The Oscars : 2016

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The Oscars were riddled with some serious controversy this year, sparking a change in the Academy’s selection process for membership. For thoughts on that whole debacle, CLICK HERE

Now, the awards. I’ve been saying this for 3 years running now but I will say it once again, THIS IS NOT A PREDICTIONS LIST. This “ballot” is movies which I believe should win the Oscar for their respective categories. I will, in passing, refer to the movies and people I think will win, but those are not as important. The main thing that I want to note is that for the Short Film categories, I have watched only a few of those movies, so those will be mostly uneducated picks..

For reference (click the link, in italics) here is my Oscar picks post from last year.

ONTO THE NOMINATIONS!

Non-Feature Categories

Best Live Action Short Film: Day One (blind guess)

This one sounds the most interesting. Day One is about a soldier working for the U.S. Army who must deliver a new-born child to the wife of an enemy bomb-maker. Very problematic, very perfect for the politically charged Oscar voter crowd.

Best Animated Short FilmSanjay’s Superteam (Only one Ive watched)

Pixar’s latest cutesy short film comes with a twist. This one is about an Indian boy who’s strict religious father forbids him from engaging in fantasy day-dreaming and fun at the detriment of his religious duties. It’s the only animated short film I actually saw so far, so it’ll get my vote.

Best Documentary Short SubjectA Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness

An incredibly harrowing story, this doc is about honor killings in Pakistan. The documentary has created such a stir and such an outcry over the barbaric and storied ritual that has existed in the country for a long time, that it is actually kickstarting a movement to ban all honor killings in Pakistan and has ever gotten a number of other legislative policy reforms under way in the country. Be on the look out for if they are followed through.

The “Other Best Pictures”

Best Foreign Language Film: Son of Saul (dir. Laszlo Nemes – country, Hungary)

This one was a lock for a long time now, but with the Oscars Foreign Film category, the most weird and outdated and badly in need of reform category at the ceremony, no lock is a sure lock. It should also be noted that the films nominated in this category are hardly the best foreign films released in the past year. Please don’t think Son of Saul is the best that non-American cinema had to offer in 2015. But out of these 5 nominees, it is clearly the cream of the crop.

Best Animated Film: Inside Out (dir. Pete Doctor & Jonas Rivera) 

I don’t have the emotional attachment to Inside Out that a lot of other people have accumulated over the past year. Even if Shaun the Sheep Movie won, it wouldn’t really faze me. But lets be honest, Pixar’s got this in the bag.

Best Documentary Film: The Look of Silence (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer)

It was incredibly sad that Oppenheimer’s groundbreaking doc The Act of Killing didn’t win in the year it was nominated, but that is the nature of this category…. if the Academy does not deem a topic “important enough” for them, then its hard to win. That shouldn’t be the case but it is. I know Asif Kapadia’s AMY is the frontrunner and most-likely winner and I’m really happy that Kapadia is finally going to get his due… but I’m going by what was clearly the most well-made and most eye-opening doc of the year, and that is The Look of Silence. Watch it, but be warned, it’s not for the faint of heart.

The Technical Awards

Best Visual Effects: Mad Max: Fury Road

I’m sorry Star Wars fans, but unless its by some sense of pity or conselation, George Miller’s Mad Max reboot has your number this year in technical prowess. It’s not that The Force Awakens wasn’t impressive visually, its just that we’ve seen all that shit before, the Millenium Falcon, the space explosions, the alien creatures. The VFX team for Mad Max did something truly original, and it was no better captured than the race through the sandstorm near the beginning of the film. The swirl of tones and shades, the props, makeup, and dust and lightning all created a visual canvas that was unrivaled… so much so, that it looks all-time incredible even in Black and White:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v5s62tpM5fo

Best Sound Editing: Sicario

I loved Sicario, so I’m going to unabashedly chalk this as a consolation prize for that movie. The sound editing in Sicario, from the opening heart-thumping scene inside the cartel house was utilized almost as a soundtrack in its own right, and Villeneauve’s ability to frame action sequences with such fervor allowed the sound to contribute to the growing tension and unease in every scene.

Best Sound Mixing: Mad Max : Fury Road

What set Mad Max apart from most other action flicks this year was the emotional weight of its character. Even without the benefit of nostalgia (Star Wars) or the heartbreak of a cast member passing away (Furious 7), Mad Max was still able to create a passionate plea for its own characters and the sound mixing, which coupled together a thrilling music score with the powerful, echoing voices of its cast made it happen.

Best Make-Up: Mad Max: Fury Road

Uhhh… Just click this

Best Costume Design: Mad Max: Fury Road

….. click again

Best Production Design: Mad Max: Fury Road

George Miller’s production team headed by Colin Gibson and Lisa Thompson decided to go the old-school route with real props and real settings, which makes the production design of Mad Max even that much more impressive, that it didn’t come majorly out of doctored and fantasized video-game imagery, but from people making things with… their HANDS. Wow.

Best Original Song: “Simple Song #3” from Youth (music and lyrics by David Lang)

Simple Song #3 plays a major part Youth‘s main character, famous composer Mick Boyle, re-connect with the specters of his past which he has continually rejected in his old age. The violin interlude to the song itself gives such a beautiful feeling, that Simple Song #3’s is anything but simple.

Best Original Score: Carol (composed by Carter Burwell)

I always judge this category on how well the musical score stood out to me as memorable, and also how the film’s images, feelings, and nuances come rushing back into my brain the moment that I hear the music. Such is the case with Carter Burwell’s timely score for Carol… I can’t listen to this score on headphones without automatically seeing Carol and Therese’s burning stares from across the room, or a snowy Christmas afternoon in New York City. It just fits.

Best Film Editing: Mad Max: Fury Road (editing by Margaret Sixel)

The entire movie is basically one giant chase scene… and that puts a lot of the pressure on the film editor to keep things well-groomed, exciting and paced with moments of heart-pounding thrills but also some breif relief. What Margaret Sixel was able to do, keeping our attention glued to the screen in every sequence of what was just one giant road-rage venture is remarkable. You’d think at some point we’d turn away and say “alright already, get to where you want to go”… but Sixel made the rip-roaring journey a million times better than the eventual destination.

Best Cinematography: Mad Max: Fury Road (camerawork by John Seale)

Emannuel Lubeszki doesn’t deserve 3 Oscars in a row in my estimation, and Roger Deakins (Sicario), I feel for you man, having been nominated what seems like 10 times but never winning an Oscars… but this isn’t your year either. Mad Max‘s visual splendor is as much a product of John Seale’s beautiful panoramic framing as it is the VFX team and Production team’s prop making and action staging. This whole film was a production dream come true, where everyone contributed their share of filmmaking craftsmanship and artistry onto one glorious canvas.

The Supporting Cast

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Rooney Mara (Carol)

This year’s best Supporting Actress category is ruined by a gigantic problem. No, it’s not race-related, its politics related. Rooney Mara (Carol) and Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl… this year’s frontrunner) are clearly leading actresses in their respective movies, but the Oscars have been unabashedly shameful at allowing producers and promoters to be able to coin in leading performances as “Supporting” for a better shot at an Oscar, especially in years when the leading Actress category is loaded. Not only is this disingenuous, it is basically announcing to the world that you don’t care the Oscar ceremony is as much of a muddy politics game as the presidential race. I will choose Rooney Mara for this award but honestly, I hope no one wins.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Tom Hardy (The Revenant)

The internet’s love for Leonardo DiCaprio always makes people get pissed off at me when I say that Leo usually gets upstaged by his co-actors in most of his movies. Well, internet, hate me if you want, but it happened again. The best actor in The Revenant was Tom Hardy. His intensity, writhing bitterness, and raw biting ferocity was pitch perfect from first shot to last. This may be the best performance of his career and it blew any other supporting performance out of the water… maybe with the exception of Jacob Tremblay, who got snubbed from a nomination. If Sylvester Stallone really wins this year, it’ll be once again a case of Oscar politics over performance.

The BIG 5 Awards

Best Adapted Screenplay: Carol – written by Phyllis Nagy

The book The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith was a landmark novel for gay/lesbian literature because of its treatment of homosexuality in a positive and optimistic light amidst discrimination in America, and that comes with a lot of pressure. The personal depth with which the novel was written can always been hard to transmit on screen, but Phyllis Nagy’s script does an incredible job of allowing the film’s director, Todd Haynes, a master storyteller in his own right, to evoke all the emotions that novel displays. Out of all the other nominees in this category, hardly any of them tell as affecting a story as Carol.

Best Original Screenplay: Spotlight – written by Tom McCarthy  & Josh Singer

The subject matter of Spotlight is something I said earlier last year really blinded and engulfed any sort of critical discourse about the film’s merit as a work of cinema. This meant that I could never really give much credit or anything to director Tom McCarthy for the way this film was handled because as long as it was “competently made”, the subject matter and its implications in our life will carry it on its shoulders anyway. Spotlight‘s take on the Catholic Church’s horrific exploitation of young boys and the brave news team from the Boston Globe who brought this injustice to light, is showcased most appropriately in its writing. McCarthy may not get the benefit of the doubt from me as a director, but him and Singer surely do as writers, because their plotting and staging of interviews, probing of the issue and long agonizing periods of uncertainty in such a terrible case lend to the film’s successful unraveling of its nightmare.

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Brie Larson (Room)

I remember watching Jennifer Lawrence in her first big performance in the movie Winter’s Bone. I knew when I watched her that her acting was something special. The same goes for Brie Larson, who I saw in the indie-Sundance film Short Term 12. It was a small unnoticed performance by those who don’t play close attention to the film circuit, but it was a showcase for the tornado of acting talent that is Brie Larson. Now, in this year’s Oscar-season favorite, Room, about a young mother and her son who try to escape their prison inside a small room being held by a sadistic kidnapper, is where Brie Larson makes herself known as Hollywood’s next great actress. Her performance is something to behold. Watch it, and yes, its okay if you cry through the whole thing, a lot of people have.

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)

Congrats internet. You won. Now you can move onto Gary Oldman to complain about being Oscar-less.

This year of 2016, we’ll watch 2 “lovable losers” win the big prize. Leonardo DiCaprio this Sunday at the Oscars…..

….and the Chicago Cubs in October in the World Series. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Best Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu (The Revenant)

Difficulty in directing a project really shouldn’t be a factor in determining who should win best director, but when the product that you churn out is this good, this exciting, and just a jaw-dropping wonder of depth and intense gut churning treachery to behold, I’ve got to give it to you. Innaritu has been a prolific filmmaker, and there’s only really one movie that he made that I would consider sub-par (his 2006 hyperlink miscalculation Babel). With The Revenant, Alejandro continues his Oscar success with another captivating film, just one year after another movie I loved, Birdman.

Best Picture: The Revenant

I have given The Revenant 4 Oscars in this countdown… and none of them are for the technical brilliance of its cinematography, stage-setting, makeup, and metaphysical elements, and that’s only because Mad Max: Fury Road was so dazzling. But in the end, Innaritu’s The Revenant has all the pieces that make a solid epic Oscar-winning film, and while it won’t be a time-transcending important classic like 2013’s 12 Years A Slave, it will be an enjoyable showcase of directorial ambition and the performance that finally landed Leo DiCaprio the elusive statue.

My last two favorite Oscar-nominated Best Pictures both won… 12 Years A Slave and Birdman. Unless Spotlight steals the Academy’s moral strings and captures votes for its all-important message, this year should make it 3 in a row.

THE TALLY (Films with more than 1 win)

Mad Max: Fury Road – 7 wins

The Revenant – 4 wins (Best Picture)

Carol – 3 wins

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2015 Capsule Reviews: The Last One

Here’s to 2015, one of the best years ever, at least for me. Just in time, here are 4 movies before the buzzer sounds that I’d personally like to sound off on.

My Top 10 Best Films of 2015 is COMING SOON (possibly next week). Hang on tight.

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The Revenant (Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, 2015)

The Revenant (Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu, 2015)

You can slice this movie anyway your like to target a particular audience. For the action crowd it’s a tale of revenge, for the biopic crowd it’s a true story, for the political crowd it’s a redemption from betrayal, for the science crowd it’s a story of survival and instinct, for the history crowd it’s a story of ethnic tensions, for the religious crowd it’s a testament of God’s will. In any sense, Innaritu’s The Revenant is an avalanche. It sweeps you in its dark, hellish yet, at times fantasy portrayal of the South Dakota wilderness. It is bloody, beaten, rotting, and yet, it claws and scratches its way to satisfying means. Leonardo DiCaprio is of course incredible, but Tom Hardy is heavily underrated… his role as Fitzgerald is so committed psychologically, it works to perfect ends with DiCaprio’s tortured and intense portrayal of Hugh Glass. Innaritu’s direction with his favorite cinematographer Emannuel Lubeszki combines with harsh white winter with the earthen soil and dripping blood that creates a portrait which would have done 70mm and lengthy hype much more justice and purpose than Tarantino’s lukewarm vision did.

 

Heaven Knows What (Ben & Joshua Safdie, 2015)

Heaven Knows What is not for the faint of heart. Filmed on a micro-budget but packing a wrenching emotional whallop, the Safdie Brothers have created a film, based on personal writings from star Arielle Holmes, about the pain of love, and the horrifying clutch of addiction. The movie is not an “addiction movie”, nor is it an expose on homelessness. The film is a story, but it reverbrates in the screeching cries and wails of its protagonists and the claws which their lifestyle has dug into their eye-sockets so deep, they can never be pulled out. There is no glorification or exploitation eminent within the film, instead, we root for these characters to survive and cry with them as they fail and fall back time and time again. Set to a backdrop score which haunts and creeps and street landscapes which are so distrubingly familiar to all of us, Heaven Knows What takes little money and a lot of pain and heart to create one of the best “small films” of the year.

 

The Hateful Eight (Quentin Tarantino, 2015)

The 8th film by Quentin Tarantino might be his worst, possibly tied with Death Proof. Despite the advertised use of 70mm and the grandiose stage-setting of the film, there is nothing memorable about The Hateful Eight… not the dialogues, the actors, the characters, or the place where they all collide. Built upon the same basic idea of his debut masterwork Reservoir Dogs, this movie nullifies any sort of imagination required from that movie to a shitshow of blood, guts, and wise-cracks that sound smart, but don’t resonate with anyone but the guy who’s writing and saying them. It’s Tarantino laughing at his own joke in a dead-silent room.

 

Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015)

The eye-stares that ensue every time that Carol and Therese see each other throughout the film, coupled with the cold stares between Carol and her ex-husband, all call to show how great the acting is in this movie. The characters here have histories and futures with each other, and it shows simply through looks. Hayne’s direction is crafted such that we can justify calling Carol a love story, without having to put the qualifier “lesbian” in front of it. It is about Carol torn in two ways, glancing at her future of love, brightness, comfort, and passion with wet-eyed glances and hand-touches with Therese and letting go of the disasterous collapse of a marriage with her husband Harge. Blanchett is brilliant in this, and her entire aura keeps Carol at the brink of being both a strong-willed real woman and a majestic unatainable beauty queen. In today’s society there is much ado about not judging women on their looks but rather on what’s on the inside… Hayne’s Carol straddles both the visual allure and personality traits of his female stars. It draws you in with looks, and knocks you out with heart, emotion, and undeniable confidence.

 

 

 

2015 Capsule Reviews Part V

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Dope (Rick Famuyiwa, 2015)

Dope (Rick Famuyiwa, 2015)

The antithesis of the uninteresting and chokingly sugar-loaded Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Famuyiwa’s Sundance favorite evoked the adjectives of “stylish” and “well-written” on the surface, but underneath, the density of this film lies in its disturbing depiction of being a non-black, black teen. What Shameik Moore’s Malcolm goes through in the film is what in real life would be a no-win situation. The film is fictional and it’s a hopeful account, so Malcolm comes through in the end, but his letter to Harvard University really dispells what a rock-and-hard place it is for black teens who actually thoroughly seek the opportunity to succeed and escape from poverty via their academics. We have developed this notion of urban black youth as alienated and suffering due to poor schools and neglect from their fathers and set up to a “professional athlete or bust” highway, but even those who overcome all of that to still shine academically are still searching for their voice to be heard… and this is not simply through the notion of a percieved racial bias towards black from white folks, but as Fumiwuya aslo nugdingly suggests, it is also the alienation via black “counterculture” that proves a detriment to these children, because getting good grades, liking rock music, and being a virgin doesn’t really fit the stereotype of a kid growing up in the projects. It’s everyone’s fault, and Dope is really about that, but to keep us watching and refrain from being a finger-pointing angry lecture, it also wraps and laces itself intelligently and slyly in a giddy, twisty, and downright cool-with-a-capital-C polish.

 

Everest (Baltazar Kormakur, 2015)

Everest is the type of summer popcorn flick that I like. Well, this movie released in September, but it should’ve really released during the summer to help drown out the horde of sequel-prequel-remakequel crap with something that manages to pack a punch in both thrills and storytelling, but also in its emotion. The Everest disaster was truly tragic, and that’s probably what stopped this film from hitting the real zeitgeist… it’s a depressing story, but that shouldn’t deter anyone from enjoying and taking in the arduous journey up the tallest mountain on Earth. Kormakur doesn’t waste his time with much overt melodrama here, instead, he quietly mounts a sizeable backstory on each of the characters through their conversations with each other and a sense of believable bonding from a team that could very well die together. It works well, because we root for the whole team’s journey up the mountain and as the disaster of the storm rains down on them and starts to pick them off one by one, we root for them individually and are reminded the unique circumstances and goals they are fighting for. Everest is a non-franchise Hollywood thriller with a soul, and our summers could use a bit more of that.

 

Trumbo (Jay Roach, 2015)

Trumbo is Hollywood, and by that I mean that this film lays out all the tricks and turns you’d expect in a Hollywood drama. It’s formula like that which comes in a baby bottle and its fed to us piece by piece with not a single moment left to our imagination. I can’t say I expected much from Jay Roach in his first forray into Oscar-bait drama, but I can say that while the narrative is completely bereft of particularly memorable moments, at least for cinema-geeks the movie is laden with plenty of little gifts here and there… a sequence with King Bros. motion pictures (with an incredibly hilarious John Goodman as producer Frank King), a lunch meeting sequence where Trumbo’s anonymous script is revealed to be the classic Roman Holiday, and John Wayne being John Wayne.

 

Partisan (Ariel Kliemann, 2015)

This is the second film, after Chappie, this year which I liked a lot more than everyone else. So let me use this to dispell one common argument against this film: its ambiguity. I will warn, Kleimann doesn’t bother to explain anything. Why are these children being raised in a renegade counter-society by a ruthless patriarch who impregnates multiple women? Why are they sent out to murder people on a whim? The ambiguity is really what drew me into this film. Many times, the questions we ask for explanation of such blatant frustration and horrific violence and power are anyways unexplained. What we do unquestionably witness in the film is a rebellion, and like all rebellions it is formed via a sense of compassion of one upstart individual who seeks to find retribution for another individuals mistreatment. Partisan acts as the microcosm example of how leaders are overthrown, when they step outside their boundaries, when their smoke and mirror lies are ultimately taken away to reveal a most horrific truth.

 

Macbeth (Justin Kurzel, 2015)

Before I get labelled an “uncultured swine”, I’d like to say that no… it’s not that Kurzel chose to use actual Shakesperean “speak” as all of the dialogue in the film that turned me off. Instead, what makes this film a completely forgettable Shakespear adaptation is that it offers absolutely nothing original from which to evoke new emotion on the bard’s work. Trailers are misleading in this case… it suggested from the way Kurzel marketed this film that he has instilled a thumping, legendary tag onto Macbeth, one which transformed the film close to a subtly artistic yet swashbuckling rendition like Sergei Bodrov’s Mongol. Rather, this movie takes Shakespear from Sparknotes and plasters it on screen with tons of voice-over and a visual canvas that mixes both the serene psychosis of Marketa Lazarova but draped with the self-indulgent slow-motion dicking-around of Zach Snyder.

2015 Capsule Reviews Part II

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Phoenix (Christian Petzold, 2015)

 

Phoenix (Christian Petzold, 2015)

The biggest tragedy within Phoenix, which deals with a central woman Nelly, who just got out of experiencing the most horiffic tragedy of modern times (The Holocaust), is the nonchalance Nelly’s friends, former acquaintances, and most noteably, her fiance express in the aftermath of the Holocaust. It is dealt in the manner of a ‘skeleton-in-the-closet’ rather than an expression of sincere and devestating grief. Nelly comes back to see her husband, who believes she died in the camps, and her starvation and abusive experience has changed her appearance to the point of not being recognizeable to him (a phoenix, risen from the ashes). What is most hurtful is that he is hatching a plan to get all of her money and uses her (not knowing its his wife, but just a stray homeless woman). The façade here is ironic because it is he, in the end, who is being played. But Petzold’s film isn’t some twisty thriller drama, it is paced, its languid, and it treats its characters such that they would act in real time. Nelly has many opportunities to tell her husband that the woman he mistakes for a stranger is really her, but as she ventures down his rabbit hole, she realizes that the Holocaust has hidden something dark within her, but also exposed the darkness and sheer lack of sympathy amongst her friends. They talk in elitist stilted speech, drinking expensive wine, and when they meet her at the station for the first time since she was taken away, they greet her with the most underwhelming concern… the kind you’d express if one of your friends had a bad break-up, not the kind if they had just nearly escaped a ruthless genocide. Phoenix tells a genuinely sad but ultimately satisfying tale of the different faces we wear, but its greatest achievement is the searing criticism of those distanced from the Holocaust because of their status, race, religion, and national allegiance. It is a reminder of how those of us in our glass castles, protected from the horrors of the world can be so far removed as to be numb to even the greatest of evils.

As We Were Dreaming (Andreas Dresen, 2015)

There is nothing here worth noting in terms of historical significance. The movie takes place just after the destruction of the Berlin Wall, but the reckless youth in this film could honestly be from any European country. Instead, As We Were Dreaming forgoes any sense of connection with its very fertile time-period and place for just a teen angst drama in which a bunch of juveniles get into more trouble than they can handle. We have seen this many times before, but these characters are boring, they curse, they drink, they run around beating people up, but it never amounts to anything. There’s no sense of shock the way Harmony Korine dredged up in Kids, or the care to create eternally compelling characters as in Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting, or any effort to draw socio-political undertones like Matthieu Kassovitz’s La Haine. This movie aims at nothing and still misses.

The Wolfpack (Crystal Moselle, 2015)

I love movies about people who love movies, and The Wolfpack is the latest ode to filmmaking to really come in a very affecting package. The Angulo Brothers, a group of youths who since birth have been fed and raised in the cultist Hare Krishna movement of which their father is a leading follower have been basically locked away from human society for their entire existence. Their lives within a small NYC appartment is filled with nothing but beige walls, dirty carpets, and an incredibly diverse and extraordinary collection of movies. Many filmmakers and critics say that film is their life, but for the Angulo Brothers, it is associated this way in a very literal sense. It is the only thing which connects them to any semblance of an existence. Crystal Moselle’s expose on their lives may be viewed by some as intrusionist and by others as crass exploitation, but in reality, the emotions and passions that these brothers express on camera for movies and for the hope of rejoining society, falling in love, and being able to join the world again, is very genuine and it is filtered through the emotions of film characters. As Govinda, the oldest son, stands in a Batman costume, looking from his bedroom window, his cage, his prison, out into the New York streets he associates Bruce Wayne’s fear of bats and obsessions with avenging his parents death to his own fear of society and one day, avenging the seclusion and abusive totalitarianism his father’s beliefs had in the near death of Govinda’s own life. For many of us, cinema is the greatest thing, but for The Wolfpack cinema, in many respects, is the only thing.

Cop Car (John Watts, 2015)

In the tradition of movies which have a title that is literally the whole plot of the movie, a la Snakes on a Plane and Hot Tub Time Machine, here we have a Kevin Bacon thriller, Cop Car, which is not a comedy, or even an intentionally cheesy display of action thrills, but rather, a darkly fun, genuinely genre-inspired, low budget and high guts thriller which expresses itself in the true sense of independent cinema:

A car, a couple kids, a couple guns, and a cop who’s got a bad attitude. You do the math.

 

 

Bridge of Spies – Spielberg and the American way

Bridge of Spies (Steven Spielberg, 2015)

Steven Spielberg’s resurgence as the premier and prominent dramatist of Hollywood cinema is warmly welcomed. While perhaps the greatest of Spielberg’s traits lie in his ability to encapsulate the wonder, enchantment, terror and peril that all culminate together to create the ultimate American Hollywood “story”, his second greatest attribute is his ability to create accessibility to the darkness of human nature. While some may find this glossy finish on gritty subject matter to be “hokey” or “kitsch”, there is a manner in which the greatest commercial filmmaker, and certainly the most influential, of the last 50 years of American cinema accomplishes this juggling feat that it culminates in powerful and personal cinema.

Since Speilberg’s last truly great film, A.I. Artificial Intelligence, we haven’t gotten much out of him in terms of memorable cinema. The Adventures of Tintin I can attest is definitely much lower ranking amongst the pantheon of Spielberg outputs on most people’s lists that I have to shove aside my personal unfettered and unwavering love for Herge’s graphic novels and characters which singularly defined my childhood. That movie is 100% nostalgia for me and nothing else, so I concede I am biased.

The auteur’s last two outputs however are a different story, one of them being this year’s Bridge of Spies, a collaboration between Spielberg and the Coen Brothers (who wrote the script). The film is a showcase of good ol’ American exceptionalism when it comes to negotiations and foreign politicking. We get to see Tom Hanks strut his stuff as the insurance lawyer James B. Donovan picked by the higher ups to do a “routine” defense of Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance is an accomplished theater actor who proves his silver screen chops here), a suspected and eventually convicted Soviet spy in the U.S. The reason routine is in quotations there is because the judicial processes of giving a Soviet spy, a “communist” (gasp! That word!) a fair trial is really a dark and upsetting joke in the film. Here, the exceptionalism in the United States in standing by its principles of liberty and justice are revealed to be a smoke-screen. Behind the fog exist deep seeded anger and paranoia, a hatred for the “other side”.

It is one thing when it’s civilians; the police officer who confronts Donovan at his home about his defense of Abel, the train passengers who stare Donovan down with all the conceit and suspicion in the world, and his own son who questions his father’s loyalty to the nation after he is fed the exaggerations and fear propaganda of the Cold War in his classroom. Regular people are suspicious, they go by what they read, what they see, the influence of society and its perceptions, the uneasy fear of foreign threats and ideas, something which is rearing its ugly head in today’s American society as well. But when it is elected officials, government workers, and those in power who let that paranoia and hatred get in the way of the liberties the United States offers to foreign citizens, criminal or not, which no other country is so generous to offer, then the system collapses and we, slowly and surely, become them.

Bridge of Spies depicts an America at the crossroads of turning on itself (yet again). In an era where people were blacklisted, ostracized for their political and social beliefs, something we said would always be a freedom in this country, an era where a government official (Joseph McCarthy) went on an obsessive witch-hunt against all those he defined as “traitors”, “communists” and a list of other propagandist impact-words, an era right after World War II in which we incarcerated in concentration camps Japanese Americans because of our paranoid fear of them and their mere presence being considered an ill to society, America continued evolving into dark, troubling, and socially broken versions of itself, one decade after another.

It’s the truth many people don’t want to hear, and in Bridge of Spies, James Donovan is Spielberg’s plea to the American people that the liberty and justice we offer is only special because it applies to even those who can’t do anything for us. For it, he received bullet shots through the windows of his house. His house where his children and wife lived, bullets were sprayed by other American citizens. (cue Michael Corleone in The Godfather Part II)

Is there a semblance of parallel from Coen/Spielberg’s Cold War America to our America today? Perhaps the timeliness of Bridge of Spies is not by accident, but rather, by blessing. Steven Spielberg is a filmmaker known for his accessibility and serviceability to the American audience. He brought the complexity and enormity of the Holocaust into our homes with Schindler’s List, a cinematic achievement which would have been impossible without his sensible touch. There is no condescension in the way Spielberg (or The Coens for that matter) presents the American xenophobia of the Cold War era, in this case, not a matter of race, but of ideology.

Rather, Bridge of Spies works like an old yarn your grandfather would tell after dinner. It arrives with lightly treaded footsteps and grows ever so dark as it goes, the suspense (meeting the Russians), the chills (interrogations of prisoners), the horrors (climbing the Berlin Wall) but it prevails with an All-American pride, one in which Donovan’s compassion towards a Soviet spy, at the time the worst of worst criminals (why aren’t we HANGING HIM? the court disturbingly erupts after a lenient sentence), is the true symbol of America because it can be empathetic and understanding where no one else can.

This doesn’t mean Spielberg equates the nations and their ideologies, oh no. This is the greatest juggling feat of all, and probably one which most people in American need to hear today. Spielberg puts the worlds of Eastern Germany and the Soviet bloc in perspective. As Donovan rides on a train through Berlin he witnesses a helpless couple try to climb their way over the wall only to be shot and killed in cold blood only inches away from freedom. But this is not a viciousness that resides in the hearts of individuals, but in the hearts of national leaders.

Throughout Bridge of Spies we get a brilliant contrast between Donovan and Abel’s American-Soviet friendship, juxtaposed with the cruel and unrelenting distrust between national figures. As Donovan first goes into the negotiating room, after having his jacket haggled from him by some East German hoodlums, and meets the “secretary” Ivan Schischkin to the Soviet base… and he later realizes the man he’s meeting is a top ranking official… and the jacket that was stolen from him was correctly identified by Schischkin as a Sacks 5th Avenue. No words or actions can be taken at face value here, and Donovan’s combination of both whimsy and serious business, perfectly captured by Tom Hanks’ performance, is a microcosm of what we consider an idealistic vision of America’s foreign policy, but one which, in reality, is hardly carried out in such a diplomatic manner.

This difference of dealing with Soviets and dealing with Rudolf Abel is a nation vs person conundrum that most people still can’t seem to grasp. In today’s America where people, especially immigrants, are consistently labeled on a collective basis rather than an individual one, ironic considering recognition of individualism is this nation’s claim to success, there needs to be a restructuring of the social connection between us that remembers a story like Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. As Donovan rides on the train once again at the end of the film, this time a hero and with other passengers looking at him with admiration rather than (as previous) contempt, he looks out the window and sees a country of people freely walking amongst the streets, with cars, clothes on their back, kids climbing over the fence joyous and care-free (a signature melodramatic touch by Spielberg to the earlier heartbreaking scene at the Berlin Wall), and a nation comparatively prosperous and well put together to its nemesis East Germany’s crumbling, decaying infrastructure. It’s a moment to be proud to be American, but it’s also a somber moment because the individuals in the East Bloc suffer from the actions of their leaders, something outside their control.

Countries and governments fight, they engage in backstabbing, and they negotiate on hardline terms, but we as individuals share a direct connection of experience that doesn’t define us by the actions of those in power. We can see each other as Donovan saw Rudolf Abel. It is not a traitorous notion, nor is it un-patriotic to befriend despite polarized ideologies, but rather, as Spielberg declares in Bridge of Spies, part of what is truly American.

Sicario

Sicario-Movie
Sicario (Denis Villeneuve, 2015)

Denis Villenueve’s Sicario does an incredible job in its portrayal national security, drug related crime, and U.S.’s relationship with Mexico as a “don’t look down” demented Alice-in-wonderland style of rabbit hole. From the beginning we latch onto Emily Blunt’s character Kate Macer as a professional, someone we can confide our trust in. She leads the charge of FBI agents breaking and thwarting a local drug house in Arizona. But as soon as she takes on this strange out-of-nowhere case presented by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who is wearing shorts and flip flops in the FBI’s meeting room and doesn’t hide from the indication that he and everything he is associated with is a little too sketchy for comfort, she becomes as clueless as we are and that’s where the tension builds because all of a sudden, our “heroine” is no longer in control, and as Alejandro says, “the war on the border is a war of wolves” and Macer is not a wolf.

The reprehensible acts that occur throughout the film and Macer’s completely powerless, at a loss frustration in dealing with them is disturbingly relatable to the American citizen because, like disturbing news reels, we see the horror, we hear the stories, but we are confined by both power and capability and voice from doing anything about it. They (Alejandro and Graver) constantly tell her that she can leave whenever she wants, and that is probably the only evidence of dignity that they present for themselves on screen… the cartel war has stripped them of any sense of morality (a point that is made clear by the vicious cartel lord, Alarcon, at the dinner table encounter with Alejandro) and their constant refusal to reveal any more than they have to to Macer was probably a blessing, but she kept picking at them anyway, and the rabbit hole went deeper.

The brilliant sequence in the traffic jam where they all jump out of the cars, guns at the ready, and Macer is left inside her vehicle yelling “what the f*u*c*k are we doing?!” is a perfect example of how in the dark many Americans are about this subject of drug cartels (and further confirmation that we probably want to be left in the dark). There is constant questioning and non-answers that go on throughout the film. Rather, the movie takes its horrors and revelations from visual clues. As Macer sits innocently in the back seat of the vehicle rolling through Juarez, they come across an overpass, which has 4 dismembered, bleeding naked bodies hanging from ropes. Alejandro doesn’t even look at her reaction, he just says “Welcome to Juarez”. the way Villenueve films the action, it is structured to augment chaos and unclarity. Only towards the end to we finally see the truth when Mercer emerges from the tunnel to see Alejandro holding office Silvio at gunpoint, but even then, it is a revelation that is out of anyone’s control because it is so far beyond screwed up, that Graver’s justification of it makes it pretty clear that the United States has no clue how to win this war.

It’s a great counterpoise to Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, which prides itself in American exceptionalism in diplomatically negotiating with its enemies (Russia and East Germany) with the utmost firm poise, but mutual respect, while in Sicario, America is completely incompetent, flustered, and grasping at straws on a tunnel to nowhere.

Capsule: 2015 Late Summer & September Releases

In the interest of not crowding this place up with separate posts, yet still giving everyone a chance to read a few things about movies that released late in the summer and in September this year, I decided to do a post of 7 small capsule reviews of Late Summer & September Releases. Presenting…..

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Coming Home (Zhang Yimou, 2015)

Far From the Madding Crowd (Thomas Vinterberg, 2015)

As with Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella earlier this year, I found myself simply enjoying the refreshingly old-school charm that Vinterberg instills in this movie. It’s a time-pass attempt if anything, but aiming significantly higher than Branagh’s mess. There’s something to say about a film which embodies a wholly visual splendor that compliments its fable-like romantic aim. The movie can be slyly looked upon as a play on the different types of the modern day male, and their different approaches to women. One is a sleek young ladies-man who encapsulates our heroine (Carrie Mulligan) with sexual desire, one is your shy beta-male who is desperately looking for a wife and promises her comfort and respect, and the third is a hard-to-get country fellow who just drags with the wind and plays it cool. The way Vinterberg’s film unfolds is undoubtedly melodramatic, and reminds one of those Oscar-bait and easy to forget 90’s romances, but it cleverly takes an age-old tale and winks at modern society’s male-female relationships with it and makes for a breezy lazy Sunday watch.

True Story (Rupert Goold, 2015)

True Story is just as pedestrian as its title. There’s nothing out of the ordinary which takes place in this film, aside maybe from the against-type casting of Jonah Hill as a serious New York Times journalist who battles his inner-demons and James Franco as a man accused of murdering his family. Similar in theme to Bennet Miller’s biographical narrative on Truman Capote and his interview of death-row inmate Perry Smith, True Story encounters familiar problems that arise amongst publication writers and those who decide to do their own controversial “exclusive” pieces. Jonah Hill’s Michael Finkle, a disgraced NYT writer who lied about his facts in a covers story he did on the African slave trade believes his career and his inner self-worth will be restored if he writes a book on the story of Christian Longo, a convicted murderer accused of smothering his three children and his wife and dumping their bodies in the river.

Goold’s narrative tries to tight-rope walk a line between Capote and Primal Fear where Finkle’s personal magnum opus piece, a potential best-selling novel to restore his character is at odds with Longo’s inability to display his true identity. The battle within the film thus, is not between two people but rather between the truth and lies, something that Finkle has already messed up before and now must confront head-on. Goold doesn’t really handle the film in a very astute manner however, simplifying the story into nothing more than a guessing game on Longo and a character study which goes no deeper than legal debate. We don’t learn anything about Longo or Finkle as characters other than their surface level frustration. What is revealed in the end never penetrates our surface because its never unexpected. True Story could have benefitted from character study of two people who lie, but its trumped by Goold’s fascination with telling a suspenseful yarn and a thrilling mystery, and in that, True Story’s real story gets lost.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (Christopher McQuarrie, 2015)

This might be the first Mission Impossible movie in which I didn’t leave the theater excited for the next one. Each filmmaker who has helmed the MI series, and they are prolific from Brian DePalma to John Woo (my favorite) to J.J. Abrams to Brad Bird have all instilled a personal vision of what makes Ethan Hunt, or more importantly, Tom Cruise, so damn likeable on screen. McQuarrie just kind of rolls with the punches here, and reduced the mighty franchise, one which I like more than James Bond and the Bourne films personally, to a simpelton’s action film. Rogue Nation didn’t introduce anything new for us, it didn’t challenge our perceptions of Ethan Hunt, all it really did was just give Tom Cruise a string of situations to get out of and thus, turned Mission Impossible from a canvas that an innovative filmmaker could fill with his signature style, into a ready-made template of action tropes… it became what Jason Statham’s action films have become… it became what the Die Hard series has become…. and frankly, that’s no fun.

Coming Home (Zhang Yimou, 2015)

When Yimou isn’t dancing with swords and blood, he is eternally fascinated by dynamics of relationships and China’s oppressive role in shaking and breaking them. Yimou shows us the irreparable damage and the utter decay of a husband (Lu) and wife (Yu)’s love and their daughter’s loneliness caused by the imprisonment of Lu during China’s Cultural Revolution. China’s history of deep political turmoil is one that affects many families, and on a level that to many Westerners seems impossible to overcome.

Adequately then, Coming Home is a complete departure of canvas for Zhang Yimou where the bright reds and oranges and shiny robes and flowers are replaced with dingy stairwells, muddy alleyways, and rusty train stations all viewed through a depressing color-filter. The humanism of Coming Home however is pure Yimou, as Yu’s Alzheimer’s makes her forget her husband Lu’s face and thus, even when he does return from his imprisonment, she thinks of him as a bothersome stranger and still longs achingly for the return of her “real” husband. Despite the obstacles, there is a fight within the characters to survive and to love a much more hopeful picture painted for a director like Yimou who’s earlier works displayed a furious anger and devastation towards China’s social ills. In this film we get a lot of melodrama and very aching moments of desperation and hopelessness, but they are countered beautifully by heartfelt compromise.

The Gift (Joel Edgerton, 2015)

Inspired in no small part by Michael Haneke’s taught Austrian-French thriller Cache, Joel Edgerton finds himself directing an equally enticing if typically bloated thriller. This is a simple case of adapting for the audience. One thing noticeably similar is how Edgerton also films his movie in pans and dollys, and the residence of the couple (Simon & Robin) is equally as chic, modern, filled with whites and empty spaces as the residence of Georges and Anne and both couples are harassed by a stranger who leaves them with ambiguous keepsakes (in Cache, photographs, and in The Gift, well…. gifts) . A lot of the thematic elements however are taken up a notch into more deliberate, and more cinematically liberal territory, with the “stalker” delivering elaborate gifts and paying painfully awkward visits to the couples residence rather than anonymously sending mail as in Haneke’s film. While the twists that account for most of the films best and more disturbing moments are similar in the way they reveal more about the darkness hidden within the couple than within the stranger. This idea of outside entities coming in to rip a marriage apart through revealing skeletons in the closet is a brilliant premise for any thriller, and through Edgerton’s tight script and good character development, The Gift imparts us with, as the narrative draws to its conclusion, completely different views on the initial players in the game at the end, than at the beginning.

The Visit (M. Night Shyamalan, 2015)

Night Shyamalan is a peculiar cat in the cinema world, at least for me, because he is the only filmmaker, possibly with the exception of Atom Egoyan, who’s career has been a pure smooth and devastating downward slope from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows. Consider The Visit then, to be a twist in the dénouement.

One thing I really enjoyed about this movie though, and what gives me a light at the end of the tunnel, was that it was completely void of any pretense. It was a pure, campy genre flick and it seemed like the cast and crew had a lot of fun making this movie adding their own little improvisations to it. The mix of comedy and horror was also equally refreshing because it creates a very disorienting, almost Lynchian feel to the whole ordeal. There are definite scares, and the signature Shyamalan twist, while not anything revolutionary or unique to the film, was still effective, probably the best twist he has implemented since The Sixth Sense and its because it wasn’t trying to impress anybody with shock or awe, its merely a cunning narrative ploy, a mischievous finger-pointing.

The movie is terrifying in parts, and Shyamalan implements a lot of the unique devices he mastered early in his career. Much like in his other movies, Shyamalan tells you what to be afraid of (in this case, demented grandparents) and builds all the tension off of that. The major drawback of the movie is that it remains sloppy in its presentation, and while Shyamalan tries his best to innovate with the “found footage” medium, there’s really not much new here. It’s a poor medium to use for this kind of movie and it reduces the haunting appearance and nature of the film’s surroundings down to an amateur video-project.

It’s certainly not the rousing “return to form” as claimed (more significant improvement). The movie however, is undeniably an upswing in his career, but at this point, for the cynics and those less eager to jump back on the bus, this film is more just the end of a torturous mess of a career, a self-immolation by Shyamalan that has finally been put out by a bucket of water. The Visit can be considered the fixing of a ship that has already sunk. The challenge now, is to see if Shyamalan can get it back anywhere near the surface of the water.

Black Mass (Scott Cooper, 2015)

Scott Cooper consistently has a sledgehammer of a topic to go crazy with on screen (see Crazy Heart and Out of the Furnace) and yet, he manages not more than a small dent. What Black Mass has to rely on, and it does keep itself afloat enough that we can appreciate the film without necessarily thinking too highly of it, is Johnny Depp’s undeniable talent and dedication to playing Whitey Bulger. In a sense, this film could be considered Depp’s film itself because the way he looks, walks, talks, acts, is an authentic creation from the ground up by Depp himself, almost an ‘adapted’ character rather than a mimic of the real Bulger. Whitey is Depp’s vision from the first mark of pen to paper, and he paints the character to a level where we fear almost any move he makes. The one sequence where Bulger gets Morris to reveal his family secret recipe for steak and Morris blurts it out and then Bulger coldly asks “I thought it was a family secret”, we immediately shiver and tense up. It’s a sequence where we get the real “walking on needles” feeling where even the most light and well-intentioned move could be turned black by Depp’s Whitey. But outside of this, and of course a nice cast surrounding Depp, we have to shake our heads once again at Scott Cooper for a missed opportunity. Black Mass doesn’t bite in the narrative department and its overuse of the f-word, a desperate “wannabe like Scorsese” move can’t add even a hint of “edge” or “guts” to this film. Instead, what Depp brings is the extent of what you’ll get in terms of interest, and you better savor every moment he’s on screen.