Monday, February 27, 2017

The Good, the Bad, and the Insane at Last Night's Oscars

Well, that was a show, huh?  In what will go down in history as the strangest Oscar finale of all time, we had not one but two Best Picture winners for a brief moment.  I know a number of people (including my father, who was tired and headed upstairs to bed once La La Land won), may be wishing that they had stuck around a bit longer, but man was that an ending.  As a result, let's get to the good, the bad, the WTF,  and undecided of last night.

The WTF

We'll start here because this is really what we all want to talk about, right?  Never, in my wildest dreams, could I have anticipated such a scenario as the wrong Best Picture winner being called.  My mom and I both stood up there aghast (we were both standing, anticipating that we'd quickly see a pithy aside about Donald Trump from Kimmel right before the credits rolled) and then suddenly Jordon Horowitz proclaimed Moonlight the winner.  At first, quite frankly, I thought what was happening was a Jack Lemmon/Ving Rhames situation, where the producers of La La Land wanted to bring their counterparts to the stage in an act of recognizing that, perhaps, more than one Best Picture is worthy each year.  But no, it was a staggering mistake of epic proportions.

Conspiracy theorists will postulate this was planned for the rest of time, but honestly I don't think that Dunaway or Beatty are that good of live performers (if they can still pull off something like that, why aren't more casting agents on them?).  No, based on what we're hearing this morning the wrong envelope got in Beatty's hands (you can see this in the pictures/video pretty clearly), he was confused, Dunaway just saw La La Land in giant letters and was assuming he was being cute, and then the catastrophe was set in motion.

Aside from proving once-and-for-all that Marisa Tomei did win that Oscar years ago (the real loser tonight is Judy Davis), this was both the best and worst of live television.  It was SO awkward and yet SO stunning, it ranks in the same sort of "can't look away" live television as the David Niven Streaker or Janet Jackson's half-time "wardrobe malfunction."  I feel truly bad for the La La Land producers (though I'm not going with the "grace and class" line so many are saying, as Jordan Hurwitz literally yanked that card out of Beatty's hands even though it clearly wasn't his fault; I'm not saying I would have behaved differently, but I probably wouldn't have had the gaul to rip anything out of a screen icon's hands).  I feel worse for Dunaway and Beatty, both of whom are going to be accused of having a "senior moment" when in reality there's a PriceWaterhouseCoopers accountant backstage who is updating their LinkedIn profile right now.  All-in-all, though, this was insane television, and thankfully it was La La Land to Moonlight, and not the other way around (or something involving Hacksaw Ridge).  And it led to arguably the first time I've seen Twitter erupt in chaos over something that didn't involve our president.  So that's a win in my book.  Either way, I won't forget about this for a looooong time.

The Good

Other than the Best Picture fiasco, the show had a number of great credits to its name.  I know that it's a popular past-time to mock the host, which Kimmel pointed out at the beginning, but honestly-I thought that Jimmy was aces and should become a regular.  He was edgy enough to keep the politically-inclined happy, several of his bits worked for me (I thought the potential trainwreck of the tourists coming in paid huge dividends, particularly Denzel marrying those two people and if nothing else it served as the soundest indictment of America to PUT AWAY YOUR FUCKING PHONES rather than recording things, as you're missing out on meeting movie stars by recording everything).  I loved a few jokes, and actually thought the Gibson jokes were just enough, and I was fine with the candy bits because the stars (particularly Meryl Streep, Octavia Spencer, and Taraji P. Henson) got into it in a major way.  I know he joked about never coming back, but that'd be a damn shame-he's clearly the most able host to take to the Oscars since Ellen, perhaps even Steve Martin.

Obviously I could celebrate a few of the wins (Moonlight taking Best Picture a decade after Brokeback Mountain is going to hit me at some point this morning, but my 20-year-old self is pretty proud right now considering I wore black for days of mourning after that), and I loved the way that The Salesman win was handled, though obviously having Asghar Farhadi there would have been better (Donald Trump is always on the "ugly" list).  Mahershala Ali gave a great speech, and the Hidden Figures section of the audience was by far the most fun (I loved "Cookie" aka Taraji P. Henson asking Octavia Spencer to share her cookies part in particular).  It wasn't superbly executed, but Katherine Johnson coming out was damn cool, and though it won't ever happen again at this rate, I loved the nod to Old Hollywood with Dunaway/Beatty.

One of the best bits of the night, one I wish I'd seen a bit more of, was the pairings of actors with their heroes (ie MacLaine/Theron and Fox/Rogen), as it nodded back to movies as culture, and it was a great way to show how actors inspire other actors.  Oh, and while I hardly wanted Hacksaw Ridge to win any awards, A) its sound mixing was better than La La Land's and B) Kevin O'Connell finally winning that damn Oscar and giving a beautiful ode to his mother made that moment worth it for me.  All-in-all, I think that while there were bits that I could have skipped, this was a very tight, strong Oscars, so anyone complaining this morning needs to state what they expect out of the Academy Awards...other than they hand the right envelopes out. #understandable

The Undecided

Viola Davis and Casey Affleck still have me undecided, to be honest, so let's start with Viola and work our way down.

I am glad Viola Davis has an Oscar.  Viola is one of the best actors in Hollywood, and this was a long time coming (I'd have given her two trophies by now).  But the category fraud thing has got to stop at some point.  Alicia Vikander and JK Simmons means it's three years in a row now, and if we don't end it soon, we're never going to get rare wins like Mahershala Ali's in Moonlight, a tiny gem that added SO much to Moonlight but in reality doesn't have the screen time to compete with someone like Davis in terms of sheer impact.  I'm usually one to look past that (it's easy to be calmed by one of your favorite actors getting a trophy), but can't we end this at some point?  Also, I have to say that while Davis is arguably the best orator in Hollywood right now when it comes to picking up awards, the "only" occupation to know what it is "to celebrate a life"-what about doctors, funeral directors, the white helmets, etc?  I think that this entered indulgent hyperbole even if I knew where she was going.  Still, it's a better world that we live in that Viola Davis now has an Oscar.

Casey Affleck I have no issues with his performance.  It's in my opinion by far the best of that category.  But I'm going to be honest here-I was hoping he'd lose.  I would have voted for Denzel, and part of me was hoping that this was that moment Ryan Gosling randomly picked up the trophy.  I could see in the lack of a proper standing ovation for him and the way that Brie Larson refused to clap that this is someone a lot of Hollywood doesn't believe in the charges against him, and I am a little confused about whether or not I will put a picture of him on my Facebook banner all year, as I do every year with the Oscar winners (apparently there's a few photos of just the other three winners circulating that would be a solid option, but then you get your conservative friends on Facebook who want to make an example of everything and...Facebook sucks, let's leave it there).  Either way, I'm going to remind myself that he almost certainly deserved this for his work even if he didn't deserve it personally.

The Bad

Since I'm not putting the Best Picture fiasco here (because it was fascinating if awful), there's not a lot to do here.  I have my most consistent complaint about the sound quality of the musical production numbers, which never seems to be as good as the Tonys and the Grammys.  I thought they might have it fixed after that well-launched opening number by Justin Timberlake (I loved the look at the lobby for the Oscars, which I'd never seen) as Timberlake sounded superb, but then the Moana singer came in and the balance felt off.  On a night where they correctly identified a La La Land weak spot (the sound mixing), you'd wish that they could address the same in their own telecast.

I will say that while Timberlake's opening felt a little too "the Grammys" for me, considering we weren't going to get a musical number from Kimmel this felt about right, though I could have done without Timberlake for the rest of the evening, greeting every person in La La Land as if he was in their movie, and that whole bizarre mugging thing when Kimmel was talking to him fell insanely flat.  I don't know-I don't like Timberlake personally at all and while I'll acknowledge there's talent there, it's more in the sense of live performance and less personality-based for me.  That, plus Sunny Pawar as The Lion King and the Donald Trump tweet sections were the only bits that really didn't work for me of Kimmel's, which is a solid track record but still worth pointing out.

Oh, and while the Meryl Streep bit was funny and took it a step further than usual, we probably need a new Meryl bit at this point, right?  We all know her routine of hiding behind Don (who clearly is completely over going to these things at this point), and part of me wondered if the producers were hinting at this when they chose such a slight clip from FFJ and not, say, a dying scene.  And don't go crying for a spoiler alert there-I don't know if you'd catch it, exactly, from the clips, but we saw serious spoilers from Fences and Hell or High Water in the acting clips last night.  I didn't want to say anything to my parents in the room with me during Jeff Bridges' clip as they haven't seen the movie yet, but Fences all three of us noted that "that's giving away something."  Probably better chose the clips next time.

Arguably the worst moment of the night was Vince Vaughn's weird, inexplicable Sal Mineo joke.  What was that about-was it meant to be homophobic?  I think that anyone with Vaughan's politics should probably resist cracking about slain gay actors, and while he somewhat recovered, he doesn't have the comic sensibility of a Whoopi Goldberg or even a Ricky Gervais to make inside baseball jokes that will land outside of the Kodak.

All-in-all, though, I had a great time-please share your thoughts below in the comments of what you thought of last night's Oscars!

Thursday, February 23, 2017

OVP: The Lobster (2016)

Film: The Lobster (2016)
Stars: Colin Farrell, Rachel Weisz, Lea Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, John C. Reilly, Olivia Colman, Jessica Barden
Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Original Screenplay)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 4/5 stars

I am single.  Very, very single.  Chronically single.  Unhappily single.  Continually single.  I needed to get that out in the open before I start to dissect (ooh, what a choice of words) the latest film from Yorgos Lanthimos, which is in the hunt for an Original Screenplay award this Sunday at the Oscars.  I have seen one other of Lanthimos' films (the controversial Dogtooth) so I knew I was in for something bizarre and occasionally ridiculous, and compared to Dogtooth, The Lobster actually stayed a bit more in the lines.  Still, though, as a single person I felt a bit more of this screenplay and these jokes than I would have had I been partnered my whole life, and actually liked The Lobster much more than my first round with Lanthimos.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film centers around David (Farrell), a man who has been sent to a retreat where he must find love or be turned into the animal of his choice (in this case, the titular lobster).  The place is run like a combination of a boarding house and the world's worst singles cruise, with forced fraternization, but with a twist.  All of the people are forced to partner with someone only when they share a seemingly superficial trait.  We meet several of David's friends, including Robert (Reilly) and John (Whishaw), the latter of which is determined to make a match with a woman even though he doesn't have any physical issues in common with her.  David eventually runs away from the hotel, joining a band of rebels including a Lonely Leader (Seydoux) and a beautiful woman (Weisz) who is nearsighted, like David.  They form a romantic relationship, which with the rebels is forbidden, and eventually come together, but at a terrible price (David likely blinding himself just as the film ends).

The movie is predicated on an absurd world, but it has enough truth to the screenplay to make you chuckle nervously rather than just chuckle.  The film's over-emphasis on dating culture being based on commonalities, rather than admiration or love or respect, is a direct connection to a web-based dating system where compatibility scores and surface-level attraction are far more important than something substantive.  The movie also shows how little value the world places on single people, especially as they age, showing, for example, the hotel manager (Colman), a cold woman with little to lend to her outward persona other than a wedding ring, being valued much higher than those more nuanced people that are in her care.  The film is not at-first a clear slap at modern culture, and the castes we place people in based on their romantic statuses, but it sure turns that way as it continues and we see rejection from both sides of people's decision (you really can't win in this world).

The acting in the film is roundly good, with Farrell, Colman, and Whishaw being the stand-outs for me.  I loved the desperation that Whishaw has to be normal, particularly when surrounded with men who clearly aren't (including himself) and Colman is almost unrecognizable as the hotel manager.  I wasn't wild about the lack of resolutions in some areas, but that might have been because I wanted to see more of this world and the ramifications of some of the actions (particularly what was the animal "that everyone hated?").  Overall, though, this is a much more coherent and succinct vision of a world we live in (even if it of course isn't) than Dogtooth was, and Lanthimos himself stays on my list of directors to follow more closely.

Those are my thoughts on The Lobster.  Considering it's been out for months I'm sure most of you have already seen it, so share below-who was your favorite character?  Who would you hope showed up to the hotel for you?  And how do you think films like this manage original screenplay nominations, but never any higher?

OVP: Lion (2016)

Film: Lion (2016)
Stars: Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Nicole Kidman, Sunny Pawar
Director: Garth Davis
Oscar History: 6 nominations (Best Picture, Supporting Actor-Dev Patel, Supporting Actress-Nicole Kidman, Cinematography, Score, Adapted Screenplay)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 3/5 stars

Each Oscar season, especially after the nominations were announced, there's a movie that people in my life who don't know movies super well but who know I like movies, ask me about.  At the beginning of the nominations, and especially after the Globes wins, that movie was La La Land, which is likely to soar into Best Picture this Sunday, perhaps gaining an historic 12+ victories.  However, I should note that another film has all but usurped it in terms of people asking me about "what did you think?" and while this is anecdotal, it does perhaps hint at what screeners might be getting to the top of the stacks of AMPAS voters, and that is Lion.  Considering I still have eleven Oscar-nominated 2016 films that I've seen but not yet reviewed (ARGH!!!!), I figured I'd make a point of at least getting the buzzed-about titles onto the blog and my thoughts on it out before it perhaps wins a surprise trophy?

(Spoilers Ahead) The film is told in two parts, with very few flashbacks in-between so the narrative isn't quite what you'd expect.  The first half focuses on Saroo (Pawar, Patel as an adult) when he is a young boy in India, and who gets on a train one night with his brother (despite the fact that his brother doesn't want to take him).  Saroo, through a coincidence of circumstances, is forced away from his brother while he's taking a nap, and ends up on a train halfway across of India, a thousand miles from his home, not speaking the language.  He is put in an orphanage and is eventually adopted by a Tasmanian couple named Sue (Kidman) and John (Wenham), and is raised alongside a more tempestuous brother.  The film cuts twenty years into the future with Saroo now a young man with a thick Australian accent, and who is struggling to come to terms with his family that never knew what happened to him.  Through a series of investigations (and what appears to be a solid advertisement for Google Earth), he ends up finding his parents, but along the way comes to terms with his complicated relationship with his adoptive parents and his girlfriend and his sense of identity.  Like most true stories, the film ends with a look at where Saroo ended up (and how his actual name was Sheru, which means lion, hence the title).

It's a lovely movie, I must say, and one that holds up somewhat despite a heavy dose of schmaltz.  The first half of the film is riveting, and grounded by a strong piece of work by young Sunny Pawar, probably the best child acting performance of the year, or at least in any of the Best Pictures.  The film doesn't shy away from a lot of complicated questions, particularly around identity, and I've never seen Dev Patel be better (or, quite frankly, be more attractive, though unlike the rest of the internet I've noticed Patel before-I always like guys with stuck-out ears).  I will say, though that his acting abilities eluded me before and while I don't think this is Oscar-worthy stuff, he has tremendous promise in this role and I hope people give him more to do after Lion.

But I couldn't love the film.  I cried, don't get me wrong, but this is a sad and moving story-I think only a statue doesn't end up crying by the end of it.  However, the film itself never really is as interesting as it wants to be, and the adult half of the film never quite recovers from the gargantuan task set before it in the first half of the movie.  I didn't love Kidman's performance-I thought it was lived-in and I'm a big fan usually, but her major scene reeked of someone who deserved less sympathy than we would have afforded her (the white savior complex may be real, but it's hard to imagine that she viewed herself that way and it wouldn't have come back to bite her in terms of her sons at some point), and otherwise she just sort of is in the background of the film-the Oscar nod was a bit much.  The movie never knows what's going on with Patel's relationship with Rooney Mara (Mara, a hit-or-miss actress for me, can't figure out her character at all), and the ending, while moving, is completely anticipated throughout and there's very little drama in the last half hour.  It's one of those movies that brilliantly handles "we know how this is going to end" for the first hour but then loses that lens in the second half, trying to be a thriller where the reveal is already there.

Those are my thoughts on Lion, a fine if not superb movie.  What were yours?  I'm guessing most people have seen it by now, so am I in the majority or is this the Oscar nominee everyone feels was kind of more Oscar-bait than Oscar-worthy?  And where do Patel/Kidman rank in your personal ballots?  Share below!

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

OVP: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Film: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
Stars: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Riz Ahmed, Forest Whitaker
Director: Gareth Edwards
Oscar History: 2 nominations (Best Visual Effects, Sound Mixing)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

I have seen every live-action Star Wars film in theaters.  It's something I try to remind myself when I kind of also remember that I'm a casual fan (in the case of almost all entertainment-based pop culture phenomenons) when I'm usually an ardent and obsessed one of such cinematic undertakings.  After all I have so much Harry Potter merchandise in my library you'd think you'd actually made it into a Hufflepuff's dorm, and I can tell you nearly every episode title of Lost without looking them up (seriously-test me sometime).  But Star Wars, while I appreciate it and in the moment, really love it, is one of those areas of pop culture where I can become objective about what is "good" versus what is "bad."  I haven't become so steeped in nostalgia that it clouds my judgment.

(Spoilers Ahead) This is all to say that Rogue One was not a movie that I particularly enjoyed.  The movie follows Jyn (Jones), the daughter of a scientist (Mikkelsen) who will one day build the Death Star.  She is raised largely as an orphan as she escapes the burgeoning Empire and is raised by Saw Gerrera (Whitaker), a family friend who increasingly goes mad as the film progresses.  The movie follows her as she attempts to find a way to connect with her father, and then as she, along with a motley crew that includes Cassian Andor (Luna) tries to find the plans to the Death Star, which she knows has a vulnerability in it (which of course any fan of the original series also knows), to transmit to the Rebel Alliance.

There are admittedly a few things to enjoy in the film.  Luna stands out to me as the best-in-show of the actors, but it's also kind of cool that they have a leading woman that doesn't really need a love interest to catapult her through the movie (I'll believe it when I see it for Daisy Ridley's Rey), and there's a wonderful finality of the penultimate scenes on the beach (which are beautifully rendered in terms of the special effects-I love the minimalist, high water production design of the planet); you don't have to worry about a sequel since you've already seen one and these characters aren't going to be coming back since, well, they all died.  The movie's score is robust and though it never quite hits the iconography of John Williams, perhaps that's for the best as it hums and drums in a slightly darker way that works in select sequences of the movie.  Plus, I like a sequel/prequel (whatever this is) that actually fills in some of the gaps rather than just creates new ones or stretches them out to make more money.

But all-in-all this was not as much fun as The Force Awakens.  The film suffers from that "reinvention" issue that plagued The Phantom Menace (it's not THAT bad, mind you), in that it is too reliant on super-fans to fill in the gaps rather than the plot, and there's way too many characters all at once.  For a while it feels like we're just hiring dozens of well-known character actors to randomly come in and be a part of the Star Wars movies, as if Gareth Edwards had a list in his house of every person he's ever wanted to turn into an action figure.  This causes too much busy-ness in the first half of the movie from which it never really recovers, and he hires actors that are a bit too naturally hammy (Mikkelsen and Whitaker being the chief culprits) to be able to deal with what they're doing onscreen.  Whitaker in particular crosses the line into "bad acting" toward the end-his character being too filed with ticks and clicks.  It's kind of dull when you take the Star Wars adventure out of it, and in particular it never really recovers from the "we know how this ends" aspect of the movie, even if the ending actually works.

The other problem I had here was the visual effects.  While certain parts of the art direction and the matte work were divine (like I said, the water planet in particular was really cool), the Peter Cushing/Carrie Fisher stuff was deeply off-putting.  I felt like every time that Cushing's CGI creation was onscreen I was supposed to be seeing some version of a cartoon, or that my eyesight was messing with me; the technology is not there yet to believe he's a human alongside actual humans.  It was less a supremely cool effect and more like a Robert Zemeckis animated work (the same can be said for Fisher, though that's only one scene so it's less of a callout).  Putting aside the moral dilemma here (and that really should be a factor since Cushing himself never consented to being in this movie), it's not a good effect.  The sound work, art direction, and music are all strong, but I'm going to be deeply disappointed if this gimmick lands the movie an Academy Award on Sunday.

Those are my thoughts, and yes, I'm definitely The Force Awakens>Rogue One, but how about you?  Where does this land in the Star Wars pantheon?  Who is best-in-show in terms of acting?  And do you think Rogue One can take the VFX Oscar on Sunday?  The comments are below!

The 7 Toughest to Call Oscar Races

The Oscars are just a few days away, and with that comes a lot of joy-I get to have one of my favorite nights of the year, see some of my favorite entertainers get Oscars (whether or not they deserve it for that specific piece of work), and just enjoy an enthralling night were people say "the movies" over and over again with great enunciation.  It also means an enormous amount of stress, as I attempt to win my annual Oscar contest, which is doubly upsetting this year as I lost for only the second time ever last year in a rather humiliating upset (damn The Revenant to hell!).  So I figured I'd talk through the seven categories that are most causing me anxiety right now-all of the rest I've made my personal decisions.

Note: I don't include the Shorts below because A) I usually see most of them right before I pick so I'm not thinking about them right now and B) no one can say with confidence that they know who will win the shorts.  Anyone who does is a fool-the Academy goes crazy when it comes to those categories, and is wildly inconsistent.

Actor in a Leading Role

Where My Head's At: Casey Affleck has won the BAFTA and the Globe, Denzel Washington has taken the SAG.  That's usually an indication that this is a close race, but you should probably go with the man who has never won before and that is, more importantly, in the stronger Best Picture nominee.  That's Casey Affleck, who also has the added bonus of his generation of movie stars wanting to crown him "one of the greats."  Plus, and this doesn't factor that much but it never hurts-he's genuinely quite excellent in Manchester by the Sea.
...But Then Again: Affleck has been getting pretty bad press thanks to revelations that he was accused of sexual harassment by multiple women.  While he settled out of court, in the year of Donald Trump this gets extra scrutiny, and it's hard to compare Affleck in this regard with loyal, popular Hollywood family man Denzel, whose marriage to wife Paulette has lasted over thirty years.  That SAG seems very telling that there's an appetite to go in a different direction.
Where I'm Leaning: Part of me thinks, quite frankly, that this could be an Adrien Brody situation (where Gosling sneaks in at the last minute somehow against two complicated frontrunners-Denzel being so because this would be a third Oscar, a rarity for most people).  But that seems a gadfly bet.  I'm probably going to stick with Washington-I'm getting that rare "third Oscar" vibe right now, and some people have taken home their third in tough competitions (Streep, Hepburn, Bergman).

Actor in a Supporting Role

Where's My Head At: While the Globes threw me for a loop with Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Mahershala Ali's classy speech at the SAG Awards, coupled with him being a smart way to reward the second place Best Picture nominee (a thing that happens quite often-look at Patricia Arquette a couple of years ago), makes him something of the frontrunner.
...But Then Again: I'm not totally sold on the idea that an actor whose principle fame prior to this year was on Crossing Jordan isn't vulnerable.  After all, Dev Patel is more famous, is having a bit of a moment this year, and also is in a Best Picture nominee that I suspect plays well on screeners.  Plus, he took the BAFTA and is something of a category fraud compared to the minimal amount of screen-time enjoyed by Ali.  Add this to Supporting Actor occasionally having room for an upset (just look at last year with Mark Rylance besting Sly Stallone) and you could have a surprise on your hands
Where I'm Leaning: As a general rule you win your Oscar bracket if you pick all of the frontrunners, you just don't get bragging rights or ever get all 24 categories as it's never all the frontrunners.  As a result, I'll probably go with Ali unless this is my one random "what the heck?" choice of the night.


Costume Design

Where's My Head At: Here's the thing with some of the remaining categories-the question is just how big the La La Land sweep (I already have the film at eight trophies coming into this) will be.  I'm not sold that it takes Actor or Screenplay (thus depriving it of the record outright), but it could tie if it takes the three tech categories listed here, and I think it's going to take at least one.  The color palette for the picture is really bold and distinctive-Emma Stone has never looked better.
...But Then Again?: It's a modern film, and the last time the Academy went for a contemporary movie was 1994-that was 22 years ago, and it's not like there's particularly slouch-y nominees against La La Land, what with AMPAS favorite Colleen Atwood an option, and perhaps most importantly, the impeccable design work of Jackie.  Recreating the looks of an iconic First Lady could make for an upset.
Where I'm Leaning: Probably to La La Land, given that the branches generally tend to just say the same film everywhere, and it clearly has a massive amount of strength.  But I'm not totally sold on that-Jackie is more up-their-alley and (cough) it's better and more impressive work.

Documentary Feature

Where's My Head At: OJ: Made in America is decidedly the frontrunner, and a critically-acclaimed one at that.  In a year where OJ seemed to be everywhere, this would be a way for the Academy to endorse comprehensive storytelling-the nomination is telling after all, and there were rumors it could even make it in for Editing, which would have been a huge moment as well.
...But Then Again?: There has to be a contingent of the Academy who sees that they're cheating their way to an Oscar here.  This is TELEVISION, not a MOVIE.  It might be excellent, riveting television, but then give it a boatload of Emmys and you'll hear no peep out of me.  I wonder if enough of the Academy, pissed that feature documentaries now have to compete against miniseries (this will be repeated in the future considering its success already) will go for a different film.  And lo-and-behold, they have another critically acclaimed (film!) in 13th, which is from an iconic and of-the-moment director: Ava DuVernay
Where I'm Leaning: OJ is clearly the frontrunner, and like I said-I almost always pick the frontrunner because generally that's who wins.  But I would so easily vote for 13th in this situation that part of me wonders if I wouldn't be the only one.  DuVernay would make a great speech, and certain branches have been reluctant to get behind television too heartily in the past (see animation with something like The Simpsons Movie).

Makeup & Hairstyling

Where's My Head At: Who the hell knows.  Easily the most frustrating category at the Oscars each year, I figured this was Roy Helland getting a second trophy this year, but then somehow Florence Foster Jenkins missed, as did the overrated Deadpool, and we were left with two underwhelming blockbusters and a foreign language film that few people have seen.  My head is mostly at-"all of the frontrunners are gone but there's still no winner."
...But Then Again?: Perhaps Star Trek Beyond?  Honestly, it's the film that seems the least embarrassing-it has lots of makeup, is a franchise they've noticed here before, and no one's really going to say two words against it winning even if it's a snooze for the win (considering they won for this same set of actors in 2008 already).  That being said, I don't think Suicide Squad, despite its reputation, is in last place thanks to the Harley Quinn iconography.  So be afraid...
Where I'm Leaning: Probably Star Trek Beyond, even though it only makes sense when you look at the other two nominees.  I've literally seen none of these movies yet so the OVP could be interesting.

Original Song

Where's My Head At: Generally when a film gets multiple nominations, it's pretty well known which song the studio "wants" you to vote for.  See how Alan Menken continually cleaned up here in the 1990's despite competing against himself repeatedly (and Slumdog Millionaire did the same a decade later).  It's assumed that "City of Stars" will be the La La Land entry that makes it, and it's hard to imagine an original musical winning Best Picture for the first time since Gigi and not taking this prize.
...But Then Again?: It could happen.  Dreamgirls and Enchanted both watched a bushel full of nominations lead to nothing in this category a few years back, and there is a third option here in Disney.  After all, the Mouse House has a princess ballad (which is great for picking this up), and it's written by everyone's favorite future human being Lin-Manuel Miranda.  It's hardly going to look embarrassing to see him win his EGOT-could this year be the year?
Where I'm Leaning: Probably La La Land, but this is the category I'm thinking I'm mostly likely to go for broke.  Miranda is impossible not to like, and it's easy to see both La La Land songs having their own distinct fans.

Sound Editing

Where's My Head At: I've already come to terms with the truly apocalyptically bad sound work in La La Land taking the Best Sound Mixing Oscar (heaven help it when we get to that category for the OVP).  But Sound Editing's different, and the Academy's generally smart enough to realize that.  While I was shocked it made it in here (seriously-what sound editing is even happening in this movie-the car horns in the opening scene?!?), and the Academy has a penchant for going for this a dual pair, I can't help but think this is a very, very weak frontrunner.
...But Then Again?: There's not really a great, awesome, obvious contender here to take down La La Land.  Arrival is attractive and sleek, but its lack of nomination for Amy Adams makes me think it's just a "nominate only" sort of movie.  Deepwater Horizon did very well this year all things considered, but it's not winning here either.  The only movie that probably has a shot is Hacksaw Ridge.  It was nominated for a solid six trophies this year (nothing to sneeze at), and this frequently will go to Best Picture action adventures that don't have a legit shot at taking Best Picture (Letters from Iwo Jima, American Sniper, Inception, Gravity).  The question is-will enough voters get over the Mel factor to actually give his film a win?
Where I'm Leaning: I'm looking more and more at Hacksaw Ridge, though I'm wondering if I'm being tainted by the fact that (in this field specifically) Hacksaw is far, far more deserving of the trophy, as personal feelings should be tossed aside when it comes to the Oscars.  That being said, I can't kick the thought that Gibson's comeback bid won't score somewhere, and if it has to, at least it can be in the category it earned its nomination.

Those are the seven categories I'm most confused by-now you share yours.  Who do you think are winning these seven, and what other of Sunday's races do you think are a showdown?

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

OVP: General Spanky (1936)

Film: General Spanky (1936)
Stars: Spanky McFarland, Phillips Holmes, Ralph Morgan, Irving Pichel, Carl Switzer, Louise Beavers
Director: Fred Newmeyer and Gordon Douglas
Oscar History: 1 nomination (Best Sound Recording)
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

Ooph, when it comes to early cinema, there's dated and then there's "wow-that just happened."  I try as much as I can to assume the best intent and escape outside of what is clearly a heinous moment in American history when I see a movie, but sometimes it's hard to assume the best, and that was probably the case with General Spanky, one of the stranger nominees I've noticed in the early years of the Academy (then again, Suicide Squad made it this year so AMPAS never totally grows out of "guess what's actually Oscar-nominated?").  The first Our Gang feature film ever made, and a Box Office disappointment, it scored a random nomination for Best Sound Recording but is more marred in its troubling racial politics.

(Spoilers Ahead) For those unfamiliar, the film centers around some of the more beloved figures in the Our Gang universe, though instead of the He-Man-Woman-Haters-Club, we get them in the days of the old Confederacy, and while a couple of members of the gang are randomly in the background, we really only focus on Alfalfa, Buckwheat, and Spanky in the titular role.  Spanky, a shoeshine boy who outsmarts most everyone around him either through guise or cuteness, comes across Buckwheat after he runs away from his master (Buckwheat being a slave in this narrative), and then they come across a kindly Captain Marsh (Holmes), who takes them in but is a confederate soldier who objects to the Civil War, drawing much ire from those around him.  In the end, he is nearly killed but Spanky saves the day by befriending a general who pardons Captain Marsh.  The film is filled with a number of hijinks and physical comedy up until that point.

I get that it's all in good fun, and there are some site gags that work (McFarland in particular was a solid child actor with definite on-screen charisma).  But for me it was weird and always a bit disconcerting to see the children marching around, being in danger, in what was an actual war.  Particularly concerning was watching the treatment of Buckwheat, some eighty years after the end of the war, being portrayed as a gimmick and a minstrel-type figure.  There's one scene where the little boy goes around asking people to be his master that feels like something out of The Birth of a Nation-it's repugnant, and impossible to get past even if you're aware that the movie is over 80 years old at this point.  Even in 1936 it feels like they should have known better.

The film received a sole Oscar nomination, for Best Sound Recording, and I have to admit I'm still a little thrown as to what nabs early films like this random sound citations.  There's no obvious gimmick or work on display here, though Elmer Reguse would eventually become something of an Oscar staple (8 nominations in total).  Perhaps it was for the many outdoors scenes or the large amount of onscreen music involved?  Either way, I'm hoping there's better.

Those are my thoughts on this movie-what about yours?  Are you with me that it's a bit troubling, even if you get that it's of a time-and-place?  Do you ever find other movies whose politics you just can't move past?  And who was your favorite member of the Our Gang films-share in the comments!

10 Ways to Become a Classic Movie Fan

We are currently in the highest of holy months in my house, and no it's not because it's the month of the Oscars (though that's admittedly part of it).  No, it's because the Oscars bring about the greatest of television events-TCM's 31 Days of Oscar.  I have been wonderfully recording movies in this annual event for over ten years, and still there's always a number of movies that I haven't seen in my Oscar project, and I'm delighted to get to know some new film that perhaps I'd never even heard of prior.

But with Oscar season, and me randomly talking to people I don't know about the films of Burt Lancaster or Marion Davies or Louise Beavers (I saw films from all three this weekend), I usually come up with a series of looks.  It's either "John, get back to a subject that the rest of have an actual interest in" or "I'm not going to remember the names of the three different actresses who played Beulah" to, more frequently, "I wish I could get into movies like you, but I don't know where to start."

That last one might just be polite chit-chat (I do live in Minnesota, after all), but the reality is that it's kind of hard to start in on classic cinema, or to go from someone who sees the occasional movie to someone who wants a bit more reference when it comes to the movies.  If you're that person, embarrassed when films like Gone with the Wind or The Godfather are referenced, or who have seen those films and loved them, but don't know where to go next, I figured I'd create a handy-dandy guide of ten ways you can better become a classic cinema fan.

1. Don't Be a Genre Snob

One of the most common questions I get from people is "what kinds of movies do you like" which is usually code for "what genre of films do you like."  This is a tough question though, since really the answer to that question for me is always "a good movie."  I have answers to this query, admittedly (detective films, caper films, noir, romantic dramas/melodramas, cheesy horror films that predate 1960, and epics), but the reality is that there is no genre that cannot produce a great movie in the hands of a truly superb director or actor.  If you're going to be a classic film fan, you can't be pigeon-holed in by seeing only a select type of film, or assume that just because it's a musical or a western (the two genres that most frequently are "I don't care for that" styles based on conversations I've had with people), doesn't mean that it can't be wonderful.  I used to feel the same way about westerns, assuming they were all the same John Wayne movie over and over again (this had some backing in my personal history as my grandfather seemed to watch the same three John Wayne movies over-and-over-and-over again), but then I saw Once Upon a Time in the West and Shane and No Country for Old Men and Brokeback Mountain and suddenly the western was a much more diverse and interesting field of movies for me, and now it's another genre that I tend to gravitate toward.  So go into this with an open mind-you might actually learn something about your own movie-watching tastes as you go.

2. Don't Be a Time Period Snob

Conversely, you can't get stuck on black-and-white or adjusting to an older movie if you want to get into classic cinema or be a hard-core movie fan.  If movies prior to Jaws scare you (in theory, not in practice, as Jaws is actually quite scary), you either need to get over it or this endeavor is pointless.  Movies from other eras occasionally sound a bit different, but you get used to their cadence after a while and they are their own reward, particularly as you start to see the nuances of a certain era or how film started to string together historically (you tend to get why Citizen Kane is so revered, and not just because it's really good on its own).  So you need to push yourself outside of your boundaries a little bit if you aren't familiar.

3. AFI's 100 Years is Your New Best Friend

By far the best place to start when you're looking for a way into the world of classical cinema is to begin with the American Film Institute's 100 Greatest Films list.  While any one of the lists is a good place to start (and it's by no means comprehensive, after all, it ignores foreign film), it's pretty representative of a lot of base conversations about classic cinema culture and all of these films are referenced repeatedly and give you a wide variety of major movie stars, eras, directors, and genres.  Not all of these movies are ones I'd recommend, but all of them were important in their time period and will give you a great smattering of ideas of whom you might like or you might want to start pursuing further.

4. The Oscars are a Great Start...But Don't Just Stick to Best Picture

The Oscars are another wonderful way to get into the world of cinema, though obviously there's a bit more bias here toward a specific type of film (biopics and serious-minded dramas tend to dominate pretty much everyone else in this regard).  Still, Oscar can give you a great idea of what was critically (and commercially) popular in a year, particularly if you start moving down to categories like screenplay or costume.  Cinematography, in particular, is my favorite to revisit as it's the branch that most consistently kept up with select trends in my opinion, and even when they stayed behind, they still did so in a lovely way (I saw The Flame and the Arrow this weekend and thought it was marvelous).

5. Just Turn on Turner Classic Movies

If neither of these have films that are easy to get a-hold of right away (Netflix isn't the mecca for film-lovers it once was, particularly when it comes to streaming), just turn on Turner Classic Movies.  It cannot be said enough, but this is easily the most catered, classy, and consistent channel on television when it comes to delivering for its rabid core audience.  The commercials are usually informative, the introductions always have some tidbits about select actors or production, and the movies run the gamut from mega-classics (Gone with the Wind or Stagecoach will inevitably run next month), to the somewhat obscure (looking at what is airing literally right now, you'll find Betty Hutton playing a silent movie star in The Perils of Pauline).  It's fun just to talk about TCM, much less to watch it-I will oftentimes on a Saturday morning just flip over, in hopes of catching it during the commercial break, knowing a movie is about to start.  It's always time well-spent.

6. Subtitles Don't Bite

That being said, none of these venues are particularly good at producing foreign language film options, an essential place for a budding cinephile.  After all, you can't just stick to John Ford and Alfred Hitchcock-Fellini, Bergman, and Truffaut are waiting for your perusal as well.  I've found through the years that comprehensive lists of foreign films are hard to come by, though my favorite is Edward Copeland's 100 Greatest Foreign Language Films, one that I've used as a jumping off point into multiple different areas of world cinema.  The Oscar Foreign Language film race is also a decent spot to go, though they tend to be a bit more staid the further back you get; the Palme d'Or is another particularly strong list of contenders that you can get into, and if you like a particular country's cinema, almost every major world film industry has a regional Oscars of sorts (the Cesars, the Davids, etc), that you can peruse if you want to delve further into an area.

7. Start Kevin Bacon-ing Yourself

If you're getting a little bit bored with just hitting classics, and want to start diving into truly random movies, start playing the Kevin Bacon game with yourself, connecting from a movie to a movie.  I've done this before and found it marvelous fun (I'm still convinced I should do this for a full month at some point).  What you do is this: every movie, and I mean every movie, you watch you need to have a common cast member from the previous one you watched.  This gets you into some obscure films if you're trying to connect, say, a repeat viewing of Gone with the Wind with your girlfriends asking you to see Fifty Shades Darker in theaters, but it allows you to see a truly wide breadth of movies, and that's sort of the point here-like being "well-read" (a very common New Year's resolution) or good at trivia, the best way to learn about something is to just immerse yourself in it, even if not everything has the cultural cache of Casablanca.

8. Visit Some Film Blogs

Once you're actually into the world of classic cinema watching, it's hard to know where to start talking about it.  This is, after all, why people create blogs and Twitter.  It was one of the main reasons I created this blog, but it's also hard to find blogs, particularly since every area of the internet has a strange subset of rules that you don't want to disrupt.  Therefore, I want to point out two blogs that I have visited for decades with wonderful hosts who make it easy for newcomers and long-time fans to come into the fold: The Film Experience and Nick's Flick Picks.  I've made both regular stops on my internet routines for over ten years (I've visited The Film Experience since well before it was even a blog), and it helps that they both not only love movies, but love to celebrate obscure ones, whether that means a complete retrospective on the Cannes Film Festival from a random year or a celebration of the Best Supporting Actresses of 1947 could be on the docket.  It's always a good time.

Also, visit my blog.  I post a lot and also look at comments from old articles so if you find a review of a movie I wrote four years ago, please go ahead and discuss-I promise I'll find you. :)

9. Be Prepared for Some Bad Movies

One of the harder things about movie-watching for me is making recommendations or "picking the movie."  I've seen so many movies that I tend to be slightly pickier than other people about a new movie (it comes with seeing hundreds of them a year), but really it's the "picking of a film" that throws me, mostly because I don't mind seeing a bad movie; it helps remind me of how fun the good ones are.  I also have never seen a movie where I genuinely regretted seeing it (though I have Suicide Squad coming up, so...), as even the worst of movies make you think differently coming out of the film and wanting to wonder the motives of those involved.  So this is my warning to say that you are eventually going to see some crap, and just be mentally prepared for that.

10. Don't Get Overwhelmed

The last bit is-don't get overwhelmed.  These are all tips-it's not a "you have to do all of these things" situation.  I think the biggest hurdle for taking on a new hobby as an adult is more that you know you're "behind" the people who have been doing it for twenty years.  I found this out when I came to tennis-watching as a hobby later than a lot of people and felt like an outsider in some respects.  But movies are fun-genuinely, everyone likes the movies.  So take it at your own speed, and see it as an adventure that you'll get better at over time.  And enjoy-it's a hobby that's actually fun!