Tuesday, April 19, 2016


Creator: Bridget Carpenter
Starring: James Franco, Chris Cooper, Sarah Gadon, Lucy Fry, George MacKay, Daniel Webber, Cherry Jones, Kevin J. O'Connor, Josh Duhamel, Nick Searcy, Jonny Coyne, Tonya Pinkins, Gil Bellows
Original Airdate: 2016

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★) 

There's always been this inherent problem in crafting any piece of entertainment around the altering an important historical event, especially one as controversial and heavily debated as the Kennedy assassination. For valid reasons it's rarely been attempted in either film or television, and the few times it has resulted in the material being handled with kid gloves, as if the creative forces at the helm were too afraid of tackling the event head-on, "changing" real history within a work of complete fiction. If altering too much brings with it accusations of exploitation and sensationalism, then anything short of that would be considered wimping out.
This problem even affected the greatest time travel series, Quantum Leap, when the writers got an unusual case of cold feet when depicting the event in 1992's two-part season opener, "Lee Harvey Oswald."

11.22.63 on Hulu
Since the real conflict about attempting to stop the Kennedy Assassination lies in how far the writers are willing to go, it's only fitting that Hulu's original miniseries, 11.22.63, comes from the mind and pen of Stephen King. The author who's always had a problem with endings. And while he has a notoriously spotty track record with TV adaptations of his own work, it's to his and our benefit that this is a new era where the quality of these miniseries often exceed anything on the big screen, overseen by experienced showrunners that limit the need for King's creative involvement. With producers J.J. Abrams and Bridget Carpenter at the controls, this had as good a shot as any of his material at being a slam dunk adaptation. With the author's ideas usually working best as a jumping off point, it would be fascinating to see where they'd go with this, what they'd change or keep, and how the material could be condensed into 8 hour-long episodes.

With topnotch production design and direction, there's an urgency to the proceedings anchored by a phenomenal lead performance from an actor who initially seems miscast and an even better one from an actress who's career will undoubtedly skyrocket off the back of this. But most unexpectedly, the story transcends the assassination, with the event itself often successfully taking a backseat to the human drama and larger points made about society and the passage of time. It manages to go all in, taking a clear stand on the potential conspiracy and making no bones about the fact that our protagonist is there to physically stop this, regardless of the dangerous obstacles or consequences it would entail.

Jake Epping (James Franco), a recently divorced English teacher from Lisbon, Maine makes a stop into the diner of his good friend, Al Templeton (Chris Cooper), who offers him the opportunity of a lifetime. A chance to travel back to the 1960's via a portal in the restaurant's storage closet. But this won't be a vacation, as Jake's job is to complete a herculean mission Al couldn't pull off himself: Preventing the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In Vietnam vet Al's view, that murder set off a chain reaction from which the country never recovered, altering for the worse the course of his life and many others he's known. He's not only prepared a detailed file for Jake with background and instructions on how to accomplish this task, but primed him on how to first determine whether there was a conspiracy.

Jake and Al survey the evidence
After a sudden turn of events leads to Jake reluctantly accept Al's challenge and travel through the portal, his trip to the past becomes more complicated when he becomes attached to the past, forming a relationship with Jodie, Texas school librarian, Sadie Dunhill (Sarah Gadon). But with the clock rapidly counting down to November 22, 1963 and the past's unseen forces working against him, he must find a way to neutralize Lee Harvey Oswald (Daniel Webber) and uncover the former Marine sniper's connection to the C.I.A. before The President's motorcade travels through Dealey Plaza in Dallas.

Having only read the first few chapters of King's novel before deciding to return to it after viewing the miniseries, there aren't many side-by-side comparisons I'd feel comfortable making. But after similar openings there is supposedly a point where this version deviates heavily, cherry-picking certain key elements to build its own universe that can fill the running time. As he previously proved in his short story, The Langoliers (itself adapted into a 1995 miniseries) the author is, if nothing else, a brilliantly twisted "idea man" when it comes to time travel. If in that tale, traumatized surviving airline passengers wake to discover the vacant past has moved forward without them, King presents an equally compelling notion here of the past "pushing back," stopping Jake from changing it. In a way, that makes perfect sense since the entire notion of altering the past is built on upsetting the universe.

You could imagine that in the hands of lesser directors and screenwriters than Abrams crew, that this idea of the past striking back (let's call it "subtly posing obstacles") could turn into a disaster, with plot contrivances and supernatural interference galore. There's certainly some of that and the Jake character definitely makes the past's job a lot easier with some ridiculous decision-making, but isn't this the hallmark of most time travel entertainment? Still, even if irresponsibility from the traveler is a perquisite for the genre, Jake is very dense.

Jake Epping arrives in the 1960's
How much of the protagonist's carelessness simply services the needs of the story, is the past's doing, or qualifies as just plain sloppy screenwriting is open for interpretation, but Jake isn't exactly careful when he arrives in 1960, a full three years before the assassination. That arrival time and the fact he's allowed to go back through the portal and reset (or erase) what he's done are really the only rules here, since Jake goes about breaking every other one Al warns him about, his actions constantly threatening to create a "butterfly effect" in the future. He doesn't exactly keep a low profile.

Whether he's buying a flashy period car, dropping his iphone and future news clippings about the shooting, giving impromptu tours of Dealey Plaza or placing sports bets large enough to make Biff Tannen blush, it isn't out of the realm of possibility to consider Kennedy was probably fine before Jake arrived. The first few episodes do in fact recall Back to the Future in how we have a crazed Doc Brown-like character in Al roping Jake into this plan and the initial scenes of our wide-eyed protagonist awed by an idealized 1960's that looks and feels authentically warm and inviting. But this is Stephen King. It won't last.

Boasting some of the more impressive photography, costuming and production for Hulu, it's clear they spared no expense and every bit of it is on the screen. With these kind of projects being shortchanged so many times throughout the author's career, it's nice to see one finally treated with the pedigree it deserves. One of the most impressive moments of the series comes when Jake's walking the hallway as school banners subtly change to indicate a jump forward in time.

Jake and Bill wiretap Lee Harvey Oswald
Preventing this culture-shifting event and managing the investigation accompanying it is really hard work. So much so that at one point Jake basically throws his hands up in the air and gives up, turning his attention to preventing another traumatic event that hits closer to his home. That is until he's forced out of necessity to bring along an assistant of sorts and go back to Dallas to finish what he intended to start. That assistant is high-strung bartender Bill Turcotte (George MacKay) and while that character's role is supposedly expanded from the book, he does accomplish something important creatively.

Without a sidekick, it's likely viewers would be forced to watch Jake plan all this alone, talking to himself as we're punished by long, drawn-out voiceovers reciting endless passages of King's book. At least here he has someone to bounce off of and share the screen with and their interactions provide some of the series' biggest laughs, whether intentional or not. Jake just leaving him above Oswald's apartment to record everything he does for months at a time while he goes to work as schoolteacher is a particular highlight. While it's easy to quibble with where they eventually take the Bill character and his overall purpose, the series wouldn't be nearly as entertaining without him or McKay's loony performance.

The big question of whether James Franco can do anything or just simply chooses to do everything he can should occupy the thoughts of most watching. Could they have picked a more jarringly modern-looking actor to play a character transported to the 1960's? Maybe that was exactly the point, but before long, Franco proves he's capable of this too, throwing himself into everything the role requires. And it gets surprisingly ugly at times since Jake rarely thinks of anyone beyond himself, frequently losing sight of why he's there. It's fun watching Franco continue to grow into the part with each passing episode, and as more is asked of him, he turns in this great old school leading man performance that's bursting with humor and humanity.

Sarah Gadon as Sadie Dunhill
It's easy to see why Franco's character is so distracted since Sarah Gadon is nothing short of a revelation as  small town librarian and accidental witness to history, Sadie. As a living, breathing artifact from a different time, it's perfect casting, but the actress goes beyond nailing easily noticeable 60's details such as accent and manner to adding little details that make her feel like much more than a love interest or plot device. An argument can be made the entire story revolves around her, and while Franco's terrific, it's at least conceivable another actor could have played Jake, albeit differently. Gadon is irreplaceable, and without her, so much of what occurs in the last few episodes wouldn't carry nearly the same resonance.

The rest of the cast is uniformly excellent, right down to Daniel Webber's psychotically unhinged portrayal of Oswald, which straddles an uncomfortable line of moral ambiguity we haven't previously seen in cinematic depictions of the assassin. He seemingly alternates from sad to scary at an instant. In a memorable supporting turn an alcoholic wife beater, Josh Duhamel finds a part he seems born to play, channeling that aura of jock cockiness into a raging 60's bully with greased hair and rolled-up sleeves.

T.R. Knight follows suit as Sadie's husband, delivering a creepy, threatening performance that's not only a far cry from Grey's Anatomy, but feels most at home in the Stephen King universe. And while their characters undeservedly get the short end of the stick in the closing episodes, Nick Searcy and Tonya Pinkins respectively shine in their scenes as the Jodie High School principal and administrator. Despite top billing, a haggard-looking Chris Cooper has similarly brief screen time as Al, present mainly to deliver time travel exposition that informs the rest of the series.

Oswald (Daniel Webber) poses for an infamous photo
As the hours, minutes and seconds close in it only makes sense that the past would push back harder than ever, throwing obstacle it can in Jake's path. The physical manifestation of this resistance comes in the "Yellow Card Man" (Kevin J. O' Connor) who pops up now and again throughout the series to warn our protagonist about the futility of attempting to change the past. Supposedly, the book goes into further detail about him, but despite my worries that this would indicate the supernatural side of King's brain taking over the screenplay, that doesn't happen. It's handled pretty well. After numerous disasters and miscalculations by the bumbling Jake, it's not a spoiler to reveal Oswald does eventually sit at his perch on the sixth floor of southeast corner window of the Book Depository with boxes stacked, armed with his Carcano carbine rifle

Whether he it's Oswald who delivers the fatal shot, whether the fatal shot is even fired, how many shooters there are, and the potential ramifications for history should this event not occur, are all questions the writers had to ask themselves since viewers will undoubtedly be asking them too, before demanding answers. It's a tough spot to be in and one made even tougher by the fact that they're adapting an author who often struggles with satisfying conclusions and had the original ending of this novel thrown out and revised by his own son. Readers will feel strongly attached to how the miniseries should end.

And as far as King endings go, this one's far from a disaster. The screenplay overemphasizes the potential consequences of an alternate outcome that probably played better in book form, but it's still immensely satisfying, at least committing to an finale that goes beyond the nuts and bolts of the history-defining event. The result ranks somewhere between the middle to top tier of King adaptations, certainly leaving in the dust some of the more problematic offerings that have sullied the author's cinematic reputation in years past. There are points that feel rushed and you can almost tell without having read the novel what was shortchanged, but it's kind of amazing just how immersive 11.22.63 still manages to be in light off its inevitable limitations. It's one of the rare King adaptations that doesn't feel entirely compromised, creating an experience you could hardly consider a waste of time.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Fuller House

Creator: Jeff Franklin
Starring: Candace Cameron Bure, Jodie Sweetin, Andrea Barber, Michael Campion, Elias Harger, Soni Nicole Bringas, Dashiell and Fox Messitt, Juan Pablo Di Pace, John Brotherton, Scott Weinger, John Stamos, Lori Loughlin, Dave Coulier, Bob Saget
Original Airdate: 2016

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

Recently, I read an article about a scientific study conducted on nostalgia. The findings were somewhat surprising in how it revealed that being enraptured by these warm, fuzzy recollections of the past can be positive, helping us move forward. The reasoning was that we tend to look back on anything from our past as being much better than it actually was. I tried to keep this in mind while watching the somewhat excruciating pilot episode of Netflix's Full House reboot/spin-off, Fuller House. In it, the very definition of the phrase, "Be careful what you wish for" is pushed to its breaking point, as every beloved character from the classic TGIF sitcom barges into the original house within minutes, spewing their catchphrases as if no time passed at all. In fairness, the actors all look great, but it's a lot to take in at once, testing even the most dedicated diehards patiently waiting thirty years for a moment that not only drags on too long, but feels more like a Fallon skit without the laughs.

Fuller House on Netflix
When creator Jeff Franklin said the first episode (Ep. 1.1, "Our Very First Show, Again") would essentially be a reunion show, he wasn't kidding. It goes on for 38 minutes and unfortunately it's hard not to feel each and every one, confirming fears that Netflix executives think that just rounding the original cast up for a victory lap is good enough. They did it with Arrested Development and then again with Wet Hot American Summer, thinking we'd be satisfied by merely seeing everyone together again (or in the former's case, seeing them separately). Even Full House's classic theme song (the catchy "Everywhere You Look," originally performed by Jesse Frederick) gets a peppy, if initially jarring, cover by Carly Rae Jepsen that kind of grows on you. It's set against an opening credits sequence that's still leaning a bit too heavily on the old cast, at least in the pilot.

Nothing really clicks in the first episode, whether it's a gag about Stephanie's newly acquired British accent, a meta, fourth wall-breaking joke at the expense of the Olsen twins, Bob Saget looking like he just woke up or Dave Coulier's comic antics aging poorly. And while the older cast members have never seemed more off their game than in these initial minutes, it's still important to remember they're only as good as the material they're given and adults watching now were children when the series initially aired. Then comes the big moment toward the end of the episode. Just when I was just about to give up all hope, it's Candace Cameron Bure to the rescue. She has this one pivotal scene that convinces us maybe creator Jeff Franklin does have a plan. That he knows where to take this.

Now comes the good news. That first episode is not only by far the series' worst, it's really the only stinker of the thirteen. And as much as it pained me to type all that about something I'd long consider a slam dunk on paper, it only applies to the pilot. There was a better way to do that and I certainly shouldn't want to be warning any original cast members to not let the door hit them on the way out. So to be nice, I'll instead warn bingers to skip to episode 2, which is where Fuller House actually begins, or should have began. And you know what? It's really good. In fact, you could go as far as to say that of Netflix's rescusitations of dormant, nostalgic properties, this is easily the strongest as far as both constructing a logical continuation of the original series and capturing the spirit and feeling with which it was created.

"Olsens, where are you?"
Of course, given that this was a family sitcom rarely cited for creative brilliance, it has a relatively lower bar to clear compared to those aforementioned reboots. A more appropriate comparison point might be the recent Girl Meets World. But it's fascinating to examine why this worked, and why nearly all that does comes from narrowing the focus on all the right characters, and finding new ones that can perfectly compliment them. After a rough opening, the show (while still not without problems) starts finding its groove, making for some mindlessly fun, addictive TV that recalls the family sitcoms of Full House's era, and a time when families would gather around together to watch them.

Recently widowed veterinarian D.J. Tanner-Fuller (Cameron Bure) is now in a similar position to that of her father over thirty years ago, as her firefighter husband Tommy's sudden death leaves her to take care of three sons, teenager Jackson (Michael Campion), 7 year-old Max ( Elias Harger) and baby Tommy, Jr. (Dashiell and Fox Messitt). Obviously overwhelmed and desperate for help, she accepts an offer from her younger sister Stephanie (Jodie Sweetin) and childhood best friend, Kimmy Gibbler (Andrea Barber) to move into the original Tanner house with them, the latter bringing along her half-Latin teenage daughter, Ramona (Soni Nicole Bringas). While keeping busy with their own endeavors, Tanner patriach Danny (Saget), Jesse (John Stamos) and Becky (Lori Loughlin), and Uncle Joey (Coulier), still pop up in San Francisco to lend a hand to D.J., who's trying to adjust to her new, extremely hectic life as a single mother.

The casting and story focus are the easiest elements to identify as succeeding from the get-go. Once all the supporting players from the original take leave after the pilot and are reduced to recurring roles, we're left with the core three: D.J., Stephanie and Kimmy. The rest of the cast is rounded out by the four new kids (or five, taking the Messitt twins into account) and one really annoying appendage of an ex-husband for Kimmy. It was the right decision to have the series revolve around D.J. while Stephanie's involved in a major way and Kimmy Gibbler is, well, Kimmy Gibbler. If you were a fan of that character you still will be and if you weren't, then nothing's changed and you'll still find her irritating. Isn't that the point?

The Tanner/Gibbler clan
Keeping the setting in San Francisco and even going so far as to have it in the same house was also smart. Whereas a Boy Meets World spin-off could afford to shift locations from Philadelphia to New York with little harm done to the creative integrity of the series or its characters, the city of San Francisco is just too ingrained into the fabric of Full House to even attempt justifying such a move. Just look at the opening credits.

If Franklin made a mistake hammering us over the head with too many characters in the opening episode, he finds the right balance for the remaining twelve, and further atones for it with the casting of these new kids. Elias Harger as Max is a little ham and mini-Danny Tanner who steals every scene he's in while Michael Campion as sarcastic, but good-hearted older brother Jackson will be relatable to younger male viewers everywhere. The Messitt twins are actually cuter babies than the Olsens, both filling that perceived void as Tommy, Jr. And if Kimmy Gibbler had a daughter, chances are she would look and act exactly like Soni Bringas' Ramona, who's a bit less goofy than her mom since it would be tough not to be. She also gets to gamely deliver the one inside joke at the expense of the Olsen twins that does hit the mark, earning some well deserved laughs.  

Most of the episodes follow a structure that would be familiar to anyone raised on 80's family sitcoms, and probably even to many who weren't. There's some kind of crisis or complication of some sort that usually wraps up with a big lesson being learned. In this first season, it includes story arcs involving compromise, divorce, change, sibling rivalries, dating, crushes, blackmail, lying and discipline. And of course, a few guest stars show up to test the definition of the term "guest star," unless singer Macy Gray, Maksim and Val Chmerkovskiy from Dancing with the Stars, the San Francisco Giants' Hunter Pence were exactly who you had in mind.

D.J. and Dr. Matt at a giants game
Three of those guests conveniently serve as excuses for a few of the season's many dance/musical scenes, while the Pence appearance is actually kind of great. The fact that they picked the most insane player in the Giants line-up to date Stephanie (Ep. 1.10, "A Giant Leap") and then actually had her refer to him as "crazy eyes" should be enough to make anyone's day. The episode only ranks behind D.J. Tanner's impromptu match for a Mexican wrestling promotion (Ep. 1.6, "The Legend of El Explosivo") during which Cameron Bure shockingly does all her own stunts, proving to be skilled enough in the ring to have this be a second career. 

The show does contain two sub-plots that seem to permeate through all thirteen episodes. The first is a love triangle in which D.J. is torn between her new veterinary co-worker, the almost offensively normal Dr. Matt Harmon (John Brotherton) and returning high school boyfriend, Steve (Scott Weinger), now a divorced podiatrist with ownership of Comet Jr., Jr. (don't ask). One of the bigger developments this season is the reimagining of this character as a creepy, obsessive ex who still hasn't gotten over D.J. twenty years later. Get in line, Steve. I'm still not sure whether this insane depiction was intentional or not, but you haven't seen anything until witnessing the perpetually hungry podiatrist arrive in the Tanner kitchen for a date with D.J. like he's reeanacting a scene from Psycho, only wearing a high school letter jacket instead of a dress.

You have to love the writers for including moments like this, while also recognizing that families tuning into this G-rated show will also be getting their fair share of sex, butt and boob jokes. It's surprising that THIS, of all things, has been a source of criticism and controversy while no one seems takes issue with Kimmy's on again off again ex-husband and Ramona's father, Fernando Hernandez-Guerrero-Fernandez-Guerrero (Juan Pablo Di Pace). Yes, that's the character's full name. It's funny to imagine that this is Jeff Franklin's response to how "white" Full House has always been, an issue even directly addressed at one point during this season.

Kimmy and Fernando at "Ramona's Not-So-Epic Party”
If anything, the over-the-top Latin stereotype that is Fernando is too ridiculous to even be offended by, existing (as do other parts of this spin-off) in a time warp. The bigger problem is that he's relentlessly annoying and if they do insist on keeping him around for future seasons, they're going to have to scale back his appearances since he's just too much, especially in a stretch toward the end when his shenanigans nearly hijack the proceedings. This and the kids' faces constantly being buried in their smartphones and tablets, texting their brains out, are the two big lowlights of the season. While at least the latter can be justified as an accurate reflection of the times, TV still hasn't found an satisfying way to visually depict actors typing conversations with their heads down. But barring the pilot episode, the series is respectful of its own past without deliberating trying to recreate every little detail of it.

If Cameron Bure stands as the show's rock and centerpiece, it makes sense not only for the narrative, but because she's been the most steadily working actor aside from Stamos since the original wrapped. And while it may take a period of adjustment for fans to s like myself to start seeing her as an overprotective, somewhat uncool mom, adult Kimmy Gibbler is literally the living, breathing incarnation of what we always figured she'd grow up to be: Herself. From the way she acts, dresses, talks, and even in her party planner career, Andrea Barber doesn't miss a beat, as if she arrived in our present in a time capsule marked "1989." What does take some getting used to is having a character we've previously experienced in limited doses as the goofy neighbor promoted to a full-fledged co-lead. It's almost as if Family Matters returned and now starred Urkel as the lead, which you know it surely would.

I wasn't sure what to expect from Jodie Sweetin, and while it's common knowledge that she basically came back from the depths of personal hell to get this opportunity again, she's just such a natural at this. Similar to Kimmy, her adult Stephanie is a funhouse reflection of her younger self, but with a twist. Hard partying and somewhat irresponsible, she's the new Uncle Jesse and her questionable job choice as traveling DJ, "DJ Tanner" provides the series with one of its best running gags. And while Steph's often the butt of racier jokes involving the character's propensity for partying and sleeping around, Sweetin has a way of making that material seem family friendly and likable, frequently selling some of the most cringe-worthy dialogue with impeccable comic timing. If hardcore Full House apologists want to get nostalgic or emotional about anything, it should be the fact that she's the series' MVP                                  

Danny Tanner sure loves his couch
The decision to essentially make the pilot episode a reunion show may have been a big mistake, but it's somewhat rectified when the remaining original cast members occasionally pop in as guest stars. This is a far better use of them and more in line with how Girl Meets World operates, saving certain characters for key points during the season to build anticipation and make the appearances feel special. Saget and Stamos fare the best in this regard, as the former has a strong showcase episode (Ep. 1.8, "Secrets, Lies and Firetrucks) in which we get a really heavy dose of the old Danny Tanner we know and love, obsessing over the dreaded possibility his couch could get reupholstered. All this eventually this leads to the disturbing image you see to your left, and sorry, but when Danny takes out his phone and starts snapping selfies in that jacket, all feels right in the Full House universe.

Of all the originals, the ageless Stamos' vain, Elvis-obsessed Jesse has changed the least, which is fine, since there's little need to fix what wasn't broken to begin with. While time has also been very kind to Lori Loughlin, the writers were not, giving Aunt Becky this strangely psychotic empty nest disorder that has you fearing for Baby Tommy whenever she's near. Dave Coulier doing his Joey Gladstone, complete with puppet and pajamas seems a little weird considering he's pushing sixty, but his best moment actually comes in an episode he isn't in, when DJ slides in the one Coulier joke we've all been waiting for but didn't think they'd have the guts to write in. As for the elephant in the room that isn't in the room that are Mary-Kate and Ashley, they're mentioned or alluded to enough that their presence can't really be missed. Supposedly, producer Stamos actually attempted to get Elizabeth Olsen for the role, which was a brilliant, if unrealistic, idea. Needless to say, she was busy. Given this show's popularity, I still predict there's a better than good chance we'll see Michelle Tanner before the end of it.

All the critics hate Fuller House. This isn't really news, or unexpected considering they never cared for Full House all that much either when it originally aired. And some of what they're saying is true. You  may have also heard its defenders claim that the series "isn't made for critics." While that's a statement I'd usually scoff at, it does carry a certain amount of weight in this instance. Anyone who hated the original will no doubt feel the same about its spin-off and those who believed the sun rose and set on TGIF in the 80's and early 90's will be immensely satisfied. That tells me Jeff Franklin and Netflix accomplished their goal, simultaneously angering and exciting exactly who it was supposed to by delivering a series that's faithful to the spirit of the original, yet updated for current times.

Fuller House cast
Far from a well-oiled machine, there are many kinks in the show that still need working out, but it's at least strong enough to deserve a chance to do that. Having long fallen out of the audience it's intended for, it's comforting to know a show like Fuller House can exist and thrive in a vastly changed TV landscape from the one its predecessor premiered in. There's nothing else quite like this out there anymore, and nostalgia or not, that has to count for something.      

Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Revenant

Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, Arthur Redcloud, Grace Dove
Running Time: 156 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

It's rare that the reputation and mystique of a film so firmly rests on a single scene's reception the way it does in Alejandro G. Iñárritu's Oscar-nominated The Revenant. By now, everyone knows the scene, or at least knows of it, regardless of whether they've actually seen the movie. Before the public conversation inexplicably morphed it into an animal-on-human rape punchline, the scene could be viewed for what it is and how it plays out on screen. Bears don't sexually assault humans. They maul them to protect their young. And it's scary as hell. I feel like an idiot even typing that, and while always counting myself as good for a laugh at the expense of serious material, it's a testament to how far the joke went that this actually warrants explanation. 

There's no confusion as to what's happening but it's hard not to wonder if Academy members marking their ballots thought there was and unfortunately decided against honoring a film that was turned into a national joke by the media. It's likely few have ever seen a grizzly attack before, onscreen or otherwise. And whatever idea we had of one in our minds certainly wouldn't match the close approximation of reality that occurs in the film.

The details of the scene is one of the many surprises that makes The Revenant special, and the inciting incident that starts Leonardo DiCaprio on the path to giving a performance that's easily the most physical, yet verbally sparse, of his career. Bu the most surprising thing about it is that his character somehow survives it, only to face further  insurmountable odds that test his will to live, and perhaps eventually, extract revenge. It's a man vs. nature survival story and historical adventure epic all wrapped into one, and despite my minor issues with how it culminates, there's little fault to be found.

It's 1823 when the Arikara Native American tribe launch a surprise attack on a crew of American trappers hunting for pelts in the Northern Plains. After what ends up being a particularly brutal battle with many casualties, the surviving trappers escape on a boat lead by Captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) and their guide, Hugh Glass (DiCaprio). When the latter suggests they abandon the boat to travel on foot, it raises the ire of John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy), a mealy-mouthed bully who not only directs his outrage at Glass, but also his mixed race son, Hawk (Forrest Goodluck). Tensions further escalate after a savage grizzly bear attack leaves Glass maimed and unable to continue the journey, prompting Fitzgerald to suggest they kill him so they can all promptly move along.

What happens next is a catastrophic series of events that leave Glass, crippled and clinging to life, alone in the wilderness, fighting the elements as the Arikara tribe continuing to trail the Americans they believe abducted the Chief's daughter. But Glass has only thing on his mind: Revenge. He needs to survive, if only to get his hands on Fitzgerald, who committed the ultimate crime against his family, and one he'll pay dearly for if Glass can live long enough to catch up to him.

Partially based on Michael Punke's novel of the same name, the opening half hour of The Revenant isn't entirely dissimilar to Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, before settling into a rhythm and tone more closely resembling Dances with Wolves. It's an odd comparison to make but one the picture earns by starting with a shockingly brutal battle that doesn't hold back in either gore or psychological implications for the men involved. There's very little dialogue both before and after the trappers escape to the boat, and whatever talk there is, serves to briefly establish their personalities and formulate a travel plan. Fitzgerald, who was scalped by natives years ago, harbors almost unrelenting resentment toward Glass and his son from the get-go, establishing himself as an arrogant jerk with little regard for anyone else. And of course, Hardy, playing the baddie with an unintelligible redneck drawl, is just perfect at eliciting this extreme hatred and disgust.

What we do know of Glass comes in brief, almost Malickian flashbacks to his life with his late wife and then infant son. But most of what's revealed about the frontiersman comes following the horrifying grizzly attack (partially accomplished with some really impressive CGI) that eventually separates him from his party, fighting for survival. And it's here where the film hits its stride, as Glass must withstand sub-zero temperatures, life-threatening injury, wild animals and angry natives to eventually arrive at his showdown with Fitzgerald. For most of this, the character is incapacitated in some way and can barely talk.

While it's completely true that good acting involves much more than just performing under brutal conditions, what makes DiCaprio's work so remarkable is how little he must rely on dialogue, instead transcribing every thought, feeling and emotion through sheer physical distress. Despite the minimal speaking, it's nonetheless an engrossing journey thanks to Emmanuel Lubezki's Oscar-winning cinematography and sound, costume and production design that fully brings to life the 1800's in the Dakotas.

Those looking for a revenge-oriented ending out of The Revenant will probably be disappointed, and if it's plot seems as thin as the paper its screenplay (by Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith) was written on, that hardly matters. The film seems to be building to this epic confrontation between Glass and Fitzgerald, and while I'm being coy in revealing details, the route the film takes to arrive at that conclusion will undoubtedly frustrate those weened on more dramatic finishes. Then again, it might be advantageous to ask whether this story really was about vengeance to begin with.

With themes drenched in familial loyalty, spirituality and a bond with nature, this was always a mood piece that wouldn't ever be mistaken for something like The Hateful Eight. But it still is, in very different way, a full blown assault on the senses, technically towering above most films released in the past year in terms of visuals and sound. Iñárritu makes good on fully immersing us in this unfamiliar world. It's DiCaprio's performance that takes care of the rest.

Monday, February 29, 2016

Burning Questions from the 2016 Oscars

Odds on #OscarsSoLong trending by the end of the night?

Odds on when the "end of the night" will be?

After how poorly I did with last year's predictions, should I have just closed my eyes and pick names?

Wasn't that montage kind of great?

Am I just saying that because Room was so prominently featured?

"White People's Choice Awards?"

Wasn't Chris Rock right about previous years being just as much of a whiteout?

Didn't the crowd seem more receptive to Rock than they have been to any other recent host within the first few minutes?

Did he kill it with that monologue or what?

How about "Bittersweet Symphony" being played by the Oscar orchestra?

Couldn't Ryan Gosling's jokey description of qualifications for Best Adapted Screenplay actually apply to The Revenant?

The Oscar-winning writer/director of Anchorman?

So, we're going to do that thing again with inserting actors into movie clips?

But with black comedians?

Wasn't The Danish Girl with Tracy Morgan pretty funny? 

Did you forget for a second that Kristen Wiig was actually in The Martian?

Yeah, I got it, but wasn't that Stacey Dash thing weird anyway?

Sorry, but isn't Sam Smith Spectre theme completely forgettable?

Did you even recognize Sam Smith?

Isn't it nice that we can all remember that J.K. Simmons won Best Supporting Actor last year?

Isn't Supporting Actress consistently the most challenging category to get right each year?

Did you hear the collective groans of everyone getting it wrong?

Did you get the feeling Alicia Vikander wouldn't be the first winner played off during her speech?

Especially considering the pace they're moving at?

Wasn't that Oscar "scroll" at the bottom ridiculous?

Especially considering how infrequently it worked?

Didn't Mad Max really deserve to clean up in all those technical and craft categories?

Anyone else expect Margot Robbie to lecture us on the housing market and credit crisis?

So, was Jonah Hill in that bear costume?

Wasn't the Suge Knight gag funny?

Isn't it unreal Lubezki has won cinematography three years in a row?

And Deakins has now lost thirty in a row?

(Jack) Black History Month?

Get it, it's because no people of color were nominated this year?

Remember that year they really did attempt to explain the difference between Sound Editing and Mixing? 

Is this an impressive haul of statues (6!) for Mad Max or what?

Were you thinking The Revenant might be in trouble?

Ex Machina for visual effects?!

How great was it when they cut to Jacob Tremblay in the audience when the droids came out?

Was I the only one wondering what happened to C3PO's red arm?

Droids AND Minions?

Were you worried Mad Max would  take home Best Animated short?

Then beat Trump and Hillary?

Doesn't Pete Docter kind of resemble a Pixar character?

But doesn't he seem like a legitimately good guy?

Anyone worried they'd show clips of Fifty Shades of Grey during The Weekend's performance?

I can't be the only one who loved that rock, paper, scissors Android commercial with the St. Elmo's Fire song?

Shouldn't that have won Best Animated Short?

Aren't they beating this Oscar controversy humor into the ground?

Did you fall out of your seat when they announced Mark Rylance's name?

Were you too shocked to study Stallone's expression? 

Could you literally hear all the air being sucked out the room when Rylance spoke?

And you thought you had problems remembering Patricia Arquette won last year?

Did that screw up my ballot?

And Stallone's life?

And our night?

So, was it Escape Plan or The Expendables 3 that killed his chances?

Can Louis CK host next year?

Isn't it about time they made a joke at the expense of the Price Waterhouse guys?

Can anyone tell me what exactly Cheryl Boone Isaacs' said?

Was I the only one expecting her to lecture us on stealing music?

Or do I have this confused with another overlong awards show? 

Were you worried they'd scroll the In Memoriam across the bottom of the screen to save time?

Dave Grohl singing The Beatles?

But didn't he do a good job?

So wait, they had Jacob Tremblay present Live Action Short so they could make a short joke?

Were you worried Joe Biden's speech on sexual abuse would introduce Room rather than Lady Gaga's performance?

Remember when everyone thought her career was floundering?

Was that Biden's first scripted TV appearance since Parks and Rec?

So, did Lady Gaga appear on enough awards shows, and win enough awards, this year?

Did Oscar voters apparently think so?

Can you believe that Bond song won!?

And after THAT performance?

Weren't you relieved that Tarantino wasn't accepting the award for Morricone?

Do you think I envisioned Ali G introducing Room?

Too late to get Biden back up there?

Did we officially reach the end of the Fury Road when Iñárritu won Best Director?

Boy, did they play him off fast or what?

Was "Flight of the Valkyries" this year's Jaws theme?

Didn't that look like a big spoiler for Carol?

How upset would I be if they played Brie off?

Wasn't I relieved when they didn't have to?

Did you half-expect her to take Jacob Tremblay up there?

Not a question, but I just want to type, "Academy Award Winner Brie Larson."

Didn't that clip from Trumbo kind of play like a comic version of Breaking Bad, complete with a bathtub?

Was Leo up there before it was even announced?

Have you ever seen anyone get to a stage so fast?

Were you excited to hear about climate change?

Is Leo the rare star exempt from being played off? 

Spotlight...Best Picture??!!!!

Am I burning my Oscar ballot right now?

Everyone else must have missed that, right?

What was that I said about closing my eyes and just randomly picking winners?

Do you realize Michael Keaton has now starred in two Best Picture winners in a row?

So, is it too early to start predicting for next year?

Aren't you glad you stayed awake?

Wasn't that one of the more newsworthy shows in years?

Given all those upsets, should I just be glad Brie escaped the building with her statue?

So, did Chris Rock earn an invitation back?

Has any other recent host done as well?

Will everyone still look for something he did to complain about?

Wouldn't it be interesting to see how he'd do next year without such a hot-button controversy to play off of?

Saturday, February 27, 2016

2016 Oscar Predictions

While the Academy Awards seem steeped in more controversy than ever this year, there's no debating that they're still very much a big deal. If they weren't, no one would care, and there certainly wouldn't be as much discussion and outrage as there's been over the past couple of months surrounding the nominations. If nothing else, Chris Rock shouldn't have any shortage of material in his opening monologue. And those watching definitely won't have a shortage of things to talk and laugh about when he's finished. Long considered a thankless job that's sunk even the most talented of comedians, actors, and TV hosts, Rock has the unusual benefit of this year's jokes sitting right over the plate for him. But as we know, it's always a tough room for any host, regardless of the circumstances 

Complaints about a lack of diversity in the nominations has already caused one unfortunate, unintended consequence: The conversation shifting away from all the deserving nominees that were recognized and the acknowledgement that, more often than not, the Academy does recognize quality. And occasionally, they even get around to rewarding it. This 88th year is no different than any other. Sometimes your favorites get in. Sometimes they don't. All you can do is sit back, enjoy the ride, taking pleasure in the tiny victories that do come your way as a movie fan. Like knowing your favorite film of the year may be recognized with a Best Picture nomination. Or celebrating a talent whose career you've followed from jump street, or in this case, since before 21 Jump Street.

There are 8 nominees this year for Best Picture, and despite my recent inactivity, I've seen over half of them. I meant to get a review up for the frontrunning The Revenant before the show, but will instead have to unfortunately settle for cramming in a last minute viewing. That race is still far from locked up though, as more than a few categories are still up in the air. It hasn't been one of the more enthralling Oscar races in recent years, but it's all over the place, making the prognostication game tougher than usual. The closest I've come to a clean sweep was missing two categories in 2014. Don't expect that this time. All predictions are below, accompanied with analysis where warranted. This time, I saved the big ones for last. As usual, I'm reserving the right to adjust these right up until the start of the show. But judging from the poor results of my flip flopping last year, that's a luxury I should probably restrain from indulging in.

*Predicted Winners 

Best Original Song
“Earned It” from Fifty Shades of Grey
“Manta Ray” from Racing Extinction
“Simple Song #3” from Youth
“Til It Happens to You” from The Hunting Ground
“Writing’s on the Wall” from Spectre

Best Cinematography
Ed Lachman, Carol
Robert Richardson, The Hateful Eight
John Seale, Mad Max: Fury Road
Emmanuel Lubezki, The Revenant
Roger Deakins, Sicario

Best Documentary Short
Body Team 12
Chau, Beyond the Lines
Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah
A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness
Last Day of Freedom

Best Documentary Feature
Cartel Land
The Look of Silence
What Happened, Miss Simone?
Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

Best Costume Design
Sandy Powell, Carol
Sandy Powell, Cinderella
Paco Delgado, The Danish Girl
Jenny Beavan, Mad Max: Fury Road
Jacqueline West, The Revenant

Best Sound Editing
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Best Sound Mixing
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Best Makeup and Hairstyling 
Mad Max: Fury Road
The 100-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared
The Revenant

Best Live-Action Short
Ave Maria
Day One
Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut)

Best Animated Short
Bear Story
Sanjay’s Super Team
We Can’t Live Without Cosmos
World of Tomorrow

Best Animated Feature
Boy and the World
Inside Out
Shaun the Sheep Movie
When Marnie Was There

Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale, The Big Short
Tom Hardy, The Revenant
Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies
Sylvester Stallone, Creed

*With performances in Mad Max: Fury Road, Legend and The Revenant, Tom Hardy's nomination for his diabolical turn in the latter represents the culmination of a creatively fruitful year. He'll get his Oscar. Just not now. Bale and Ruffalo are in similar spots as standouts in large ensembles, but if you're putting odds on an upset, Bale's wild performance, his history and The Big Short's surprising momentum gives him a better than decent shot here. Some think Mark Rylance can win for Bridge of Spies and he theoretically can. But who's talking about that movie? His victory narrative just isn't exciting enough. That leaves us with Creed's Stallone, for whom we can all agree the narrative is most definitely exciting enough, potentially winning gold for reprising the character he created over thirty years ago. Everyone loves a comeback and voters won't be able to resist hearing that music as Rocky takes the stage. The place will go nuts.      

Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara, Carol
Rachel McAdams, Spotlight
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

*Spotlight's Rachel McAdams is a non-starter, relegated to background player in an ensemble role that should have been developed enough to earn her this. If they're interested in giving out a career award, there's no better option than Jennifer Jason Leigh, who is somehow only now receiving her first nomination. But The Hateful Eight's lack of presence in other major categories and Tarantino hate still running strong would prevent me from putting any money on it. And as much as I admire Steve Jobs and Kate Winslet's chameleon-like performance, the subtlety of it will probably be lost on Academy members who prefer the actress in bigger, showier roles. So, it's a battle between two ingenues in Rooney Mara and Alicia Vikander. Given Oscar's storied history of anointing the the next "It Girl" in this category, Vikander's 2015 double shot of The Danish Girl and Ex Machina (for which many believe she should have been nominated instead) puts her over the top. If just barely. As usual, be wary of a possible upset in what's annually been the tightest contest.      

Best Visual Effects
Ex Machina
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Best Film Editing
The Big Short
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Best Production Design
Bridge of Spies
The Danish Girl
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant

Best Adapted Screenplay
Charles Randolph and Adam McKay, The Big Short
Nick Hornby, Brooklyn
Phyllis Nagy, Carol
Drew Goddard, The Martian
Emma Donoghue, Room

*In a perfect world, Room's Emma Donaghue would easily take this for pulling off the rare trick of successfully adapting her own novel. She would be my choice, but unfortunately three other adaptations fit more squarely into the Academy's wheelhouse. It isn't Drew Goddard, who's the odd man out with The Martian's inexplicable inclusion, with his script being that film's weakest aspect. Nick Hornby and Phyllis Nagy may be in the same boat for Brooklyn and Carol, respectively. Both are well regarded without being well regarded enough to take this. But don't count either out, especially Brooklyn, which, like Room, was liked enough to earn a Best Picture nod. The winners will likely be The Big Short's Chris Randolph and Adam McKay, who accomplished the seemingly impossible feat of adapting Michael Lewis' impenetrable book about the housing and credit bubble into a more easily digestible (if still impenetrable) piece of entertainment.   

Best Original Screenplay
Matt Charman, Joel Coen, and Ethan Coen, Bridge of Spies
Alex Garland, Ex Machina
Pete Docter, Megg LeFauve, and Josh Cooley, Inside Out
Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff, Straight Outta Compton

*Just the names "Joel and Ethan Coen" over Bridge of Spies' credits assures at least the chance at a potential upset. The challenge will be in reminding voters they had anything to do with that script. When praising Inside Out, everyone seems to place an emphasis on its surprisingly deep and insightful script. Unfortunately, the Animated Feature category exists partially to prevent the film from winning in categories like these. Ex Machina is a really inspired choice but it came out too early in the year and it's doubtful enough voters saw it. Besides, it's just too cool for them, which is a shame since Garland's script is probably the most deserving here. There's NO WAY voters are honoring the two white writers of Straight Outta Compton while the film was overlooked in every other category. Just imagine how that would go over. That leaves us with Spotlight, which has to win something. This is likely it.

Best Original Score
Thomas Newman, Bridge of Spies
Carter Burwell, Carol
Ennio Morricone, The Hateful Eight
Jóhann Jóhansson, Sicario
John Williams, Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Best Foreign Language Film
Colombia: Embrace of the Serpent
France: Mustang
Hungary: Son of Saul
Jordan: Theeb
Denmark: A War

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Brie Larson, Room
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy
Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

*It's great when the Academy gets it right. Brie Larson's going to win and most definitely deserves to, making for my most appreciated outcome of the night, and easily the past few years. I could waste time dwelling on all the nominees' chances (in short: Joy flopped hard, Rampling blew what little shot she had with controversial diversity comments, Blanchett just won this and Ronan's nod feels more like an invite into an exclusive club) but this space is better served recognizing an actress I'm not only a big fan of, but have actually written A LOT about. What's most amazing is that most of these are supporting roles and it still doesn't cover even smaller ones like Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Greenberg or The Spectacular Now, where she also made huge impressions. 

In honor of Brie's potential win, I gathered a collection of choice review quotes of mine praising her work, including an eerily accurate prediction from 2014's The Gambler, a unique, underrated remake I seem to appreciate more and more each time I think back to it. Searching for an excuse to talk about it again, I couldn't be more pleased it's happening under these circumstances While some feel Brie's part was a throwaway or underdeveloped, it's a testament to her talent that even its director has apologetically admitted that's exactly the reason she was needed to do it. And she's really good, regardless of how anyone feels about the film, which does rightfully have its supporters. 

Incorrectly dubbed an overnight sensation, Larson's actually been kicking around in the industry for over 15 years, starting as a child actor and sometimes pop star, sharing the screen at various points with co-stars as insanely eclectic as Bob Saget, Toni Collette, Jimmy Buffett, Chris Kattan and Tony Danza. Looking and acting so completely different from film-to-film that few could pick her out of a lineup, it wasn't until the brilliant Short Term 12 a couple of years ago that she really turned the corner and exploded. And now, here we are. So, congrats in advance to one of my absolute favorites, somewhat easing the blow of what happened to Michael Keaton last year. Not many Oscar wins have me jumping out of my seat. This one will.

"....the biggest credit to the maturity and wit Larson brings to the role is that we're genuinely rooting for Hill's character to win this girl over and laughing too hard to even consider the moral and legal ramifications of an undercover cop picking up a high school student."- from 21 Jump Street review (8/9/12)

"And doing a complete 180 from her recent role in 21 Jump Street, an almost unrecognizable Brie Larson goes head to head with Harrelson in the emotional family scenes as his rebellious daughter" -from Rampart review (8/14/12)

One of the toughest things to convey as actor are hidden reserves of surprising strength or deep pain. Larson is able to do both, sometimes at once, and because we start with so much respect for the character and her relationship with her boyfriend and these teens, when she's forced to finally pull back the curtain on her life, the reveal is almost unbearable to take." -from Short Term 12 review (4/26/14)

"In a nearly wordless, dialogue-free performance, Brie Larson's face may be buried in her phone texting as Jon's sister, Monica, but conveys more with an occasional eye roll or sideways glance than most other actresses would with pages of dialogue." -from Don Jon review (5/28/15)

"Larson captivates as usual in the limited role, further confirming suspicions that Jennifer Lawrence probably needs to watch her back in the years ahead."-from The Gambler review (8/2/15)

"As Kim, Brie Larson is given an arguably undeveloped role she still manages to do a lot with, allowing us to see through her how Amy turned into such a disaster." -from Trainwreck review (9/16/15)

"...Larson really plunges the depths of this character in much the same way she did a couple of years ago in Short Term 12, taking a strong-willed caregiver and completely unraveling her as inner demons take over. Before long, it's apparent she's plummeted into near-helpless state."-from Room review (1/18/16)

Best Actor
Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
Matt Damon, The Martian
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

*It's time. He's due. The planets have aligned. Whichever phrase you want to use, Leo is taking home the Oscar and the only remaining question is which of the remaining nominees stand the best chance of pulling an upset that won't happen. Eddie Redmayne won last year and he won't be repeating given that The Danish Girl was even more poorly received than The Theory of Everything, but lacking the goodwill his performance in the latter had. Damon's work in The Martian is fun, but hardly Oscar worthy. In a stronger year, he's not even here. Fassbender gave the best male performance of 2015 in Steve Jobs, but too many people are inexplicably put off by the film, which flopped.

If DiCaprio somehow doesn't win, they would go for the popular Cranston who's popular enough in the industry to come one step closer to winning the EGOT. His biggest competition might not be DiCaprio, but Walter White. How do you top that? If only Trumbo were a better film and this wasn't Leo's year. But it is. And he's winning. Very few could claim he doesn't deserve it and we shouldn't be surprised if he wins a few more before he's done. And though it partially is, this doesn't feel like a "career achievement" award because the performance itself is deserving. The physicality he brings to the role of The Revenant's Hugh Glass stands out as being completely different than anything else he's done before.    

Best Director
Adam McKay, The Big Short
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Revenant
Lenny Abrahamson, Room
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight

*Only two filmmakers have managed to win back-to-back directing statues in Oscar history so it can be done. And while I'm not sure how I feel about Iñárritu joining the exclusive company of John Ford and Joseph Mankiewicz when so many legendary directors have none, he will pull it off. There's no reason he shouldn't given the wave of momentum The Revenant is currently riding. Voters are more likely to be impressed he quickly followed up Birdman with something dramatically different than grouchy he's winning two in a row. If anything, it shows his range and they'll want to reward that.  

Spotlight isn't a director's film at all. The phrase, "The nomination is reward enough" has never been more applicable than it is this year to The Big Short's Adam McKay. Considering the skill it takes to direct two actors (one of them a child) in a single contained space for half the film and make it that compelling, Lenny Abrahamson should be seen as a bigger threat. Oddly, he's not. The strongest competition is Mad Max's 70-year-old George Miller and if we're talking purely about direction, he arguably accomplished the biggest feat of the year. If there's a Picture/Director split, he's winning. But there won't be. Iñárritu has this in the bag.      
Best Picture
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant

*We can agree right away that Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn and The Martian (which shouldn't be here) don't stand a chance, with each just not having enough critical or commercial support to go the distance. We can pretty much cross out any films that don't have a corresponding directing nomination, which makes this much easier. And as painful as this is for me to admit, we have to eliminate my beloved Room, which lacks that all-important film editing nod. This leaves us with Spotlight, The Big Short, Mad Max and The Revenant. Logic would indicate the Revenant lacking a screenplay nomination (or some would argue even much of a story) and The Big Short winning the Producer's Guild award, makes the latter an odds on favorite. Then common sense took over and people started to realize you can't just rely on statistics. The Big Short is polarizing and confusing. Movies like that don't win Best Picture, and especially if it's classified as a comedy.

The Academy would never give Best Picture to a genre film, even one as great as Mad Max, and still be able to look at themselves in the mirror the next day. Consider the fact that this and The Martian got a nominations a huge achievement in itself. Spotlight is a strong, solid choice if only it wasn't missing something. Namely a "wow" factor that all previous Best Picture winners have had. It doesn't feel BIG or emotional enough. Understated qualities that critics appreciate are sometimes not shared by the Academy, which is clearly the issue here. No matter what you think of it, The Revenant does feel big enough, containing the necessary scope, vision and emotion that most previous winners possess. It also boasts the most impressive filmmaking. Looking at the 8 nominees, it's tough to imagine voters won't feel it's the one, checking all their boxes, and making Iñárritu the only director in history to have his films win back-to-back Best Picture Oscars.

Sunday, February 21, 2016


Director: Tom McCarthy
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Brian d'Arcy James, Billy Crudup, Jamey Sheridan
Rating: R
Running Time: 129 min.

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Spotlight is a very specific kind of film in that it's a meat and potatoes procedural that doesn't wallow in emotions or dwell in the moment. Director Tom McCarthy's characters are on a deadline, back when the phrase "on a deadline" was a thing. When it carried a sense of urgency because print journalism was still alive and kicking. For those who remember that phrase, used it, or relished watching characters in movies that did, this story is yours. What it's actually about is another issue altogether, depicting the true events of 2001, when The Boston Globe uncovered a massive child molestation scandal and cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese. And it reveals the "how" in painstaking detail. Step-by-step. Witness-by-witness. Clearly and concisely. There's little doubt it's a tight film, but also operating on an entirely different level in depicting where journalism was then as opposed to now. 

It's almost embarrassing to admit how effectively Spotlight takes us back to a simpler time since it dates any writer my age or older who'd agree it doesn't really feel like THAT long ago.  It was back when reporters were given slack to fact check big stories. When those in charge of major publications went to great lengths to insure the information disseminated to the public was accurate. When newspapers were not only trusted and respected, but even wielded some degree of prestige and power. This is essential because if these events occurred now, the entire film could be relegated to a tweet that appears on screen, truthful or not. And make no mistake that Spotlight is first and foremost about uncovering the truth. It's no wonder critics and writers have been going gaga over it since McCarthy's film not only makes this airtight case against these predators, but objectively rallies behind the type of journalism it took to nail them.

In 2001, new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber) joins The Boston Globe, where he'll oversee the Spotlight team, a small group of journalists tasked with writing in-depth, investigative articles that often take months of research before finally going to press. After discovering an earlier Globe column about the Archbishop of Boston's potential knowledge of a priest sexually abusing children and the lawyer who tried prosecuting it, Marty urges editors Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton) and Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) to have their Spotlight team dig into it. 

Reporters Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James), track down and interview key witnesses before discovering that this entire scandal could be larger and travel higher up on the food chain than anyone imagined. But as they inch closer, they must wrestle with not only their own moral conflicts regarding these revelations, but those within the powerful Catholic Church determined to squash the story.

While this is primarily a process movie, it's littered with little moments within that process that transcend that material and turn it into something that cuts deeper. Whether it's the sudden realization by a Globe reporter that pedophiles almost literally live next door or another investigative team member coming face-to-face with a priest all too eager to not only admit his transgressions, but sickly and proudly rationalize them on the record. It's scenes like that, as well as the testimonials from a variety of different victims, witnesses and lawyers that run the gamut in terms of their experiences, giving the film its necessary emotional kick.

It's in the newsroom scenes where information is often gathered without today's unlimited reliance on the internet that will make these reporters' jobs virtually obsolete in only a few years. They go to the library for research. They physically haul books and records down the stairs. Notes are taken with only a pen and paper. For the team, most of whom grew up in this city that feels more like a close-knit neighborhood, they're tasked with exposing the corruption and sin they believed the Catholic Church was there to shelter them from.

Ruffalo's Mike Rezendes is most shaken by the revelations, but thankfully also the most stubborn, pushing lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (well played by Stanley Tucci) for any witnesses or evidence that could break a story that should have theoretically hit the presses years ago. Why it didn't and The Boston Globe's oblivious complicity in that serves to only heighten the film's statement that there's never a shortage of people willing to turn the other cheek for a variety of reasons, regardless of how heinous the crime. 

With a newsroom role that recalls his fantastic turn in Ron Howard's criminally overlooked The Paper, Michael Keaton shines as Robinson, the Spotlight editor torn between his close relationships within the Church, the editorial decisions of a new boss he may not necessarily agree with, and employees who often disagree with him. Keaton plays it straight down the middle, fairly and sensibly, reminding us that while he often excels at crazy, he's as equally skilled at subtlety. If last year was his comeback, now we're starting to reap the rewards. 

Schreiber's performance as Jewish outsider Marty Baron is so quietly commanding and natural it's sometimes easy to forget Barron's even in the room, much less controlling and guiding the entire investigation. We're prepared for a hotshot coming in to tell everyone how to do their jobs, but the actor makes an interesting choice in playing the Globe's new editor as a professional listener entirely cognizant of the fact there are two possible stories you can take to print. Only one will make the necessary impact. 

If the inclusion of John Slattery's Ben Bradlee, Jr. represents one of the picture's many tangent connections to All The President's Men, both the character and performance aren't all that far removed from Mad Men's Roger Sterling, which can never be a bad thing. It's somewhat perplexing that along with Ruffalo, the Academy chose to also honor Rachel McAdams' information-gathering turn as Sacha Pfeiffer with a nomination. It's not that there's anything especially wrong or underwhelming in what she does, but that it's difficult to recall what was done, as she's saddled with what's easily the least developed part of the major players, bringing little more than what's written on the page. If we are doling out an Oscar nod, either Schreiber, Ruffalo or Keaton would have been more worthy candidates.

For journalism junkies, watching this might rank as the cinematic equivalent of biting into a big, juicy steak, and if there are criticisms to be leveled, it's likely to come from more casual moviegoers looking for more sizzle than substance. It's easy to argue McCarthy is so justifiably enamored with the reporting procedures that we have to occasionally remind ourselves what the movie's actually about. And when we do, the realization sets it in that it's still all about journalism and the devolving newspaper industry before anything else. This includes the actual crimes, and at one point, even 9/11, which McCarthy presents as almost an unexpected obstacle on their way to obtaining sealed court documents for their story. Unlike the aforementioned All The President's Men or the more recent Zodiac, this isn't visually memorable or even all that inventively directed, but like both, it succeeds in taking us deep inside the newsroom and along for the ride. That something this flawlessly constructed only suffers when compared to those two behemoths has to be a good sign. In getting its story right, Spotlight proves to be as focused, thorough and determined as its characters.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Mad Max: Fury Road

Director: George Miller
Starring: Tom Hardy, Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Hugh Keays-Byrne, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Zoë Kravitz, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton, Josh Helman, Nathan Jones
Running Time: 120 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

There's always that risk of feeling completely lost or out of the loop when the latest film in a long-running franchise with which you have no familiarity is released. And in the rare event it's celebrated to the extent that George Miller's Mad Max: Fury Road is, it's easy to have a debate in your head whether you should even go through the trouble of seeing it. While that might be a close-minded thing to say, we all have those blank spaces in our moviegoing and it's a legitimate concern that my inability to get around to watching 1979's Mad Max, 1981's Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior or 1985's Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome could create a self-inflicted roadblock in any potential appreciation of the new film. But 10 minutes in, the female protagonist drives her War Rig right through those preconceived notions and I'm completely sold, up to speed and fully engulfed in the universe Miller created and has now returned to. No explanations necessary because it's right there on the screen, so much so that it takes until about an hour for an actual conversation to occur. In many ways, this should have been the highest-grossing movie worldwide because it speaks the one universal language: Action. Everything revealed is done so visually, and once Miller gets his hooks in, your his.

Technically, this delivers unlike any recent entry in the sci-fi/action genre, with effects, production design, action sequences and cinematography so spectacular you must be thinking this is some kind of a joke as you watch, mouth agape at what's transpiring.  If it's a common, justified complaint that we're beaten down every year by uninspired computer-generated mayhem, this is its cure and a beating I'd gladly take again with a smile on my face. Striving for artistic excellence absent in most movies of its ilk, it tells its story expertly with a hardly a misstep to be found. Hearing that a certain movie "needs to seen in a theater" usually causes my eyes to immediately roll back into my head, but the size and scope of this project legitimately demands it. Those prematurely proclaiming it one of the greatest action movies of all-time may only have to wait a few years before discovering the possibility they weren't that far off the mark.

Set in a future, post-apocalyptic desert wasteland where water and gasoline are in short supply, the grizzled Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is captured by a group of War Boys, led by the ruthless Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who takes him to the Citadel where he'll be imprisoned as a blood donor. But when Joe sends out one of his lieutenants, Furiosa (Charlize Theron), in a rig to collect gasoline, he realizes she's stolen his Five Wives selected for breeding and gone off course, double-crossing him. Joe enlists an entire army, including a sick War Boy named Nux (Nicholas Hoult) who will stop at nothing to impress him, and has Max strapped to the hood of his truck for blood supply. Looking to make it to the "Green Place" with the women and escape Joe's tyranny, Furiosa's path will cross with Max and Nux's, resulting in a combustible situation that test everyone's loyalty and will to survive.

There's a thrilling chase sequence that seems to last about twenty minutes in the front half of the picture and  the highest compliment that can be given to it is that you don't feel as if your senses have been pummeled and are actually looking forward to whatever follows. Since Miller and cinematographer John Seale are such pros at sfilming these scenes, the action is the setup and there's never a doubt as to what's happening at any given moment. One of the script's biggest strengths is that we're immediately keyed in to the decisions these characters make and why without the burden of needless expository dialogue.

Furiosa's motivations are clear early on, as she intends to be the one who shakes things up, leading a surprising rebellion that lets Immortan Joe (clad in a terrifying Skeletor-like breathing mask) know that, even in a desperate, post-apocalyptic wasteland, these women aren't his property, nor is anyone else. And Theron is in full ass-kicking mode, giving the one-armed Furiosa a death stare that would send any potential threat heading for the hills before she even throws a punch or fires a shot, both of which she does plenty of. The arc of Hardy's Max and Hoult's Nux is a little more complicated, but no less riveting.

As the maniacal loner and prisoner finally getting a taste of freedom, there's an air of mystery surrounding what Max will actually do with it because he's flat-out dangerous. He could easily align with Furiosa or become her and the girls' worst enemy at the drop of a hat and while Hardy's performance has widely been labeled as merely sufficient in the face of Theron's, it's worth considering how effortlessly he replaces Mel Gibson with hardly anyone noticing. Nux's job as a character is to essentially sacrifice himself for Joe's greater cause so what resonates about Hoult in the role is how the realization slowly washes over him that it may not be worth it and he'd rather be a human being than a weapon. And The Five Wives (played by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Riley Keough, Zoë Kravitz, Abbey Lee and Courtney Eaton) are hardly portrayed as passive damsels in distress, often taking a surprisingly active roles in the carnage as Miller also lets each of their personalities shine through, simultaneously subverting and exploiting their supermodel images for the good of the story.

This feels entirely like how action movies used to be made in the 1980's and it's arguable the chase scenes and action sequences (which pretty much compose every minute of its length) give Star Wars: The Force Awakens a run for its money in terms of production design and its balance of CGI and practical effects. You could call Miller's creation a throwback but doing so would almost imply it isn't the real thing or in any way feels like a reboot or remake in any traditional sense. There's a lot to take in at once in terms of what's on screen so it's not unusual that your jaw suddenly drops at the visual inventiveness of  it all, such as the guitar player strapped to the front of the rig or the "polecats" of Joe's army.   And because there's so little dialogue, the music has to carry much of the load, with Junkie XL's recognizably pulse-pounding score more than delivering the goods.

As big an achievement as this is, and how little it feels directed by a 70-year-old, it's accomplishments are primarily technical, making it difficult to gauge just how much stayed with me after the credits rolled. It's easy to imagine watching the movie multiple times with little difficulty because it's so exciting, but there is a nagging worry that its pleasures, as considerable as they are, may only run skin deep. Of course, this could just be a side effect of it being a genre picture or possibly where my unfamiliarity with the franchise prevents it from leaving the long-lasting impact it would on someone who grew up with the original films.

While nostalgia admittedly went a long way in covering for some of The Force Awakens' shortcomings in the minds of many, it's nearly impossible to level that accusation here. And there's nothing at all average in the execution of it, as Miller temporarily breaks down the barrier that's historically prevented action movies from gaining critical respectability. Thematically, there is more to it if you're willing to read between the lines to see this as a Biblical allegory about feminism, war, oppression or the environment, but Fury Road's ultimate value comes in the pure joy of just simply experiencing it.