Oscar Outlook: Let’s Talk Best Picture Nominees Part 1

Long time, no blog, I know.

But y’all are in luck, as I am currently stranded in the Detroit airport and I have some thoughts on this year’s crop of Best Picture nominees I need to get off my chest.

First, I must admit I have not been very up on movies this year. It has been a time of transition for me and movies were generally relegated to the back burner. Not being all that excited about many movies did not help the cause.

Some, like La La Land, I rushed to see as soon as I could. Others, like Hell Or High Water, I learned of through distant word of mouth and was late to the party, but at least bothered to show up.

We are currently a little over two weeks away from Oscar night and I have managed to see five of the nine Best Picture nominees. Rather than devote a post to each, I thought I would rank them in order of preference and give some thoughts about each of them in a single post. Some (like my number one) probably won’t surprise you, but some caught me by surprise in a diverse year for filmmaking where a wide range of genres, people, and stories are represented.

  1. Hidden Figures

When I was a kid, there were what felt like several PG-rated movies I saw with my family that weren’t animated kids fare or something featuring a CGI chipmunk.

Dead Poets Society, E.T., Terms of Endearment, White Fang, My Girl, and Apollo 13 are all movies I remember both myself and my parents enjoying together. Nowadays when I take my youngest nephew to the movies, it is without exception to see cartoons. The steady stream of quality Disney live-action movies featuring spunky historical heroes with spunkier pets has run dry.

Hidden Figures gives me hope. Yes, like others, I am moved by its message about equality and pushing mankind to new limits both here on Earth and in space. But there are so many wonderful articles about that aspect of this movie.

What I want to talk about is how I hope the financial success of Hidden Figures and its triumph at the Oscars pushes movie studios to consider a couple of things:

  1. With the success of Hidden Figures and warm Oscar reception to Bridge of Spies last year, there is room in the film economy for old-fashioned movies. Just because they are old-fashioned doesn’t mean they can’t be good. Classical storytelling in the Hollywood mode can be exceptional, as it is here.
  2. A “serious” movie does not need to be rated R in order to be serious. I do not need a strong female character to be raped, beaten, transgender, in the mob, a prostitute, or a foul-mouthed sailor. There is nothing wrong with these things, but you have to think about how great the performances of Taraji P Henson, Janelle Monae, and the greatest scene stealer of them all, Octavia Spencer, must be if they can create such nuance and drama out of roles that doesn’t have these Oscar bait elements to it.
  3. Can we all just acknowledge we need an Oscar-caliber space movie every five years? I am not much of a space nerd, but there is not a historical NASA story I don’t thoroughly enjoy because, hell, it is the American way.

2. La La Land

I bet you thought this would be my number one, huh? Yeah, me too.

There are a ton of things to like about this movie. Emma Stone is going to deservedly win an Oscar for her exuberant portrayal of a type of person I encountered so frequently in my time in LA. I was kind of one of those people myself. A dreamer who ignored practicality to embrace a notion of a city I fell in love with through pop culture even though the real version of it bears no resemblance to my romantic idealization.

The pitch-perfect ode to musicals of the 1950s was exactly the kind of fodder old movie fiends like myself gobble up too. The “ballet” sequence at the end of the film where Mia and Sebastian envision an alternative reality of their love was cinematic perfection and might be even better than some of the more famous Gene Kelly ballets of yore.

But in between these spurts of life, the film does drag in spots as the two lovers repeat the same beats and same fights. The fact some of the songbook is not particularly strong (I am looking at you, City of Stars) does not help.

There are other movie musicals with this problem, but after repeated listening to the soundtrack, I find myself able to get over them. In this case, it hasn’t helped, in part because the sound mixing (which was inexplicably nominated for an Oscar) is really sub-par. The opening number “Another Day of Sun” is supposed to be a bombastic show-stopper, but the vocals can barely be heard over the escalating orchestra. It is a problem in several songs where director Damien Chazelle made the decision not to enhance the vocals (which I think is a nice touch) but the sound mixer does not compensate for the lack of a belting vocal by toning down the instrumentals so we can hear the emotion in their voices.

It is a nitpick, yes, but in a movie that is all about homage and art direction, I think the specific criticism is merited. This is a movie designed to appeal to insiders and more than one insider I follow has made the same comment.

2A. Moonlight

I truly can’t tell you the last time I have thought so much about a movie after I’ve seen it as I have since seeing Moonlight. It is wholly and completely different from La La Land, but I can’t really put one ahead of the other because each one approaches its story so differently.

While La La Land embraces classic Hollywood storytelling and genre to make points applicable to modern times, Moonlight rebuffs the cinematic language, opting instead to turn the rules on its head in order to create a fascinating character study.

Told in three chapters, the movie is not so much a linear narrative as variations on a theme. The theme being how we form our identity. In the case of Chiron, the young boy at the center of this movie, in his youth he looks to others to tell him how to be normal. In his teens, he tries to mimick those around him to fake being normal. In his adulthood, he completely rejects who we have come to know as Chiron and chooses an entirely new identity for himself. One that may not be genuine or natural, but one that can protect him after decades of hurt.

I am normally not compelled by character studies. I need plot. I need forward motion and character progression. But this movie very deftly propels Chiron through a gamut of emotions without beating us over the head with how hard it is for him. Because this movie handles the storytelling so subtly, you may think nothing is happening, but then you realize one glance is intended to be read into and there won’t be a musical cue or voice over to let you know that glance is important.

Because Moonlight challenged me so much as a viewer and rewarded with a story about how we determine who we are that feels completely foreign yet weirdly familiar, I can’t stop thinking about it. I don’t know anything about the experience of being raised by an addict in a bad neighborhood questioning my sexuality, so perhaps the visceral experience of being given a window into that world is what appeals to me?

But I think that answer does not give enough credit to director Barry Jenkins, whose choices in matters like casting (I could write a dissertation on why adult Chiron looks nothing like the young Chirons but exactly like the character player by Mahershela Ali) and cinematography (my one big criticism, too much handheld for my taste) are edgy and risky, but almost all pay off. It all doesn’t give enough credit to Monae, Ali, Naomie Harris, and the trio of actors playing Chiron. Sure, it is a look into a new world, but they all bring the world to life in a way I have not encountered in a movie in a long, long time.

4. Hell or High Water


Don’t worry, I don’t have a novel to write on each of these and this pone is one of the shorter blurbs I have got.

This is not some innovation. It doesn’t redefine cinema.

What it is is an extremely well-executed contemporary Western which uses a lot of the themes that continue to draw my rural working class family to the ouevre of John Wayne and gives them a modern bent.

I’ve talked at length about performances, but I would be remiss to not single out Jeff Bridges. I watched this movie with my sister and at least five times I turned to her and said, “it is like Jeff Bridges grew up with Mom and her siblings.”

Sam Elliot is the only other actor I can think of (h/t Amanda Powers) who comes even close to embodying what it is to be a country person to the core like Jeff Bridges does. The mannerisms, the delivery, the aura are all so quintessentially country that this Western pushes all my John Wayne-loving buttons.

5. Manchester By the Sea

So far, I have only hated one Best Picture nominee. I really did not expect to hate this movie either.

When I heard Manchester By the Sea is a study in grief by the celebrated director Kenneth Lonergan, I was in. When the raves about Casey Affleck deservedly poured in, I got even more excited. I was ready to go and cry my eyes out and have a transformative movie experience to help me cope with my own grief.

Then I saw the movie. My friends were right, it was very sad. Excessively sad, even. But I sat there unmoved and pretty bored.

I think this is an instance where the fault is less with the movie than with me though.

When Requiem for a Dream was released back in the day, the talk about the film centered around how nothing more accurately captured the feelings of being a drug addict. There wasn’t much story or character development, just a shocking look at what life dependent on drugs looks like. People praised it for helping them to better understand and sympathize with addicts. I did not think it was exceptional, but I saw what the hubbub was about.

Think of Manchester By the Sea as the Requiem for a Dream of extreme grief. We are not talking “oh, I am sad a month or two” grief, we are talking the life-changing, I can’t ever be truly happy again kind of grief. The kind of grief you are never going to “get over”, you just learn to live with.

I am not saying my grief is that crippling, but as someone who has lost both of their parents arguably before their time, I know what awful, incurable, lifelong grief looks like and feels like. So, as Affleck delivers a truly incredible performance in which he plays a guy who can’t shake his grief, I just sat there and nodded. “Yeah, it is awful Casey, I know.”

But with no message about grief, no parting thoughts beyond how it is more awful than some people realize, this movie did not give me anything to mull over.

You can argue I like Moonlight because of its Requiem for a Dream depiction of poverty and homosexuality, two things I don’t have much personal experience with. But that movie still has me thinking after I left the theater. This movie had me thinking in the theater…about when this movie would finally be over.

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Oscar Outlook: Spotlight

When I was a kid, I couldn’t wait to be an alter server during mass. I liked the robes, but mostly I liked the idea of holding the pattons (they aren’t in use any more, but they were small pans held under the priest during Communion so, as my Sunday School teacher explained, “nobody dropped Jesus on the floor.”

During my time alter serving, I got to know one of the new priests at our church in Lexington, Father John. He was young and energetic and his homilies were the best because he would buy a bag of stuff from Wal-Mart and use his stuff as props to get his point across, then give it away like Mass was Let’s Make a Deal.

After my dad died, I grew closer to Father John. On the Alter Server’s trip to the Kentucky Kingdom amusement park, my friend Diana and I hung out with him all day and had a blast. After about a year, Father John was transferred to a parish in Eastern Kentucky, a more impoverished part of the state. My mom explained that oftentimes the promising and energetic young priests get the tough assignments, but could tell I was nonetheless sad he was gone.

There is a moment in Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight which Wesley Morris and Bill Simmons decried as Oscar-baity (it is the clip above) where one of the journalists investigating the Boston priest child abuse scandal, Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) grows impatient with his boss (Michael Keaton) holding the story. The Spotlight team of reporters, all four of which were varying degrees of lapsed Catholics, were clearly conflicted about how and when to get the information out versus how much to research and dig while other children might be preyed upon. Rezendes launches into a tirade pointing out that it could have been any one of them.

What Morris and Simmons found hackneyed, struck me right to the core. I thought of Father John. Then I thought of Father Nienaber, a man who stopped giving Mass shortly after I was born, but was arrested on child abuse charges in 1993 for crimes that took place a decade earlier. Had I been a little younger, I fit the demographic of the kids the corrupt priest preyed on, but I was lucky enough that they primarily kept him in the Rectory away from people. Instead, I got Father John.

When the movie was over, I walked around the block trying to wrap my head about how I felt about being Catholic, about what happened, and how every member of the Catholic community can’t help but feel the accountability you can see weighing Keaton’s shoulders down, weighing down those of his lawyer friend (Jamey Sheridan), and weighing down on every staffer at the Boston Globe.

Then I went home and checked the database of corrupt priests to see if Father John was on the list. He was not and, while I should’ve felt relieved, instead I felt all the more concerned. I’ve spent over 24 hours contemplating what my Catholicism means to me all because of a movie. The actions of these priests and church authorities took something that was pure and wonderful and, for a moment, made me question its motives. Does that mean I can’t have faith in the church anymore? I don’t know. I’d like to hope not.

It is hard for me to accurately assess the cinematic quality of Spotlight, for as a semi-lapsed Catholic, the film stirs up so many feelings and emotions, and I can practically hear the pain and angst the Spotlight team goes through doing their job, but not being able to fix a horribly broken mess that stretched far beyond the city limits of Boston. I don’t know if people who were not part of the church leave with the same experience.

Let me try to at least point out why this movie is exceptional beyond just the questions of morality and religion. Unlike Mad Max or The Revenant, the beauty of the direction of Spotlight is Tom McCarthy’s restraint. There are no forced dramatic and suspenseful moments just for effect. The minimalist cinematography keeps the focus on a slew of truly incredible performances. Unlike The Revenant or The Martian, which I found to have major performer liabilities, there is not a soul in this movie I don’t believe gives a thoroughly convincing and compelling performance. The production design is exceptional too. Rather than glam up the gorgeous Rachel McAdams, they keep her in sensible shoes and wide-legged pants with curled hair that even has the occasional spot in the back all of us frizzy-haired girls tend to miss from time to time. They make the movie stars look and feel real. It also has hands-down the best dialogue of any other Oscar-level movie this year, yet makes so much out of a look, a pause, some silence, and shots of reporters doing what they are supposed to do–listen.

In many ways, it is a throwback to the 70s the way Argo was, with a process film that knows the substance is far more important than the style in which it is presented. Subtlety is Spotlight’s best weapon and it is a relief among all the boom and spectacle of some of the other nominees.

I still maintain Bridge of Spies is the best movie of the year because I know it is a story everyone can relate to and I am not sure if Spotlight is something that resonates the same way for those who were not raised in the Catholic community. In other words, I fully admit my personal experiences are clouding my ability to judge it as a film. For the outsiders like Editor-in-Chief Marty Baron, it was easy to say go after the church, get ’em, take ’em down. I know there are others who still believe the world would be better without the Catholic Church. When I think of how, if I was a little younger, I wouldn’t have happy stories of Father John, but horror stories of Father Nieneber, I shudder, because I know people affected by this scandal and it sickens me. I don’t condone it, I hate that it happened, but, naive as it may sound, I have to believe that with movies like Spotlight and people like the team at the Boston Globe and the numerous wonderful selfless members of the clergy, there is still hope for the Church.

Because yes, I could have very easily been a victim, but the other side of the coin is I may not have even been a person were it not for the church. I was put up for adoption by a Catholic birth mother who didn’t believe abortion was the answer. I was adopted by two loving Catholic parents through Catholic Services, whose marriage was strengthened by the Catholic program Marriage Encounter. I literally owe my life to the Catholic Church and, right now, as I go through a very tough time in my life when friends don’t always answer the phone and family can’t always be there, the people who reach out, the people who have guaranteed their support are representatives of the Catholic Church.

There is a moment in Spotlight where Ruffalo’s character expresses a thought many of us lapsed Catholics have had, which is that someday we would come back. Someday it would be a huge part of our lives again. I, like him, enjoy Mass when the priest gives a compelling and thought-provoking homily. I like to go and think about something bigger than myself. I like knowing I am part of a community who has incredibly selfless and wonderful priests and nuns that far outweigh the bad apples in volume. And, just like Rezendes, I know it is silly and painful to consider what it is going to take to get the church back to what it should be, to what I’ve seen it be for so many people, but I can’t help but hope we get better. Not just the cardinals and the corrupt priests, but the journalists, the city leaders, the parishoners, all of us. I left Spotlight feeling a sense of accountability but also a sense of hope that this movie and the journalism that inspired it will continue to move us forward.

This isn’t much of a movie review because, for me, Spotlight isn’t a movie. My friend, who teaches at a Catholic girls’ school in California told me the journalism students at the school were excused from Mass one day to see Spotlight because, “that is a Mass too.”

To the educator who said that, I applaud you because the comparison is so apt. Unlike Mad Max and Revenant where I just left shrugging and saying, “wow that looked really cool,” I left this movie scratching my head, questioning my faith, trying to work through my own personal thoughts about the church, and mulling over how much hope I have that people like the Spotlight team can keep saving us from ourselves. To me, this is a purer cinematic experience than the one with the pretty shots of the South Dakota snow because I would rather leave a theater not thinking, “I wonder how they pulled that off?” and instead thinking, “what about my life might need to change because of what I’ve just witnessed?”

I hope Spotlight can maintain its momentum and take Best Picture, as I think if we look back in 20 years and it is The Revenant, we will roll our eyes like we do with The Hurt Locker or Crash. Meanwhile, Spotlight will be remembered as the next great newsroom drama and will continue to raise questions and demand answers for years to come.

My Rolling Top 5 of 2015

  1. Bridge of Spies
  2. Spotlight
  3. Inside Out
  4. Going Clear
  5. Straight Outta Compton

Oscar Outlook: Straight Outta Compton and the Academy’s Race Problem

I’ve never been much of a fan of expanding the Academy Awards Best Picture nominees from the standard five to as many as ten dependent on the voting. Those who know me are aware I am pretty stuck in my ways. However, I will concede, that the change wasn’t entirely negative.

The first year of the expanded nomination format, more than one film that would have never made the cut ended up on the Best Picture list. Avatar, which was an even bigger box office smash than Titanic but with middling reviews, made the cut because the Academy realized that this movie was doing something right if that many people went to see it. Another movie that made the list was District 9, a quirky South African sci-fi film that drew stellar reviews but wouldn’t be given consideration in the five-film format because it just “isn’t an Oscar kind of movie.” As a result, I came around on my stance, because if it gave recognition to those who aren’t normally given it because it doesn’t fit the notion of what an Oscar movie should be, I’m on board.

What is an Oscar kind of movie? Well, that definition has changed quite a bit over the years. It used to be big budget studio fare like Gone With the Wind (1939) or Ben-Hur (1959), but now that money is filtered into comic book movies and action franchises, leaving the “prestige” movies to be independent films or low-budget studio films about very serious subject matters like the right to vote or the Civil War (Academy loves themselves some period pieces), people with some sort of disability or obstacle they overcome, stories about real people (biopics), or ones that are so artistically innovative they simply can’t be ignored. Another important factor is that the right people are involved. The Jennifer Lawrences and Leonardo DiCaprios and the David O. Russells and Christopher Nolans.

So this is where Straight Outta Compton‘s problems begin. Other than being a period biopic, it doesn’t really satisfy any of the other categories. But here is the thing…it’s a really good movie. You have incredible performances from relative unknowns like Corey Hawkins giving an understated but impactful turn as Dr. Dre and Jason Mitchell taking what is basically the lead role of the film, Easy E, and turning in a fine performance that actually does include some Academy elements like playing a real life person, having scenes in which he screams in anger and scenes in which he experiences tremendous pain, like when he found out he was HIV positive. Remember Tom Hanks in Philadelphia? He was great, he deserved that Oscar, but there used to be (and arguably still is) a time where it was just a given that if you played a real person dying from AIDs, you were gonna get nominated for an Oscar. But Jason Mitchell isn’t Tom Hanks or Matthew McCounaghy or Jared Leto. So Eddie Redmayne gets nominated for the Oscar bait-y transsexual role in The Danish Girl and Matt Damon and Leonardo DiCaprio get nominated because they do a really good job of acting by themselves. And not once did Jason Mitchell’s name get mentioned for anything.

When people say that the Academy is recognizing worthy performances and it seems difficult to believe they were excluding people based on race, they are right. But here are some Oscar politics for you:

Members of the Academy are sent scads and scads of screeners on DVDs in order to watch as many movies as they can before the nomination deadline. In addition to those screeners, studios’ marketing departments take out ads in the trade papers Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. So, I can’t tell you how an Academy member prioritizes, but when they hear all the A-list names they are supposed to hear and get screeners from movies they have seen in the trades, they are probably going to watch them first.

I can pretty much guarantee you when Universal Pictures greenlit Straight Outta Compton, they didn’t think they had an awards contender on their hands because, other than Paul Giamatti, there were no big names attached to it. The director, F. Gary Gray, is best known for his prolific work as a music video director, but he shows an adeptness for feature-length films, keeping the pacing brisk, introducing characters in memorable ways and, while the cinematography is certainly not that of The Revenant, I really liked what they did with several of the tracking shots in this movie.

In other words, this movie, which was supposed to be a niche movie intended for African-American audiences turned out to be a really well-made movie. Even so, the studio released it in the doldrums of August, a month where you would almost never release a movie with Oscar potential because it is too early and voters will forget about it come Christmas.

The movie came out and the reviews weren’t just good, they were great. You can argue part of the enjoyment of this film is nostalgia. I will admit, having talked with a friend who was relatively unfamiliar with NWA, it seems like my knowledge of their music and recognition of tiny details like playing the background track for “California Love” for Tupac or Ice Cube writing Friday in his office were lost on her and improved my viewer experience. Really though, in a year where I felt like every action film I saw needed elementary level lessons in pacing, this movie’s story was taut, but still allowed for important moments to resonate. The dialogue was believable in addition to being expository. And, this movie managed to be both entertaining and make some really important observations on how institutional racism works. I’ve seen God knows how many movies where the evil slave owner or the redneck racist get lauded by the Academy (I’m looking at you, The Help), but this movie tackled a concept that most people have trouble explaining to the uninformed and presented it in a way that everyone could comprehend.

Then something even weirder happened. Straight Outta Compton made piles and piles of money. It made over $200 million on a budget of just $28 million. That may sound like a lot, but even an “indie” studio like Lionsgate gives more money to its Oscar bait like Sicario.

Then the impossible happened. Straight Outta Compton started getting recognized in year-end awards.The National Board of Review, the Broadcast Critics Awards, the Producers Guild of America, the Screen Actor’s Guild, and the Writer’s Guild of America all recognized this film. Typically these are the kind of noms that not only guarantee a Best Picture nod, but make you a genuine contender to win the race.

Universal Pictures then found themselves in a pickle though, as the planned for their other biopics, Trumbo and Steve Jobs, to be the ones getting accolades. So the marketing and efforts had to be split. I haven’t read the trades in several years, but I would be very curious to hear from industry employees if they heard more about Trumbo and Steve Jobs or Compton.

I defy you to find a more socially-relevant motion picture released this year. In a year where we seem to have monthly conversations about police brutality and institutional racism, name another film that more deftly handled this discussion, making great points, helping people understand, and being thoroughly entertaining in the process.

But, just like NWA couldn’t bust into the music scene right away, Straight Outta Compton can’t make it into the Academy’s club, save for one Original Screenplay nod for its all-white screenwriting team. It isn’t that people are choosing to ignore Straight Outta Compton. They aren’t disregarding it because it is a movie about a rap group. They just aren’t thinking to include it. They are watching Trumbo and Steve Jobs instead because there are only so many movies a person can watch each year and those are the “types” of movies they think they’re supposed to watch.

I conclude with a story about the first African-American Oscar winner, Hattie McDaniel. I encourage you to read the entire story on The Hollywood Reporter, because it indicates the kind of advocation she had to do in 1939 that is still happening in 2015. It was only when she brought in every Gone With the Wind review she could find, slammed them on David O. Selznik’s desk and demanded that the studio lobby for her to be nominated for Best Supporting Actress instead of putting all of their efforts behind fellow castmate Olivia de Haviland that they mounted a campaign that led to the first African-American to win an Oscar.

When she went to the ceremony, she wasn’t allowed to sit at the Gone With the Wind table. In fact, the hotel where the awards were being hosted didn’t allow African-Americans on the property, so McDaniel and the Academy had to seek permission for her to even attend. When she did, she did so from a table in the corner. After she received her Oscar, she went on to have a prolific career where she played a maid in 74 different films. This woman broke a barrier and then had to play Mammy 73 more times because no one in Hollywood could come up with any other character for her to play.

That  happened 77 years ago, but it is a perfect metaphor for what the people of color in Hollywood are feeling right now. Sure, you let them participate in these awards, but only because they have to advocate for themselves loudly and proudly until someone will listen. Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t have to do that. Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks don’t have to do that. And every once in a while, the minorities get in the room. But when it comes to a seat at the table with everyone else, it still seems like an unattainable goal, like they are Hattie McDaniel stuck in the corner because every time they get their brief moment on stage where they say loudly and proudly that this is a start, but it isn’t nearly enough, it falls on deaf ears and they go back to an industry where nothing seems to change. Halle Berry and Viola Davis are both stuck starring in mediocre TV shows, but they still deserve some recognition because five years ago the thought of an African-American woman starring in a TV drama was unthinkable. Raj Patel was the star of Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire, but he still had to audition to play the fifth lead on HBO’s The Newsroom. Octavia Spencer played second fiddle to a cast of tweens in a now-cancelled, totally unmemorable hospital show.

Like they say in the trailer for Straight Outta Compton, they aren’t trying to incite riots or promote violence. These people are simply speaking honestly about their lives and experiences and the movie industry, including the Academy, needs to start listening better.

Oscar Outlook: The Revenant

In college we had to take two History of International Cinema classes in order to obtain a Cinema-Television degree. In one of them, we were required to watch the French New Wave film Celine and Julie Go Boating directed by Jacques Renard. Before the screening, our professor warned us that is was over three hours long, so class would run a little late. He then explained Renard made the film repetitive and redundant on purpose so we can more viscerally relate to the dilemma the two heroines find themselves in of repeating the same actions over and over again.

I watched.

And ever since then, when people ask what the worst movie I have ever seen is, I say it is Celine and Julie Go Boating. Because I don’t need the movie to be three hours and twenty minutes long to get they are going through something very repetitive.  Groundhog Day got the point across in a brisk 109 minutes. If you need three hours to convey the same concept, you are simply doing it wrong.

Celine and Julie Go Boating crossed my mind around the third or fourth time I checked my phone to see just how much of The Revenant I had left to sit through.  Because, along about the third time I had to watch Leonardo DiCaprio army crawl his way over to something he was about to eat, do to himself, or climb into, I was pretty over it. We get it. He’s been through hell six times over. He wants to avenge his kid. I’ve seen Gladiator. I find the director Alejandro Inarritu’s direction to tend towards the heavy-handed  a lot. Many people complained about the hackneyed, hopeful conclusion of Birdman instead of pulling the trigger, literally.

The same happens at the conclusion of The Revenant, where, instead of possibly offering some sort of insight about how revenge, even if divinely intervened, just doesn’t amount to anything, instead ends with another ambiguously hopeful shot straight out of Gladiator. And this ending left me feeling empty, a little baffled, and at a loss why these clearly talented human beings were given $135 million and said, “This. This story, which really doesn’t have much to it, and really doesn’t offer much insight beyond: revenge, while a truly unmatched motivator, is a morally ambiguous motivation. This is the movie we need to make.”

Because the thing is this movie is visually stunning. As my friend Scott Huff pointed out, this really is a great example of the true power of cinema. The opening scene where the pack of hunters are under siege is astonishing and the blend of physical and CGI effects is phenomenal. Throughout the film, I am blown away at the astonishing cinematography, the use of editing to create what looks like one long tracking shot. It is technical cinema at its finest and I hope it sweeps all those awards.

And I really thought after 45 minutes or so that this movie had a lot more story to it than I expected, but once DiCaprio is left to fend for himself, all of that momentum screeched to a halt. I’ve heard several people echo the sentiment that this movie is really around 45 minutes too long. I assume it is this long for the same reasons Julie and Celine Go Boating is long, but as I have had, those aren’t good reasons.

My other big problem is Tom Hardy. The more I watch him in movies, the more I can conclude the guy is just not a very good actor and he is really just trying to do a mumblier, dumber version of Brando because somewhere along the way he heard Brando was a good actor so he watched some tapes of him and just impersonates him over and over again.

Because Hardy, who serves as the villain in this story, basically just tromps around and pretends he is Yosemite Sam. He got nominated for an Oscar for this, which is not unprecedented. Renee Zellweger, who despite hailing from Texas and ostensibly knowing better, tromped around and acted like Yosemite Sam in the godawful Cold Mountain and she won that year.

Here is the problem with this. Granted, I don’t know what Southern accents sounded like in 1823, but Hardy sometimes sounds Cajun, he sometimes sounds like he is from Appalachia, and sometimes he sounds like Foghorn Leghorn if given twenty horse tranquilizers. So he snarls his lines with one of the more absurd Southern accents since Clare Bowen joined the cast of Nashville.

Meanwhile, there are literally no other Southern people in the entire movie. Hardy is surrounded by relatively uneducated country people, but none speak with as much broken English as he does, none are as racist as his character is. While certain elements of this story are based on a real man who survived a bear attack, Fitgerald (Hardy) is an entirely fictional creation and the best the author of the book and creators of the movie could come up with is a malicious, selfish, racist redneck? And the actor depicting him thought being virtually indecipherable with an accent that collectively sounds like it belongs from nowhere doesn’t help matters. The fact the French are bad guys too helps a little, but it nonetheless is a recurring problem in movies I wish we could address, but considering we can’t even get a non-white acting nominee, I doubt it is happening any time soon.

(Note: A very kind commenter corrected me that both Fitzgerald and Bridger were real people that Glass in fact did seek them out upon his return to civilization, though many of his actions in the film are fictionalized.)

I go on this giant aside because my original intent when I went to grad school was to look at how the depictions of rural working class white people in pop culture affect how we view these people in real life. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t see people on social media dismiss people as dumb rednecks or blame the whole of racism in the United States on this particular group of people, which is problematic on so many levels I can’t even begin to list them because I will go on for 10,000 words.

And finally, we can talk DiCaprio. He does a very good job credibly looking hurt, being in pain, army crawling, limping, and running from peril. You know who else can do this? Dwayne Johnson, Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park, Will Smith, and countless others. Most action movies require at least one cast member to be injured and cope with said injury while running from peril, so why are we acting like what DiCaprio is doing is in any way above the work of the aforementioned actors? Let me stress. Leo is by no means bad in the movie, but can someone, anyone, point me to what is so special about a performance in which he mostly just huffs, puffs, grunts, and says approximately one sentence every 15 minutes?  It is an Academy problem. Matt Damon in The Martian, Tom Hanks in Castaway, and James Franco in 127 Hours each got nods because for some reason acting by yourself is considered way harder than being in a scene with people, especially if you are enduring hardships. Because nothing says “I am an elite actor” quite like pulling out your own tooth or cauterizing your own bear wound. The person who does deserve recognition for his work is young Will Poulter (the funny eyebrows kid), who gives a really stellar performance as a young boy put in a no-win situation.

Basically, this movie was an absolutely visually stuning recollection of a very run of the mill Western. I admire its technical abilities, but when it comes to the soul of this movie and what it is trying to say, what message it wants to send, what theme it wants to hit, I come up empty-handed. If you like movies for just the sheer beauty of what filmmaking can pull off, this is one of the most beautiful, stunning things I’ve seen in a long, long time and it is worth the price of seeing it on the big screen. If you aren’t into revenge stories or John Wayne flicks and cinematography doesn’t do it for you, just don’t bother.

My rolling top five changed a bit with movies not in the running for Best Picture, though the documentary Amy about Amy Winehouse is the frontrunner in that category. As for The End of the Tour, I think I more enjoy David Foster Wallace’s ideas than the movie, and be forewarned it is basically just one long conversation a la My Dinner With Andre:

My Rolling Top Five
1. Bridge of Spies
2. Inside Out
3. Going Clear
4. Amy
5. The End of the Tour

Oscar Outlook: Sicario

Back in college when I helped pay my bills by working as a script reader, the “mind trip” movie was the genre du jour thanks to the success of films like The Matrix and The Sixth Sense. I don’t know if they are necessarily a genre, but the whole crop of “mind trip” movies are, on the whole, my least favorite kind of films.

Thing is, there is a big difference between having a twist ending that packs a giant wallop because it earned it with carefully planted clues along the way and then there are movies like the Shyamalan oeuvre. Some are boring and dull until something comes out of left field in the final act. Others are just so obviously telegraphed (I’m looking at you, The Prestige), that we get to the big reveal and I am like, “And?”

But, the unexpected twists and turns of this year’s Oscar contender Sicario were all complex, well-executed, and surprising without being stupid. In other words, they earned it.

The story starts with Emily Blunt, an FBI agent, who is asked by her bosses to join a special task force alongside people from the Department of Defense and CIA, namely characters played by Josh Brolin and Benecio Del Toro, who takes his Oscar-winning role in Traffic (2000) and turns it on his head. Together, this band of people from various facets of the government manage to extradite the brother of the drug lord they are trying to take down, but it turns out their mission is about so much more.

Blunt watches as Brolin and Del Toro bend the rules to their breaking point and struggles with her conscience and her emotions trying to reconcile what she is doing. In the end, you’d be surprised to see the path she chooses to take, but that is far from the only surprise in this movie, which starts as a matter-of-fact police film, then morphs into a character study of two very different people, Blunt and Del Toro, and yet another commentary on just how unwinnable the war on drugs really is.

I was a big fan of the aforementioned Traffic which, while grim, ended with a little bit of hope in the form of stadium lights illuminating a Mexican baseball field. Pessimistic as I may seem, I like when there is at least a little room for hope in these movies, but Sicario offers no such consolation. For that, I really admire the film which, unlike last year’s Birdman, opts for the truer resolution over the happier one. Hope is great and all, but that is what the State of the Union is for. Sometimes, it is more important to get the point across than soften it with something that rings false.

I’ve heard a lot of people push for Del Toro to get another Supporting Actor nod for his turn here. While I think he does great work (and his performance works even better if you’ve seen Traffic and how much these characters are the same yet so different), the Supporting Actor field is one of the few overcrowded ones we have this Oscar season, that I just don’t see it happening. The guys in Spotlight and Stallone didn’t manage SAG nods, nor did Del Toro, so I figure he is at the back of the line for a role that is simply too similar to one he already won an Oscar for. (Notice the comedy of saying this is something we’ve seen Del Toro do before yet somehow all of the sudden Sylvester Stallone playing Rocky Balboa for a SEVENTH time is rivaling Mark Rylance’s perfect performance in Bridge of Spies as the frontrunner.)

Since it wouldn’t be one of my posts without a nitpick, I will say that Blunt, while a phenomenal actress, has a terrible American accent and I caught her slipping into her natural British dialect not just on the occasional word, but whole sentences. Really though, other than that, there is little to complain about with Sicario other than to warn you squeamish folks like me that the first five minutes are pretty brutal to take. Nonetheless, this movie marks the first change in my top five since starting this series, so if I can grin and bear it, you can and should too.

My Rolling Top Five
1. Bridge of Spies
2. Inside Out
3. Going Clear
4. Sicario
5. The Intern

Oscar Outlook: My Golden Globe Predictions

Okay, have picks in all categories and even rustled up some friendly wagers. Feel way better about TV than movies though:

FILM AWARDS

Best Motion Picture Drama

Carol
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant
Room
Spotlight

Winner: Spotlight

Best Motion Picture Musical or Comedy

The Big Short
Joy
The Martian
Spy
Trainwreck

Winner: The Big Short

Best Actor in a Drama

Bryan Cranston – Trumbo
Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant
Michael Fassbender – Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne – The Danish Girl
Will Smith – Concussion

Winner: Leonardo DiCaprio

Best Actress in a Drama

Cate Blanchett – Carol
Brie Larson – Room
Rooney Mara – Carol
Saoirse Ronan – Brooklyn
Alicia Vikander – The Danish Girl

Winner: Brie Larson

Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy

Christian Bale – The Big Short
Steve Carell – The Big Short
Matt Damon – The Martian
Al Pacino – Danny Collins
Mark Ruffalo – Infinitely Polar Bear

Winner: Matt Damon

Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy

Jennifer Lawrence – Joy
Melissa McCarthy – Spy
Amy Schumer – Trainwreck
Maggie Smith – The Lady in the Van
Lily Tomlin – Grandma

Winner: Amy Schumer

Best Supporting Actress

Jane Fonda – Youth
Jennifer Jason Leigh – The H8ful Eight
Helen Mirren – Trumbo
Alicia Vikander – Ex Machina
Kate Winslet – Steve Jobs

Winner: Alicia Vikander

Best Supporting Actor

Paul Dano – Love & Mercy
Idris Elba – Beasts of No Nation
Mark Rylance – Bridge of Spies
Michael Shannon – 99 Homes
Sylvester Stallone – Creed

Winner: Mark Rylance

Best Director

Todd Haynes – Carol
Alejandro Inarritu – The Revenant
Tom McCarthy – Spotlight
George Miller – Mad Max: Fury Road
Ridley Scott – The Martian

Winner: The Martian

Best Screenplay

The Big Short
The H8ful Eight
Room
Spotlight
Steve Jobs

Winner: Spotlight

Best Animated Feature

Anomalisa
The Good Dinosaur
Inside Out
The Peanuts Movie
Shaun the Sheep Movie

Winner: Inside Out

Best Foreign Film

The Brand New Testament
The Club
The Fencer
Mustang
Son of Saul

Winner: Son of Saul

Best Original Score

Carol
The Danish Girl
The H8ful Eight
The Revenant
Steve Jobs

Winner: Carol

Best Original Song

Love Me Like You Do – 50 Shades of Gray
One Kind of Love – Love & Mercy
See You Again – Furious 7
Writing’s on the Wall – Spectre
Simple Song #3 – Youth

Winner: One Kind of Love

TV AWARDS

Best TV Drama

Empire
Game of Thrones
Mr. Robot
Narcos
Outlander

Winner: Mr. Robot

Best Musical or Comedy

Casual
Mozart in the Jungle
Orange is the New Black
Silicon Valley
Transparent
Veep

Winner: Mozart in the Jungle

Best Limited Series or Made for TV Movie

American Crime
American Horror Story: Hotel
Fargo
Flesh & Bone
Wolf Hall

Winner: Fargo

Best Actress in Limited Series or Made for TV Movie

Kirsten Dunst – Fargo
Lady Gaga – American Horror Story: Hotel
Sarah Hay – Flesh & Bone
Felicity Huffman – American Crime
Queen Latifah – Bessie

Winner: Kirsten Dunst

Best Actor in Limited Series or Made for TV Movie

Idris Elba – Luther
Oscar Isaac – Show Me a Hero
David Oyelowo – Nightingale
Patrick Wilson – Fargo
Mark Rylance – Wolf Hall

Winner: Oscar Isaac

Best Actress in a TV Drama

Caitriona Balfe – Outlander
Viola Davis – How to Get Away with Murder
Eva Green – Penny Dreadful
Taraji Henson – Empire
Robin Wright – House of Cards

Winner: Caitriona Balfe

Best Actor in a TV Drama

Jon Hamm – Mad Men
Rami Malek – Mr. Robot
Wagner Moura – Narcos
Bob Odenkirk – Better Call Saul
Liev Schreiber – Ray Donovan

Winner: Rami Malek

Best Actress TV Musical/Comedy

Rachel Bloom – Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Jamie Lee Curtis – Scream Queens
Julia Louis-Dreyfus – Veep
Gina Rodriguez – Jane the Virgin
Lily Tomlin – Grace and Frankie

Winner: Julia Louis-Dreyfus

Best Actor TV Musical Comedy

Aziz Ansari – Master of None
Gael Garcia Bernal – Mozart in the Jungle
Rob Lowe – The Grinder
Patrick Stewart – Blunt Talk
Jeffrey Tambor – Transparent

Winner: Aziz Ansari

Supporting Actress TV

Uzo Aduba – Orange is the New Black
Joanne Froggatt – Downton Abbey
Regina King – American Crime
Judith Light – Transparent
Maura Tierney – The Affair

Winner: Regina King

Supporting Actor TV

Alan Cumming – The Good Wife
Damian Lewis – Wolf Hall
Ben Mendelsohn – Bloodline
Tobias Menzies – Outlander
Christian Slater – Mr. Robot

Winner: Ben Mendelson

Oscar Outlook: The Martian

I went to Montessori for elementary school, which means instead of grades, we just had periodic reviews. In each and every review, my parents were informed that Jessica is a bright kid, but she needs to work more on her science. At Montessori, you worked at your own pace and have a set amount of things to get done each day and I always put off science for last.

You know why?

Because it bored me to tears. I know I am supposed to be wowed at the way plants grow and that we can send people into space, but I just have never cared. In high school, I forced myself to learn enough about biology to pass the AP Bio test purely so I could take one less science class in college. I liked Chemistry and Psychics alright, as those were mostly math, and I loved math, I just thought science was kind of stupid.

My general indifference towards science turned into disdain once this whole “I f***ing love science” trend started because I found on social media, people would often dismiss evidence culled from the social sciences and be like, “here is a study with data and numbers and the scientific method. Boom. Scienced.”

One thing I did remember from my science classes is that you can take your data and manipulate it to say pretty much anything you want, which is why peer review is such an important step in the process. I am not saying any of these peer review studies are categorically invalid. What I am saying is that the empirical evidence culled from an anthropologist embedded within a group of people for a year is equally valid because it, like traditional science experiments, is also peer reviewed.

Moral of the story? I find the standard definition of science to be really overrated.

Perhaps that is why a lot of the charm of The Martian is lost on me. Sure, some of the science stuff he does is nifty and keeps him full of potatoes, but I am generally just like, “okay you fixed the rover, okay hexadecimal alphabet, etc.” That’s fine. Good job. But it is just Cast Away on Mars to me, in that I have already seen a man stranded somewhere problem solve his way through staying alive that it feels like familiar territory.

What was fascinating to me about this movie was the problem solving taking place on the nearby spaceship and back on Earth. Even though it is a plot point lifted straight out of Armageddon to slingshot around the Earth using the Earth’s gravity, Donald Glover, Mackenzie Davis, Benedict Wong, and the others back at Houston are all very compelling characters even though we know little about them save for their occupation. They really make the most of their small roles through reactions, intonation, and demeanor to give us a sense of who these people are. And of all of the performances in this movie, it is Sean Bean who steals every scene he is in and blows the competition out of the water. I even liked the scenes on the spaceship filled with the crewmen that accidentally left Mark (Matt Damon) behind even though I find Kate Mara to be one of the more talentless consistently employed actresses working today.

Really, the part of the movie I could do without is the part related to the titular martian, Damon. I really wasn’t expecting this, as I have been a big fan of Damon and his performances for years. I don’t even think this is necessarily his fault either. He performs his part well. I just take substantial issue with the tone of these Mars scenes.  From what I’ve been told, it is an effort to preserve the tone of the book, authored by Andy Weir. This is the problem that comes when adapting a book to the screen. I haven’t read the book, but my best guess is there is a lot of internal monologuing happening inside Mark’s head. Rather than use voice over to indicate what he is thinking, the movie has Mark talking to the cameras in a way I haven’t really seen since Saved By the Bell or Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Mark addresses the camera like he knows a movie theater full of people is watching him. I understand the need for exposition. Someone has to explain Mark doesn’t have enough food/oxygen/water to last him forever, but the first monologue he gives to the camera plug just doesn’t make any sense. These video feeds mostly exist for posterity’s sake so researchers can make the most of them later. Which is why when he explains his dilemma in a very basic way, I raised an eyebrow. Who exactly are you talking to, Matt Damon? Cause if I were stranded on Mars, I would assume it would take someone with enough science acumen to, you know, get to Mars, that you don’t need to explain basic things about space to them.

From that point Damon’s monologues grow increasingly more bizarre as he addresses the camera like he is a late night talk show host. I can somewhat rationalize that this stems from boredom and, hey, who knows what the psychological effects of being stranded on Mars would be? To borrow another plot point from Armageddon, we can always claim his whole pirate schtick is just a case of space dementia. Nonetheless, I found the tone fake and forced. I found it odd that he never had much of a breakdown save for when he cursed a couple of times when he learned his crew hadn’t been informed he was alive. He never cried. He never had just a full blown meltdown. Instead, he was just the Jay Leno of space, groovin’ along to disco songs joking his way through each day. It is plausible, but I find it emotionally boring.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, everyone seems emotionally invested in the guy who would sing “Twist and Shout” with a parade all the way to the spaceship rescue pod if he could, while that guy actually stuck up there seems to be doing just fine. So, this is why I really liked the parts of The Martian that didn’t involve The Martian. If it were just those guys thinking stuff up, as Bruce Willis notes NASA is wont to do, I am pretty sure this movie cracks my top five. But the part on Mars is simply too out of this world for me to reconcile as even remotely believable, even if someone can explain it to me with science.

My Rolling Top Five
1. Bridge of Spies
2. Inside Out
3. Going Clear
4. The Intern
5. Avengers: Age of Ultron

Oscar Outlook: Why Ex Machina is No Black Mirror

black-mirror-s2-e01-630

Before I really get to talking about the movie Ex Machina, I feel like I should tell you a little bit about my upbringing.

I was raised in a pretty strict Catholic household. Even though I don’t go to mass very often, I still list my religion as Catholic whenever I am asked. I believe in a lot of the tenants of the faith and I think, like Judaism, there is a cultural element that comes with being Catholic. One thing about Catholicism I have fully bought into is souls. Only people have them. They also have free will and an ability to work with tools, create something bigger than themselves, etc.

The other thing to know about me is that I was surrounded by engineers growing up. If you Google my dad, Glenn Welman, you will find mostly patent information, as he was a very prolific engineer for IBM during his 20-year tenure with the company. After he died, my uncles who were engineers would talk to me about projects. I’d see the inner workings of a computer, I heard stories about what it takes to code and how code works, and I am very much a person who understands that, while a machine can seem magic, it is still a machine.

So, these films in which the filmmakers want us to question where the line is for what constitutes a person when it comes to robots and artificial intelligence (AI), I am generally just not interested in that question. Robots are machine parts and code. They are not biological creatures with a spleen and a brain, they definitely don’t have a soul, so what is there to debate? It’s not a person.

People talk about AI and the fact that these computer programs will exceed humans in terms of intelligence, and that is something I do think is interesting and worth exploring, but at the end of the day, I still think if a piece of AI is programmed to “act human” it is never going to be a human and have free will. It will mimic it, but it is just code performing a task.

Hence why I didn’t really want to watch the film Ex Machina in the first place. It didn’t look particularly exceptional compared to other robot movies, plus one of its stars, Domnhall Gleeson, is part of one of the best robot/AI things I have seen in a decade, the Black Mirror episode “I’ll Be Right Back”.

***SPOILER ALERT: I am about to talk about plot points of both Ex Machina and Black Mirror. This is your chance to tap out***

What is amazing to me about Black Mirror is that the story centers on the emotional issues surrounding AI, coming at it from an angle you wouldn’t expect. A woman tries to replace her dead husband with a robot who has access to all his social media accounts, text records, and any other digital components of his existence. He sounds just like him and says things Ash, her husband, would say. The widow becomes increasingly reliant on pseudo-Ash to be her life companion to try and fill the void left by her husband. But, while this works a lot of the time, eventually she realizes there are limits to what this piece of artificial intelligence can do. There are certain things about Ash it can never know, it will not grow into an older version of Ash, it will not change and be different during life milestones like becoming a father the way Ash would.

Here are a few reasons why I find the episode amazing. First are the phenomenal performances by Gleeson and Hayley Atwell. Gleeson manages to establish charming real Ash and then create “almost there” Ash brilliantly. Atwell as the grieving widow has to run the emotional gamut of losing someone, thinking you’ve got them back, and then realizing once again that they are gone. As someone who has not lost a spouse, but has lost a parent, I thought she captured what having a massive hole ripped in your life feels like much better than most.

I also like looking at the emotional fallout of believing that artificial intelligence can take the place of a human being. It is a take you don’t see very often. We have all sorts of movies where an endearing  robot seems to be human-esque and we question our attachment to them when their “life” is put in peril, but this was one of the first things I’ve seen where you look at it from the other side—can this robot replace a person I once loved? It is an issue kind of addressed in the movie Her, but I found the third act to be rather confusing and clunky and trying to suggest a sense of agency with the girlbot he loves that I simply don’t believe exists.

Finally, I loved that this wasn’t a story focused on how technology works or prodded my brain with questions related to logic, but instead had me thinking emotionally about whether or not I would take a robot version of my dad if I could. Like Atwell’s character, when the concept was introduced, my mind went straight to, “if only,” but as the story progressed, my feelings grew much more complicated, so much so I still think about if I would do it if I could one year later.

So, that was why Ex Machina didn’t seem that interesting to me, and I originally put it on my “not interested” section of a Facebook post detailing my Oscar movie viewing plan. At least  six people told me I was missing out to skip it, so when I found out it was on Amazon Prime, I realized I had no excuse not to watch.

Let me start with a very clear statement: this movie is fine. I didn’t think it was particularly great, but it certainly wasn’t bad. Most of my issues with the film, like Mad Max, stem from the fact it just isn’t my thing. I don’t really have any questions on whether or not Ava, Kyoko, or any of the AI robots in this movie have agency or free will. In my mind, they very clearly don’t. So, when Caleb (Gleeson) discovers his boss and the creator of AI bot Ava, Nathan (Oscar Isaac) he has just kind of destroyed and junk-piled the previous bots, I don’t really understand why he is surprised or upset that it happened. Caleb is a programmer, and every programmer I know understands that, like writing, you rewrite and draft new versions fairly regularly.

This is a big plot point, so the fact I have a hard time believing this is how a programmer would react is an issue for me with the film as a whole. I suppose I can reconcile that Caleb who, based on his interactions with Ava, has never had a girlfriend in his life, is smitten to the point of losing some of his more logical thought. In fact, Nathan pretty much admits this is why Caleb was selected to run the Turing Test on Ava in the first place. (Note: I thought the box test was kind of part of this, which influenced my viewing experience, asI assumed the bots were all programmed to escape.) Nonetheless, it is still strange for me to think Nathan is a villain–he is more a guy who let his delusions of grandeur get the best of him and he pays the price for it. He is kind of a douchebag, sure, but a horrible, sadistic serial killer? Not so much.

The performances of the four characters in the film are all fine, and there is a very random dance sequence that just made my day. I think that, for a movie that is treading over some worn over territory, it did manage to talk about AI and bots in a more sophisticated ways than I have seen in other movies. My only executional complaint is that the concept that Caleb was selected by his eccentric boss was not clearly set up, but that is really a minor nitpick.

The problem remains though: I just don’t care about these questions. While it was nice to see Ava construct herself the way she wants to look at the end of the movie instead of having a male construct her, it didn’t resonate with me the way it did with others because in the back of my head all I could think was, “well, this is what you are programmed to do, so really a dude is still behind this…” Which means that all those moments that really got people thinking or really generated a reaction from the average viewer were lost on me; because comparing Ava to a person is like comparing a Furbie to a dog. The answer seems so obvious to me, I can’t even pretend to think about whether or not robots deserve to be treated like people.

Basically, Ex Machina was like my own version of the Black Mirror episode. It was fine for what it was, but compared to Black Mirror, it is just an imitation of something I’d rather watch because it has more heart and soul.

My Rolling Top Five
1. Bridge of Spies
2. Inside Out
3. Going Clear
4. The Intern
5. Avengers: Age of Ultron

Oscar Outlook: Mad Max: Fury Road

Given that it is awards season for movies, I am finally in the habit of watching movies that have been released this year. I have minimal tolerance for comic book movies or big budget action flick, so the holiday season is my equivalent of summer movie season for most other movie watchers.

Thing is, when I sat down to really think through what I wanted to watch and which movies I was most excited to see, I realize that 2015 has actually been a pretty craptacular year for movies. Let’s just take a look at what is up for Best Drama and Best Comedy at Sunday’s Golden Globes:

Best Drama
Carol
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant
Room
Spotlight

Best Musical or Comedy
The Big Short
Joy
The Martian
Spy
Trainwreck

I have not seen nor had a desire to see six of the ten movies on this list, but since it appears that they are the frontrunners and I like to at least attempt to be a completist about things, I have to make an effort to watch a fair amount of them (thank goodness only two of the Comedy nominees are even in the mix for Best Picture and I actually want to see Joy).

The good news is I have been flying a lot lately and the in-flight entertainment is top-notch, so I have managed to knock out more than I expected of these for free with nothing  better to do while in transit.

Such was the case when I was able to watch a movie I really didn’t want to spend money on, Mad Max: Fury Road. I’d read the positive reviews about the film and knew it was considered to be both well-received by audiences and well-made, but it had a couple of things going against it for my own taste, which is not to say I think inherently makes it bad, just something I am not particularly interested in watching. First of which is Tom Hardy, an actor who I think it is unfair to call untalented per se, but who has about as much charisma as a piece of balsa wood with an attractive face painted on it. I also am just kind of worn out on post-apocalyptic settings. It is a trope I am really bored with because we’ve run it into the ground lately with zombie movies and stories which thematically hinged on the seemingly wide-held belief we are doomed.

This film is essentially The Land Before Time, but instead of cute dinosaurs, we have a badass female heroine, Charlize Theron, rogue mystery man Max (Hardy) and a flock of pregnant twits Theron is trying to help escape from their tyrannical husband/leader in search of “the green place.” Seriously, this is so very Land Before Time, the only thing we are missing is the tree star.

I would say a conservative estimate is that two-thirds of the movie is just a chase sequence. And don’t get me wrong, from a technical perspective, it is a very well-executed chase sequence. Far and away the best part of Mad Max: Fury Road are the design and technical elements. It has a very clear-cut look to it that is reminiscent of the original Mad Max (which I must admit I never watched in full) with a modern twist on it. The cinematography is fantastic and, as my friend Jeremiah Smith noted, it does an exceptional job of doing something most movie viewers don’t realize is very tricky, which is keep them spatially oriented.

The stunts are really inventive. I really liked the Cirque du Soleil-esque villains who bounce on buoyant poles attached to their vehicles to attach the vehicle they are chasing. There are also elements just there to be cool, like the random rock band that accompanies the villains on the final chase in their own vehicle. If you like visually cool stuff and don’t need an explanation why there is a random ass band present, you’ll enjoy this flick a lot. If you’re me and something is there for no reason that seems to make any sense at all and goes relatively unexplained, it will drive you bonkers.

What will also drive you bonkers about this movie is how gross it is. I am a bit squeamish, especially when it comes to things like eye violence, and this movie has more than its fair share of shocking and grotesque things, like a guy biting the head off a live lizard. While on an airplane, I audibly said “gross” a total of 34 times. So, if you are squeamish enough that a Game of Thrones episode takes it toll on you, this is not the movie for you.

If you want dialogue, this is not the movie for you either, as there is very minimal talking, even in scenes when people aren’t being chased. These characters aren’t big on chit chat, which works better for some and not others. I agree with the reviews that Theron’s character is the kind of female badass we need in more movies, but the presence of the utterly helpless flock of basics she is trying to save undermines the strength and power of her character. A new group of women introduced later in the movie make up for this by being both 1. Completely self-sufficient and 2. Over the age of 40 though. These ladies are who I want to see more of in movies. Women who have lived full lives and, as aresult, are pretty sharp and self-sufficient.

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a bad movie. For my tastes, it is not what I want, as I privilege plot, dialogue, and character above visuals. That isn’t necessarily the right way or wrong way to assess a film, it is just my personal preference. If you want to know more about these two schools of thought, Google “realism vs. formalism in cinema” or ask me, I’ll be happy to explain.

Nonetheless, I hope this movie wins heaps of design and technical Oscars. They deserve them. But the fact this movie is in the discussion for a Best Picture nominee has me concerned most of my movie review blogs in the next few weeks are going to be pretty grumpy because, while I am happy studios are making interesting action films like this, I don’t think it is anywhere close to up to snuff to be considered the movie remembered as the defining film of 2015. It barely has a plot. It barely has dialogue. And, even though it is visually interesting, much too much of it feels like far too familiar territory.

(I figure as I review, I will keep a rolling top five of my favorite movies for 2015. I am currently skeptical anything tops Bridge of Spies for me as that movie is just made specifically for people like me, but who knows? Maybe I’ll be surprised. Also, this introductory top five shows you that I haven’t seen many movies this year and that most of them, I obviously have not enjoyed very much.)

  1. Bridge of Spies
    2. Inside Out
    3. Going Clear
    4. The Intern
    5. Avengers: Age of Ultron

Bridge of Spies Connects the Past with the Present

My favorite genre of movie has been the courtroom drama for as long as I can remember. Maybe it is the speech nerd in me who loves the oration of attorneys. Maybe it is because they tend to feature a cast of characters what with the accused, the attorneys, the judge, and the witnesses. Mostly though, they are remnants of an era of movie making that isn’t very commonplace anymore.

While TV is always littered with great courtroom dramas, the movies about lawyers are few and far between. They are rarely prestige pictures like A Few Good Men or Philadelphia. Instead, they are decidedly B-movies like The Lincoln Lawyer or TheJudge.

Possibly my least favorite genre besides boxing movies is spy movies. James Bond always struck me as inept. How can you be a good spy if everyone knows who you are?

So, I went into Bridge of Spies with high hopes but tempered expectations, as I didn’t know how much it would be spy thriller and how much it would be a spy movie.

Turns out, it is neither. It is a thriller in the vein of the greatest Alfred Hitchcock movies, except the stakes are not just a man running for his life, they are about international relations and the tight rope its protagonist James Donovan (Tom Hanks) must walk in order to avoid nuclear holocaust.

In other words, it is exactly the type of movie I yearn for these days and is in extraordinarily short supply. The movie is accessible yet important, entertaining, yet well-made, and packed to the brim with incredible performances about flawed people trying to navigate very Frank Capra-like questions about whether or not to do what is right or what is easy.

Invoking Frank Capra and Steven Spielberg means the inevitable Tom Hanks and Jimmy Stewart comparisons are inevitable, but this really is exactly the sort of moralistic everyman Stewart would play. As Hanks walks the streets in the 1950s period garb, it is essentially effortless to picture Jimmy Stewart in the role. Considering it has tones of Stewarts two most notable collaborators, Capra and Hitchcock, there is really no person better for the role than Hanks who is, as expected, spectacular.

What is surprising though is that the real scene stealer of this movie is stage actor Mark Rylance, who plays the accused spy Hanks’ attorney character is defending. His subtle mannerisms seem far too small for an actor who cultivated his craft on the stage, but everything that is remarkable about this performance is what is unsaid; what is conveyed in the raise of an eyebrow or a labored sigh. If I had to say which aspect of this film, which should hopefully be nominated for scads and scads of awards, was most likely to bag an Oscar, it would have to be Rylance as Best Supporting Actor in a career-defining performance.

Lately, the Oscars have been all about nostalgia. The Artist, which took home tons of gold men in 2010, is an overt ode to old Hollywood and the way things used to be, as was fellow nominee Hugo. Even Argo is about the thrillers of the 1970s and an era of filmmaking long gone.

This year, the inevitable nostalgia nom seems to be primed to go to perennial Academy favorites Spielberg, Hanks, and co-screenwriters the Coen Brothers, though I wonder if the forthcoming Hail, Caesar!, also penned by the Coens, might split the vote. Maybe both will be drowned in accolades and the studios will realize more people like me are desperate for adult entertainment with no comic book heroes or drug traffickers or, most imperatively, boxers (I mean seriously, Southpaw and Creed in the same season? Enough with the damned boxing movies).  Currently, Bridge of Spies has raked in around $35 million dollars and, as Mark Harris noted on Twitter, this movie is holding strong so far and I envision it could be one of those Thanksgiving films you go and see because it is something everyone can agree on. I hope that is the case.

Really, I only had one criticism of the film, which is its somewhat bombastic use of musical score, which is par for the course when it comes to Spielberg. I always pardon his tendency to schmaltz though, mostly because I am not getting schmaltz from anywhere else except the Hallmark Channel. So, I can only hope this movie, which like its protagonist opts to do what is hard rather than what is popular, is rewarded for not turning this into some Bourne-like action movie. It assumes the audience can be just as thrilled with a small movie about the potential end of the world, and what makes all the more remarkable is that it really happened, this man really did save us from a potential apocalypse and he did it with words and actions, not with guns and explosions. If only other movies could take notice of this “standing man” who may seem inconsequential at first glance, but in actuality is really rather remarkable.