Grindhouse Theology: “For All Have Sinned: Se7en and the Horror of Human Depravity”

•October 5, 2018 • Leave a Comment

Seven (1995) Brad Pitt as detective David Mills

The most compelling thing about horror, at least to me, is that it is one of the last pockets in the popular culture of modern, secular society that consistently takes evil seriously. This is especially true of representations of supernatural evil, something enlightened citizens of the 21st century don’t tend to think about in any other context, but horror portrays evil of all kinds in one very specific way that stands in stark contrast to most other genres. In horror movies, evil is sometimes triumphant. In horror, the victory of the good and the virtuous is not a foregone conclusion. In fact, in lots of horror stories, goodness and virtue barely seem to exist.

However, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge one other corner of cinema that deals heavily in evil as a major theme: film noir. Film noir is too slippery to define as a genre, of course. It’s more of a style that originates in a particular cultural moment in American Film. Its heyday came and went decades ago, but the mark it left was so indelible that, despite the complexities of defining it, we all recognize it when we see it (or modern homages to it). Noir films are mostly crime dramas in mostly urban settings with mostly cynical male protagonists who may be either criminals or crimefighters or some combination of both. A noir film may have only some of these qualities or even none of them. Nevertheless, film noir is distinguished by its visual style, which leverages contrasts between light and shadow to maximum effect through cinematography. But of course, this element of style goes far beyond the level of the merely visual. Film noir delves deeply into thematic darkness, as well. What distinguishes noir for me is its consistent willingness to gaze into the heart of human evil, and therein lies the potential for overlap between horror and noir.

Se7en, David Fincher’s 1995 masterpiece, is unmistakably neo-noir, but its obvious horror elements are not as widely recognized. It’s strange to look back now, after nearly a quarter of a century, and remember that this was only Fincher’s second feature, coming after a decade of directing music videos and his feature-length debut with the poorly-received Alien 3 (which he later disavowed). Se7en‘s unflinching stare at human depravity goes far beyond even the bleak cynicism of the average noir film. This story of two detectives hunting a serial killer through a squalid metropolitan hellscape as he brutally mutilates and tortures his victims in an evocation of the traditional seven deadly sins opens with stomach-churningly grotesque and builds from there. This is no mere “thriller.” Se7en is theological horror …

Read the rest over at Grindhouse Theology!

2018: An Oscar Commentary

•March 4, 2018 • 1 Comment

Well, I’m here and I’m ready to find out why they thought it was a good idea to let Jimmy Kimmel host again! Oh, they’re going retro. I’m a big sucker for that. But his opening monologue was way way too long.

Best Supporting Actor: Viola Davis is here to present the award. I’m hoping for a win for Sam Rockwell here, but I’d also be happy to see Willem Dafoe get this one. He was amazing in The Florida Project. Oh, and Richard Jenkins was also super-excellent. But Sam Rockwell is the winner. It’s his first, and he has done such great work, so consistently, for so long that I’m extremely excited about this.

Best Hair and Makeup: Gal Gadot and Armie Hammer are presenting this award. It should definitely go to Darkest Hour. No contest. And it does! Hooray. It’s a bit boring, but still nice, when it’s obvious and they get it right.

Best Costume Design: Eva Marie Saint is presenting this, and doing a great job of it. I assume Phantom Thread will win, but I’d rather it go to something like Shape of Water or even Beauty and the Beast. This is one of those where it’s boring because it’s too obvious. That movie was pure costume design bait. Of course it won. It’s certainly not undeserving, but . . . meh.

Best Documentary Feature: Greta Gerwig and Laura Dern are presenting. I don’t know anything about any of these, because I’m terrible. They look great! The winner is Icarus. I need to track this one down, and also the rest of them. There’s no excuse in the age of Netflix for me not to have seen more of these.

Taraji P. Henson introduces the song nominee from Mudbound, which is the movie I most should have seen this year, let alone the nominee I most should have seen, and the one I have the least excuse for not having seen. Ridiculous. So ashamed.

Back from the commercial break with a weird, shapeless montage celebrating “90 Years of Movies” or whatever . . . but mostly movies from the past 30 years or so, and including lots of movies that Oscar wanted nothing to do with, including Wonder Woman. Come on, guys.

Best Sound Editing and Best Sound Mixing: Ansel Elgort and Eiza Gonzalez are looking pretty stiff. Both awards go to Dunkirk, which is not a big surprise. I’d have given this one to literally any of the other nominees. All are more deserving films.

Best Production Design: Lupita Nyong’o and Kumail Nanjiani are presenting. Very happy to see The Shape of Water win this, but I’d have been equally happy to see it go to Blade Runner 2049.

Eugenio Derbez (whose name I had to google) is out to stumble through announcing the song nominee from Coco, which I was hoping would win until I heard Gael Garcia Bernal butcher it. What happened there?

Best Foreign Film: Rita Moreno is presenting. I don’t know anything about these, either. The Square looks super-interesting. The award goes to A Fantastic Woman. I should track these down, too.

Best Supporting Actress: Mahershala Ali is presenting. The award goes to Allison Janney, another amazing actress who has consistently done great work for years without any Oscar attention. She was so great in I, Tonya. I would have been just as happy to see Laurie Metcalf win for Lady Bird, but this is not surprising or disappointing.

Best Animated Short and Best Animated Feature: Kelly Marie Tran, Oscar Isaac, Mark Hamill and BB-8 are presenting. Whoever wrote their jokes was real real bad. Ouch. The only one of these I’ve seen is Pixar’s “Lou.” The winner is “Dear Basketball” . . . Which is . . . surprising. And of course, Coco wins the second award. I haven’t seen some of the better-looking nominees, but it was a travesty and an embarassment that Boss Baby was even nominated. I’ll see The Breadwinner in the next few days, and I hope it’s as great as I expect, but not so great that I’m retroactively disappointed that it didn’t win.

Daniela Vega from Best Foreign Film winner A Fantastic Woman announces the song nominee from Call Me by Your Name. I really like this one.

Best Visual Effects: Tom Holland and … someone else present. I missed the name and can’t for the life of me figure out who she is. Oscar goes to Blade Runner 2049, very appropriately! I loved every movie in this category, but this was the most deserving.

Best Editing: Matthew McConaughey is presenting. Baby Driver for sure needs to win this. It’s very much time for Dunkirk to not get a technical award. But it does get it. Because of course. Dunkirk is basically a movie that is about film editing, even more than Phantom Thread is a movie that is about costume design.

Best Documentary Short Subject and Best Live-Action Short: Tiffany Haddish and Maya Rudolph are presenting, and they are killing it. I don’t know anything about this category or any of the nominees. I never pay attention to these at all because, again, I am terrible. But seriously, these two need to host next year.

Dave Chappelle is out to announce the song nominee from Marshall.

Ashley Judd, Salma Hayek, and Annabella Sciorra are here to talk about #MeToo and introduce a little segment about it. Powerful stuff.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Chadwick Boseman and Margot Robbie are presenting. I think Logan should win this. I think it should have been nominated for Best Picture. But it won’t because . . . Yeah, Call Me by Your Name wins. And having just seen it recently, I can’t be sad about that. Great screenplay, great film.

Best Original Screenplay: Nicole Kidman is announcing this category. This is maybe the strongest category of the night, so I won’t be sad no matter who wins. But I’m particularly happy that Get Out won this one! Awesome.

Wes Studi introduces a montage about military films.

Best Cinematography: Sandra Bullock comes out to present. Roger Deakins needs an Oscar, you guys. Seriously. What else are we even doing here? Yes! Yes! I almost don’t even care what else happens tonight. This has been so long in coming. I have been rooting for this to happen for so long. There have been 3 years in the last decade where he wasn’t nominated, and every other year I wanted him to win it. This is so, so long overdue.

Zendaya is introducing the song nominee from The Greatest Showman.

Best Original Score: Christopher Walken is announcing this one. I don’t have a strong feeling about this one, but I’m leaning towards Desplat for The Shape of Water. And he gets it!

Best Original Song: Lin-Manuel Miranda and Emily Blunt are presenting this award. I’ve changed my mind about this one multiple times while watching this award, but I’m currently leaning towards Sufjan Stevens. I don’t think he’ll win, though, and I’ll be fine with most of the others. The winner is “Remember Me” which was my pick at some point earlier. I’m fine with that. That’s 2 awards for Coco!

Jennifer Garner is introducing the In Memoriam montage, backed by a Tom Petty song being sung by Eddie Vedder.

Best Director: Emma Stone is presenting. I’m hoping for a Greta Gerwig win here. The Oscar goes to Guillermo del Toro. I can’t be sad about that, even though his output has been so uneven. I somehow forgot this was his first nomination as director. He should have been in the running for Pan’s Labyrinth ages ago.

Best Actor: Jane Fonda and Helen Mirren are presenting. This will surely go to Gary Oldman, right? A lot of strong contenders, and it’s not a sure thing, but come on . . . Yes! Another long overdue award. This has really been a night for recognizing people who have been long overlooked.

Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence and Jodie Foster are presenting, and ragging hard on Meryl Streep. I expect Frances McDormand to win this, and that wouldn’t be bad, but I’d so much rather see it go to Saoirse Ronan. And barring that, Margot Robbie. Frances McDormand does get it, though, as expected. She is really a great actress. And she is killing her speech! Wow. What a barn-burner to close things out before the final award. Fantastic.

Best Picture: Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway get a shot at redemption here. This award needs to go to Get Out or Lady Bird, but I don’t think it will. I won’t be happy if it goes somewhere else, but I can live with anything but Dunkirk. The winner is The Shape of Water! I did not see that coming. It’s middle-of-the-pack for me, but a fine film that I’m okay seeing win.

2018: An Oscar Primer

•March 4, 2018 • Leave a Comment

2018oscars This has been the worst year I can remember for staying caught up with movies in general, and getting caught up with the Oscar nominees in particular, but Oscar night is here and I’m forging ahead. Let’s start with my ranking of the Best Picture nominees:

Get Out (4 nominations) – This is the best horror film in years, maybe a decade, and also so much more than just a genre movie. I’m thrilled that it broke into the Best Picture category, but I shouldn’t be surprised. It very clearly deserved it. Jordan Peele nailed it, first time out of the gate.

Lady Bird (5 nominations) – What a wonderful lived-experience committed to film this is. To me, this was the most genuine, true film of the year. It helped that the main character is in high school when I as in high school, but her experience is still nothing like mine . . . and yet it felt so real and so familiar. The writing and the performances are so brilliant.

Darkest Hour (6 nominations) – This wins the period drama contest for the year, for sure. It’s nakedly Oscar-bait, with broad mass-appeal, and clearly exercising a certain amount of dramatic license with the historical facts, but still manages to overcome all my cynicism with its stirring, inspirational magnificence. I’ll watch Gary Oldman do just about anything, but when he does stuff like this . . . Wow.

The Shape of Water (13 nominations) – I adore Guillermo del Toro’s style, but I’m a little hit-or-miss with his films. This one was a solid hit. It’s been called a fairy tale, but I think it’s more a morality play . . . one designed to flatly repudiate the values of Eisenhower-era America. Not exactly a daring stance, but the film pulls it off with flair.

Call Me by Your Name (4 nominations) – An beautifully-made film that is surprisingly sensitive with its subject, and full of brilliant, subtle performances. I felt that it lagged a bit in spots, but watching these actors in this setting almost made that not matter.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (7 nominations) – I really don’t quite know what to do with this movie’s broad, dark streak of mean humor wrapped around a weirdly-sweet quasi-redemptive center. But the fact that it makes me a little uncomfortable doesn’t really qualify as a solid strike against it. I don’t know how it will fare at tonight’s ceremony, but it feels like a bomb going off in the middle of this list.

The Post (2 nominations) – Spielberg probably played it a little too safe and straight with this period piece, though I continue to appreciate his films that burn brightly in the defense of real American ideals about truth and justice and freedom in the face of jingoism and corruption. He’s done better, but most other filmmakers still do worse.

Phantom Thread (6 nominations) – Man, this was weird and I did not get it. Just totally baffled by this choice from the great Paul Thomas Anderson. Which wasn’t to say that it was a poor movie by any stretch . . . The craft and the style and the performances are as masterful as anything else he’s done. It just wasn’t quite my cup of tea. And that’s almost certainly a poor reflection on me, not it.

Dunkirk (8 nominations) – I was disappointed in Christopher Nolan for this. He should be able to do better, but at the same time this is exactly the clockwork mechanical exercise in great technical skill that he has. Maybe that’s the limit of his power, and that’s fine when he picks a more appropriate subject or genre. It didn’t work for this historical piece . . . but then, I like my historical movies with some sense of context and of the larger picture, even in the midst of depicting the ground-level experience of those who were there. Nolan still hasn’t quite managed to get the human element of his films right, and this was no exception.

Nominees I saw that I loved (almost all of these are in my top 10 for the year):
War for the Planet of the Apes
The Last Jedi
Blade Runner 2049
The Big Sick
I, Tonya
Baby Driver

Nominees I saw that I liked:
Kong: Skull Island
The Greatest Showman
The Florida Project
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Nominees I saw that I didn’t like:
Beauty and the Beast
The Disaster Artist
The Boss Baby

Nominees that I’m most sad I missed (I plan to remedy these):
The Breadwinner
Molly’s Game
Roman J. Israel, Esq
All the Money in the World

As usual, I’ve done the worst on the Documentary and Foreign Film categories. I didn’t see a single one this year.

The non-minees (movies I was most surprised to see shut out):
Wonder Woman
A Ghost Story
Spider-Man: Homecoming
Paddington 2
Thor: Ragnarok
Logan Lucky
Cars 3
The Lego Batman Movie

I’ll let you know how my hopes for the ceremony pan out in a few hours!

Grindhouse Theology: “Happy Death Day: How to Become a Final Girl (in 3 Easy Steps!)”

•February 18, 2018 • Leave a Comment


It’s February, and even though we’re already in the back half and Valentine’s Day has come and gone, I’m going to declare that it’s still relevant to reference the greatest February holiday movie of all time: Groundhog Day. (I feel fairly safe giving it that label. For one thing, it’s brilliant. For another, what other contenders even exist?) Everyone has seen Groundhog Day, I hope, but if you haven’t: Bill Murray plays narcissistic, misanthropic weatherman Phil Connors, who finds himself inexplicably trapped in a time loop in which he is forced to relive the same day over and over as he reluctantly covers the Groundhog Day festival in Punxsutawney with a small crew from his home station in Pittsburgh. A cinematic masterpiece ensues.

I mention this because, if you love Groundhog Day and you’re a fan of slashers, you might also enjoy last year’s breezy genre mashup Happy Death Day, in which self-absorbed sorority mean girl Theresa “Tree” Gelbman is forced to relive her own gruesome murder (on her birthday) again and again as she tries to narrow down an impressively-lengthy list of suspects.

Read the rest over at Grindhouse Theology!

The Moviegoings Podcast #8: The Babadook & Goodnight Mommy

•November 1, 2017 • Leave a Comment
We’re back after an extended hiatus! And to help mitigate that long absence, we’re discussing a double-feature of horror movies for Halloween! What do 2014’s “The Babadook” and “Goodnight Mommy” besides having been made in the similarly named countries of Australia and Austria, respectively? Well, they’re both fascinating and excellent films . . . but that’s not all! Join us and find out what makes these movies a particularly apt pairing!


2017: An Oscar Commentary

•February 26, 2017 • Leave a Comment

Oscar night and I’m feeling less prepared than I have in about a decade. I just squeaked the last Best Picture nominee I hadn’t seen (Fences) in under the wire, and I feel like I’ve seen fewer of the films I should have seen than in a long time. But that’s okay, I’ll be able to relate more with most of the TV audience this way! Or something! I’m kind of looking forward to Kimmel’s take on the show . . . And here we go!

First thought: Is this the Oscars, or a middle school dance? What does this have to do with the movies at all? Oh, I guess this is from Trolls . . . Blech. I guess we might as well get this out of the way right off the bat.

Best Supporting Actor: Alicia Vikander is announcing. I think and hope Mahershala Ali will win, but I’d be happy to see a win for Dev Patel or Jeff Bridges . . . Really Michael Shannon, too, I guess. But it does go to Ali! Hooray! Good way to start off the evening.

Best Make-up: Kate McKinnon and Jason Bateman present. Really hoping Star Trek Beyond wins this. Or at least not Suicide Squad. But my hopes are dashed . . . I can’t believe that movie picked up an Oscar win.

Best Costumes: McKinnon and Bateman are presenting this one as well. I think this should go to Jackie, but it could very well be La La Land‘s first win of the night . . . but it, surprisingly, goes to Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. I’m a bit confused that, out of 3 awards so far, 2 have gone to Suicide Squad and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them . . . Would never have called that a few months ago.

Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae, looking amazing, are welcoming Katherine Johnson to the stage . . . Which is so awesome and amazing.

Best Documentary: Henson, Spencer, and Monae are still up there to announce this. The award goes to O.J.: Made in America, which I am very anxious to see. I’ve heard it’s really great, though I was hoping this would go to 13th or I Am Not Your Negro (the latter of which I am extremely anxious to see).

Dwayne Johnson introduces the performance of the song from Moana, with a cool prologue by Lin-Manuel Miranda. But the real star, of course, is Auli’i Cravalho, who absolutely crushed that performance. I expect to be seeing a lot more of her in the future.

Best Sound Editing and Sound Mixing: Chris Evans and Sofia Boutella are presenting. I’m hoping for an early win for Arrival here, since I don’t think it has a chance at much tonight. And it wins! Yes! Let’s hope that’s a good sign for what’s to come. I’m hoping it will pick up Sound Mixing as well, though I’d take a win for Rogue One. But the award goes to Hacksaw Ridge, which . . . meh. At least it didn’t go to 13 Hours, I guess.

Vince Vaughn is talking about the presentations of Lifetime Achievement Award, which went to 3 industry people and Jackie Chan.

Best Supporting Actress: Mark Rylance announces. I’ll be really surprised if this doesn’t go to Viola Davis, but if it weren’t for her, I’d give it to Michelle Williams. Viola Davis wins! Very exciting! Very cool! Very deserved!

Best Foreign Film: Charlize Theron and Shirley MacLaine are presenting. I haven’t seen any of these, but hopefully the film from Iran will win so we can talk more about Trump’s grotesque travel ban . . . Okay, maybe that’s a bad reason, but I hear it’s also a really great film. And it does win, and we did talk about it, so yay! Looking forward to seeing this film!

Dev Patel is introducing the song from Jim: The James Foley Story, which I have not actually listened to yet. Not bad. Can’t see it winning, but I’d like to see the film.

Best Animated Short: Hailee Steinfeld and Gael Garcia Bernal are presenting. This is Pixar’s one shot at a win this year . . . and they get it! Hooray! Not that I saw any of the other shorts, and I’m bummed about that, but I did really like “Piper.”

Best Animated Film: Steinfeld and Bernal are announcing this as well. I’m really rooting for a Kubo win here, but I expect to be disappointed. Yep, it went to Zootopia, as expected. It really shouldn’t have, but whatever. The Oscars are frequently wrong.

Best Production Design: Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson are presenting, which is lame, because it’s a shout-out to a crappy franchise. Anyway, La La Land scores its first win of the night, which is not surprising. I was kind of hoping for Arrival or Hail, Caesar!, but this is fine.

Best Visual Effects: Felicity Jones and Riz Ahmed (from a vastly, infinitely superior franchise) are announcing this. I’m hoping it goes to Kubo or Rogue One or Doctor Strange, but for some incomprehensible reason it goes to The Jungle Book. Okay, not incomprehensible, because those effects were really impressive . . . Just absolutely not what I would have given it to. Blerg.

Best Editing: Seth Rogen and Michael J. Fox emerge from the freaking Back to the Future DeLorean to announce this award. As always, I want this to go to Arrival, although this could be a nice lone win for Hell or High Water . . . but I expect it will go to La La Land or Moonlight, which would also be fine. But it ends up going to Hacksaw Ridge, which was the last thing I expected, and I have no idea why that film merited this award. I guess I just don’t understand editing . . . Well, actually, I know I don’t, but still this is weird.

Best Documentary Short and Live-Action Short: Salma Hayek and David Oyelowo present. The awards go to The White Helmets and Sing, but I haven’t seen any of the nominees.

John Cho and Leslie Mann are talking about the Science & Technology Awards. Cool stuff, but as usual, we don’t hear a lot about it. And that’s fine, because it’s getting on towards time for this thing to be getting to the point.

Best Cinematography: Meryl Streep and Javier Bardem announce. Really hoping this goes to not La La Land, although it’s overdue for more wins at this point. I’d be happiest about a win for Silence, of course, but it won’t win. Arrival and Lion, though, are equally deserving. Seems that everyone else felt La La Land was overdue as well. I liked this movie, but I’m not seeing why it won this award.

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are introducing the performance, by John Legend (?), of the nominated songs from La La Land.

Best Original Score: Samuel L. Jackson is the presenter. I always hope for a Thomas Newman win here, but it’d be kind of odd if he finally won for Passengers. I actually think I like La La Land best here, and it wins! I like the overall score better than most of the individual songs. I’m still carrying that torch for Thomas Newman, though. Dude has been nominated 14 times with no win, and he’s the best movie composer working today.

Best Original Song: Scarlett Johansson is announcing. Really really really hoping for Moana to win here. C’mon La La Land vote split! But the award goes to “City of Stars” from La La Land. Lin-Manuel Miranda will have to wait another year before he conquers the entire entertainment universe. This was at least the better of the two nominated songs from La La Land.

Jennifer Aniston is introducing the In Memoriam bit, with a touching mention for Bill Paxton, who just passed this morning.

Best Original Screenplay: Ben Affleck and Matt Damon are presenting. I’d be most happy with a Hell or High Water win here, but I’m not expecting it. This is a category that almost always disappoints me. The win goes to Manchester by the Sea, which is actually a really solid pick. Cool.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Amy Adams is announcing. I really would like to see Arrival take this one, but not really expecting it. Honestly, almost any of these would be great picks, except for Lion, which I don’t think was very well adapted, and probably Fences, which could have done more to adapt its source. The award goes to Moonlight! Okay, I can get behind that!

Best Director: Halle Berry is the presenter. I really want to see this go to Arrival, again, but I’m expecting it to go to La La Land. Yes, it did. That’s okay, I’m fine with a win by Damien Chazelle, not only because La La Land is a fine film and a solid directorial achievement, but also on the strength of the excellent Whiplash.

Best Actor: Brie Larson announcing. I hope and believe that this will go to Denzel Washington, but won’t be surprised or disappointed to see it go to Casey Affleck. Well, I take that back now that it’s happened. I’m a little surprised and a little disappointed, but not much. He was really really good, just not as good as Denzel.

Best Actress: Leonardo DiCaprio presenting. I hope this award goes to Ruth Negga, but I won’t be sad if it goes to Emma Stone. I’d really like to see it go to Natalie Portman, but I don’t think that’s even a possibility, and she’s not even there. Emma Stone gets it! I think I’d be really thrilled about it if this was for anything other than La La Land, because backlash. I’ve been an Emma Stone fan since Zombieland. I think she’s one of the funniest, sharpest leading actresses working today, and it’s great to see her win.

Best Picture: Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway are announcing this award (because it’s the 50th anniversary of Bonnie and Clyde, which is crazy). La La Land feels like a shoe-in at this point, but I’ll say again, I’d pick both Hell or High Water and Arrival over it. Also, Moonlight has some momentum at this point, and I think that’d be a really interesting pick. It wouldn’t be my pick, but it would be kind of exciting to see a film like that win. As far as I know, nothing else is on the radar.

Okay, that was literally the craziest thing I’ve ever seen happen in an Oscar broadcast. Apparently they handed Warren Beatty the wrong envelope, with a repeat copy of Emma Stone’s win for Best Actress, which let them to announce that La La Land had won the award. But in the middle of the acceptance speeches for La La Land, various people rushed on the stage and corrected the error: Moonlight wins Best Picture.

What else is there even to say after that? I’m going to bed.

2017: An Oscar Primer

•February 26, 2017 • Leave a Comment

oscars2017I’ve got a few more . . . ummm, minutes before showtime, let’s talk Oscar nominees! There are 9 nominees for Best Picture next year, 1 more than the last 2 years, just like the 2 years before that. Here they are:

Arrival – Several giant alien ships suddenly appear at various points around the globe, and Amy Adams is a linguist who presents humanity’s best hope of understanding what they want before various militaries with itchy trigger-fingers do something rash. This is the kind of sci-fi movie that we don’t see enough of . . . brilliantly made at every level and full of big ideas. It has 8 nominations: Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing.

Fences – A working-class African-American family in the 1950s struggles with various events as the patriarch works to master the demons of his past and present. This is based on an acclaimed play, and it really shows, but that does nothing to detract from the power of the writing and of Denzel Washington and Viola Davis’s performances. The movie has 4 nominations: Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay.

Hacksaw Ridge – Based on the true story of World War II combat medic Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to win a Medal of Honor. Doss’s commitment to nonviolence led him to enter battle unarmed, but his courage saved the lives of dozens of wounded men. It’s an incredible story, and an idea (the power of nonviolence and the value of life) that is very close to my heart. It’s a shame that the film ultimately couldn’t rise above a fetish for more violent forms of heroism, which ultimately undercuts what it ought to be about. This film has 6 nominations: Best Director, Best Actor, Best Editing, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing.

Hell or High Water – Two brothers on the verge of financial disaster execute a carefully-planned series of bank heists in small towns across West Texas. Meanwhile, a Texas Ranger on the verge of retiring follows tenaciously in their wake. I adored this film, in part for its perfect understanding of the hard country in which it is set, but also for the excellence of its performances and the tension it maintains throughout. It has 4 nominations: Best Supporting Actor, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing.

Hidden Figures – In 1960s Virginia, as NASA scrambles to catch up with the Soviet space program, three African-American women play significant behind-the-scenes roles in America’s success. This is rousing, crowd-pleasing stuff that’s very satisfying and fun to watch, and gives well-deserved recognition to people who have long been denied it, even if it didn’t all quite go down quite as triumphantly as the movie suggests. The movie has 3 nominations: Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay.

La La Land – An aspiring actress struggling to make it in Hollywood finds romance with a talented jazz musician battling to find popular appreciation for a fading art form, and musical sparks fly. Light and fluffy and super-enjoyable, this throwback to old-school Hollywood musicals is tailor-made for Oscar appreciation, but don’t let the backlash effect of excessive adulation convince you that it’s not a fine little film in its own right. It has a stunning 14 nominations, tying with Titanic and All About Eve for most-nominated film of all-time: Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Costume Design, Best Original Score, Best Original Song (2 nominations), Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing.

Lion – A small boy in rural India falls asleep aboard a train and is carried hundreds of miles from home with no idea of where he is from or how to find his family again. Adopted by an Australian couple, he is a grown man before he can begin to try and track down the life he lost. This is a powerful and incredibly emotional viewing experience, though it’s weighted down by an unnecessarily draggy middle section. The film has 6 nominations: Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score.

Manchester by the Sea – When his older brother dies, a man who fled a tragic past is forced to return to the small town where he grew up to take charge of his teenage nephew. This is what they used to call a “male weepie,” and it’s certainly effective at that. Well-acted, well-written . . . but you’d better be in the mood for it. It’s got 6 nominations: Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Original Screenplay.

Moonlight – A young boy growing up in a tough neighborhood struggles with issues of identity, family, drugs, bullying, and crime. It’s really something to see a film like this get this kind of attention. It’s a film that didn’t speak to me like some films do, but one that I was really happy to hear about and to see. Top-notch. The movie has 8 nominations: Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Original Score.
Continue reading ‘2017: An Oscar Primer’

2016: An Oscar Commentary

•February 28, 2016 • Leave a Comment

Okay, here we are on Oscar night, strapped in and not quite ready to go, but it’s time so we’re going. I’m feeling a lot of trepidation about tonight’s ceremony, and the outcome, but at the end of the night, it doesn’t really mean a whole heck of a lot, so it’s time to just enjoy it for what it is and let go of the rest.

Let’s see how many #oscarsowhite jokes Chris Rock can cram into one monologue . . . Wow, I would have guessed lower than that. It’s turning into his entire opener.

Best Original Screenplay: Charlize Theron and Emily Blunt are here to do Best Original Screenplay. A lot of worthy nominees in this category, so I feel like I have no major horse in this race, just a lot of worthy possibilities. I’d be happy with any of these. Though, if I had to pick one: Inside Out. But Spotlight picks up it’s first win of the night, hopefully of many. This is the one I’m rooting for to win the big award, so that’s a satisfying beginning.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe are doing this one, presumably as a stunt to promote their forthcoming film (which I’m quite excited about). And it’s a win for The Big Short! I’m not sure who I would have given this to, but probably not this film. Although, it did take an absurdly complex and dry subject and make an engaging and informative comedy about it, so . . . Maybe it is well-deserved.

Sarah Silverman is introducing the Spectre song performance in that special Sarah Silverman way . . . For probably way too long. I feel like the Best Song category is extremely weak this year, but of the nominees I guess I’m rooting for this one. Maybe one of the other live performances will change my mind, but if there was ever a year to skip this part of the program, this is probably it.

Kerry Washington and Henry Cavill introduce very brief montages celebrating The Martian and The Big Short, which feels like a really weird follow-up to another lengthy no-award segment. We’re almost 40 minutes into the show, and they’ve given out 2 statues. Pick it up!

Best Supporting Actress: J.K. Simmons is giving this, reminding me of how much I loved Whiplash last year, and how amazing he was in it. I really didn’t expect it to be Alicia Vikander. She’s great, but . . . I’m not sure I’d have picked her.

Best Costumes: Cate Blanchett is presenting. I feel like this is definitely going to Carol, just because it has so many other nominations. It should go to Mad Max, though, along with all of the other visual awards. And it does! So exciting! So, I think I like this scrolling “People the winner would like to thank” thing . . . A great idea, but what if they have nothing to say in their speeches?

Best Production Design:Tina Fey and Steve Carell presenting . . . This clearly needs to be another Mad Max win. There are some great nominees on this list, but it’s head and shoulders above the rest.

Best Make-up and Hairstyling:Another film tie-in with Margot Robbie and Jared Leto. I wonder if they’ve done this kind of thing in previous years, and I just haven’t noticed. Anyway, let’s go Mad Max hat trick! Yay! I don’t know how many more it will win, but these are so clearly deserved.

Benicio del Toro and Jennifer Garner are introducing montages for The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road. They could have (and should have) just run the trailer for this film. Definitely the best trailer of last year.

Best Cinematography:Rachel McAdams and Michael B. Jordan announce. It’s time for a Deakins win, although perhaps not for this film. That’s still who has my vote, just because after 13 nominations it’s just his freaking turn. But I’d be happy with anything but The Revenant, so of course that’s where it goes. This is Lubezki’s 3rd win in a row, and I’m not sure that’s ever been done before. It certainly shouldn’t have been done this time. He did some amazing work in this film, but there are other very deserving cinematographers who should have gotten this.

Best Editing: Liev Schrieber and Priyanka Chopra. A younger part of me wants this to go to Star Wars, but the rest of me knows it has to go to Mad Max. Which it does . . .

Best Sound Editing & Sound Mixing: Chad Boseman and Chris Evans presenting . . . another award for Mad Max? Or maybe for Star Wars? This is a killer montage, by the way. Nope, Mad Max, which is almost sweeping tonight, but for the minor and annoying hiccup of the Cinematography award. Another great montage! Love it! They should do this every year. Mad Max wins again, so Star Wars is officially shut-out this year. Ah, well. There will be other years for Star Wars (so many), maybe not for Mad Max.

Best Visual Effects: Andy Serkis gives the award to Ex Machina which . . . What? Huh? Really? I can’t even. Okay, I need to calm down, because it’s actually really exciting to see this win. But . . . that’s just not what I would have given this award to. It clearly needed to go to Mad Max. Someday maybe a Star Wars film will win a visual effects Oscar (it never has since visual effects became its own official category).

Olivia Munn and Jason Segel are talking about the sci/tech awards. Good time for a break. Oh, wait, it’s . . . C-3PO, R2-D2, and BB-8! Geeking out now.

The Minions are presenting the Oscar for Best Animated Short. Which just pisses me off so much, I’d better move on. They give it to “Bear Story,” which I did not see, so I shouldn’t comment. Really thought this would definitely go to either Pixar or the amazing “World of Tomorrow.”

Best Animated Film: Buzz Lightyear and Woody presenting. Which is . . . a cool idea, and way better than having freaking minions . . . Shouldn’t get started again. No surprise the award goes to Pixar for Inside Out. It’s such a non-surprise that they even had Pixar animate their own characters presenting the award. So . . . (Nepotism!) Seriously, though, glad this at least got something, as my favorite film of last year.

Kevin Hart is being funny and introducing the performance of the song from Fifty Shades of Grey, which  . . . Oh, nothing. I’m going to go do something else for awhile.

Kate Winslet and Reese Witherspoon introduce the montages for Bridge of Spies and Spotlight. Great pairing!

Best Supporting Actor: Patricia Arquette presenting, reminding me of the awesomeness of Boyhood. I know Stallone is the popular favorite to win, but I’d love to see this go to Mark Rylance. Which it does! Yes! Such a great performance in a great film. Highly-deserved.

Louis CK presenting Best Documentary Short. I didn’t see any of them.

Best Documentary: Daisy Ridley and Dev Patel presenting. I saw them all, for once, and this has to go to The Look of Silence! But, on the other hand, Cartel Land was amazing, and I’d be happy to see it win, even though it deserves it less. But they gave it to Amy, which although I enjoyed it, was the absolute last doc that should have won. Oh, well.

Louis Gossett, Jr. is introducing the in memoriam montage.

The kid from Beasts of No Nation and the kid from Room are presenting Best Live-Action Short. I didn’t see any of these. I didn’t see any of the Best Foreign Film nominees, either, though I want to see them all. In an ideal world, obviously, I’d be able to see nominees from countries other than America sooner than several months to several years after they start slowly circulating through festivals or whatever.

And now Joe Biden emerges (to the Indiana Jones theme, which . . .?) to announce Lady Gaga’s song from The Hunting Ground. Politically-speaking, maybe this will be the winner? Like that song from An Inconvenient Truth (although this is at least a better song than that).

Best Original Score: Quincy Jones and Pharrell Williams present. The award goes, as it must, to Ennio Morricone. Honestly, I assumed he had already won one at some point. This is really the only outcome that can make it okay to watch Thomas Newman lose his 13th nomination. When are they gonna give that guy a freaking Oscar? When he’s as old as Morricone . . .?

Best Original Song: Common and John Legend announce. The award goes to Spectre. Yay, I guess.

Olivia Wilde and Sacha Baron Cohen (in character as Ali G . . . why?!) introduce montages for Room and Brooklyn. Both fantastic!

Best Director: J.J. Abrams is announcing. This award should go to George Miller, but really anyone but Inarritu would be okay. It feels like a feeble hope, at best. And it is. What a total crock. I wasn’t rooting for him last year, but at least his win made sense then. This is just absurd. Even though I saw it coming, any win this bad can threaten to ruin a whole show for me.

Best Actress: Eddie Redmayne announcing. I don’t know who I want to see win. In terms of actresses, I’ll be thrilled to see any of these women win. In terms of performances, the award should probably go to Brie Larson. And it does! Hooray!

2016: An Oscar Primer

•February 28, 2016 • Leave a Comment

88th OscarsI can’t believe it’s Oscar nomination time again. Heck, Oscar award time. How time flies. Really cut it down to the wire, this year.

There are 8 nominees for Best Picture this year, just like last year (but still down from the 9 nominees of the previous 2 years):

The Big Short – A slick, sharp account of the guys who realized in advance that the housing bubble was going to burst, but never imagined what would happen next. It has a powerhouse cast and a unique, engaging style that makes you feel like you almost understand the esoteric and labyrinthine story behind the housing crisis. And, even though it’s entertaining and even hilarious at times, if you don’t walk out at the end seething with anger, there’s something wrong with your inner sense of justice. It has 5 nominations: Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Supporting Actor.

Bridge of Spies – At the height of the Cold War, an American lawyer is called on to defend a Soviet spy, which leads to a key role negotiating a touchy prisoner exchange with the USSR. We already know that Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks are a winning combination. This is my favorite of their collaborations to-date. This movie isn’t flashy or showy about its greatness, it’s just quietly awesome with a strong thread of contemporary relevance. This is the 2015 film that every American should see as a refresher on what America is all about and what it means to be an American. The movie has 6 nominations: Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, Best Production Design, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing.

Brooklyn – A young Irish girl emigrates to America in the 1950s and slowly begins to put down roots in her new country, but unexpected events back home lead her to question where she truly wants to make a life for herself. This is basically the perfect date movie: It’s romantic and deftly mixes comedy and tragedy without tipping too far in either (particularly the latter) direction . . . and it doesn’t suck. Saoirse Ronan is brilliant in it, but I think the screenplay is the real MVP. It’s a real high-wire act that avoids so many things that could have been totally wrong. Brooklyn has 3 nominations: Best Actress, Best Adapted Screenplay.

Mad Max: Fury Road – Taken captive by Immortan Joe and his War Boys, Max manages to glom onto a daring escape masterminded by Imperator Furiosa, who has Joe’s prized wives in-tow. This movie was the biggest adrenaline rush of the year. It is textbook in its execution of killer action with a brain, and the aesthetics are like nothing I’ve ever seen, or would have expected out of this kind of movie. There are films on this list that maybe “matter” more in one way or another, but of the Best Picture nominees, this was my most entertaining theatrical filmgoing experience of the year. It has a whopping 10 nominations: Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Visual Effects, Best Makeup, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing.

The Martian – After he is accidentally left for dead on the surface of Mars, astronaut Mark Watney works some science and engineering magic to survive long enough for an expedition to be mounted to save him in this ultimate survival flick. Even though it seems like this should be 2 hours of Matt Damon emoting alone in front of a green screen, it actually has a fantastic ensemble cast and a great mix of humor and thrills. And, having read the book, I can attest that it is an excellent adaptation. The film has 7 nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Production Design, Best Visual Effects, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing.

The Revenant – While fleeing a marauding force of Cree Indians in the dead of winter, Hugh Glass is mauled by a bear and left for dead by the trappers he served as guide, but he is determined to survive, alone and without resources, long enough to track down the man who murdered his son. With a runtime of 156 minutes, you’d expect this to be an almost unremittingly grim and bleak wilderness slog. And you’d pretty much be right. Plus, Iñarritu’s insistence on showy handheld camera work and gimmicky one-take shots don’t serve this narrative particularly well. Despite this, The Revenant is an impressive achievement on several levels, and well-worth a viewing. It leads the field with 12 nominations: Best Director, Best Cinematography, Best Editing, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Production Design, Best Visual Effects, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing.

Room – Five-year old Jack has lived his whole life inside the room where he and his mother are kept prisoner by the man who fathered him after kidnapping her. As far as he knows, it is his whole world. But now he is finally old enough to help his mother escape. This movie is so intense, as many of the films on this list are, but in a totally different, much more dramatic and human way. So much rests on the amazing performances by Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay as “Ma” and Jack, but a lot of the credit should obviously go to the directing, as well. The film is brilliantly shot, and never loses sight of its unique voice and perspective. Room has 4 nominations: Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actress.

Spotlight – This is the stunning true story of the journalists who first broke the story of the abuse scandal that engulfed the Catholic Church over a decade ago. There are so many ways to screw up a film like this, and some of them wouldn’t even have registered as missteps, perhaps, but they would have been. Spotlight and its amazing cast never lose sight of the victims their story is really about, and deftly avoid lionizing its main characters as selfless, flawless heroes. It was one of the more emotional experiences I had at the movies last year. Honestly, it’s too good for me to really try to do it justice in a paragraph. It is almost certainly one of the best journalism films of all time. The movie has 6 nominations: Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress.

Continue reading ‘2016: An Oscar Primer’

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’