Sunday, April 16, 2017

Snowden



Director: Oliver Stone
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Scott Eastwood, Logan Marshall-Green, Timothy Olyphant, Ben Schnetzer, LaKeith Lee Stanfield,
Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage
Running Time: 134 min.
Rating: R

★★★ (out of ★★★★)

At what cost? That question runs through Oliver Stone's Snowden, and the controversial figure around which his film revolves, government whistleblower Edward Snowden, who in 2013 infamously leaked to the media classified information on mass surveillance being conducted by the National Security Agency. Such a hot-button topic would seem ideal for Stone, the maverick director and Vietnam vet who's made a career of tackling socially and politically charged material with an "in your face" style in films like JFK, Natural Born Killers and Nixon. But that Oliver Stone is gone. Already showing signs of it with his relatively fair, if even somewhat sympathetic, treatment of President George W. Bush in 2008's underrated W., Stone's interest in pushing buttons has diminished considerably in recent years. On one hand, it's a shame since it's never been more necessary, but on another, it's easy to argue he's earned the right and can't be expected to keep repeating himself. A straightforward but exceptionally well made biopic, Snowden represents more of this new, slicker, mainstream Stone uninterested in courting "controversy."

What this does contain is ideas and a sense of urgency surrounding an issue that shouldn't really be all that controversial on paper. It's pretty simple and boils down to whether you feel the moral price of our security is worth the cost of giving up a certain amount of our constitutional freedom. But where you stand on that issue may determine not only to your personal feelings on Snowden and his actions, but perhaps even which side of the political fence you fall. In that sense, it's touchy, and the film does a compelling job dramatizing both sides of that ethical dilemma, even in scenes you wouldn't expect. It also contains a romantic subplot that doesn't feel like one, less a throwaway than a natural and pertinent extension of the main plot, featuring characters whose futures we care about despite our familiarity with the outcome.

As tame as Stone's become, anyone expecting complete impartiality won't get it, with the screenplay clearly showing an allegiance to Snowden, played by a scarily well cast Joseph Gordon-Levitt as kind of a tragic antihero to be revered and celebrated for his sacrifices. Make of Stone's stance what you will, but anyone that shocked or even offended the government has these capabilities probably have their heads buried in the sand. Snowden wasn't telling us anything we really shouldn't have assumed already. The real question was whether he had the right to do it and the potentially dangerous precedent that's set when someone does.

Based on two non-fiction books covering the events, the film picks up in 2013, with Ed Snowden (Gordon-Levitt) hauled up in a Hong Kong hotel room secretly meeting with documentarian and Citizenfour director Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) and journalists Glen Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskell (Tom Wilkinson). Preparing to spill his guts to them while simultaneously releasing of the NSA's top secret surveillance data to the media, flashbacks paint a complicated picture of Snowden, an antisocial conservative who finds himself working for the cyberwarfare arm of the CIA after being discharged from the Army.

Snowden picks up the intricacies quickly, becoming a star student of  Deputy Director Corbin O'Brian (Rhys Ifans) before moving on to the NSA and making some disturbing discoveries about how the government is acquiring data and potentially violating citizens' rights. As his disillusionment grows, the only constant is free-spirited girlfriend Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley), an Obama-supporting liberal who tolerates his opposing political beliefs up to the point where even he starts to doubt them, the stress of his job eventually threatening his health and that of their relationship. Armed with incriminating evidence that can shake the U.S. government to its core, Snowden makes a fateful decision, insuring that his life will never be the same again.

A lot of information is dispensed about Snowden's background and what there is to glean of his personality, which can best be described as "robotic." It's an adjective he's even assigned to himself, as he often comes across as someone suffering from some kind of anti-social disorder, demonstrating behaviors that don't seem all that dissimilar from Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network. While lacking that character's worst narcissistic tendencies, Snowden's intelligence is undeniably his worst enemy at times, as well as his most dangerous weapon. Holding political beliefs in direct opposition to what he eventually does, his time in the CIA and NSA trenches establish him as an important cog in the government's machine, his cyber skills essential in their burgeoning electronic surveillance program. But as his climbs the ranks, the more he sees, and the more his anxiety and guilt grow.

This isn't an easy role to play as far as real-life public figures go, or even otherwise, as in the place of a distinctive personality, Snowden is imbued with a rote, mechanical sense of duty that's eventually shaken. Lowering an already deep voice a few octaves lower, JGL has the flat affect and emotionless verbal delivery down pat and looks enough like his subject, but where he really excels in capturing Snowden's inner struggle. The government's actions contradict everything he signed on for but risking the comfort and security his occupation provides Lindsay and himself in the name of "doing what's right" may not be worth the price.

It's a credit to Stone and Kieran Fitzgerld's screenplay that Edward's relationship with Lindsay isn't treated as an afterthought with the latter having thoughts, complaints and opinions worth listening to and fighting about, as an impressive Woodley confidently sidesteps the trap that too often marginalizes girlfriend characters in male-driven biopics. Strong in a role she seems ideal for, audiences will undoubtedly draw parallels between the actress and the idealistic hippie she portrays. The presentation of Snowden as a selfish, thoughtless boyfriend consumed by his job could be viewed as the director's conscious effort to pacify potential critics of the character's fairly reverent treatment throughout. Or it could just simply be true.       

The action doesn't necessarily move at a breakneck pace and we aren't marveling at the editing as we would with Stone's classic 80's and 90's offerings. And while crisply photographed by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle, you'd be hard-pressed to find supporters championing it for a spot in the top tier of the director's best looking films. It speaks volumes that even Nicolas Cage's virtual cameo (as a U.S. Intelligence official) isn't crazy at all, perfectly serving its function like most of the other moving parts in the story. And that's completely fine. Stone trusts the extraordinary subject do most of the work, recounting events presumably as they happened with little space for editorializing.

Toward its third act, it fully evolves into this gripping thriller, culminating in a jarring transition that melds real life and movies in a way you've never quite seen before in a biopic, making you appreciate the lead performance that much more. Controversy isn't everything when it can be just as effective taking a logically straightforward approach to telling an exceptional story. With Snowden it rings especially true, as the scariest part of it all is just how flawed and relatable the protagonist is, offering up the very real possibility that anyone placed into similar circumstances are capable of making the choices he did.
                   

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

My Top 10 Films of 2012


*Note: The following is part of the continuing "10 FOR 10" series in celebration of ten years of Jeremy The Critic, in which my choices for the top 10 films of each year from 2006-2015 are revealed. Just a reminder that movies must have a U.S. release date of that particular year in order to qualify.

Previous Posts:
2006
2007
2008
2009
2010
2011

2012

It's back.  After going on a mini-hiatus while I focused on the Academy Awards, the second half of 10 for 10 project resumes with 2012, and as you can tell by how the list below turned out, it's definitely a turning point. The two films I expected would have the strongest showings (Silver Linings Playbook and Looper) didn't chart nearly that high. In the case of the former, it seems to continue a trend that's been developing since this series began. The films with the most substance and don't have any edges shaved in order to commercially entertain are looming larger in my mind the further way from their release date they get.

As for Looper, you could say this continues another trend of sci-fi cracking the top ten without really breaking through to the top tier. It's entirely possible we make it to 2015 without either a romantic comedy or sci-fi entry in the number one position. But on the off-shot it does occur, I'll at least know it's of a special breed. This isn't to say these aforementioned films don't still represent high-water marks for their respective directors and wouldn't be a worthy top choice in any year.

2012 also marks the strongest showing yet for independent cinema, with a few lesser known titles like Compliance, Take This Waltz and, most surprisingly, the Canadian sci-fi mind-bender, Beyond The Black Rainbow (more known now thanks to its similarities to Netflix's Stranger Things) making a big, lasting impact. The former two came dangerously close to the top, with Waltz being the highest-ranked unreviewed film from any of these Top 10's so far, finally offering me the opportunity to praise a woefully overlooked effort containing Michelle Williams' greatest, yet still least seen, performance.

While it might be a cliche to call 2012 kind of a breakthrough year for actresses, it's impossible to ignore that three of the decade's finest lead performances, of any gender, reside on this list, with the first female-lead (and directed) picture nabbing the top spot. You'd think I'd be politicized out but Zero Dark Thirty is just that great and gripping, marking the rare time my number one identically matches most of the critical consensus. And those who think it's at all political are simply reading into something that thankfully isn't there. It's too smart for that. And what an ending. 

Somehow, again, Paul Thomas Anderson makes a film that doesn't land in my top position, but boy did his odd and idiosyncratic pseudo-Scientology biopic The Master come close, only further bolstered by it featuring one the last (and career-defining) performances of a true acting master, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman. And it still feels wrong and oddly unsettling typing the word "late" before his name, as if it hasn't completely sunk in.

Rounding out the rest are a somewhat underrated Best Picture winner in Argo and Tarantino squeezing his way in yet again with Django Unchained. My wildly unpopular opinion that The Dark Knight Rises is twice the film its predecessor is still holds, even as it barely cracks the list. A sure sign that the era of the superhero movie ended for me right then and there. With this much competition it really isn't a much of wonder why SLP and Looper couldn't hold on up top.

The depth of this year really becomes apparent when considering runners-up that barely missed, all of which could easily be plugged in at a second's notice. They include Searching For Sugar Man, Bernie, Moonrise Kingdom, Safety Not Guaranteed, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Rust and Bone, Life of Pi, The Imposter, Flight, Smashed, Skyfall, 21 Jump Street, Sound of My Voice, Haywire, Hit and Run and The Grey. 

   
10. Django Unchained


"Whereas Inglourious Basterds mostly played it straight until its third act, morphing into an alternate history revenge fantasy flick, Django is a revenge fantasy through and through, from the opening credits onward. It's also a spaghetti Western, a blaxploitation picture and a buddy film.The biggest surprise is in how it starts as an action comedy not too far removed from something like Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and slowly morphs into something darker, calling the country out on its own shamefully racist past as the title character steps up to take ownership of his own story. When analyzing Tarantino's films, the popular approach is always to compare them, not to other works, but his own, which is unusual considering how many influences and inspirations he incorporates. Maybe it's finally time to admit he's more original than we give him credit for." - 5/30/13 

   
9. Beyond The Black Rainbow


"The basic plot of Beyond The Black Rainbow is easy to buy into if taken on its own twisted, psychedelic terms. Something about a crazed scientist named Dr. Barry Nyle (a creepy Michael Rogers) conducting experiments on a young telepathic girl, Elena, (Eva Allen) at a New Age research facility in 1984. And it's all beside the point amidst its avalanche of trippy visuals and existential dread. What can't be believed is that writer/director Panos Cosmatos made a film that looks this good on a budget this small and goes many steps further than merely setting it in 1984, but channeling the very year itself in its entire DNA. From the synths to the production design, nothing about it feels contemporary. There's such a thing as an "homage,"  and then there's what Cosmatos does here, transposing all his VHS cover childhood nightmares into a merciless concoction of mushroom-tripping originality. Most sci-fi feels the need to explain, looking silly as a result. This knows it job. Simply show and amaze, overloading your senses until your mind feels beaten into submission."


8. The Dark Knight Rises


"A palpable sense of fear and tension comes from sensing everything's up for grabs and anything can happen. And it mostly does. There seems to be no rules, but within that framework, Nolan still manages to create something structurally sound and airtight, free of filler and flaws. Nearly three hours breeze by without a minute wasted. Of course, there's no performance like Ledger's, but there shouldn't be. In fact, it wouldn't even fit here. What's delivered instead is a more ambitious threat both terrifyingly physical and deliberately planned, as well as two tour-de-force supporting turns that steal the film outright. The results on screen don't lie. But the real story isn't how much better this is than Nolan's previous Batman outings, or anything else in the genre. It's that it isn't even close."  - 7/27/12


7. Argo


"It's almost too obvious to compare Affleck's creative transformation to Clooney's, so it might be more accurate to point out that he's simply completed his transformation into Ben Affleck, fulfilling (if not exceeding) his full potential as a director and actor. After this, the sky really seems to be the limit in terms of what he can do, having gone even a step further than Clooney in not only taking inspiration from the paranoid thrillers of the 70's, but actually setting one in that time period based on actual events. To call this his Syriana or Good Night, and Good Luck. wouldn't be far off, except it's better realized, taking what could have come off as a dry history lecture in lesser hands and molding and shaping it into suspenseful, first-class entertainment." - 12/9/12


6. Looper


"(Director Rian) Johnson has all the cards lined up so we accept (Willis) in the role immediately and without question. In one of the film's most thrilling sequence, we see a montage depicting the evolution from Young Joe into Old Joe and the events that eventually send him back to meet his younger self. It could have been such a mess, but it's done in under 10 minutes, visually mapped out with no dialogue. But the real turning point comes when the two Joes come face to face during a diner conversation. There's almost a father-son dynamic at work between them, as the older, more experienced Joe tries to lecture his younger counterpart, who he sees as really just a young punk who hasn't lived yet. Unfortunately, Old Joe's clock is running out and the only person truly in control of his destiny is sitting across the table from him." - 1/9/13


5. Silver Linings Playbook


"It's one of those tiny miracles that sometimes happen after you've cast a movie and realize all the actors attached dropped out for a reason and the cards aligned as such so that we could see these two stars appear together on screen, with a comic rhythm and energy that's unmatched. It's obvious from the characters' first awkwardly hilarious meeting, continuing into each succeeding scene. There's beauty in seeing a standard set-up being taken places we've never seen before because of the conviction of the performances and pitch-perfect direction.The film often alternates wildly between emotional displays of anger and depression and flat-out hysterical comedy without missing a beat, often within a single scene. And Lawrence and Cooper are there with it the entire time, hitting just the right notes." - 1/24/13


4. Take This Waltz


"In not only asking audiences to examine why people cheat, but actually giving what amounts to an almost embarrassingly real and ugly concrete answer, writer/director Sarah Polley centers her story around a woman almost too clumsily unsure of herself to commit adultry and betray milquetoast husband Lou (a never better Seth Rogen). Cast completely against type, Michelle Williams constantly surprises as Margot, a flighty, carefree manic pixie whose inhibitions get stripped away as the script digs deeper, traveling down more introspective avenues than expected. It builds and simmers until she finally breaks, culminating in one of the most expertly staged and filmed sex scenes of the decade, as much of a tension release for viewers as it is for the characters. Often the fake stand-in for movie cities, Polley can actually claim the Toronto setting plays itself here, and beautifully. So does The Buggles' 1979 hit "Video Killed the Radio Star," reintroduced to the world with a melancholic resonance, subtly underlining the lengths we go to try to fix problems that don't exist anywhere but in ourselves."


3. Compliance


"It's easy to come out of this blaming one character but nearly everyone on screen is somewhat responsible, or at least "compliant," in what transpires. And it's worth noting what it takes to end the ordeal, hinting that only someone completely removed from such a dire situation can objectively assess it. Zobel goes further still with an epilogue that asks the same big questions we do of the characters, concluding in a final scene that strangely reminded me of Fargo, conveying that the most deplorable crimes can seem that much worse when committed by small town people you see at the grocery store, go to church with or even get served by at your local fast-food restaurant. Compliance  sparked a certain degree of outrage among a vocal minority who have seen it but not because they feel it couldn't happen. It's because they know it can, and did. Admitting that is tough, especially when the events could so easily involve any one of us." - 3/2/13


2. The Master


"There's this expectation that the film is building toward some kind of climactic showdown between the Dodd and Freddie, similar to the final violent bowling alley scene between Daniel Plainview and preacher Eli Sunday in There Will Be Blood. But this isn't that kind of a relationship, and the more we want to see Freddie break away and become Dodd's nemesis, the further PTA seems to tug in the opposite direction. The battle taking place is within themselves and it each needs the other to help fight it. The movie builds and builds before fading away into the distance, leaving the viewer to consider the possibility that some people just might be incapable of change, hardwired to sabotage their own happiness." - 9/29/12


1. Zero Dark Thirty


"At its core, this is about a woman who's beyond exceptional at her job, steadfastly refusing to take 'no' for an answer. Wherever there's red tape, she walks through it. When superiors are in her way, she plows right over them. Operating with an emotionless, laser-like focus and precision, it's impossible for anyone to deter her from her main objective: Finding and killing Osama Bin Laden. In many respects she's the most patriotic, inspirational protagonist we've seen on screen in some time, but Oscar-winning director Kathryn Bigelow (again corroborating with Hurt Locker writer Mark Boal) won't let us get all warm and fuzzy about it. In fact, she hardly even gives us a moment to come up for air." - 1/31/13

My Top 10 Films of 2012
1. Zero Dark Thirty (dir. Kathryn Bigelow)
2. The Master (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)
3. Compliance (dir. Craig Zobel)
4. Take This Waltz (dir. Sarah Polley)
5. Silver Linings Playbook (dir. David O. Russell)
6. Looper (dir. Rian Johnson)
7. Argo (dir. Ben Affleck)
8. The Dark Knight Rises (dir. Christopher Nolan)
9. Beyond The Black Rainbow (dir. Panos Cosmatos)
10. Django Unchained (dir. Quentin Tarantino)

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Arrival



Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma, Mark O' Brien
Running Time: 116 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

While watching Arrival, it was hard not to be reminded of that classic Twilight Zone episode, "To Serve Man," in which aliens arrive on Earth and there's some miscommunication as to what meaning is intended by their use of the word "serve." Of course, we were too trusting and paid for it with a final twist revealing the episode title to actually be the name of a cookbook. What happens in Arrival could be described as practically the inverse of this, as well as a reflection of just how much has  changed since that episode aired in 1962. While the use of a skilled linguist like the protagonist at this film's center could have easily prevented that mishap, there's no protection against the cynicism, xenophobia and paranoia that surely would take over once the aliens arrive. If such an event were to occur and they were here to do us harm, there's a decent enough chance we'd destroy each other before having a chance at destroying them. There's no mistaking that everyone's default setting would now be one of fear and resistance.

Those are some of the many elements director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Eric Heisserer get right with their cerebral adaptation of Ted Chiang's 1998 novella "Story of Your Life." It spends so much of its running time knee-deep in science and laying out a fairly plausible scenario that it's almost a shock that its final third is devoted to to huge metaphysical and spiritual questioning. But it shouldn't be, since recent sci-fi seems to have fallen in love with the emotional side of the equation, often to these films' detriments. The cynic in me suspects it's a monetarily driven, heart-tugging device used to get families into the theater. In Gravity, it was the memory of a deceased daughter. In Interstellar, it was the bond between father and daughter that broke the boundaries of time and space.

In Arrival, it's again the memory of a deceased daughter that figures heavily into the narrative, but doesn't quite hurt the film to the point of those other two. It's at least organically factored into the story in a way that it inspires thought, even if, like those aforementioned titles, it lays it on a little thick at the end. But it's really at its best when asking the big question: What are their intentions? In other words, to serve man or to serve man? Or maybe it's something else. Tourists just stopping by for a visit? Villeneuve deliberately goes about answering this in a cold, clinical style before opening the floodgates (and for some the tear ducts) in the final third to ask an even bigger, but not entirely unrelated questions about time, determinism and free will. But of the sci-fi films to attempt it, this proves most successful in at least having the brains and patience to satisfyingly follow through on those ideas.

Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguist teaching at a local university who's frequently distracted by memories of her deceased adolescent daughter, who at some point succumbed to cancer. One of her classes comes to an abrupt end when news reports confirm that twelve extraterrestrial spacecraft have appeared to land in various locations across Earth. She's paid a visit by U.S. Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), who's recruiting her and physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) to head a team in deciphering the language of these multi-limbed visitors, referred to as "heptapods."  Despite Louise's initial hesitation, she and Ian are shuttled off to a military camp near one of the spacecrafts in Montana where they'll board and attempt to make sense of a very unfamiliar language, primarily consisting of complicated circular symbols.

For all the headway Louise and Ian make in communicating with these interlopers, the beaurucratic red tape and political unrest between nations make their jobs nearly impossible. Discovering an explanation of the aliens' motives and purpose on Earth proves challenging, unless all the countries' governments can selflessly get on the same page. Louise must also still wrestle with those very fresh, painfully vivid memories of her own daughter, whose life and death seems intrinsically tied to what's happening right now.

It wouldn't be inaccurate to say the film has a set-up that's both narratively and technically masterful, not to mention eerily restrained and realistic. From the moment these mysterious crafts make landfall, there's genuine suspense generated as to its contents, what the aliens look will look like and why  they're here. The story's entire framework is heady, relying heavily on visuals and sound effects once the action shifts into the investigation of the ship itself and possible means of communication. Those expecting another Independence Day will either be disappointed or elated that this shares absolutely nothing in common with an action-oriented project like that, more clearly taking its inspiration from more spiritually-minded SF like Close Encounters of the Third Kind and 2001: A Space Odyssey. And unless you count the familial themes of the former and inherent chilliness of the latter, it's still unfair to claim it closely resembles either of those.

There's real doubt as to how the emotionally fragile Louise will hold up under the physical and psychological pressures of the situation, and at least initially, these concerns are well founded. Heisserer's script makes no bones about the fact that she's a complete mess due to personal tragedy, which seems to be a common, if increasingly tired, affliction affecting female protagonists in sci-fi films. This at least bothers to put somewhat of a new spin on it in the third act, and Adams, the busiest and possibly most over-exposed actress working today gives one of her better internalized performances as Louise in a role that requires quite a bit from her since this isn't an actor's film by any stretch. In fact, the role's kind of subtle, flatlined quality could help explain how the Academy somehow excluded her in the glut of awards season.

Once communication is established to even a minimal extent, the film really soars, offering up fascinating revelations about not only how we'd decipher language in an unusual situation like this, but how we communicate with each other. And Villeneuve believably does all of this step-by-step. Taking a position of empathy and patience with these visitors, Louise fights an uphill battle with Whitaker's hard nosed Col. Weber who wants answer to their motives yesterday, ignoring the fact that charging ahead without the proper preparation and research could have potentially disastrous consequences. There are even points when you wonder why he hired her since he'll clearly do whatever he wishes regardless. Renner's Ian mostly provides a sounding board for Louise's ideas and moral support, until the exact nature of his involvement evolves considerably toward the final act.

This is French-Canadian filmmaker Villeneuve's biggest project yet, having previously directed the well-received Prisoners, Enemy and Sicario. It's also unquestionably his most ambitious, working on a grander scale than we're used to seeing him receive and Jóhann Jóhannsson's buzzing, eerily Kubrickian musical score combined with Bradford Young's creepy, atmospheric cinematography and the Oscar-winning sound design help combine to create an experience that likely puts it a notch above most of his previous efforts, at least technically.

Reactions to the emotional territory it veers into will vary, but without giving too much away, the notion of time becomes a key component, or more specifically our perception of it. By daring to ask the question of whether it's worth forging forward with a happy, fulfilling life as planned knowing certain tragedy awaits, the screenplay cleverly subverts our initial expectations, forcing us to place ourselves in the protagonist's shoes. Of course, in doing so, it can't help but get a little mushy, veering away from the scientific angle that initially made the scenario so compelling. Still, it's impossible to deny that Arrival provokes serious thought and rises above most other entries in the genre by primarily relying on emotion and ideas rather than computer-generated theatrics.
 

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Manchester By The Sea



Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges, Gretchen Mol, C.J. Wilson, Tate Donovan, Kara Hayward, Anna Baryshnikov, Heather Burns, Matthew Broderick
Running Time: 137 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Bleak and almost relentlessly dour, Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea will undoubtedly be a trying watch for anyone with an aversion to large helpings of depression and hopelessness in their cinematic diet. At over two hours and two tragedies later, you'll be reminded it's Oscar season again, if it wasn't already obvious. It's about real people struggling with real problems, but the plot doesn't always take the easy way out by connecting the dots between point A and point B or offering up a pat resolution. For the character Casey Affleck inhabits, there's no possible resolution available that could redeem him or allow him to look in the mirror in the morning without hating the man he sees. It's clear early on that he was involved in something, but even before we're filled in entirely, it's a given it was catastrophic, not only changing the course of his life, but everyone around him. At first he's quite and unassuming, prone to occasional bouts of rage that only intensify upon discovering the amount of responsibility he'll soon take on. He's not ready for it and may never be, but he's the only option left in a sea of bad choices.

While there's no mistaking that Affleck's lead turn is the big draw here, everyone else isn't just merely tagging along for a ride that can best be described as melancholy. Like the tortured protagonist at its center, it's introspective in a way likely to turn off mainstream audiences looking to escape to the movies for a good time. Usually, I'd scoff at the categorization of any film as being "for critics" but this comes closest to fitting the bill with a loose, free-flowing narrative sure to frustrate some. But unrelenting in its fleshing out of emotional pain, it's also intelligent and observant, taking its time telling a story about grief sure to touch, and possibly disturb, anyone forced to go through something even remotely similar, and the many more who haven't.    

Withdrawn, reserved handyman Lee Chandler (Affleck) is working in Quincy, Massachusetts, arguing with tenants by day while drinking and starting bar fights at night. But when Lee gets word from family friend, George (C.J. Wilson) that his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) suffered a heart attack, he rushes up to his hometown of Manchester, only to discover he's passed away. Staying a few days to handle funeral arrangements and break the news to Joe's teen son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), Lee's informed by a lawyer that he's been named by Joe as the boy's guardian.

Unwilling to move back to Manchester and refusing to let Patrick stay with his estranged alcoholic mother, Elise (Gretchen Mol), Lee's insistence on uprooting the teen from his current life and dragging him back to Boston with him causes a contentious rift between the two. Making matters worse is Lee's penchant for acting out and starting trouble, frequently revealing a violent side that clashes with his outwardly quiet nature. Flashbacks to his once happy life with ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) and their three children in Manchester reveal a horrifying tragedy that both explains his refusal to return and the sad, bitter man he's now become. Through Patrick comes the opportunity to reconnect with someone who could use a friend and an uncle, as well as possibly reclaim at least a small piece of himself he lost years ago.

Reading only a description of the two main characters, it would probably be difficult to tell the adult from the child in the picture, at least when based exclusively on their behavior. Taking a somewhat different turn from what's expected, Patrick isn't an angry, rebellious kid acting out in the wake of his father's death. If anything, it's the exact opposite, as he's a really good kid who's surprisingly well adjusted and takes the news of his dad's passing as you'd imagine an understandably devastated but mature person would. Most people would probably be lining up to be this kid's guardian, realizing they could easily do far worse. Unfortunately, Lee's a complete wreck and the thought of him raising any child, even if it's just until he turns 18 in couple of years, is scary proposition given his current emotional state.

Lonergan builds up a good deal of suspense by slowly revealing through flashbacks drips and drabs of Lee's previous, more fulfilling life, all leading up to the incident that destroys everything.  Initially, we're given a peek into his relationship with his brother and nephew during happier times, perhaps providing evidence that he was at one point the ideal choice to look after Patrick should something happen to the long ailing Joe. But then it happens. The accident. Without giving too much away, it's just about the worst possible tragedy that could happen, with responsibility for it laying squarely at Lee's feet.

We already have a general idea what the event is, but once we actually find out, everything about his behavior starts more clearly coming into focus. It's a miracle he can even get up in the morning, much less function at all. And often he can't. Every interaction he has with another human being is strained in some way, with the possibility hovering that he could explode at any moment. There's a flashback scene at the police station following the event that's so difficult to get through it's almost unreal, as Affleck plays Lee as being in such a shocked trance that he's barely present. That is until he gets one piece of information that sends him flying off the deep end, as the realization hits that they'll be no one to punish him for his horrifying mistake but him. And if need be, he'll spend the rest of his sad, miserable days doing so. Calling what Affleck does in the film a "performance" nearly fails to do it justice, as this could more accurately be described as a compulsive study of human behavior in the throes of extreme grief.

With a hangdog expression permanently etched on his face, you can literally sense and feel Lee's pain with each exasperated line of dialogue. You're on edge the whole time, wondering when he'll snap next. Lee's truly given up, which is why his relationship with Patrick, is so crucial to both of them. There's the legitimate risk Lee could drag him down the same rabbit hole of grief and depression, if not for the fact Patrick processes things far differently, sharing few of his uncle's worst inclinations. Lucas Hedges brilliantly downplays what would have been your stereotypical "angry teen," understandably saddened and rattled by his father's death and frustrated by his uncle's inability to compromise on any level. Their interactions provide what might be the only levity and humor in the film, as does Pat's attempts at juggling his two girlfriends, Sylvie (Kara Hayward) and Sandy (Anna Baryshnikov), with Lee in the house.

What initially appears to be extreme selfishness on Lee's part gives way to the truth that he'll never be able to live in Manchester with the specter of that life-destroying event hovering over him. In his own words, he just "can't beat it," and as much as he wants to make that sacrifice for his nephew, the guilt's too consuming, swallowing him up from the inside out. When he finally comes face-to face with ex-wife Randi, the result is the film's most emotionally brutal scene, with Affleck and Michelle Williams putting on a clinic of frustration, forgiveness and outrage as their two characters talk and scream over each other, completing each other's sentences and reading minds in the messy way that only two people who have been through what they have could do. While the scene lasts only a couple of minutes it feels like something that's been slowly simmering from the beginning with the payoff proving to be worth the wait, only further solidifying what we've now long known about the level of Williams' talent. 

A script-driven project if there ever was one, Manchester by the Sea is all about the writing and performances, with everything else falling into place to support that, except for maybe a musical score that seems unnecessarily obtrusive at times. Despite not being from the New England area, Lonergan clearly understands the setting and how its chilly, grey atmosphere enhances the visual storytelling, providing the ideal stage for complex characters who make realistic choices that don't seem to hinge on contrivances or obvious creative force pulling their strings. Spending this much time with characters and a subject that's as dark as it gets, it's somewhat of a miracle that it's this engaging. By no means an easy movie to wrap your arms around or even rewatch, it's ultimately a rewarding one, anchored in no small part by Casey Affleck's most complex, nuanced work to date.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Many Burning Questions from the 2017 Oscars



Wouldn't issues with the show's length be helped by starting even just a half hour earlier?

Boy, they're really getting the nominated songs out of the way early this year, aren't they?

Shouldn't we just be happy they're getting performed on the show at all?

Isn't JT's Trolls song annoyingly catchy?

Remember that year the telecast had more musical performances than the Grammys?

Did you totally expect a La La Land opening?

Even though the Globes did it already?

How long did it take Kimmel to make a political joke?

Wasn't his Great Wall dig at Matt Damon pretty funny?

Forget about Trump, wasn't Streep's ridiculous nomination the real elephant in the room?

Didn't the audience actually look like they were having a good time for a change during Kimmel's monologue?

How long did it take you to remember Alicia Vikander won the Supporting Actress Oscar last year?

With that speech, didn't for Mahershala Ali prove he deserved the night's first standing ovation?

Academy-Award winning Suicide Squad?

Did those winners for costume and makeup just drain a whole lot of Oscar pools?

Don't those categories screw everyone each year?

Did you catch Bill Paxton in that Rolex ad?

Were you still holding out hope that they'd get him into the In Memoriam montage?

Was 2016 O.J.'s year or what?

Is anyone bothered that it really isn't a documentary?

It's been brought up before, but shouldn't The Rock host the Oscars?

Isn't amazing that Lin-Manuel Miranda somehow squeezed into the Oscar race also?

And that he's one victory away from the EGOT?!

Aren't the Original Song nominees fairly strong this year?

Isn't it great we actually get to hear all of them?

What happened to that plan to spend less time between awards to speed things up?

When Kimmel talked about food, were you worried Ellen Degeneres would start delivering pizzas?

Um, so what's the difference between Sound Editing and Sound Mixing again?

Over an hour in and no Oscars for La La Land?

Wasn't it nice of Mel Gibson to bring his daughter to the ceremony?

Shouldn't there really be a casting Oscar already?

Aren't the classic clips of previous winners a great idea?

Who can possibly forget Mark Rylance beating Stallone last year?

Don't you wish you could?

How about that Michelle Williams scene?

Is Jeremy The Critic thrilled she keeps repping Dawson's Creek by bringing Busy Phillips with her every year?

Was Viola winning the certified lock of the night?

Did she scare you with all that talk about cemetaries and dead people?

Speaking of death, weren't you just dying to see a short film based on a Walmart receipt?

Who knew Charlize Theron was such a big fan of The Apartment?

Shouldn't they have more segments during the show with actors discussing their favorite movies?

Isn't that better than doing it... during the nominations announcement?!

Should we be happy or disappointed it took this long to get to an overtly political speech?

Didn't you know it would come during the Foreign Film category, no matter who won?

Could Sting's song be any shorter?

After Gael Garcia Bernnal, were you thinking it's now "game on" with the political stuff?

Were you thinking we could have an interesting night on our hands if La La Land doesn't win for Production Design?

When it did, were you thinking the landslide has started?

Wasn't that whole tour bus bit simultaneously disturbing and train wreck entertaining at the same time?

Didn't Kimmel's wisecracks save it?

These tourists sure like sticking phones in celebrities' faces, don't they?

If you're Meryl Streep, Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, or Denzel Washington, are you secretly or (in Jennifer Aniston's case) not so secretly petrified?

How about that guy who fist bumped Mahershala Ali?

Is my night (and entire year) made seeing Michael J. Fox come out of a DeLorean to a standing ovation at the Academy Awards?


Not a question, but you guys better freakin' stand up!

Did you catch how ecstatic Brie Larson was?

Could life get any better for Seth Rogen right now?

Best Editing award isn't the Best Picture predictor it used to be, is it?

Did you catch them openly acknowledging no one's seen any of the nominated short films?

How about that mean tweet about Felicity Jones and Eddie Redmayne having "the same face?"

Or, my personal favorite, Casey Affleck being the real life version of Billy Bob Thornton's character from Sling Blade?

Were you glad Stone and Gosling got to present together since they've been so underexposed these past couple of months?

Even listening to just snippets of those musical scores, isn't La La Land's clearly the best?

Relieved when Jennifer Aniston mentioned Bill Paxton?

If you were told a year ago Carrie Fisher, Prince and Anton Yelchin would be in the In Memoriam montage, would you believe it?

Did Sara Bareilles give the best In Memoriam performance in years, or what?

Wasn't it the perfect match of song and artist? 

Was Kimmel fondly reminiscing about We Bought a Zoo the most hilarious gag of the night? 

Is Ben Affleck really in a position to join in mocking it?

Doesn't Kenneth Lonergan kind of resemble Grumpy Cat?

Wouldn't it kind of be a travesty if Moonlight didn't win that Adapted Screenplay Oscar?

Did you know that Damien Chazelle was set to be the youngest Best Director winner ever until the show ran too long?

Think I waiting all night to see my favorite Academy Award Winner, Brie Larson, take the Oscar stage again?

Even if she looked like she'd rather see any name on that card other than Casey Affleck's?

Did you see Ben struggle to keep it together after his brother's speech?

Did you remember Leo (finally) won the Oscar last year?

Just based on the clips, doesn't something seem horribly off with Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy?

Didn't Streep appear to be embarrassed by that clip?

Can you really blame her?

Doesn't it seem harder than ever for one movie to sweep, even with 14 nominations?

Aren't there too many Best Picture nominees?

Isn't it great to see Faye Dunaway and Warren Be.....




WAIT...WHAT THE HELL JUST HAPPENED!!!!!???

Warren Beatty read the wrong winner?!!!

How is that even possible?!!

Didn't you just know something was wrong when you saw that guy with the headset scrambling on stage?

How could they give him the wrong envelope?!

Didn't La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz handle that entire situation better than anyone could be expected to?

Could he have possibly shown any more class in that moment?

Did that make more of a point than any political statement all night could have?

Jimmy Kimmel's speech at the show's start about being kind to each other doesn't seem so silly now, does it?

Aren't you glad someone took charge of that situation before it got even more awkward?

Wouldn't Moonlight winning Best Picture be shocking enough on its own?

Didn't Kimmel handle also handle that about as well as any host could?

Did you like Kimmel's shout-out to Steve Harvey?

Even after Warren explained it, did you still not understand how that could possibly occur?

Do two Best Picture speeches mean we won't finish on time?

Does this mean we can go back to liking the now suddenly underrated La La Land again?

So, does this mean we have to hate Moonlight now?

Did La La Land just score a victory that means more than a Best Picture Oscar?

Was this actually the best possible thing that could have happened to that movie?

Doesn't that and the growing resentment toward La La Land's many nominations prove how much of an albatross winning Best Picture can be?

How does it feel to witness history?

Aren't you glad you stayed up?

Was going to bed early the Oscar equivalent of turning off Game 6 of the 1986 World Series?

So wait, this means I got Best Picture wrong AGAIN?

Would I be satisfied if I kept missing categories under circumstances this thrilling?

Is Kimmel the only Oscars host of the past decade who's truly earned a permanent invite back?

Does this mean I now have to eat my words after initially complaining he was selected?

Do PricewaterhouseCoopers wish they could take that DeLorean back to about 10 minutes before the Best Picture envelope was opened?

How could THIS possibly be the lowest-rated Oscar telecast in 9 years?

Flubs aside, wasn't this actually a really well-produced show?

Wasn't this the Oscars we were all hoping we'd eventually get?

Saturday, February 25, 2017

2017 Oscar Predictions



First, the good news. As is usually the case, the Academy did admirable job highlighting the best in motion pictures this year with their nominations, shining a spotlight on lesser known films that would otherwise go overlooked by the general public. Sure, you'll always have some casual viewers tuning in who haven't heard of most of the nominees but there's just no way around that. You have to reward quality and hope after Sunday's show more people come away interested in these movies and commit to seeing them since they're really great. I'd rather the telecast lead with that story rather than issues related to politics or the diversity of nominees. The former I'm just plain tired of while the latter already took center stage last year, and honestly, was never the Academy's problem to solve. It was the industry's. While I don't anticipate either of those topics taking the night off, I just hope it doesn't unnecessarily usurp the primary objective: Celebrating the movies and worthy work of the nominees. It should be their night, even if I'm cringing at the thought of what they'll possibly say when they get to the podium. 

As for the new host, I don't have strong feelings either way on Jimmy Kimmel, but can conclusively condemn the laziness of the selection, which just reeks of shameless corporate synergy. I expect that from the other awards telecasts but (perhaps naively) regarded the Academy Awards as being above that, or at least doing a good enough job pretending to be. Part of the fun each year was guessing who would be a worthy choice as host and now that's apparently out the window in favor of making sure ABC gets free advertising for their talk show. Combine that with the mishandling of the nominations announcement, and I'm less than optimistic about a telecast that could still surprise under the best of circumstances.

What won't be a surprise is the La La Land taking home the lion's share of these awards. Tying Titanic and All About Eve in total number of nominations with 14, it won't win them all, but it should win at least 9. That's enough to make the evening a certifiable sweep. There just isn't a single emerging challenger strong enough to give it trouble and my predictions below reflect that. The best case scenario is that they at least spread the wealth a little bit to keep it interesting and the telecast stays under 5 hours. Unlike last year, when I had a horse in the race with Room, I can't say I'm as personally invested in Sunday's outcomes. If anything, that may be a plus and bode well for my predictions, sparing me an embarrassment like missing Best Picture. All my picks are below, along with some comments on the major categories. And as usual, I'll reserve the right to make adjustments right up until the show starts.

*Predicted Winners

Best Animated Feature
Kubo and the Two Strings, Travis Knight and Arianne Sutner
Moana, John Musker, Ron Clements and Osnat Shurer
My Life as a Zucchini, Claude Barras and Max Karli
The Red Turtle, Michael Dudok de Wit and Toshio Suzuki
Zootopia, Byron Howard, Rich Moore and Clark Spencer

Best Animated Short
Blind Vaysha, Theodore Ushev
Borrowed Time, Andrew Coats and Lou Hamou-Lhadj
Pear Cider and Cigarettes, Robert Valley and Cara Speller
Pearl, Patrick Osborne
Piper, Alan Barillaro and Marc Sondheimer

Best Documentary Feature
13th, Ava DuVernay, Spencer Averick and Howard Barish
Fire at Sea, Gianfranco Rosi and Donatella Palermo
I Am Not Your Negro, Raoul Peck, Remi Grellety and Hebert Peck
Life, Animated, Roger Ross Williams and Julie Goldman
O.J.: Made in America, Ezra Edelman and Caroline Waterlow

Best Documentary Short Subject
4.1 Miles, Daphne Matziaraki
Extremis, Dan Krauss
Joe’s Violin, Kahane Cooperman and Raphaela Neihausen
Watani: My Homeland, Marcel Mettelsiefen and Stephen Ellis
The White Helmets, Orlando von Einsiedel and Joanna Natasegara

Best Live Action Short Film
Ennemis Interieurs, Selim Azzazi
La Femme et le TGV, Timo von Gunten and Giacun Caduff
Silent Nights, Aske Bang and Kim Magnusson
Sing, Kristof Deak and Anna Udvardy
Timecode, Juanjo Gimenez

Best Foreign Language Film
A Man Called Ove, Sweden
Land of Mine, Denmark
Tanna, Australia
The Salesman, Iran
Toni Erdmann, Germany

Best Film Editing
Arrival, Joe Walker
Hacksaw Ridge, John Gilbert
Hell or High Water, Jake Roberts
La La Land, Tom Cross
Moonlight, Nat Sanders and Joi McMillon

Best Sound Editing
Arrival, Sylvain Bellemare
Deep Water Horizon, Wylie Stateman and Renee Tondelli
Hacksaw Ridge, Robert Mackenzie and Andy Wright
La La Land, Ai-Ling Lee and Mildred Iatrou Morgan
Sully, Alan Robert Murray and Bub Asman

Best Sound Mixing
Arrival, Bernard Gariepy Strobl and Claude La Haye
Hacksaw Ridge, Kevin O’Connell, Andy Wright, Robert Mackenzie and Peter Grace
La La Land, Andy Nelson, Ai-Ling Lee and Steve A. Morrow
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, David Parker, Christopher Scarabosio and Stuart Wilson
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, Greg P. Russell, Gary Summers, Jeffrey J. Haboush and Mac Ruth

Best Production Design
Arrival, Patrice Vermette, Paul Hotte
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Stuart Craig, Anna Pinnock
Hail, Caesar!, Jess Gonchor, Nancy Haigh
La La Land, David Wasco, Sandy Reynolds-Wasco
Passengers, Guy Hendrix Dyas, Gene Serdena

Best Original Score
Jackie, Mica Levi
La La Land, Justin Hurwitz
Lion, Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka
Moonlight, Nicholas Britell
Passengers, Thomas Newman

Best Original Song
“Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” La La Land — Music by Justin Hurwitz; Lyric by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
“Can’t Stop the Feeling,” Trolls — Music and Lyric by Justin Timberlake, Max Martin and Karl Johan Schuster
“City of Stars,” La La Land — Music by Justin Hurwitz; Lyric by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul
“The Empty Chair,” Jim: The James Foley Story — Music and Lyric by J. Ralph and Sting
“How Far I’ll Go,” Moana — Music and Lyric by Lin-Manuel Miranda

Best Makeup and Hair
A Man Called Ove, Eva von Bahr and Love Larson
Star Trek Beyond, Joel Harlow and Richard Alonzo
Suicide Squad, Alessandro Bertolazzi, Giorgio Gregorini and Christopher Nelson

Best Costume Design
Allied, Joanna Johnston
Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Colleen Atwood
Florence Foster Jenkins, Consolata Boyle
Jackie, Madeline Fontaine
La La Land, Mary Zophres

Best Visual Effects
Deepwater Horizon, Craig Hammack, Jason Snell, Jason Billington and Burt Dalton
Doctor Strange, Stephane Ceretti, Richard Bluff, Vincent Cirelli and Paul Corbould
The Jungle Book, Robert Legato, Adam Valdez, Andrew R. Jones and Dan Lemmon
Kubo and the Two Strings, Steve Emerson, Oliver Jones, Brian McLean and Brad Schiff
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, John Knoll, Mohen Leo, Hal Hickel and Neil Corbould

Best Cinematography
Bradford Young, Arrival
Linus Sandgren, La La Land
Greig Fraser, Lion
James Laxton, Moonlight
Rodrigo Prieto, Silence

Best Adapted Screenplay
Arrival, Eric Heisserer
Fences, August Wilson
Hidden Figures, Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi
Lion, Luke Davies
Moonlight, Barry Jenkins

*This is Moonlight's to lose and it isn't out of the realm of possibility that it does. A really strong category where really anything (yes, even Arrival) could sweep in and take it. Fences, Hidden Figures and Lion are all based on highly respected source material many could claim were improved upon or at least equaled by their cinematic adaptations. As tempted as they'll be to give a posthumous Oscar to August Wilson for Fences, more tempting will be rewarding Moonlight in a major category besides Supporting Actor since it's likely to lose both Picture and Director. While Barry Jenkins' script feels the least "adapted " of the five (controversially placed here due to it being based on an unproduced play) and Lion is really on an upswing, that shouldn't be enough to slow its momentum. Plus, everyone wants to see Jenkins make it to the podium at least once. Barry, that is. Not Florence Foster. 

Best Original Screenplay
20th Century Women, Mike Mills
Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan
La La Land, Damien Chazelle
The Lobster, Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthimis Filippou
Manchester by the Sea, Kenneth Lonergan

*Another loaded category where they'll again want to go with a highly respected film not likely to win many other awards due to La La Land's expected dominance. Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea is the most writerly of these, with its observant script tying the gut-wrenching performances as its strongest aspect. For Hell or High Water and especially The Lobster, their nominations are reward enough. Same for Mike Mills' 20th Century Women. The only remaining threat is La La Land and believe me it's a major one. If Chazelle takes this, watch out, since his screenplay is widely regarded as the film's weakest link. But when you're talking about a story that directly speaks to most of the Academy's voting body and their own perceived life experiences, anything's possible. It's a movie that's quite literally hitting them where they live. I'm still picking Manchester, but using a pencil.       

Best Supporting Actress
Viola Davis, Fences
Naomie Harris, Moonlight
Nicole Kidman, Lion
Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea

*Viola Davis has this in the bag in a race that may be the closest thing we have to a sure bet all night. Of course, that category is still Supporting Actress, which is historically known for major, shocking upsets. I don't foresee that this year, with Davis' biggest challenge coming in the form of Michelle Williams, whose devastating few minutes in Manchester by the Sea is exactly the kind of cameo-like performance the Academy can sometimes like to reward. Just not this year. Naomie Harris feels next in line, followed by Davis' The Help co-star Octavia Spencer and, in distant last, Nicole Kidman. There's still this feeling Viola is owed an Oscar after losing to Streep a few years ago, so the fact that she's deserving and basically carries the film in a role she already won a Tony for on Broadway, is just icing on the cake. The potential roadblock would be category fraud, as many see it as a lead rather than supporting performance. But it won't matter.    

Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea
Dev Patel, Lion
Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals

*Imagine the possibility of Dev Patel's name being announced as the winner. With the steam Lion's been gaining, it could easily happen. But it won't. I'm writing off Mahershala Ali's Golden Globe loss to Nocturnal Animals' Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a complete fluke because he's winning this. He's likable, respected, humble and gave the performance of his life (and one of the best of the year) in Moonlight. His biggest threat is Patel, an actor few thought would ever see an Oscar ceremony again after starring in and seemingly peaking with Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire nearly nine years ago. Jeff Bridges' Texas Ranger in Hell or High Water is supposedly too reminiscent of other recent curmudgeonly roles he's had, there's a feeling Lucas Hedges still "has time," and as much as everyone loves Michael Shannon, this doesn't feel like his Oscar-winning part. We'll definitely know when it gets here. Expect the speech of the night from Ali.  

Best Actress
Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Ruth Negga, Loving
Natalie Portman, Jackie
Emma Stone, La La Land
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

*As much as prognosticators have tried to hype this up as a tight race, it isn't. At least not anymore. It's all about Emma and at this point there's absolutely nothing standing between her and a statue that's coming a lot sooner in her career than many expected. Even those who don't care for La La Land (yes, there are some) have a hard time denying that she's undoubtedly the best thing in it. But it's definitely a different kind of Best Actress victory than Brie Larson's last year for Room, which was probably my favorite Oscar-winning performance of the past decade. It doesn't reach those raw depths, nor it is meant to, instead falling more on the entertainment side of the fence. So while comparisons will exist because of their ages and similar career trajectories up to this point, this strangely feels like a "one for us, one for them" type of win for Stone that's a return to how we perceive the Academy thinks after backing Larson last year.

Streep's annual token nomination is turning into such a bad joke I could actually see this harming her legacy if it continues. "It's a thrill just to be nominated" may actually be real statements uttered by Isabelle Huppert and Ruth Negga. The former has a much better chance based on a career of outstanding work and it was nice to see the latter sneak in, as her nomination for Loving was far from a sure thing. In fact, at one point it was a real long shot so it's great her career gets the bump. Speaking of bumps, that leaves us with Stone's biggest concern: Portman.

As a film, the character-driven Jackie just was just never received as a top tier player going into Awards season against the likes of heavier hitters like La La Land and Moonlight. She needed it to be to get the win. Combine that with having already won for Black Swan, her pregnancy preventing her from doing much promotion and the fact that Stone is untouchable right now, and it becomes an even steeper climb. Her only hope is that they make a political vote based on the subject matter, but if that were the case her film would have been nominated for more, including Best Picture. Mostly middle to older aged white males still comprise much of the Academy and we know how they love to vote for the hot, young ingenue. That only tips the scales further in Stone's favor.        

Best Actor
Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington, Fences

*The tightest contest of the night. while I wouldn't go as far as saying it could tilt either way, Denzel and Affleck are pretty close right now. Still, I'm favoring Affleck, if only because I can't imagine voters seeing that police station scene and not giving it to him based on that alone. And despite their fondness for actors who direct, Washington isn't exactly widely loved within the industry and hasn't stacked up the impressive number of notices and awards Affleck and Manchester has over the past few months. If Andrew Garfield wins, Adrien Brody will be somewhere cheering.

Mortensen really stands out as the most adventurous nomination here, but a very unlikely winner considering how Captain Fantastic was ignored in all other categories. Gosling's performance is La La Land is underappreciated and taken for granted, if only because his co-star's so good. But the best work he did over the past year was in The Nice Guys. The safe money's on Casey, but i wouldn't be completely shocked by a Denzel upset.  

Best Director
Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge,
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Denis Villeneuve, Arrival

*I still contend Damien Chazelle should have won Best Director for Whiplash a couple of years ago (when he went criminally un-nominated) so I'm completely fine with the foregone conclusion that he's getting this. La La Land is a far cry from that film, but he's deserving nonetheless, as his direction is the main reason a concept that had no business working at all ends up working magnificently. To pull that off is an achievement in itself, speaking to his talent and proving he's more than worthy of the statue, which could be seen as an investment in his bright future. Jenkins and Lonergan are his strongest competitors with the former having a legitimate chance if the voters don't feel like granting La La Land the sweep that's expected. Historically, Picture and Director rarely split, but it's been happening more in recent years (including last) so anything's possible. Arrival's Villeneuve feels like the odd man out here, while just seeing a nominated Mel Gibson at the Oscars and speculating on the reception he'll get, is reward enough for viewers and movie fans everywhere. He doesn't need the win and won't get it. Chazelle has this in the bag. 

Best Picture
Arrival
Fences
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Lion
Manchester by the Sea
Moonlight

*Since we already know La La Land is winning, let's try speculating on potential alternate scenarios, most of which seem illogical or ridiculous. That's how you know this is over. But it's here where we can start to factor in the cultural and political climate of the past year into the Oscar race. Perhaps sensing the frontrunner is too slight a choice, not diverse or "important" enough to represent 2016 as its Best Picture, voters look elsewhere. The most viable alternative would be Moonlight, a selection that would squash most criticisms leveled at the Academy through the years, such as their alleged slights against minorities and that Brokeback Mountain debacle from over a decade ago. Those aren't good reasons to reward a film with the industry's top prize but it's unfortunately the only scenario I foresee where they would. To rehab their image. What's unfortunate about their mindset is that the film is deserving on its own merits, even if history has proven something like this is just too challenging for them to endorse. They'll think the nomination is enough.

Lion fits more squarely in their wheelhouse and if there's an upset it would be a rousing, inspiring internationally flavored adaptation like this that spoils the party. But as much momentum as it's picked up, it's just not enough, peaking maybe just a little too late. There's some truth in that "Hidden Fences" joke since in voters' minds the two films will probably be interchangeable on their ballots, splitting votes and cancelling each other out. Manchester By the Sea has held strong but it's a depressing wrist-slitter, and no matter how well written and acted, the Academy rarely rewards those with Best Picture.

Hell or High Water, Arrival and the more respected Hacksaw Ridge are considered genre pictures that are well liked, but may not have gotten in without an expanded field. Even by process of elimination it would still be La La Land, if it didn't already have enough going for it. Universally beloved, unmatched technical prowess, gigantic scope, the comeback of the musical, well-liked actors, and a theme, story, and setting that's instantly relatable to the entire Academy, it can't possibly lose. It's their movie and they'll be tripping all over themselves to reward it. But you already knew that.        

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Moonlight



Director: Barry Jenkins
Starring: Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali, Jaden Piner
Running Time: 111 min.
Rating: R

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

He never stood a chance. This was the first thought that raced through my mind at the end of Moonlight, which chronicles the life of a young black man from the rough streets of Miami as he passes from childhood to teenager through young adulthood. Well that, and the fact that what happens to this boy is probably something that's fairly realistic and could easily be going on every day. In fact, it's fair to say someone's living out a life nearly identical to this shy, withdrawn, emotionally damaged protagonist right now. This, of course, is just speculation since the hardest thing to do when watching a film is to fully immerse yourself in a world with which you have zero familiarity. By its conclusion, that changed.

Based upon Tarell Alvin McRaney's unproduced 2003 play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue and divvied up into an orderly and effective three-part structure by writer/director Barry Jenkins, it's one of the easiest hard movies to watch, if that makes any sense at all. Much of that is due to the quality of filmmaking and the performances, a couple in particular. Some may quibble about the third section and where it all eventually ends up compared to how it began, but it feels logical and true. And that's more than enough.

Chiron (Alex Hibbert) is nicknamed "Little" for both his size and meek personality. Looking to escape bullying at school and the emotional abuse of his crack-addicted mother Paula (Naomie Harris), the frequently silent Chiron finds himself taken in by Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local Miami drug dealer living with his girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monáe). Becoming a father figure of sorts to the boy, he teaches him how to swim while dispensing valuable life advice he'll never receive at home. He also finds a friend at school in Kevin (Jaden Piner), who nicknames him, "Black" and talks to him when seemingly no other kids will.

In his teen years, Juan is now gone, but Chiron (now Ashton Sanders) somehow soldiers on, unsuccessfully, with Kevin (now Jharrel Jerome) still in the picture. The bullying and his mother's addiction gets worse and an incident occurs that changes the course of his life, leading into the third section, where an adult, physically transformed Chiron (now Trevante Rhodes) is a drug dealer on the streets of Atlanta when he gets an opportunity to reconnect with Kevin (now André Holland), a diner cook still residing in Miami. Very clearly traumatized by his hellish childhood and adolescence, Chiron contemplates the opportunity to reach out to the one person left who truly understands him, with a secret they share both simultaneously standing in the way and bringing them closer.

Segmented into three chapters, it's almost inevitable that strong opinions exist as to which is best. But it's a credit to Barry Jenkins that it never feels like a contest, as each seems like a large, important piece of the puzzle in terms of constructing this person's life. But what everyone can unanimously agree on is that while the character of Juan is only in the first section, the presence of Mahershala Ali never fades even long after he's left the screen, informing every event that follows and never quite disappearing from memory. This might be the very definition of a great performance. When someone isn't in a film long or even heavily featured through much of it, and they leave such an indelible mark that it's like they've never left. I'm not even sure it hits us all at once since his actual exit occurs off screen, but it noticeably affects the teen Chiron and carries over into the adult section, which couldn't exist without Ali's performance. It really isn't until later that we start feeling the magnitude of his absence.

Juan's essentially the first person we meet when the film begins and it's obvious from the get-go that he's a force. As kind, charismatic and benevolent he is on the surface, and as much as he cares for this child, we must reconcile the fact he's also his mom's drug dealer, and perhaps indirectly responsible for their traumatic home life.  One of the film's most devastating scenes is when young Chiron himself innocently comes to that realization and this mixture of shame and guilt comes across Juan's face, reducing this previously strong man to the point where he just wants to crawl into a hole and hide.

Despite fairly minimal screen time, Ali (known to most for playing lobbyist Remy Danton on House of Cards) leaves an imprint of humanity on the story that carries over, allowing audiences to accept what eventually becomes of Chiron, taking the most flawed of his childhood hero's qualities as his own. Without this, seeing him as a jacked up drug dealer resembling rapper 50 Cent would be a bridge too far for audiences to cross. It's mostly because of Ali that we're not only able to cross it, but completely believe. But before even getting there, it's the emotional turmoil of the second section, and quiet desperation of Ashton Sanders as the teen Chiron, that provide the film's most uncomfortable, tension-filled moments, as he's viciously bullied by both his own drug addicted mother and kids at school. "Bullied" may actually be too light a word.

Naomie Harris is so brutally committed in the role it's almost difficult to watch, recalling the worst/best of Monique's Oscar-winning performance in Precious. This whole section's hard to watch, yet impossible to take your eyes off of, wondering if the shy Chiron will eventually stand up for himself. What happens when he does has far-reaching consequences, in many ways creating a monster. And the worst part of it is that an argument can easily be made that this was a necessary reaction, inevitable and inescapable.

The only constant source of hope is his relationship with Kevin, to some some degree ironing out the sexual confusion he's had since he was a child, if not necessarily the repression. Tough enough as it must have been growing up with those circumstances in that neighborhood, the compounded pressure of knowing he's gay, or really different at all, couldn't have helped. But Jenkins' story isn't about so much about that as it is people being forced, through circumstances beyond their control, to become someone they're not, but were invariably meant to be. That's why the third section of the film is so powerful, with Chiron reuniting with Kevin twenty years later and at very different places in life. Though, not really.

When diner cook Kevin, subtly and outstandingly played by Holland, remarks to Chiron that "This isn't you" he's somehow both right and wrong. Now going by "Black," his physical appearance is jarring and his drug dealing profession seems at odds with the quiet boy we met at the beginning of the picture, but all this pain had to eventually manifest itself in some way. What's both sad and strangely reassuring is how you still sense that the scared little kid Juan taught to swim is very much present, perhaps even more so, as an adult. He's just found a method for not dealing with it.

There's no sense sugar-coating the fact that this film, exceptionally made as it is, is a tough sell. Of all this year's the Best Picture nominees, Moonlight may have been the one I had the least interest in watching, quickly writing it off from its trailers and commercials as an awards-baiting liberal message movie formulated as a direct response to last year's #OscarsSoWhite controversy and the recent political climate. Boyhood, but with a black, homosexual protagonist. Luckily, most didn't go in nearly as close-minded as I. But if you did, the good news is that Barry Jenkins should no problem winning you over. From the performances, to cinematographer James Laxton's glorious handheld camerawork to Nicholas Britell's delicate musical score, it's a top-to-bottom achievement that's nearly as big a deal as you've heard. The toughest part is getting people see it based on description alone.

The biggest surprise about Moonlight is how universal it feels despite all those external forces that should seem to make it a very specific film capturing a very specific experience. And how all of this socio-political garbage disappears once it begins. It's just about a kid who's completely lost. Simply, powerfully, it's about how certain factors shape you and sometimes there's no escaping the person you'll become because of them. Change seems nearly impossible when the wounds cut this deep. So often at the mercy of where we grow up and how, sometimes the best we can do is survive by making superficial adjustments. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

La La Land



Director: Damien Chazelle
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt, J.K. Simmons, Tom Everett Scott, Josh Pence
Running Time: 128 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

There will be those with whom La La Land will strongly connect right out of the gate. It'll be love at first sight for anyone bemoaning the fact they don't make musicals anymore, much less old school Hollywood musicals. For them, the very idea that one could be successfully made today and it not be based on previously produced material from the stage or screen once seems impossible. As does the notion that said musical, released in the year 2016, could not only do exceptionally well critically and commercially, but go on to earn a record-tying fourteen Oscar nominations.  For them, the film's opening sequence, and best musical number, as drivers exit their cars during a traffic jam on a Los Angeles freeway and spontaneously burst into brilliantly choreographed song and dance, will literally be a dream come true. Going in knowing what I did about the film and my tastes, I knew I wouldn't be one of those people. Hardly predisposed to nostalgic movie memories for the genre itself, this would have to reach me some other way. And it would have to really work for it. It can be tough approaching a film this late in the conversation, especially when that discussion revolves around it be being hands-down the best of the year and frontrunner for Best Picture. You can't ignore that. It's there. And it's also baggage.

What hasn't been discussed much about the film is just how few musical numbers there are, or maybe just how carefully they've been placed into the narrative by writer/director Damien Chazelle, mostly in its first half. This is appropriate since La La Land is very much a tale of two movies. One seems tailor made for that aforementioned audience clamoring for the genre's comeback, while the second is a relationship drama about lost love, broken dreams and rejection sure to strike a chord with more skeptical, cynical filmgoers like myself. This was the only movie from the past year I was actually apprehensive to see out of concern it could be a disaster. Under normal circumstances that would be fine. But not from the director of Whiplash and starring Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. Thankfully, it's easy to see why everyone's going crazy over it. There are about fifteen things, big and small, you could list that are great about the film, and out of those, the natural, easygoing chemistry between its stars has to rank near the top.

We knew when they first shared the screen in 2011's Crazy, Stupid, Love that what Stone and Gosling have and how they play off each other can't just simply be replicated by another random actor pairing. And now two careers whose have been steadily and consistently rising are given the opportunity to show the uninitiated what they're capable of on the biggest stage possible  And still, the whole thing had me worried as it's a bit of a tightrope walk throughout. Even after seeing it, this one had to really sit a while since it does leave you with something. While that "something" isn't ideas, certain scenes and sequences still linger long afterward, indicating this isn't as fluffy as some of its detractors have accused. There's a lot to appreciate here, even if different audiences may find it in entirely different places.

It's winter in Los Angeles and after a brief, but unpleasant highway encounter with struggling Jazz pianist Sebastian (Gosling), Warner Bros studio lot barista and aspiring actress Mia (Stone) is off to another eventually unsuccessful audition. When an attempt by her roommates to brighten her mood by hitting up a Hollywood Hills party ends without her car, she finds herself at a restaurant involved in another chance meeting with Seb, just fired from his gig by owner Bill (J.K. Simmons) for slipping into jazz improvisation during his mandated set. This time, he's even more of a jerk to her. It isn't until a couple of months later that they really connect at a party and soon start to fall head over heels for each other after a few memorable dates at the movies, a jazz club, the studio lot and the Griffith Observatory.

As rapidly as Mia and Seb's relationship is progressing, both their career aspirations have cripplingly stalled, with the painful rejections of the auditioning process proving too much for Mia as she starts working on her single-actress stage play, wondering if she's even cut out for this business at all. Seb's unable to hold down a steady gig, causing him to shelve his dream of opening a jazz club in favor of joining the band of his old friend, Keith (John Legend) as their keyboardist.  But when something starts happening for one of them, their relationship is given a serious test, as they must decide whether fulfilling their dreams in a town known for routinely shattering them is worth the sacrifice of each other.  

That these are two clearly written and defined characters is important to get out of the way first because if they weren't none of the riskier elements would fall into to place like they do. And while there are times they fall into place perfectly, there are also occasional instances when they don't. There were definitely points where a musical number seemed to stretch on a bit too long or a dialogue exchange dragged, but it's tough to tell how much of that can be attributed to it just going with the territory when you make this type of  film, which undoubtedly plays by a different set of rules than usual. That all of this is okay is a credit to how well Chazelle confidently announces from the beginning what we're getting, and while it veers from that formula a bit in the second half, it's still fair to say he never strays too far.

You're either on board or you're not and chances are you'll know within a matter of minutes. It's apparent the movie means business when we see that classic Cinemascope logo pop up on the screen and, following that sensational pre-credits number, a giant 1950's-style title card. While the inventively choreographed "Another Day of Sun" is by far the sunniest, peppiest number in the film, all the ones that follow really strong as well, with the more melancholy and likely Oscar-winning "City of Stars" and Audition ("The Fools Who Dream") being standouts.

Stone and Gosling aren't singers but neither are their characters so the fact that they're not world class crooners or even dancers actually lends an added air of credibility to the proceedings. And it should be noted that such a criticism couldn't even extend to the former, who really acquits herself well in both departments. This is a musical, but as strange as it sounds, that's not what either were hired for. Before anything, they're completely believable as a couple, and for all the attention the songs and musical sequences have gotten, the biggest relief for me is the emphasis on the non-musical scenes and story.

The best moments involve Mia and Seb just talking and getting to know each other against the backdrop of an admittedly heightened and idealized L.A, presented in all its vivid, colorful, widescreen glory by cinematographer Linus Sandgren, foregoing digital to shoot on film and emulate the look and feel of the classic musicals that obviously inspired this one. He's succeeded, as no recently released picture looks quite as inviting as this, and in a really different way that immediately sets it apart. While it's easy to roll your eyes these days at anyone claiming you "have to" see a certain film on the big screen, this actually meets the qualification. Similar praise can be reserved for the costume and production design, which, despite being a throwback, has kind of this timeless quality that's unusual for a film set in present day, with Justin Hurwitz's musical score perfectly and subtly underlining that.

If Gosling's contributions have gone somewhat overlooked in the quieter, more understated role that's only because Emma Stone leaves such an indelible mark. He's nearly as good as the struggling pianist, but it hardly matters since neither performance could fully exist without the other and if you recast just one of them, we wouldn't be having the same conversation about the film we are now.  Despite her rapid ascent and charismatic screen presence over the past five to ten years, Emma isn't necessarily an actress who can be plugged into any part in any project, but she can do this. And does she ever nail it. Mia is pretty much the dream role for her, taking full advantage of the sense of humor, elegance, goofiness and vulnerability she's been bringing to the table since we first saw her a decade ago.

Beaten down by constant rejection, Stone's best scene is an emotional audition where Mia's delivering brilliant, a heart wrenching monologue that's curtly interrupted by a casting agent's utter apathy. The look on her face says everything. No one cares. And she'll mostly be in this alone so it's time to toughen up or get out. It's probably the most realistic moment in a film that consistently and effectively operates on a level of hyper-realism for most of its running time. This also sets the table for what comes later, when the relationship hits a roadblock that doesn't feel manufactured and we're treated to an inspired final fifteen minutes that then proves it isn't, deviating just enough from conventional expectations.

While it's been a bit overstated just how much of a turn the last third takes, this won't be considered a tragedy anytime soon, as both characters aren't exactly suffering. And yet, Chazelle has us so entrenched in this world of theirs, we believe that in some bittersweet way they are. That it's well executed and has something to say about the messiness of life and the pain of missed opportunities only bolsters the overall viewing experience. Having already given us one of the deepest, most thought provoking endings in years with Whiplash, it was brave of Chazelle to even attempt surprising us a second time. Then again, this whole thing is kind of brave when you think about it. There are so many different ways La La Land could have all gone wrong, and that it doesn't, might be more of a feat than all the awards it's received. It's always great seeing something new, but what can be even greater is seeing something old in an entirely fresh light, making it feel new again.