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?

 

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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 *****)

Hacksaw Ridge (*****) So many ways to serve

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Hacksaw Ridge – 2016

Director Mel Gibson
Screenplay by Andrew Knight, Robert Schenkkan
Starring Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, Vince Vaughn

There are very few war films I have seen that are this violent: the opening of Saving Private Ryan comes to mind. If ever one wanted to show the horror and glory in war, Mel Gibson has done it. In telling the story of Desmond Doss, a 7th Day Adventist who served with distinction in the Second World War, we see a glorious example of serving God and man without short shifting either.

Gibson’s style is at once simple and grand, gentle and wretched. I can’t recall the last time I saw such straightforward characterizations. The men on the screen are at once distinct and of their time.They border on parody when we first meet them, until one realizes that Americans in World War II has considerably less comfortable cynicism than we enjoy today.

Then there is Doss, who would seem peculiar at any time in history. He’s enthusiastic, optimistic and dedicated to honoring God and his country at once. These things converge for him in  a way different from most. He wants to serve America by being a medic, but does not want to learn how to fire a weapon. The logic is sound even if religion were not involved. Why would a medic want to see anyone hurt?

Garfield is excellent at capturing the depth of a man who seems at peace with the fact that most of the world does not understand his perspective. He’s not an asshole about it either. If they ask, he explains it in simple terms because he thinks quite literally. He is no fool, but his enthusiasm reminds of one who is unencumbered by the rationalizations most people put for their version of understanding the Bible.

Since when did sound logic make anyone popular? Doss suffers immeasurably through boot camp, but he always keeps moving forward. This punishment is endorsed by his Sergeant Howell (Vaughn) and his Captain Glover (Worthington). While not inherently cruel men, they see it as a matter of life and death for the other men that someone on their side won’t pick up a gun to defend them. They don’t see defense in any other capacity or possibility. So myopic is our own perspective at times.

Gibson doesn’t handle the process of mind expansion with any amount of hugging and learning moments. There will be plenty of men who die not knowing the true value of having a peaceful warrior on their side. There are even some who marvel while he is helping them that Doss would also take the time to help injured enemy combatants. He see’s life as life. They see some as right and some as wrong. It’s a worthy achievement that in a story celebrating this man’s achievements Gibson is wise enough to show that some of them will not ever be valued by the people with whom Doss served.

Back to the violence. There are at least two ways to see a war film. Philosophically and realistically. Sometimes one way informs the other. Only by seeing how brutal and horrific the circumstances were can we understand the true bravery of all soldiers. We also are served as a warning to those who think War is something done “over there” with no consequence to most people. It’s one thing to understand war in an intellectual way. It’s another when you experience viscerally at the base level.

The detail that Gibson puts into the battle scenes is legendary. This is above the level even of Braveheart. The strange thing is, for all of the meticulous attention paid to every action above the ridge, the wig applied to Doss’ girl back home (Palmer) is laughably bad.It seems such an easy thing to get right comparatively.

That’s a small quibble though. This is a great film, if you can stomach something as graphic as The Passion of the Christ. It’s done in an equally sacred manner, if you value life. To see lives so easily lost, you will be more heartened to find a man running all through the night, praying for the strength to save “just one more.”

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

Fences (*****) is powerful, unlimited

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Fences – 2016

Director Denzel Washington
Screenplay August Wilson
Starring Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Saniyya Sidney

Some people build fences to keep people out, and other people build fences to keep people in.

There is a bushel of truth to be gleaned from observing the lives intersecting inside of Fences. There is almost certainly as much bullshit, too. The start of the film has an extremely flawed protagonist Troy Maxson (Washington) coming home from work with his friend Jim Bono (Henderson). Troy is spilling out the stories as fast as he can. Once in a while, Jim will point out little truths about Troy. Troy brushes them aside in time for them to arrive at his home and starts up with the bullshit stories again, this time with his loving wife Rose (Davis) jumping in and out of them with her own tolerant asides to the story. Troy’s stories are not complete fabrications. We get nuggets of true feeling scattered throughout. Even Rose knows to dust a little here and there. All parties know not to damage the illusion of happiness though.

Soon we see Troy’s son – Lyons (Hornsby) from his first marriage, before he spent 15 years in prison. Lyons wants to borrow some money from Troy. Troy is filled with indignant bluster. Rose gives it to Lyons. Troy’s relationship with Lyons could use some work that only a woman who is not his mother is willing to put in. This is a bad sign, but not nearly as bad as what is going on with Troy and Rose’s son, Cory (Henderson). Cory is a star athlete for his high school, and he’s getting some looks by colleges for a possible scholarships. Troy puts pressure on Cory to hold a job, go to high school and work around the house before he can play football, and is ready to pounce when he makes a choice to consolidate any of the options to focus on another. That Troy was once a baseball prospect himself before the leagues were integrated has something to do with this vitriol. Not knowing how to count his blessings and be supportive is another.

We also meet Troy’s brother, Gabriel, who suffered an injury in the Second World War. This injury has made him daft, but it also allowed a settlement that allowed Troy to buy a down payment on the house that he’s been paying on ever since. This was a source of concern for Troy when he had Gabriel living with him. It’s a source of embarrassment now that Gabriel decided he wanted to live down the street.

Troy is a classic Greek figure. He is king of his fragile domain and has a weary hold on what little he has been able to put together from scratch. He is on the verge of making a breakthrough in life when he makes a decision that begins to tear it all down.

It is then that we discover the true backbone of the story and the kingdom, now in shambles, has been Rose all along. Her work has been taken for granted, and so has her heart. She is bigger than Troy, though, in almost every measure.

Washington is as brave an actor as we have been blessed with in many generations. Here he is no different. His choice to absorb the flawed protagonist and make him good, but not all the way good is gutsy. Even more a risk is to allow him to be honest enough to embrace his faults, but not wise enough to understand his true purpose as a husband and a father. Troy is like many men I have known – including my father. He’s a man with faults I also struggle to overcome.

Washington’s best move – hands down – is giving the role of Rose to another of our greatest actors. Davis completely absorbs the role of the woman taken for granted. The breadth of her pain and despair is etched upon every line of her face and captured in the small of her back when she leans over in between chores. I have known this woman in my life, too. It wouldn’t be tough to guess of whom I might be speaking.

The conflict between Troy and his children – as well the constant salve being applied by Rose – gives another powerful demonstration of a truism that doesn’t have to be true. He won’t commit to a relationship with one. He is overbearing to the point of cruelty with another. He is too late for all of them. Who hasn’t felt this as a child and later wondered if they’ve repeated the mistake as a parent?

The rest of the cast is stellar and the story is exceptionally told. If there is a weakness, it’s in the obvious feel of a play rather than a film. This can be forgiven, though. Most probably would not have seen it otherwise. This is definitely one of the best films of the year, with a story that needs to be told, until men can learn from mistakes they see rather than just the ones they make themselves.

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

The Lego Batman Movie (***1/2) is rife with life, the universe, everything

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The Lego Batman Movie – 2017

Director Chris McKay
Screenplay  Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Jared Stern, John Whittington
Starring (Voices)  Will Arnett, Zach Galifianakis, Michael Cera, Rosario Dawson, Ralph Fiennes

It’s not as much a movie as a celebration of all things insanely tangential. The references are so thick you can go 2 seconds before getting another one. Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent / Two Face? Really?  Are you kidding?

Sure, we have Batman (Arnett) and Joker (Galifianakis) playing the bromance card harder than ever before. There is finally a Robin (Cera) who is a dream for everyone who wanted to yell at how odd the whole thing between he and Bruce Wayne feels. Barbara Gordon (Dawson) literally throwing her weight around. And do they ever get Alfred (Fiennes) wrong? They sure don’t miss a beat here.

It’s the type of film one could watch 100 times and find 1000 different things to enjoy or to be awed by. Even then, it’s more of a collection of moments than it is a film. There is the barest amount of hugging and learning. Thankfully everyone is laughing at romance all the way through.

The film is really a continuation of Arnett’s brilliant take on the caped crusader that we first saw in The Lego Movie in 2014. We get to see nicer versions of all of the bad guys and then let chaos abound. The dynamic between the principals is enough to keep the film’s plot above sea level. So confident were they in their choice for Barbara, I don’t think I have ever seen so much Batgirl in a film before.

It’s not a lot to go on, story wise, but it’s a ton of references that may not ever get old. A metric ton in scripter body weight can do that for you.There may be no issues with rewatch value here, but I think they’d be pushing it to make a second film. It feels like they poured everything into this one, along with way too much caffeine for the creators.

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

Nocturnal Animals (*) is weak

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Nocturnal Animals – 2016

Written and Directed by Tom Ford
Starring Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen

Nocturnal Animals is the kind of story shared by people I will never be associated with in real life. I suppose this would not inherently make their viewpoint any less valid to me. That they don’t know how to tell their story effectively might, though.

It’s the kind of story where someone leaves an abortion clinic after having the procedure performed and then tells the person she is having an affair with that she is “Catholic and I don’t even believe in abortion.”

She is Susan (Adams), a “debutante” like her mother (Linney). At one point, she married her college sweetheart, Edward (Gyllenhaal) and tried to deny her true self. Even if she was not artistic, she could appreciate someone who was, right? Wrong. Her mother told her it was wrong in one of many poorly played out scenes at a fancy restaurant. She resisted for a while, then she ended up with Hutton (Hammer) after breaking it off with Edward and killing their baby.

Years later, after having a child of their own who is now full grown, Susan and Hutton are breaking apart. Edward sends Susan a manuscript out of nowhere and she begins to read it. What follows are scenes truly worthy of the MST3K treatment. There are so many boring shots of Susan reading Edwards story in any of a variety of comfortable rooms, it lampoons itself.

Meanwhile, the story she reads is preposterous. A family of 3, driving on a seemingly desolate road, are accosted by three random rednecks. Gyllenhaal is a father figure here named Tony. He has another red head (Fisher) as his wife and they have a daughter that has red hair too. This is curious to no one. It’s obvious what they are meant to represent. Anyone that doesn’t know what happens when rednecks come across families at night on a desert road in a movie can keep watching, if they can make it through. If they do, they deserve a reward. They won’t get one.

Tony ends up working with Detective Andes (Shannon) to find the rednecks afterword. That Shannon is nominated for supporting actor is not surprising. He truly made bad dialogue and a worse premise sing. He should not win for this garbage of a film, though.

Ford’s incompetent storytelling lays waste to the best efforts of Gyllenhaal. Rarely have I seen him try so hard and come up with so little. Adams is horrible. It could be this performance that kept her from her nomination worthy performance in Arrival. Everyone else in this movie come across like mannequins reading bad dialogue. That’s the best I can give it.

Ford has no talent that I can see for the art of movie making. Most of his shots come across like those awkward photos of kids in the 70’s when you get the front view and a soft side view in one shot. It’s supposed to be poignant and deep. It only produces awkward chuckles.

(* out of *****)

The Founder (****) gives a decent take on who built that

the-founderThe Founder – 2016

Director John Lee Hancock
Screenplay by Robert D. Siegel
Starring  Michael Keaton, Nick Offerman, John Carroll Lynch, Linda Cardellini, Patrick Wilson, B. J. Novak, Laura Dern

If someone ever wanted to know exactly how it was two brothers making burgers in a humbly magnificent San Bernardino restaurant translated to the world’s most well known restaurant, this comes pretty close. It definitely piqued my interest, and then held it for its entire running time. Then, like the fast food itself, left me wanting more.

Ray Kroc (Keaton) is a miserable travelling salesman who constantly feeds himself motivational information as he goes from town to town pushing milkshake mixers. After getting a large order, he investigates the company. He discovers Dick and Mac McDonald (Lynch and Offerman), who have fashioned an incredibly efficient method for pushing out a simple menu at a profit. After some back and forth, he gets them to agree on the concept of franchising.

Success does not come instantly for Kroc in his venture. The brothers, especially Mac, are resistant to changes to their formula. In fact, they say no to just about everything. Kroc perseveres through a willingness to change, force of his own will and a fortuitous meeting or two. Two things Hancock and Siegel make sure of in this version of the story is that the success is definitely his, along with the sins.

The structure of the story at first is extremely compelling. Keaton, Lynch and Offerman do a great job of representing their respective viewpoints. We also get a passing view of Ray and his first wife, Ethel (Dern) as they (mostly she) struggle to keep the relationship together. Once we see Linda Cardellini as Joan, it’s pretty clear that this won’t happen.

Things really start picking up when he is overheard at a bank by Harry Sonneborn (Novak). Once Harry is in Ray’s ear, we see how all of his truly ambitious work can be made into a truly unique American success story.

At different points in life, I may have experienced this movie differently. At this point, I think I see it as the director and writer may have intended. Ray was not a really nice guy, but the McDonald brothers did not really lose anything by partnering with him. They were playing two different games. What’s equally amazing is considering the fact that Kroc didn’t even meet the brothers until late in his floundering career. It’s truly an amazing story from that perspective.

Just at the pinnacle of Kroc’s success, the story immediately gives out. We hear nothing of substance in the company’s growth to a worldwide phenomenon. In this manner, the makers were staying in the bounds of their story, that being the contrast between the low-key brothers and the higher energy businessman that ran away with their name and their formula for fast food.

I wish they could have stretched this out to perhaps another film or at least another hour, beyond the reach they allowed themselves. In this way, the movie feels a lot like that restaurant in San Bernardino. It’s fine start, but this story is worth a franchise.

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

The Secret Life of Pets (***1/2) and Sing (*1/2) shows Illumination is just pumping them out there regardless of quality

secret_life_of_petsThe Secret Life of Pets – 2016

Directors  Chris Renaud, Yarrow Cheney
Screenplay by  Brian LynchCinco PaulKen Daurio
Starring (voice) Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, Steve Coogan, Albert Brooks

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Sing – 2016

Written and Directed by Garth Jennings
Starring (voice)  Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Seth MacFarlane, Scarlett Johansson, John C. Reilly, Taron Egerton, Tori Kelly

Pixar has been in the sequel age for a few years. Disney’s picking up their slack though. Dreamworks had a good run that has begun to slow down in the last few years. On the other hand, Illumination finally started putting out product that wasn’t related to Despicable Me in the last 4 years. Don’t worry, though, the movies were a success and will each have a sequel by 2020. By then we’ll have had another Despicable Me and one more take on The Grinch.

The two films this year, Pets and Sing, are pretty similar in terms of animated artistry. The visuals are distinct and cute. But not too cute. Research must have told them how much ugly is the right amount. The stories couldn’t be any more different.

First of all, The Secret Life Of Pets, is a pleasant surprise that filled the gap left in the summer for those who wanted to watch something after Finding Dory. The story is about 2 dogs who we’ll call Woody and Buzz. Woody has the best life with his owner fellow neighbor pets until his seeming nemesis, Buzz, comes along. They fight until they both get lost and it takes a concerted effort to get everyone back together again before the misunderstood miscreants ruin everything.

Woody and Buzz in this case are Max (C.K.) and Duke (Stonestreet). Their friends, while unremarkable, provide enough grist to get to the most entertaining parts of the film in Snowball (Hart), who is best described as a psychotic bunny, and Pops (Carvey) who reigns as a sort of unwieldy godfather type. Despite the obvious references to the superior Toy Story, it’s still above average with more than a few memorable moments.

Sing is another matter. Trying so hard to represent everyone that feels forgotten, it’s worse than forgettable. It’s maudlin. The story involves a group of misfits who tryout for a Muppets style show, but then have to settle for…a more Muppety kind of show. These Muppets are not at all interesting. Who they are, why they are there and what happens matters less than zero. In fact, the animation far outstrips anything you hear in the movie.

The vocal talent for Pets is superior, mostly for the inclusion of Louis C.K., Stonestreet, Slate and Carvey. Brooks makes a nice appearance as a bird of prey who’s fighting that urge for the prospect of gaining a friend. I know that McConaughey and Witherspoon are in Sing, but I can’t tell you how the movie is any better for it. Seth MacFarlane’s slightly sinister mouse Mike is the most memorable character that doesn’t beg for sympathy or laughs.

The animation for both is really neat. I was in awe of some of the scenery, and it really looks like Illumination is learning how to show off their talent without making it obvious. Duke’s flowing hair would have been awful a few years ago. Now he’s a wonder.

It’s plain that Illumination is banking on a distinct visual flair while sacrificing originality of story (and, in Sing’s case, distinct vocal talent). There are worse films out there, but it all makes me happy that my youngest one is 10 and I will likely be skipping more of the automatic animation viewing destinations in the future.

(***1/2 out of *****) The Secret Life of Pets
(*1/2 out of *****) Sing

Split (***) falls short of its potential

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Split – 2017

Written and Directed by M. Night Shyamalan
Starring James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Haley Lu Richardson, Jessica Sula

For a guy who 15 years ago was all about potential to have gone through the ringer to eventually come to a film that is itself the very description of potential is saying something. I am just not sure what it is trying to say.

Taylor-Joy plays Casey, who along with two friends is kidnapped and brought to a secret hideout. Their captor, known to the world as Kevin Wendell Crumb (McAvoy) is someone who suffers from multiple personality disorder. This manifests itself in 23 different personages residing within his person. They are working in concert in preparation for a 24th.

Her co-captives (Richardson and Sula), already uncomfortable with Casey, are even more put off by her decision not to work with them in an effort to escape. More contemplative, Casey recognizes early on the true nature of her kidnapper. During this time, the viewer is given glimpses into Casey’s past, which is nearly as horrific as her present.

Kevin is working with a psychologist named Dr. Karen Fletcher (Buckley). She suspects there is something going on as Kevin keeps asking to meet with her. She is unable to piece it together until she gets an epiphany.

Things progress in an entertaining pace for the first 50 minutes, if for no other reason than Taylor-Joy and Buckley. Taylor-Joy gives such foreboding as to make one wonder who is really in danger as she keeps her reactions mostly under the vest. Indeed, it’s almost like she’s weighing her options of staying versus escaping. In two films, Anya Taylor-Joy has shown as much depth as an actress her age since Kate Winslet.

Good Lord, but it’s nice to see Betty Buckley has still got it going on. She has the presence of  a master, and it’s clear to see that she spends her time between gigs teaching the craft. Her inclusion within the story gives the character a depth that might be missing from your average supporting actor. We get a real inquisitive nature, a desperation to be taken seriously and concern for the welfare of each party at once with her portrayal. It is a dimension that would be easy to overlook, but Shyamalan does not.

It is unfortunate that Joaquin Phoenix was unable to work out a schedule to play as Kevin. As it stands, MCavoy is passable, but we get only 8 characters out of him and most of them are not different enough to register in the amount of time allotted. I nearly decided against watching the film after seeing the trailer enough to grow tired of Hedwig.

Shyamalan has trudged through Hollywood obscurity for many years to get back to the point where a film of his is considered a hot property.  He seems to have struck a chord here, but for me the story is a half step back of his last venture, The Visit. It definitely keeps one watching until the end, and it feels like he’s having fun making movies again.

Overall, it’s the very last scene that will keep people from forgetting this film. Even so, the payoff for the characters is underwhelming. While it’s easy to have low expectations from the obvious hint of future films in this universe, I am willing to see where it goes.

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