Archive for February, 2016

That’s right, y’all! We’re doing this again, since approximately no one read it last year. Oh, well!

One last reminder of my big predictions before we go in:

Best Picture

The Revenant

Best Director

Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Best Actor

Leonardo DiCaprio

Best Actress

Brie Larson

Best Supporting Actor

Sylvester Stallone

Best Supporting Actress

Kate Winslet

Tune in at 7 p.m. ET to watch me be wrong about every single one of those!

7:00: We’re here! It’s time for an eternity of vapid celebrity interviews. I forgot about those. Is it so hard to give us a start time on the actual ceremony so people like me know when to tune in? Never mind. I’ll buzz off until I hear something happening on the television. I’ll be back when the ceremony starts.

8:30: Okay, here we go for real! At 8:30. A full hour and a half after the time I was told it was going to start. Wheeeeeeeeeee.

8:33: I don’t have a significant relationship with Chris Rock outside of some animated movies he did voices for, so I’m going into this pretty open-minded to see how he’ll do.

8:35: I’m glad Rock is tackling the #OscarsSoWhite controversy with a tone of irreverence; that moderates the awkwardness somewhat. There’s still a sense of “we’re sorry we goofed up; now on with our goof!” surrounding the hole thing. And they’re kind of lingering on this point a little too long. I’m not saying they should shove it under the rug, but it’s a problem best addressed outside of the ceremony itself, in my opinion. Or at least addressed briefly. But we’re ten minutes in and still talking about it.

I actually thought about writing a full piece on #OscarsSoWhite during the heat of the controversy. It’s probably a bit too late now, but the gist of it would have been that the controversy is much more a symptom than the disease. Were there movies by and about black people this year that should have been nominated? Sure. But that list is very, very short. Racial minorities basically had to pin the entirety of their Oscar hopes on five or six movies. At those numbers, it’s easy to miss the cut.

As such, there’s only so much the Academy can do to address the controversy on its own. The bigger problem is that it’s still difficult for black directors, writers, actors, and producers to get a solid foothold in the industry, regardless of how talented they may be. Until we, as a culture, address that, the Oscars are always going to be pretty darn white. It seems as though Chris Rock is mostly making the same point, and I hope it sticks — it’s not about the Oscars, it’s about the larger system.

Yes, I did write this beforehand in the knowledge that Chris Rock would be talking about this. Screw you, my site, my rules.

8:44: Time for the ceremony. Finally.

8:45: Best Original Screenplay.

I’m predicting Spotlight for this one. Cool to see Ex Machina make the cut here. Inside Out also had a wonderful script. Some good stuff in this category this year.

And the winner is… Spotlight!

8:49: Best Adapted Screenplay.

I’m going to say The Big Short. Since The Revenant isn’t in play, I figure it’ll go to the other Best Picture frontrunner. I haven’t seen most of the nominees in this category yet. If it isn’t The Big Short, it’ll be Room.

And the winner is… The Big Short!

9:03: I’m just not a fan of Sam Smith’s “Writing’s on the Wall.” It’s a little too mopey for a Bond song. It usually loses me by the first chorus. But what do I know? I’m the guy who thought Adele’s wasn’t all that great either.

9:04: Also, Sam Smith’s falsetto isn’t fantastic live.

9:09: Best Supporting Actress.

This is one heck of a competitive category this year. I think anyone other than Jennifer Jason Leigh could take it. Also, sorry to anyone who didn’t see The Hateful Eight. Um, spoilers, Academy?

Like I said, I’m going with Kate Winslet. Rooney Mara’s my backup.

And the winner is… Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl. Wow. She went from zero to Oscar winner in exactly no time at all. Not only is she a first-time nominee, she’s new in general — 2015 was supposed to be the year when she was recognized as one of the year’s most promising newcomers. But this might propel her straight to the A-list.

Seriously, though, Kate Winslet was amazing in Steve Jobs. And I’m not ordinarily a big fan of hers.

9:19: Costume Design.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say Cinderella is the winner. There’s definitely some competition here though. I think I might have screwed up.

And the winner is… Mad Max: Fury Road. I guess I can’t complain. One of these days, I’ll understand why I was so good at predicting the Oscars when I was an idiot teenager but can’t do it to save my life now that I know things.

Whatever, technical awards, I have no idea how they work. Let’s keep it coming!

9:22: Production design.

Tina Fey should host this one of these years. Anyway, this category is really, really tough to call. I’ll say Mad Max: Fury Road.

And the winner is… Mad Max: Fury Road.

9:25: Makeup and Hairstyling.

I know nothing about this sort of thing. Mad Max: Fury Road. Thank you for showing me that scene from The Revenant again, Academy.

And the winner is… Mad Max: Fury Road. Regardless of what wins Best Picture, I think Mad Max is going to be the big winner tonight.

9:30: Why is there a guy in a bear costume sitting with The Revenant team? I mean, I understand why, but, you know…why?

9:35: The Suge Knight joke made me laugh. I’ll admit it.

9:36: Cinematography.

Tough call between The Revenant and Mad Max: Fury Road. I’m going to call it for the latter and probably be wrong. After that applause for Sicario, though, I’m wondering.

And the winner is… Emmanuel Lubezki, The Revenant. Is that three consecutive wins for him? How much precedent is there for that?

9:39: Editing.

Mad Max: Fury Road. That almost feels like the objectively correct choice in this case. The sheer amount of what they had to wrangle on-screen… Wow.

And the winner is… Mad Max: Fury Road. So, either this is one of those rare years where Best Editing and Best Picture are split or we’re about to get a really weird surprise.

9:43: Why are there Minions? I should’ve been safe from that tonight.

9:48: Best Sound Editing.

I know nothing about this! Mad Max: Fury Road.

And the winner is… Mad Max: Fury Road.

9:51: Sound Mixing.

I know even less about this! Mad Max: Fury Road.

And the winner is… Mad Max: Fury Road.

9:54: They really should give Andy Serkis an award for all that motion capture stuff one of these days.

9:55: Visual Effects.

Mad Max: Fury Road. Almost feels like the safe choice at this point.

And the winner is… Ex Machina? I mean…yay, it deserves it! But, wow! That came right out of left field. Especially since it uses its effects in such a spare, barely noticeable way. Huge surprise there.

10:00: I’m obligated to say that, “Yay, Star Wars!” I wonder if that’s actually Anthony Daniels in there.

10:07: Best Animated Short Film.

Of course it’s the Minions. I should never make assumptions. Anyway, I’m not really a short film guy, so… I’ll go with World of Tomorrow, because I’ve heard of it.

And the winner is… Bear Story! I definitely know what that movie is!

10:10: Best Animated Film.

Inside Out. That seems kind of inevitable. And deserved.

And the winner is… Inside Out. Not a big surprise there. Disney and Pixar have trouble losing this when their submission isn’t one of the best movies of the year.

10:13: Every Kevin Hart joke has made me laugh more than it should. I think I’d be okay with him hosting one of these years. I think he’s funnier on the stage than he is in a lot of his movies. He works better live.

10:15: The Weeknd, Academy Award nominee. That’s going to take some getting used to.

10:20: If I were Chris Rock, I would name one of my kids Party. Don’t post this, Matt.

10:28: Best Supporting Actor.

Close race between Mark Rylance and Sylvester Stallone. Like I said, I’m taking a chance and going with Stallone.

And the winner is… Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies. Totally deserved. No complaints. Weird that the Academy would pass over Rocky Balboa twice, though.

10:37: Louis CK would be another acceptable future host.

Best Documentary Short Film. I really don’t know a thing about this category. I like what Louis CK is saying about it but sort of realize I’m part of the problem for not watching any of these. Whoops.

I don’t know. A Girl in the River sounds like something that would win.

And the winner is… A Girl in the River. Yay for random guessing! Whoo!

10:41: Oh, that was the movie that got the Pakistani prime minister to issue a statement! Maybe I remembered it subconsciously.

10:42: Best Documentary.

I’ve heard of a lot of these but haven’t them. I’ll predict The Look of Silence. I still need to see The Act of Killing. Both of them sound like something I’d find fascinating.

And the winner is… Amy. 

10:56: The In Memoriam is going to hurt this year. It always does, but come on… David Bowie, Alan Rickman, Christopher Lee, Leonard Nimoy… I’m not okay.

10:57: Dave Grohl is such a weird choice for this, though.

11:03: Holy crap, did Abraham Attah grow, like, five feet since filming Beasts of No Nation. Jacob Tremblay telling Chris Rock how much he loved Madagascar pressed all of my adorableness buttons.

I know nothing about this, so I’ll pick Ave Maria because.

And the winner is… Stutterer.

11:07: Best Foreign Language Film.

I’ve heard nothing negative about Son of Saul. So I’m going to pick that.

And the winner is… Son of Saul. I can’t wait until I get a chance to see it.

11:10: Woah, Joe Biden is here. How did they swing that? I can’t wait to go on Twitter and see who’s livid about this for no reason.

11:21: Commercials cut in. Best Original Score. I’m going to say Ennio Morricone for this category.

And the winner is… Ennio Morricone, The Hateful Eight.

11:23: Weren’t they trying to make the ceremony shorter this year? At this rate, I feel like we’re guaranteed to cruise past midnight here.

11:25: Best Original Song. I’m surprisingly unfamiliar with this year’s crop of nominees. Passing over “See You Again” really turned this wide open. “Writing’s on the Wall” seems like the biggest song here other than “Earned It,” and I’m pretty sure the Academy doesn’t want to make “Fifty Shades of Grey” an award winner.

And the winner is… Sam Smith, “Writing’s on the Wall.”

After the standing ovation for Lady Gaga’s “Til It Happens to You,” it does feel a bit anticlimactic.

11:29: Sacha Baron Cohen had to come out as Ali G, didn’t he? And make penis jokes about Minions. Can’t imagine a better way to introduce a Best Picture nominee about survivors of kidnapping and rape.

11:35: With Rian Johnson at the helm, I wonder how well Star Wars: Episode VIII will play at the Oscars in 2018.

11:36: Best Director. We’re probably going to get a pretty big clue to our Best Picture winner here. As such, despite my person opposition, I suspect Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is about to take the stage. But seriously, Academy — George Miller. This is the correct answer.

And the winner is… Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, The Revenant. Second consecutive win. This would be easier to deal with if he weren’t so publicly egotistical.

But yeah, confirmation — The Revenant just won Best Picture.

11:41: It’s worth pointing out that it probably shouldn’t be possible for a movie to take home editing, production design, costume design, makeup and hairstyling, sound editing, and sound mixing and not win Best Director.

11:44: Time for Best Actress. I’m pretty sure Brie Larson has won this in basically every other awards ceremony this year, so… Yeah, I’m going to pick her.

And the winner is… Brie Larson, Room. I haven’t seen this movie yet — seriously, you couldn’t release the DVD one week earlier? — but as a Short Term 12 diehard, I’m extremely okay with her winning this.

11:49: “Will your favorite film win the Oscar?” Looking like a strong “probably not” right now. It’s hard to imagine Spotlight taking this thing with nothing more than a win for original screenplay. Honestly, Mad Max: Fury Road has the best chance of beating The Revenant for Best Picture at this point.

11:51: Best Actor. Does anyone in the world think it’ll be someone other than Leonardo DiCaprio?

And the winner is… Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant.

He deserves an Oscar, but I suspect this will be his Scent of a Woman. Twenty years from now, people will watch Django Unchained and The Wolf of Wall Street and be confused that The Revenant delivered his big win.

11:58: And we reach the big moment. Regrettably, it probably belongs to The Revenant. I didn’t hate that movie, by the way. Read my review; I thought it was all right. However, it is, as of right now, my least favorite of the Best Picture nominees.

Either way, here we go: Best Picture.

And the winner is… Spotlight. What? Who? Where? When? How? It only won Best Original Screenplay! How in the world can they justify that against all the other awards. I mean, I’m happy; it’s my favorite movie of the year so far. But how in the universe did this happen? How did they decide to split Picture and Director again and not give the latter to George Miller. Good grief, this is an Oscar year of surprises. This is a pleasant one. But it is absolutely baffling. What was the Academy’s logic on all of this?

It’s late, and I don’t want to stay up much later, so here’s a quick wrap-up. Overall, it’s a decent year. Mad Max: Fury Road forced the Academy to go out of its comfort zone and let a B-movie win a half-dozen awards. Spotlight won. Ex Machina proved that every now and then, the Academy goes for subtlety over bombast. The presenters mostly weren’t all that awkward; even the kids did all right. Chris Rock was a decent host, did more or less what Neil Patrick Harris did last year — a solid balance of edge and decorum. He did a good job of addressing the #OscarsSoWhite controversy; his opening monologue struck the proper balance of irreverence and delicacy and got to the root causes of the problem often overlooked in this discussion. I might change my mind as I think this over, but I do think the #OscarsSoWhite stuff was a little too dominant throughout this ceremony. It felt like the guy who constantly mocks himself as an obvious mask for his own insecurity, who over-apologizes mainly to make it clear to everyone that, regardless of what he did, he really is a good person. But for the most part, I liked it.

The credits are rolling now, and something about them closing this conglomeration of celebrities and media elites on Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” amuses me.

And now for a new year of movies!

Also, I did really badly this year. Even by my standards.

Crouching_Tiger,_Hidden_Dragon_Sword_of_Destiny_posterCrouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny (2016)

Starring- Donnie Yen, Michelle Yeoh, Harry Shum Jr., Jason Scott Lee, Roger Yuan, Woon Young Park, Eugenia Yuan, JuJu Chan, Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Chris Pang, Veronica Ngo, Gary Young, Darryl Quon

Director- Woo-Ping Yuen

PG-13- martial arts violence and brief partial nudity

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WdhvxJZDqzU

The warrior Lu Shu Lien (Michelle Yeoh) is on her way to pay respects to an old friend when she must protect her late beloved’s all-powerful sword, the Green Destiny, from a burgeoning warlord set on conquering the Martial World.

Welcome to 2016, everyone! The year in movies officially begins! And I wish it had gotten off to a better start than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny.

I must confess that I don’t understand the motive behind this film. It should feel like Netflix successfully making a big acquisition — its first true direct-to-streaming blockbuster. It should have arrived to clamorous fanfare. Instead, it arrived quietly and almost entirely ignored by most major movie news outlets and felt less like a movie Netflix skillfully acquired and more like a movie nobody else wanted.

The original Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is a modern classic. How many foreign language films are successes in the American box office? How many of them get nominated for 10 Oscars and win four? It was post-millennium America’s introduction to an entire genre, wuxia, that previously been secreted away in China. I was nine years old when it released, but even I knew what it was; somehow, it sank into the cultural lexicon. For a brief moment, Chinese action cinema became viable in the United States, with Jet Li’s Hero — a fully subtitled foreign language film — opening at No. 1 in the box office. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon certainly has a weird legacy, but it’s a legacy nonetheless.

Maybe people wanted a sequel and maybe they didn’t; either way, the fact that this 16-years-later sequel has been brewing for over a year and never raised more than a shrug from anyone was, perhaps, a sign that it didn’t need to happen at all. It’s hard to imagine someone was hoping to make a money-printing franchise out of this; it was clear from the beginning that no one really wanted this.

But I’m open-minded, and perhaps someone thought there was a story to tell here. If that was indeed the case — if Sword of Destiny truly was a passion project — it rarely shows up in the film. When you’re making a sequel to a fondly-remembered, culturally significant movie over a decade after the first was released, you expect it to be an event. So it’s weird how half-assed this movie feels. There’s little scale to the story, little connective tissue to the first film, limited emotional development, a compressed run-time, too many scenes that feel obligatory and unconsidered in the larger scheme, and a plot that doesn’t know where it’s going and regularly cuts corners. It’s a sequel that follows up the original with a story that amounts to little more than: “And here’s the time that character went and fought some guys somewhere else.” It wouldn’t require a particularly substantial rewrite to make Sword of Destiny a standalone film with no connection whatsoever to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It’s almost there as it is.

I’m trying not to make it sound as though I hated Sword of Destiny, because I didn’t. It’s one of those movies that start out strong and then spend the rest of their runtimes slowly dying in front of you. While it didn’t hold a candle to the original, I more or less enjoyed Sword of Destiny for forty-five minutes or so. It’s dumb and broad, but in a good way, in the way the original was. There’s something refreshing about it — a simplistic adventure story, a fable with stark black and white morality, a fantasy with larger-than-life characters and charmingly stolid, to-the-point dialogue about destiny and broad philosophizing. I enjoyed the characters, the dopey humor, and the deft and energetic action choreography — the last of those, predictably, being the one sense in which Sword of Destiny is consistent throughout.

I can identify the exact point at which my enthusiasm began to drain, and that’s the immediate aftermath of the movie’s first fully-joined battle scene, when it starts to become more serious. The film to that point is enough to support a little silly adventuring, but it never earns the emotions it aims for in its second half.

I trace that mainly to a number of major storytelling problems that arise early and are never fixed. For starters, it seems to me that Shu Lien is the protagonist solely because she’s also the only character who appeared in the original film. Her arc is small (and not particularly well executed, in my opinion), and she doesn’t have much at stake in what happens around her. She’s definitely more suited for a supporting role in the movie about her student, Snow Vase (Natasha Liu Bordizzo), that seems to be happening off-screen but occasionally wanders into the frame.

Snow Vase’s story centers on her relationship with a prisoner, Wei-Fang (Harry Shum Jr.), one of the warlord’s men, and spins mystery around both their pasts. This leads to a whole lot of telling and not showing as Shu Lien accesses other people’s stories secondhand, basically hearing other people’s feelings about other people’s feelings. In the case of Snow Vase and Wei-Fang, it’s worsened in that a lot of important character reveals come entirely too late.

The film does afford Shu Lien a storyline of her own in the form of the warrior Silent Wolf (Donnie Yen), who is among the followers of the Iron Way to join the heroes in protecting the Green Destiny. More than any of the others, this is the subplot that makes me wonder if Sword of Destiny didn’t start out as a Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon sequel. The idea is that Silent Wolf is the lover Shu Lien thought was dead and regretted passing over. He shows up alive in this film and rekindles that old flame. All of this appears to have transpired in the 16 years since the first movie — a complicated love triangle involving Silent Wolf and, apparently, another man, informed by Shu Lien’s grief over her beloved’s death in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, leading into the introduction of the new arch-nemesis and Silent Wolf’s faked death. And yes — all of this happens off-screen, as the movie hurriedly catches us up to speed. It introduces its romantic triangle and establishes the heroes’ relationship toward the villain after most of the emotional catharses have taken place. Snow Vase and Wei-Fang’s storyline plays out in almost exactly the same way — basic character information packaged as a reveal, even though said reveals have no connection to the previous film and are thus incapable of actually being surprising to the audience. It feels like there’s another movie between Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Sword of Destiny that didn’t get made because the actors were too old.

And when the film finally gets all its pieces into place for the climax, it fails to follow up on anything more than the dumbest, most routine details. The theme of the movie centers mainly on vengeance and the various senses in which all the characters are pursuing it. Characters talk about it again and again, but when the climax rolls around, none of them are tested. The movie spends its entire run-time building up its characters’ desire for revenge, then never even gives them the opportunity to make that choice. Thematically, I think a lot may have been left on the cutting room floor; there are suggestions throughout that certain characters and ideas were intended to be more than they ended up being. Early on, Shu Lien claims to see a darkness in Snow Vase that might one day turn her against them; this is promptly…never mentioned again.

There’s fun to be had with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny, especially in the first half. But a messy script and occasionally haphazard direction undo most of the goodwill it builds up. It isn’t a terrible movie, I never actively hated it, but it’s utterly dwarfed in the shadow of its predecessor.

Spotlight_(film)_posterSpotlight (2015)

Starring- Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Gene Amoroso, Jamey Sheridan, Billy Crudup, Paul Guilfoyle, Len Cariou, Neal Huff

Director- Tom McCarthy

R- some language including sexual references

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EwdCIpbTN5g

The true story of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team, as it worked in 2001 to uncover the Catholic Church’s cover-up of sexual abuse allegations against priests.

I’m pretty sure I just found my favorite movie of 2015. I know it’s a bad idea to make statements like that when I haven’t gotten around to Room, Carol, The Big Short, or Brooklyn yetbut things are looking pretty good for Spotlight right now. Naturally, that’s at least in part because Spotlight presses absolutely all of my narrative buttons — journalistic heroes, legal/political procedurals, systemic injustice, and the unholy collusion of money, religion, and politics. But let’s be fair — it’s also because Spotlight is an excellent film, in my opinion the best of director Tom McCarthy’s career to date.

It is, in a way, cinematic journalism; it’s very much a procedural in presentation. I don’t mean that as a commentary on its overall accuracy; I don’t have nearly the familiarity with the real-life events to make that determination. I mean that there’s something rigorous about it, something very matter-of-fact in the way the circumstances are depicted.

This movie could very easily have been Oscar bait, but it has the sense — and the decency — not to embellish, not to twist the story to some other end, not to give into the big go-for-broke moments that typify other such films. The performances are, for the most part, subtle and understated; only Mark Ruffalo gets the sort of big emotional outbursts that make Academy highlight reels. (The fact that Rachel McAdams managed to pick up a Supporting Actress nomination for such a restrained performance comes as a genuine surprise to me, albeit a pleasant one.) The movie as a whole has a refreshing amount of faith in the audience to bring the emotions; it doesn’t have to heighten its characters or reinforce its script with heavy-handed scoring.

The story would definitely be classified as plot-driven — the characters are here to get us from one scene to the next and have only small, subtle arcs. The movie wisely makes sure to render them as distinct individuals — Michael Keaton as the restraining force keeping the other team members from losing their heads in the whirlwind of emotions associated with unraveling such a major injustice; Rachel McAdams as the team’s face of compassion; Mark Ruffalo as its face of righteous fury; Brian d’Arcy James as the everyman raising the important questions about the newspaper’s ethics and responsibilities. They are, to an extent, stand-ins for the audience, the eyes through which we watch events develop, but they aren’t ciphers — they’re three-dimensional characters, well-written and well-performed, with a distinctive chemistry and group dynamic.

But the movie’s focus is substantially upon the procedure, the who, what, where, when, and why. It could easily be boring, but Spotlight finds the story behind the journalistic process. Truth showed that process going wrong, and now, Spotlight shows it going right. That’s the main sense in which the film feels rigorous — this is a story about checking, double-checking, confirming with multiple sources, digging up the documents that prove it, and presenting an airtight case.

Even so, the movie is, from that angle, able to make the same fundamental point as Truth — journalism as a business should not trump journalism as a necessary societal safeguard, this time showing the numerous ways in which this story would have gone awry had its writers not been given the space to research the matter fully. Had the Spotlight Team printed the story the moment it had the attention-grabbing headline, the film says, it would’ve nailed one cardinal for feigning ignorance in one sexual abuse case. Because the team was given time, it was able to prove the existence of a systematic worldwide cover-up. What might have happened if the story had emerged under the pressures of a page-view-driven news world? In its own quiet way, Spotlight also laments the death of true journalism.

McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer do an excellent job of packaging this complicated, repetitive, and mundane process as a story. Spotlight plays out a bit like a mystery — one with a foregone conclusion, even, to an extent, where the characters in it are concerned, but a good one nonetheless. One discovery leads to another, so the story has propulsion — cause, effect, this happens, therefore that happens. Much of the process is checking and re-checking information, but the movie has a good sense of what we need to see and what can happen off-screen. It’s always driving its plot with fresh information, new discoveries that open up new narrative avenues. Show a little of the hard work at the edges of the frame, imply the rest, and the feeling sinks in.

The movie is never loud about it — or anything else, for that matter. It budgets its emotional climaxes in one or two scenes and keeps things levelheaded the rest of the time. It doesn’t transmit emotion but earns it over time. I understand the criticisms of this film, that it’s emotionally detached, that it’s so clinical, that its characters have only limited personal stakes in the plot. But truth be told, that’s where I think the movie transitions from goodness to greatness.

Because it isn’t unfeeling. Far from it. It just generates its emotions in somewhat atypical ways, centering them outside of the protagonists. And that is absolutely the right decision for its subject matter. Another movie would’ve been more invested in the members of the Spotlight Team — they’d be hardline Catholics, they’d have close relationships with some of the priests in question, maybe one of them would be an abuse victim. At the very least, the movie likely would have found some tenuous metaphorical connection between their home lives and their work on the job. Spotlight doesn’t do any of that, and as a result, it’s able to do exactly what a film of its type ought to do.

It derives its emotions from the victims.

It understands that there’s something exploitative about a story wherein someone has a lot of personal problems until he or she has the good fortune to meet a sexual abuse victim whose perspective or circumstances changes him or her for the better. The victims themselves would exist on the periphery, useful for nothing more than a tear-jerker here and there.

And while the victims aren’t quite core characters in Spotlight, their lives inform absolutely everything that happens, even when they’re off-screen. In keeping the Spotlight Team’s personal interests mostly out of play, the film is able to express their journey as one of increasing empathy. It’s enough that they come to feel the same anger, the same sadness, the same profound sense of injustice that we do as we discover this situation alongside them. The film forgoes melodrama and in so doing becomes twice as powerful. It captures the pain, the oppression, and the corruption honestly, without embellishment. As a result, it’s a film that can’t easily be denied.

I have no idea how McCarthy managed to go from The Cobbler to this in the space of one year, but I’m certainly glad he did. Without qualification, Spotlight is one of the best movies of the year.

This has been my 500th review.

Everest_posterEverest (2015)

Starring- Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Sam Worthington, Robin Wright, Michael Kelly, Keira Knightley, Emily Watson, Martin Henderson, Elizabeth Debicki, Naoko Mori, Clive Standen, Vanessa Kirby, Tom Goodman-Hill, Ingvar Eggert Sigurosson, Charlotte Boving, Micah Hauptman

Director- Baltasar Kormakur

PG-13- intense peril and disturbing images

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5ZQVpPiOji0

A chronicle of the infamous 1996 Everest expedition that ended up being one of the mountain’s most fatal days.

Lately, I feel as though I’ve criticized an unusual number of movies for not knowing what they’re about, to the point that I worry it’s starting to seem like some default mode of explanation whenever I dislike something and don’t know why. But Everest has this problem even more severely than usual.

If you’re going to dramatize a real-life tragedy, people are going to expect you to have something to say about it — a reason for dredging up the bad memories of twenty years ago and allowing us to witness that suffering firsthand. The purpose of Everest is lost on me. It depicts people climbing Mt. Everest and then dying there. This isn’t arranged into any kind of story or theme. There are no character arcs.

It can’t be a man vs. nature survival movie. The characters who survive just do. Most of them are safely in base camp for the majority of the film. The one character whose survival could be considered a fight basically just stands and then immediately shows up in the camp.

It can’t be an examination of these lives and what they meant. We see so little of them outside of the mountain. Only two or three characters are given any kind of depth whatsoever. There’s a large cast, and the movie just can’t manage it — it seems determined to include every single noteworthy person on this expedition and throws them at you all at once; the movie quickly becomes a series of scenes wherein the five recognizable main characters interact with vaguely familiar but functionally nameless and narratively interchangeable supporting players. And even the most important of these characters seem to have no narrative purpose other than to live or die. You could pick any given subplot in this movie and cut it without a single person noticing. The script has no idea what to do with any of these characters.

I think I’d disapprove of this movie simply being a thriller, but it isn’t even that. There’s absolutely no sense of geography. Once the storm hits, the characters could be five yards apart or five miles apart for all the movie shows us. The entire objective is to get everyone back to base camp safely, but the movie leaves you with no clue what that’s going to entail — how far the characters have to go, what obstacles are in their path, how much time they have. Their physical states change as the movie needs them to — we don’t know how much energy they have, what their mental state is, how much longer they can afford to go without oxygen. There’s nothing there to increase the tension and help us root for the characters to achieve their goal; all we can do is sit and wait for the conclusion.

The most I can really say for Everest is that it isn’t terrible, but an adaptation of this story, if one is inclined to make it, deserves more than that. I don’t know what about these events compels anyone involved in this production, and as such, their interpretation doesn’t compel me.

Straight_Outta_Compton_posterStraight Outta Compton (2015)

Starring- Jason Mitchell, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Corey Hawkins, Aldis Hodge, Neil Brown Jr., Paul Giamatti, Marlon Yates Jr., Alexandra Shipp, Carra Patterson, Corey Reynolds, Tate Ellington, Angela Elayne Gibbs, Bruce Beatty, Lisa Renee Pitts, Lakeith Lee Stanfield, R. Marcus Taylor

Director- F. Gary Gray

R- language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence and drug use

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YAubycWBlkY

The rise and fall of the rap group NWA.

In its heyday, NWA was considered the most dangerous group in America, and would that the movie about them were even half that. Straight Outta Compton is, in far too many ways, a typical and unadventurous biopic that only rarely manages to get its head above the sea of cliches in which it’s drowning.

The only thing it has going in its favor is that it, by necessity, has a lot more edge than your average biopic, and of course, it isn’t terrible. These films usually aren’t; they fall flat more often as a result of what isn’t on the screen than what is. I’m not the guy to make this analysis — I’m not very knowledgeable about NWA or its members’ respective solo careers; I’m the sort of idiot who can tell you more about all the dumb family movies Ice Cube’s been in than the music he’s recorded — but the cast is generally strong and mostly matches my vague impressions of these guys as young men. As has been noted elsewhere a thousand times, O’Shea Jackson Jr. looks and sounds so much like his father that it’s almost terrifying (there’s a scene where he’s playing his father holding a baby that’s standing in for him where the whole thing started to make my head spin).

Straight Outta Compton also has a lot more to say than most biopics, which is both its saving grace and Achilles’ heel. There’s simply far, far too much going on in this movie.

At two and a half hours, it almost qualifies as an epic, and even then, it feels overstuffed and too fast-paced, jumping from one event to the next without establishing any of the necessary connections. It has the usual biopic problem — it’s trying to cover an incredibly broad scope and failing to find the unifying story. It’s basically a highlights reel of NWA’s inception and eventual split, plus a bit of the solo career material. And unlike most biopics, which are about one person, Straight Outta Compton has to split at least three ways (Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy-E get the lion’s share of the attention here). The movie rockets from one character, subplot, and theme to the next. Important things happen and then are never mentioned again. Characters show up out of nowhere with next to no buildup whatsoever and suddenly become key figures in the story. Very little in this movie is significant outside of the five minutes it’s on-screen.

It’s part hagiography, part recreation, and part commentary, both on the group and the circumstances that made them. The end result is a movie that constantly struggles to make up its mind how you’re supposed to feel about what you’re seeing. Dr. Dre and Ice Cube generally come off smelling like roses — they have producer credits on the film, which I’m sure is just a coincidence. The characters presented here have flaws, but they’re carefully managed in the larger context of the film, i.e., “yeah, that was probably the wrong thing to do in that situation, but given what led up to it, I’d probably have done the same thing.” Part of it’s probably the personal nature of telling your own story — the characters’ actions are more complex because the filmmakers have a direct line into what the real individuals were thinking at the time. Other parts of it — the film’s complete absence of Dr. Dre’s tendency to savagely beat women, for instance — seem somewhat more deliberate.

The portrayal of Eazy-E is where this conflict most clearly manifests. The movie pins NWA’s breakup almost entirely on him — which may, at least from the other members’ perspectives, be true, if their collective diss tracks are anything to go by. Still, it comes across as very uncomplicated and feels weird given that Eazy-E is dead and unable to defend himself. And it gets outright bizarre when the credits roll and the film dedicates itself to the guy. Yes, it gave him a last-minute redemption arc, but it’s strange nonetheless.

For the most part, I think Straight Outta Compton starts out strong, really tapping into the politics and social dynamics surrounding and influencing NWA. It’s at its best when the story reflects the anti-authoritarian shock value of the group’s music. Somewhere midway through, it just gets a little mundane — the prototypical true story of famous people who ruined their friendships but came back together and changed the world, yada yada. Sappy biopic stuff.

I was rooting for this movie. There’s absolutely a story to tell here. More than one story, really. Straight Outta Compton tries to tell absolutely all of them, and it just can’t. Even as a rags-to-riches, poor-kids-to-superstardom story, it’s lackluster, skipping from one phase of its characters’ lives to the next without honing in on any personal change. Fundamentally, NWA’s music was about struggle, but everything about Straight Outta Compton feels easy.

Freeheld_Movie_PosterFreeheld (2015)

Starring- Julianne Moore, Ellen Page, Michael Shannon, Steve Carell, Luke Grimes, Josh Charles, Mary Birdsong, Kelly Deadmon, Gabriel Luna

Director- Peter Sollett

PG-13- some thematic elements, language and sexuality

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=blk27Jj9UE8

The true story of Laurel Hester (Julianne Moore), a career police officer who, after being diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2005, fought the Ocean County, New Jersey Board of Chosen Freeholders to ensure that her pension benefits went to her partner, Stacie Andree (Ellen Page).

Freeheld is probably — in fact, almost definitely — a bad movie. But what can I say? Its stupid charm worked on me.

It’s more an example of a movie pressing all the right buttons rather than being genuinely well made. Basically, it’s one of those bad movies that I like anyway because its sensibilities are right up my alley. I don’t mean to suggest that Freeheld is terrible, by the way, just that it’s pretty consistently underwhelming in most respects.

Mostly, it just doesn’t know what story it’s telling. The first half of it is a relationship movie where two people meet, fall in love, get on each others’ nerves, make up, grow closer, and eventually marry. Then, it splits off in two different directions — half terminal illness drama and half civil rights procedural. Laurel and Stacie are strangely uninvolved in the latter, which constantly threatens to become an awards-bait story about all those nice straight people who stood up for the lesbian couple.

There isn’t much of an arc to any of this. None of the main characters change significantly over the course of the film. There are little adjustments here and there, but they’re minor character details more than anything, making the main story a bit richer but having very little to do with it otherwise. Obviously, that’s something you want to do as a writer or filmmaker; it really fills out your characters and the world they inhabit. But if what you intend as character detail ends up being more compelling than the main story, it’s likely your focus is off, especially when that main story isn’t very cohesive to begin with.

Strangely, the movie assigns the vast majority of its major arcs to minor supporting characters. That’s fine — a story’s arc isn’t always focused on the main character; sometimes, it’s about how he or she affects everyone else. Here, it comes across as a poorly managed device to land that big finale where everyone turns out in support of Laurel and Stacie. This movie focuses on the Freeholders and the police force, both of which need to come around to the protagonists’ side by the time the credits roll. The script assigns a minor character to each of those entities and tries to filter those arcs through his perspective. The problem is that the main Freeholder and the main police officer who represent those arcs are both sympathetic to Laurel and Stacie from the beginning — their perspectives don’t change; they simply find the courage to stand and do the right thing. Which would be fine if the movie was specifically about personal courage, but it doesn’t really start teasing those threads until near the end; and also if the movie didn’t use those two character arcs as substitutes for almost everyone else in the film. As soon as those perspective characters decide to show their support, everyone else just follows — even the characters built up as strident homophobes who will need a lot of work in order to come around. So much of its character development seems to happen entirely off-screen.

Peter Sollett directs this thing nearly into oblivion. There’s barely any visual life in Freeheld. It looks very much like a TV movie — dull, lethargic, lit in dim soap opera orange. There are barely any memorable images. It’s very much a “point the camera at the actors and press the button” sort of movie.

Those actors are — predictably, given their caliber — strong, but the chemistry isn’t always there. Julianne Moore and Ellen Page are giving solid performances individually, but only in the film’s happiest moments does their relationship have any spark or lived-in quality. Everywhere else, there’s something off about it, something a little too staged and uninvolving.

I don’t really know what to tell you. It just got me somehow. I have a soft spot for civil rights movies, particularly when they focus on how an entire community of people from different walks of life learned and grew and rallied together. That’s the kind of sappy, beautiful cheese that gets me reaching for tissues. Throw in the inherent sadness of something like this — a woman dying before her time, slowly deteriorating, leaving the person she loves behind, and other people are preventing her from passing secure in the knowledge that person will be cared for — and it’s hard not to feel something.

I know that’s essentially cheating and that Freeheld touches the soul exclusively because of its hot-button topic and the fact that it’s merely bad rather than terrible. That’s something this movie has me wrestling with — if it works, is that the only thing that matters? If I had a good time, I can’t call it a bad movie, can I? But what if it’s clearly pressing the easy button in every scene and only working on your emotions because it has an impossible-to-screw-up premise?

Freeheld appears to have good intentions. That was enough to put me in its corner, if only just. But it is not a good movie.

The_Visit_(2015_film)_posterThe Visit (2015)

Starring- Olivia DeJonge, Ed Oxenbould, Deanna Dunagan, Peter McRobbie, Kathryn Hahn

Director- M. Night Shyamalan

PG-13- disturbing thematic material including terror, violence and some nudity, and brief language

Trailer- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qCsULFGldi8

When the grandparents (Deanna Dunagan and Peter McRobbie) they’ve never met reach out to them, Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler’s (Ed Oxenbould) mom (Kathryn Hahn), who cut ties with her parents before either of the kids were born, allows them to decide whether or not they’d like to visit. They choose to spend a week with their grandparents, both to reconnect and because aspiring documentary filmmaker Becca thinks it would make for an interesting subject. At first, their grandparents are awkward and somewhat laid-back, but friendly, and the trip gets off to a decent start. But their behavior gets stranger and stranger; the kids initially write it off as forgetfulness and the odd health issues of old age. But as the week progresses, their grandparents’ actions take on a sinister edge, and Becca and Tyler begin to wonder if they might be in danger in their little house in the country.

So, a fairytale wherein residents of an apartment complex encounter a magical creature, a fantasy film inspired by one of the best animated TV shows of the last decade, and a Will Smith-led sci-fi/action feature, and the found footage horror movie about scary old people is the one where M. Night Shyamalan gets his mojo back?

To be honest, I’m not ready to join the chorus of voices calling The Visit a major comeback for the once-promising director of The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable. The movie isn’t thatgood, and it has several hallmarks of a happy accident. But it is, simultaneously, kind of good, in ways it seems to intend, albeit filtered through a ton of trashy weirdness.

My perspective on Shyamalan’s work is mostly balanced. I stayed on that bandwagon way longer than most people and continue to maintain that everything up to and including The Village is at least okay. I don’t think Lady in the Water is terrible, and I’m pretty sure The Happening was supposed to be a dumb, over-the-top B-movie; it just isn’t any good at it. It was The Last Airbender that did me in. That movie is so profoundly awful in such an amateurish, immediately identifiable way that I simply don’t know how a career can ever fully recover from it — dialogue so leaden and goofy the average person on the street could probably do better, absolutely terrible acting all around, outright bizarre storytelling choices, and haphazard direction that turns all the action silly and all the drama awkward. People don’t really talk about it anymore, but it remains, for me, one of the great mysteries of modern cinema — a movie so bad I’m not sure how it ever existed in its final form.

For that reason, it’s going to take a long, unbroken string of genuinely fantastic movies before I’ll be willing to align myself with Shyamalan again. But The Visit is definitely a step in the right direction, if only a small one.

It suggests that maybe Shyamalan actually was onto something with The Happening. Maybe he’s exhausted his supply of serious cinema and now is best served with junky B-movies that straddle the line between comedy and horror — that way, you can claim the genuinely good scenes and dismiss the others as intentionally goofy. The encouraging thing is that, the more I think about it, the more it seems as though maybe The Visit isn’t doing that as often as it might appear.

Truthfully, in some respects, it represents a significant improvement for Shyamalan, who both wrote and directed. It’s weird that the movie he shot from the perspective of preteens with handheld cameras is more directionally functional than movies he shot with full coverage, but The Visit actually has a decent sense of geography and staging — I understood the layout of the house and yard pretty well, well enough to know when to be especially scared. I don’t think any of the scares are particularly original, but The Visit’s best scenes are nevertheless admirably spooky, which is especially praiseworthy considering that it is, again, a movie about scary old people, the only thing less inherently frightening than The Happening’s killer plants.

Even in his best films, Shyamalan had a tendency toward dryness in its characters, so it surprised me how much Becca and Tyler entertained me. They’re annoying, yes, but they’re annoying in the real ways that kids that age usually are. Becca’s the self-appointed Smart One, who knows a lot of big words and memorized a handful of high-cultural concepts that she wields sarcastically as intellectual weapons against her inferiors  (why, no, I didn’t see my teenage self in her at all; why do you ask?). Tyler’s the troublemaker, but old enough to be aware of that and employ it in the service of his own amusement. He’s also deeply uncool, and it’s never quite clear the extent to which he’s in on the joke. They act like real kids, and they mostly talk like real kids, too — that’s the big surprise here, given Shyamalan’s past predilection for characters who talk like extremely redundant robots.

The grandparents don’t work as well as they could, and I think that might be the movie’s biggest weakness. The characters don’t have any personality other than being creepy and strange. I wanted fuller psychologies there, something to help me understand their relationship with one another and their relationship with the kids at the outset. I do admire Peter McRobbie and especially Deanna Dunagan for their full commitment to what turn out to be extremely degrading and undignified roles, particularly in the knowledge that they were doing it for a movie with no aspiration to be anything other than trash. It’s worth mentioning that The Visit is one dark, nasty, and disgusting PG-13, constantly testing the rating’s boundaries on all three points. It’s not going to curdle your blood if you’ve seen the Hostel movies or something (I never have and have no plans to correct that), but it might be rough for the uninitiated. One scene made me wrench away from the screen in utter revulsion. The movie definitely goes places you wouldn’t expect, especially since there’s always been a fundamental sappiness to Shyamalan’s storytelling — strangely enough, it’s here, too, and not entirely ineffective, despite everything else.

I guess I’m still trapped in a place where I’m pretty sure the movie is in one most of the joke but uncertain about the other twenty-five percent of it. There are scenes in this that actually are very funny in clearly intentional ways — making this the first M. Night Shyamalan movie (keeping in mind that I love The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable and think Signsand The Village are a heck of a lot of fun) I can remember coaxing genuine laughs out of me. There are also scenes that are creepy in clearly intentional ways. And then there are the scenes somewhere halfway between, where what’s happening is clearly stupid but played somewhat seriously. The goofiest trailer moment — “Would you mind getting inside the oven to clean it?” — is one of the best examples. I had absolutely no idea if the movie wanted me to find that funny or tense; I didn’t quite find it to be either one. There are several scenes that have that effect. Part of me thinks they couldn’t possibly seriously, but then the other part of me remembers that “we believe in our beliefs as much as they believe in their beliefs” was an actual line of dialogue in The Last Airbender.

I don’t mean to sound so condescending. Storytelling is hard. Filmmaking is hard. So, I’ll leave it at this — The Visit represents a speck of hope on the horizon of Shyamalan’s career future, as well as a significant improvement from his previous few films. Considering the idiocy of its premise, that may be a much bigger accomplishment than it seems on the surface. The Visit doesn’t even resemble anything great, but it’s a fun bit of B-movie junk, and it’s officially okay to switch into cautious optimism when Shyamalan announces his next project.