Saturday, April 15, 2017

Rogue One: The Pleasingly Ridiculous “The Fate of the Furious” Offers Total Vehicular Mayhem

Being the last person in the world who gives a crap about cars let along cars that go fast, I'm just as surprised as you are that I've found the recent movies in the “Fast & Furious” franchise to be strangely intoxicating and highly entertaining. “Furious Seven” was probably the highpoint of the series so far (Though “Fast Five” was the real turning point). It featured top-notch direction from “Conjuring” helmer James Wan, spectacularly staged action, and an unexpected emotional draw as a the result of the unfortunate real-life death of star Paul Walker. It was actually a fit ending to the franchise. But this is Hollywood and a million dollar franchise won't die just because one its actors has. So hence we have the most awkwardly titled of the series - “The Fate of the Furious” - and it's a completely fine addition to the series. It's still leaps and bounds better than where this franchise began and offers frenetic mayhem, destruction, and fast cars. Like the others, the movie remains paradoxical to me; it's unabashedly silly and stupid and yet there's something so compelling and fun about it all.

Does anyone really care about the plot of a Fast & Furious film? I didn't think so. For the three of you who do care, it has something to do with Russians and nuclear weapons. Timely right? Oscar winner Charlize Theron is the newly minted franchise villain, and she sports dreadlocks and her best Bea Arthur-approved outfit. And fun fact, Charlize isn't the only Oscar winner to show up but I won't spoil the fun.This time Vin Diesel's Dom apparently turns on his “family” - including the love of his life Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) - for reasons that aren't fully clear until the midpoint. It's been the selling point of the film's marketing. Like it's core audience gives a crap about that. THERE IS A SUBMARINE. Oh and one point cars are hacked and literally come driving out of buildings. It's utterly ridiculous but that's why it's so fun.

The film has a new guy in the theoretical driver's seat: F. Gary Gray, whose last film was the outstanding NWA biopic “Straight Outta Compton. His direction of action is fine and competent. His biggest strength seems to be the upping of humor from Chris Morgan's paint-by-numbers script. Chris 'Ludacris' Bridges and Tyrese Gibson buddy comedy bromance is always a highlight as is scenes featuring Dwayne Johnson's Hobbs and Jason Statham's Deckard (the latest villain who takes a turn towards “the good side”). When is the Hobbs & Deckard spinoff happening?? The film isn't flawless. The film's cast is delightfully diverse but since the absence of Walker is felt the filmmakers felt the need to give Scott Eastwood the role of “generic white guy.” He's as bland and vanilla as they come. Kurt Russell looks more embarrassed acting opposite him than he does actually being in these movies.

“The Fate of the Furious” is loud, crazy, and fun. It's exactly what you expect from these films but they always try to up themselves. What began as story of illegal street racers has become a full fledged James Bond-like globe-trotting action-adventures series. The story features a few fun twists and turns as this franchise usually does and some really over the top action. The ending action scene aboard the airplane with Statham and an unexpected passenger is a perfect example of the mix of ridiculous and balls-to-the-wall fun. As crazy as these movies are they're at least somewhat competently made and generally coherent. Take note Transformers!  GRADE: B+

Friday, March 31, 2017

Lovely Rita: “Power Rangers” Reboot Morphs into Semi-Decent Entertainment

It's not an April Fool's joke. I didn't hate “Power Rangers.” Of course it's not really that great of a movie, but it's far from terrible, and feel just unoffensive enough to make it worth existing. While the trailers promised Transformers-level action and dumbness, it's far better than those eye-roll inducing excuses for entertainment. Those nostalgic for corny entertainment from their childhood will certainly be curious about “Power Rangers.” See it because Elizabeth Banks is in it and hams it up nicely. And stay because it's definitely not the worst thing you'll see in the theater this year. It doesn't focus on endless, repetitive action scenes; character development somewhat exists here if you can believe it and it's probably because an Oscar-nominated screenwriter actually wrote this thing.

Taking a cue from many other superhero, comic, and other big screen reboots, “Power Rangers” is a gritty take on the corny 90s kids show about teenagers who fight weird monsters and aliens in bad rubber suits, morph into bright, colorful uniforms, and ride around in vehicles shaped like dinosaurs. Every single episode followed the same lame formula and kids (myself included) ate it up for some reason. No, “Power Rangers” doesn't need to exist. It's not going to change lives of its audience or win awards. But you can see a modicum of talent bubbling beneath the surface here.

The five young actors (who are supposed to be teenagers but are clearly too old to be in high school) are actually pretty decent and do a good job at making their characters likeable, relateable, or at least have more than one dimension. Newcomer Dacre Montgomery, taking on the role of rebellious good-looking jock whose injury has crushed his football dreams, is quite charismatic in the role of Jason. He'll eventually become the Red Ranger and be the group's leader. There's forlorn cheerleader Kimberly (Naomi Scott) who becomes the Pink Ranger. The nerdy, semi-autistic genius Billy (RJ Cyler) as the Blue Ranger. The mysterious loner Zack (Ludi Lin) who's the Black Ranger. And Trini (Becky G.) the fiery Latina whose parents don't understand her, as the Yellow Ranger. The film certainly takes its time with these kids and it's for the better. Once they actually become Power Rangers all the good character stuff gets traded in for action.

And then of course there's Elizabeth Banks who's in this thing for some reason. I'm guessing she lost a bet. But then how does one explain the appearance of both Bryan Cranston and Bill Hader? It doesn't matter. These actors careers are safe. There's nothing particularly horrible here. Banks hams it up as Rita Repulsa who was actually a ranger back in the day (in the day of the dinosaurs to be exact) and betrays the group killing all the other rangers. And she's somehow revived in modern day. The five teens stumble upon five colored coins that gave the rangers their power. The rest is history. Screenwriter John Gaitins does his best with the silly source material. It's pretty much played straight and works decently enough. Director Dean Israelite is having fun here and you can see he has a fun visual eye. There's even an early scene involving in a long take in a pickup truck that's quite impressive.

“Power Rangers” is really dumb, harmless fun. It's not nearly as bad as some terrible big budget movies and it's not as well-done as the really good ones. The film is perfectly fine fan service. It takes its time focusing on the characters which makes the film sort of feel like The Breakfast Club meets Marvel. I didn't hate it.  GRADE: B-

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Crawl Space: Bring an Extra Pair of Underwear to See “Life”

Can I even write a proper review of the new scif-fi thriller “Life?” I missed 20% of the film: I was so scared I had to look away on several occasions. It takes a lot to scare this cynical horror fan but when you leave the theater ready to hold back tears of fright because of how intense the previous movie-going experience was, you know you've seen a completely successful horror film. “Life,” a sci fi-horor film that works as a cross between “Gravity” and “Alien” is an extremely intense thrill ride. Even if it owes a lot to the great films that came before, its realistic approach makes it an extremely powerful, and suspenseful movie filled with unforgettable moments of gross-out horror and poignant moments of characterization. Fasten your seat belts, because this is one bumpy ride.

“Life” begins by introducing us to a group of scientists aboard the International Space Station on a mission that has to do with studying the possibility of life on Mars. When they discover a single celled organism the crew, and the entire world, are fascinated by the discovery of life outside our planet. But this little guy isn't quite what it seems and it begins to grow exponentially to the point where it does what it wants when it wants to do it. Soon wonder turns to horror as the crew members are picked off one by one. There's medical officer David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), quarantine officer Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), engineer Roy Adams (Ryan Reynolds), ISS pilot Sho Kendo (Hiroyuki Sanada), biologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare), and ISS commander Olga Dihovichnaya (Katerina Golokina). These are the characters and part of the fun of the movie is figuring out who's gonna die next.

The film works so well because of the realistic nature of its setting. It's not set in a distant future with unfamiliar technology like “Alien.” It's set in a real place, the International Space Station. It asks the question, what if an antagonistic life form got on board. So those who thought “Gravity” was missing a rapidly growing alien creature will certainly be please with “Life.” Relatively little known Swedish director Daniel Espinosa directs with stunning precision. DP genius Seamus McGarvey's camera glides around the space station impressively and the film opens with a thrilling, long take sequence that has nothing to do with alien lifeforms. And the script is from the guys who wrote “Deadpool” and “Zombieland” of all things. The film moves along swiftly, though I'd argue the film's third act isn't as strong as what came before, and is not overly complicated with unnecessary exposition; the film is wisely more interested in scaring the audience than confusing it. And even if it's not the most original of sci-fi thrillers, it thankfully doesn't have the most annoying cliche of all: the human villain.

It's safe to say that “Life” was one of the scariest experiences I've ever had in a movie theater. Don't take that statement as hyperbole. It's an extremely intense experience that earns its frights. The visual effects are extremely well done, and don't let the fact that the creature is CGI fool you: it's disgustingly designed and completely terrifying. Those with weak constitutions may need to seek the shelter of a friendlier, nicer film. Let me suggest “Beauty and the Beast.” That film will make you leave the film singing. “Life” will make you leave the theater physically rattled. I wouldn’t have it any other way.  GRADE: A-  

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Working Dead: While Nothing Groundbreaking, “The Belko Experiment” is Disturbing, Exploitative Fun

I've never seen “Battle Royale” so I can't bear witness to its disturbing quality, but as far as films about children murdering each other it must be a pretty messed up experience. The “kill or be killed” premise isn't something brand new. It's even more recently gone mainstream in the form of “The Hunger Games” series in which teenagers and children are forced to murder each other in a post-apocalyptic dystopian society. “The Belko Experiment” takes the “kill or be killed” premise into the office working environment. The film follows the employees of a Bogota, Columbia-based company as they're forced to play a deadly game by an unknown adversary. Cue people being shot, stabbed, and maimed in variously disturbing ways. And it's funny. That's because the guy behind this craziness is James Gunn who can go from horror such as “Dawn of the Dead” to quirky dark comedy like “Super” to populist summer blockbusters like “Guardians of the Galaxy.”

There was an old couple in the theater when I saw “The Belko Experiment” and I always wonder how certain people find their way into certain movies. Perhaps they saw “Spring Awakening” on Broadway and are big fans of Tony-winner John Gallagher Jr. who plays the likable Mike Milch. Perhaps they recall Tony Goldwyn (not cast by accident since his characters always seem to go to dark places) from his turn in the 1990 romantic classic “Ghost.” He plays CEO Barry Norris. Or, turning to television, perhaps they were big fans of “Scrubs,” as character actor John C. McGinley plays Wendell Dukes who constantly and creepily leers at Mike's girlfriend Leandra (Adria Arjona). There are other cliched characters including the friendly pothead, the friendly chubby lady, and the friendly gay guy. Maybe this couple was big fans of Australian director Greg McLean who gave us the fantastically creepy horror film “Wolf Creek.” I assume this cute elderly couple are just messed up people who enjoy exploitative graphic violence.

And that's exactly what the film is most concerned with. I think there's a point somewhere in Gunn's tight script about the corporate work life and the boring routine of the office workplace. It's an observation of how disturbing human behavior can be when in put in such a dire situation and pushed to the limits of survival. The film threatens to become almost too much to bear; in this current world the image of people being shot in the supposed safety of a work environment is almost too distressing. But the film finds a good balance of humor to balance out the darkness. McLean's film is almost unbearably suspenseful; it's so fantastically paced, there's hardly much room to breathe.

“The Belko Experiment” is fast-paced, violent, disturbing, and shamelessly ridiculous. It also makes you laugh despite the fact that it threatens to become too overwhelmingly dark. It will certainly be not everyone's idea of a good time at the movies. You're really just watching people be violently murdered for an hour and a half. And even if the premise isn't quite the most original, it provides a place for those of us willing to travel to the darkest recesses of the human mind. See it for the disturbing premise, stay for the death by tape dispenser.  GRADE: B+

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Belle of the Ball: Live Action “Beauty & the Beast” is Luscious & Fun, if a Bit Padded

There definitely is something there that wasn't there before. And that's not necessarily the best thing. The groundbreaking 1991 animated musical hit “Beauty & the Beast,” hot off the heels of the equally iconic “The Little Mermaid,” set a new standard not only for Disney but for animated films in general. Clocking in at 84 minutes, the film was swift yet majestic, stunningly animated, and absolutely fun. The film was brilliant and remains so, but there really wasn't all that much substance behind it. 

Enter a new era where classic Disney animated films get the live action treatment because now we have the technology to see dishes sing and dance. But with a new runtime of 129 minutes the glossy new Disney musical threatens to overstay its welcome. Filled with extra somewhat sub-par songs (only in comparison to the superior originals) and mildly unnecessary plot elements disguised as character development, “Beauty & the Beast” is a really fun movie with great performances, dazzling musical moments, and fun bursts of humor; though it might be a bit overstuffed for its own good. It's not quite as garish as the live action “Alice in Wonderland” but not as emotionally rewarding and visually lush as “The Jungle Book.” I have no qualms about recommending “Beauty & the Beast” to every single person who is excited as hell to see it.

We've sort of entered a new era for the movie musical. Directors are more interested in filling out their casts with great actors who can sing decently instead of decent actors who can sing great. And that's fine. Emma Watson, still hot off her longtime run in the Harry Potter films, stars here as Belle. She's the girl whose nose is always stuck in a book and her fellow villagers think she's a freak. Then there's the walking pile of testosterone Gaston (theater-trained Luke Evans who steals the show) who pines for her affection. Belle's father (Kevin Kline) unwittingly ends up locked in the castle of a monstrous Beast (Downton Abby's Dan Stevens), who is actually a handsome asshole prince who was cursed by an enchantress along with the rest of his servants; they're all threatened to stay as inanimate objects for eternity unless the Beast can learn to love and earn someone else's love in return (but we all know that). Belle, being the strong willed woman she is, defiantly replaces her father as the Beast's prisoner and so begins a tale as old as time in which a beautiful book smart townswoman learns to love the hideous hairy beast who's keeping her prisoner. The ick factor is almost more obvious in live action, but I digress.

Ninety-nine percent of the audience going to see “Beauty & the Beast” will already be completely familiar with the film's entire plot line. More importantly, how exactly are the songs? They are good but different. Tempered exceptions are beneficial here. They don't quite sound the same as the animated film and that's completely fine. The actors all have decent voices, they wouldn't have been cast otherwise. But technology isn't just used to make a clock and a candelabra come to life; they also help actors' voices sound better. Watson has a beautiful voice even if it's not that particularly impressive. Stevens doesn't get to do much singing as the Beast (he does get his own original song towards the end) but he's very good as well. The Be Our Guest sequence, like the animated original, is still the showstopping number and Gaston's song is still a really fun sequence as well.

Director Bill Condon knows how to make things familiar and fun and while the recognizable moments are spot on, it's the new elements that fail to conjure much excitement or interest. There's a somewhat boring sequence that finds Belle and Beast in Paris but it's over quickly enough. There's more backstory which is appreciated more than it's actually necessary. The animated film's characters are pretty one-note to begin with so it's obvious screenwriters Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos tried their darnedest to give these characters three dimensions.

Overall “Beauty &  the Beast's" successes triumph over any failures. It's definitely middle of the road where Disney live action remakes are concerned. The cast is strong and the musical sequences are fun; I imagine many will be wiping away tears. I found myself not all that emotionally invested in the story (The film's two minute trailer is more emotionally rewarding in my opinion) but it was downright fun and entertaining even if it could have used a little bit of tightening up. The visual effects aren't nearly as impressive as last year's Oscar-winning “The Jungle Book” but that's fine; the filmmakers have turned an animated hit into a live action film that seemed like a completely daunting task and it's perfectly fine. Audiences are eating this up and I'm not surprised, it's a culinary cabaret.  GRADE: B

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The Ape of Wrath: “Kong: Skull Island” is a Spectacular 70s Style Action Adventure

When I think of “Kong Kong” and the 1970s, the terrible “King Kong” remake with Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange comes to mind. Oh my, how far the Eighth Wonder of the World has come. A completely different take on the legendary screen icon King Kong, “Kong: Skull Island” is an exquisitely photographed, superbly thrilling wartime action-adventure. Set in the aftermath of Vietnam, the film finds a group of adventurers and soldiers ready to explore an uncharted island and are completely unaware of the horrors that await them. The film is filled with suspenseful action set pieces, interesting characters, an unabashed sense of fun throughout, and is a darling tribute to 1970s action adventure cinema.

Can it be said enough how much I adore the look of this film? It's so beautifully photographed by DP Larry Fong that I just wanted to lick the screen. The film proves that this guy can shot a film that isn't drenched in grays and blacks (he shot “Watchmen” and “Batman v. Superman:Dawn of Justice"). The film has a stark color palate that evokes the time period in which the film takes place: the early 1970s. The movie finds the mysterious Bill Randa (John Goodman) trying to get funding for an expedition to a mysterious uncharted island in the Pacific. The island is surrounded by raging storm clouds and has somehow miraculous preserved the land in a prehistoric state. A large group head to the island including a team of soldiers led by Prestan Packard (Samual L. Jackson), adventurer James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), wartime photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), among many others. Before the group and its fleet of military helicopters even have a chance to land, a familiar giant ape rips most of them out of the sky leaving a handful of survivors whose goal is to now just to get off the island.

Kong isn't the only beast on the island. There are plenty of other large, exotic, and deadly creatures that take out the rest of the group one by one. In this way, “Kong: Skull Island” works in the vein of many other fun adventure films, like “Jurassic Park” (and the recent and excellent “Godzilla”) in which humans try to survive among large predators hellbent of making them their next meal. There's not much in the way of fascinating plot; this after all a fun monster movie, but the script provided by Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, and Derek Connolly, is completely adequate. They create some fun characters and with director Jordan Vogt-Roberts stage some delightfully thrilling action sequences and a surprising amount of fun, comic relief.

Much will be said about this new take on Kong, as it completely differs from the wonderful 2005 version by Peter Jackson. That was a straight up remake of the 1933 classic. “Kong: Skull Island” is very much its own thing. There are recognizable elements including the previously mentioned prehistoric creatures and, of course, a giant man-made wall. The film interestingly set in the aftermath of Vietnam makes for a fascinating setting and Vogt-Roberts gives the film an appropriate look for the time period. Classic rock songs blare on the soundtrack and the visual elements involved are simply scrumptious. And while the film isn't nearly as emotionally wrenching as Jackson's film, the film does find a sweet spot between action and emotion.

“Kong: Skull Island” is a rip-roaring good time. It's visually appealing, terrific special effects, a strong cast, and a delectable sense of style. The evocation of war films like “Apocalypse Now” and its brethren will not be lost on film nerds of a certain age. And the fact that the film will begin a franchise filled with famous cinematic monsters is just the tip of the iceberg; this monster mash is king.  GRADE: A-


Saturday, March 04, 2017

Hugh Grit: Hugh Jackman Hangs Up His Claws in the Emotional “Logan”

I've never found any reason to enjoy any of the Wolverine-centered X-Men spin-off films. Until now. “Logan” is “The Dark Knight” of the X-Men films; a gritty, dark take on an iconic superhero that is constantly engaging and surprisingly emotionally raw, if a bit overlong. One always has to ask, Does the world need another X-Men film? Do we really need to hand our money over to watch Hugh Jackman slash people with his steel claws, even if this time there's more blood? The answer is now an astounding yes. “Logan” reaches new heights for a comic book film. It goes much further than most comic book film adaptations have, considering a majority of them are popular because of their family-friendly PG-13 rating. Like the serious cousin to last year's delightful and successful “Deadpool,” “Logan” is a wonderful return to form for the long-running franchise.

Is it just me or does “Logan” remind anyone else of “Terminator 2?” There's a grizzled badass main character who teams ups with and protects a kid on a cross country trip with a smooth talking, cyborg-like bad guy hot on their trail. Oh, and there are awesome action scenes every once in a while. The film is set a bit further in the future where mutants seem to be a rare breed; Wolverine (Jackman) is a bit older, more grizzled, and his beard is a bit longer. He works as a limo driver and is taking care of a much older, ailing Professor X (Patrick Stewart) and an albino mutant named Caliban (Stephen Merchant). He inadvertently gets stuck taking care of a young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen, brilliant in her film debut) who also happens to have mutant powers suspiciously similar to Wolverine. We quickly recognize the mentioned “Weapon X” program and a bad guy named Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) is after the mysterious girl. Why anyone would want to know any more about the story than that is beyond me.

“Logan” like the previous Wolverine pic “The Wolverine” is directed by James Mangold. But unlike, “The Wolverine” which was a mild success with plenty of fans, “Logan” is a richer, more fascinating and worthwhile film. We've seen Jackman play his character ad nauseum for the last seventeen years and he slips into the role like a comfortable pair of shoes; and he's still fascinating to watch. It all feels like it was leading up to this. Him being paired with not only an older Charles Xavier, but with a young girl is a fascinating dichotomy. This familial relationship between the characters makes for rather interesting plot points and must certainly be a joy to the actors who get to actually emote when they aren't busy graphically chopping limbs from enemies' bodies (oh my this movie earns its R-rating).


Even a comic book film can have great characters, an interesting story, and a strong emotional pull. There have been many great examples of the genre over the last few years. In this overly crowded marketed to death movie market, there are still big budget, studio movies that can be very well made and they mostly start with a pretty solid script (from Mangold, Scott Frank, and Michael Green). Even if the film threatens to overstay it's welcome, it's a really engaging film with likable characters, fun action, and enough humor to balance out the well-earned drama. This movie will earn every dollar it's got coming to it.  GRADE: A-

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Racial Tension: “Get Out” is a Pitch Black Satirical Horror-Comedy

Remember in “Scream 2” when Jada Pinkett's character complained that “the horror movie is historic for excluding the African American element?” Oh if Maureen could of seen “Get Out” she would lose her mind! I don't know if I've ever seen a movie quite like “Get Out;” it's a horror film that's also a stinging satire of race relations. Jordan Peele, of “Key & Peele” makes his directorial debut with a witty, fun, and creepy film about African Americans' fear and anxiety in a still very racist America. Like a top-notch, feature length “Twilight Zone” episode (and influenced heavily by “The Stepford Wives”), the film is a creepy thriller but also features matter-of-fact social commentary that never bogs down the story and doesn't forget its best reason for existing: to be an extraordinarily entertaining and suspenseful film with something to say about our current state of affairs. The best horror films are a reflection of their time and “Get Out” is no exception.

Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose (Allison Williams) are a young, attractive couple who are preparing to visit Rose's family's estate for the weekend. Chris is concerned that Allison hasn't told her family that Chris is black. She insists that her family isn't racist (her dad would even vote for Obama for a third time if he could) and that won't be an issue whatsoever. The couple hits a deer on the way home and so begins a weird weekend that gets progressively more and more bizarre. Rose's parents seem nice eough. And why wouldn't they be, her mom is played by Catherine Keener and her dad is The West Wing's Bradley Whitford (but he'll always be that jerk Mike from “Adventures in Babysitting”). Chris notices though that the two black house servants seem to be acting funny, like they've been brainwashed or something. The less you know from here on out the better.

“Get Out” is an incredible feature film directorial debut for comedy guy Jordan Peele. It is such a disturbing pieces of filmmaking not only because it's frightening and suspenseful but because it has a lot to say about us as a society. The satirical wit shown here was certainly not lost on me in a world where racial tensions have almost reached their breaking point. We live in a really scary world sometimes and it's reflected back on the screen. Peele commands the frame; the film is unsettling from the opening scene. His actors are amazing, especially Kaluuya whose photographer character has a Star Wars-level bad feeling about this weird family. I believed every minute even if the third act threatens to become a bit over-the-top; I was with Chris every step of the way. And the brilliant moments of witty comic relief, including a scene-stealing LilRel Howery as Chris' concerned best friend, are a welcome relief from the almost unbearable tension.


There aren't enough positive things to say about “Get Out.” It's a must see for anyone even remotely entertained by fans of either scary movies or witty social commentary. The film features great performances, interesting characters and a fascinating and creepy story that takes us down a rabbit hole of bizarre human behavior. See it with a crowd and have a blast.  GRADE: A

Saturday, February 25, 2017

2017 Oscar Forecast (UPDATED)

Holy Crap. Oscars 2017 will always be known for this:

via GIPHY

Bust seriously, MOONLIGHT was the surprise big winner of the night with 3 wins including Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Yet AGAIN the only times I ever get best picture wrong is because of that gosh darned SAG ENSEMBLE award. I hate that pesky jerk. It's just not possible for a movie to win best picture without the whole support of the actor's branch. They are the largest branch of the Academy after all. A win for Moonlight is a pretty big deal considering the notorious Brokeback Mountain snub more than 10 years ago. Seeing members from La La Land and Moonlight get to share the stage even because of such a bizarre (and unprecedented) mix-up really represents what a great year for film this has really been. Long story short, just put Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway back where they were. No one has forgiven Faye for "Dunston Checks In." I got got 16 out of 24 correct. It was bad year for predicting but it was a hell of a show. 





Here we are, the eve of Oscar. Am I the only one losing sleep because of some of these categories? Anyways, I really can't complain about this year's crop of films. There's nary a bad one in the bunch. “La La Land” came into this race an almost unstoppable force. It got record-tying 14 nominations so the big question remains how many will it get? Will it be a Titanic and sweep with 11 wins? Or will it be an “All About Eve” and earn a respectable 6? There are several interesting races to watch, including Best Actor, Best Foreign Language Film, and some of those wacky tech categories (can La La Land really win Best Sound Editing??). Without further delay here are my somewhat fearless predictions. Let's do it!



Best Picture
Who Will Win: “La La Land” Let’s be honest. This is pretty much a guarantee right? Not so fast. There’s a little thing I’d like to bring up called the SAG Ensemble “rule.” It’s a phenomena that has existed for over 20 years. No film has won Best Picture without also being at least nominated at the SAG Awards for Best Cast, since “Braveheart.” Don’t believe me? Why do you think Gravity and The Revenant didn’t win Best Picture? Guess what? “La La Land,” the frontrunner for Best Picture, wasn’t nominated for Best Cast at the SAG Awards. So does that mean Moonlight could win? It very well could. But not so fast. I’d also like to bring up a theory I lovingly call the Gibson Theorem. The one time a movie won best picture without a SAG nomination was Braveheart right? And Mel was also nominated (and eventually won) the Oscar for Best Director. I think when Mel Gibson is a nominee it voids the SAG Ensemble rule. Well guess what? Mel Gibson is up for Best Director this year. All of this could be proven mute though if something like Moonlight does manage a surprise win, but you heard it here first folks.
Who Should Win: “La La Land” or “Moonlight” or “Manchester by the Sea.” Dear lord please don’t make be choose. I love all three of these films equally and ther're so completely different and unique in their own ways. I’d be happy if any of them won. I know “La La Land” feels like the “safe” choice but I’ll be damned if it’s not one of the most entertaining and fun movies of the year.

Should Have Been Nominated: “Jackie”

Best Director
Will Win: Damien Chazelle, “La La Land.” He won the DGA and La La Land is the best pic frontrunner. Anyone else would be a surprise.

Should Win: Damien Chazelle. “La La Land.” These three films are brilliantly directed in different ways, but Chazelle gets my vote for degree of difficulty. Anyone who could make me like a musical with songs I don't know based on old school musicals I don't care about is a hero in my book.

Should Have Been Nominated: Pablo Larrain, “Jackie”

Best Actor
Will Win: Denzel Washington, “Fences.” Please Oscar gods give me strength. This is such an unbelievably tight race. Arguments can be made for either Affleck or Denzel Washington. Washington has odds on his side: he won at SAG as do most of the winners here. Affleck has been the presumed favorite for a long time but an understated performance and past sexual harassment allegations are doing him no favor. In a post #OscarsSoWhite world Washington seems to be pulling ahead. This one is too close to call.

Should Win: Casey Affleck. “Manchester by the Sea.” Easily the “best” performance of the frontrunners. Affleck is so affecting in this film and is 75% of why the film is so good.

Should Have Been Nominated: Jake Gyllenhaal, “Nocturnal Animals” (What else is new?)

Best Actress
Will Win: Emma Stone, “La La Land.” IF Emma wins and La La Land wins best pic, it'll be the first time the best actress winner was in the best picture winner since “Million Dollar Baby.” Emma doesn't quite have this in the bag however. There others nipping at her heals. I'd be genuinely shocked if Isabelle Hupert won just because it would be so out of the box for the Academy, but the consensus is she's in second place. The fact that “Elle” didn't even make the Foreign Language Oscar shortlist doesn't help. And then there's Natalie Portman, a past winner, playing a real life person, in an almost over-the-top performance. But people don't really like the film (that didn't stop Meryl from winning if we recall).

Should Win: Natalie Portman, “Jackie.” Oh my god don't make me choose. I would probably vote for Emma and her turned up to eleven charm. But Natalie is revelatory in Jackie.

Should Have Been Nominated: Amy Adams, “Arrival.” (Duh).

Best Supporting Actor
Will Win: Mahershala Ali, “Moonlight.” HE gives a brief performance and it's very memorable which is why he's been the frontrunner for so long. I don't really see anyone else winning but upsets tend to happen in this category (just as Sylvester Stallone last year). If anyone else were to win it'd probably be Dev Patel.

Should Win: Lucas Hedges, “Manchester by the Sea.” Don't get me wrong I love Moonlight and Ali is great in it but I don't quite get the passion behind him. I was really moved by Hedges' work and his chemistry with Affleck is tangible.

Should Have Been Nominated: Ashton Sanders, “Moonlight.” All of the actors who played Chiron were amazing. I was particularly moved by the “second” Chiron.

Best Supporting Actress
Will Win: Viola Davis, “Fences.” The only “sure thing” in the acting categories this year. Even though she pretty much gives lead performance (and probably would have won Best Actress anyways) she acts the crap out of the part AND SHE HAS FREAKING SNOT COMING OUT OF HER NOSE.

Should Win: Viola Davis, “Fences.” Even if she's committing category fraud you can't deny the power of this performance.

Should Have Been Nominated: Janelle Monet, “Hidden Figures.”

And the rest:
Best Adapted Screenplay 
Will Win: “Moonlight.” There were weird shakeups in the writing categories this year. The whole season Moonlight competed as an original screenplay but the Academy determined it to be adapted since it was loosely based on an unpublished play called “In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue.” So it competes in this category for the first time which basically relegates the amazing Arrival script to “just happy to be nominated” status.

Best Original Screenplay
Will Win: “Manchester by the Sea.” A musical, let alone an original musical, hasn't won a writing award in like a hundred years. Unless of course “Manchester” ends up being this year's “Up in the Air” and surprisingly goes home empty handed? “La La Land” could win in a sweep.

Best Animated Feature Film
Will Win: “Zootopia.” Without any competition from Pixar “Zootopia” will probably take this in a walk. “Moana” or “Kubo and the Two Strigs” would take this in any other year.

Best Cinematography
Will Win: “La La Land.” It seems so rare for films set in modern day to win this award, as it usually is relegated to sweeping period pieces, but the Academy has embraced modern and futuristic set films as of late. This isn't a slam dunk as it has been the past three years with Emmanuel Lubeski's unprecedented trifecta sweep, but I'd actually be pretty surprised if something else won here.

Best Costume Design
Will Win: “Jackie.” This is what I wrote here last year: (This category also has a strong connection with Production Design – formerly Art Direction – so a win for Mad Max would make sense since it’s the PD frontrunner). “La La Land” is the frontrunner in Production Design, but I just can't see how the Academy will award it here since the movie is so “modern” and not flashy (the last contemporary-set film to win this category was Priscilla Queen of the Desert and those costumes were extremely flashy). This category is tricky because there really is no obvious frontrunner with huge period gowns. I feel like period will win over contemporary at the end of the day, unless La La sweeps.

Best Documentary - Feature
Will Win: “OJ: Made in America.” Will the Academy really go for an eight hour film? How many have actually watched the whole thing? And how can other films with regular runtimes even compete? “OJ” is really remarkable filmmaking, it should win, but really I wouldn't be surprised to see the similarly themed “13th” (easily seen on Netflix) or “I Am Not Your Negro” (which has the benefit of recently being released) win here.

Best Documentary - Short Subject
Will Win: “Joe's Violin.” These are notoriously hard to predict. I'm going with the one that has to do with the Holocaust and music. Though Extremis seems to be the frontrunner, I watched it on Netflix and found it dry and depressing.

Best Film Editing
Will Win: “La La Land.” There's a strong correlation between editing and best picture but that has proven not to be all that accurate as of late. Only a handful of Best Picture winners recently have also won for Editing. Also, there are certain types of films that win here. Usually music related (Whiplash, Chicago) or action/war oriented (Mad Max, The Bourne Ultimatum) or war (The Hurt Locker, Black Hawk Down) or back-and-forth /unique narratives (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Social Network) tend to win here. So I think it's a race between La La Land, Arrival, and Hacksaw Ridge. Arrival has a good shot since it just won the drama editing guild award (but so did La La Land in the musical/comedy category). “La La Land” with so many long takes doesn't necessarily have the most “obvious” editing, but I think it may squeak in. But wouldn't be surprised to see Arrival or Hacksaw get in there.

Best Foreign Language Film
Will Win: “The Salesman.” Word on the street is that presumed German frontrunner “Toni Erdmann” will lose to Iranian “The Salesman” since the director has “boycotted” the Oscars because of Trump's controversial travel ban.

Best Makeup & Hairstyling
Will Win:
“Star Trek Beyond.” Kind of a boring crop this year huh? Sure bad movies get nominated in this category all the time: “Click,” “Bad Grandpa,” “Norbit,” etc. But they rarely win unless it's a particularly strong achievement or weak competition (cough, “The Wolfman,” cough). So I'm sticking with the Trekkies over Suicide Squad.

Best Original Score
Will Win: “La La Land.” Musicals actually rarely are nominated let alone win here since most of the time movie musicals are adapted from the stage. There's no reason to think that La La Land's fun, jazzy score won't triumph.

Best Original Song
Will Win: City of Stars, “La La Land.” I know I know, boring songs usually win this category let's face it (Another Day of Sun is the best song from “La La Land” in my opinion).

Best Production Design
Will Win: “La La Land.” A contemporary film hasn't won this category since “All That Jazz.” That doesn't help La La Land's case but I think it's going to be voted for in a lot of these categories (Especially since sometimes Academy members confuse Production Design with “production value”).

Best Short Film – Animated
Will Win:
“Piper.” I maintain that there's a very good chance something else could win here because the most “accessible” film (meaning it showed in front of Finding Dory and therefore most people have seen it) doesn't always necessarily win. And Pixar has a surprisingly poor track record in this category. Having said that “Piper” while it is sort of “lightweight” and “cute” it features almost photorealistic animation and is almost unlike anything else Pixar has made in terms of the animation itself. Plus it has a cute animal. And besides this isn't the strongest batch of contenders this category has seen.

Best Short Film – Live Action
Will Win:
Sing (Mindenki).” Another category that is nearly impossible to predict. I'm going with the Hungarian film Sing which has cute kids and singing.

Best Sound Editing
Will Win: “Hacksaw Ridge.” I refuse to entertain the notion that the Academy will give La La Land an Oscar for Best Sound Editing. Period. (The other option is “Arrival). If La La Land wins here expect a total sweep.

Best Sound Mixing
Will Win: “La La Land.” Okay, sound mixing? That's another story. Musicals do gangbusters in this category. A lot of times the sound categories go to one movie, but I feel like there will be a split this year.

Best Visual Effects
Will Win: “The Jungle Book.” In the past we've learned that usually a Best Picture nominee wins here if there is one. That rule was thrown out the window last year when “Ex Machina” surprised many and won over three Best Pic nominees. This year there aren't any Best Pic nominees. I'm going with “The Jungle Book” which, along with films like “Avatar,” has created an entire world created entirely in the computer. The animals are so realistic that if “The Golden Compass” could win this award, “The Jungle Book” should win this in a cake walk. 


Sunday, February 12, 2017

Block & Awe: “The LEGO Batman Movie” is an Irreverent, Comedic Superhero Trip

It was only a matter of time before LEGOs became a hit movie franchise. So many people poo-pooed the idea of an animated film based on plastic brick building toys no matter how popular the things were. And then we got “The LEGO Movie” and it was just simply brilliant and way more entertaining than it had any right to be (and that’s why I’m predicting the “The Emoji Movie” won’t be nearly as bad as we’re all thinking). With the advent of super hero fatigue, making an entire LEGO movie about Batman and that entire universe felt like overkill but I’m happy to report that “The LEGO Batman Movie” is a spectacularly entertaining and fun movie. It’s unlike any other “superhero film” you’ve seen before because it’s constantly making fun of itself and the conventions of the genre which is why it’s sort of “The Naked Gun” of animated comic movies.

Argue all you want about who is the best cinematic Batman, but Will Arnett has definitely climbed the ranks. His perfectly suited, grizzled voice fits perfectly and his cameo in “The LEGO Movie” was certainly a highlight. Now, starring in his own film, “The LEGO Batman Movie” follows the as cocky as ever Batman as he saves Gotham City yet again from the evil clutches of the Joker (voiced by Zach Galifianakis). But the Joker isn’t upset that Batman saved the day, he’s actually upset because Batman refuses to say those three little words: “I hate you.” The Joker then concocts a scheme to release all the evil villains locked in the Phantom Zone. Meanwhile, Batman must deal with the loneliness he feels from being the only one in his huge mansion. He reluctantly adopts an orphan named Dick Grayson (Michael Cera), who will eventually become the sidekick known as robin. And not to mention the fact that the new police commissioner Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson) doesn’t believe in vigilante justice. It’s hard out here for a batman.

As you may assume, the film is packed to the brim with silly jokes, fun references, delightful cameos, and borderline too much action. First of all, the film is simply gorgeous; the animation is astounding. Like the last LEGO outing the film almost has a stop-motion feel to it. It’s extremely impressive. And second of all, it’s hysterical from beginning to end. There are the silly throwaway jokes like references to Bed, Bath, & Beyond coupons and plenty of nods to every past incarnation of Batman. Batman even spends his lonely times at Wayne Manor watching “Jerry Maguire” in his home theater room.


There are too much fun jokes and references to spoil here and it has a third act that is simply outstanding. Like the last LEGO adventure some of the action is almost too frenetic, but there is such a wondrous spirit to the proceedings. You really get a sense that everyone is putting their best effort forward. The script (lead by Seth Grahame-Smith and a slew of other writers) is witty, original, and cheeky. The film works as a great Batman film and as a great Batman spoof mostly because the director is Robot Chicken's Chris McKay). It’s fun for the kids and probably more fun for adults. “The LEGO Batman Movie” is certainly yet another superhero film you won’t want to miss; in fact, it's awesome.  GRADE: A-  

Sunday, January 22, 2017

2017 Oscar nomination predictions

On Tuesday January 24th the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will announce their nominees for the 89th Annual Academy Awards (controversially doing away with their traditional early am live audience announcement filled with press and publicists and instead going for some kind of pre-taped live stream). Since this is my version of football season, I sort of take this stuff seriously, so without further ado I present my 90% fearless Oscar nomination predictions. On with the show...


Best Picture
OK, so here’s what everyone is wondering: is “Deadpool” really gonna be nominated for Best Picture or what? Heck no. But you know what? It’s way closer to being nominated than anyone would have ever thought. Sure its WGA nod was a surprise, but plenty of ineligibilities paved the way for it to show up there. And the PGA is a funny group who likes to nominate films with interesting backstories or populist films that make a lot of money. They previously nominated “Star Trek,” “The Dark Knight,” “Ex Machina,” “Skyfall,” and “Bridesmaids,” etc, none of which made into the big race at the Oscars. The biggest question is how many nominees will there be? 8 and 9 have been the magic number the last five years so that seems likely again. But what about “Silence,” the polarizing Martin Scorsese film? Every Scorsese film has been nominated since 2002 except for “Shutter Island” (which was released in February that year). If not “Silence,” then why not go with what could possibly surprise many and that's the standard Oscar-bait pick in the form of a glossy Meryl Streep movie: Florence Foster Jenkins. Then there's “Jackie” which doesn't seem to have much traction and “Nocturnal Animals” which seems to be surprising many (especially with its 9 BAFTA nods).

Here are 10 projected nominees in likelihood of being nominated:
“La La Land”
“Moonlight”
“Manchester by the Sea”
“Hell or High Water”
“Hacksaw Ridge”
“Lion”
“Arrival”
“Hidden Figures”
“Fences”
“Florence Foster Jenkins”
alternates - “Nocturnal Animals,” “Jackie”

Best Director
I feel pretty confident in four of these predictions. The one I’m not so sure about is Garth Davis, who surprised many (myself included) by showing up in the DGA noms. The DGA and Academy rarely goes perfect five for five, so who to change? The Academy is a smaller group and tends to surprise in this category by letting in the helmers of smaller films. Don’t be surprised to see someone like David McKenzie in there or even Denzel or Mel; this branch isn’t opposed to nominating actors-turned-directors after all.

Projected nominees:
Denis Villeneuve (“Arrival”)
Damien Chazelle (“La La Land”)
Garth Davis (“Lion”)
Kenneth Lonergan (“Manchester by the Sea”)
Barry Jenkins (“Moonlight”)

Alternate – David McKenzie (“Hell or High Water”)

Best Actor
I’d be pretty surprised if the final five didn’t end up being these five. What are the possibilities? Jake Gyllenhaal surprised everyone by showing up with a BAFTA nod for “Nocturnal Animals.” The Brits loved the film, could the British members of the Academy swing in his favor? It’s possible, especially considering his still-shocking “Nightcrawler” snub. After that the possibilities thin out… maybe Joel Edgerton in “Loving” a movie that hasn’t quite caught on this season. Months ago Tom Hanks would have been a frontrunner but “Sully” has seemed to have stalled in the water so to speak.

Projected nominees:
Casey Affleck (“Manchester by the Sea”)
Andrew Garfield (“Hacksaw Ridge”)
Ryan Gosling (“La La Land”)
Viggo Mortensen (“Captain Fantastic”)
Denzel Washington (“Fences”)
Alternate – Jake Gyllenhaal (“Nocturnal Animals”)

Best Actress
The most crowded Best Actress race in some years, there will be no filler nominees this year (unless you count the trademarked Streep Slot). There are about eight actresses vying for a spot including Annette Bening and Tarji P. Henson but their films are sort of late-breaking, though it wouldn't be shocking to either of them show up here. Ditto Ruth Nega whose film Loving doesn't seem to have much traction anymore, and then there's wild card Emily Blunt who has both a SAG and BAFTA nomination to her credit in a generally hated film. She remains the big question mark in this race. After all is said is done, Bening seems to have the best shot of showing up outside my predicted five.

Projected nominees:
Amy Adams (“Arrival”)
Isabelle Huppert (“Elle”)
Natalie Portman (“Jackie”)
Emma Stone (“La La Land”)
Meryl Streep (“Florence Foster Jenkins”)
alternate – Annette Bening, (“20th Century Women”)

Best Supporting Actor
Let me start by saying that I'm going with Aaron Taylor-Johnson because of statstical reasons. Every Best Supporting Actor winner at the Golden Globes has gone on to receive an Oscar nomination for the past 40 years. Normally I'd discount such a thing as a fluke, but then he showed up at BAFTA. Sure he's British and some argue he won at the Globes because of the whole gift basket controversy but I feel like history is on my side. Having said that this category really is wide open, though I'd be surprised if Ali, Bridges, and Patel didn't show up here. The one who I finally ended up taking out of my final five is Lucas Hedges and though he certainly deserves to be nominated for “Manchester by the Sea,” it's his young age working against him. Though I would not be surprised to see him show up on this list. Hugh Grant remains the question mark because he could fill that “seasoned veteran who's never been nominated before” slot. Also in contention is Kevin Costner though it remains to be seen how the late-breaking hit “Hidden Figures” will do with overall nominations.

Projected nominees:
Mahershala Ali (“Moonlight”)
Jeff Bridges (“Hell or High Water”)
Hugh Grant (“Florence Foster Jenkins”)
Dev Patel (“Lion”)
Aaron Taylor-Johnson (“Nocturnal Animals”)
alternate - Lucas Hedges (“Manchester by the Sea”)

Best Supporting Actress
Overall, I'm pretty confident in these five, but a surprise could arise in the form of either Greta Gerwig from “20th Century Women” or even Janelle Monae from “Hidden Figures.” The biggest shock of all would be Viola Davis being nominated in the Best Actress category which would be crazy itself.

projected nominees:
Viola Davis (“Fences”)
Naomie Harris (“Moonlight”)
Nicole Kidman (“Lion”)
Octavia Spencer (“Hidden Figures”)
Michelle Williams (“Manchester by the Sea”)
alternate – Greta Gerwig “20th Century Women”)

Best Adapted Screenplay
Many were surprised when Moonlight was declared an Adapted script (while in other precurer awards like WGA it competed in the Original category). This change most likely will bump out “Nocturnal Animals” though it could show up if the Writers Branch aren't feeling any of the other potential Best Picture hopefuls.

“Arrival”
“Fences”
“Hidden Figures”
“Lion”
“Moonlight”
alternate - “Nocturnal Animals”

Best Original Screenplay
This category has much more room to play than the Adapted category as most of the potential Best Picture nominees come from adapted works. That bodes well for the likes of “The Lobster” and “Captain Fantastic” which aren't looking to score many other nominations outside of here and Best Actor.

Projected nominees:
“Captain Fantastic”
“Hell or High Water”
“La La Land”
“The Lobster”
“Manchester by the Sea”
alternate - “Jackie”

Best Cinematography
“Arrival”
“La La Land”
“Lion”
“Moonlight”
“Silence”
alternate - “Jackie”

Best Costume Design
“The Dressmaker”
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”
“Florence Foster Jenkins”
“Jackie”
“La La Land”
alternate - “Allied”

Best Film Editing
“Arrival”
“Hacksaw Ridge”
“La La Land”
“Manchester by the Sea”
“Moonlight”
alternate - “Hell or High Water”

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
This is Deadpool's best shot at Oscar glory though it has some tough competition in the form of “Star Trek Beyond.”

projected nominees:
“Deadpool”
“Florence Foster Jenkins”
“A Man Called Ove”
alternate - “Star Trek Beyond”

Best Original Score
One of my favorite categories, the Best Score category certainly is easier to predict than “Best Song” but the music branch is a tough group to crack. Newcomers rarely show up here which is why yours Thomas Newmans and John Williams show up constantly. If your music has a foreign sounding flair to it certainly helps, which bodes well for “Lion” but don't be surprised to find Academy favorite Michael Giachinno show up for “Rogue One” though it's difficult to call who would be left out. "Passengers," "Kubo and the Two Strings," and "Hidden Figures" are also in play.

Projected nominees:
“The BFG”
“Jackie”
“La La Land”
“Lion”
“Moonlight”
alternate - “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”

Best Original Song
The music branch is a finnicky bunch and so the Best Song category is notoriously difficult to predict. Many usually predict the popular songs but they so rarely make it in. Sometimes they do (in the case of Everything is Awesome from The LEGO Movie and sometimes they don't like See You Again from “Furious Seven”). It's best to start with musicals and Disney movies and then go from there. It must be said it would be a crime if a song from “Sing Street” wasn't nominated.

Projected nominees:
“Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” from “La La Land”
“City of Stars” from “La La Land”
“Dancing with Your Shadow” from “Po”
“Drive it Like You Stole It” from “Sing Street”
“How Far I’ll Go” from “Moana”
alternate - “Runnin'” from “Hidden Figures”

Best Production Design
“Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”
“Hail, Caesar!”
“The Handmaiden”
“Jackie”
“La La Land”
alternate - “Silence”

Best Sound Editing
“Arrival”
“Deepwater Horizon”
“Hacksaw Ridge”
“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”
“Sully”
alternate - “The Jungle Book”

Best Sound Mixing
“Arrival”
“Deepwater Horizon”
“Hacksaw Ridge”
“La La Land”
“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”
alternate - “The Jungle Book”

Best Visual Effects
“Deepwater Horizon”
“Doctor Strange”
“The Jungle Book”
“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”
alternate - “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them”

Best Animated Feature Film
“Kubo and the Two Strings”
“My Life as a Zucchini”
“Moana”
“The Red Turtle”
“Zootopia”
alternate - “Finding Dory”

Best Documentary Feature
“Cameraperson”
“I Am Not Your Negro”
“O.J.: Made in America”
“13th”
“Weiner”
alternate - “The Eagle Huntress”

Best Foreign Language Film
“Tanna” (Australia)
“Land of Mine” (Denmark)
“Toni Erdmann” (Germany)
“The Salesman” (Iran)
“A Man Called Ove” (Sweden)
alternate - “My Life as a Zucchini (Switzerland)