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!

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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) 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.