Thursday, February 25, 2016

88th Academy Awards: Predictions: 'The Revenant' is Coming

There might be a repeat of Golden Globes
night on Oscar Sunday
You can hope and you can pray, but in the end, the inevitable comes to fruition. The Revenant has won the Golden Globe for Best Picture - Drama, it has won the BAFTA award for Best Film, and it has won the Director's Guild award. To not consider The Revenant the favorite to win the Oscar is to cling desperately to a reality that isn't quite there. The fact that there is such open speculation proves just how derisive The Revenant has been amongst audiences. You can read and you can hear about how much I simply hate the film, but considering that it's biggest competition is Adam McKay's tongue-in-cheek "issue" movie, The Big Short (which won the Producer's Guild Award), it's hard to see how Alejandro González Iñárritu's latest mixture of anguish and human spirituality doesn't win out. It's true, the Academy has never truly warmed to Iñárritu's more forceful style, but I think it's safe to say that that time has passed, considering that he not only won three Oscars last year for the more effervescent Birdman, but that they went ahead and gave Revenant TWELVE nominations (more than any other film). No director has ever won Best Director Oscars in back-to-back years. Does the feeling to avoid that even come across the voters' minds? Perhaps the opposite is true. Like I've said, it's hard to predict otherwise when all the preamble has made the outcome obvious. That's not to say that I've given up my hoping and praying. I'm truly wishing that I'm wrong here.

Larson is pulling away from her
Best Actress competition
The acting awards become a tad more interesting, though The Revenant has all but won Best Actor for it's ever-devoted lead, Leonardo DiCaprio. The Best Actor category is fraught with error, including two nominations (Bryan Cranston, Matt Damon) that are little more than industry thank-you's, two more (DiCaprio, Redmayne) that are just pandering Oscar bait, and one single performance that can truly be called exceptional (Michael Fassbender), which of course has close to no shot at winning. As for Best Actress, it's also probably all tied up for Brie Larson in Room, but I don't want to ignore just how good these five nominees are. I may be talked into Charlotte Rampling's phenomenal performance in 45 Years having a shot at a win if she didn't personally sabotage her campaign with a truly unfortunate public comment on the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. Jennifer Lawrence continues to rise above the growing cult of personality and give tremendous performances, and her work in Joy is just about the only thing worth watching in that maddeningly obtuse film. Saoirse Ronan gives the kind of performance in Brooklyn that makes you ponder the roads and alleys of a career; no longer is she simply the dependable child actor from Atonement, but a fully-formed performer capable of the kind of deceptively complex work that comes in Brooklyn. And lastly, there's Cate Blanchett, who's shown since Blue Jasmine that she is ready to grab the title of Best Actor on the Planet, and it's just a matter of the human race being humble enough to give it to her. Her work with Rooney Mara in Carol is stunning, beautiful, heartbreaking and most of all regal. Todd Haynes' film makes love to her character with the camera (no Best Picture/Best Director nominations for Carol are the only snubs that have true reasons for a gripe), and the audience is culpable. It's a staggering piece of work in a tremendous career.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Witch (***)

Written and Directed by Robert Eggers


Robert Eggers' feature film debut is a brooding, fierce little film that takes pains to tell us that its setting, story and dialogue are based on actual accounts from the time. I'm not sure The Witch needs to reassure the audience in that way. Historical accuracy isn't going to make it more or less scary - and boy, is this film scary. When a Puritan family is banished from its plantation, its attempt to make life work in a small, modest piece of land just outside of the woods is faced with great turmoil in the form of a possible witch which picks off the newborn infant and begins terrorizing the family in disturbing ways. Beyond the focus on witchcraft, Eggers' powerful film is also stocked with the details of Puritan faith, and the course they must take to fight the power of the devil. While The Witch shows little interest in interpreting the meaning of the devil's attack on this New England family, what it does focus on is fascinating. The Witch isn't interested in dissection, but in blunt exhibition. It very much wants to be the most accurate film that we've seen about the phenomenon of Puritan-witch relations. In its lack of critical thought, is Eggers attempting to say that these instances of witchcraft are real? A lot of literature has been dedicated to show that the tales of witchery that came out of Seventeenth Century New England were all results of spiritual hysteria. The Witch seems to be pointing in the opposite direction, stating that the very stature of the Puritans' high-minded religiosity made them the perfect target for the devil and his female servants. Anya Taylor-Joy plays the teenaged Thomasin, the eldest child whose disfavor in the eyes of her mother, Katherine (Kate Dickie), leads to her being accused of being the very witch they fear. William (Ralph Ineson), the family's patriarch, struggles to make heads or tails of the course of events that plagues his family. Eggers' film is a masterwork of tone, and it helps that the film's performances are on point. Not to mention Mark Korven's grating score which completes the film utterly unsettling atmosphere. The Witch's ending is a verbose crescendo that partly belies the spirit of the film, but in keeping in the tradition of the story up until that point, it is creepy as hell.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Race (**)

Directed by Stephen Hopkins


Race is a movie that means well. It has its heart in the right place, the same way that Brian Helgeland's 2013 film 42 did when it attempted to make a biopic about Jackie Robinson. The problem with both films is that neither seem all that interested in who these athletes were as men, but instead gets caught up in the all-too-familiar mythology of American heroism. Actor Stephen James is doing his best here as Jessie Owens, the record-breaking Olympian who faced harsh racism at home, only to compete overseas in the 1936 Berlin Olympics and see that discrimination takes many forms. Stephen Hopkins' film is a bit pre-occupied with the politics surrounding the burgeoning influence of the dangerous Nazi party in Europe. In fact, nearly half of the film deals with it. It's a nifty trick that American films have been pulling off for the better part of a century, showcasing the despicable nature of the Nazi regime so that the despicable nature of American racism in both its past and present won't seem all too bad by comparison. It's a tired screenwriting ploy that favors American exceptionalism even when it claims to be doing the opposite. When Race does choose to focus on Jesse Owens, what we get is actually a tidy, entertaining sports movie about a young athlete that learns the unfortunate truth about popular competition, and gets a lesson in what it means to be a black man of stature in 1930's America.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Hail, Caeser! (***)

Produced, Written and Directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen


The Coen Brothers are the San Antonio Spurs of contemporary Hollywood. They do their work intelligently and efficiently. They get great work out of talent you wouldn't expect. Very quietly, they have a resume that rivals (and in most cases, surpasses) Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu, and Steven Spielberg, but they're often treated as niche or regional, an artsy side note on the long list of Great American Filmmakers. If a director like, say, Stephen Frears released a film like Hail, Caeser! it would be a lynchpin on his resume - and Frears is an excellent filmmaker. For the Coens, it's a frivolous little thing, so little thought put into its release that they made it compete with Super Bowl weekend. Hail, Caeser! is a Hollywood satire just the way the Coens like it: an equal measure of reverence and cynicism, a small dollop of pride in an industry they know is run on such putrid human character. Using one of their favorite script devices, the brothers develop a central character - in this case, a Hollywood "fixer" named Eddie Mannix (played with swift charm and perfect timing by Josh Brolin) - whose chaotic world spins around him like a maniacal carousel, problems begetting more problems, undue pressure mounting atop his shoulders. Eddie Mannix isn't quite the Job-lite of A Serious Man or the pitiful ne'er-do-well of Inside Llewyn Davis; Hail, Caeser! doesn't quite have the bite of those two films. For the first time in a good while, it seems like the Coens actually like their protagonist, and it seems like their on a mission to make sure that all of his hard work will pay off.

Monday, February 15, 2016

88th Academy Awards: The Live Action Shorts

This year's crop of live action short films are a grim bunch, a collection of harrowing tales that would make Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu put extra butter on his popcorn. I'm sure seeing them individually, the exquisite filmmaking and performances in all these films can be appreciated in a proper context, but seen in a single package adds a heft to the audience that might make some give under the weight. But each film does have its own virtues, and something to be taken away from it that's more than human misery - though there's that too. Here's a small round-up of the five films:

Alles wird gut (Everything Will Be Okay) (dir. Patrick Vollrath)
This film comes from Germany, and its the longest of the five films, clocking in at 30 minutes. Michael Bumgartner (Simon Schwarz) picks up his young daughter Lea (Julia Pointer) from the home of his estranged ex-wife. It's his day. He takes her to the toy store, to a photo booth, to the fair. It's a classic visitation day, but as the day moves forward, they make some surprise, unmentioned stops and it quickly dawns on Lea that this may not be the usual day with her disgruntled father, and that something more sinister may be afoot. Director Patrick Vollrath shoots the film in a direct, handheld style giving this intense tale the kind of Dogme-inspired gravitas that it's asking for. The disintegration of Michael runs concurrently with Lea's sober realization of the improper mental state of her father, and the two arcs evolving together really makes this tragic tale of parental misconduct a truly heartbreaking experience. The work from Schwarz and Pointer is very good here, both the afflicted and the afflicter showing with pinpoint accuracy just how the mechanisms of divorce can take its toll on a family. The most emotionally relentless film of the bunch.

Ave Maria (dir. Basil Kahlil)
This humorous film tackles complicated concepts within two strict religions, as a group of five nuns living under a vow of silence are given a rather unorthodox disruption. Stationed in a sparse convent in the middle of the West Bank wilderness, their routine is brought to a halt when a small family of Jews crash their car right into the Virgin Mary statue outside their building. Added to the complications is the beginning of the Sabbath which forbids Moshe (Shady Srour), the head of the Jewish family, from operating any machinery - like working a phone to call a tow truck. Stranded in hostile Arab territory with a wife and elderly mother who constantly bicker, Moshe must work with the nuns, whose own hesitations about breaking their silence doesn't help. Many barriers, of both communication and religious tolerance, are broken in an attempt to help fellow man, and both Moshe's family and the nuns learn that not all rules must be followed when they run in the face of doing the logical thing. Basil Khalil's film is light on its feet, and its story is perfectly suited for the short film format (which you can't exactly say about all of the nominees). Its message is admirable, and its performances are good in a functional kind of way. The ideas it presents are more hostile than the film would lead you to believe, but Ave Maria is not trying to end the Israel-Palestine conflict on its own, it's just trying to charm you.

Day One (dir. Henry Hughes)
The only American film in the bunch and it takes place in Afghanistan, where a translator named Feda (Layla Alizada) has her first day at work with the American troops. Nerves get the better of her at the beginning, and she learns quickly that this job is going to be a whole lot more than changing Dari to English. When they come to the home of a suspected weapons dealer, Feda and the troops end up participating in a domestic drama that nobody could have foreseen. Of all the films, Day One felt the most needlessly maudlin. It's situation felt too familiar, too manufactured, too based on the concept of chance to really have a legitimate effect as a narrative. The performance from Alizada, as well as from Alain Washnevsky as Jalal, are excellent. Both actors are asked to explore a plethora of complex emotions throughout this 25 minute film, as the storyline zigs and zags between ferocious suspense and intimate emotion. Both prove up to the challenge. Day One left me the most wanting of the five, as if it were a severely intense scene within a larger drama as opposed to its own standalone movie, and its surprising shift at the very end deals with some problematic gender politics.

Shok (Friend) (dir. Jamie Donoughue)
This boyhood drama is the most traditional narrative of the bunch, as we learn of the friendship between Petrit (Lum Veseli) and Oki (Andi Bajgora), living in Kosovo during the taught conflict of the late 90's. The boys are Albanian, living in a country occupied by an increasingly hostile Serbian military that wants Kosovo rid of Albanians. Petrit thinks he is spared from the Kosovo War's uglier aspects because of his "business" relationship with a Serbian soldier, but Oki warns his friend about the danger of trusting them, with their reputation for needless slaughter. As Petrit's relationship with the soldier begins to shift, the friendship between Petrit and Oki is tested unlike before. Shok is a sentimental film, and like Day One, this is a narrative (childhood friends tested by outer political conflict) that we have seen ad nauseum. Director Jamie Donoughue directs the film like Oscar bait and takes what is probably supposed to be a fierce example of a little-profiled conflict, and turns it into Tom Hooper-esque awards fodder. A horrifically tragic ending can be telegraphed the whole way, and I haven't even mentioned that Shok breaks a cardinal sin of short filmmaking: it's a 20-minute movie with a framing device!

Stutterer (dir. Benjamin Cleary)
Benjamin Cleary's Stutterer is the only film of the five that can claim to be unique, both as a narrative and as a piece of filmmaking. Cleary directs the film like Wes Anderson by way of Francois Truffaut, and it follows a young man named Greenwood (Matthew Needham) who is so crippled by a stutter that he's rendered totally mute in public situations. The only person he speaks to is his father (Eric Richard), though he does have an extensive online chatting relationship with a woman named Ellie (Chloe Pirrie). When Ellie messages him saying that she'll be in town and would love to meet, Greenwood must think of a strategy to overcome his anxiety and see if he can actually have a relationship with anybody outside his father. Stutterer's premise seems tired from the outside but Cleary along with lead actor Matthew Needham add some real feeling to this tale of overcoming great fear. The stakes of Greenwood's case aren't as dire as, say, King George's in The King's Speech, but Stutterer understands the limitations of both its own narrative as well as the format of short filmmaking. Unlike some of the other nominees, it isn't trying to stuff a feature's worth of plot into a short film - it knows its character and his plight can stay compact, and Cleary capitalizes by making Greenwood's achingly sweet pursuit a sharp, poignant tale that is guaranteed to leave a smile on your face.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Deadpool (**)

Directed by Tim Miller


I have little doubt that Deadpool is the movie that its biggest fans want it to be. It's crude and infantile, deafeningly obnoxious and horribly violent. There is a charm to this film, its complete acceptance of its identity, and refusal to sacrifice its more politically incorrect edges. The movie's hard R-rating is earned, even if its spirit is no different from Guardians of the Galaxy and the first Avengers film, with its humor seemingly be aimed exclusively at high school boys. The film stars Ryan Reynolds, a living example of how Hollywood no longer produces classical movie stars; an actor well-known across the country who's been given a staggering amount of opportunity in the last two decades despite a shattering tradition of box office failure. I'm pretty sure Deadpool is going to change that. The character seems perfectly fitted to his ability; sarcastic and apathetic, the begrudging hero. Like Guardians, Deadpool tries to frame itself as an anti-superhero movie - these characters aren't honorable, they're against the system! Guardians succeeds because it avoids the laborious steps of origin and instead decides to write a great script, with a tight, action-packed story; basically, it stands well on its own, even if the tethers of the ever-growing Marvel universe will eventually suck it down into its multi-sequel/franchise-crossover hellhole. Deadpool doesn't quite pull off the superhero/anti-superhero balancing act as well, and the film definitely takes itself more seriously than it has been promoting itself to. In the end, Deadpool isn't anything too unique. We've seen this cynical version of Marvel before with movies like Super and Kick-Ass, but Deadpool does have a committed performance from Reynolds - a true star performance - and the actor gets one of the few films that is willing to fully take advantage of what he has to offer.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

88th Academy Awards: The Animated Shorts

Leading up to the 88th Academy Awards on February 28th, I'm going to be writing a few pieces about the films nominated and certain categories. This week, I was able to catch a screening of the animated shorts nominated for 2015, and here's a brief round up of thoughts I had about all five films.

Bear Story (dir. Gabriel Osorio Vargas)
This Chilean film is about a bear who chooses to tell his tragic life story through a mechanical diorama, charging a small fee for anyone who's willing to watch him crank it up and put it on display. Of the five nominees, this is the most sentimental, which is an achievement considering that it's running against a Pixar film. The device of the diorama allows for some very clever use of animation, and allows the heartbreaking story of the titular bear (he's taken from his wife and child and all but imprisoned in a circus which forces him to perform patronizing tricks) to be displayed with flourish. Of course, it does create an unreliable narrator. Bear Story is a sweet, well-meaning film, that allows an audience member to choose a happy ending if they want to, especially since the obvious truth is much less heartening.

Prologue (dir. Richard Williams)
This film compelled my screening to warn the audience of violence and nudity before it began - the tone was set: this movie is not for children. Prologue is easily the least interesting of the five, it's pencil sketch aesthetic is nice in a classical sort of way (and it goes hand in hand with the film's subject matter: an Athenian/Spartan battle), but it only reminded me of the music video for "Take On Me" from the new wave band A-Ha. To be honest, "Take On Me" probably works better as a narrative. The six-minute film shows two duos fighting brutally against one another. What starts softly, with Mallick-ian swooshes throughout a sparse landscape turns quickly into carnage, violence and eventually sorrow. Homages to German artist Käthe Kollwitz (at least two images are taken directly from her artwork) are used to little effect, nor is any attempt to credit Kollwitz made. In the end, Prologue is a rather drab experience, with its sole virtue being that it is mercifully the shortest of the nominated films.

Sanjay's Super Team (dir. Sanjay Patel)
This year's Pixar submission, anyone who went to see The Good Dinosaur (which I did, unfortunately) was able to see it already. The semi-autobiographical film tells the story of a young boy named Sanjay who struggles to share with his father the virtues of their Hindu religion - Sanjay is much more interested in television superheroes. When Sanjay then falls into an elaborate daydream, he begins to comprehend the truly heroic qualities of the Hindu gods and he finally understands the depth of his father's faith. Sanjay's Super Team is significant for being a Disney film that not only includes people of color but actually uses the culture of those people as its main narrative device. As is usually the case, Pixar overloads the film with preciousness, making it almost impossible to come up with an objective opinion. It's too adorable to hate! But Super Team does earn its adorability, and in a film about familial acceptance, its good to see an American film about Eastern culture that doesn't allow itself to become a stereotype.

We Can't Live Without Cosmos (dir. Konstantin Bronzit)
This cosmonaut dramedy comes from Russia, with a simple Dilbert-esque animation style and a very dry sense of humor. Though Cosmos is never explicit on the point, the film is a queer story about two training cosmonauts whose sheer skill on the training grounds is only eclipsed by the fierceness of their relationship. The two men are compelled by a dream to go up into outer space, and that dream never feels further realized than when they are together. Because its Russian, this left-of-center love story must be confronted with tragedy, and that sends the film into a prolonged final act that's nearly half the film. It wouldn't be surprising for two Russian cosmonauts to be in the closet, but does the film have to be in the closet too? Cosmos achieves some real poignancy, and it does have a real accurate view of the dynamics of male relationships, but considering all that Cosmos doesn't tell you, it's hard to merit the film's 16 minute runtime considering that its love story never commits to being an actual love story.

World of Tomorrow (dir. Don Hertzfeldt)
World of Tomorrow is the best film from 2015 that I've seen in 2016. Animator Don Hertzfeldt brings his absurd stick figures into the world of science fiction. A toddler named Emily is approached by herself 227 years in the future. The future Emily begins to tell her younger self of the process of cloning that has prolonged life, and tells of a future which features time travel, space travel and a large shared network called the "outernet" (as opposed to the internet). Emily then tells her younger self her life story, one that includes interplanetary travel, many forms of love and at least one form of heartbreak. World of Tomorrow is a wonderful, beautiful exploration of what it means to be human, told with the usual sardonic, black comedic tone that has gained Hertzfeldt such a strong, devoted following (if you haven't seen his 2000 film Rejected, you really ought to). The film manages to speak on humanity, mortality and love in such simple, piercing ways, and manages to do so effectively in just 17 minutes. The story is whole, the characters full (and did I mention that it totally passes the Bechdel test?), and by its end it has sent its audience through such a torrent of varied emotions that its hard to comprehend just how it was able to pull it off. Short films can be tedious, redundant exercises, but World of Tomorrow is a testament to their power. No excuses people, it's on Netflix!

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Podcast: Is 'Titanic' Better Than 'Jurassic Park'?

Hey ya'll, the seventh episode of Is It Better Than Jurassic Park? is now available! In this episode, Scott and I talk with out friend Sky, who tries tirelessly to convince us that James Cameron's 1997 epic Titanic (yes, another Leonardo DiCaprio movie) is better than Jurassic Park. Does she succeed? You'll have to listen to find out. Also, at some point, I do a Christian Slater impression.