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”
“Manchester by the Sea”
“Hell or High Water”
“Hacksaw Ridge”
“Hidden Figures”
“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.

“Hidden Figures”
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
“La La Land”
alternate - “Jackie”

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

Best Film Editing
“Hacksaw Ridge”
“La La Land”
“Manchester by the Sea”
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:
“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”
“La La Land”
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”
“La La Land”
alternate - “Silence”

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

Best Sound Mixing
“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”
“The Red Turtle”
alternate - “Finding Dory”

Best Documentary Feature
“I Am Not Your Negro”
“O.J.: Made in America”
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)

Mind Over Matter: The Uneven “Split” Seems to Have an Identity Crisis of Its Own

Oh what a winding and bumpy road it's been, huh, M. Night? I've been a big fan ever since he pulled the rug out from moviegoers back in 1999 with “The Sixth Sense.” Unfortunately, he's never found the same success since. “Unbreakable,” “Signs,” and “The Village” were all very fine films, flaws and all. After a misguided foray into special effects laden sci-fi fare, he returned to form for many with last year's “The Visit.” That “found footage” thriller certainly had it's moments but was still wildly flawed. And now we have “Split” which many are declaring to be his best work since he made a name for himself nearly twenty years ago. Unfortunately, “Split” fails to regain any of the thrilling spirit that permeated M. Night's early films, and while it features fine performances and some tense moments, like that train in “Unbreakable” it completely derails in its final act and features an unnecessary and gross backstory that taints the entire film.

It's important to look at the positives in any film, matter how terrible it is. This is how bad movies like “Suicide Squad” and “Passengers” can end up as Oscar nominees. The biggest positive of “Split” is easily the central performance from James McAvoy who plays “Dennis,” and half a dozen other characters, because Dennis has dissociative identity disorder. “Dennis” is really Kevin Wendell Crumb and has 23 various personalities living in his head. “Dennis” kidnaps three teenage girls and locks them up in his creepy basement. Two of them are best friends who are popular and the third is a social outcast named Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy). The girls quickly get that their kidnapper has multiple personalities and Casey being the “survivor” of the group uses it to try and help them escape. We see flashbacks to Casey's childhood and how she's a victim of her uncle's abuse. It's an icky subplot that doesn't add anything to the film.

Kevin shows up to daily therapy sessions with Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) as a flamboyant fashion designer name Barry. Karen has a theory that multiple personalities can actually create physiological changes in a person with this disorder. Kevin's various personalities keep talking about “the Beast” and we're constantly waiting to see how Casey's flashbacks, the significance of the sessions with Karen, and “the Beast” will all come together in a satisfying way. And if there's a fun twist, so why not. This is an M. Night Shyamalan film after all. Unfortunately nothing really comes together and the film unwisely turns to the supernatural to explain things that I never felt on board with. The story completely comes apart and instead of just going with it I felt far removed from anything I had been watching. McAvoy is good yes but for what? The story's weak ending is no justification for such a great performance. Casey's backstory fails to resonate and instead reeks of unwarranted exploration.

M. Night Shyamalan is a good filmmaker. I firmly believe that. “The Sixth Sense” is a masterpiece. Some will argue “Split” is his finest movie in years but that's mostly because it has a random reveal that many will argue is “cool” but, like the film itself, feels ultimately pointless.  GRADE: C+  

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Nice Guys, Aliens, and Traffic Jam Musical Numbers, Oh My! The Best Films of 2016

There's a really quick, somewhat unimportant shot in “La La Land” that happens to be one of the saddest moments in the film. It's a scene where one of the main characters drives by an old movie house with the word CLOSED hanging from its marque. Is there anything more troubling to a film fan than the signifying death of the theatrical experience? Luckily, if that's what you're after then the year 2016 provided plenty of great films to make up for the onslaught of celebrity deaths that made headlines throughout the year. I can't complain about a lack of great movies though it took me a while to narrow down my absolute favorite. There was no obvious, clear-cut winner like last year's “Mad Max: Fury Road.” With several repeat viewings and fierce deliberation I've finally come to the painstaking decision of what films rank as my absolute favorite of the year. Let's get to it!

1) La La Land (dir. Damien Chazelle)– The must-see musical event of the year “La La Land” is the stunning new film from “Whiplash” mastermind Damien Chazelle. Set in modern day Los Angeles, the film follows an aspiring actress (Emma Stone) and jazz musician (Ryan Gosling) as they fall in love while pursuing their dreams. While the story itself doesn't seem particuarlly innovate at first glance, the film features wonderfully jazzy original songs, exquisitely staged musical numbers (including a standout opening sequence set during an LA traffic jam that deserves an Oscar itself) and fervent chemistry from its leads. The rare film that was even better on a second viewing, “La La Land” is my favorite film of the year!

2) Manchester by the Sea (dir. Kenneth Lonergan) – This searing Massachusetts-set drama stars an extraordinary Casey Affleck as a sullen handyman who unexpectedly becomes the legal guardian of his teenage nephew after his brother (Kyle Chandler) suddenly passes away. The wintery landscape is the perfect setting for this intense family tragedy that features fantastic performances (including a standout turn from the young Lucas Hedges), a top-notch screenplay that slowly peels away the layers of its fascinating characters and story, and an evocative choral score that is a character itself. It's melancholy for sure, but I sat through it twice and found it to be extremely powerful and emotionally refreshing.

3) Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins) – A truly remarkable drama, shot with almost alarming realism, “Moonlight” tells the story of a Black boy named Chiron growing up in a poor area of Miami. Rife with themes of race, identity, and masculinity, the film is told in three separate segments with three different actors playing Chiron first as a small, shy boy, then as an introverted and bullied teenager, and finally as a tougher, hardened man. Impeccably directed by Barry Jenkins, “Moonlight,” with its stunning photography and evocative score, is a truly rewarding and moving experience.

4) Hidden Figures (dir. Theodore Melfi) – The year 2016 was filled with movies about incredible stories about all different types of people. “Hidden Figures” tells the true story about a little known group of African American women who worked for NASA during the 1960s space race and all the racist bullcrap they had to deal with. This highly entertaining movie, featuring a trio of great performances from Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, proves that you can have a lot of fun telling a real story about important issues without being overwhelmingly depressing and cynical—though that can be fun too.

5) Patriots Day (dir. Peter Berg) The tragic story of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing is transformed into a thrilling docudrama that honors the people who were involved. I’ve seen many documentaries about this subject and the film gets a lot of the true life details correct. The movie doesn’t make many political statements and it might seem weird at first but the bombers are portrayed as actual human beings even though what they did was despicable. Mixing reenacted footage with real footage, this extremely intense film works as a police procedural and is completely compelling, if at times rather difficult to watch. As a reenactment of a terrible tragedy and a reflection of the heroism and hope that emerged, it’s a film in the top of its class.

6) Arrival (dir. Denis Villeneuve) – Easily one of the best thoughtful sci-fi films of recent memory, “Arrival” stars Amy Adams as a forlorn linguist professor tasked with translating the language of seemingly peaceful extra-terrestrials that have made their way to Earth. Featuring brilliant direction from Denis Villeneuve – one of Hollywood’s great new filmmakers – (he made “Prisoners” and “Sicario”), “Arrival” – equal parts Christopher Nolan and Terrence Malik - is one of the most original, surprising, and downright mentally stimulating “alien invasion” movies in quite some time.

7) The Nice Guys (dir. Shane Black) – One of the best comedies of the year, “The Nice Guys” stars Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling as feuding private eyes forced to work together to find a missing teenage girl in crime-ridden 1970s Los Angeles. Part crime thriller part buddy comedy, this comedic noir features a witty, twisted screenplay from director Shane Black and an extremely likable ensemble cast. This is really fun, original Hollywood filmmaking that many complain they don’t make anymore.

8) The Edge of Seventeen (dir. Kelly Fremon Craig) – An utterly delightful teen drama with a strong, darkly comedic undercurrent follows a loner teenager played by former Oscar-nominee Hailee Steinfeld. Her seemingly mundane life takes a turn for the worse after her best and only friend begins dating her older, jock brother (Blake Jenner, feeding nicely off his “Everybody Wants Some!!" character). A heart-warming but truthful teen comedy that is probably the best since “Juno.”

9) Jackie (dir. Pablo Larrain) – This melodic, evocative portrait of former First Lady Jackie Kennedy is headlined by a magnificent Natalie Portman whose performance goes far beyond impersonation. This is a fascinating, lyrical film that takes place around the time of her husband’s assassination and has a lot to say about grief, loss, and legacy. The music is haunting, the cinematography beautiful, and the cast is superb. The film refuses to follow any standard biopic formula – also avoiding any sensationalism or conspiracy theory stuff by staying in the moment - and instead is a moody character study, and adds to my growing obsession with anything involving the JFK assassination.

10) Deadpool (dir. Tim Miller) – Irreverent, self-aware comically violent comic book movies aren’t a new thing, but you’d be hard pressed to find a more entertaining and funny take than last year’s Valentine’s Day release “Deadpool.” Ryan Reynolds was born to play the chimichanga-loving, Bea Arthur-obsessed (who isn’t?) “Merc with a Mouth.” You have to admire the passion that was put into this long gestating project with fantastic results. It’s funny, fresh, and cheekily filthy- in other words - the perfect antidote to the overwhelming case of superhero fatigue that’s been going around.

11) Everybody Wants Some!!  (dir. Richard Linklater) – Director Richard Linklater, who made the brilliant 2014 film “Boyhood” and cult classic “Dazed & Confused,” returns to his retro roots with this story of a college baseball player as he enters his freshman year in 1980. He quickly bonds with his other teammates who all work their bro-magic charm including scene stealer Glen Powell from “Hidden Figures.” The film has an authentic period vibe and features appealing performances and a killer soundtrack to boot.

12) Hacksaw Ridge (dir. Mel Gibson) – Mel Gibson returns behind the camera for this World War II drama that tells the remarkable true story of a pacifist army medic played by Andrew Garfield. It’s a pretty amazing story; this man saved so many soldiers’ lives without ever carrying or shooting a rifle. It’s a sometimes brutal film to watch, mostly in its second half, but is brilliantly shot, directed, and acted.

13) OJ: Made in America (dir. Ezra Edelman) – The most compelling 478 minutes you’ll spend on one piece of media this year, this sprawling, brilliantly conceived documentary about OJ Simpson and the “Trial of the Century” and its aftermath is a masterpiece of non-fiction storytelling. Coming off the heels of the equally entertaining FX series “American Crime Story,” Ezra Edelman’s fascinating film covers a controversial subject that is just as captivating as it was 20 years ago. A story about race, justice, celebrity, and murder, the themes are still completely, and disturbingly, relevant today. If you think the film is just about a murder trial, you’re not seeing the whole picture. It’s truly remarkable filmmaking.

14) Tickled (dir. David Farrier, Dylan Reeve) – The investigative documentary you probably haven’t heard of or seen, “Tickled” follows a journalist from New Zealand as he stumbles upon the wacky and initially innocent world of “endurance tickling” online and then gets more than he bargained for when he’s quickly met with resistance and stumbles down a rabbit hole of morally questionable behavior. Directed by David Ferrier (the journalist in the film) and Dylan Reeve, the movie is captivating from beginning to end and ends up being a fascinating story of the darkness of human conduct.

15) Moana (dir. Ron Clements, John Musker) – Just when you thought your kids were over “Frozen” comes another animated Disney musical, “Moana;” and it’s just as good as anything Disney has done. It’s a sheer delight from start to finish filled with wonderful songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton” fame and a new Disney heroine for the modern age. Set in a fantastical, ancient Polynesia, Moana (newcomer Auli’I Cravalho) sets out to help her cursed island by seeking the help of Demigod Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) and comes across many colorful characters along the way. The film features truly beautiful animation, a fun story, and great music.

16) The Shallows (dir. Jaume Collet-Serra) – Ah, “The Shallows,” the big summer surprise no one thought would be good. This “127 Hours” meets “Jaws” shark thriller starring Blake Lively and a CGI Great White is the guilty pleasure of the year. Though guilty pleasure tends to imply something is bad. Let’s get it straight, “The Shallows” isn’t a bad movie. It’s slickly made, has a good performance from its lead, and has some pretty good effects work considering its $17 million budget. Sure some parts of the final act are a bit silly but it’s constantly engaging, thrilling, and really fun to sit through with a badass heroine. If that’s not the definition of a fun summer movie then I don’t know what is. The fact that it’s not a sequel, remake, or comic book movie makes it all the more impressive.

17) Don’t Breathe (dir. Fede Alvarez– A disturbing horror film from the guy who directed the “Evil Dead” remake, “Don’t Breathe” follows a few well-intentioned thieves as they attempt to rip off a blind Army veteran (Avatar’s Stephen Lang) in his own home. Quickly the tables are turned on them as they fight to stay alive in this truly claustrophobic and unsettling thriller. You’ll never look at a turkey baster the same way again. If you enjoy this, definitely check out “Green Room” as well.

18) The Conjuring 2 (dir. James Wan) – A completely solid sequel to one of the best horror movies of the past decade “The Conjuring 2” continues exploring the fascinating Warren family and their endless resume of startling real-life cases. This time Ed and Lorraine (Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson) head to England to investigate a disturbance with a single woman and her kids. The film is rich in fright and story and serves up a potent mix of jumps and flat-out disturbing imagery. Fans of the first film will no doubt enjoy this next entry as director James Wan continues to impress as he becomes one of the most sought after modern horror maestros.

19) 10 Cloverfield Lane (dir. Dan Trachtenberg) – A top-notch claustrophobic thriller released earlier in 2016, “10 Cloverfield Lane” is a gripping experience from beginning to end. A woman is rescued from a car wreck only to be held prisoner in an underground bunker by a crazy guy played by an Oscar-worthy John Goodman. It all leads up to a bizarre final act in which we learn that monsters take many forms. Those hoping for an actual sequel to 2008’s “Cloverfield” will be disappointed, but this is a great standalone sci-fi thriller.

20) Allied (dir. Robert Zemeckis) – Forgive me one slightly embarrassing end of the year pick, Robert Zemeckis’ unjustly maligned World War II spy thriller “Allied” is lightweight and fun. Brad Pitt and Marion Collitard are great as spies who fall in love but then things take a turn for the worse when Pitt discovers his wife may be a German spy. This old fashioned romantic thriller is Zemeckis’ best movie since “Cast Away” though that’s not saying much considering he spent the better part of a decade annoyingly in a motion capture stupor. Maybe it’s my newfound interest in WWII, but I really loved “Allied;” it’s the spy thriller version of “Casablanca.”

And let's not forget about:
Nocturnal Animals
Captain America: Civil War
Green Room
The Jungle Book
Other People
Hello, My Name is Doris
Lights Out

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Mourn to Run: “Patriots Day” is a Gripping Docudrama about Boston’s Darkest Day

Terrorism in film today is a tricky thing. Long gone are the days of your “Die Hards” and “True Lies;” films based on actual terrorist attacks are even trickier. It took five years for Hollywood to make a film about the events of 9/11. Here we are not even four years after the Boston Marathon bombing and we already have a reenactment of the tragedy that befell one of the country’s most historical and unique cities. People can argue until their blue in the face about whether it’s “right” to make a movie about a national tragedy, but that’s been a staple of Hollywood filmmaking since its inception. Many will find “Patriots Day” extremely disturbing and difficult to watch. I’d argue that it’s not exactly everyone’s idea of “entertainment,” but as a cinematic document of the events as they occurred it’s intensely gripping, assured filmmaking. And even though the film is about a terrible tragedy there is an enormous sense of hope in its conclusion that a city and a nation can rebound from something so horrible to become even stronger.

I’m fortunate to not have known anyone directly affected by the Boston Marathon bombing but the events of that day still ring a little too close to home for me. My parents were at the Red Sox game that day and afterwards instead of watching the runners they decided to drive out of Boston and get lunch to avoid the crowds. Even my sister, who’s been a resident there for years, was in Europe at the time. Many families weren’t so lucky. While the tragedy could have been far worse in terms of fatalities it was still extremely horrifying and disturbing. And that’s all too apparent as “Patriots Day” disturbingly recounts the events of that day and the manhunt that followed.  

The film stars Mark Wahlberg as Sgt. Tommy Saunders who was at the finish line during the bombings. Most of the film is centered around him though we get glimpses into the lives of some of the people who were there that day. There’s a young married couple played by Christopher O’Shea and Rachel Brosnahan who take that Monday off of work to watch the runners. There’s an MIT police officer (Jake Picking) who’s trying to woo a student. There’s a Chinese MIT student (Jimmy O. Yang) who’s just going about his daily business. And there’s two brothers (Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze) who watch an online video about how to make a pressure cooker bomb. Eventually most of these characters’ paths will cross.

If you generally know much about the bombings and its aftermath including the unprecedented manhunt that followed you won’t really be surprised by the story here. However, director Peter Berg ramps up the suspense factor tremendously. The film already gives you an uneasy feeling as the camera floats above the city and when the marathon begins you know exactly what’s going to happen. It’s completely nerve-racking. Eventually two bombs go off during the race which causes major chaos and destruction and the film is shot with appropriately tough to watch glimpses of horror. You feel like you’re there.

As the situation goes from being a fun race day to a crime scene, we’re introduced to several law enforcement personal, including FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) who is quick to declare the bombings as terrorism after looking at some evidence. The film then becomes a procedural and it’s absolutely fascinating to watch them recreate the crime scene in a warehouse and eventually identify the bombers on surveillance cameras. The film then never lets up as the manhunt continues throughout the week leading to the entire city being completely shut down.

“Patriots Day” works on several levels; it’s an intense, well-made accurate reenactment of one America’s most tragic incidents but never feels overly exploitative. It’s also a fascinating police procedural that is just as gripping as any other Boston-set crime thriller. The film is filled with solid performances and a tight, realistic script. Berg really impressed me with “Lone Survivor” and he adds the same amount of realism and emotion this time around. The movie also refuses to become political by staying in the moment and offers an emotionally cleansing at the end by showing footage of the real life survivors. While much of “Patriots Day” is difficult to watch knowing how many people were affected in real life, it’s a tribute to Boston and a testament of hope, survival, courage, and heroism that left me hooked and utterly moved.  GRADE: A

Thursday, January 05, 2017

Space Race: The Crowd-Pleasing “Hidden Figures” Has the Right Stuff

I won't even pretend like I know what it was like to be an African-American in the south in the 1960s. There have been so much written and shown about the history of racism in America; it's our collective, terrible shame and it still exists in many forms. Set during this time, “Hidden Figures” a delightful new drama that highlights some of the real life African American women who were critical to the US space program. Think “The Help” meets “Apollo 13.” It's the mash-up we never thought we needed, but here it is, and it's a sheer joy from start to finish. Finally we get well-drawn African American main characters who aren't maids, slaves, abusive parents, drug dealers, or criminals; and they're way smarter than you or me. “Hidden Figures” is a standout fact-based tale about really essential people who many don't know existed. It has an amazing ensemble cast and highlights an important time in our country's history that still feels relevant today. The film is a crowd-pleaser of the highest order. Take your mom; she's definitely gonna want to see this one.

First it must be said. If you're expecting some kind of revolutionary piece of artistic filmmaking look elsewhere. If you want a more challenging or flashy piece of art you should definitely seek out the many other films this year has to offer, especially “Moonlight.” “Hidden Figures” is much more lightweight, and fun, though it does deal with a very serious and disturbingly real time in our country's history: the segregated South. Let's face it, segregation was disgusting. The film makes no bones about it nor refuses to show how real the “separate but equal” treatment of blacks in the south in our country. And thankfully the lighthearted tone doesn't detract from the seriousness of the issues; this isn't a Disneyfied version of American racism.

It's almost unfathomable that the film's characters could get an education that would even remotely get them close to working for NASA. They certainly were pioneers. There's Katherine G. Johnson played wonderfully by Taraji P. Henson. She's a brilliant mathematician and the film's opening scene shows her as young girl capable of solving math problems way advanced for her. Katherine's brilliant friends Dorothy (Octavia Spencer) and Mary (Janelle Monae) also work for NASA with a bunch of Black women in the Langley Research Center's West Area Computers division in the early 60s. You may think these women have the life working for NASA but most of their white co-workers still looked down on them because of the color of their skin. Katherine gets promoted to the Flight Research Division where she eventually gets to help engineers with the first manned missions to outer space while in a space race with Russia. Of course there are bumps along the way but luckily the group's director played by Kevin Costner is a pretty decent guy.

I'm truly amazed by how entertaining this film is. The three main actresses are really good and each have their own story trajectory and great standout moments. And of course since most of the white characters are prejudice, they all get a chance to redeem themselves in the end. The film's script co-written by Allison Schroedeur and director Theodore Melfi, is a well-done classic Hollywood script with just enough conflict and memorable moments. Even if there's nothing particularly flashy about the filmmaking, it feels period accurate and the performances are simply divine. “Hidden Figures” is a wonderful and fascinating true life story; it's completely satisfying on every emotional level and has a lot to say about racial and gender issues. This is the type of movie you see and then have to tell everyone about. It gave me the feels; it's sure to do the same to you. GRADE: A  

Monday, January 02, 2017

Portrait of a First Lady: Natalie Portman is Revelatory in “Jackie”

Natalie Portman is to “Jackie” what Helen Mirren was to “The Queen.” The films are not dissimilar; both follow a well-known female public figure of the highest order during the aftermath of a shocking tragedy – though they are miles apart stylistically. “The Queen” dealt with the death of Princess Diana. “Jackie” deals with the deal of President John F. Kennedy. “Jackie” is an interesting study because it wisely fails to the follow the traditional biopic route in favor of a week-long portrait of grief and loss. Portman gives a bravura performance that transcends imitation. She creates a full-bodied character who goes through a wringer of emotions and gives the real-life woman the dignity she deserved. “Jackie” is fascinatingly directed and captures a brief but potent and prominent moment of American history in a completely compelling and intimate way.

“Jackie” is a completely different type of film from “JFK” but I think they work amazingly well together. “JFK” was about the aftermath of the presidential assassination from a completely different point of view. It dealt with conspiracy theories and is one of the most well put together narrative films of all time.  “Jackie” is a film about the assassination we’ve really never seen before: it’s from the point of view of the woman who sat next to her own husband as he was assassinated. The film takes place right before and after the assassination via flashbacks as Jackie Kennedy (Portman) is interviewed by a journalist played by Billy Crudup in her Cape Cod home. Many films who use the flashback during interview concept can find the film to be disjointed but not “Jackie” the technique is used to perfection mostly due to Portman’s riveting performance.

Director Pablo Larrain captures everything the public thought about Jackie Kennedy in the best way possible. The fragmented nature of the script by Noah Oppenheim and Larrain’s direction perfectly captures Jackie’s disjointed mindset that comes with dealing with such a shocking, tragic situation. We see her as she goes through the various stages of grief. We see her tell her young children about how their father had to go to heaven. It’s heartbreaking. She also wants to make sure her husband’s brief tenure as president is remembered in a way that made him the great president that he’s remembered for being.

“Jackie” is a beautifully compelling film. It features terrific cinematography that uses all the various film stocks of the time and beautifully recreates history. Mica Levi’s haunting score is almost otherworldly yet oddly appropriate. The performances are truly remarkable. Portman amazes; all her nuances ring true even some of her somewhat over-the-top private moments in the white house that probably didn’t happen but no one knows for sure. This isn’t a documentary after all. Peter Sarsgaard is equally great as Bobby Kennedy. “Jackie” doesn’t follow any of the standard biopic rules because it isn’t a standard biopic; it’s so much more. It’s a portrait of one of the most mystifying American public figures of the 20th century and Portman certainly does her justice.  GRADE: A-