Friday, February 22, 2019

Oscar Forecast: “Roma” With a Chance of “Green Book” and Five Other Movies. Yikes.

On Sunday, second Christmas arrives in the form of the 91st annual Academy Awards. Let’s get into it. Fair warning: the following write-up contains gratuitous amounts of Oscar nerdiness.

I’ve been wrong the last three years in a row and it would be nice if I could get this right again. It seems like only yesterday I had a seven year stretch of correctly predicted BP winners (The Departed through Argo). And then something… funny happened. The Academy’s tastes began to shift, there was a whiff of change in the air, and they became - dare I say - unpredictable. I couldn’t even correctly predict last year’s win for “The Shape of Water” which actually makes the most sense in hindsight. It makes for an exciting show but for someone who spends the winter months trying to decipher which way the Academy will go, it’s anxiety inducing. And yet again here we are in a wacky year where “the rules” – ie, SAG noms, “requisite nominations” - that used to be very helpful - will be thrown out the window yet again. For several years it seemed like the SAG Best Cast category was the unofficial bellwether as to what could eventually win the Best Picture Oscar. Gravity, The Revenant, La La Land – all failed to get a Best Cast nomination at SAG and all failed to win Best Picture at the Oscars. So how could The Shape of Water possibly win BP without that same nomination? But it did! It did win. I maintain that Three Billboard’s lack of a directing nomination was telling. Sure, Argo pulled it off just a few years ago but there was a rallying cry behind Ben Affleck’s snub; no one seemed to care that Marin McDonagh got shafted.

And that is why I am somewhat hesitantly predicting a win for Roma. A film that was not nominated at SAG but still received two somewhat surprising Oscar acting nods for two of its actresses. I won’t even get into Roma’s lack of an editing nod – Birdman didn't get one and still won. But I think it’s because the Academy didn’t want to nominate Alfonso Cuaron literally 8 times. Some are predicting a victory for “Green Book.” But it’s lack of a directing nomination is telling, not to mention its SAG nomination snub. However, with the way the preferential ballot works a lot of these “rules” feel more less and less helpful. A legitimate argument could be made for ALL EIGHT BP NOMINEES. That is unprecedented. It was so much easier when it was The King’s Speech vs The Social Network or Birdman vs Boyhood or Shakespeare in Love vs. Saving Private Ryan. Ok bad example. So I’m officially going with Roma, which just triumphed at BAFTA and its hard to predict a BP/Director split to I’m sticking with it. Unfortunately, it seems like A Star is Born is just happy to be nominated.

Will win: “Roma”
Should win: “A Star is Born”
Should have been nominated: “A Quiet Place”

If the “rules” I speak of have become less predictive the last few years there’s one that has truly stayed the course: DGA. This award has a tremendously predictive history. Alfonso Cuaron won at DGA and is not surprisingly on his way to claim his second Best Directing Oscar. And that’s fine and all but what a great opportunity it would have been to reward Spike Lee (which will probably happy in Screenplay).

Will win: Alfonso Cuarón, “Roma”
Should win: Spike Lee, “BlacKkKlansman”
Should have been nominated: Bradley Cooper, “A Star Is Born”

Controversy aside, I’m pretty certain that Rami Malek is going to take this for Bohemian Rhapsody. Even people who hate the movie say he’s the best thing about it. He won the Globe, SAG and BAFTA. It would be an upset if he lost at this point. Bale or Cooper could win but I’d be shocked if Malek loses.

Will win: Rami Malek, “Bohemian Rhapsody”
Should win: Rami Malek, “Bohemian Rhapsody”
Should have been nominated: John David Washington, “BlacKkKlansman”

What a crazy trajectory the ladies in this category have had. Another young vs old, newbie vs veteran narrative took shape this year as it became Gaga vs Glenn. Yes Glenn Close has yet to win an Oscar but does she really need it for The Wife? It’s a mediocre movie and she’s fine in it but to think Gaga and Colman will lose a deserving award to a lifetime achievement honor is just sad (though Gaga is really in third here considering she’s a lock for a win in the Song category). At this point after Close’s surprise Globe victory and powerful speech it’s hers to lose.

Will win: Glenn Close, “The Wife”
Should win: Olivia Colman, “The Favourite”
Should have been nominated: Toni Collette, “Hereditary”

I don’t hate “Green Book” as much as other people do and Mahershala is fine in the film. But I don’t quite get the need to give the guy another Oscar so quickly after winning for Moonlight. A win for Ali feels like another lock even though this category sometimes ends up rewarding veterans: your Christopher Plummers, your Alan Arkins, your George Clooneys, your James Coburns, etc. So a surprise win for Sam Elliott wouldn’t be the craziest thing to happen.

Will win: Mahershala Ali, “Green Book”
Should win: Richard E. Grant, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
Should have been nominated: Michael B. Jordan, “Black Panther”

What a weird category this year. Regina King feels like the front runner but she wasn’t strangely not nominated at SAG and at BAFTA. It’s very rare for a performer to win an Oscar after being snubbed at SAG but it has happened twice: Marcia Gay Harden and Christoph Waltz. (Fun fact: Harden’s never even been nominated at the Golden Globes for any role). If King doesn’t win it’ll probably go to Rachel Weisz, who has already won in this category (against Amy Adams I might add). Adams could win I guess but it feels like no one really seems to care much about Vice these days. I thought she was fine in the film and wouldn’t mind her finally winning her first Oscar.

Will win: Regina King, “If Beale Street Could Talk”
Should win: Amy Adams, “Vice”
Should have been here: Emily Blunt, “A Quiet Place”

Even if Spike Lee isn’t going to win for Directing BlacKkKlansman he’s most likely to triumph for helping to write BlacKkKlansman. This isn’t quite a slam-dunk – Can You Ever Forgive Me? surprised many by winning the WGA – and there’s a lot of affection for If Beale Street Could Talk and its source material. Having said that, it feels increasingly difficult for non-BP nominees to win in the screenplay categories (the last time a non-BP nominee won in this category was 1998’s Gods & Monsters)

Will win: “BlacKkKlansman”
Should win: “BlacKkKlansman”
Should have been nominated: “Black Panther”

This category is a tad more welcoming to non-BP fare (The last time a non-BP nominee won in the Original Screenplay category was 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). I think this comes down to Green Book vs The Favourite. This will be a very important category to watch. If Green Book wins it could very well win Best Picture. If The Favourite wins it’s highly unlikely that Green Book will take the cake. I’m guessing The Favourite since it feels like the most Original of these nominees and it doesn’t help that one of Green Book’s screenwriters (Nick Vallelonga) has been in some hot water recently.

Will win: “The Favourite”
Should win: “The Favourite”
Should have been nominated: “Eighth Grade”

I’d be surprised if Alfonso Cuaron doesn’t win for lensing his own film. It’s certainly unprecedented. The Cinematography guild wasn’t having it (Cold War won at ASC) but I think the Academy will reward the film here.

Will win: “Roma”
Should win: “Roma”
Should have been nominated: “If Beale Street Could Talk”

It’s period vs. fantasy. Usually it’s dumb to bet against a flashy period piece drama featuring royals but the costuming in Black Panther is also gorgeous and unique. Flip a coin really, but I think The Favourite will probably win out. And if Black Panther surprises with a win I’ll be happy to be wrong.

Will win: “The Favourite”
Should win: “Black Panther”
Should have been nominated: “Crazy Rich Asians”

Another bizarre category filled with nontraditional nominees. Where’s the random action movie? Where’s the war film? There’s nothing too flashy or obvious about any of these nominees; they’re all fine. I think Vice, which won at BAFTA, will probably win because it arguably has the “flashiest” editing of the nominees, with lots of insert cross-cutting scenes. Bohemian Rhapsody could win here as music films tend to do well in this category and everyone knows that the troubled production of this film was truly saved in the editing room. So don’t be shocked if Bohemian Rhapsody pulls it off.

Will win: “Vice”
Should win: “Vice”
Should have been nominated: “A Star is Born”

Vice will probably win for transforming Christian Bale into Dick Chaney. The academy loves a good transformation (there’s a reason why films like The Iron Lady, Darkest Hour, La Vie en Rose have won here). Anyone who looks at stills from Border would be impressed with that work but have enough people seen the film or even know of it?

Will win: “Vice”
Should win: “Vice”
Should have been nominated: “Black Panther”

With “First Man’s” gorgeous score shockingly left out, this race literally comes down to race: the three front runners feature predominately African American casts: If Beale Street Could Talk, BlacKkKlansman, and Black Panther. I think Beale Street will take it but wouldn’t be shocked to see any of these three win.

Will win: “If Beale Street Could Talk”
Should win: “Black Panther”
Should have been nominated: “First Man”

The only real sure thing of the night besides Best Director. Lady Gaga, half way to her EGOT.

Will win: “Shallow” from “A Star Is Born”
Should win: “Shallow” from “A Star Is Born”
Should have been nominated: “Ashes” from “Deadpool 2”

A lot of times this award is tied closely to Costume Design. So this is another battle between Art Directors Guild winners & front runners Black Panther and The Favourite. The Academy has been known to embrace worlds created with the help of computers so a win for Black Panther wouldn’t be unheard of, but I won’t be surprised if The Favourite wins this if they also win for Costumes. Flip a coin.

Will win: “The Favourite”
Should win: “Black Panther”
Should have been nominated: “Ready Player One”

This category isn’t very welcoming to non-BP nominees as I’ve recently come to find out. Skyfall won in 2013 but it tied with Zero Dark Thirty. But there’s a reason A Quiet Place was nominated for this award. It’s the film most reliant on sound effects. However, it’s not just sound people voting so I wouldn’t be shocked if something else, like Bohemian Rhapsody takes this one. I’m totally going out on a limb here.

Will win: “A Quiet Place”
Should win: “A Quiet Place”
Should have been nominated: “Ready Player One”

I think it’s a race between the two music-based films. Flip a coin, but don’t count out First Man.

Will win: “Bohemian Rhapsody”
Should win: “First Man”
Should have been nominated: “Mission: Impossible – Fallout”

Generally, in this category Best Picture winners tend to win. Of course “Ex Machina” beat several BP nominees that year. Usually the movie that wins is the film most likely to be a BP nominee, ie “Blade Runner 2049” and “Interstellar.” That film this year would be “First Man” (it’s also the only film of the five with multiple nominations) but the film’s effects are more subtle so I think the Academy will finally embrace the Marvel Cinematic Universe with a win for the effects-heavy Avengers. Though they really should be rewarding “Ready Player One” which has some of the most impressive full sequences of CGI since “Avatar.” (It’s also crazy that no Spielberg film has won this award since 1993’s “Jurassic Park.”)

Will win: “Avengers: Infinity War”
Should win: “Ready Player One”
Should have been here: “Black Panther”

It’s rare for a non-Disney or non-Pixar film to win here, but I think considering the Disney films are sequels don’t really help their cause. Sure “Toy Story 3” pulled it off, but that was a Best Picture nominee. I think “Spider-Man” will prevail since it has been winning every other top animation award but don’t be too shocked if there’s an upset. Remember when “Brave” beat out “Wreck-It Ralph?” That still hurts.

Will win: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”
Should win: “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”
Should of been nominated: They actually got this category right this year

How does a film in this category that is also a BP nominee not win here? There is some consensus that those voting for Roma for BP would be hesitant to also vote for it here but that’s nonsense. Having said that, a surprise win for “Cold War” wouldn’t be the craziest of upsets.

Will win: “Roma” (Mexico)
Should win: “Roma” (Mexico)

A win for RBG would be rightfully politically motivated which I have no problem with and Ruth Bader Ginsburg has literally been everywhere lately (mostly in the hospital recovering actually but she’s a tough old broad). Having said that, the film itself while completely enjoyable isn’t necessary a feat of magnificent non-fiction filmmaking. That would be Free Solo, a big scale, nail-biter of a film about a man who attempts to climb Yosemite’s 3,000 ft El Capitan Wall without any ropes or safety gear. Either film has a decent shot.

Will win: “Free Solo”
Should win: “Free Solo”
Should have been here: “Three Identical Strangers”

Will win: “Period. End of Sentence.

Will win: “Bao”

Will win: “Marguerite”

Monday, February 18, 2019

Rebel Without a Cause: The Satirical “Isn’t It Romantic” is a Rom-Com With Considerable Bite

A meta movie like “Isn’t It Romantic” couldn’t exist if there weren’t decades worth of romantic comedy cliches built over time. “Isn’t It Romantic” is a satire of the traditional rom-com that has permeated the American cineplex for years. Of course it’s not the first film to spoof the genre and it certainly won’t be the last. But it does so in a clever enough way – even if it’s all a bit too obvious at times – to make it a rather enjoyable experience.

Aussie funny lady Rebel Wilson stars as a frumpy woman living in a “realistic” version of modern NYC. The film opens with Natalie as a kid watching “Pretty Woman” and her mother insists that movies like that aren’t real life. Anyone with half a brain knows that. Natalie grows up knowing that as well – movies are make believe after all. One day she’s mugged in the subway and knocked unconscious but when she wakes up everything is… different. Her hospital room is as gorgeous as her doctor and New York City no longer smells like garbage. Her apartment is now twice the size and she has an entire walk-in closet filled with every pair of shoe imaginable. Her creepy neighbor Donny (Brandon Scott Jones) is now her flamboyantly gay sidekick, Her nerdy work assistant and friend Whitney (GLOW’s Betty Gilpin) is now bitchy, steely, and her sworn enemy. But one thing remains: she still crushes on her guy friend Josh even though she doesn’t think he’d date her in a million years. Enter the dashing, and second best-looking Hemsworth brother Liam as Blake as a company client who also apparently has a thing for Natalie. It’s not long before Natalie realizes that she’s trapped in some kind of Twilight Zone romantic-comedy dimension where she can’t even drop an F-bomb, even though PG-13 rated films allow at least one.

“Isn’t It Romantic” is directed by Todd Strauss-Schulson and that’s no surprise because his last film was the equally meta “The Final Girls” which featured a reworking of slasher movies. That film didn’t quite work for me in the way that this film does. “Isn’t It Romantic” isn’t perfect though; for all its charm and wit, it hits all the basic notes as found in the script by Erin Cardillo, Dana Fox, and Katie Silberman. It announces all the cliches of the rom-com genre but then just sort of follows them anyway. But that’s sort of the point because ultimately the film does take it’s own turn in the final act which was refreshing. The film is essentially a “best of” rom-com and yet you actually begin to care about Natalie and her plight.

Strauss-Schulson and his cast have such a fun time creating this fantastical world of perfection that it’s hard not to buy into it. The humor is pretty biting and Wilson makes for an absolutely perfect leading lady equally capable of being both sarcastic and charming. Even if the film is heavily influenced by famous rom-coms, I got a heavy “Wizard of Oz” feel. The opening scenes are gritty, filled with washed out colors, and shaky camerawork. After Natalie wakes up the film is brighter, more colorful, and the Steadicam makes itself known.

“Isn’t It Romantic” isn’t without faults but it’s a really fun time and offers plenty of laughs. The premise is rather clever even if it hits most of the beats you’re expecting. The film does feels like it offers universal appeal: Those who love rom-coms will enjoy the rom-comness of it all, and those who find the genre eye-roll inducing will still get a kick out of it. Wilson is matched with perfect material here, she gets to be physically funny and offers plenty of wit herself. Oh, and there are musical numbers. Did I mention the musical numbers?  GRADE: B

Saturday, February 16, 2019

Live/Die/Repeat: The Ridiculous “Happy Death Day 2U” Makes No Sense But is Fiendishly Fun

Where does one even begin? Put simply “Happy Death Day 2U” is an utterly ridiculous and preposterous sequel, one in which they try to explain the events the first film with “science” that hardly makes a lick of sense. But you know what else this movie is? FUN AS HELL. This is one of those movies where the intellectual me is telling me “This is so stupid and ridiculous!” and yet I couldn’t help but just go with it and have some fun. Everyone involved in “Happy Death Day 2U” is having an absolute blast and it completely comes across onscreen. They totally embrace the goofy premise and the actors, especially lead Jessica Rothe, are completely selling it. The film is way more focused on humor and the campiness of it all and if you’re willing to accept the nonsense you’ll have as much fun as you did watching the first film.

Jessica Rothe is yet again fantastic in the role of Tree. In the first film Tree was a bitchy sorority girl who wasn’t very likable. By the end of the film I wanted to be friends with her. That is a testament to the great arch the character goes through and the likability of Rothe as a performer and her innate ability to sell an insane storyline. To me, she was “Happy Death Day.” And she’s thankfully back in this even more bonkers sequel and she nails it yet again.

Taking place the day after the events of the first film – Tree and Carter (and equally charming Israel Broussard) are now a couple – but Carter’s roommate Ryan (Phi Vu) begins to experience the same time loop that Tree experienced in the first film. It turns out Ryan and his nerdy science buddies have made some kind of experimental quantum reactor (because of course they have) that has created weird rifts in time. When the thing goes off again, it sends Tree back to the day before to experience the same day over and over that we saw in the first film that results in Tree being murdered by someone in a baby mask. Except this time, there are some major differences, some of which have emotional and life altering consequences. In other words, it’s all pretty stupid and absurd but as you get into it, like the first film, you begin to buy what their selling and I bought a whole lot it.

Director Christopher Landon, who directed the delightful first film has also written this adventure and it really just goes for it (there’s an entire suicide montage ala “Groundhog Day” that finds Tree jumping out of planes, into wood chippers, etc). Seeing him just embrace the strange premise and actually making it work somehow is a testament to how likable these characters truly are. He has also wisely beefed up some of the roles of secondary characters from the first film and given them much more to do. For instance, Danielle, Tree’s even bitchier sorority sister, (Rachel Matthews) has her own movie stealing performance in the film’s third act that is as offensive as it is hilarious and relies solely on amazing physical comedy. Also, the film explores more of the drama surrounding Tree and her mother offering a surprising emotional dimension to the proceedings that may have even brought a tear to my eye.

The sci-fi bent “Happy Death Day 2U” will either lose you or hook you within the first 20 minutes. I say you should stick it out to see how everything plays out. The plot certainly doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. You can’t quite make sense of some of the preposterous story elements introduced – and those expecting anything resembling a slasher film will be severely disappointed – but it almost doesn’t matter. The film is a fun conglomerate of “Groundhog Day,” “Back to the Future Part II” and “Sorority Row.” If that doesn’t sound like a good time I don’t know what is.  GRADE: B+

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Drive Me Crazy: “Uber Ex” is a Funny, Romantic Ride

Is there anything more awkward than romance? Prepare for a perfectly awkward ride in “Uber Ex” another wonderful comedy short from director Matt Braunsdorf and his frequent collaborator screenwriter/actor Jonathan Marballi. Their last film, “This is That Night,” was shot in beautiful black and white and featured a blossoming new relationship. “Uber Ex” is another fun play on romantic comedy conventions featuring gorgeous color digital cinematography.

David (Marballi) and Kate (Paige Lindsay Betts), the woman he’s dating, are about to take a wild ride. He orders an Uber and what should be an uneventful ride home after attending an engagement party turns into something he wasn’t quite expecting. You see, the Uber driver is coincidentally Kate’s ex-boyfriend Lev (Jeremy Michaels) and the three adults find themselves in a delightfully uncomfortable pickle.

First of all, in every romantic comedy the leads must have chemistry and Marballi and Betts are fantastic together. Betts has something fresh and funny about her as if she could easily fit into the wild antics of Abbi and Ilana from Comedy Central’s “Broad City.” Marballi is a wonderful leading man and has all the perfect facial expressions as Kate and Lev slowly begin to rekindle their failed relationship right before his eyes. This is funny stuff.

Braunsdorf has accomplished a lot with a 16 minute short about three people riding in a car. The production value is pretty impressive for a small indie film. Andy Bond’s cinematography is scrumptious; the lighting is bright and colorful. Jared Dymbort’s original music is fun. The film even features original songs by Michaels. Marballi’s script is light and breezy and funny and real. The actors are all in top form; especially the charming Marballi whose reactions are pretty priceless during his hellish car ride home. After watching the bitterly sweet “Uber Ex” you’ll want to fall in love all over again, or at least crave a really good omelet.  GRADE: A-

Uber Ex - Trailer from Jonny Marbles Films on Vimeo.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Attack the Blocks: “The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part” is a Solid Follow-Up

Fair warning: there is a song in “The LEGO Movie 2” that is called “Catchy Song.” It’s a catchy song. It contains the lyrics This song will get inside your head. It did. And I’m ok with it. I’d also be ok if the Academy nominates it at next year’s Oscars and opens the show with it whether it’s nominated or not. In fact there are many new songs in this second LEGO film and they’re all fantastic and fun tunes. It’s probably because the film’s story while still pretty fun and original has a bit of a been-there-done-that feel after the astonishing originality of the first film. There are sequels that are better than the first film but they’re never quite as original. “The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part” does pretty much hit it out of the park thankfully.

If you recall from the end of the first film, everything is awesome again in the world of LEGO and Emmet (Chris Pratt) and Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) are happy together. Until the Duplo toys show up. In a uniqe reveal in the first film, the animated world we’re witnessing is actually a live action boy playing with his LEGOs. In the end he’s forced to allow his younger sister to play which is where the second film picks up. Now these jumbo, pastel blocks begin attacking Emmet and his friends until they’re living in a desolate “Max Max” post-apocalyptic wasteland. Then a mysterious general shows up to kidnap Batman as he’s gonna be forced to marry Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (Tiffany Haddish).

As much as things in this sequel feel like “oh we’ve seen this clever meta humor before” (and for the record this is now the fourth theatrically released LEGO movie) there is still plenty of unique material to be had here. Haddish lends her delightful and memorable voice to Queen Watevra Wa’Nabi (and even sings!) and is one of the most unique and fun characters to come out of this entire franchise. She’s a really cool shape-shifting alien creature that is really cleverly designed. I’ll credit co-writers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, writers and directors of the first entry (Mike Mitchell took directing reigns this time around) who must be two of the most creative people working in Hollywood today. The clever things they’re able to stuff this film with is pretty amazing. They don’t quite outdo the first film but there is certainly no sophomore slump to be found here. If anything doesn’t work it’s because there’s a lack of sheer surprise that we got the first time around. But there’s so much good material here – story-wise and character-wise – including expanding the role of the live action characters in a really fun and meaningful way.

“The LEGO Movie 2: The Second Part” is a fantastic sequel. All the returning and new voice actors are great. The songs are fun. The animation is gorgeous. And even if its just “a cartoon”, adults will probably love it even more than their kids. Seeing the first film is probably a must before moving on to this entry but who hasn’t seen the first film at this point? That film, like everything, including this far out sequel, is awesome.  GRADE: A-

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Catch Me If You Can: Melissa McCarthy Shines in “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”

“Can You Every Forgive Me?” is a great movie on several levels and for several reasons. The performance from Melissa McCarthy – in a year in which she gave us “The Happytime Murders” - is a genuinely great piece of work. And yes Melissa, I will forgive you for that horrid puppet disaster. Featuring a rare dramatic performance from the usually silly star, the film forces us to care about a person who does horrible things and befriends a horrible person. That other horrible person is played by Richard E. Grant in a wonderful, scene-stealing performance. Despite the fact that this is a film about a writer who forges letters from other famous writers – which frankly sounds like a bore, it is anything but- it’s gripping, funny and sad. It’s not so much a story about a writer so much as it is a story about a con artist who we root for to get away with crime after crime as she tries to turn her crappy life around. It was enthralling.

Set in the early 90s, Melissa McCarthy players writer Lee Israel who wrote several biographies. The film is set several years after the release of her failed book about Estee Lauder. Stuck in a rut of financial woes and writer’s block Israel begins selling some of her possessions including a letter from Katherine Hepburn. While researching for an upcoming book about Fanny Brice, Israel happens upon a letter written by Fanny and before she knows it Israel begins forging letters from other dead writers to sell to collectors who are completely fooled by their seeming authenticity. Israel spends most of her time writing in bars where she converses with her eccentric friend Jack (Grant) who she confides in about her forgery.

Writers Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty have crafted a pretty well-done script considering we’re pretty much watching a woman write most of the time. Marielle Heller’s direction is also superb. They dare to make Israel an unlikable antihero – she’s nasty and snippy to almost everyone she comes in contact with – her apartment is a disgusting mess – and she’s generally unkempt – but somehow those involved obviously McCarthy make the character even a bit relatable and sympathetic. For instance, when her cat becomes ill and she can’t even afford the vet bills Israel is obviously at wit’s end. McCarthy and Grant also have a naturalist chemistry together – the banter given to them by the screenwriters is really fun to watch. And it’s really amazing how quickly you get caught up in what Israel is doing – and how seemingly easy it is for her to do. Of course it’s not all a piece of cake, one sequence involving her stealing actual documents from an archive is as suspenseful in anything in a “Mission: Impossible” movie.

“Can You Ever Forgive Me?” was a sheer joy from start to finish. The film has been nominated for three Oscars and it’s this reason I even checked it out. I’m so glad I did – further proof that the Academy does actually make good choices sometimes if you’re willing to seek out some of smaller films that are equally deserving of finding the right audience.  GRADE: A-

Monday, January 21, 2019

The Cape of Water: The Rollicking “Aquaman” isn’t the Water-Logged Mess It Could Have Been

It’s become way too easy to poo-poo the DC films that have come out in the last six years. They’re not very good and pretty hard to defend. Of course there have been some bright spots and her name is Diana. “Wonder Woman” is easily the best entry but finally a film has come along that is just as entertaining and visually stunning: “Aquaman.” It’s not nearly the dreadful experience as the other DC films. And to be frank, I didn’t absolutely hate any of them except for “Suicide Squad” and even that trainwreck had a few bright spots (or at least one; thank you Margot Robbie). Thankfully, this latest entry, about the water-dwelling metahuman Arthur Curry is an absolute delight from start to finish. Filled with colorful, fantastic cinematography, moments of campy humor, ridiculous drama, a fun retro-infused film score, and well-choreographed action scenes, “Aquaman” easily stands out as one of the best DC films. While it’s not quite as good, this is easily the “Thor: Ragnarok” of the DC extended universe.

Yes, “Aquaman” is kind of silly and that’s because the character Aquaman is kind of silly. But director James Wan makes it all work somehow. The man, who began his career making solid horror films has recently extending into bigger budget action films (like the incredible Furious Seven) proving that even with a huge budget you can make a fun, CGI-filled adventure that isn’t overwrought and stupid. Wan brings a much needed sense of color and wonder to this usually drab DC universe. While the film still has its serious moments of Shakespearean drama, the film relies more on fun visuals, humor, thrilling fight sequences and breathtaking action. David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Bealls generally hokey and bloated script is simply an excuse to film awesome fights and action. And at this point in the world of DC I’m ok with that. And it’s mostly because it’s all staged rather well; and the actors are good enough that we somewhat care about them.

There are so many positives here that this movie sort of feels like the “Citizen Kane” of the recent DC films. It’s visually wonderful – the colors, the computer generated environments are beautifully realized. The film makes me excited to see what James Cameron has in store for his underwater world in the next “Avatar” film. The computer works is actually quite remarkable. Sure some shots of characters darting across the screen like bullets are a bit silly, but generally this stuff works. Hair flows realistically underwater and the characters actually sound like they’re underwater. And considering a majority of the time they’re riding around on sharks and other sea monsters, I pretty much bought into it.

In the role of Aquaman, Jason Mamoa - for all his exotic good looks - is actually quite a charming screen presence much in the same way Gal Gadot was in total control of “Wonder Woman.” Whether his sort of sidekick/love interest Amber Heard has the same presence is debatable (She doesn’t). Half the time I kept thinking Scarlett Johansson had wandered into the film from the MCU. Patrick Wilson is fine as Aquaman’s villainous half brother. And if you ever wanted to see Willem Dafoe or Dolph Lundgren ride around on sea creatures here you go. The script doesn’t quite know what to do with a secondary Power Rangers-like villain that eventually shows up named Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) but the entire Sicily sequence, most of which doesn’t take place in water, is impressively well-staged and directed. These playful side adventures were right out of Indiana Jones and were a welcomed treat in a series of film known more for doom and gloom that sheer fun. And I can’t say enough great things about Nicole Kidman who kicks utter as as Arthur’s Atlantean mother.

“Aquaman” is a surprisingly fun adventure – maybe it goes on a bit too long – but the film is a massive improvement on everything that came before it. This and “Wonder Woman” are fantastic pieces of popcorn entertainment. The movie is beautifully realized but the supremely talented James Wan – I can’t wait see what adventures await him. He’s the rare director who made the jump from smaller films to big budget extravaganzas with impressive ease.  GRADE: B+

Bruce Almighty: M. Night Shyamalan’s “Glass” is Fine But Isn’t Earth Shattering

I maintain that “Split” is a wildly uneven film; the film’s third act completely derailed for me but I’m fine with James McAvoy’s impressive performance. So how does one discuss “Glass” without spoiling “Split?” Just by virtue of existing “Glass” spoils “Split” if you haven’t seen it. The twist of “Split” is that its actually set in the same world of M. Night Shyamalan’s post-“Sixth Sense” film “Unbreakable.” “Glass” brings characters from “Split” and “Unbreakable” together to create a completely fine film; it’s not horrendous, it’s not magnificent. It’s easily middle tier Shyamalan as that’s what he’s been churning out lately. Those seeking something on the level of his greatest work “The Sixth Sense” need not apply.

“Unbreakable” was a film audiences weren’t quite ready for nor what we were expecting. I recall having an oddly cold reception to it as most did. But over time it’s reputation has grown, especially in a market overrun by comic book films. No one was expecting a real life comic book tale from the guy who made a scary ghost movie about a kid who sees dead people. And what a better time to revisit the world of “Unbreakable?” “Glass” works as a sequel to “Unbreakable” but I’m not sure it works as a sequel to “Split.” Though generally find it more of a success than that film. The storyline involving Anya Taylor-Joy’s kidnapping survival heroine Casey is sort of needless and uninteresting. Revisting a character who has underwent a psychological trauma is interesting but “Glass” doesn’t do anything interesting with it. The film’s real successes lie with Bruce Willis’ character David Dunn and his young adult son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark) who has sort of become the Alfred to his Batman.

Anyone expecting any sort of traditional super hero narrative is going to be wildly disappointed. The film spends a majority of the story as our three main characters spend time being studied in an institution. That includes master criminal, who started this whole thing, Elijah Prince aka “Mr. Glass” played by Samuel L. Jackson. New to the series is Sarah Paulson whose character is a psychiatrist who specializes in disorders in which people think their superheroes. That’s all fine and dandy but it’s the scenes before David is captured that truly thrill while the film spends too much time psychoanalyzing its characters. And the film’s final act is sort of a mixed bag, I can’t imagine most audiences will be thrilled with how everything plays out.

“Glass” works much better as an “Unbreakable” sequel than a “Split” sequel because I just still don’t find the “Beast” character very interesting or believable, though McAvoy is good in the role. The film’s music score from West Dylan Thordson is fantastic as is the film’s impressive production design. That pink room is Oscar-worthy. Overall, “Glass” is fine. I’m sure it’s a film, like “Unbreakable” that will see its reputation grow as time passes. As for now, it isn’t quite anything earth shattering.  GRADE: B-

Saturday, January 19, 2019

2019 Oscar Nomination Predictions

It's that time of year again. On Tuesday January 22nd the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will announce their nominees for the 91st Annual Academy Awards. Since this is my version of football season, I sort of take this stuff seriously, so without further ado I present my 89% fearless Oscar nomination predictions. On with the show...

Best Picture
Ah the superhero movie and Oscar. Such a sordid relationship. The Dark Knight. Deadpool. Wonder Woman. I firmly believe The Dark Knight was very close. But that year only had five nominees. Finally, finally, I do think “Black Panther” will become the first superhero film nominated for Best Picture. Black Panther has all the requisite nominations. Golden Globes. SAG. "The Dark Knight" couldn't even get those nods. Of course stranger things have happened. Yet again there will be anywhere between five and ten BP nominees based on how the votes are tallied. I have a weird feeling there won’t be more than 8 nominees but who knows. The hardest part about predicting this category is figuring out the possible lone wolf – the random nominee that no one really sees coming (like last year’s “Phantom Thread”). As of this writing I also still don't really know who's likely to win BP. I'm thinking it's a race between "Roma" and "A Star is Born" but let's see what's nominated first. 

Here are 10 projected nominees in likelihood of being nominated:

A Star is Born”
Green Book”
The Favourite”
Black Panther”
If Beale Street Could Talk”
Bohemian Rhapsody”
A Quiet Place”
Alternates - “First Man,” “Mary Poppins Returns

Best Director
Last year, BP front runner “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’s” director got snubbed here. There is usually one or two high profile snubs in this category every year. Sometimes the directors’ branch likes to do their own thing. Sometimes they love nominating actors-turned-directors (ie Mel Gibson, Clint Eastwood) and sometimes they don’t (ie Ben Affleck). That’s either a good thing or bad thing for Bradley Cooper (I think he’s in). It’s worth noting that since the Best Picture field expanded to 10 possible nominees only once has a director been nominated in which his film was not nominated for Best Picture: Bennett Miller for “Foxcatcher.” I’ve been hearing plenty of buzz for the Polish – and BAFTA nominated – film “Cold War.” Just saying. But I’m too much of a wimp to actually predict him.

Projected nominees:
Bradley Cooper, “A Star is Born”
Afonso Cuaron, “Roma”
Peter Farrelly, “Green Book”
Yorgos Lanthimos, “The Favourite”
Spike Lee, “BlacKkKlansman”
Alternates – Adam McKay, “Vice;” Pawel Pawlikowski, “Cold War”

Best Actor
I feel pretty confident in this list, though Washington is easily the most vulnerable.

Projected nominees:
Christian Bale, “Vice”
Bradley Cooper, “A Star is Born”
Rami Malek, “Bohemian Rhapsody”
Viggo Mortensen, “Green Book”
John David Washington, “BlacKkKlansman”
Alternates – Ethan Hawke, “First Reformed;” Ryan Gosling, “First Man”

Best Actress
How is Toni Collette not a front runner for “Hereditary”?? It’s because it’s such a fantastic year for women that so many great performances are going to unfortunately be left out. I still don’t quite buy Emily Blunt as much as I love her; she’s easily the most vulnerable. It could be someone like Julia Roberts or even first timer Yalitza Aparicio who owned “Roma.” I’ll go ahead and throw in Viola Davis for the underrated “Widows.” That fifth slot could go any which way.

Projected nominees:
Emily Blunt, “Mary Poppins Returns”
Glenn Close, “The Wife”
Olivia Colman, “The Favourite”
Lady Gaga, “A Star is Born”
Melissa McCarthy, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
Alternates – Yalitza Aparicio, “Roma;” Toni Collette, “Hereditary;”

Best Supporting Actor
In case anyone is actually curious about Black Panther’s Oscar chances this will be an interesting category to keep an eye on. If Michael B. Jordan can kick one of these five guys out, then they REALLY liked that movie. But I just don’t know how actual Academy members will receive the film. I’m ready to have my heart broken. Let us not forget it’s been exactly 10 years since “The Dark Knight” was snubbed for BP. However, this was one of two categories the film actually won. I think Sam Rockwell could sneak in, but I’m honestly not sure how well “Vice” is sitting with voters.

Projected nominees:
Mahershala Ali, “Green Book”
Timothee Chalamet, “Beautiful Boy”
Adam Driver, “BlacKkKlansman”
Sam Elliott, “A Star is Born”
Richard E. Grant, “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
Alternates – Sam Rockwell, “Vice;” Michael B. Jordan, “Black Panther”

Best Supporting Actress
I’m really not that confident in calling Regina King since she missed out at SAG and BAFTA. And if I’m being honest I’m not all that sure why she’s such a standout in “Beale Street” to begin with. But if not her who else exactly? I guess Nicole Kidman? But “Boy Erased” seems to have been erased from voters’ minds. Margot Robbie for the hardly well-received “Mary Queen of Scots?” I’d love Emily Blunt to show up for “A Quiet Place” but two nods for her seem like a tall order for someone who has yet to even receive a nomination (though she could sneak in here and get bumped from Best Actress).

Projected nominees:
Amy Adams, “Vice”
Claire Foy, “First Man”
Regina King, “If Beale Street Could Talk”
Emma Stone, “The Favourite”
Rachel Weisz, “The Favourite”
Alternate – Margot Robbie, “Mary Queen of Scots;” Emily Blunt, “A Quiet Place”

Best Adapted Screenplay
I’m really hoping for “Black Panther” to sneak in here. “Logan” proved last year that a critically acclaimed comic book film can get a writing nomination. And “Black Panther” has way more overall support than “Logan;” though, will the Academy deem “Black Panther” a great feat of writing? Having said that I think the generally snobby writers will go the indie route and nominate Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace” instead (I mean, it does have 100% on Rotten Tomatoes and just got a ). Also, this may be Spike Lee’s few chances to actually win a competitive Oscar (he has an honorary one).

Projected nominees:
“Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
“If Beale Street Could Talk”
“Leave No Trace”
“A Star is Born”
Alternate - “First Man;” “Black Panther

Best Original Screenplay
Another category likely to be dominated by Best Picture nominees. But there’s usually one outlier. It’s usually a quirky comedy or indie drama I’m betting on Bo Burnham’s realistic approach in “Eighth Grade” but don’t count out Paul Schrader’s work on “First Reformed.” I’d love for “A Quiet Place” - an essentially dialogue-less film - to show up here.

Projected nominees: 
Eighth Grade”
The Favourite”
Green Book”
Alternates: “First Reformed;” “A Quiet Place”

Best Cinematography
Cinematographer Rachel Morrison was the first woman nominated in this category last year for “Mudbound.” She’s also in the running this year for “Black Panther.” Will she be the only woman nominated twice? She’s certainly a threat but she’s got a lot of artistic competition this year.

Projected nominees:
“Cold War”
“The Favourite”
“First Man”
“A Star is Born”
Alternates - “Black Panther;” “If Beale Street Could Talk”

Best Costume Design
“Black Panther”
“Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald”
“The Favourite”
“Mary Poppins Returns”
“Mary Queen of Scots”
Alternates - “Crazy Rich Asians;” “Bohemian Rhapsody”

Best Film Editing
“The Favourite”
“First Man”
“A Star is Born”
Alternates- “Black Panther;” “Bohemian Rhapsody”

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
“Black Panther”
Alternates - “Suspiria;” “Stan & Ollie”

Best Original Score
The Academy actually released the short list of scores making this a slightly easier year to predict by narrowing the field but it’s still somewhat of a crap shoot. I’ve said it a million times and I’ll say it again: veterans and former winners generally do very well here but there’s always one or two newcomers.

Projected nominees:
“Black Panther” (Ludwig Goransson)
“First Man” (Justin Hurwitz)
“If Beale Street Could Talk” (Nicholas Britell)
“Isle of Dogs” (Alexandre Desplat)
“Mary Poppins Returns” (Marc Shaiman)
Alternates - “A Quiet Place” (Marco Beltrami); “BlacKkKlansman” (Terrance Blanchard)

Best Original Song
Another notoriously difficult category to predict. The big question remains: why the hell isn’t the song Celine Dion sings from “Deadpool 2” on the short list?? I’m also going with both songs from “Mary Poppins Returns” because I have no idea which way they’re gonna go; that leaves Dolly on the outside looking in.

Projected nominees:
All the Stars, “Black Panther”
The Place Where Lost Things Go, “Mary Poppins Returns”
Trip a Little Night Fantastic, “Mary Poppins Returns”
I’ll Fight, “RBG”
Shallow, “A Star is Born”
Alternate- Girl in the Movies, “Dumplin’”

Best Production Design
Black Panther”
The Favourite”
First Man”
Mary Poppins Returns”
Alternates - “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald;” “A Star is Born”

Best Sound Editing
“First Man”
“Mission Impossible – Fallout”
“Ready Player One”
“A Quiet Place”
Alternates - “Black Panther;” “A Star is Born”

Best Sound Mixing
“Bohemian Rhapsody”
“First Man”
“A Quiet Place”
“A Star is Born”
Alternates - “Black Panther;” “Mission Impossible - Fallout”

Best Visual Effects
Avengers: Infinity War”
“Black Panther”
“Mary Poppins Returns”
“Ready Player One”
“Solo: A Star Wars Story”
Alternates - “First Man;” “Welcome to Marwen”

Best Animated Feature Film
Last year this branch snubbed “The LEGO Batman Movie” does that mean “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” could be left out? It could happen. I also wouldn’t be shocked to see either sequel “Ralph Breaks the Internet” or “Incredibles 2” to be shockingly snubbed. But I’m gonna not bet against any of them. Those three slots take care of the populist fare, throw in “Isle of Dogs” as the quirky studio pick and that leaves one artsy foreign film.

Projected nominees:
“Incredibles 2”
“Isle of Dogs”
“Ralph Breaks the Internet”
“Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse”
Alternate - “Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch

Best Documentary Feature
Free Solo”
Minding the Gap”
Three Identical Strangers”
Won’t You Be My Neighbor”
Alternate - “Shirkers”

Best Foreign Language Film
“Burning” (South Korea)
“Capernaum” (Lebanon)
“Cold War” (Poland)
“Roma” (Mexico)
“Shoplifters” (Japan)

Best Animated Short
“Bird Karma”
“One Small Step”

Best Documentary Short
“’63 Boycott”
End Game”
A Night at the Garden”
Period. End of a Sentence.”

Best Live Action Short