience understand the seriousness of the situation without creeping into melodrama. I have no idea if this will win the Oscar, though that would be a pleasant surprise. Other candidates seem more likely. Whatever the outcome, “Land of Mine” is a very good film and I'm glad I got the chance to see it. [8/10]

Friday, February 17, 2017

OSCARS 2017: The Red Turtle (2016)

When Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata announced their retirement a few years back, it seemed to have an immediate effect on Studio Ghibli. The Japanese animation giant didn't announce their closure but it appears the studio has slowed down in recent years. One of the few films to emerge from the house that Totoro built recently is “The Red Turtle.” Primarily a French/Belgium co-production, the Japanese studio helped out in making the movie because Miyazaki was a fan of director Michael Dudok de Wit's short films. Now this visually scrumptious film has ridden a wave of positive reviews all the way to the Academy Awards, where it's one of two arty foreign films to get nominated for Best Animated Feature.

“The Red Turtle” is a story told without any dialogue, aside from occasional, barely audible shouts of “yeah” or “hey.” It begins with a man adrift in the ocean, tossed by a storm. He arrives on a desert island, covered with a lush bamboo forest. He builds several rafts, attempting to float home. Each time, the raft sinks, tore apart by some animal under the waves. Eventually, the man discovers a culprit: A large, red turtle. Enraged, he kills the turtle. In time, the deceased, aquatic reptile changes into a beautiful woman. Together, the two start a life together, making the island their home. 

I'll be up-front and admit that I didn't totally get “The Red Turtle.” Having said that, this movie is really, really pretty. The animation is simply gorgeous. The opening shot of cascading waves recall traditional Japanese wood cuttings. The simplistic character designs bring traditional Belgium comics to mind. Several shots are even done in a wide, flat angle, recalling the panels of a comic stripe. Meanwhile, the island setting is brought to life with incredible detail, making the location seem like a real place that is vibrant and alive. The scenes under the water have a brilliant blue color, appearing serene. When the turtle appears, it has a hyper-realistic look that deliberately contrasts against the minimalist people. Each frame is a work of art, a gorgeously illustrated painting brought that leaps off the screen.

“The Red Turtle” feels like an allegory of some sort. There's a circular aspect to the story. People arrive at and leave the island, just to arrive again, bringing the rhythm of a fable to mind. The film is rift with symbols, like the rain that seemingly gives life. Rafts, bottles, and turtle shells have some sort of deeper meaning, representing the different characters. The way the man goes from hating the turtle to loving it is significant, I'm sure. Dream sequences frequently occur over “The Red Turtle's” brief run time. The dead turtle floating into the air or a wave frozen above the island are but two surreal images that grace the movie. Together, these attribute create a slightly inscrutable film that plays out like a piece of music, floating from point to point in an elegant if somewhat obscure fashion.

“The Red Turtle” could be considered a survival story. After all, it concerns a man washing up on an island and doing what he can to live. Yet the film is not so much concerned with the details of surviving on a desert island. Honestly, the setting is sort of cozy. The forest provides the man with shelter and fruit. The ocean gives him fish. The rain gives him drinking water. Before the turtle turns into a woman, he even has company thanks to the adorable crabs skittering across the beach. After the turtle becomes his wife and the two have a son, the island seems like an even nicer place to live. The trio appear pretty happy. The inviting setting makes “The Red Turtle” a pleasant film to visit as you watch it.

If there is indeed any deeper meaning to “The Red Turtle,” it might have gone over my head. Maybe the film is just meant to be enjoyed as a collection of beautiful images? Or perhaps it's not anything more than a dream-like story of love and connection found in an unexpected place? Or maybe the director just really likes turtles? Whatever the intention behind it, the movie remains strangely touching and is certainly worth seeing for its spellbinding animation. I'm glad the Academy decided to honor a unique motion picture like this one. [7/10]

Thursday, February 16, 2017

OSCARS 2017: 13th (2016)

Of this year's Best Documentary nominations, three of them deal with race in one way or another. This is clearly a topic that's been on people's mind. You don't need me to tell you that. We have a racist in the White House, whose top adviser is a literal Neo-Nazi. Things are fucked up. “13th,” from director Ava DuVernay of “Selma,” carefully lays out the case that shit is very fucked up and has been for a very long time. Beginning by pointing out a certain by-law in the 13th Amendment – that prisoners loose their rights as citizens – the film extrapolates from that the different ways American society has conspired to imprison, dehumanize, and persecute the black community.

From the moment slavery was outlawed, black men were persecuted for petty crimes, locked up, and used as free labor. This essentially filled the void the end of slavery left in the Southern economy. “13th” studies the various schemes cooked up to make the imprisonment of black individuals easier. First, black men were depicted as barely human savages prone to rape white women, as in “The Birth of a Nation.” A different method arose in the 1960s, when Richard Nixon began his war on drugs to persecute his political enemies. Which, it must be said, explicitly included the civil rights movement. Ronald Reagan increased this method in the eighties, with laws that more severely punished users of crack cocaine. Which, you might realized, was a drug far more prominent in inner city neighbors with high racial minority population. (It's obvious that DuVernay has no qualms about voicing her displeasure with the Republican party but the Clintons don't get off easily either.)

When focused on exposing the exact details of how white society has been build to persecute racial minorities, “13th” is a compelling documentary. Midway though the film, the focus turns towards prison reform. The topics are directly related, by the obvious and staggering statistic that one in five black men are convicts. As this section of the film goes on and on, it does feel like the point has meandered slightly. Once the film starts to get into the prison industry complex, you wonder if the really fucked-up intricacies of the American prison system didn't deserve its own documentary, outside the context of black persecution in the U.S.

Then again, the two topics are irreversibly intertwined. “13th” makes the compelling point that certain aspects of American society are designed to paint black men as criminals, as prisoners. Once the film comes around to the topic of black protest in the modern age, it finds itself again. The ugly truth concerning Tryvon Martin, Ferguson, Eric Gardner, and Kalif Browder are presented. An especially chilling sequence shows a montage of videos of black men attacked and sometimes killed by police officers. Inevitably, the big orange shithead in the White House comes up. Another startling sequence contrasts President Trump's thoughts on protesters with vintage footage of black protesters being beaten and attacked.

“Issues docs” are tricky to write about for me, sometimes. More then once, I've found myself agreeing with a documentary's point but being disappointed with how it presents itself cinematically. I'm a film reviewer, not a sociologist. That's where my brain is. “13th” does pretty well as a piece of cinema. It's very well edited, as the images, newsreels, vintage film and modern cell phone videos are integrated in order to make the biggest impact. An especially nice device involves pertinent song lyrics appearing on screen, easily the most effective of the on-screen graphics. “13th” could've just been a series of talking head interviews but DuVernay is good at mixing up the experience.

Before you watch this movie, get ready to be pissed off. You should be pissed off. That's exactly the point. The film has no easy answers. The experts interviewed admit that this is a problem that will never go away, that it is unavoidably wrapped up in American culture. Which makes “13th” a call to awareness, to expose the brutal machinations of the system, its roots and history. As a piece of film making, I wish it was a little better paced. As a piece of activism, it's enormously important. [7/10]

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

OSCARS 2017: Loving (2016)

Filmmaker Jeff Nichols has been flirting with the Academy Awards for a while now. His second and third films, “Take Shelter” and “Mud,” received plenty of critical praise, scooping up numerous awards along the way. Despite some ace campaigning, neither movie caught Oscar's attention. With his fifth feature, Nichols has finally broke through with the Academy. And all it took was a movie about an inspiring historical event. “Loving” tells the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple who fought for their right to marry all the way to the Supreme Court. Even then, Nichols' film only received one nomination, in the Best Actress category for Ruth Negga. I'm sure Nichols will get a Best Director Oscar some day. It's just going to take a while.

The place is Caroline, a county in southern Virginia. The time is 1958. Richard Loving, a simple bricklayer, is in love with Mildred Jeter. When Mildred becomes pregnant, they plan to marry. There's only one problem. Richard is white, Mildred is black, and interracial marriage is illegal in Virginia. The couple try to avoid detection, driving to D.C. to marry, but eventually the local cops become aware of the union. They threaten the two with jail time, forcing them to move out of state. When Mildred is ready to have her baby, they sneak back into Virginia, getting them both thrown in jail. After she writes a letter to Robert Kennedy, the case is brought to the attention of the ACLU. The lawyers take the Loving's case, fighting in Washington for a historical ruling.

It's fitting that history gifted the Loving's with such a perfect last name, isn't it? “Loving” is indeed a love story. Richard and Mildred trade meaningful glances. Their arms encircle, their faces draw close. He builds a house for her. He comes home late at night and whispers to her how much he cares. The most meaningful moments tend to be the most quiet. In a moment captured by Time Magazine, Richard reclines in Mildred's lap while they watch TV. It's a muted, low key love story without big scenes of explosive emotions. In the quote that concludes the film, Mildred says Richard “took care of her.” It's an incredibly sweet, genuine romance, brought to life by the small moments that pass through life.

Honestly, “Loving” might come off as too quiet if it wasn't for the two leads. Joel Edgerton – who I have to constantly remind myself is not the same person as Joel Kinnamen – is Richard Loving. He plays the part as incredibly stoic, with Edgerton having few lines of dialogue. Yet his feelings are conveyed in terse looks and quick action. When a car approaches the house, he yells at his kids to hide, fearful of who might be inside. When Mildred is interviewed by a reporter, he quietly attempts to call off the interview, fearful of the attention it might draw to them. Probably Edgerton's best moment is when he instructs a lawyer to tell the Supreme Court, simply, that he loves his wife. The nominated Ruth Negga plays Mildred as more emotive but no less considered. She's a woman who has lived her whole life being careful with her words. Both performances are very good, rooting “Loving” in sincerity.

In fact, that sense of low key earnestness is what characterizes most of “Loving.” That quiet, thoughtful atmosphere makes the more dramatic moments hit harder. Nichols shoots the sequence of the couple sneaking back into Virginia like a thriller, the moment as tense as any bank heist. While at work, Richard spots a brick, wrapped in the newspaper story about his wife, in the seat of his truck. Driving home, he becomes paranoid about a vehicle closely following him, a sequence that generates unease in the viewer. Nichols, in an interesting move, cuts between Richard dropping a brick at work and one of the Loving kids being struck by a car. (He was okay, by the way.) Nichols doesn't draw a lot of attention to the racial aggression the couple faced, assuming history speaks for itself. When the topic does come up, it's handled in a mature, realistic way.

It wouldn't surprise me if “Loving” proved too laconic for the Academy. They usually like their emotions to be Big and acted to the ceiling. “Loving” is a simple story, of a couple who loved each other so much they were willing to put everything on the line for it. Jeff Nichols tells the story without too much dramatic reinvention or manufactured tension. The result, a movie about real life that actually feels like real life, is surprisingly effective. (By the way, Nichols' good luck charm, Michael Shannon, is brilliantly cast against type in a small role as the nerdy magazine photographer.) [7/10]

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

OSCARS 2017: Nocturnal Animals (2016)

I crack jokes about Oscar bait but the truth is the Academy can sometimes be unpredictable. From the moment it was announced, Tom Ford's “Nocturnal Animals” was considered an awards contender. The director's previous feature was critically acclaimed. The film, which doubles as a gritty crime picture and a metatextual examination of the relationship between reality and fiction, is based on a respected novel. The cast was loaded with well known, beloved actors. Yet when the nominations were announced last month, “Nocturnal Animals” only cropped up in one category. You just never know what Oscar is going to go for, even when the movie is actually pretty good, like this one.

Susan Morrow is a successful art gallery owner. Many years ago, she was married to Edward, a struggling novelist who encouraged her to pursue the arts. Their relationship ended in a ugly way, with Susan leaving him for another man. Out of the blue, Edward mails Susan his new novel. Called “Nocturnal Animals,” the book is about a man whose wife and daughter are abducted, raped, and murdered by a trio of redneck criminals. As Susan reads through the story, she can't help but notice similarities to the life she had with Edward. As she reflects on how their relationship started and ended, she even considers reconnecting with her ex-husband.

As a fiction writer myself, I'll admit I frequently based characters off myself and people I've known. I think every writer does. Perhaps its normal to work through feelings and hurt through creative outlets. “Nocturnal Animals” directly concerns these motivations. Susan imagines Edward as the leader character of his novel. In a further meta choice, the film casts Amy Adams' celebrity doppelganger Isla Fisher as the fictional wife. The novel's theme of loss, guilt, and revenge seems to reflect the events of their relationship. The death of the fictional wife corresponds with the end of their love. The death of the fictional daughter mirrors Susan's aborted pregnancy. And sending the book to Susan is, in a way, an elaborate act of revenge. Through these angles, “Nocturnal Animals” gets at why people write.

If the story-within-the-story wasn't thrilling, “Nocturnal Animals” probably wouldn't work. It would be ridiculous if Susan was reacting so strongly to an ineffective piece of fiction. Luckily, the titular novel is depicted as a very tense thriller. The first scene, devoted to the family's road trip turning into a nightmare, plays out like a horror movie. (It should be noted that the movie also features a great jump scare worthy of any horror film.) A normal situation is interrupted by something terrible, the family's car run off the road by a gang of lunatics. As the situation degrades, a bit of road rage transforming into a random attack, the audience's stomach gets tied up in knots. After that horrifying opener, Edward's novel becomes a grief-stricken story of revenge pursued beyond all other causes. It's an ugly journey into a heart-broken soul. Which, of course, is exactly what the author was feeling when he wrote it.

Amy Adams has a tricky role in “Nocturnal Animals.” For most of the movie, she's siting on a couch, reacting to the book she's reading. Which doesn't sound very cinematic. Yet Adams' conveys a lot with her wide eyes and stiff body language. Her segments in the film become the entrance to “Nocturnal Animals'” complex inner-life. The flashback scenes are shot in a very different manner than the gritty crime story scenes or the chilly framing device. Instead, the flashbacks are characterized by a warm coloration. The scene where Susan and Edward first fell in love is shown through oranges and golds. As their relationship falls apart, the color palette grows colder. Her final scene with Edward are framed by sterile whites and grays. The end of their relationship is signaled by the film's visual composition.

Aside from a typically excellent Adams, the film's star studded cast contains several other strong performances. As Edward, Jake Gyllenhaal is all optimism and light conversation. As the protagonist of his own novel, Gyllenhaal is a raw nerve, a broken man held together by a nervous unease and constantly sweaty skin. Aaron Taylor-Johnson, best known for being white bread as hell in various blockbusters, has surprisingly grabbed a few awards. As the redneck murderer within the book, he's a sleazy, unnerving presence. Michael Shannon is nominated for his part as the sheriff investigating the crimes. If I'm indulging my own cynicism, I'd say Shannon got nominated primarily because his character is dying of cancer. Beyond the terminal diagnosis, Shannon brings a stoic commitment but quirky energy to the part of man who just wants to see justice done before he dies.

“Nocturnal Animals” is also a beautifully assembled motion picture. Tom Ford, befitting his background as a fashion designer, often uses splashes of bright color in wide, flat composition. The musical score is equally gorgeous, which becomes especially notable during the heart-breaking final scene. I'm not sure why the film didn't score an Adapted Screenplay nomination, at the very least, as it succeeds in the difficult task of being two very different types of movies, that both function fantastically and comment on one another, creating a richer, more complex motion picture. It's twofold narrative isn't just a flashy meta gimmick, it's a device that brilliantly comments on the motivation behind the creative process. [8/10]

Monday, February 13, 2017

OSCARS 2017: Captain Fantastic (2016)

When the title “Captain Fantastic” started popping up last year, I had to remind myself that this movie wasn't some off-brand superhero flick or a film adaptation of the Elton John concept album. Instead, the reviews soon made clear, this was another one of those quirky, indie dramedies that emerge so often out of Sundance. What I had read about the film made it sound, to my ears, a lot like “Little Miss Sunshine,” probably the ultimate Sundance success story. That's probably not a coincidence. It's not like there's a lot of movies about quirky families driving around in brightly colored vehicles. Both even feature funerals as plot points! I also wasn't surprised when the film picked up an Oscar nomination. Movies like this are increasingly within the Academy's radar, as much as glossy costume dramas and fancily acted biopics.

Ben Cash has raised his family of six kids in the woods. He's taught them to hunt, to kill and cook their own food, to mountain climb, to make their own shelters. He's also taught them far left politics and philosophy, preaching against the evils of capitalism and the importance of self-expression. Their odd, forested existence is interrupted when Ben receives news that his wife, Leslie, has killed herself following a bipolar episode. When his father-in-law informs him that Leslie will be given a Christian burial, a violation of her final wishes, he packs the kids into a bus and heads out on a quest to retrieve their mother's body and cremate her corpse. Complications arise along the way.

“Captain Fantastic” is an alright movie – just alright, I must stress – that works best as a fish-out-of-water comedy. Seeing Ben Cash and his family of anti-establishment children react to this capitalistic society produces some solid laughs. When a highway patrolman pulls over the family bus, the kids react by pretending to by hyper-Christian and home schooled, effectively freaking the cop out and scaring him off. While staying at a RV park, son Bodevan attracts the attention of a teenage girl. After her mom catches them making out, his reaction is hilarious. At the same location, Ben scandalizes an elderly couple by exiting his bus completely nude. The best laughs occur when the family stays with Leslie's sister. The kids are aghast at the violent video games their cousins play. A nice moment comes Ben compares the intelligence of the two group of boys. You can see most of these gags coming but they still provide chuckles.

When “Captain Fantastic” attempts to be a serious drama, it becomes far less interesting. The film tries to play the conflict between Cash and his in-laws as a natural reaction to his extreme parenting methods. Yet it's still too willing to make Frank Langella's father-in-law a facile bad guy. The similar misunderstandings between father and sons aren't much to write about. Most annoying is the typical end of the second act shenanigans, when Ben and his kids are separated by a rather contrived dramatic turn. What makes this change especially off-putting is that the son with the least character development is responsible for it. Naturally, everyone is reunited before the end.

“Captain Fantastic's” best attribute, and the same thing that got it an Oscar nomination, is its cast. The nominated Viggo Mortensen finds a nice balance between the character's extreme politics and actually being a reasonable father. The warmth he displays for his kids is genuine, such as when he comforts them after their mother's death. Viggo's character is the film's most nuanced, as he isn't above getting frustrated with his family. Several of the kids give good performances too. George MacKay is very good as Bodevan, especially during his multiple nervous episodes. Samantha Isler and Annalise Basso, as the red-headed twins, get some good moments, such as their reactions to reading “Lolita.” My favorite might be Charlie Shotwell as Nai, the youngest, who has some precocious reactions to learning about sex and a bad habit of coming to the table naked.

“Captain Fantastic” didn't stir too many strong emotions in me, one way or the other. The movie itself is a bit too openly manipulative with its emotions. The ending, which seems to betray the character's fiercely held political beliefs to a degree, is also disappointing. Mortensen is quite good, though I'm not sure if he's good enough to deserve an Oscar nomination. I like the kids and there's one or two endearing scene that makes the film worth seeing. Still, even with its good qualities, “Captain Fantastic” is bound to be remembered as an Oscar footnote. [6/10]

Sunday, February 12, 2017

OSCARS 2017: Florence Foster Jenkins (2016)

In the past, I have said some very unkind things about Meryl Streep. It's not that I think Streep is a bad actress. I'm frequently not a fan of her hyper-dramatic style, as it tends to suck all the air out of the room. It's Capital-A Acting and that doesn't always suit the movies she appears in. Mostly, I'm annoyed that Streep has become an award season institution. The Academy's love of her, over all other performers, is baffling to me. Streep is good but why must she be singled out practically every year? Why should Streep be nominated for “Florence Foster Jenkins,” a film considered minor even among those who enjoyed it? Why should Streep take a slot in a category that probably should've gone to Amy Adams or Annette Benning, performers that don't have three Oscars already and haven't been nominated nineteen previous times?

I actually had heard of Florence Foster Jenkins before seeing this film. I recall reading about her many years ago and even recall a college friend who kicked around writing a script about Jenkins. I wonder if she's disappointed that Stephen Frears got there first? For the uninitiated, I'll explain. During the forties, Florence and her husband, a mediocre stage actor named St. Clair Bayfield, owned a musical night club. Foster frequently appeared on stage in bit parts. However, she had aspirations of being an opera soprano. Her husband encouraged this dream, hiring singing teachers and back-up musicians. There was only one problem: Florence's singing was awful. Despite her obvious lack of talent, she journeyed on, her husband bribing journalist to write positive reviews and paying people to see her performances. Eventually, Jenkins would attract an audience of people who saw unintentional comedy in her singing, surely making her one of the earliest examples of “so-bad-it's-good” media.

The central question behind “Florence Foster Jenkins” seems to be, when it comes to the pursuit of the arts, whether sincerity or talent is more important. Florence's singing clearly leaves something to be desired, to put it nicely. Despite that, she is portrayed as utterly sincere. Her love of music is very genuine. The joy she felt from performing, from being on stage, was completely real. Frears' film probably could have been an examination in what role irony plays in fandom. Considering we live in a world where people study over “The Room” and other accidental masterpieces of ineptitude, it's a question worth asking. “Florence Foster Jenkins” only scratches the surface. The film clearly admires Jenkins' unwavering pursuit of her dream while gently ribbing her clear lack of ability. It doesn't dig deeper into why she soldiered on despite the criticism or what went through her head while people laughed at her. 

In real life, Jenkins seemed aware of her poor singing voice. The movie, meanwhile, plays her as totally unaware. She seemingly doesn't notice the chuckles during her performances. Instead, the film studies the ambiguous motivations of those around her. The piano player, despite holding in laughter during her singing lessons, keeps showing up for the cash. But what of the teacher, who only offers the most softball criticisms towards Florence? What of her husband? He is sleeping with another woman. He says his wife has given him permission to wander. Yet he hides the affair from her. When question about her lack of talent, he claims not to notice. Yet he buys positive reviews for Florence and goes out of his way to hide negative ones. Despite his philandering and cover ups, St. Clair does appear to love his wife. Frears weirdly plays it both ways, portraying Bayfield as both manipulating his wife and caring deeply for her.

“Florence Foster Jenkins” is partially a comedy. The film plays Bayfield's cheating ways for laughs, such as when he has to quickly cover the aftermath of the previous night's party. The scenes of audience members cracking up during Jenkins' performances are obviously meant to provoke amusement. Jenkins, especially when dressed in her outrageous costumes, is obviously a ridiculous figure. The film, nevertheless, randomly lurches into melodrama. Jenkins is infected with syphilis, from her previous husband. There's a few scenes devoted to her infection being studied by a doctor. Streep removing a wig to reveal a bald head is meant to be a shock. After reading a bad review, Florence collapses in public. The film concludes with a big dramatic death scene. Imagine a tearful farewell for any other derided cult figure – William Hung, The Shaggs – and you can see how mishandled this is. Stuff like this jives badly with the rest of the movie.

Yes, Meryl Streep's performance is fine. She has no qualms about warbling through the singing scenes. Her big style fits someone as blissfully unaware as Jenkins was. Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg do well as her husband and piano player, respectfully. All together, Frears' uncertain approach to his topic makes “Florence Foster Jenkins” an uneven watch and the film does not archive any of the loftier themes it reaches for. “Ed Wood” remains the high water mark for biopics about deeply sincere but totally inept artists. The film is competent but not very memorable and certainly didn't deserve Academy attention. [5/10]

Saturday, February 11, 2017

OSCAR 2017: Jackie (2016)

Americans are fond of romanticizing their president. I'm sure – assuming this country survives the next four-to-eight years – there will even be people looking back fondly on the Trump administration. No U.S. President has been more romanticized then John F. Kennedy. In-between his good looks, associated with the end of a more innocent time in this country, and sudden death, JFK is a towering figure in American history. But what of his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy? She's nearly as mythic a figure as her husband, beloved by romantics and tabloid journalists. Pablo Lerrain's “Jackie” seeks to lend some agency and insight into the most traumatic days of Kennedy's life. Typically, such a project attracted award season attention yet Lerrain's film is more then your average biopic.

The screenplay by Noah Oppenheim features an intentionally fractured plot construction. A week after the assassination of John. F. Kennedy, Jacqueline gives a somewhat combative interviewed to a journalist writing for Life magazine. The film flashes between the immediate hours following John's murder, the transition of power in the White House that forced Jackie and the kids out, the complicated process involved in arranging Kennedy's funeral service. Mixed in are more distant memories of a televised tour of the White House Jackie recorded and an intense conversation Jackie had with her priest.

By arranging this fictional retelling of real life events in such a way, Lerrain accurately captures the mindset of someone who has survived a traumatic event. Jacqueline is in a bad mood during the framing device, chain smoking throughout the interview. Memories of her husband's violent murder interrupt her recollections. John's death, unsurprisingly, comprises the most unnerving moments in “Jackie.” Yet Lerrain doesn't just linger on the way Oswalt's bullet burst Kennedy's head or the blood and brain matter that splattered Jackie O.'s face. The aftermath of the assassination, when Kennedy finally realizes that her husband's blood is still in her hair, are equally disquieting. Moreover, the novel narrative structure also brings to mind how everyone remembers events, recent and otherwise. It's not a clear, concise line of recollections. Events jumble together.

The aspect of “Jackie” to receive the most attention, especially from the Academy, is Natalie Portman's lead performance. At first, the Bostonian accent Portman adopts is slightly distracting. Yet this isn't the only reason Portman's more quiet moments are her most compelling. The most chilling moment in “Jackie” has the First Lady returning home after the murder. She slips out of her bloodied clothes, downs some pills, and puts on a record. She silently weeps as the camera watches her despondently go from room to room. Portman remains in a similar state throughout most of the movie. She plays the historical First Lady as someone barely holding together, a storm of constant emotional upheaval conveyed in her eyes, only hinting at the chaos Jackie must have felt. It's a fantastic performance and, dare I say, superior to the performance that won Portman her previous Oscar.

The focus is squarely on Jacqueline Kennedy and what she was feeling during those dark days. Yet her interaction with men in power occupies large portions of the run time. The Secret Service agents, who remind her that she is no longer the President's wife, bristles against her constantly changing plans concerning Kennedy's funeral service. Some of the most bracing moments in “Jackie” concerns the First Lady's long conversations with her priest. The priest, played by the great John Hurt, attempts to reassure her of god's role in the universe despite the pain Jackie feels over a murdered husband and two stillborn children. (As I write this, the news of John Hurt's passing is still in the air, lending these scenes even more importance.) An especially memorable sequence has Jackie talking with Robert Kennedy in the Lincoln Bedroom. In addition to drawing attention to the often cited parallels between Kennedy and Lincoln, it shows both individuals struggling with their pain and how history will see the Kennedy administration.

“Jackie” also contends itself with the immediate fall-out of the Kennedys as cultural icons. The film's entire point is to humanize Jacqueline Kennedy, to show the trauma, fear, and pain she felt immediately following the President's death. The interview draws much attention to the difference between the poised, flawless public figure she projected and the sad, scared person she actually was. Yet she concludes the interview by bringing up the famous parallel between the Kennedy administration and the fictional Camelot. This moment, seemingly, solidifies the Kennedy presidency in American history. In its final minutes, Jackie watches as a clothing store dresses the mannequins in its front window in her famous dresses and pillbox hats. The implication seems to be that the real people involved will be swallowed up by history.

By focusing in on a specific moment in history, and giving personal feelings and thoughts the most attention, “Jackie” provides a more intimate peek into the life of the Kennedys then an ordinarily structured biopic would. Pablo Larrain's intimate direction, Mica Levi's intense score, and Portman's nuanced lead performance combined to make an emotional, touching film that grapples with history and, perhaps more importantly, the people who make it. [8/10]

Friday, February 10, 2017

OSCARS 2017: Hidden Figures (2016)

When I first saw the trailer for “Hidden Figures” a few months ago, I thought it looked like a typically fluffy Hollywood biopic. Based on an inspiring true story that features important social implications but doesn't address them in a grounded, serious way? The trailer certainly seemed to fit the bill and I didn't expect the Academy to take the bait. When “Hidden Figures” became a serious awards contender, I was surprised. When the reviews rolled in, saying that the film was actually pretty good, I was even more surprised. Having seen the film now, I'll say this much about my initial reaction. Yes, the film is pretty fluffy but it's also fairly pleasant and more nuanced then I expected.

“Hidden Figures” follows the lives of three black women, all employed at NASA in the years and months leading up to John Glenn's historic flight. Katherine Johnson, a math prodigy from West Virginia, shows calculation skills superior to her white co-workers. Dorothy Vaughan would become a pioneer of computing technology. Mary Jackson would become one of the earliest female aerospace engineer employed by the government. Despite their obvious skills, all three of them would face subjugation by a society that would rather wish black people didn't exist.

The main reason to watch “Hidden Figures” is – no surprise here – its cast. The titular hidden figures are played by a really fabulous trio of actresses. Taraji P. Henson as Katherine Johnson gets top billing, though all three really share the lead role. Henson's big Oscar moment is a yelled monologue about being forced to walk a mile to use the bathroom. That's a powerful moment but Henson's best acting happens during quieter scenes. The humor but steely sense of command she brings to the romantic moments with “Moonlight's” Mahershala Ali or the group playing her kids.  My favorite is probably when her white bosses confront her about how she figured out some classified information, if she is a spy. Her quiet but pointed response is funny but full of character quirks and strength.

Henson is great but Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson is probably my favorite of the three. It's probably designed that way, as Jackson has a spitfire personality. She doesn't take any guff, standing up to a white police officer and a white judge throughout the film. I also found the character's tendency to hit on men, regardless of racial constructs of the time, charming. The Academy singled out Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughan, presumably because they already know they like her. And Spencer is quite good in the part. Her best moment occurs when she is kicked out of an all-white library. Her reaction – to steal the book she wants and read it to her kids on the boss – is rather inspiring. (The supporting cast is solid to, with Ali, Kevin Costner, and Kristen Dunst doing solid work. Dunst's Virginia accent, by the way, is excellent, much better then Andrew Garfield's in “Hacksaw Ridge.”)

The main sources of conflict in “Hidden Figures” are the racial intolerance the women faced at the time and the role of advancing technology. As for the first issue, the film makes its point without getting too preachy. It's even somewhat subtle, as mentions of the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing or King and X's protests are mostly pushed to the margins. That melodramatic scene of Kevin Costner knocking down the “Coloreds' Bathroom” sign in the trailer plays a lot better in context. The scenes of Katherine running to the bathroom are both funny but draw attention to the ridiculousness of segregation. A lot of “Hidden Figures” does that. The historical realities of segregated cafes, library, courtrooms, buses, and water fountains are all pointed out, shown as absurd. To modern eyes, these measures seem utterly inhumane. Which is precisely the point.

An interesting element the film brings up is the development of computers. Davis' Vaughan is part of the team working on creating one of the earliest computers in American history. After the device successfully comes online, with her help, it's pointed out that some people will be out of a job because of this. Humans and machines aren't shown working in harmony in “Hidden Figures” very often. At one point, we're treated to a montage of test rockets exploding. An early moment has Katherine almost caught in a test sight because of a misplaced grate and a high hell shoe. Naturally, the astronauts' various flights run into technical problems, forcing action from the characters that are more dramatic then history. The film seems to say that technology works best when bridged by a human element.

“Hidden Figures” mostly avoids the white savior narratives the Academy is so fond of. While the three women are sometimes helped out by the white people in their life, this is ultimately their story. They succeed, they persist, they challenge the status quo and push beyond it. They make history. While “Hidden Figures” might be a light weight film, it has an ace cast and a respectful grasp on history. Being around the characters, and watching them succeed, is a satisfying experience. I probably won't think about the film much once the ceremony is over but I did enjoy watching it. [7/10]

Thursday, February 9, 2017

OSCARS 2017: Fences (2016)

When an actor makes the leap to directing, you never truly know what the outcome will be. Some make the transition so successfully that directing takes over their careers. Others, as my No Encores column shows, try it once and decide it's not for them. Sometimes, I honestly wonder if being an actor-turned-director helps a movie's Oscar chances. Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen, and this year's Mel Gibson have long been AMPAS favorites. Denzel Washington getting several nominations for his directorial debut, “Fences,” seems to see this out. At least it will, if the movie wins anything.

Based on a Pulitzer Prize winning play by August Wilson, who adapted the story to screen before his death, “Fences” is about Troy Maxson. A illiterate black man living in Pittsburgh in the 1950s and working as a garbage man, Troy is married to Rose and has two sons. Lyons is from a previous marriage and endeavors to become a jazz musician, frequently asking for loans from his dad. Cory, his son with Rose, hopes to become a professional football player but his dad urges him in a more practical direction. As Troy goes on living his life, a series of bad decision isolates his loved ones.

As a first time director, Denzel Washington seems overly reverent of his source material. “Fences'” stage bound roots are all too obvious. Washington makes few attempts to disguise them. The film opens with a dolly shot connected to the back of a trash truck. There's a few lingering close-ups and one dramatic fade to black. Otherwise, “Fences” is composed mostly of people standing in simple locations – living rooms, back yards – and talking to each other. This is so prevalent that you can count the scenes set outside the Maxson's household on one hand. There's nothing inherently wrong with this approach. It just makes for a film that, even in its best moments, can be described as “stationary.” Considering one of Washington's additions to the story involves the incredibly cheesy sight of clouds in the shape of an angel, maybe sticking so closely to the play was a good idea.

Maybe the most accurate synopsis possible for “Fences” would be “Shitty man is shitty to people.” Troy Maxson is an asshole. He takes out his frustrations with his own life on his family. He constantly criticizes Lyons' decisions, jerking him around and treating him like shit. He's not much better to his other son, as he attempts to control Cory's life and forbids the boy from pursuing his dream. By far his biggest dick move is his decision to cheat on his wife. His rationalization for the affair – that it makes him happy – and refusal to end it is especially egregious. Wilson's script makes it clear that Maxson's behavior didn't arise out of a vacuum. His father was abusive and tried to rape his childhood girlfriend. The racial atmosphere of his youth genuinely held him back. But he's still an asshole. The film doesn't excuse him for his shitty behavior... Up until the very end, with a conclusion that was apparently softened from the play.

Having said that, “Fences” is worth seeing for its performance. Yes, Washington is fantastic in the part. Wilson's dialogue rolls smoothly off his tongue. Washington vividly brings the words to life, especially a series of rambling anecdotes. Some of them are light-hearted, such as a tall tale about wrestling deaths. Others are deeply serious, such as a recollection of the mistakes Troy has made in his life. As strong as Washington is, Viola Davis steals the film. She gets her own monologue, when faced with Troy's infidelity, that shakes the film to its core and moves the audience. Even the supporting cast is quite good. Stephen Henderson shows a quiet humor and lived-in familiarly with the part of Bono, Troy's friend. Jovan Adepo and Russell Hornsby are solid as the sons. Only Mykelti Williamson, as Troy's mentally ill brother, hits a false note. His acting, and really the whole character, eases towards mawkish.

“Fences” is one of those movies that I didn't really enjoy but I have to respect the craft that went into it. The cast is great and the production is handsome, if limited. Washington doesn't show off very many cinematic tricks but he respectfully presents the material. The movie is ultimately a showcase for August Wilson's script, a challenging and clearly important work of fiction that can be read from a number of different angles. Which makes it the filmic equivalent of chewable vitamins: Good for you but not very tasty. This might be one of the most unenthusiastic sevens I've ever handed out but it's a seven nevertheless. [7/10]

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

OSCARS 2017: Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

In 2006, after a drunken antisemitic tirade, Mel Gibson's career should've been over. Hollywood gave him another chance. In 2010, after a drunken racist tirade, Mel's career definitely should've been over. And yet he has received another chance. I guess Hollywood just can't quit Mel. I'm torn on the topic of Gibson myself. I enjoy many of his films and performances but am disgusted by his repugnant beliefs. Mel's latest reevaluation was confirmed when the Academy showered “Hacksaw Ridge,” Gibson's latest war epic, with nominations. This is Mel's sixth or seventh chance, presumably before his next drunken tirade. While I try to separate the people from the art, one can't help but think of Gibson's personal problems while watching “Hacksaw Ridge.”

The film tells the true story of Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to be awarded the Medal of Honor. Born to a Seven Day Adventist and an alcoholic World War I vet, he grew up in Lynchburg, Virginia. With the on-set of World War II, Doss felt the need to serve his country. Due to his religious beliefs, he refused to commit any violent acts or even hold a weapon. Instead, he decided to serve his country as a medic. His convictions were challenged during his army training, most of the authorities baffled by his decision. Once deployed, Doss served at the Battle of Okinawa, where he personally saved the lives of at least 75 men.

Before I get to the numerous aspects of “Hacksaw Ridge” that troubled me, let's talk about the one thing in the film I really liked. Andrew Garfield plays Desmond Doss as a paragon of sincerity, sensitivity, and conviction. It's the kind of part that, in the wrong hands, could've come off as obnoxiously righteous or implausibly pure. Garfield, however, finds the perfect balance, playing Doss as a man steady in his beliefs but full of doubts and haunted by his mistakes. The only real flaw in Garfield's performance is a mildly humorous scene where Doss looses his temper and the unconvincing Southern accent he adopts. I have visited Lynchburg many times. The people there don't sound like that.

It's a good thing that Garfield is great because the rest of “Hacksaw Ridge” raises some unnerving connotations that I just can't shake. Upon entering basic training, Doss is constantly questioned about his belief. When he refuses to hold a rifle, he's sent off to a commanding officer and told to resign. He refuses, leading to the other men in his unit harassing him and even beating him black and blue in one scene. Doss is ultimately threatened with a court marshal and thrown in military prison, missing his own wedding. Only a last minute, dramatic appeal from his father prevents him from being thrown out. Knowing Gibson's background as an ultraconversative, traditionalist Catholic, one can't help but see this as a story of a “persecuted Christian,” attacked by a corrupt culture that doesn't share his beliefs. Not only is that a narrative that we sure as fuck don't need right now, it's one that has always bugged the shit out of me.

Mel Gibson's fascination with violence, and the disturbing ways that fascination permeates his religious beliefs, is no secret. Despite ostensibly being about Doss' pacifist ways, “Hacksaw Ridge” is intensely violent. Heads are blown apart. Limbs are blasted away to bloody stumps. Guts are strewn on the ground. Rats nibble on corpses. Mines and grenades reduce men to pulp, severed feet and viscera tossed into the camera. Men are set ablaze in slow motion. Of course “Hacksaw Ridge” is violent. It's a war movie. What sticks in my teeth is the treatment of that violence. The camera lingers on it, too proud of its gory work to look away. There are unlikely moments, like a man kicking a grenade back. Or, in an especially ridiculous scene, someone picking up a bloodied torso and using it as a human shield. “Hacksaw Ridge” doesn't focus on the bloodshed to make a point about the horrors of war. It just seems to like it. Which seems at odds with Doss' beliefs.

My reservations with “Hacksaw Ridge” doesn't end there. I understand that the battlefield is a difficult place, where men put aside common decency to kill one another. Yet the film's treatment of the Japanese soldiers strikes me as simplistic and possibly offensive. The Japanese are portrayed as mad, raving attackers. They strike like a heavily armed zombie horde, cutting down American men while snarling, spitting, and screaming. They are so evil that, after raising a white flag of surrender, several Japanese soldiers attempt a suicide attack. This does not feel like the most nuanced treatment of a very serious subject. Typically, Mel lingers on the commanding officer committing seppuku, showing his decapitated head landing in his lap. Doss does rescue several Japanese soldiers throughout the battle but, a minor character tells us, “they didn't make it.” War is war but robbing the enemy of their humanity turns a piece of art into a work of jingoism.

“Hacksaw Ridge” makes statements about the power of faith and the need for charity. At the same time, it features action movie worthy sequences of bad guys getting bloodily gunned down in rows. This is a deeply conflicted film that wants to send the message about Doss' heroism. It's so determined to spread that story that it ends with actual footage of the man. Simultaneously, the film can't help but indulge in incredibly graphic action theatrics. Kind of what I imagine Mel Gibson's soul looks like, though with a lot less Jew bashing. Garfield is great and the film certainly contains effective moments. Yet the intrinsic divide in its approach is too wide to leave the viewer with a satisfying feeling. [5/10]