Archive for the ‘Oscars’ Category

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Spotlight (2015)

If you still haven’t seen last year’s Best Picture winner, then you have no excuse now. Spotlight has arrived on Netflix, so it’s the perfect time for a first, second, or hundredth viewing of the film, which focuses on the dogged work of a team of reporters at The Boston Globe that exposed the widespread cover-up of child abuse  by Catholic priests. It’s heavy stuff, but not without its moments of levity, all of which are performed exquisitely by the talented cast (led by Michael Keaton). And as a fellow journalist, the newsroom scenes are on point.

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The Big Short (2015)

Another of last year’s Best Picture nominees, The Big Short is one of the two best movies ever made about the subprime mortgage crisis (the other being Margin Call, which unfortunately is not streaming on Netflix right now). The economy took a nosedive in 2008, taking  a lot of regular people down with it. A few Wall Street watchers saw the crash coming and bet against the markets, but the hard thing about foresight is being proved right. Watch this movie, and prepare to get angry.

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We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011)

Do you have kids? Do you ever worry that they might grow up to be mass-murdering sociopaths? Don’t worry, they won’t.

Unless they do…

Tilda Swinton stars as a mother who struggles to bond with her son and, over time, is increasingly suspicious of his actions. The film squeezes a suffocating amount of tension out of the inevitability of Kevin’s evolution, and Ezra Miller (the future Flash) stars in a  breakout role that toes too many emotional lines to even describe.

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An Honest Liar (2014)

This biographical documentary looks at the life of  James “The Amazing” Randi, a magician and escape artist who retired from performing and devoted his life to debunking psychics and mystics as charlatans and frauds. He excelled in both careers, going from guest appearances in Happy Days as “The Amazing Randi” to exposing televangelist Peter Popoff, who relied on a hidden earpiece to receive diving inspiration about his flock.

The dual-track of Randi’s legacy is affectionately captured in An Honest Liar, as is the charm and charisma of Randi himself. He is, as they say, a character, and this documentary does him justice.

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Experimenter (2015)

Did you ever hear about that study where people were told to shock a man for giving wrong word-association answers? And they did, for the most part, despite the man’s pleas to stop?

Or perhaps you’ve heard about six degrees of separation, the idea that everyone can be connected through a chain of six people?

They both are the work of Stanley Milgram, a controversial social psychologist with a penchant for devising thought-provoking experimentation on human behavior. His work gets the biopic treatment in Experimenter, starring Peter Sarsgaard, Winona Ryder and a brief appearance by the late Anton Yelchin, who died last month.

 

 

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For the second year in a row, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has nominated only white actors and actresses for its annual Oscar awards.

It’s difficult for me to write about diversity. As a Caucasian male, anything I would say inevitably comes across as the unholy union of white-splaining and man-splaining, or White Man-splaining, the Fox News of film criticism.

But this morning’s announcement of the 2016 Oscar nominations, as well as the ensuing and justified criticism that the awards, once again, are whitewashed, made me think thoughts. And despite my better judgement I’m inclined to share those thoughts, as succinctly as possible, in both defense and condemnation of The Academy.

Obviously, this entire post can be summarily dismissed by asking me to “Check my privilege;” I acknowledge that. But I’m also just a human being who 1) loves movies 2) thinks the industry should and must do better to be more inclusive of race and gender and 3) likes to see talent, in all its forms, recognized.

Here we go:

  1. The membership of the Academy is glaringly, inexcusably white and male. Steps have been made in recent years to address this, but considerably more needs to be done, and soon.
  2. BUT – and this is the main stick in my craw this morning – the Academy doesn’t *make* movies. Individual members of the Academy may write scripts, cast actors and hire directors, but the Academy, as a body, merely evaluates the films that have been made.
  3. For that reason, the *primary* blame for the lack of diversity in film lies with the studios, which produce the films that are then considered for awards by The Academy and other bodies.
  4. And I think most of us can agree that intentionally setting slots aside for diversity nominations, an Affirmative Action of sorts, or nominating films and actors solely to appease a hashtag, without regard to quality, would not be an appropriate solution to systemic under-representation in film.
  5. [Pause to Check My Privilege: I’m told I have a “shitlord” level of privilege with a score of 170]
  6. AS SUCH, the question we need to ask is what actors of color, who turned in awards-worthy performances this year,  were overlooked in favor of their white counterparts. But that is a highly subjective conversation, with many different opinions, and Academy nominations are based on a balloting system with the same weaknesses for majority rule as democratic politics. (#AmericaLovesCrap).
  7. Arguments have been made in favor or Idris Elba, for “Beasts of No Nation”, and Michael B. Jordan, for “Creed”. In my humble opinion, I would have liked to see Will Smith nominated for his turn in “Concussion” instead of Bryan Cranston for “Trumbo”.
  8. That said, it’s easy to see why an Academy of mostly 63-year-old men from the film industry would recognize “Trumbo”, a biopic about the Hollywood Blacklist of the late 1940s. Many Academy veterans entered their professions in the shadow of the Blacklist, and likely had personal relationships with the individuals targeted by the House Un-American Activities Committee.
  9. Alternatively, I thought “Carol” was mind-numbingly boring, and would have no issue removing Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara from the actress categories. But that too is problematic, because my first choices to replace them would be Emily Blunt and Charlize Theron.
  10. [Checking privilege once more: still a shitlord]
  11. Point being, even if the demographics of the Academy membership were reversed tomorrow, that would not necessarily change the actors cast, directors hired, and films produced by the studios.
  12. NOW you might say, as my girlfriend did this morning, that I’m presenting a circular argument. Studios want to make award-winning films, and if the institutions administering those awards were more diverse, the studios would tailor their slate to that reality.
  13. Agreed, absolutely, which is why considerably more needs to be done, and soon, to increase diversity among the membership of the Academy.
  14. BUT that line of thinking ignores the role that audiences play in shaping the films produced in Hollywood. All those shiny statuettes won’t keep the lights on if no one buys a ticket.
  15. Last year, when #OscarsSoWhite was launched, Selma was overlooked in the acting and directing categories. That snub was the linchpin in most arguments about the whitewashed voting by academy members.
  16. But let us consider: Selma made $51 million at the domestic box office, putting it at 61st place for the year, behind the indie-Christian “God’s Not Dead,” the laughably race-inapropriate “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and “The Fault In Our Stars,” about two white kids with health insurance who get cancer, fall in love, and die (more or less).
  17.  “Selma” made one-fifth the box office of “Maleficient,” which was a terrible movie.  A “Maleficient” sequel is already in the works.
  18. The point? Hollywood makes more of what makes money.
  19. None of this absolves studio executives, who seem hell-bent against acknowledging that films with a diverse cast can make obscene amounts of money. It doesn’t absolve the Academy, either, for its glacial attempts at modernization.
  20. That’s why its good to keep the pressure on, drawing attention to the excellent films and actors that deserve recognition for their work.
  21. But in criticizing (deservedly) the biases of the Academy voters, we also need to remember the limitations placed on them by the output of the studio system, and the role that filmgoers play by continuing to vote with their dollars for loud, useless, dreck.

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According to ‘Concussion,’ when real-life Dr. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) first decided to publish his discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, he expected the National Football League to be relieved and take action against the degenerative disease driving so many of their retired players to depression, dementia and early deaths.

And when the NFL does what anyone would expect a billion-dollar corporation built on the backs of human crash test dummies to do — reject and ridicule Omalu’s findings — the good doctor is lovingly chided for his naivete.

“You’re going to war with a corporation that owns a day of the week,” he’s told by his mentor, played by Albert Brooks.

The exchange holds an interesting parallel to the movie itself, which is to be released on Christmas in what is, no doubt, a play at awards-season attention, but which coincidentally occurs at the zenith of the college football season, with the NFL’s super bowl just around the corner. Not only is Smith’s latest film competing with Star Wars for the eyeballs of film-goers, it also needs to convince football fans (of whom there are many) to pay the admission price and watch a movie about how their favorite sport is recklessly killing people.

It’s not easy task, but ‘Concussion’ handles the challenge with surprising grace. Smith is charming and heartbreaking as Omalu, an extensively educated Nigerian medical examiner whose own personal American Dream is slowly shattered by the ambivalence of our country’s institutions. His journey begins in a Pittsburgh coroner’s office, where the death of a former Steeler’s center collides with Omalu’s natural curiosity, creating the spark that ignites the doctor’s drive to discover the unseen malice that lie in the thousands of blows to the head that players experience during their careers.

Surrounding Smith are Brooks, Omalu’s guide and cheerleader, Alec Baldwin, a former NFL team doctor racked with guilt and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the love interest that helps humanize the lead character.

While directed and performed well, the segments of the film concerned with Omalu’s personal life are its weakest. ‘Concussion’ is at its best when it’s at its most outraged, describing the science behind CTE and tangentially showing the former players who are spiraling out of control. Each one of those deaths is a tragedy of its own, and in making extra room for an immigrant love story ‘Concussion’ does a slight disservice to the real lives lost that spurred Omalu’s work.

But the occasional flaws in the film are little in the face of its strengths, particularly the clarity of Omalu’s case against the league and the ugly but unsurprising steps the NFL took to avoid the blame when now-expendable players lose themselves in a fog of the mind. Far from giving the NFL a pass, ‘Concussion’ relentless points a finger at the league, but a more focused script may elevated the power of the story to a knockout blow.

Grade: B+

*Concussion opens nationwide on Friday, December 25.

 

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Not every great movie is beautiful and not every beautiful movie is great. But every so often, you get a movie that is both.

Michael Caine stars as Fred Ballinger in ‘Youth,’ a lilting, dream-like film directed by Paolo Sorrentino. Set at a posh resort in Switzerland, Ballinger’s retired composer/orchestra conductor traipses through a routine of massage, upscale dining, dips in the hot tub and discussions of prostate with his longtime friend Mick, a celebrated film director played by Harvey Keitel.

He’s a tortured man, facing his own mortality and desire to live out his days quietly under pressure from his daughter to reconcile his life as a husband and father and a nagging emissary from her majesty The Queen, who would like him to perform his most famous (and pedestrian?) work one last time.

Mirroring his story is that of Mick’s, who is crafting his “testament,” a screenplay that will define his career, but one which challenges him to craft a satisfying third act.

The parallels to old age are obvious, but rather than hide from the metaphor, Sorrentino injects fantasy and levity to challenge expectations.

That the director is an Italian is no coincidence, as the film is undeniably European, interspersing bits of quiet plot between pseudo-surrealist montages of life at the resort with metaphorical and philosophical discussion between the core cast.

There’s plenty of meat for the various actors to enjoy — a brief appearance by Jane Fonda and a subplot with Paul Dano are particularly great — but the best moments are reserved for Caine and Keitel, whose friendship speaks to the melancholy pain of memory.

Grade: A-

*‘Youth’ opens in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 25.

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“The party is over”

That’s the expectation of on character near the end of “The Big Short,” a movie that tracks three independent teams of Wall Street outsiders who foresaw the housing market crash of 2007 that decimated the U.S. (and world) economy and bet big on a bursting bubble.

He’s referring, of course, to the big bankers, whose behavior leading up to the crash can be described in the nicest terms as negligent (but are more accurately described in less nice terms). The banks will be broken up, he says, and those responsible for cashing checks on the backs of millions of woefully ill-advised mortgages will be sent to jail.

Well, that didn’t happen.

Instead, as hindsight and the film make abundantly clear, the big banks marched forward with the aid of a taxpayer-funded bailout, earning gargantuan bonuses for their chief executives while millions of American families lost their homes and livelihoods. The party, for the wrong people it would appear, was over.

It’s hard not to get angry while watching “The Big Short,” which deftly balances a frenzied excitement — akin to a subdued “Wolf of Wall Street” — while still possessing bucket loads of moral outrage. The outsiders who saw the disaster coming are mocked and ridiculed while shouting out to anyone who will listen the danger at the country’s doorstep.

And director Adam McKay, best known for low-brow comedies like Anchorman and Step Brothers, turns out to be an inspired choice. Any talk of adjustable interest rates and asset-backed securities is bound to glaze the eyes of casual film-goers, so McKay amps up the showmanship by having the film narrated by a smarmy, fourth-wall breaking Ryan Gosling, who occasionally delegates his explanatory duties to guest star cameos, like Margot Robbie in a bubble bath giving an Econ 101 lesson on subprime mortgages.

It’s heady stuff, but rather than get lost in the weeds, McKay and “The Big Short” (rounded out by an incredible cast including Steve Carrell, Brad Pitt, Melissa Leo and Christian Bale) keep things light and breezy, explaining just enough of the big picture to string together the insidious bread crumbs that led to financial catastrophe.

Grade: A-

*The Big Short opens nationwide on Wednesday, Dec. 23.

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I don’t normally make Oscar predictions because I’m terrible at it. I’ve learned that my flaw is an inability to vote with my brain over my heart. So every year I watch my more level-headed friends do the victory dance after being crowned champion of our annual Oscar ballot contest.

But the Oscars are tomorrow, and I’ve been neglecting this blog since Sundance, so I thought I’d cobble together some thoughts on the big six races (because let’s be honest, that all we really care about).

Best Supporting Actor

Ever since I saw Whiplash at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival last January, I’ve been waiting for the well-deserved furor to build around J.K. Simmons. His turn as a megalomaniacal music instructor is explosive, fascinating and terrifying and despite excellent competition from Edward Norton and Ethan Hawke, the statue is his to lose.

Will win: J.K. Simmons

Should win: J.K. Simmons

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Best Supporting Actress

I’ve written in the past about my love for Boyhood, and I’ll certainly continue to do so in the future. But while that story centers on a child, it is really the adult characters that ground and sustain the 12-year journey and particularly Patricia Arquette.

As a single mother raising her raising her children and fighting through a string of lousy boyfriends, Arquette is raw, natural and heartbreaking. The story ends with the titular boy headed off to college with the whole world and his future at his feet, but the real emotional punch is Arquette, alone in a drab apartment with the better years of her life behind her.

Laura Dern and Emma Stone are both terrific in Wild and Birdman, respectively. And any time Academy-favorite Meryl Streep is in the running it complicates things, but Arquette has swept every award show so far and I can’t imagine her streak ending at the big show.

Will win: Patricia Arquette

Should win: Patricia Arquette

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Best Actor

To me, 2014 was the year of Boyhood and Birdman, and since the lead actor in Boyhood was an untested child actor who was far from consistent over the 12-year shoot, that means 2014 was the year of Michael Keaton. He was already a good actor, but in Birdman we saw just how great he can be when handed the right material and director.

But, this is the Academy, and they can do some strange things sometimes. The Oscars love real people, like the characters played by every actor in the category BUT Keaton. They love physical transformations, like the nose Steve Carell hides behind in Foxcatcher or the ALS cocoon that slowly envelops Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything. It also never hurts when a movie is both critically acclaimed and commercially successful, like the gangbusters business that American Sniper is doing.

I still think Keaton has the edge, if nothing else than because he’s a veteran actor who’s never been recognized before. But if Redmayne ends up on the stage tomorrow night I’ll be disappointed but not surprised.

Will win: Michael Keaton

Could win: Eddie Redmayne

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Best Actress

A lot has been said about how there’s not enough good roles for women in Hollywood, and this year’s Best Actress crop would certainly suggest that. Try as I might, I just can’t get excited about this year’s race. Still Alice? Two Days, One Night? I would imagine most people have neither seen those films nor even heard about them.

The smart money is on Julianne Moore, but if it were me I would give the statuette to Rosamund Pike for her work in Gone Girl. It’s not easy to steal the spotlight on a David Fincher film, but Pike (who has swam just beneath the surface of fame for a decade) delivers an Amy Dunne who is aggressive and vulnerable, sexy and repulsive. She also delivers the most memorable sex scene of Hollywood’s modern era.

Will win: Julianne Moore

Should win: Rosamund Pike

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Best Director

Again, Birdman and Boyhood. Boyhood and Birdman. Either one could win either this category and/or Best Picture. But Best Director goes beyond making a great movie and what Richard Linklater accomplished with his 12-year passion project simply must be recognized. This is the category to do it in.

Will win: Richard Linklater

Should win: Richard Linklater

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Best Picture

I already picked Birdman as my choice for best film of 2014. It’s unique, inventive, daring and filled with star-caliber performances. It’s the kind of film that captures the magic of the movies and reminds you why you want to spend your time in a dark room in front of a glowing screen.

Boyhood is incredible, don’t get me wrong, but its power comes from its ability to capture the quiet simplicity of everyday life and its slow evolution over time. It’s normalcy, on the big screen, in a way that few other narrative features have displayed. But Birdman is fantasy, it’s jazz, and as I’ve said before, it’s darned fun to watch.

But that’s my heart talking. My head knows that Boyhood has so far earned more awards from the other guilds and that its somewhat rare for Director and Picture to split. I give the edge to Birdman, but that might mean another year of someone else’s victory dance.

Will win: Birdman

Should win: Birdman

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Morton-Tyldum-The-Imitation-GameBenedict Cumberbatch has an almost singular ability to portray brilliant and difficult men. His take on Sherlock Holmes in BBC’s Sherlock has become the definitive version of Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary detective, which is no small feet considering that Holmes has been portrayed onscreen more times than any other literary character.

He also has an aptitude for the period spy thriller, which he displayed as a supporting character in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the best espionage film of the last five years.

And if the combination of these two spheres of Cumberbatch’s portfolio were all that was required for The Imitation Game, the movie would be a triumph. As Alan Turing, Cumberbatch is fascinating, all cold robotic efficiency on the outside and a wounded, desperate soul on the inside. The film’s finale is heartbreaking and beautiful, the camera holding steady on a quivering, weeping Turing who has been literally and grotesquely emasculated through chemical castration, a consequence of his then-illegal gay lifestyle.

But there’s more to Imitation Game than the Alan Turing story, and it is in those supplementary aspects that the film falls disappointingly short.

Set in World War II Britain, The Imitation Game tells the story of a group of cryptologists, led by Turing, who are working to crack Germany’s Enigma coding machine. In essence, it’s the true story of how England used brains, rather than brawn, to win a war.

To do this, they need to build Christopher, a granddad of the modern computer that is able to cut through Enigma’s labyrinthine encryption faster than any team of even the country’s smartest men. It’s a risky and expensive gamble, based largely on Turing’s unproven theories of mechanical computation, and every day spent tinkering with wires is another day of war casualties.

Problem is, we already know the machine will be built and will work. If it didn’t, we wouldn’t be watching this movie. But The Imitation Game still chooses to focus it’s running time on cracking the Enigma code, rather than what England did after the code was broken, a much more interesting (in my humble opinion) process of calculating acceptable losses and deliberate non-intervention in order to avoid tipping off the Nazis that their Enigma code had been compromised.

The movie’s laser focus also makes short shrift of the supporting characters, particularly Keira Knightley’s Joan Clarke, who is ostensibly the second lead of The Imitation Game,  an intellectual equal to Turing and his de facto social mouthpiece. We’re led to believe she was instrumental to cracking Enigma, but besides a sham engagement to Turing and a few cute picnics on the Bletchley Park lawn, I’d be hard pressed to explain what work she actually did during the war, simply because we’re not shown any of her actual contributions.

Much like this year’s Theory of Everything, The Imitation Game feels like a one-man Oscar Bait showcase. It’s a good movie, and the central performance of Cumberbatch is worth the price of admission. But if the filmmakers had pulled back a little bit from the man in the middle, they might have ended up telling a much more captivating story.

Grade: B

*The Imitation Game opens nationwide on Dec. 25.

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