2015: An Oscar Commentary

•February 22, 2015 • Leave a Comment

The Oscar ceremony continues to be sprawling and clunky and not great television, but I actually rather enjoyed it this year. I liked Neil Patrick Harris’s segments a lot less than I thought I would (except for that opening number, which he crushed). They felt forced, and often meandering. But he’s not the worst I’ve seen, and hosting the Oscars is probably the most thankless job in Hollywood. Other than the Sound of Music bit, I can’t remember any time when I wondered what was up with some lengthy detour or another, so that was good, too. Because it was still way too long, as always.

So, the final tabulation: 4 wins for Birdman, 4 wins for The Grand Budapest Hotel, 3 wins for Whiplash, and 1 win apiece for each of the other Best Picture nominees, plus a win for Still AliceInterstellarBig Hero 6Ida, and Citizenfour. So, basically, outside of the “special” categories, only 2 wins for non-Best Pictures.

The biggest disappointments of the night: Extremely bad calls in both writing categories, and no win for Dawn of the Planet of the ApesThe Grand Budapest Hotel also failed to win any major awards, but it did win 4, tying for big winner of the night, so that kind of made up for it. Plus, Whiplash did way better than I think anyone expected, so that’s fantastic. I’m shocked at how poorly Boyhood did, in particular, but there just aren’t enough awards to go around to all the deserving films, especially when several always have to go to less deserving films as well. Still, the highs this year were higher than the lows!

In case you’re curious, here are my favorite films of 2014, ranked. There are a lot of movies I haven’t seen, but that’s where I’m at right now. On with 2015!

Continue reading ‘2015: An Oscar Commentary’

2015: An Oscar Primer

•February 21, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Oscars2015I’m pretty late to the party this year, but that’s okay, because the show hasn’t happened yet!

This year there are only 8 Best Picture nominees, down 1 from the last two years:

American Sniper – Clint Eastwood directs Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle, who became the most lethal American sniper in history during his service in Iraq. One of the reasons I’m writing this so late is that I’ve been trying to craft a response to this film, which troubled me deeply. And one of the reasons that’s been so difficult is because of the immense controversy and heat of the conversation that have surrounded it. I’ll save the rest of what I have to say for that forthcoming post, but I assume that the controversy has damaged its chances at the big award. As for the rest, who knows? It has 6 nominations: Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing.

Birdman – Michael Keaton plays a washed-up actor who walked away from a massively successful superhero franchise many years ago, and is now struggling to make a comeback by directing and starring in a Broadway play. But that summary doesn’t really do justice to how weird and wonderful this film is. There are so many great performances in it, as the acting nominations attest, and Iñarritu employs a device that creates the illusion of the film being done in a single, unbroken shot (a gimmick that I will admit I’m a sucker for). The result is hilarious, tragic, and extremely surreal. The film has 9 nominations: Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing.

Boyhood – Richard Linklater spent 12 years making this ultimate coming-of-age story, which follows protagonist Mason from age 5 to 18 as he grows and changes and life unfolds around him. Nothing quite like this has ever been done before, telling a story that stretches over such a long period with a single group of actors aging with it. The closest I’ve seen is Michael Apted’s “Up” series of documentaries. This is certainly Linklater’s masterpiece, which is high praise indeed considering some of the other films he has produced. At 165 minutes, it is by far the longest of the nominees, but you hardly notice, because it is also the most ambitious film to be nominated in years. Boyhood has 6 nominations: Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing.

The Imitation Game – Chronicles the life of Alan Turing, a British mathematician who was instrumental in cracking the German enigma code during World War II, but who died in obscurity several years later after suffering the indignity of an indecency trial for homosexual activity. I quite enjoyed this movie, but it is supremely middle-brow Oscar-bait without a doubt. You can spot the places where the historical reality was punched-up for drama a mile out, and the unnecessary voice-over narration relies on a somewhat clumsy device that makes very little sense in context. The title manages to be simultaneously too on-the-nose (“Oh, I get it! Because his whole life was like a big IMITATION GAME!” #mindnotblown), and not really relevant to the story they’re telling (being a reference to Turing’s famous theories about artificial intelligence, which gets shoe-horned in apropos of nothing towards the end). Also, Benedict Cumberbatch (whose work I love) should not be nominated for playing a character he has played several times before. This movie has a bizarrely effusive 8 nominations (almost none of which are remotely deserved): Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Production Design, Best Original Score.

The Grand Budapest Hotel – The adventures of the legendary concierge of a legendary hotel, and his lobby boy, during the years leading up to World War II. I can’t rave about this movie enough, so I’m not even sure I should try. It is far and away my favorite film of the year. I’ve seen it probably 6 or 7 times already, and I look forward to many more viewings. If I had written much of anything here during the past several months, it would almost certainly have been something in praise of this film, which I hope to discuss more fully on The Moviegoings Podcast at some point. It should win all of its 9 nominations, and was robbed of several more: Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup, Best Original Score.

Selma – Dr. Martin Luther King organizes a march in support of voting rights for African Americans from Selma, Alabama to the capital, despite intense, even violent, opposition from local and state officials, and pressure from the president. It’s hard to overstate the importance of this film and its depiction of the Civil Rights Movement as motivated and led by courageous black people. It’s weird that that’s the case, but I can point to virtually no famous or popular feature films about civil rights that don’t have a white protagonist, which is (to say the least) a pretty severe distortion of the actual history of civil rights. And, on top of that, the film is magnificent and moving. Yet somehow, it has an appalling 2 nominations, uncommon but far from unheard of, even for films as worthy as this one. The other nomination is for Best Original Song.

The Theory of Everything – Explores the relationship between Stephen Hawking and his wife Jane as his health deteriorates and his genius soars over the course of several decades. This is what every romantic biopic I’ve ever seen is going for, and very few of them achieve: A beautiful blend of brilliant performers with great chemistry, a strong supporting cast, and an excellent script (and a lovely soundtrack, too). Top-notch. It has 5 nominations: Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Original Score.

Whiplash – A young, ambitious drummer is pushed to the limit by a belligerent music professor who will cross any line to transform potential into greatness. I was very excited to see Whiplash, and even more excited that it actually showed up in my town not too long after I first heard about it, and I was not disappointed. On the contrary, I was totally blown away by this movie’s intensity, great jazz, and J.K. Simmons’ spectacular performance. The ending in particular left me feeling completely breathless, and I eagerly anticipate experiencing it again at some point in the future. If it weren’t for The Grand Budapest Hotel, I’d have a hard time choosing between this and Selma for Best Picture (personally, anyway . . . neither is likely to win). It has 5 nominations: Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Sound Mixing.

Continue reading ‘2015: An Oscar Primer’

The Moviegoings Podcast #7: King Kong

•February 8, 2015 • Leave a Comment

Join us for a discussion of the 1933 fantasy-adventure classic King Kong . . . a film that has been endlessly imitated and remade, but never improved upon. Why does this movie still work so well, and what makes Peter Jackson’s version of the story so bad? We have the answers!

Where Have I Been?

•February 7, 2015 • Leave a Comment

I started to title this post “Where Have You Been?” . . . But then it occurred to me that maybe that’s not a question anyone is asking, but that I kind of am. Suddenly, it’s been months since I wrote anything new. Where does the time go? Oh. Looking back, I see that my last substantial piece was written just before the birth of my son. I wasn’t prepared for two children to be more than twice as time-consuming as one. I also started a new job in August (which you’ll notice is the last time I even posted), and I’ve been doing some additional work on the side, so whatever microscopic amounts of free time I’ve had has mostly been spent sleeping like the dead or staring blankly off into space.

But there’s nothing like Oscar season to make me sit up and say, “Hey, I have a movie blog!” And, okay, maybe that description of my free time isn’t quite accurate. It just feels like it. I’ve still watched quite a few movies in the intervening months, for one thing, so I’m still quite active on my Letterboxd account . . . Y’know, in case anyone was interested in keeping up with what I’m watching and how many stars I felt that it merited.

And that’s not the whole story behind my blogging hiatus. In July I submitted a proposal to the Baylor Symposium on Faith and Culture’s call for papers for their 2014 conference on Faith and Film. It didn’t seem like that big of a deal. I’ve presented at conferences before, and this is well inside my wheelhouse. But after I was accepted I had a minor attack of nerves, realizing it had been over four years since I wrote an academic paper. Every time I sat down to write for Moviegoings, I thought, “No, I should put in some time on that paper!” But progress was slow, so I was pretty much stalled out on everything until a few weeks before the conference in late October, when, motivated by sheer panic, the writing juices started flowing again.

I called my paper “Theodicy at the Movies: The Problem of Evil Through a Lens of Faith,” drawing heavily (obviously) on the work I did developing my “Theodicy at the Movies” series last year. However, rather than just pull material that I’d already written (which would probably have been smart), I tackled two films that I hadn’t gotten to yet in my series: Noah (which we discussed in the 2nd episode of The Moviegoings Podcast) and Calvary, both 2014 releases. I’m not a gifted public speaker, but I think the paper turned out well. I haven’t shared it here yet because I plan to use it as I continue my series.

I presented in the 2nd session of the conference, which allowed me to relax and enjoy the rest of that experience . . . Which was incredible. I met lots of great people, heard some excellent papers, saw some fantastic films, and had more awesome conversations about movies than in the entire previous year combined. It was an amazing and all-too-rare experience to be among so many like-minded people for a weekend. I’m so happy that I took advantage of the opportunity. I was absolutely right in thinking that I just couldn’t pass it up.

I also worked on a 7th episode of The Moviegoings Podcast, but unfortunately it fell apart due to various factors, the chief of which was my house losing power after a massive storm while we were in the midst of recording. The outage lasted for 2 days, and by the time we were able to reconvene, our previous material was unsalvageable, and the moment was gone. However, we have since regrouped, and a new episode will be ready soon.

As I resume semi-regular blogging activity, I plan to continue my “Theodicy at the Movie” series, as well as The Moviegoings Podcast. I’ll be doing my usual Oscar speculation and commentary during the next two weeks, of course, and then hopefully carrying on as usual. The “Southern” Project is not dead, either, though it will be quite awhile probably before there’s anything new related to that on here.

Meanwhile, now that I’ve finally gotten this “I’m Back!” post completed, watch this space for exciting new content soon!

The Moviegoings Podcast #6: Attack the Block

•August 24, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Is it sci-fi? Horror? Action? Comedy? Coming-of-age drama? It’s all of those things and more! We’re discussing the fantastically-entertaining “Attack the Block” in the hopes of figuring out why not many people saw it and explaining why it should have been seen by everyone who enjoys a good time at the movies.

The Moviegoings Podcast #5: Brazil

•July 25, 2014 • Leave a Comment

In this episode, we’re discussing Terry Gilliam’s surreal dystopian fantasy, released in 1985 after an epic struggle with the studio to release a cut that he was happy with. Gilliam’s cut didn’t do particularly well in theaters, but almost 30 years later, it is widely beloved. Not universally beloved, though . . . Let’s just say one of us wasn’t as taken with the movie as the other was. But we had a great conversation about it anyway!


•May 29, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Godzillaposterstarring Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, and Elizabeth Olsen
written by Max Borenstein & Dave Callaham and directed by Gareth Edwards
Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of destruction, mayhem and creature violence.

American engineer Joe Brody (Cranston) has spent years searching for answers about the true cause of a nuclear plant disaster in Japan that devastated his family. His obsession has kept him at arm’s length from his son Ford (Taylor-Johnson), a Navy bomb disposal expert. Meanwhile, Japanese scientist Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (Watanabe), a Japanese scientist, investigates an alarming sequence of events following a mysterious cave-in in the Philippines. The three are thrown together in a desperate bid to forestall disaster after a shocking, unprecedented cataclysm occurs.

Take heed Michael Bay, Roland Emmerich, and yes, even you, Guillermo del Toro. This is how you construct and produce jaw-dropping spectacle without sacrificing narrative or visual coherence. This is how you tell a massive, blockbusting story on a monstrous scale while preserving meaningful human drama. In fact, there are a lot of directors (Peter Jackson, Jon Favreau, Gore Verbinski, et al.) who could use a reminder that hiring a computer animator to make something that looks “awesome” does not automatically make their movie “awesome,” or interesting to watch, or even good.

I honestly can’t remember the last time I saw a movie with this much large-scale destruction that didn’t have me checking my watch halfway through yet another interminable sequence of superheroes, monsters, or giant machines throwing each other into skyscrapers. Edwards never lets these scenes overstay their welcome, always pulling back after giving us just a tantalizing taste of the kind of action other directors throw at the screen in buckets.

He lets our imaginations do a lot of the work, producing a superior product while likely saving a fortune in production costs and time. Which isn’t to say that Godzilla doesn’t deliver. The climax is an incredible payoff, made all the more amazing and enjoyable without the wall-to-wall-action fatigue that lesser movies have created by this point. At the same time, it manages the difficult feat of creating real tension and peril around its characters, whose survival never seems like a foregone conclusion.

Certainly the best thing about it, and the highest praise I can give it, is that this movie delivered everything I didn’t even know I wanted out of a Godzilla movie. I’m going to confess right now that the only Godzilla I’ve ever seen is the execrable 1998 Emmerich version, which I am given to understand true fans regard with such contempt that it isn’t even considered a Godzilla movie at all. I never really got the appeal of watching a guy in a big rubber suit stomp around knock over cheap city sets, or fighting other guys in big rubber suits. Until now. Sitting there in the darkened theater, drinking in the massive awesomeness of Godzilla, something clicked, and I suddenly understood the whole “King of the Monsters” thing.

I could go on gushing like this for awhile, but that’s really all I want to say about this movie in a review. Because yet another impressive feat it pulled off was advertising a Godzilla movie that left me completely unprepared for the story that unfolded in this movie. I still can’t quite believe that the advertising campaign didn’t even hint at some of this movie’s fantastic surprises. So I’ve tried to respect that with a plot summary that is as vague as the movie’s trailer, and a discussion that is even more spoiler-free than I’m used to providing.

The movie’s weak point, unsurprisingly, is character development. During the first act, Taylor-Johnson’s character, Ford, emerges as the primary point-of-view/audience surrogate. Not the protagonist or antagonist, of course. That would be Godzilla himself. However, his performance, in fact his whole demeanor, is startlingly wooden and emotionless. This worked pretty well for me, making him something of a blank screen on which I projected my own emotions about his family and his circumstances. But I’m doing all of the dramatic heavy-lifting as the spectator, and he’s not doing much of anything.

Part of the problem, though, is in the writing. Ford doesn’t experience any growth as a character, and he doesn’t have an arc to speak of. My sense of these films is that this is all kind of built in at the genre level, but it’s the most significant criticism I had apart from a couple of the usual head-scratcher plot holes that don’t necessarily register until you think about the movie later. There are, by my count, 3 Oscar nominees, an Oscar winner, and a 4-time Emmy winner in this cast. But none of them are getting any nominations for this movie. And that’s okay. Godzilla delivered exactly what I came to see without treating me like a popcorn-swilling moron. I’d say that puts it at least two steps ahead of the average summer blockbuster.


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