2016 Oscar Nominations – Initial Reactions

And so we have it.  Eight Best Picture Nominees.  I’ve seen five of them, and have written reviews of two (Brooklyn and Bridge of Spies), and I’ll have reviews for Mad Max: Fury Road, The Martian, and The Big Short soon enough.  It’s early in Oscar/Awards season, but here’s what I think so far about the Best Picture Nominees in alphabetical order.

The Big Short

I liked The Big Short, but it isn’t getting a ton of buzz as a Best Picture favorite. It wasn’t nominated in a lot of other categories, and it hasn’t been a huge hit at the box office.  Assessment: A strong ensemble film about an important topic, but not really a contender.

Brooklyn

Brooklyn is a poignant and well constructed film, but much of its power rests on the performance of its lead actor, Saoirse Ronan.  If Ronan starts winning “Best Actress” awards, look out.  Otherwise, this one probably doesn’t have the narrative heft to overcome some of the other nominees.  Assessment: Possibly a contender, depending on how the acting awards go.

Bridge of Spies

If this movie had a new actor and director in the lead, everyone would be heaping praise upon it.  Unfortunately we hold Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg to otherworldly standards, so great for them doesn’t really cut it with the Academy anymore. Assessment: It unfairly won’t win anything.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Is Mad Max: Fury Road an excellent action film?  Certainly.  Is it this shocking revelation, the greatest action movie of all time?  I think that’s a bit much.  It’s good, but it won’t overcome favorites in more Academy-friendly genres.  Assessment: It’ll get some votes and could be a darkhorse, but I just don’t see it winning.

The Martian

The Academy loved Gravity (2013), and The Martian occupies the same narrative space.  However, it’s not quite the spectacle that Gravity was, so I think that works against it here.  Assessment: If Gravity didn’t win Best Picture, this won’t either.

The Revenant

The Revenant has gotten the lion’s share of the buzz in recent weeks, but I can’t help but wonder if it’s peaked too early.  I can’t comment on its merits since I haven’t seen it yet, so that might change my assessment.  Assessment: The early favorite.

Room

Room is getting some late buzz, and Brie Larson’s performance has been driving a lot of it.  I’m going to put this one in the same category as Brooklyn for the time being.  Assessment: Like Brooklyn, it depends on how the acting awards go.

Spotlight

Based on reviews and buzz, Spotlight is a prototypical Best Picture winner.  Based on a true, contemporary issue?  Check.  Strong performances?  Check.  Nominations in other categories?  Check.  It seems like the safe choice, and the Academy loves the safe choice.  Assessment: The favorite if The Revenant’s buzz starts to fizzle.

(c) 2016 D.G. McCabe

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Spolier-Free Review)

Directed by J.J. Abrams, U.S., 2015

First let’s start out: The Force Awakens is good.  What follows is a  completely spoiler-free review.  Fortunately, in a previous post I already laid the groundwork for such a discussion.  However, if you wish to make a completely independent assessment of The Force Awakens, as I did, you should stop now.

Continue reading “Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Spolier-Free Review)”

Brooklyn (Review)

Directed by John Crowley, UK/Ireland, 2015

Brooklyn is an exceptional film – the best one I’ve seen thus far in 2015.  It is exceptional for what it isn’t.  Decades of Oscar nominations have left us with an impression of what constitutes a great movie.  Brooklyn may not win the Oscars it deserves because of this, but that doesn’t diminish the fact that it is a great film.

Hollywood has taught us that the best picture of the year needs to be about a great hero, World War II or some other historical cataclysm, or about an important social issue of the day. The reasons why Brooklyn is a great film, however, are that it contains none of these elements in the manner of the usual Oscar-bait Hollywood film.  Instead, it uses elements from other traditions of filmmaking to craft an intimate, relatable, and beautiful story.

Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) isn’t a great hero as presented to us by decades of flashy, Hollywood biopics.  However, through Ronan’s subtle performance, it shows us a protagonist that could easily be any of us in our early twenties.  Whom among us hasn’t been torn between staying put in our hometown or blazing a new trail for ourselves?  For most of us, this choice doesn’t involve leaving Ireland for New York City, and in an age of social media and reasonably priced flights even that would be quite different these days.  But still, the emotion and the struggle remain familiar, and Ronan’s performance creates a powerful connection between Eilis’ experience and the experiences of the audience.

Brooklyn is set in the middle of the 20th Century, but it isn’t about World War II or the Cold War.  It doesn’t need to be, as such emphasis on an over-story would detract from one of the film’s greatest strengths.  Throughout the film, Eilis is torn between her love of her hometown and her family, and the life she has built for herself in Brooklyn, which includes a college curriculum, a steady job, friends, and a boyfriend (Emory Cohen).  This is an deeply personal conflict – disconnected from the mighty forces of history usually emphasized in what we’ve been told are “great” movies.

It touches upon a social issue, immigration, but not in a way that is directly relevant to the immigrant experience today.   Eilis isn’t forced to leave Ireland due to external circumstances, rather she is given an opportunity to do so by her sister’s connections and good fortune (Fiona Glascott).  She doesn’t face discrimination (1952 was well past the days where Irish immigrants faced that challenge) or poverty – the typical themes of the immigrant experience on film.  Her experience isn’t that different from someone going to college on the other side of the country would have been at that time in fact.  But that’s okay – there are plenty of fine films about the challenges of the immigrant experience.  Brooklyn doesn’t need to touch upon those issues – it is effective enough without them.

Is there room for a well crafted, finely acted story about a common personal conflict in our definition of what constitutes a “great movie?”  I believe that there is.  As the films of the great director Yasujiro Ozu demonstrate, not every great film needs to deal with themes of scale.  Themes of intimacy can be equally effective, and Brooklyn certainly occupies the same category as films such as Tokyo Story (1953) in that regard.

You might like Brooklyn if: You are looking for a film that you will recognize in yourself.

You might not like Brooklyn if: You just can’t think of any film right now except for a certain space opera coming out in a couple of weeks.

(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe

Movie Review Catch Up: “Steve Jobs,” “Completely Normal,” and “Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made”

A couple of weeks ago I sat through a day of watching movies at the Twin Cities Film Festival in St. Louis Park, MN.  As a catch-up post, here are my thoughts on the three movies I saw.  In the spirit of full disclosure, “Steve Jobs” wasn’t actually part of the Festival but it was showing in the same theater.

Steve Jobs

Directed by Danny Boyle, US, 2015

The box office was merciless to this film, so you may have already given up on it.  I can understand – I mean how many biopics about Steve Jobs can possibly come out?  This one is worthwhile though, and not just because Michael Fassbender is exceptional in the title role.

Steve Jobs isn’t a traditional biopic.  It is a traditional stage play, or could easily be converted into one.  Aaron Sorkin, the screenwriter for this one, came from the theater, so this isn’t necessarily surprising.  What is surprising is how effective it is (although, not for nothing, it has its share of Sorkin-ese).

The three act structure takes us to the minutes leading up to three different product launches.  Jobs (Fassbender) has interactions with the same four people each time.  In these snapshots of brief moments, we see how these relationships evolve, and mainly, how an irritable iconoclast became one of the greatest business leaders of the last fifty years.

You might like Steve Jobs if: You enjoy Apple products, the American theater, or Michael Fassbender.

You might not like Steve Jobs if: You just can’t take another minute of hearing about a man who essentially sold us a bunch of expensive toys.

Completely Normal

Directed by G. Robert Vornkahl, US, 2015

I have less positive things to say about Completely Normal, but it depends how you look at it.  Here’s a synopsis:

Greg (Seth Kirchner) is shy, quiet, and nerdy looking.  In your average rom-com, he’d be a sympathetic character, but in this, he’s a creepy stalker. Not a creepy “I’m going to wear your skin” stalker, but close enough.  His quarry is Gwen (Jenny Grace) who suffers from dissociative identity disorder and is at once a maid, a southern man-eater, and a heavy metal frontman.

Here’s why I’m not sure what to make of this one.  If it’s supposed to be whimsical, then it fails miserably.  Greg is a dirtbag of the highest order, and Gwen needs to be committed.  If it’s supposed to be a satire of these kinds of movies where a stalker-ish guy gets the woman of his dreams by stalking her, it works a little better.

Still, I can’t say I really enjoyed this one.  The creepiness outweighs everything and you just feel like you need to take a shower after watching it.

You might like Completely Normal if: You have an aversion to creepy rom-coms and you approach it as satire.

You might not like Completely Normal if: You have an aversion to creepy stalkers creepily stalking vulnerable women.

Raiders! The Story of the Greatest Fan Film Ever Made

Over the course of the 1980’s, a group of kids in Mississippi filmed a shot for shot remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).  The film they created “Raiders: The Adaptation” is a cult favorite among Indiana Jones fans.  “Raiders!” is the story of how they did it, and how they got around to finishing it.

Raiders! is a charming, although uneven, documentary.  It’s interesting to see how a bunch of poorly funded kids remade one of the biggest blockbusters of all time without much adult supervision but with lots of fire.  It’s sad to see how they all kind of grew apart, isn’t that what happens with childhood friends?  Anyway the parts where they go back and talk about the making of the film and its ensuing popularity are the highlights of this documentary.  It’s also fun to see how they all get together to film one last scene – the famous airplane fight scene.

The problem with narrator-less, Cinéma Vérité documentaries is that they can lose focus really fast.  Raiders! is strong when its subject is the film, Raiders: The Adaptation.  It’s a good story after all, and the “finishing” of the that one last scene is a good framing device to tell the story.

When Raiders! changes its subject to the makers of the film, it’s much weaker.  Maybe there wouldn’t have been enough footage if they left out the parts about filmmakers and their lives, and some is important in the context of telling the story about the movie.  Still I would have liked to see more of it left on the cutting room floor.

Overall, it’s a good story about the making of a crazy fan film, the love of cinema, and so forth.

You might like Raiders! if: You love Raiders of the Lost Ark and/or you’ve ever made a fan project as an homage to a movie.

You might not like Raiders! if: You really don’t care about Raiders: The Adaptation and you’d rather just watch the real movie.

(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe

 

The 33 (Review)

Directed by Patricia Riggen, US, 2015

For once I saw a movie before it was generally released – at the Twin Cities Film Festival a couple of weekends ago.  I’ll do a catch-up review from the other movies I saw at the festival in a bit, but first this weekend’s “The 33.”

The 33 is the story of the 2010 San Jose Mining Disaster where thirty three miners were trapped underground for two and a half months.  As the details of this particular event fade, it is good to be reminded about what a harrowing ordeal it was.  We know they are rescued – it was world news after all – but what the movie remarkably demonstrates is how hard it was.

The lighting of the underground scenes is especially interesting.  It gives the audience enough sense of how dark it was down in the mine without making the film look sloppy or darkened out.  This is probably standard operating procedure in the movies effects-wise, but I thought it was particularly effective in this context.

The cast does a fine job with what is given to them, which are essentially a dozen or so supporting roles.  Juliette Binoche is particularly impressive as Maria Segovia, the sister of one of the miners who holds the Chilean government to account.  Well, specifically she holds mining commissioner André Sougarret (Gabrielle Byrne) to account.

The 33 is a worthwhile film, but unfortunately it’s far from perfect.  The middle of the film drags a bit.  The first half, where the miners are trapped with little hope of rescue, has genuine suspense and tension.  After they are discovered to be alive, the story about figuring out how to get them out just isn’t as compelling.  Additionally, while the actors do a fine job, the characters are bit shallow.

Overall, The 33 is a fine way to spend an afternoon or evening at the movies.  It might even net an Oscar nomination or two considering the subject matter.

You might like The 33 if: You enjoy well-acted, if somewhat routine, disaster/rescue movies.

You might not like the 33 if: You know everything there is to know about the 2010 Chilean Mining Disaster.

(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe

Bridge of Spies

Directed by Steven Spielberg, US, 2015

Spielberg has gone on a bit of a minimalist streak lately – well if a “streak” consists of three films.  Lincoln (2012) and Bridge of Spies (2015) could work well as stage plays.  War Horse (2011) is a stage play, although both adaptations come from the same novel.  In any event, for the time being the man who popularized the summer, special effects blockbuster has set visual effects aside in favor of character driven drama.

That isn’t to say that Bridge of Spies lacks compelling imagery – it is a compelling and magnificently shot film.  Period pieces and thrillers are notoriously difficult to shoot, and Spielberg makes it look easy.  Even if you are familiar with the back story of the U2 Incident (not to be confused with the U2 album “Songs of Innocence”), the film is suspenseful and intense.

Tom Hanks will get another Oscar nod for his role as real life attorney turned international negotiator, James B. Donovan.  Donovan reluctantly agrees to defend a Soviet spy in the mid 1950’s.   His work as an attorney draws criticism from his family and community, and eventually puts him in the dangerous position of negotiating a resolution to the infamous U2 Incident.

Overall, if you like spy movies, thrillers, Steven Spielberg, or Tom Hanks, go check this one out.

You might like Bridge of Spies if: You want to see a well executed Cold War spy movie.

You might not like Bridge of Spies if: You know everything about the U2 Incident and don’t want or need to see a movie about it.

(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe

Ant-Man (Review)

Directed by Peyton Reed, US, 2015

Superhero movies are getting a little monotonous these days.  Good guy becomes superhero, faces bad guy, loses confidence, regains confidence, defeats bad guy, rinse and repeat.  It would be refreshing if superhero films started exploring other genres.  Enter Ant-Man, which is essentially a heist movie.

It’s not as good as Ocean’s 11 (either version), but it puts an interesting twist on the standard formula.  Something needs to be stolen from a clear antagonist (the movie doesn’t even try to make its villain, Darren Cross (Corey Stall) three dimensional).  There’s a team handling different aspects of the break-in, and oh yeah, a guy who can shrink to the size of an ant and communicate with insects.

The movie is kept afloat by solid, humorous performances from Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, and Evangeline Lilly.  The interactions between these three protagonists keeps the tone of the movie from taking itself too seriously.  Douglas is of course a screen legend, but Rudd and Lilly hold their own acting opposite him.

Should you go see Ant-Man at this point?  Sure.  As a whole it’s better than some Marvel movies, but not as good as others.  It’s far from a classic of American cinema, but a fun movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

You might like Ant-Man if: You think a superhero/heist combo film sounds like a fun idea.

You might not like Ant-Man if: You’re a little burned out on comic book movies for the summer.

(c) 2015 D.G. McCabe