Silence (*****) victory in defeat

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Silence – 2016

Director Martin Scorsese
Screenplay by Jay Cocks and Scorsese based on the novel by Shūsaku Endō
Starring  Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Tadanobu Asano, Ciarán Hinds, Liam Neeson, Issey Ogata, Shinya Tsukamoto

Silence is a powerful story that will evoke strong feelings for those who absorb its message. What that message is can depend on what you bring to the film. Most people like Scorsese for the bigger films he’s made. Many who love The Wolf of Wall Street have never even heard of Kundun. All this tells us is that Scorsese has to make a lot of garbage to get the freedom to do passion projects.

For me Martin Scorsese is an amazing worker. His skill is extraordinary no matter what he does. When it is matched by inspiration, like he does in Goodfellas, The Aviator, Hugo and here, the effect is stunning. That it won no extraordinary amount of notice is not much of a surprise, though.

Silence measures the meaning of its title very carefully. The story starts with two Jesuit priests, Garupe and Rodrigues (Driver and Garfield) on a quest to find Father Ferreira (Neeson). Ferreira had gone to Japan years earlier on a mission to convert Japanese people from Buddhism to Catholic Christianity. No one has heard from him in years. News returns that he has renounced the faith. Due to their special relationship with Ferreira, it is important to the young men that their hero in the faith be either found a martyr for the faith or alive and well, preaching the Gospel.

When they arrive in Japan, they are greeted by a translator  / guide named Kichijiro (Asano) who leads them to a village filled with people worshipping in secret who are overjoyed to finally see representatives of the church who can now give blessings and hear confession.Kichijiro lingers in the background, seemingly faithless.

There are many periods of daily silence for our priests as they wait for news in hiding. After the wait becomes unbearable, they decided to take a chance. To say that it backfires is an understatement. The result is not without its own form of stumbling progress. The meaning of the word silence takes a different form now with Rodrigues.

Discovering that Kichijiro has a secret past brings a new form of hope that – like everything in this film – is mixed with despair. Rodrigues is on the run from the Japanese shogunate but still seeking to find converts and therein the possibility of news of Ferreira. He also wants to hear from God.

After enjoying Garfield’s performance in Hacksaw Ridge, it is quite possible indeed he exceeds that performance here. The passion he pours into the performance is a remarkable raft in a story that is deliberately slow at times in an effort to show the hopes of communing with the Lord in the most desperate circumstances. His efforts to understand the meaning of suffering and the silence match ours. He is the best possible performer for his ability to make us feel the experience for ourselves.

His performance by no means the only great one in the film. Asano is remarkable in his ability to evoke repulsion and sympathy at once. In his face we see the true impossibility of those to be saved. His is truly a journey of Job, much more akin to the way some of us might falter along the way and shine at other times.

For his limited role in the film, this may be Neeson’s finest work. The nuance of his positions and whether they are the result of his condition or the architect of those conditions is an incredible intricacy that should stop most viewers in their tracks with passionate internal debate.

Driver  gives great, if limited performance of one who is allowed a sort of cruel mercy, when taken in the context of the other characters.

The last act of the film gives us a grueling sort of hope in the appearance of comfort. We see the final meaning of the titular silence and we hold out that somehow there will be a ray of light. Whether there is or not depends on one’s viewpoint.

And that is the pleasure and pain of watching Scorsese at his best. He lays it out there, with an abundance of passionate footage. Somehow, he is able to take a step back and let the viewer figure out how they feel about what they are seeing.

This film will be quite boring to some viewers who don’t have the requisite patience to understand why they are being subjected to the slow scenes. It’s a journey inward as much as it is outside in a foreign land.

The cruelty of the overlords is quite shocking as well. It’s not as simple as martyrdom, and that makes it impossible to endure quite intentionally. It is obvious to most viewers that oppression of another faith is by no means a ringing endorsement of the power of your own. This is about as close as we get to a statement. Where you go beyond this is up to you.

There is much to appreciate in the career of Martin Scorsese. His enthusiasm for the message medium of celluloid is unparalleled. I hope he has many more years of making movies like this. If it means I have to wade through commercial dreck every few years, it’s worth it.

(***** out of *****)

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Assassin’s Creed (*1/2) Now really, what did you expect?

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Assassin’s Creed – 2016

Director Justin Kurzel
Screenplay by Michael Lesslie, Adam Cooper, Bill Collage
Starring Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Michael K. Williams

There is an inexact scientific measure used to determine the worth of a movie that may be otherwise questionable. Three screenwriters or more is usually a good indicator they don’t have a solid story, they are just trying to hit the marks expected for an hour and a half film. A directing track record is also a decent indicator, but anything less than 4 major films and who knows. Kurzel’s last effort was the critically well received MacBeth. I have not seen nor do I plan on seeing this film. Shakespeare on-screen is worse than reading it for me: no annotations and the images don’t add up to excitement if I can’t tell what form of English they are speaking.

Less precise is the acting quotient. Upon discovering that not only was Fassbender playing the titular Assassin, but that he was to be joined by Cotillard, Irons, Gleeson and Rampling, it was a sell for a rental. There is no way all of these actors can be swallowed up by something that is pure garbage. And they weren’t. Not entirely.

Mostly though.

The property is not without cinematic promise. Taking a modern man of questionable repute and throwing him backwards through time with some scientific mumbo jumbo so he can…well, I am not sure what. Mostly find where things are hidden, I guess. This man needs to be related to Assassins. And these Assassins follow a creed, which is different from competing assassins who follow a different creed. Then they have to fight, kill one another, perform parkour and then jump off of high stuff.

To what end never really matters in the game, and here it doesn’t amount to much either.

This time we have Callum (Fassbender) who is on death row a few (lets say at least 3) decades after seeing his father apparently cause his mother’s death. Does he deserve it? Who cares? To get where he is going, he has to die anyway.

He wakes up at the Abstergo Foundation, where there are a peculiar set of people who are in his position. They are part of an experiment. This is supposedly of their own free will, but they really would prefer that you stay and help out.

The experiments are led by Dr.’s Sofia and Alan Rikkin (Cotillard and Irons). Sofia is young and idealistic. Alan seems more the cut-throaty type. They battle back and forth over the best way to move forward with their project, which now is focused on the genetic memory and abilities of Callum, in the form of his Assassin ancestor, Aguilar.

This leads to some back and forth between the past and present. None of this is interesting. The MacGuffin is an Apple device which contains the genetic code that is important for reasons not necessary to explain. Eventually this leads to the end of the film, which is a set up for the next film.

No thanks.

The actors give their B movie best here. It brings to mind that Fassbender has been in almost more crap than good stuff in his career. Cotillard is just as likely to be in average pulp like Allies as she is something originally delicious like Inception. And Jeremy Irons? Well, let’s just hope there is not a Pink Panther 3.

I never thought they’d pull Gleeson down, but they did. Charlotte Rampling was another one that feels like she’s only been in high brow stuff. Everybody has to cash a check once in a while.

Apparently, there is enough riding behind this one to push through at least one sequel. The director is actually interested to explore the cold war. If they let him come back, at least it won’t force some other director to take a dive for material that can only take you so far before it pulls you down into the pit of hitting the marks.

It’s the same kind of fate Michael Bay has been saving directors from since Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.

(*1/2 out of *****)

Forgotten Gems: One False Move (****1/2) is the Promise of a Future

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One False Move – 1992

Director Carl Franklin
Screenplay Billy Bob Thornton, Tom Epperson
Starring Bill Paxton, Cynda Williams, Billy Bob Thornton, Michael Beach, Earl Billings, Jim Metzler

One False Move is now seen as somewhat of a jumping off point in the career of Billy Bob Thornton. It is here we saw his first foray into writing after a young career of playing under-achievers. At the time, it was viewed, rightly, as a sort of graduation to the big time for actor turned director Carl Franklin.

In the process we see some evidence of relative inexperience with perspective. The arrival of Ray and Pluto to the party at the start of the film is an example. Awkward dancing, people plopped in front of another view, back to awkward dancing. It’s in this first act, however that we see his true skill. Tasked with seeking a young child that has been left undetected and must be taken care of, we see the child found, standing, whimpering in a back room. This little boy seems to be doomed as the lens begins to focus on him. The moment we think the dam is about to burst on his young life, the imagery changes to halfway across the country, to a different kind of childhood experience. It is an unforgettable experience that never fails to bring strong emotions.

The story starts in Los Angeles, where Fantasia (Williams) is an accessory to a drug robbery and 6 murders. The killers are her boyfriend Ray (Thornton) and Pluto (Beach). Ray is a blunt object, who seems only to know about 30 words, but uses them often. Pluto is more deliberate and obviously intelligent. He is the one with the plans for the ill-gotten loot. When things start to go bad, Ray thinks immediately of the small sum of cash and Pluto reveals the shortsighted nature of his thinking. Fantasia wants to go back home, and her partners seem to be agreeable to that idea, after they achieve a few things on a cross-country trip.

Police in Los Angeles quickly determine the three as suspects, though, and they determine through evidence left behind where it is that Fantasia is headed. They head there first and discover the small town of Star City has a sheriff (Paxton) of boundless energy and seemingly questionable intelligence. The interplay between Sheriff Dale “Hurricane” Dixon and his big city counterparts plays out differently than one would expect. Sure, Dixon is a good man who has a handle on what danger is for his part of the world. He seems to have little to no clue the horrors that are headed his way, though. And the fact that he hasn’t drawn his gun in 6 years doesn’t convince the L.A. cops that they want his help when the assailants arrive.

The contrast of the relationships of both sides of the law as the tension ratchets upon their pending convergence is handled expertly. The circumstances of the trio who are fleeing are such that we have sympathy for Fantasia, even as she descends from accomplice to full-fledged killer. It is a carefully layered evolution that never lets the viewer have the easy position, even as we move towards the conclusion.

Dixon is an equally complex character. Lingering looks give a hint to depth behind relatively innocent actions early on. As the moment draws near, we understand that the title of the movie plays a heavy role in a tragedy of Thomas Hardy-like proportions. This is the Bill Paxton performance, above all others, that made me a fan. Never before or since have I seen an actor who conveyed so much with his eyes.

There is a scene in a restaurant in the second act that brings every gift Paxton has to the fore. He stumbles across the Los Angeles policemen having a conversation over breakfast. That conversation is cruelly about him and their impressions of him as a true bumpkin of the highest order. Having made the mistake of confiding in one of the two earlier, that confidence is shattered, and he still has to work with these two. Everything shows in those eyes. And it isn’t even his best scene in the film.

Truly, this movie is Paxton’s finest two hours. He is shown in every light: a flawed hero yet to be tested. He’s doubted by those he admires, takes those who value him for granted. He has greatness in him, and secrets in his past that could destroy everything. Franklin is smart enough to realize that as good as the script is, Paxton is the best interpreter of the message Thornton and Epperson are trying to convey.

The script is a great one. The border of right and wrong is drawn obviously between factions, when in truth there is a lot of gray.

A few of the film’s drawbacks:

  • The limited variety of curse words (“God Damn It!” is used numerous times).
  • There are times when you can’t tell the difference between the person holding a VHS camera’s angle and that of the cinematographer.
  • The actors, even Billy Bob, just aren’t that good.

Overall, the film is a story that transcends time.  As Levon Helm stated in The Band’s remake of Springsteen’s Atlantic City, “There’s winners and there’s losers / And I’m south of the line…” One False Move shows us how the pieces move on either side of that line.

Kong: Skull Island (****) great taste and it’s sort of fulfilling

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Kong: Skull Island 2017

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Screenplay Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein, Derek Connolly
Starring Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, Brie Larson, Jing Tian, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Terry Notary, John C. Reilly

I was 5 years old when they released King Kong with Jeff Bridges and Jessica Lange. I saw later as part of  a drive in double bill with Orca, The Killer Whale. I must have thought enough of it then, because I got a lunch pail of the movie and carried it to school for half of my elementary school years. Watching it now I wonder how much the film must have been a torture for my parents to watch. It’s unbearable and quite impossible to imagine how it was nominated for any awards. It is quite easy to imagine why Lange took 3 years off before hitting the big screen again.

It was this film that was in my mind when I watched Peter Jackson’s overzealous 2005 take. I loved the film on the big screen, but it’s easy to overlook that unnecessary 1.5 extra hours when you are not sure when the next fight with another monster will occur. The effects were as excellent as one could expect. The dialogue, story and acting for everyone outside of Naomi Watts and Adrien Brody were all pretty bad.

When 2014 brought a new Godzilla and Legendary pictures moved the Kong franchise from Universal to Warner Bros., it was finally revealed that there would be a Monsterverse which would eventually bring Kong and Godzilla together after a few films.

So far, so good. Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla was the best version of the film in our generation, even if it wrought so much destruction as to be numbing. Now Voght-Roberts has made an accessible Kong without dragging the big ape’s ass back to the mainland. The best thing about it is, we know it can’t happen for at least another 40 years in cinematic time.

Kong’s Skull Island is the desired destination of Goodman’s Bill Randa, Special Government agent in the Monarch division. After convincing a senator (played by Richard Jenkins) to help him piggyback on an expedition to the secluded island, he also secures the services of a military unit on it’s way back from the freshly completed Vietnam action lead by United States Army Lieutenant Colonel Packard (Jackson). Then after securing Hiddleston as James Conrad, a former British Special Forces guide and Brie Larson as Mason Weaver, an “anti” war photographer, Randa and his partner Brooks (Hawkins)  head out.

Good God, those are a lot of characters. And that isn’t even the half of it. Even so, Gilroy, Connolly and Borenstein are able to successfully weave them into a story that is cohesive, comprehensible and doesn’t even skimp on the monsters.

That’s because we don’t waste that much time getting to the action. Everyone knows that they have to float to the island. We all know it’s shaped like a skull, sort of. Everyone knows there is an atmospheric cloud preventing the outside world easy access. Let’s get in there and start throwing bombs, dammit!

What we find out after the bombs fly is that big monsters don’t like bombs, and this island has a hollow core that hides things. There is some science behind it which makes sense to Randa and Brooks, but the important thing to remember is that it doesn’t take long after they start knocking for someone to answer the door in a bad mood.

This rough reception puts Kong at odds with Packer, who just lost one war and damn sure isn’t in the mood to lose another. The cast is split up though. So while Jackson and his military brethren try to recoup one of their lost compadres (and the weaponry nearby) the rest of the team goes about finding more about the island.

The first thing they discover are some natives. They all have paint on their faces and look like they haven’t bathed in a while. Reilly’s Marlow, a pilot shot down in WWII has gone even longer without bathing. Fortunately, he still speaks English enough to give Conrad and Weaver the lowdown.

In layman terms, Kong is good. Skullcrawlers bad. In case you have a hard time remembering, the latter have inset eyes that are almost invisible and Kong’s peepers are so deep and wide, one can almost imagine he’s going sing a sad song.

From here, we know the good guys have to find their way to the proverbial “rendezvous” point and there will be at least two or more attempts on Kong’s life, because…revenge.

It’s a good, if predictable movie about giant stuff in a lost world. None of the characters embarrass themselves and for such a large cast, we really get a sense of a lot of them, even if the growth is minimal.

If anything, we don’t see enough of Kong. After an amazing start, he is mainly around to drift in and out of the scenery until the last 15 minutes.The animation is quite remarkable, though, and thank God he doesn’t feel the need to start climbing when the bullets fly.

The true highlight of the film is clunky old Reilly. His inherent goofiness is a huge positive in that it brings out some personality in everyone else, including Hiddleston, who by now must have forgotten what it is like to play Loki.

The scenery is breathtaking, even if there is no real sense of direction in the film. The people cover so much terrain, one never knows if they are aware that it might be easier to always stay in near the boat.

There are many stories strewn throughout the wasteland of Skull Island. There is a point near the end, where we see a collection of ships that have been left abandoned there through hundreds of years. What happened to all of those people?  It would be nice to get a hint of just a few of those stories.

This one is going to have to do for now. It’s a good enough start that doesn’t overstay its welcome. This alone makes it the best one yet.

(**** out of *****)

Get Out (*****) is a throwback to another era

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Get Out – 2017

Written and Directed by Jordan Peele
Starring  Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Stephen Root, Lakeith Stanfield, Catherine Keener, Lil Rel Howery, Betty Gabriel and Marcus Henderson

The best thing Jordan Peele’s first film as director (and writer) has going for it is the soft racism of low expectations. People have blindly implied that the film is a study of racism in the liberal suburbs. While there are elements of racism peppered throughout, saying that it’s even half of what Peele is trying to accomplish is to assume everything a black director makes needs to be soaked in tales of racism woes. It is also completely missing the fact that this is a first rate thriller of epic proportions.

Chris (Kaluuya) is heading out of town to spend the weekend with his girlfriend of 4 (actually 5) months, Rose (Williams). There is a tension between them about the trip, because Rose is a white woman and Chris is a young black man. They have a conversation about this and eventually Chris is set at ease when Rose comes to his defense during an interaction with police on the way there.

Once there, the messages are definitely mixed. While her father awkwardly comes across as the liberal hipster guy who “definitely would have voted a third term for Obama,” there are enough signs around that things are definitely not as they should be. Peele is an expert at many levels here. While the peculiarities could be perceived as a racial tension between the folks who live and work there, they could also be explained away in an easy enough fashion as just people who are generally out of touch and a little goofy.

Through it all, Chris has interactions going back and forth with his friend Rod, a TSA agent who stayed back at home to watch the dog. After a strange interaction with Rose’s mother (Keener), Chris no longer has the desire to smoke, but has also begun to have strange dreams. What is going on with Chris? Just as  important, what is wrong with everyone else in Rose’s hometown?

The acting in the story is first rate.There is not one performance that doesn’t fit the mood of the story perfectly. Kaluuya is a British find who has been in enough things to be known, but not enough to be the household name that this film shows he deserves to be. His friend Howrey is delightful too, in a role that might be thankless or worse in an average thriller.

Williams shows some range as Chris’ girlfriend. How she navigates the changing situation for her boyfriend indicates someone of more depth than the role normally would entail. As her parents, Keener and Whitford work on every level. They are the people who are so smart and well off, they would be impossible to want to spend any time with even if they did like you, which it seems like they don’t. Or do they?

As somewhat strange servants in the house, Gabriel and Henderson provide the strongest current of feeling in the house. What the hell is with these two, who seem so happy and sad all at once? They provide the biggest scares just by making eye contact.

Peele shows himself to be a master of suspense in a nearly Hitchcockian way. He strikes so many chords with just the right touch, it keeps the viewer in suspense. Even if they think they know some of what is going on, there are enough elements, you won’t catch everything. This is the work of a truly skilled craftsman. I cannot wait to see what he does on his own in the future.

If you like mysteries, see this film. If you like character pieces, see this film. If you like playing against expectation, see this film. If you like being scared, see this film. If you like great movies, see this one.

(***** out of *****)

Logan (*****): Take a moment. Feel it.

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Logan – 2017

Director James Mangold
Screenplay Scott Frank, James Mangold, Michael Green
Starring Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Richard E. Grant, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant, Dafne Keen, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Eriq LaSalle, Elise Neal, Doris Morgado, David Kallaway, Han Soto, Jayson Genao and Krzysztof Soszynski

After grinding down so much earth into dust, they finally found a single diamond. Logan is the Wolverine our hearts always thought was there, even if we wasted many years wading through several mediocre movies to get to it. The X-Men universe was brought to a silly dead end last summer with Apocalypse. It was truly a movie that exemplified all that has been wrong with the film version of the hero troupe.

What should have been a crescendo of a decent second trilogy turned into another version of the Last Stand. Filled with colorful weirdos showing powers for no particular reason, we see parts of the planet destroyed and quickly repaired. No consequence and zero impression left.

To say that this movie was intended to counter that film would be cutting it short. Jackman has his own trilogy in the midst of the X-Men films, and in his own series, each film was better than the previous entry. It’s a sad truth, though, that many will find the entire series disposable prior to this opus.

The film starts in 2029 near El Paso, Texas. Logan is living on the wrong side of the border, mainly because he wants to stay hidden. He’s taking care of an aging and ever more erratic Charles Xavier (Stewart). Why? That’s for you to discover.

Adamantium is taking a toll on Logan’s healing powers. To the point that he carries around a bullet made of the stuff to just end it all sooner than later. He can’t end it though. One reason is Charles, who insists he’s been talking to a mutant. This is important because mutants are almost all completely wiped out.

The mutant he is talking to comes into their lives, even though the erstwhile Wolverine would prefer to just take his old friend and go out to sea. That ain’t gonna happen because X-23, or Laura (Keen), as she’s called, comes with some baggage.

Mangold and Jackman score quite a few home runs in this movie that pretends to be playing station to station. Stewart is a Godsend, as he makes even the silliest dialogue seem at once literate and heartfelt. This is nothing compared to what happens when Stewart is given some truly eloquent and memorable words to express.

As antagonist, Boyd Holbrook is an above average placeholder. There is nothing special about him, and this is a wise choice. They have other things to do in this film than to pretend that the bad guy in the ad has a chance.

I won’t say much about the other antagonists in the film, other than to say that the writers hate expositional explanations as much as old man Logan does. This is comes to a welcome relief.

Keen has an excellent, ravaging energy. She is berserk when she needs to be and definitely doesn’t waste words or screen time. Many in the theater really enjoyed her performance, laughing much and snickering as she attacked with ferocity any who crossed her. I found the performance impactful and there definitely were a few funny moments.

The key to Keen’s performance, though, is seeing how she, Stewart and Jackman play off of one another. There is little joy in Logan. For our older heroes, the entire exercise is a drawn out torture that is exacerbated when they see how easily she is drawn into conflict.

When lucid, Xavier believes she is a light in the world, capable of improving on what mutant kind was before now. Logan refuses to invest too much emotion in the little girl who so desperately needs to cling to something solid. Life is hell for her now, he knows. Why should he pretend it ever won’t be?

Clint Eastwood made a remarkable 2nd career out of playing the guy hobbled by age, injury and heartache. Hugh Jackman has always channeled a bit of Eastwood in his portrayals of Logan. This film is different. Jackman owns this version of The Wolverine and he treats it with the utmost care. His emotional range is beyond anything even Eastwood has done. One has no choice but to feel every blow Logan receives in this film. Neither his flesh nor his spirit is willing this time around. When he fights, he fights scared. But not scared stupid.

Jackman has never been better. Stewart has rarely reached this level. Keen is remarkable for such a relatively inexperienced actress. Any or all of the three deserve nominations for their performances here. I won’t hold my breath, though. If they didn’t reward Stallone for his portrayal of Rocky, the Academy will likely assume the Oscars are too good for this astounding film.

The carnage is breathtaking in Logan. There is much mutilation and severed limbs and heads. As bad as it is, it is matched unnecessarily with an over reliance on profanity. Yes, I know that is the image of The Wolverine comics, but moderation might have made a more distinct impression. I will say it does work in relation to Charles. Something must be wrong if that refined and dignified person is throwing curses like punches.

If you’ve skipped all of the X Men films after the 2nd, this might be a good place to pick up again. Heck if you skipped all of the films, but want to see an incredibly well played drama, partake in this feature. Much care went into this film, and it feels like everything is balanced on the edge of a knife. And then the knife slips and goes right through.

It’s worth all of the pain, just to know how Logan feels in the moment.

(***** out of *****)

I Don’t Have A Vote: The 89th Annual Oscars – You are ruining Everything

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89th Annual Oscars – You’re Ruining Everything

Save us, Jimmy Kimmel. Save us.

This year, with all that’s going on in the rest of the world, we need movies more than ever as a distraction. Awards shows in the modern era normally have a certain amount of politics thrown in, but Meryl Streep’s  flatulent performance at the Globes really ruined it for a lot of people, including our entire house. One can hope they don’t hand her a microphone this year, but this is unlikely.

My heart was set even further asunder when I saw how good a speech can be. George Kennedy is not everyone’s first thought as an Oscar winner. And that also included George Kennedy.

Could you imagine anyone winning the award Post Halle Berry handling it with such grace? It beats talking about saving the planet from climate change and then flying off in a lear jet to go spend time on one’s yacht any day.

My wife wants to skip it. My youngest daughter wants to watch Jimmy. So do I. Looks like we’re going to have to rely on our DVR so we can cut the crap and enjoy the crappy spectacle.

As a result of that one complete overindulgence, I nearly lost the will to tell you what I liked best this year. This is as close to forcing it as writing comes for me. There was some good things in the movies this year though, and I think we need to talk about it.

My pick for the best in film this year is a lot closer to what the Academy picked this year. I can almost see it from here when there are no clouds at night. It’s somewhere behind Pluto.

So I will give everyone my take on who I would have won the awards. Often it’s someone who isn’t on the board, and that is okay. This follows with who I think should win of the nominees. I hope you find some way to enjoy some movies that may not be mentioned at all tonight.

Best Film:

I gave my highest rating to Hacksaw Ridge, Fences,  The Girl With All The Gifts, Loving and Captain America: Civil WarArrival and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story almost got there, too. That’s a pretty good year. Of these films, the one that I think accomplished the most is McCarthy’s take on an apocalyptic vision. In under two hours we see one of the most brilliant philosophical musings about moving forward as a species ever placed in such a humble package. If you haven’t seen it and you can stomach a zombie film that discusses and understands Schrödinger’s Cat, you should.

Of the nominees:

I need to go with Fences. It’s the best of those films. La La Land will likely win. Most winners for best picture ended up being just above average (at ***1/2 stars) for me.

Best Director: 

Arrival accomplished the most amazing thing this year in its approach to sci-fi. We have as many heady subjects going on as are occurring in The Girl With All The Gifts, and most importantly, Villeneuve works carefully with his team to avoid any of the tropes that we see in even the best sci-fi. It’s lone weakness of circular logic is insignificant when one considers we are going back to the most basic form of communication to ponder some of the deepest philosophical and heart-wrenching truths of human existence. His work here, along with an incredibly dense (if short) career’s worth of work places him just above McCarthy.

Of the nominees: 

Villeneuve. Gibson has created a powerful film that seems at once of its time and timeless, but I have to defer to the power of Villeneuve’s simple choices.

Best Actor:

Andrew Garfield has a great performance as a man driven by impulses that many can’t understand. Denzel Washington has the kind of vulnerable performance that he’s never done before. My favorite performance of the year is Ryan Gosling in…The Nice Guys. I spent much of La La Land realizing how good he had been and subsequently went home and watched it again. His range therein moves from incomparable weenie, to overwrought widower, horrible father to great father. If there were ever a performer that completely absorbed Shane Black’s vision, this is it.

Of the nominees:

Garfield may never be nominated again, and it would be nice to see him win. But there is no way he was better than Washington.

Best Actress:

Sennia Nanua has what I consider the most memorable and poignant performance of the year. Her journey from complete innocence to an understanding of her role in the advancement of humanity is one that I will not forget.

Of the nominees:

I am so hopeful that Ruth Negga wins this category for Loving. Her performance is the best of those that I saw. What I have seen of Huppert’s performance in Elle intrigues me. WeMissE has me thinking I need to watch this film today. But dear God, whatever you do, don’t give this to Streep.

Best Supporting Actor: 

Russell Hornsby and Stephen Henderson keep coming to my mind for their divergent takes on the sons of Troy Maxson in Fences. Both present incredibly resonant reactions to a father who is different to both of them and continues to change. I didn’t expect to be so enamored with their bit roles, but they really help to bring the story into focus with their performances. No one can take this award from Mahershala Ali, though.

Of the nominees: 

Ali.I love Shannon. He really made chicken salad here. Bridges is great here, too. But he’s done this guy before, even if the ending of this film pushes him to another level.

Best Supporting Actress:

There really can be no other discussion beyond who is second best. Davis has this award locked and she deserves it. This is a performance of the ages.

Of the nominees:

Davis. Just don’t thank Meryl Streep.

Best Original Screenplay:

Hell or High Water has about the best ending of any film this year. The only one that was better is Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy’s Rogue One A Star Wars Story. It’s remarkable achievements include creating a cast of original characters, making A New Hope‘s weaknesses disappear, and adding to the mythology while detracting the dorkiness factor. It’s truly a remarkable achievement in a series I had given up on seeing a good script from.

Of the nominees:

La La Land has a good script, but of this group, the best one I have seen is Hell or High Water. Sheridan is on a roll.

Best Adapted Screenplay:

This truly is a race between Fences, The Girl with All the Gifts and Arrival. The difference here is that the former is almost entirely word for word from the original. There is no real adapting, because it is perfect the way it is. Arrival is has had some work done, but then there is that circular logic thing. I enjoy both of them so much, it’s literally a tossup. Either of them will not be forgotten. My pick is The Girl with All the Gifts. It’s an extraordinary story that could be understood by kids as well as adults, even if the subject matter can be gruesome.

Of the nominees: 

Same here, though I give Arrival a slight edge since Wilson has already taken home some pretty impressive accolades (including 2 Pulitzer Prizes, one for this) and he would not be around to pick up the trophy, since he passed 12 years ago.

Best Cinematography:

Arrival and La La Land are both fantastic in this category. Simon Duggan’s work in Hacksaw Ridge is extraordinary. The work that stands out for me is Ben Davis’ seamless blend of effects and imagery in Doctor Strange. It’s one thing to push forward the incredible work done in dimensional photography in Inception. It’s quite another to completely replicate the remarkable comic book look shot for shot.

Of the nominees: 

This is one category I think La La Land should win.

Best Animated Film:

Moana is another in the long line of Disney Princess films that will resonate for generations. Sure it misunderstands the purpose of promoting a woman is to make her look good without denigrating men, but damn the visuals are exquisite and the songs are catchy. Zootopia is a really good movie too, but it’s preaching so much, the good stuff is harder to detect while trying to weave out the bad. For this reason, I have to go with the art of Kubo and the 2 Strings.

Of the nominees:

Kubo

I don’t know if I will ever stop watching this celebration of movies. As bad as it usually is each year, it’s still the best thing we have to mark the passage of a year in the age of film. It really helps if Jimmy Kimmel is on his game, though. We need him more than ever this year.

 

 

WeMissE’s Annual Oscar Predictions

Can it really be Oscar weekend already?  It sure did creep up quickly this year.   I’m always excited for Oscar Sunday to arrive, and this year is no exception.  I have watched almost every movie in every category (with just a couple exceptions that I will point out) so I’m ready to dive right in to my predictions.

Best Picture:  La La Land

This is certainly not a lock.   Although Manchester by the Sea has seemingly lost traction in the last couple weeks, it could still win.  And Moonlight has been quietly gaining momentum.  Technically, I suppose we should throw Hidden Figures in the mix because it won the SAG for Best Ensemble, which can be a predictor in this category, as it was for Spotlight last year.  But to me that’s a long shot. Honestly, I would be happy with any of the either three winning, but I’m going to bet on the favorite.

Best Actor:  Denzel Washington, Fences

The two front-runners in this category are a study in contrast.  Casey Affleck’s performance in Manchester by the Sea is the slow burn of a man carrying an almost unbearable cross, while Denzel’s performance blazes like fireworks.  I’ve been a huge Affleck fan for years (I think he is a much better actor then brother Ben) and I would love to see him win here.  But he has been losing traction.  And unfortunately, the Academy often overlooks this kind of subdued performance.   Also, Denzel is simply astonishing.  He is the living embodiment of August Wilson’s character, and I think he’s going to take home his third statue, which puts him in some rarefied air.

Best Actress:  Emma Stone, La La Land

Honestly, I think Isabelle Huppert is probably the most deserving in this category, but I think it highly unlikely she will win, despite her Golden Globe victory.  Actors in foreign language films almost never win at the Oscars . Natalie Portman has been charging to the front if you believe the publicity, but I was not entirely taken with her performance.  Granted, it is a daunting task to take on such an iconic figure, at such an iconic time in her life.  I don’t know that anyone could have done it better.  She could walk away with it, but I’ll stick with Emma as my prediction.

Best Supporting Actor:   Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

Many of the prognosticators say this one is entirely up in the air, but it was one of the easiest picks for me.   Ali portrayed his character with honesty and immediacy.  He breathed life into every single scene he was in, and although he leaves the film far too soon, his impact is never forgotten.  He also won the SAG, which is a strong predictor.

Best Supporting Actress:  Viola Davis, Fences

This is the closest to a slam dunk in any of the acting categories this year.   I would be shocked if Viola didn’t win.  Michelle Williams is the closest competition, and she did have one incredibly powerful and moving scene in Manchester by the Sea (now that I think about it I would go so far as to say it’s an unforgettable scene) but Viola’s performance is one for the ages.

Best Director:  Damien Chazelle, La La Land

Another sure thing.  Damien is the clear front runner, and his win at the Director’s Guild Awards  makes an Oscar win all the more likely.

Animated Feature:  Zootopia

Zootopia has swept all the major awards shows already, making it the clear favorite.  Honestly, I really enjoyed four of the movies in this category (I did not see My Life as a Zucchini, and not for lack of trying).  The Red Turtle may be my personal favorite, but it doesn’t stand a chance.

Cinematography:   La La Land

So, all five of the movies in this category look fantastic.  And I could see Arrival or Moonlight  possibly pulling off the upset.  But really, La La Land has a fantastic look.  The lighting is phenomenal.   The hilltop dance sequence alone  pushes it ahead of the pack.

Costume Design:  La La Land

If you look at past winners in this category, you will see that period films are favored.  However, the contemporary film is the front runner.  I think Fantastic Beasts could possibly pull off an upset.  Jackie is interesting; the clothes look great,  but it’s more a case of re-creation than design.  La La Land already won the Costume Designer’s Guild award, so I’ll stick with the favorite.

Documentary Feature:    13th

OK.  So this is the first category I really struggled with.  All five nominations were  good.  They were all powerful and informative.  O.J.: Made in America could very easily win here.  My only problem with that is that this was designed as a TV miniseries.  It only earned the nomination here because it was screened in a couple of theaters to make the cut.  Nobody went to the movies and watched all 7 hours of this.  I could make a solid case for all five films, and if you haven’t watched a lot of documentary films, I would encourage you to give one a try.   The reason I am going with 13th is because it is timely, and because the director Ava DuVernay was (unjustly, I believe) shut out of the Best Director category for Selma two years ago.

Documentary Short Subject:  Joe’s Violin

Three of these shorts deal with the migrant crisis in Europe, and if people are influenced by politics in their voting  then expect White Helmets, which is about the Syrian Civil Defense  to win.   It is a good short film (you can stream it on Netflix now), but the most moving, inspiring story to me is the one about a Holocaust survivor donating his WWII violin to a resource-strapped girl’s school in NYC.  If I’ve learned one thing in this category, it’s vote with your heart.

Film Editing:   Arrival

The Editor’s Guild split their awards into categories for drama and comedy/musical, just like the Golden Globes.  So Arrival won for drama and La La Land won for comedy or musical.  La La Land is actually favored by many pundits, but I’m going to predict a win for Arrival, which is likely to get shut out in the other categories for which it is nominated.

Foreign Language Film:  A Man Called Ove

This is really a three film race.  Toni Erdmann was the early front runner.  The Salesman has come on strong of late, in large part because of Iranian director Asghar Farhadi’s decision to boycott the ceremony.   The Salesman is a good film, and Farhadi a good director who has already won in this category just five years ago for A Separation.   Once again, if people allow politics to sway their vote,  The Salesman could easily win.  As I said, it is a really good film, but I have all my fingers and toes crossed for Sweden’s A Man Called Ove.  Not only is it the best foreign film, but one of the best films of the year, period.  (If you aren’t allergic to subtitles, you can stream it on Amazon for only 99 cents.  Take a chance, it’s worth it.)

Makeup and Hairstyling:   A Man Called Ove

Star Trek Beyond is far and away the front runner here.  And it certainly could win.  There are three reasons I’m going against it.  One:  the first Star Trek  reboot just won in this category 8 years ago.  Two:  A Man Called Ove is the only film in this category to be nominated in another category,  which generally bodes well here.   Three:  Ove contains the kind of brilliant makeup work that is hiding in plain sight.

Music (Original Score):  La La Land

I quite enjoyed Moonlight‘s score, but really, is there anyway the musical is going to lose in a music category?  This is as close to a lock as you are going to find on your ballot.

Music (Original Song): “City of Stars”, La La Land

The only question here is which of the two songs from La La Land will win.  Could they cancel each other out, allowing Lin Manuel Miranda to sneak in and seal the victory with his “How Far I’ll Go”, from Moana?  Possibly.  I’ll stick with the Stars.

Production Design:  La La Land

This is another category where you can make a strong case for all five films.    I’m going to stick with the leader of the pack, although it wouldn’t hurt my feelings if any of the other films won.

Short Film (Animated):  Piper

This is one of the categories I really look forward to every year.  There is generally  a broad range of talent and creativity.  This year, I was underwhelmed by most of the entries.  I did enjoy Pearl, and actually would be happy if it won.  But I think you can count on Pixar to chalk up another win in this category.  Piper is the short that played before Finding Dory.

Short Film (Live Action):  Ennemis Interieurs

I enjoyed four of the movies in this category.  My only hope is that Denmark’s entry, Silent Nights, does not win.  It is an emotionally pandering look at the current refugee crisis in Europe.  Ennemis Interieurs is just the opposite.  In this age when so many conversations are politicized and partisan, it was nice to see a scene with two characters with opposing views, each of whom has a valid perspective.   It makes a strong point at the end as well.  The other entries were all good.  Overall I really enjoyed this category, and would be happy with any of the other films winning.  I would encourage you to seek out the short films if you haven’t watched them before.

Sound Editing:  Hacksaw Ridge

War films tend to do well in this category, and this is likely to be Hacksaw’s only real shot at an Oscar.

Sound Mixing:  Hacksaw Ridge

La La Land is the favorite in this category, but I’m going to go out on a limb and take Hacksaw.  You can’t pick the favorite all the time if you want to win an Oscar pool.  Too, I’m really hoping that Kevin O’Connell (21 nominations, 0 wins) can break his unlucky streak and win for Hacksaw Ridge.

Visual Effects:  The Jungle Book

There are a lot of great effects in this category.  But Jungle Book is far and away the favorite, because those animals just look so darn real!

Writing (Adapted Screenplay):   Moonlight

This is a very strong category, but look for Moonlight to pick up perhaps its only Oscar of the night in this category.

Writing (Original Screenplay):  Manchester by the Sea

I think this may be one of the rare categories where La La Land is edged out.  First off, Manchester is a fantastic screenplay.  Second, it is unlikely to win in any other category.  Third, it is an opportunity to still recognize director Kenneth Lonergan with an Oscar, since he also wrote the film.  And Lonergan is well liked.

That’s all folks!  Except for my one gripe about the major snub to Sing Street, which should have got an original song nomination.  Also Hugo Weaving for Best Supporting Actor in Hacksaw Ridge, and Hugh Grant in Florence Foster Jenkins, and…all right, I’ll stop!

Well there you have my 24 predictions.  What do you think?

 

Moana (****1/2) continues to change the game for Princesses

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Moana – 2016

Directors Ron Clements and John Musker
Screenplay Jared Bush
Starring (Voices)  Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson, Rachel House, Temuera Morrison, Jemaine Clement, Nicole Scherzinger, Alan Tudyk

Lin-Manuel Miranda is everything right now in the world of show music, and that certainly was the predominant word rushing through early buzz of Moana. Luckily, when one sees the film, it’s not the only thing that anyone will remember. Based on Polynesian history and legend, in which story creators Clements and Musker discovered that the culture stopped travelling about 3000 years ago. Then about 1000 years later, they started up again. Early versions of the story centered around the character of demi-god Maui (Johnson), but the winds of Disney change caught on.

Now we get a young teenage princess (Cravalho) with her pet chicken Heihei (Tudyk) who is destined to redeem the sins of the afore-mentioned Maui. He stole the heart of the island Goddess Te Fiti to bring it to humanity as a gift. Kind of like he envisions he is. If Gaston had some charm, he’d be Maui. Oh and yeah, she says she isn’t a princess. Maui dispenses with that faulty logic with one of the films many clever lines:

If you wear a dress and have an animal sidekick, you’re a princess.

Moana is the daughter of the chief (Morrison) of a small Polynesian Island Motunui and she dreams of life beyond the reef. Her grandmother (House) encourages the dreams, but her father thinks it’s foolish. Upon her Grandma’s dying wish Moana makes her escape and comes across Maui, who has been stranded on an island for a millenia. Before the film falls into the familiar rhythm of so many Disney movies that preceded it, we are reminded that Maui is brash and stubborn in his insistence that he has done nothing wrong. Oh, and he’s a little scared.

Moana isn’t scared though. She’s a girl. And this time around, the girl doesn’t need a man to finish the job so she can fall in love with him.

Moana the film is beautiful in much the same way that Tangled is in its palate of deep resonate colors that jump off of the screen. One could watch this movie 1000 times and still not catch up with the detail imbued within the frame. It’s the most beautiful film of 2016.

The characters and situations are memorable. Heihei, as dumb as the chicken is portrayed, has a usefulness that is endearing and never detracts from the film as so many sidekicks in Disney films have in the past. Johnson excels in a role that allows him to be as manly as we all know he is, but still play second fiddle to a girl on a journey to find herself.  If only they could find a way to make him heroic without being foolish and still have room for Moana’s heroism, too.

Similarly effective are the various nemeses that they encounter. The giant coconut crab, Tamatoa (Clement) has a humorous number. The best part of the film is the chase scene involving scads of pirate coconut clad creatures called the Kakamora. It’s a brief interlude, but without a doubt, the best thing in the film. We need more Kakamora.

Moana is a worthy discovery for Disney. For once, we have a Princess character whose voice and body can’t fit into the mold of all the others before her. This is a great thing. She looks Polynesian. She sounds Polynesian. She still dreams her dreams like Disney, but she doesn’t need a man to save the day.

Cravalho does a great job singing various renditions of the centerpiece song How Far I’ll Go. She is, more importantly, the actual age of the hero she portrays. This is great because there is no question mid way through the story, she and Maui are not going to be an inevitable couple. Maui is too old and they don’t go creepy on this one. I am not sure how much farther we go with the story of Moana, but hopefully she continues to find a way to mine her talents.

Get used to hearing the soundtrack, because once the movie is released on home video no one is going to be able to avoid it in any house with kids under 10. Johnson’s You’re Welcome is a great farce and he has a good singing voice. The only place it falters is the song Moana does with her grandma’s ghost. It meanders like something from Into the Woods. They stay centered around How Far I’ll Go, for the most part and it works as an inspirational theme.

There is a recipe out there somewhere to make a valiant woman’s story without sacrificing her male counterpart. They almost made it here, but the “let me clean up your mess” feeling of the story doesn’t quite make it. Still, it’s message is good enough to accompany it’s remarkable visuals. I am going to assume no one will need to say “she persisted” someday. They will just say the protagonist persisted.

(****1/2 out of *****)

Train to Busan (****) Next Stop, South Korea

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Train to Busan – 2016

Director Yeon Sang-ho
Screenplay Lee Dong-ha
Starring Gong Yoo, Ma Dong-seok, Jung Yu-mi, Kim Su-an, Kim Eui-sung, Choi Woo-shik, Ahn So-hee, Ye Soo-jung, Park Myung-sin

My wife and my daughter have spent much of the past year immersing themselves in K-Drama and (for my daughter) K-Pop. In the same manner that once one is made aware of the existence of something, it seems like one sees it everywhere, I have begun to notice the world buzzing about South Korea’s contributions to the entertainment zeitgeist.

One of the names that has consistently risen to the top has been Train to Busan, a zombie flick that has infected on the train and even more off. While it does nothing to reinvent the genre – and isn’t even the best of the last year – it’s still pretty good.

One of the things going for it is the cast. Yoo and Dong-seok have a presence that is immediately recognizable. Dong-seok especially adds manliness (to all of the situations they face) and vulnerability (to his wife) in each scene.Yu-mi rises above the rest as Dong-seok’s pregnant wife. No sympathy points or feigned tears. She really pushes through.

Two performers I really enjoyed were two little old lady sisters, played by Soo-Jung and Myung-sin. Their trajectory affects the film in a subtle, but important way. It may be the performances, but just as likely the direction that makes it so effective.

One thing that brings pause, however, is the inordinate number of characters (especially teenage males) that are crying in an extremely exaggerated manner. It’s a little disconcerting, and I wonder if it is a cultural thing. I saw Chan Ho Park do it quite loudly and openly while being taken out of a minor league baseball game many years ago. The important thing is that Dong-seok didn’t pull any of that nonsense.

Sang-ho has a true artist’s touch for many scenes. His perspective allows him to borrow ideas from other films and make it seem unique. This is especially noticeable in two scenes involving the engine car in the last act.

Train to Busan is a good introduction to South Korean cinema, for those who haven’t seen Snowpiercer. To be sure, though, Snowpiercer was really a movie of the world. I don’t know much about South Korean films, but if they are this good, I will be watching more.

(**** out of *****)