Author Archives: Jackrabbit Slim

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

Review: Beauty and the Beast

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It is certainly not unreasonable to see Disney remaking many of their classic animated films as live-action as cynical cash grab. The question of “Why remake a great film,” especially only 25 years later, is usually answered simply with, “to make money.” But while watching Bill Condon’s version of Beauty and the Beast, the cynicism washes away almost immediately, from the use of the Beast’s castle taking the place of Sleeping Beauty’s castle in the logo opening. This Beauty and the Beast is not just a remake of the original, it’s a tribute to the movie-making process.

I haven’t seen the first Disney Beauty and the Beast in many years (for that matter, I haven’t seen the Jean Cocteau version) so I don’t know what if anything is different. It seems the same. Belle (Emma Watson) is a bibliophile in a provincial French town. She is pursued by a callow egomaniac, Gaston (Luke Evans) who is determined to marry her, despite not having a thing in common with her.

Meanwhile, an equally callow prince, after turning away an old woman from his castle, gets a curse put on him, turning him into something that mostly looks a mountain goat with sharp teeth. His staff are turned into objects, though they can talk and move. The old woman, who turns out to be an enchantress (not a witch, thank you) gives him the time it takes for a rose to lose all its petals. He must fall in love, and get someone to fall in love with him, or be stuck forever. But he isn’t optimistic–“Who would love a beast?” He must not know about furry conventions.

Through the actions of Belle’s father, a kindly artist (Kevin Kline), she gets herself imprisoned by the Beast (Dan Stevens, motion-captured). The staff, led by Lumiere, a candlestick, and Cogsworth, a clock, try to push the two together. Here is where there is some present-day discomfort: is this the Stockholm Syndrome? Does this give hope to every guy who would love to kidnap Emma Watson and make her love them? It’s a touchy area, but the script walks a fine line–they fall in love because they find things in common. Luckily there is not Trump/Clinton disagreement to break the deal.

The film is absolutely sumptuous. Count on Oscar nominations for costume and production design. The overall look is classic fairy tale, though there are real things mentioned, like Shakespeare and the Champs-Elysee. But there is also a contemporary feel to it. It moves quickly, and there is a meta nature to it, particularly from Josh Gad as Gaston’s companion. There was big brouhaha among the religious right about Gad playing a gay character, with august figures like Franklin Graham calling for a boycott. Gad is playing a gay character, no doubt about it, and there are also three swordsman who are put into women’s dresses who seem to be very happy about it. I also appreciated the stage-like casting, with a lot of diversity. There are interracial relationships, and it made me all warm and gooey inside.

The cast acquits itself. Everyone wondered about Watson’s singing ability, and while I wouldn’t advise a recording career, she was fine. It’s tough when you put great singers like Audra McDonald in the cast to compare. Emma Thompson is Mrs. Potts, Ewan McGregor is Lumiere, and Ian McKellen is Cogsworth. McKellen, after a long and largely obscure (at least in America) classical-stage career, has now been in numerous box office hits. He also has the funniest line of the film at the end, which I won’t spoil.

The film is getting good but not strong reviews, and it seems most of them have to do with the business aspects. But one can only review the film before you, not the reasons for its existence. On that level, I had a fine time with Beauty and the Beast. It’s a magical two hours.

Opening in Las Vegas, March 17

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The big opening is Beauty and the Beast (65), which may become the biggest film to ever open in March. I saw it today in a theater where it occupied about eight screens and still had to sit in the second row (but they were reclining seats, so it was all good). This is the next Disney wave–making live action remakes of their animated hits. I will have a review up soon.

The Belko Experiment (43) seems like a good rental for a rainy Saturday afternoon, and the fulfillment of a fantasy of many an office worker–killing off all your co-workers, especially the one that steals food out of the break room frig.

Finally, The Sense of an Ending (62), which was a fine novel by Julian Barnes about an older man who discovers something abouty his past from an old diary. Again, probably a rental, but I can’t see paying $10 to see it. With Jim Broadbent.

Review: Kong: Skull Island

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Here’s a rarity–a blockbuster, tent-pole picture that doesn’t play dumb and is satisfying on almost every level. It also has a King Kong that doesn’t have a thing for white women, removing the racist stigma of three previous American Kong films.

Set in 1973, Kong: Skull Island is sort of a mash-up between Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World and Apocalypse Now (lest we miss that connection, there is a character named Conrad, after the author of Heart of Darkness, and another named Marlow, who was the protagonist of that novel). John Goodman plays a scientist who works for a government agency that searches for monsters, which is a stretch of the imagination, and he has satellite photos of an uncharted island. Along with a few other scientists, he is able to wrangle an Army escort.

This brings Samuel L. Jackson into the picture, as a the colonel of a helicopter squad just about ready to go home after the peace treaty (when you’re in a movie, never do anything dangerous when you’re about to retire or be sent home). Jackson, with his dead-eyed stare, is very good, less of the parody of himself that he has become (he doesn’t say motherfucker, but he does emit a “Bitch, please!” Also on the ride are a professional tracker (Tom Hiddleston) and a photojournalist (Brie Larson).

What’s unique about Kong: Skull Island is there is no teasing. In many monster movies, such as the first King Kong, which is a great picture, you don’t see the creature until well into the movie. That is not true here. As the helicopters fly in, Kong is there, swatting them out of the sky. Since the soundtrack is a boomer playlist, instead of Wagner playing as the copters go in, it’s Black Sabbath.

Many men of his men are killed and Jackson wants revenge. But, as the party is split into two, the civilians (Hiddleston, Larson, and Goodman et. al.) discover an inhabitant on the island, John C. Reilly, who crash-landed during World War II. He’s the Colonel Kurtz of the story (though he is named Marlow), who lives with an indigenous tribe and tells them all about Kong. “He’s like a God here,” he says, and the protector of the tribe from underground dwelling lizard-like creatures.

That’s a lot stuff, but it keeps things moving. There are some great action scenes. Kong will, of course, eventually tee off against the “big one,” and it’s a great fight. A few characters are surprisingly killed off, and there is a real sense of danger.

But what I most appreciated was Larson was not set up as the Fay Wray/Jessica Lange/Naomi Watts character. She’s a woman in man’s field, no nonsense about her job. Kong does not become enamored with her (Hiddleston does, sort of), so we lose the fear-of-miscegenation angle that the previous films have unfortunately displayed (see the scene in Inglorious Basterds where the original King Kong is discussed as a metaphor for American slaves).

The film was directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts, whose only previous feature was a Sundance film, The Kings of Summer. Unlike some indie directors, like Josh Trank, Vogt-Roberts seems right at home in big-budget land. I also liked the cinematography of Larry Fong, who gives Skull Island unearthly light that makes a viewer feel just a bit uncomfortable. Fong has shot many of Zack Snyder’s films, that you can hardly see at all, so it’s nice to see Fong out from under Snyder’s untalented thumb.

Kong will be back, and if you stick through the credits you’ll see the connection to Godzilla. I already feel like that the climactic fight in Kong: Skull Island was a fight with a giant lizard, so the upcoming film may be overkill. But I’ll buy a ticket.

Opening in Las Vegas, March 10, 2017

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Only one film opening this weekend, Kong: Skull Island (63), which is the umpteenth resurrection of the big ape. This seems interesting enough that I want to see it–I’m kind of intrigued by the allusions to Apocalypse Now (and by extension, Heart of Darkness). It’s setting up for a King Kong vs. Godzilla movie, but don’t you know that there already was one: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King_Kong_vs._Godzilla. I have a pleasant memory of watching this film in my local library when I was about six or seven. If I remember correctly, it was a draw.

Review: Logan

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Logan is getting some great reviews, I think partially because though it’s a Marvel property it doesn’t seem like one. No cities are destroyed, there’s no Spandex, and it’s far more character-driven that most comic-book films.

However, though I liked Logan for the most part, let’s not go overboard. This, the swan song of Hugh Jackman playing the role of Logan/Wolverine, has some effective moments and good performances, as well as some savage action scenes (no cities may be destroyed, but more than one person loses their head) there is not a lot of originality to the script, by director James Mangold. While I was watching I thought of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, and also Stranger Things (which, granted, came out after Logan was written). A writer on the Cracked website compares it point by point to Children of Men, and it’s very convincing.

The year is 2029. and Logan is working as a limo driver. Mutants have ceased being born (I may have missed something in the canon, otherwise I don’t know why this is). He drinks a lot and is starting to feel the effects of age (he is over two-hundred years old). His healing properties are far slower, and he walks with a limp.

Logan also cares for Professor Charles Xavier, who has a brain disorder–when he doesn’t take his medicine his mind can create an earthquake-like occurrence. He is being kept in a toppled water tank near the Mexican border.

Xavier has picked up the presence of another mutant, a girl called Laura. She is brought to Logan from Mexico City by a nurse who has witnessed a genetic experiment to create mutants by artificial means. Thus, Laura, who is largely mute through most of the film, bears an uncanny resemblance to Eleven from Stranger Things, except Laura’s power is to be a baby Wolverine, clawing and ripping at her foes.

Of course, the evil corporation that is conducting the experiments has people looking for her, especially Boyd Holbrook, as a man with a mechanical arm. Logan and Xavier set out taking her to a haven for mutants in North Dakota for crossing into Canada (the immigration aspects are interesting, given the times we live in).

The gruff hero helping a child (as it turns out, children) is as old as movies, it seems, and Logan doesn’t really further the genre. Jackman, who has played Wolverine in eight films now, still manages to make the character interesting, especially in his frailties (though he still can use those claws). Patrick Stewart, as Xavier, who is also likely done with the character, goes out on a high note, although some may consider his British stage acting a bit hammy. It occurred to me that this might be an opportunity for Stewart to get an Oscar nomination (he’s never had one), but at this time last year I was thinking about John Goodman for 10 Cloverfield Lane.

I dare not spoil what happens here, but it is poignant without being too awash in sentimentality. It’s a fitting end for both Logan and Xavier’s characters, but as a guy who wrote for Marvel Comics once told me, “No one stays dead except for Uncle Ben.”

Logan, at two hours and seventeen minutes, is a bit too long, and has too many cliches, but it’s okay and a must for X-Men fans.

Opening in Las Vegas, March 3, 2017

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The big opening this week is Hugh Jackman’s swan song as Wolverine in Logan (77), which is getting good enough reviews that I’ll go see it, even though I haven’t seen the other two Wolverine solo films. Jackman has now played the character eight times, and except for actors who appeared in the old serials I don’t know of one who has played a character so many times. No one has played James Bond that many times.  I guess Robert Downey Jr might be close with Iron Man (including his cameo in the second Hulk film). Anybody else have some suggestions?

Also new this week is the art-housey A United Kingdom (66), starring Rosamund Pike and David Oyelwo as a mixed-race marriage with the caveat being he is king of an African country. I’ve seen the trailer many times and it looks obvious and boring.

Anna Kendrick, who I found to be delightful, is in another romantic comedy, Table 19 (39), about a spurned bridesmaid. Though I like Kendrick, she makes movies that I don’t want to see. She should step out of her comfort zone more often.

I’m not quite sure what The Shack (31) is about, but it seems to be about faith and forgiveness, and a little too spiritual for my tastes. Sam Worthington, who you think would have been a bigger star after Avatar. The title sounds like a horror movie to me.

Finally there’s Before I Fall (58), based on a YA novel about a girl who must live the same day over and over again. I remember reading a story with that plot forty-some years ago. I’ll pass.

 

 

 

 

 

The 89th Oscars: The (Correct) Envelope, Please

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To get to the elephant in the room, let’s talk about the flub first. It will overshadow anything else from this Oscar ceremony, the 89th, and is right up there with Sacheen Littlefeather and Robert Opel, the streaker, in terms of Oscar moments of sheer nuttiness.

To recap, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Bonnie and Clyde (both looking fresh from the plastic surgeon’s office), presented Best Picture. To that point, La La Land looked like the film to beat, picking up six awards (though it did not win near as many as some people thought it would). Beatty opened the envelope, and appeared to be vamping, checking to see if there was something else in the envelope, and looking like he was just teasing the nominees. Dunaway, taken aback, chided him, so Beatty handed her the envelope and she said, “La La Land.” General pandemonium, and two of the producers managed to give acceptance speeches. Beatty hung around, though, and the third producer said, “We lost.” The producer at the mic, Justin Horowitz, announced there had been a mistake, and that Moonlight had won Best Picture. To prove he was not joking, he held up the right card. Gasps, and the La La Land crowd exited the stage and was replaced by the Moonlight contingent.

Host Jimmy Kimmel, at first blaming Steve Harvey (who famously mixed up the name of Miss Universe) found Beatty there to take his lumps. The star realized something was wrong, as he had the Best Actress envelope and card, but instead of pointing it out to someone who could so something about it, he simply handed the envelope to Dunaway, who read out the name of the film on the card.

PricewaterhouseCooper, the accounting firm that has had the Oscar account for 83 years, will now have some explaining to do, and there will doubtless be tense meetings between them and the Academy in the coming days. The best guess as to what happened: there are two envelopes for every award, one at each end of the stage, locked in cases. Each of the holders of those cases know every winner. In error, Beatty and Dunaway were handed the extra Best Actress envelope (as Emma Stone pointed out, she still had the original envelope in her hand while she was addressing the press). Beatty did not notice that the envelope said “Best Actress” on it (a close-up verifies this), and the confusion resulted.

So, why didn’t Beatty ask for help, and after Dunaway, really quite innocent in all this, read the wrong name, why didn’t the PwC person immediately come out? Two minutes went by, and it was a stagehand that pointed out to the La La Land producers that a mistake had been made. Methinks a head or two will roll at PwC, and the Academy may seriously question the continued connection.

There have been mix-ups before, but nothing on this scale. In 1933, Will Rogers presented Best Director and upon opening the envelope said, “Come on up and get it, Frank.” Frank Capra started for the stage, but unfortunately for him it was Frank Lloyd who won. In 1964, Sammy Davis Jr. was given the wrong envelope, but it was caught in time. Davis quipped, “Wait until the NAACP hears about this.”

This brouhaha overshadows what I consider the biggest upset in the Best Picture race since 1982, when Chariots of Fire bested Reds. So how did Moonlight do it? It was, adjusted for inflation, the lowest-budgeted film ever to take the top prize. It is the first film solely about black America (I don’t recall any white faces, maybe some teachers in the school), and it’s the first film with a gay protagonist to win (when Brokeback Mountain lost to Crash, it was thought the older voters couldn’t tolerate a gay-themed film. Finally times have changed). It is also a critic’s darling–it was second on both the Sight & Sound and Film Comment polls for best film of 2016 (La La Land was 16th on Sight & Sound’s poll, and didn’t even make Film Comment’s). To put it simply–it is the most indie-ish, to create a word, film to ever win Best Picture.

It has become almost routine for Best Picture and Best Director to be split. While it usually happened about once a decade from the mid-’20s to the mid-’90s, it has happened eight times in the last nineteen years, close to a fifty-percent rate (that’s even considering a stretch from 2006-2011 when they matched). Clearly, the younger voters have no problem splitting their ticket, as is usual at festivals like Cannes, when they never match. La La Land won some technical awards, some musical awards, Best Actress and Best Director, but was not judged Best Picture. Why?

Certainly there may have been some that simply thought Moonlight was better, and may have voted for director Barry Jenkins as well. But what about those who voted for Best Director winner Damien Chazelle (now the youngest director ever to win, breaking an 85-year-old record) but did not vote for La La Land? I am not in the industry and know zero Academy voters, but I can surmise that it was a market correction–after last year’s bad press over #Oscarssowhite, some voters were determined to make sure this Oscar ceremony showed diversity. There was a Black person nominated in each acting category (two of them won, for only the second time) and perhaps voters figured they’d honor La La Land’s artistry but show they aren’t prejudiced by voting for Moonlight. There may be also a bit of anti-Trump backlash, as well. The first Best Picture of his presidency is about gay black men.

I began to sense an upset early on, when La La Land lost both sound awards and then editing. But it began to pick up steam, and though it lost Original Screenplay, that was expected. Once Chazelle won I thought it was in the bag. I was wrong.

Other than that, the show was the usual bloated affair, clocking in as the longest in about ten years. Jimmy Kimmel was an affable host–he was not to blame for the snafu in any way, so I hope he is invited back. His only cringe-worthy moment was bringing in a bus-load of tourists into the theater. In what I’m sure was meant to be charming, the stunt came off as “Look, watch the great unwashed interact with their betters,” and went on too long. The parachuted candy worked much better. The Matt Damon trolling was brutal but, I admit, funny. He must be a damn good sport.

Some Oscar tidbits: Casey and Ben Affleck now become the 16th pair of siblings to win Oscars. Affleck had ceded favorite status when he lost SAG and his sexual assault charges hovered over him. But the SAG win was over-rated for Denzel Washington; he had never won one, but had won two Oscars.

Kevin O’Connell, a sound mixer, received his 21st nomination this year. Sounds great, and it is, but he had never won. He did this year, for Hacksaw Ridge. In his acceptance speech he looked like he would explode with relief. Greg P. Russell, who has 17 nominations without a win, was nominated for 13 Hours, but was removed when he got caught campaigning. It would have been a delicious irony if the film had won but he didn’t get a statuette.

Mahershala Ali is the first Muslim to win an Oscar. All told, I count five Black people who won Oscars, which I think must be a record. Coupling that with Moonlight’s win (although the three producers of that film are white) is really the story of the night–the Academy has tried to be more diverse, and it seems to have worked.

Review: Toni Erdmann

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Toni Erdmann, nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, was named best film of 2016 by Cahiers du Cinema, Sight & Sound, and Film Comment. Therefore, I couldn’t help but have my expectations too high. To be sure, Toni Erdmann has moments of brilliance, but over a two-hour-forty-minute running time they are spaced a bit too far apart. But I will say this–there are scenes that I won’t forget for a long time.

The film is about a retired music teacher (Peter Simonischek) who likes to pull people’s legs. At the very outset he pulls ours–he tells a package delivery man that his brother is just out of jail for mail bombs and is eating dog food. He comes back to the door as his brother, but it’s him, with fake teeth. It took me a moment or two to realize there was no brother.

Simoischek lives with a very old dog, and is barely in touch with his daughter Sandra Huller, who was a big-shot business consultant living in Bucharest. When his dog dies, he has nothing better to do than fly to Bucharest and surprise her. It will turn her life upside down.

He tags along at a reception at an American embassy and embarrasses her in front of a CEO whose business she’s trying to win (he tells the man he has hired a substitute daughter who will clip his toenails). After she think he’s gone, she goes out for dinner with friends and he shows up in a bad, long-haired wig, wearing those awful fake teeth, and claiming to be Toni Erdmann, who is friend of the Romanian tennis player Ion Tiriac, and is in town for Tiriac’s turtle’s funeral. Huller does not blow the whistle on him, and despite herself becomes enmeshed in his masquerade.

So what is writer-director Maren Ade trying to tell us? That “Toni Erdmann” is bringing happiness into the hum-drum, all-business life of his daughter? She is very uptight, but is also kinky. One scene I will never forget is when she makes her lover, a colleague, masturbate onto a pastry, which she then eats. If the dad is the free spirit who knows the secret to happiness, I’m not sure it’s posing as the German ambassador while your daughter watches her career go down the drain.

Ade could use a better editor. Some scenes go on way too long. I think of when father and daughter visit a local family’s house for Easter. He pushes her to sing “The Greatest Love of All,” all verses. It’s a naked moment for Huller, but it’s so cringe-worthy, even though she’s not a bad singer, that I wanted to crawl under the chair.

And speaking of naked moments–the scene everyone who has seen it will talk about is when Huller is giving a birthday brunch. She is so frustrated while getting dressed that she answers the door wearing only panties. It’s a female friend, so nothing is too shocking, but then she decides it’s going to be a naked party. She takes off the panties, and no one is allowed to stay who isn’t naked. This leads to some amusing scenes of full frontal nudity (there are two penises seen in this movie, so at least it’s fair). Then, if that weren’t enough, Simonischek shows up wearing a huge furry costume that is apparently a Bulgarian folk character that drives away evil spirits.

To me, Toni Erdmann’s particular moments don’t add up and instead it’s just a series of strange events. I’m not sure Huller learned anything, nor did Simonischek. I read one review that says it’s a long film but never self-indulgent; I think almost the whole movie is self-indulgent (there are also a lot of scenes about the oil business that are completely unnecessary).

German comedies are unusual–it is said to be one of the world’s shortest books (along with Italian war heroes or the Amish phone book)–and though Toni Erdmann is at times very funny, it fails when it tries to balance it with pathos. It’s a noble effort, and I’m glad I saw it, but best film of the year? No.

Review: The Salesman

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The first action of The Salesman is an apartment building starting to collapse. It’s an apt metaphor for Asghard Farhadi’s film, another in which he examines how a marriage falls apart. The building does not completely come down, but is uninhabitable, and there is a large crack in the bedroom of Edam and Rana, a young married couple.

Played by Shahab Hosseini and Taraneh Alidoosti, respectively, the couple are part of a Tehranian middle class. He teaches literature in high school, and both are taking part in a community theater production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (Hosseini is Willy Loman, hence the title).

One of their co-stars, made aware of their search for a new apartment, is a landlord who has a place. They like it, though the previous tenant has left a lot of of her stuff. Slowly it unfolds that she was a prostitute (that word is never used–she was “promiscuous,” “had a lot of male visitors,” etc.

One night, Alidoosti comes home earlier from a production, while Hosseini meets with censors (one of the several Iranian touches). The door buzzes and, thinking it’s her husband, she buzzes him in and opens the door. But as we watch the door slowly swing open from inertia, we realize that it’s not Hosseini coming up. As Anthony Lane pointed out in his review, it’s a scene Michael Haneke would love.

Alidoosti is attacked, but she does not see her attacker. When Hosseini realizes who was the previous tenant, he thinks it is one of her clients, who mistakes Alidoosti (who was in the shower) for the whore. He goes about trying to track this person down. In another Iranian touch, and what makes it entirely different from a Western film, the couple do not consult the police. In the U.S. a woman brought into an ER with a head wound would automatically attract police presence, but in Tehran it is thought better to just keep it quiet.

Eventualy Husseini finds his man, and it’s in a most ingenious fashion that Farhadi introduces him. This leads to a socko finish, an entire last act in one space–the fractured apartment, where Hosseini decides to enact revenge. Alidosti wants to forgive him, and tells Hosseini if he doesn’t let him go their marriage is over. Suddenly the stakes are much higher than Hosseini can handle.

The Salesman makes for gripping drama, and Farhadi is a very clever man. Not only does he use the metaphor of the crumbling building at the beginning, but he begins and ends the film with someone being carried down stairs. Hosseini does at the beginning, rescuing a disabled man, while at the end another man is carried down the stairs, dying, while Hosseeini does nothing.

The one thing I have not been able to figure out is, why Death of a Salesman? Clearly Farhadi chose this play specifically, one of the greats of the American theater, as his background story. But the parallels between the stories and the characters don’t seem to be there. Death of a Salesman is essentially about how a man wastes his life in pursuit of an ever-out-of-reach dream, and ends up failing his family. What is has to do with The Salesman I will have to ponder more.

The Ninth Annual Gone Elsewhere Oscar Challenge

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Time for this year’s Oscar Challenge. It’s simple–just pick the winner in each of the 24 categories.

I suggest you simply cut and paste the list of categories below in a comment and type your choice of winner next to it. If you change your mind, either edit your comment or post a new one. I will take your last predictions as official.

Best Picture:
Best Director:
Best Actor:
Best Actress:
Best Supporting Actor:
Best Supporting Actress:
Best Original Screenplay:
Best Adapted Screenplay:
Best Foreign Language Film:
Best Animated Film:
Best Cinematography:
Best Editing:
Best Production Design:
Best Costume Design:
Best Song:
Best Musical Score:
Best Documentary Feature:
Best Documentary Short Subject:
Best Makeup and Hairstyles:
Best Animated Short Subject:
Best Live Action Short Subject:
Best Sound Editing:
Best Sound Mixing:
Best Visual Effects:

The nominees can be found all over the web, including here.

Deadline will be anytime before the first award is given. The Oscar show is February 26th.

Review: The Batman Lego Movie

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Perhaps the most interesting credit for The Batman Lego Movie is that the Executive Producer is Steve Mnuchin, our brand new Secretary of Treasury in the Trump administration. That makes some sense, because this iteration of Batman makes the caped crusader seem just like a certain orange-hued billionaire president.

As I guessed last March, The Batman Lego Movie is far better than Batman v. Superman, but it isn’t as charming as The Lego Movie. I mean, you can’t go wrong when one of the first gags in the movie is that a plane belongs to McGuffin Airways (a McGuffin being a term Alfred Hitchcock used), but at times it is so busy that I felt a bit overwhelmed (I misread the times for my theater and ended up watching the 3-D version, which might not have helped).

Batman was an amusing supporting player in The Lego Movie, and Will Arnett is back in his own adventure. He is solipsistic, narcissistic, thin-skinned, and a bit power mad, and doesn’t learn from his own mistakes, just like a certain president. He also has trouble saying he’s sorry. In short, he’s a basket case.

The message of the film is that everyone has to work together to make things happen, with the new Gotham City Police Commissioner, Barbara Gordon (voiced by Rosario Dawson) emphasizing cooperation with Batman instead of just calling for his help. Meanwhile Batman’s arch villain, The Joker (Zach Galifinakis) is upset when Batman tells him he doesn’t need him. Batman zaps him to something called the Phantom Zone, where the worst villains are kept, crossing genres with King Kong, Sauron, and Voldemort. The Joker frees them all, creating mayhem in Gotham City.

Other DC characters are on board, most specifically Robin (Michael Cera) and loyal butler Alfred (Ralph Fiennes, who does not voice Voldemort, even though he played him in the films. Weird). There are also brief appearances by the Flash, Green Lantern, and other DC characters such as Condiment King, who really is a DC villain. The Joker tells us to Google him.

With Arnett’s growling voice, there is much humor mined from Batman’s loneliness. He eats re-heated lobster thermidore, then retires to a private screeing room to watch Jerry Maguire, at which he howls with laughter. Everything about this Batman is so silly and childish, but it is in line with the Batman mythos, as there is a meta sensibility, going back to the ’60s TV show and even the serials of the ’40s.

I would have liked it more if it had dialed down the sappy message, made the action scenes a little less seizure-inducing, and concentrated on the comedy.

Review: Nocturnal Animals

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Nocturnal Animals, Tom Ford’s second feature, is the cinematic equivalent of gilding the lily. It is a film within a film, and the film within is a nice, tough desert noir, as if adapted from a pulp novel by Jim Thompson. If left to stand alone, it would have been powerful and satisfying. But, not leaving well enough alone, that film is wrapped with another, far less interesting film that mostly features Amy Adams staring into space.

The premise is that Adams, a gallery owner, receives a manuscript from her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal), who had always been a struggling writer. As she reads the book, it is acted out for us, with Gyllenhaal playing a second role as the father of a family accosted by hoodlums on a Texas highway. They kidnap and murder his wife and daughter (the wife is played by Adams look-alike Isla Fisher), and the crime is investigated by Michael Shannon (Oscar-nominated).

Every so often, when something dramatic happens in the book, Adams looks up, shocked (perhaps because her look-alike is brutally murdered in the book). We see flashbacks of how the couple met, wed, and divorced. She basically gave up on him and his supposed weakness (her mother, Laura Linney, warns her of it) and ends up with a rich man (Armie Hammer). As the shell of the film progresses, it becomes clear that Gyllenhaal has written the book as a giant fuck-you to Adams.

But all of that melodrama detracts from the terrific core of the movie. Shannon is terrific, as is Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who plays the lead scumbag. This part of the film crackles with intensity, and is expertly shot and designed (the “killing” trailer certainly looks the part). There are interesting questions about justice, and the ending is as brutal as I’ve seen in a while.

But that’s not the end of all of Nocturnal Animals, because there is the “real life” coda that kind of lets the air out of the tires. The book that it is based on, I presume, had the same structure, but Ford would have better off just shooting the noir part. In fact, I think it might do everyone well to re-release it at some point doing just that.

Random Thread for February, 2017

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I’ve had my copy of Film Comment for a while but just leafed through it for the first time. Here is the results of their annual poll of the best films of the year (2016, of course).

  1. Toni Erdmann
  2. Moonlight
  3. Elle
  4. Cemetery of Splendor
  5. Certain Women
  6. Paterson
  7. Manchester by the Sea
  8. Aquarius
  9. Things to Come
  10. No Home Movie
  11. The Lobster
  12. Right Now, Wrong Then
  13. Love & Friendship
  14. Cameraperson
  15. Kaili Blues
  16. The Handmaiden
  17. Everybody Wants Some!!
  18. The Fits
  19. Neruda
  20. The Other Side

Of all the movies I see each year, both in theaters and other ways, I’ve only seen six of these. I disagree about Elle, which I didn’t care for. My Netflix queue is already to capacity so it may be awhile until I get to these. Anyone seen any of the more obscure ones?

Review: Hidden Figures

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Hidden Figures is a perfectly acceptable film about a subject that makes all but the most hardened Klansmen feel all mushy inside: black women played an important part of putting men into space, and they faced discrimination, indignity, and were relegated into footnotes in history. It is well acted and has the requisite big beats–such as when Kevin Costner tears down a “Colored Women’s Bathroom” sign and Mahershala Ali proposes to Taraji P. Henson in front of her whole family.

But what Hidden Figures is not is one of the best movies of the year. It was written and directed by the numbers by Theodore Melfi, and since it “based on true events” one would have to read the original book to know exactly what happened–parts of the film feel inauthentic. Would IBM guys really not know how to operate their own machine, while Octavia Spencer could do it by reading a book about Fortran? Maybe so, but the scene feels loaded.

The notion that Hidden Figures is better than Silence, or 20th Century Women, or Loving is ludicrous. It is simply a crowd-pleaser that will make black people proud and white people content that they would not be so racist way back then.

The three core women of the story are Henson, as a mathematical genius and the main focus of the story; Spencer as a woman who manages a large pool of black women who work on an assignment basis and wants to be promoted to supervisor; and Janelle Monae as a black woman who wants to be an engineer but has to take classes at an all-white high school to achieve it. They all have arcs that it doesn’t take a spoiler to know will end well for them (Henson’s character, Katherine G. Johnson, who is still alive, was given a Presidential Medal of Freedom at age 97), but were short-changed by the history books (none was mentioned in The Right Stuff, for example).

This is all well and good, and will make the viewer happy, but it is not an artful picture; it hums along like a TV-movie. I have nothing against it as such, but when it gets a nomination for Best Picture instead of better films, it gores my ox a bit.

I did like the acting, particularly by Henson. Spencer got a nomination, and she is kind of specializing in a cliche–the motherly black woman who is wise and patient. Henson has most of the big scenes, but Spencer has the best line, when she is told by her supervisor, Kirsten Dunst, “I really have nothing against you people.” Spencer smiles and says, “I know you believe that.” I also thought Monae, who is renowned as a recording artist, makes a fine actress, proving it here and in Moonlight. Ali, who was nominated for his role as a drug dealer in Moonlight, here plays a completely different character, an upright colonel in the National Guard.

Costner steals almost every scene he is in, playing a guy who just wants to get the job done, and really doesn’t care about race or gender or protocol. It is unfortunate though that the role is yet another white guy whose help is indispensable. Jim Parsons, Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory, plays yet another uptight genius.