My Oscars Post

Well, today is special.  It’s my birthday, and it’s Oscar night.  And so, with that fateful hour for the movie industry, as well as millions of movie fans everywhere looming soon, and me feeling in an upbeat mood, here’s a few observations and a “my picks” list to have some fun with while you watch, or after you watch, etc.

HOW THE OSCARS ARE CHOSEN is quite a process.  “The Academy” is a group of over 6000 industry professionals representing all facets of the movie industry, from A-list stars, directors, and producers to “below-the-line” electricians, sound people, film editors, hair and make-up specialists, visual effects creators, and on and on.  Each gets to vote for all the films that are nominated in their particular area of specialization, as well as Best Picture.  Producers and studios who feel they have “Oscar-worthy” movies start “campaigning” (yes, very much like politicians do) months before the Oscars to draw attention of Academy members to their work, and once nominations are made, that can get pretty overwhelming to Academy members, even somewhat cutthroat.  In fact this year, one person nominated in one of the “best sound” categories was barred just yesterday from the competition for his last-minute campaigning activities which fell afoul of Academy rules (though the show itself can still win the Oscar).

In light of all this, one should understand that selecting the winners of the Oscars is about as subjective as can be, and, well, I guess that’s probably as it should be.  Art in any form is always subjective–each beholder has his or her own opinion of what is good, not so good, horrible, etc.  Nevertheless, winning an Oscar is usually considered the ultimate pinnacle of anyone’s career who’s involved in making movies–and it can also be considerably lucrative in a monetary sense as well.  While I have no doubt that this aspect of Oscar notoriety is the main motive for all the campaigning and whatnot by the various studios and financiers of movies, I think that, for the individual nominees themselves, winning an Oscar is more about being recognized by your peers as one of the best in your chosen art in that particular year.  I used to teach 6th graders, and for them, the best reward you could give them had nothing to do with “things” or trinkets or pencils or whatever; it was recognition that they’d done something at an outstanding level, even if it was just for a month, or for something like a well-done project, or just behaving appropriately.  Human nature doesn’t change that much with age.  Tonight’s winners, once announced, will be ecstatic not because of any monetary gain they might receive or seeing their name in the trades the next day or any other such thing, but because they were voted by their peers as the best in their profession for this one moment in time; an intangible, monumental achievement that can never, ever be taken away.

So, with that said, who would I vote for if I was an Academy member somehow able to vote for all nominees in all categories?  Well, here’s my list, though I must add (and I’m not sure how many people who spend their lives in Hollywood actually know this) that a good number of the films nominated have not been available for me to watch, at least not in a theater, at all.  Only in large cities are there enough theaters for films like “Loving” or “Manchester By the Sea” or “Moonlight” to get play, and frankly, some of them didn’t interest me at all.  I don’t got to movies just to “see art.”  I want to enjoy myself as well.  Therefore, I’ll recuse myself from considering those films that I didn’t see–and so sorry to all those who apparently did such fine work in them.  Like I said, the Oscars are subjective, and whether I actually liked a film is as much a consideration that I use as anyone.  So off we go down the list…

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT, BEST ANIMATED SHORT – Sorry, but as far as I know, I didn’t see any of them, so no favorites here.

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS – Nominees, “Deepwater Horizon,” “Doctor Strange,” “The Jungle Book,” “Kubo and the Two Strings,” “Rogue One; A Star Wars Story.”  I saw all of these, and enjoyed each one save Dr. Strange, which became incomprehensible to me.  “Rogue One” was a wonderful adventure, but I have to say that the work done in “The Jungle Book” of bringing all those animal characters into live-action life without actually using real animals was simply miraculous.  My vote goes for THE JUNGLE BOOK.

BEST SOUND MIXING; “Arrival,” “Hacksaw Ridge,” “La La Land,” “Rogue One,” “13 Hours; The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi”  This is a technical award given to how well sounds are mixed together to complete the visualization of the story being told; the sounds of footsteps, gunfire, people moving, etc.  Here, I like to pick some show which I feel is “Oscar worthy” but isn’t nominated in other categories.  With that in mind, “ROGUE ONE” and “HACKSAW RIDGE” are a toss-up for me because of each one’s ability to meticulously create battle scenes that sound so lifelike, whether in this world or “in a galaxy far, far away.”

BEST SOUND EDITING – “Arrival,” Deepwater Horizon,” “Hacksaw Ridge,” “La La Land,” “Sully.”  Similar, yet different from Sound Mixing, I once again like HACKSAW RIDGE here, but it would be nice to see one of the best of the “snubbed” films this year, SULLY, get at least some Oscar recognition.

PRODUCTION DESIGN – “Arrival,” Fantastic Beasts and Where You Find Them,” “Hail Caesar,” “La La Land,” “Passengers,”  This award has to do with making the sets where the various stories take place, be they digital and/or real.  Though I really like the set creations of both La La Land and Fantastic Beasts, each depicting bygone eras in very interesting ways, I think I’ll go with PASSENGERS here because, once again, I thought it a film that had Oscar-worthy quality but won’t get any recognition in the bigger awards categories.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG – “THE FOOLS WHO DREAM” and “CITY OF STARS” from La La Land, “CAN’T STOP THE FEELING” from “Trolls,” “THE EMPTY CHAIR” from “Jim, the James Foley Story,” “HOW FAR I’LL GO,” from “Moana”  I like a lot of these songs, and one (“City of Stars”) I didn’t really like at all, but the one song of these that brought tears to my eyes, literally, was Emma Stone’s “Audition,” THE FOOLS WHO DREAM.  Maybe it’s because I’m a fool who dreams too, and most of us are at some time in our lives.  It probably won’t win, but I think it should anyway.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE – ‘Jackie,” “La La Land,” “Lion,” “Moonlight,” “Passengers.” Of the three of these that I did see, LA LA LAND wins hands down.  Great jazz, and some super dance numbers, along with all the songs.

BEST MAKE-UP AND HAIRSTYLING – “A Man Called Ove”, “Star Trek, Beyond,” “Suicide Squad.”  I just saw two of these, and of those, the most Oscar-worthy movie of them by far is STAR TREK, BEYOND.

COSTUME DESIGN – of all the nominees, I only saw “Fantastic Beasts”, “La La Land” and “Florence Foster Jenkins”, and of those, I’d say that FANTASTIC BEASTS was the most impressive in this area.  Sorry “Florence…”

Sorry, I’m running out of time here, so here’s the rest of my picks…

FILM EDITING – Let’s go with HACKSAW RIDGE here, though this could get caught up in “La La Land” fever if it’s active.

CINEMATOGRAPHY – Definitely “LA LA LAND” here.  It’s been a long time since LA has looked so attractive :).

FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM – Sorry, I don’t do very well with subtitles.  Didn’t see any of them.

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE – I only saw O.J., MADE IN AMERICA, which was actually a TV mini-series, but it was so incredibly well done I’d still vote for it.

ANIMATED FEATURE – I saw three nominees here, and though “Kubo” and “Moana” were good, ZOOTOPIA transcended the genre and could legitimately have, like “Beauty and the Beast” did back in 1992, been a Best Picture nominee.

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY – I’d love to go with “Hell or High Water” here because it was so accessible and I think I could have written something like it myself, which means I have to give the nod to LA LA LAND because I have no idea how someone writes something that good and puts it in a musical format, etc.

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY – I only saw three of these, and HIDDEN FIGURES simply towers over the other two, though “Arrival” must have been quite an accomplishment as well.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS – Having seen only two nominees, I have to go with Octavia Spencer in HIDDEN FIGURES–way better than Nicole Kidman in “Lion.”

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – Again, I only saw two of these performances, but Jeff Bridges in HELL OR HIGH WATER was both a kick and masterful at the same time.

BEST ACTRESS – I saw Emma Stone (“La La Land”) and Meryl Streep (“Florence Foster Jenkins”).  Of those two, Meryl Streep definitely had the more challenging role, and played it to perfection.  But Meryl’s got Oscars and nominations galore, and EMMA STONE’S work so far has been outstanding in everything I’ve seen her in, so we go with her and LA LA LAND.

BEST ACTOR – Here also, I only saw two performances; Ryan Gosling in “La La Land” and Andrew Garfield in “Hacksaw Ridge.”  And the Oscar between those two unquestionably goes to ANDREW GARFIELD as the brave soldier who went to war without a weapon in HACKSAW RIDGE.

BEST DIRECTOR – Close here between Mel Gibson in “Hacksaw” and Damien Chazelle in “La La Land,” (I also saw “Arrival,” but just didn’t like it very much).  I’m going with DAMIEN CHAZELLE in LA LA LAND because I know something about directing musicals, and he gets both the drama and the musical parts right in this.

BEST PICTURE – I saw a total of 6 of the 9 nominees for this (amazing for me), and, though a number of the films impressed me within their genre in many ways, the most transcendent and inspirational of all was HIDDEN FIGURES about the beaten-down black women in the early days of NASA who wouldn’t sit down and shut up and ended up saving NASA and the US space program both with their intellectual brilliance and their grit.  A truly amazing story on so many levels.

Movie Shorts – December 2016

ROGUE ONE – A Star Wars Story ***1/2

About four years ago, an aging George Lucas finally decided to retire from filmmaking and cash in his life-long passion project; Lucasfilm Ltd.  Disney bought the company for a cool $4 billion, hired Kathleen Kennedy, one of Hollywood’s most revered producers of mass-audience “tentpole” films, to run it, and then went to work furthering Lucas’s signature gift to the world, his Star Wars saga.  Kennedy immediately hired fellow producer and director J.J. Abrams to begin work on the first of the final three chapters of Lucas’s original epic, and Christmas 2015 rocked with the release of Star Wars Episode VII; The Force Awakens, a wonderful (and immensely profitable) effort.

But Kennedy and the Disney people had much more in mind for the Star Wars brand.  Off-shoot stories based on the Star Wars galaxy had been highly successful in novels and animated TV shows.  Why not off-shoot, one-off movies as well?  And so was conceived this film, the first in an overall plan to give the world the gift of a new Star Wars-based movie every year at Christmas; an “off-shoot” film filling in the years between the release of the remaining main-story episodes.

Rogue One is a tie-in story that provides background into how the Rebel Alliance was first able to obtain the plans to the infamous Death Star that Princess Leia  delivered to them and enabled Luke Skywalker et al to eventually destroy it.  As with all the Star Wars stories, it’s a complex, multifaceted tale that takes place on multiple planets and involves a myriad of characters.  Chief of these is Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), the daughter of Galen Erso, a gifted engineer and rebel sympathizer, who has been forced by the new Galactic Empire to devise what will be its ultimate method of enforcing galactic order, a moon-sized, planet-killing space ship.  When Galen is first taken by the Empire, Jyn escapes (her mother dying to make that possible), and is raised by Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker), who eventually abandons her.  On the run, fending for herself, Jyn, now a young adult, runs afoul of both the Empire and the rebels.  Captured by the rebels, they pry her for information about her father and what he’s up to, which, of course, she knows nothing of.  They then cut her a deal; she helps them find her father, and she gets her freedom.  She’s sent with a trusted pilot, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) to accomplish this task, leading to many a harrowing adventure and the eventual formation of the rag-tag “Dirty Dozen” of sorts that call themselves “Rogue One,” who pull off the final heist of the precious plans.

Despite its complexities, which are at times dizzying, the story is dramatic, action-packed, and filled with characters that we instantly find interesting and learn to both love and love to hate.  This is particularly brought out by Jones and Luna, whose characters develop a fascinating chemistry, and Ben Mendelsohn as Orson Krennic, the pragmatically heartless head of the Death Star project, who finds himself victimized by his even more heartless bosses, the pompous Grand Moff Tarkin (Guy Henry, eerily made into the spitting image of the late Peter Cushing, who originated the role in A New Hope), and his menacing “friend” Darth Vader.  The rest of the Rogue One crew are a similarly well-played menagerie of unlikely heroes.

Disney and Kennedy swear that Rogue One will not have a sequel, and indeed, that would seem to be the case in the end; the “sequel” is Star Wars: A New Hope. But if this is an example of what Ms. Kennedy has planned for off-shoot, one-off films based on the Star Wars galaxy, I say bring them on!  I already can’t wait for Christmas 2017.

** Special Note; As of this writing, “Star Wars Episode VIII – The Last Jedi,” is scheduled for release December 15, 2017.  The next “off-shoot” film, yet to be titled, will feature a young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), and be released during the Christmas season, 2018.  It will also star Woody Harrelson, Donald Glover, and Emilia Clarke from “Game of Thrones.”

 

MOANA ***

This is the second release in 2016 for the Walt Disney Animation Studios (along with Zootopia), but unfortunately not near as engaging or thematically rich as the other.  Still, with the consistent Disney mantra these days of portraying its “princesses” as bold, actiony heroes, winning voice performances, eye-popping animation, and songs that are both fun and uplifting, it is entertaining and fun, despite its lack of depth.

Moana is a young island princess (Auli’i Cravahlo) who longs for adventure and to follow her heart (yes, we’ve definitely heard that before), which, in this case, is to go beyond the island’s protective reef and see the sea.  And of course, her over-protective father forbids her from doing that.  But when a curse falls upon the island and Moana’s grandmother knows that’s it’s because of a mysterious green rock that has washed up on shore, she urges Moana to take a canoe and go, with the green rock, find the demigod Maui (who stole the rock eons ago from the “mother island” of the seas, then lost it, voiced by Dwayne Johnson), and together restore it to its rightful place on the “mother island.”  Moana tries once and fails, but then, when the island is truly threatened, she makes it.  Opposing her and the shape-shifting demigod are a dizzying  assortment of enemies that keep popping up for no particular reason, including some coconut-shell warriors that remind one of the skeletons from Jason and the Argonauts, a giant volcanic monster-island called Te Ka, and Maui himself–his enormous ego continually subverting the team’s efforts.  This culminates in a harrowing climax, or course, which I’ll let you discover on your own.

If that sounds convoluted and difficult to follow, though, welcome to the club.  Even after watching the film, then reading its synopsis later, the story is still so confusing to me that I lose interest.  Imagine what it must be like for a child!  And herein is this film’s chief flaw; a needlessly complicated story that (like all needlessly complicated stories) tends to bore the audience at some point.  Were it not for the action, the visuals, and some great chemistry between Maui and Moana, this could have been a real snoozer.  And then there’s the music too.  There’s lots of it; great, island-sounding background stuff punctuated with really cool songs by Opetaia Foa’i, Mark Mancina, and none other than Lin-Manuel Miranda, the musical mastermind who created, directed, and starred in this year’s smash Broadway hit Hamilton.  Just about the time you start to drift off, one of these pops up, and snaps you right back in.

In the end, this is certainly not the best of what the Disney Animation Studios has had to offer over the past few years, but it’s still a worthwhile afternoon of entertainment, or something to have in your video collection if you have younger kids in the house.

 

 

NOW YOU SEE ME 2 *** A magically inspiring sequel to its predecessor

From years of watching NBC’s America’s Got Talent, I’ve learned at least two things about magic and magicians.  One, I never really look forward to their acts, and two, once they’ve begun their acts, I can’t take my eyes off the screen.  It seems that, in spite of myself, I’m a total sucker for well-done magic acts.

No surprise, then, that back in 2013 when the film Now You See Me, about a troupe of Robin Hood-like magicians called The Horsemen, came out, I kind of dragged myself to it, but was pleasantly surprised at how much I enjoyed it.  This year’s follow-up, Now You See Me 2, made me similarly skeptical, given that it’s a sequel (which are almost universally a disappointment compared to the original), but once again, I was pleasantly surprised.

In this outing, the Horsemen (returning stars Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Mark Ruffalo, and newcomer Lizzy Caplan) once again are about taking down, in very public fashion, a nefarious ner-do-well.  This time he’s a diabolical young genius (Daniel “Harry Potter” Radcliffe in a delightfully nasty turn) who is out to rip off all the personal information that anyone in the world has ever put on the Internet and sell it to the highest bidder.  There is, apparently, a super-computer in China powered by a next-generation quantum chip which can crash through any encryption system currently in use, a chip that has been stolen by Radcliffe’s character.  The job is to steal the chip back and expose the baddie, who supposedly died the year before.

As in the first edition, the Ocean’s Eleven-like Horsemen each use their particular illusionary specialities to pull off the caper in some of the slickest magic routines you’ll see outside of a Vegas casino show.  It’s fascinating, never-ending, and keeps you guessing quite literally to the last frames of the film.  The screenwriters have provided an intricate story that not only deepens and expands the relationships between the franchise’s characters (antagonists Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are also back this time…), but also delves into the universal mystique of magic and the dedication that magicians around the world have for preserving it.  Performances are solid all around from the cast, with special kudos for newcomer Caplan, whose Lula may not be as slick or sexy as Isla Fisher’s Henley Reed, but more than makes up for it with heart and humor, and Radcliffe, who makes a marvelous and honestly scary bad guy in his first such role in a major studio film.

To be sure, you’re going to get a lot more out of this show if you’ve seen (recently even) the first installment, but if you haven’t, don’t let that put you off.  You’ll still find this immensely entertaining, and don’t be surprised if the first thing you want to do as you’re walking out of the theater is to find some way to see the original.  They’re both magically satisfying movie fun.

BRIDGE OF SPIES ***1/2 – Spielberg and Hanks Slam Another Historical Home Run

It is no secret in Hollywood that both Actor Tom Hanks and Director Steven Spielberg are history nuts, and when the two collaborate on such efforts, the results can be stunning (who can forget Saving Private Ryan…).  The same happens again here as the actor, the director, and acclaimed writers Joel and Ethan Coen (more noted for their quirky dark stories like Fargo and No Country for Old Men) bring to life the early days of the Cold War in this riveting story.

Based on true events, Hanks stars as insurance lawyer James B. Donovan, a mild-mannered family man who is asked by federal prosecutors to be the defense attorney for captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel.  The position is, in the eyes of the feds, an essentially perfunctory one.  Abel has been caught red-handed passing government secrets to Soviet contacts.  He’s guilty as sin, and Donovan’s job is merely to play the caricature of “defense attorney” so that it will appear that Abel has a fair trial before he is convicted and fried in the electric chair.  But Donovan is a man of principle, and isn’t about to be just a place-holder.  He vigorously defends Abel, much to the chagrin of the Justice Department, and though Abel is indeed convicted of spying, Hanks is able to convince the judge in the case to sentence the spy (played with sobering complacence by Brit Mark Rylance) to merely life in prison rather than a swiftly executed death sentence.  How would Americans look to the world if they merely did as the Russians did–executing spies on the spot after extracting whatever intelligence they could from them–and what if, God forbid, some American was captured by the Soviets?  Abel could become an important “prisoner exchange” bargaining chip in the case of such an event.

As if he were a Biblical prophet, Donovan is proved right when, not long after, one of the US’s top-secret U2 spy planes is shot down over Soviet territory and its pilot, Francis Gary Powers, is taken prisoner.  The ensuing exchange negotiations, whom the State Department insists that Donovan conduct without the official sanction of the US government, become more tense and complicated when the Russians insist that they take place in East Germany just as the Berlin Wall is being constructed, with the Russians and East Germans having their own internal battles that Donovan must navigate, including the fate of an American student captured by the East Germans while trying to get his girlfriend back into West Germany through one of the Wall’s few remaining “holes.”  The tensions of the intrigue, along with heart-tugging scenes of the panic in Berlin as the Wall goes up and families struggle to get out of East Berlin while they still can, make for edge-of-your-seat entertainment that will stick with you after you leave the theater, particularly if you’re of a “certain age” and have personal recollection of the period.

Here is a fascinating historical drama that features one of the premiere actors of our time collaborating with one of its premiere film directors to make some seriously high-quality entertainment.  For adults yearning for something to see at the cinema besides popcorn action/adventures and shallow genre fare, this is a must-see movie that totally fits the bill.