Monday, February 8, 2016

This week's DVD releases

Click on the title to see the film’s trailer

Welcome to Leith ***½ Directed by Christopher K. Walker, Michael Beach Nichols. A documentary chronicling the attempted takeover of a small town in North Dakota by white supremacist Craig Cobb. This is as well-balanced and observed a documentary as there is, even if no sane human being could side with Cobb and his people.

Grandma *** Directed by Paul Weitz. A teenager (Julia Garner) facing an unplanned pregnancy seeks help from her acerbic grandmother (Lily Tomlin), a woman who is long estranged from her daughter (Marica Gay Harden). This film was clearly made on modest resources and can look a little rough and ready in places. Viewers will, however, be more than willing to overlook its imperfections because it is so funny and engaging and because Tomlin is such a joy to behold.

99 Homes *** Directed by Ramin Bahrani. A recently unemployed single father (Andrew Garfield) struggles to get back his foreclosed home by working for the real estate broker (Michael Shannon) who is the source of his frustration. An urgent work, the burning anger of which will viscerally connect with many viewers, who will recognize themselves or people they know up on the screen.

Crimson Peak **½ Directed by Guillermo del Toro. In the wake of a family tragedy, young Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) impulsively weds the disarming Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston). But after moving into Sharpe’s isolated mansion in Northern England, Edith discovers that the house and her husband are hiding secrets. A curious hybrid of grim fairytale and gory horror, del Toro’s ninth feature is striking but sorely lacking in surprises. Great ghosts, but del Toro is capable of so much more.

Spectre **½ Directed by Sam Mendes. A cryptic message from James Bond’s (Daniel Craig) past sends him on a trail to uncover a sinister organization. The first act is great, full of dark portent and bravura film-making flourishes. However, the final hour disappoints, with too many off-the-peg plot twists and too many characters conforming to type.

MI-5 ** Directed by Bharat Nalluri. When a terrorist (Elyes Gabel) escapes custody during a routine handover, Will Holloway (Kit Harington) must team with disgraced MI5 Intelligence Chief Harry Pearce (Peter Firth) to track him down before an imminent terrorist attack on London. Led by the honorably dour Firth and the charisma-free Harington, this film is convoluted and dull, though Harry’s revenge against that dastardly mole is pleasingly diabolical. But it’s too little too late.

PauletteDirected by Jerome Enrico. Elderly widow Paulette (Bernadette Lafont) lives alone in a tumbledown Parisian housing project after being forced to close the bakery she ran with her husband. Desperate to pay her bills, Paulette approaches a local cannabis dealer and asks him for a job. With Enrico mining the material for only the most obvious gags, the social commentary of the central joke never rises to the level of hard-hitting satire, instead settling on a broadly observed collection of types.

Love the Coopers * Directed by Jessie Nelson. When four generations of the Cooper clan come together for their annual Christmas Eve celebration, a series of unexpected visitors and unlikely events turn the night upside down. A Christmas comedy of numbing tedium and tackiness.

Monday, February 1, 2016

February 1st Oscar Predictions

Of course things could change radically when the Directors Guild announces its winners, but right now, among the top eight Oscar categories, there seems to be suspense over the winner in only two of them — picture and director. The best picture race seems to have narrowed down to Spotlight and The Big Short. I liked The Big Short, but I don’t think it carries the weight of a best picture Oscar winner. I know the movie has a lot of die-hard fans and I will apologize for not sharing your enthusiasm, but I simply think Spotlight is, by far, the more significant film and more worthy of the top prize.

Interestingly enough, I don’t think the directors of either of those two films has a shot at the director’s Oscar. I’m seeing that as a contest between Alejandro Gonzalez Innaritu for The Revenant and George Miller for Mad Max: Fury Road and my prediction is based on the fact that I don’t think the Academy wants to award Innaritu two years in a row and the members might think they will never have another shot at honoring Miller.

It also appears Mad Max: Fury Road is going to be the night’s big winner, taking home seven Oscars, far more than any other film under consideration. Spotlight and The Revenant seem to be the only other films with a chance to win more than one Academy Award and I only see them winning two each.

The other categories in this year’s Oscar race look, to me at least, like slam dunks. So here I go with my predicted winners, serving notice I have the privilege of changing my mind right up until the last minute.

Picture: Spotlight
Director: George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Actress: Brie Larson, Room
Supporting Actor: Sylvester Stallone, Creed
Supporting Actress: Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Original Screenplay: Spotlight
Adapted Screenplay: The Big Short
Cinematography: The Revenant
Costume Design: Cinderella, although Carol has an outside shot
Film Editing: Mad Max: Fury Road
Makeup and Hair Styling: Mad Max: Fury Road
Production Design: Mad Max: Fury Road
Score: The Hateful Eight
Song: "Till It Happens to You," The Hunting Ground
Sound Editing: Mad Max: Fury Road
Sound Mixing: Mad Max: Fury Road
Visual Effects: Mad Max: Fury Road
Animated Feature: Inside Out
Documentary: Amy
Foreign Film: Son of Saul
Animated Short: Sanjays Super Team
Documentary Short: Body Team 12
Live Action Short: Ave Maria

This week's DVD releases

Click on title to see the film’s trailer

Bridge of Spies ***½ Directed by Steven Spielberg. During the Cold War, an American lawyer (Tom Hanks) is recruited to defend an arrested Soviet spy in court, and then help the CIA facilitate an exchange of the spy for the Soviet captured American U2 spy plane pilot, Francis Gary Powers. Hanks could do this kind of role in his sleep; luckily he doesn’t. Like Spielberg, we probably take him and his gifts for granted. Between the two of them, they make this film a movie that works as a period piece and a timely commentary on how we live now. If that sounds like faint praise, it shouldn’t. Because it’s not.

Breathe ***½ Directed by Melanie Laurent. When the worldly and charismatic Sarah (Lou de Laage) enrolls at Charlie’s (Josephine Japy) high school, they soon become the best of friends until a holiday at the beach leads to emotional complications. Conveys an uncanny insight into the psychology of late adolescence, when lingering childhood fantasies can combust with burgeoning adult sexuality in a swirl of uncontrollable feelings.

He Never Died *** Directed by Jason Krawczyk. Cursed with immortality and a hunger for human flesh, Jack (Henry Rollins) lives a cloistered life, feeding his appetite by purchasing blood from a hospital intern. But Jack’s life is upended when some gangland thugs and his long-lost daughter enter the picture. Isn’t as fleshed out as it could be, but what the film lacks in vivid supporting characters and rich plotting it gets back from Rollins, whose innate charisma carries the film.

Man Up *** Directed by Ben Palmer. A single woman (Lake Bell) takes the place of a stranger’s blind date, which leads to her finding the perfect boyfriend (Simon Pegg). This destined-for-romance story in the spirit of You’ve Got Mail and Sleepless in Seattle has just enough edge to distinguish it from a Lifetime movie. It also has Bell and Pegg, versatile and likable actors who help the mild story considerably.

Suffragette *** Directed by Sarah Gavron. Dreaming of the right to vote, working-class Maud (Carey Mulligan) eagerly joins the early feminist movement. But when the peaceful protests of the suffragettes accomplish nothing, they’re driven to more radical methods of effecting change. The most startling aspect of this film, which for better or worse is a standard-issue historical drama, well constructed but not especially capacious or original, is its depiction of how far female activists were willing to go in order to prove that they could stand alongside men.

Meadowland *** Directed by Reed Morano. Anguished by their son’s disappearance, Sarah (Olivia Wilde) and Phil (Luke Wilson) struggle to keep their bearings. But as months pass without word of their child, Sarah’s desperate search for answers drives her to take increasingly greater risks. What saves this film from being an exercise in masochism is the acting. Wilson and Wilde have a light touch that makes them perfect for the comedies they often make. Here, Morano leads them to much darker places, and they plunge right in.

Truth **½ Directed by James Vanderbilt. Newsroom drama detailing the 2004 60 Minutes report investigating then-President George W. Bush’s military service, and the subsequent firestorm of criticism that cost anchor Dan Rather (Robert Redford) and producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) their careers. As high-class cheese goes, this film slips down fine. It’s a noisy, one-note rally for the converted that gets your pulse racing even if you’re rolling your eyes.

Kahlil Gilbran’s The Prophet **½ This animated treasury of tales combines the work of various artists and directors to relate the story of dissident writer Mustafa (voice of Liam Neeson) and 8-year-old Almitra (voice of Quvenzhane Wallis), whose paths cross the day Mustafa is released from confinement. A hit-and-miss affair, easy on the eyes but nothing to write home — or a term paper — about.

Extraordinary Tales **½ Directed by Raul Garcia. An animated anthology of five stories adapted from Edgar Allan Poe. Offers a CliffsNotes encapsulation of Poe’s most enduring works for viewers unacquainted with them.

The Keeping Room **½ Directed by Daniel Barber. Left without men in the dying days of the American Civil War, three Southern women — two sisters (Brit Marling, Hailee Steinfeld) and one African-American slave (Muna Otaru) — must fight to defend their home and themselves from two rogue soldiers (Sam Worthington, Kyle Soller) who have broken off from the fast-approaching Union Army. Attempts a blend of sexual curiosity, home invasion horror and elegiac drama, that doesn’t quite work, but whose ambitions are nonetheless compelling.

The World of Kanako ** Directed by Tetsuya Nakashima. As former detective Akikazu (Koji Fujishima) searches for his missing daughter, Kanako (Nana Fujishima), he soon learns she has a mysterious secret life. While there’s something compelling about an antihero whose obsession is poised on the razor’s edge between love and hate, this film buries it in grinding, agitated repetition.

A Ballerina’s Tale ** Directed by Nelson George. A documentary on African-American ballerina Misty Copeland that examines her prodigious rise, her potentially career ending injury alongside themes of race and body image in the elite ballet world. It’s a complicated story that requires digging deep into uncomfortable questions about ballet’s rigid aesthetic standards and the economics and availability of training. George doesn’t give it the depth or analysis it requires.

Effie Gray ** Directed by Richard Laxton. A look at the love triangle involving Victorian art critic John Ruskin (Greg Wise), his teenage bride Effie Gray (Dakota Fanning), and Pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais (Tom Sturridge). Slow, dreary, clumsily staged, and lacks a compelling lead.

Our Brand Is Crisis ** Directed by David Gordon Green. A battle-hardened American political consultant (Sandra Bullock) is sent to help re-elect a controversial president in Bolivia, where she must compete with a long-term rival (Billy Bob Thornton) working for another candidate. The attempt is to create a reality wide enough to accommodate the extremes of absurdity and hard political truth, but the pieces never cohere, and so we end up with a rattling bag of disparate elements.

Freeheld ** Directed by Peter Sollett, A New Jersey police lieutenant (Julianne Moore) and her registered domestic partner (Ellen Page) battle to secure the lieutenant’s pension benefits when she is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Good intentions can only take you so far. So it is with this, a well-meaning movie whose sterling intentions, timely and provocative subject and terrific cast are muted to near oblivion by uninspired storytelling and direction.

ShelterDirected by Paul Bettany. A heroin junkie (Jennifer Connelly) and a Nigerian immigrant (Anthony Mackie) fall in love while homeless on the streets of New York. A well-intentioned film that edges into misery porn.

American HeroDirected by Nick Love. Melvin (Stephen Dorff), a reluctant superhero, lives only for crime, women and drugs until he realizes that the only way he will ever get to see his estranged son is to go straight and fulfill his potential as a crime fighter. Starts off seeming as if it is going to be a fresh take on superheroes, but Love, who wrote as well as directed, turns out to have nowhere to go with his intriguing premise.

Big Stone GapDirected by Adriana Trigiani. In a small town nestled in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia, a self-proclaimed spinster (Ashley Judd) finds her life shaken up and forever changed after learning a long-buried family secret. As thin as a picture postcard.

The Last Witch HunterDirected by Breck Eisner. Bent on destroying humankind, a powerful coven aims to unleash a devastating plague on New York City and it’s up to an immortal witch hunter (Vin Diesel), a priest and a good-hearted young witch to thwart the lethal plan. Like its star, the film is big, overblown and frequently incomprehensible.

HellionsDirected by Bruce McDonald. Home alone on Halloween night, a pregnant teen (Chloe Rose) ends up fighting for her life when a band of masked, demonic trick-or-treaters shows up. A jumbled third act and an indifferent ending ultimately make this film disappointing. But there’s a bit of fun to be had in its opening frights, and in trying to figure out what these costumed little monsters really want.

Rock the Kasbah * Directed by Barry Levinson. A down-on-his-luck music manager (Bill Murray) discovers a teenage girl (Leem Lubany) with an extraordinary voice while on a music tour in Afghanistan and takes her to Kabul to compete on a popular television show. The cast of old pros (including Bruce Willis as a soldier of fortune) amble through amiably enough, but a few laughs here and there aren’t enough to make this movie come together in a satisfying way.

Martyrs ½* Directed by Kevin and Michael Goetz. A woman (Troian Bellisario) and her childhood friend (Bailey Noble) seek revenge on those who victimized and abused them. The movie feels like a thin excuse to show image after image of women being abused. It has the bones of its predecessor, but it’s been bled dry.

Monday, January 25, 2016

This week's DVD releases

Click on title to see the film’s trailer

The Assassin ***½ Directed by Hsiao-Hsien Hou. An assassin (Qi Shu) accepts a dangerous mission to kill a political leader in seventh-century China. Conventional and easy-to-follow narratives can be found anywhere, but very few of them occur in films that are as visually ravishing and formally graceful as what Hou has cooked up here.

Chi-Raq *** Directed by Spike Lee. A modern day adaptation of the ancient Greek play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, set against the backdrop of gang violence in Chicago. Lee’s carnival-esque filmmaking style, which can leave some of his joints in tatters, helps this one expand in sorrowful heart and indomitable wit. This is a vibrant community mural of a movie, and it stretches to the horizon.

The New Girlfriend *** Directed by Francois Ozon. A young woman (Anais Demoustier) makes a surprising discovery about the husband (Romain Duris) of her late best friend. Duris and Demoustier are excellent in a pair of exceedingly complex and emotionally fractious roles, and Ozon’s supremely confident directorial hand and clear affection for these characters transforms the film from a could’ve-been psycho-thriller into a smart, humanistic examination of identity reshaped in the shadow of grief.

In My Father’s House *** Directed by Ricki Stern, Anne Sundberg. After rap artist Che "Rhymefest" Smith decides to raise his new family in his boyhood home on Chicago’s South Side, he learns that his estranged father is a homeless alcoholic living in the neighborhood and sets out to reestablish a connection. Filmmakers Stern and Sundberg bring a skilled and nuanced storytelling to the film, which never shies away from the harder moments.

Meet the Patels *** Directed by Geeta and Ravi Patel. An Indian-American man (Ravi Patel) who is about to turn 30 gets help from his parents and extended family to start looking for a wife in the traditional Indian way. A clever hybrid of documentary and romantic comedy.

A Brilliant Young Mind **½ Directed by Morgan Matthews. A socially awkward teenage math prodigy (Asa Butterfield) finds new confidence and new friendships when he lands a spot on the British squad at the International Mathematics Olympiad. The success here is mostly due to nuanced performances and an appreciation for what these kinds of films require.

Goosebumps **½ Directed by Rob Letterman. A teenager (Dylan Minnette) teams up with the daughter (Odeya Rush) of young adult horror author R. L. Stine (Jack Black) after the writer’s imaginary demons are set free on the town of Madison, Delaware. There’s a streak of old-fashioned B-movie spooky playfulness here, and when actual, motivated characters are on screen it’s delightful.

The Wannabe ** Directed by Nick Sandow. Hell-bent on becoming a big-shot gangster, Thomas (Vincent Piazza) will do anything to get in good with the Mafia. But when his inept efforts fall flat, he and his wife (Patricia Arquette) set out to rip off the mobsters Thomas was hoping to impress. Since Thomas’ character is incapable of change or variation, and the film’s only engaging supporting players occupy a small fraction of the running time, it falls squarely upon Arquette to carry the film.

BurntDirected by John Wells. A chef (Bradley Cooper), who destroyed his career with drugs and diva behavior, cleans up and returns to London, determined to redeem himself by spearheading a top restaurant that can gain three Michelin stars. A tasteless concoction — one gay character is particularly misjudged — that’s instantly forgettable.

Brush With Danger ½* Directed by Livi Zheng. Two undocumented immigrants to America, a brother and sister, struggle to get by in an unfamiliar world until the girl’s paintings catch the eye of an art broker who wants to sell them. Although the characters repeatedly express their worship of "original art" in gilded frames, the script consists of singularly unoriginal dialogue.

No explanation necessary

Monday, January 18, 2016

This week's DVD releases

Click on title to see the film’s trailer

The Diary of a Teenage Girl ***½ Directed by Marielle Heller. A teen artist (Bel Powley) living in 1970s San Francisco enters into an affair with her mother's (Kristen Wiig) boyfriend (Alexander Skarsgard). This is the rare movie that presents the subject of the loss of virginity from the female perspective. Not only is the film unique in this regard, but also in its frankness, humor, and artistry. An honest and personal and unblurred examination (even through that druggy blur) of a tricky voyage into womanhood.

Eden ***½ Directed by Mia Hansen-Love. A teenager (Felix de Givry) in the underground scene of early-‘90s Paris, forms a DJ collective with his friends and together they plunge into the nightlife of sex, drugs, and endless music. Restrained but never tentative, remote yet enormously affecting, the movie’s evocation of artistic compulsion is accomplished with confidence and verve. No matter what is going on, Hansen-Love's talent for bringing us inside a specific world makes this an experience we all can connect to.

All Things Must Pass *** Directed by Colin Hanks. A documentary that explores the rise and fall of Tower Records. Supplementing interviews with well-chosen archival material, Hanks assembles a capsule history of the music business and youth culture. It makes you appreciate anew the one-on-one social dimension lost in the music industry’s headlong switch to digital downloads.

Straight Outta Compton *** Directed by F. Gary Gray. The group NWA emerges from the mean streets of Compton in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s and revolutionizes Hip Hop culture with their music and tales about life in the hood. The performances are terrific, and when it’s on its game, which is often, it’s an explosive look at the creation of a message that had to be delivered by the only people who could deliver it, a message that is, unfortunately, as timely now as when we first heard it.

Everest **½ Directed by Baltasar Kormakur. A climbing expedition on Mt. Everest is devastated by a severe snow storm. Though there is heroism as well as love here, because it involves the deaths of people we have come to care about, this is finally a sad story, though not always a dramatically involving one. A valiant effort that never quite scales the dizzy emotional heights required, running out of oxygen in the final act. Visually, though, it’s stunning.

Learning to Drive **½ Directed by Isabel Coixet. As her marriage dissolves, a Manhattan writer (Patricia Clarkson) takes driving lessons from a Sikh instructor (Ben Kingsley) with marriage troubles of his own. What spares this movie is an awful lot of comedic talent and artistic good will. Clarkson and Kingsley imbue average material with easy charm and wit, clicking onscreen with the smooth platonic chemistry of old friends.

Woodlawn **½ Directed by Andrew and Jon Erwin. A gifted high school football player (Caleb Castille) must learn to embrace his talent and his faith as he battles racial tensions on and off the field. This overly long yet consistently involving period drama could be described, accurately, as equal parts Remember the Titans and revivalist tent meeting. But until the balance tips rather too blatantly toward the latter during the final minutes, the overall narrative mix of history lesson, gridiron action and spiritual uplift is effectively and satisfyingly sustained.

The Cut **½ Directed by Fatih Aikin. In 1915 a man (Tahar Rahim) survives the Armenian genocide in the Ottoman Empire, but loses his family, speech and faith. One night he learns that his twin daughters may be alive, and goes on a quest to find them. It’s a big, ambitious, continent-spanning piece of work, concerned to show the Armenian horror was absorbed into the bloodstream of immigrant-descended population in the United States, but it is a little simplistic emotionally.

A Girl Like Her ** Directed by Amy S. Weber. A high school student (Lexi Ainsworth) enlists the help of her best friend (Jimmy Bennett) in order to document the relentless harassment she's received from her former friend (Hunter King), one of the school's most popular students. A mix of found-footage thriller, mock-documentary realism and public service announcement that rings true almost as often as it rings false.

Samba ** Directed by Eric Toledano and Olivier Nakache. Living in Paris illegally for nearly a decade, a Senegalese refugee (Omar Sy) suddenly finds himself in a detention center and on the verge of deportation when an immigration caseworker (Charlotte Gainsbourg) steps in to help. The film is loosely plotted and is at least 20 minutes too long. It seems ready to end half a dozen times before it finally does, with ironic payoffs for its two leading characters that are too glib to be satisfying.

Jem and the HologramsDirected by Jon M. Chu. Much to her surprise, a teen rocker (Audrey Peebles) becomes an overnight star via the social networking universe. There are a few sweet moments early in the film, but then the movie’s lumbering, overstuffed, unfocused plot shows up, and whatever high hopes we might have had for this latest exploitation of 1980s nostalgia are slowly ground away.

Stonewall * Directed by Roland Emmerich. A young man's (Jeremy Irvine) political awakening and coming of age during the days and weeks leading up to the Stonewall Riots. A well-intentioned, profoundly silly and borderline insulting movie.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Not that many surprises in today’s Oscar nominations

I’m scratching my head trying to figure out why the Hollywood movie establishment doesn’t like Ridley Scott. Hey, I’m not among those who think The Martian is a motion picture landmark. It reminded me more of one of those fun films I used to see back in the 1940s as part of the Saturday matinee at the Jackson Theater in New York City. In other words, I liked it, but didn’t elevate it to greatness. But, still, it landed a best picture Oscar nomination this morning and Matt Damon was nominated for best actor. But Scott, the film’s director, did not make the final five in that category. And when I was conversing with Hollywood insiders to determine my predictions for the Oscar nominations they were telling me they really believed this was the year for Scott’s gold watch, a make-up best director Oscar win more for his body of work (Alien, Blade Runner, Thelma & Louise, The Duelists, Black Hawk Down, Matchstick Men, American Gangster, even his Someone to Watch Over Me, a film I liked a lot more than most) than just The Martian. Fifteen years ago, The Gladiator won just about every Oscar available, but Scott was passed over for his direction of the film. To see him left off the list completely shocked me.

The only other real surprise was the omission of Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay for Steve Jobs. Although Michael Fasbinder, to the surprise of absolutely no one, received a nomination for this performance in that film, the movie is really all screenplay.

I must admit I was a tad shocked by the supporting actor nomination of Tom Hardy, even though I consider him one of the best actors working today (watch Locke and The Drop back-to-back and that will give you a hint of the range of this amazing actor), instead of Idris Elba. It’s possible Elba just didn’t make the cut because not enough voters saw or even wanted to see his film — Beasts of No Nation is really difficult to sit through and it didn’t exactly send cash registers booming.

I also found it interesting that, largely because it has the most nominations, The Revenant came out of this morning’s Oscar announcement as the front-runner for the best picture Oscar, yet that film’s screenplay did not receive a nomination. It’s standard for the best picture winner to score a screenplay nomination and usually it also wins that Oscar as well. The last time a best picture winner did not receive a screenplay nomination was 1998 when Titanic came away as the big winner. Before that, you have to go all the way back to 1965's The Sound of Music to find a best picture winner that did not have a screenplay nomination.

So there’s that.

Here is a list of the nominees: (An asterisk preceding the nominee signifies one I did not predict)

Best Picture
The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant

Best Director
* Lenny Abrahamson, Room
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, The Revenant
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight
Adam McKay, The Big Short
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road

Best Actor
Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
Matt Damon, The Martian
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett, Carol
Brie Larson, Room
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy

Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale,
The Big Short
* Tom Hardy, The Revenant
Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
Mark Rylance,
Bridge of Spies
Sylvester Stallone, Creed

Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara, Carol
* Rachel McAdams, Spotlight
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

(McAdams nomination was a pleasant surprise. I thought Helen Mirren (Trumbo) or Jane Fonda (Youth) would grab that final spot.

Best Original Screenplay
Bridge of Spies
* Ex Machina
Inside Out
Straight Outta Compton

(A little surprised Ex Machina took the spot I thought would go to Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight.)

Best Adapted Screenplay
The Big Short
* The Martian

(Just stunned that The Martian is in here and Steve Jobs isn’t)

Best Cinematography
The Hateful Eight
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant

(No surprises. Predicted these five.)

Best Costume Design
The Danish Girl
Mad Max: Fury Road
* The Revenant

(Somewhat surprised The Revenant edged out Brooklyn in this category)

Best Film Editing
The Big Short
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant
* Star Wars: The Force Awakens

(I had The Martian in here, but not all that surprised Star Wars replaced it.)

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
Mad Max: Fury Road
* The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared
The Revenant

(Never saw The 100-Year-Old Man coming; figured it would be Black Mass because of all the talk about Johnny Depp’s hair in the picture.)

Best Production Design
Bridge of Spies
* The Danish Girl
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
* The Revenant

Best Score
Bridge of Spies
The Hateful Eight
* Sicario
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Best Song
* Fifty Shades of Grey - Earned It
The Hunting Ground - Til it Happens to You
* Racing Extinction - Manta Ray
Spectre - Writing's on the Wall
Youth - Simple Song #3

(You would think by now I would know better than to try to predict this category, although three out of five is one of my better years.)

Best Sound Editing
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Best Sound Mixing
* Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

(Really thought Straight Outta Compton had a shot at a nomination in this category.)

Best Visual Effects
* Ex Machina
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
* The Revenant
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

(I had The Walk and Jurassic World in here and still believe they should have been included.)

Best Animated Feature
* Boy and the World
Inside Out
Shaun the Sheep Movie
* When Marnie Was There

Best Documentary Feature
Cartel Land
The Look of Silence
* What Happened, Miss Simone?
* Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom

(Hmm. No Going Clear. No He Named Me Malala. Strange)

Best Foreign Language Film
* Embrace of the Serpent

Son of Saul
* Theeb
A War

(I did not try to predict the rest of these categories)
Best Animated Short
Bear Story
Sanjay's Super Team
We Can’t Live without Cosmos
World of Tomorrow

Best Documentary Short
Body Team 12
Chau, Beyond the Lines
Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah
A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness
Last Day of Freedom

Best Live Action Short
Ave Maria
Day One
Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut)

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Last minute Oscar prediction changes

I can do this because I make rules here (as Tom Petty once sang, "it’s good to be king.") so I am making some slight modifications to my final Oscar nominations predictions.
  • In the best picture race, I’m dropping Star Wars: The Force Awakens from contention and replacing it with Straight Outta Compton.
  • In the best director race, I’m dropping Todd Haynes (Carol) and replacing him with Adam McKay (The Big Short).
  • In supporting actor, I’m dropping Michael Keaton (Spotlight) and replacing him with Christian Bale (The Big Short).
  • In original screenplay, replacing Joy with Straight Outta Compton.

I am so looking forward to this

One of the best trailers I have seen in ages.

Monday, January 11, 2016

This week's DVD releases

Click on title to see the movie’s trailer

The Look of Silence **** Directed by Joshua Oppenheimer. A family that survives the genocide in Indonesia confronts the men who killed one of their brothers. A harrowing and important documentary. This film makes it clear that these monstrous humans are very much a part of our species. In a way, I wish I’d never seen The Look of Silence, because now I won’t be able to forget it. But that’s the point, and the film’s purpose — calling attention to the cost of staying silent, and willfully forgetful, in the face of implacable evil.

The Second Mother ***½ Directed by Anna Muylaert. When the estranged daughter of a hard-working live-in housekeeper suddenly appears, the unspoken class barriers that exist within the home are thrown into disarray. Touching, funny, perceptive and simple enough to carry large audiences, it is carried throughout by a hilarious, intelligent and soulful performance from veteran Brazilian actress, comedian and TV host Regina Case, surrounded by a solid supporting cast.

The Martian ***½ Directed by Ridley Scott. During a manned mission to Mars, Astronaut Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is presumed dead after a fierce storm and left behind by his crew. The film is shot, designed, computer-generated, and scripted on a level that makes most films of its ilk look slipshod. Scott and writer Drew Goddard aren’t trying to make an "important" sci-fi movie like Interstellar. They aim lower but blow past their marks. And perhaps most importantly, not only does the film stress the importance of using math and physics and botany and chemistry to solve problems, but it also makes a plot based on scientific inquiry and audacity just as exciting and even more unpredictable as the movies’ usual brand of problem-solving, the kind that involves punching everyone and then blowing everything up.

In the Basement *** Directed by Ulrich Seidl. A documentary that reveals what its subjects do in their respective basements. Grabby and grubby in equal measure, this meticulously composed trawl through the contents of several middle-class Austrians’ cellars (a space, according to Seidl, that his countrymen traditionally give over to their most personal hobbies) yields more than a few startling discoveries.

This Changes Everything **½ Directed by Avi Lewis. A look at seven communities around the world with the proposition that we can seize the crisis of climate change to transform our failed economic system into something radically better. While the stories this documentary tells are lively and never uninteresting, they fail to ignite an emotional explosion. The reach is also too broad for a film.

Uncle John **½ Directed by Steven Piet. An urbanite (Alex Moffat) returns to his quiet hometown on an impromptu trip as his uncle (John Ashton), widely respected in town, struggles to evade suspicion of a murder. A fair amount of this film puts us behind the wheel or alongside Ashton as he drives, preoccupied with his misdeeds, along country roads lined with cornfields. No dialogue is needed; in these transitions, Ashton and his surroundings are enough.

Irrational Man ** Directed by Woody Allen. A tormented philosophy professor (Joaquin Phoenix) finds a will to live when he commits an existential act. Allen builds to a climax that is ridiculous and a comment on … I don’t know. Fate? Folly? There are plenty of both in this movie, but they’re not often a comfortable mix.

Hotel Transylvania 2Directed by Genndy Tartakovsky. Dracula (Adam Sandler) and his friends try to bring out the monster in his half human, half vampire grandson (Asher Blinkoff) in order to keep Mavis (Selena Gomez) from leaving the hotel. By the end of this 89-minute film, I was absolutely on the edge of my seat. Not due to suspense, but due to my utter disdain for the infantile plotting.

Contracted: Phase IIDirected by Josh Forbes. Riley (Matt Mercer) searches for a cure to the virus that took over Samantha (Najarra Townsend) before it consumes him and the entire world. The virus is spreading, but the filmmakers don't appear fully committed to the idea of a zombie apocalypse, so no sense of dread (or suspense) ever takes hold.

Sinister 2 * Directed by Ciaran Foy. A young mother (Shannyn Sossamon) and her twin sons (Robert and Dartanian Sloan) move into a rural house that's marked for death. A retread of such brainless, shameless lameness that it’s hard to imagine anyone begging for another installment.

Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension * Directed by Gregory Plotkin. Using a special camera that can see spirits, a family must protect their daughter from an evil entity with a sinister plan. There may well be new and novel ways to spark audience shivers from not-so-bright homeowners inexplicably using their cameraphones to check out bumps in the night, but this series clearly has neither the patience nor the inclination to look for them anymore.

David in Dallas

I only got to see David Bowie, who died last night at the age of 69 following an 18-month battle with cancer, once in concert. He played Dallas' Memorial Auditorium on April 10, 1978, supporting his albums Low and Heroes. I was a tad leery walking into the hall because Bowie had created this image for himself of performing these esoteric avant-garde shows that might have had a certain appeal among the Manhattan intelligentsia and a lot of the London art community, but might not play that well in the American heartland. I need not worry. Bowie performed a memorable, straightforward, rock 'n' roll show. Here's part of it filmed that night in Dallas by Bowie's production company.

Thanks to the great Robert Wilonsky for digging up my original Dallas Morning News review of that concert.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Elvis & Nixon ... er, I mean Shannon & Spacey

I must admit, Kevin Spacey is not the first actor who comes to mind when I think of someone to portray former President Richard Nixon, but take a look at this trailer. He nails it. And Michael Shannon, another one of the best, if not as appreciated by the public as Spacey, actors out there also seems to turn in a surprisingly decent imitation of Elvis Presley. Now I'm not quite sure who thought the Dec. 21, 1970, meeting between the two could sustain a feature length motion picture (and I still have my doubts about that), but at least the characterizations seem right on target. I guess we'll know more when the film opens April 15.

Although I support Bernie Sanders ...

...this ad makes a lot of sense.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

A long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away ...

Update on this week's DVD releases

I failed to recognize on important film that's now currently available on DVD. Click on the title to see the film's trailer.

Sicario ***½ Directed by Denis Villeneuve. An idealistic FBI agent (Emily Blunt) is enlisted by a government task force to aid in the escalating war against drugs at the border area between the U.S. and Mexico. By turns thrilling, disorienting and draining, it exists in a border zone seemingly of its own devising between the art film and the action movie. What keeps it from cynicism is the nature and depth of Villeneuve’s gaze, not childishly wide-eyed but capable still of feeling pain. He’s a terrific director. You know that if his heroine gets out of Cartel-land alive, she might spend a few months in an asylum, but she’ll be back, hell-bent on seizing the foreground.

Monday, January 4, 2016

This Week's DVD Releases

Click on title to see the film’s trailer

Experimenter ***½ Directed by Michael Almereyda. In 1961, social psychologist Stanley Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) conducted a series of radical behavior experiments that tested ordinary humans willingness to obey authority. Technically puckish where appropriate but grounded by strong performances from Sarsgaard and Winona Ryder. The film is not awards bait but makes some Big Thinker biographies that are look staid.

The Walk *** Directed by Robert Zemeckis. In 1974, high-wire artist Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) recruits a team of people to help him realize his dream: to walk between the World Trade Center towers. Harnessing the wizardry of special effects to magnify the sheer transporting wonder, the you-are-there thrill of the experience, the film’s payoff more than compensates for a lumbering setup, laden with cloying voiceover narration and strained whimsy.

A Brave Heart: The Lizzie Velasquez Story *** Directed by Sara Hirsh Bordo. Traces the inspiring journey of Lizzie Velasquez, who was born with a medical condition that left her with distorted facial features. The filmmakers leave a few too many questions unanswered, but their subject’s immense optimism steamrolls through the documentary’s shortcomings. Indeed, there seems to be little this woman can’t vanquish.

Infinitely Polar Bear **½ Directed by Maya Forbes. A manic-depressive mess of a father (Mark Ruffalo) tries to win back his wife by attempting to take full responsibility of their two young, spirited daughters. Forbes has created a warm family portrait, even though it sugarcoats the specter that mental illness casts on this group’s well-being.

Sleeping with Other People **½ Directed by Leslye Headland. A good-natured womanizer (Jason Sudekis) and a serial cheater (Alison Brie) form a platonic relationship. The script makes the characters a little too witty and spot-on with cultural references, but what makes it work, to the extent that it does, is the innate liability of Sudeikis and Brie.

Northern Soul **½ Directed by Elaine Constantine. Set in 1974, a tale of two friends whose horizons are opened by the discovery of black American soul music. This feisty, frequently amusing chronicle of one young man’s journey through the dancehalls of Lancashire nails its time and place. A pity, then, that the story is so tiresomely familiar.

The Visit ** Directed by M. Night Shyamalan. A single mother finds that things in her family’s life go very wrong after her two young children visit their grandparents. While Shyamalan competently scares us from time to time and makes us laugh uncomfortably at the odd actions — aren’t we snickering at mental illness? — he has nowhere interesting to take this simple tale.

Love ** Directed by Gaspar Noe. An American living in Paris enters into a highly sexually and emotionally charged relationship with an unstable woman. When the movie works, NoĆ© achieves a lulling, melancholic frenzy about sex and memory, but the foundation isn’t strong enough to make his movie ever seem more than a stereoscopic fermata: one envelope-pushing note held way too long.

Ashby ** Directed by Tony McNamara. A high-school student (Nat Wolff) enters into a friendship with his neighbor (Mickey Rourke), a retired CIA assassin who only has a few months left to live. Rourke and Wolff certainly have chemistry, and Sarah Silverman (as the student’s concerned single mom) and Emma Roberts (as his potential girlfriend) provide solid support on the edges. But the humor never feels aimed in any particular direction.

The Green InfernoDirected by Guillermo Amoedo, Eli Roth. Determined to save an Amazon tribe being squeezed by logging, a group of students finds nothing but trouble when their plane crashes in the jungle. Unfortunately, the unbridled shock value isn’t matched by a similar investment in other ingredients that might have made this low rent B-movie worthwhile.

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse * Directed by Christopher Landon. Looking forward to their last campout together as Boy Scouts, three high school friends face a surprise when they realize their town has come under attack by zombies. The gags are mostly puerile and uninspired — like the film was dreamed up by a bunch of tired, wired 13-year-olds; it has their insistence but little of their invention.

Condemned ½* Directed by Eli Morgan Gesner. While living in a crumbling and squalid abandoned building in New York City, a group of youngsters falls prey to a virulent disease that turns all of them into maniacal killers. One of the most egregiously awful horror films in recent memory.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Final Oscar Nomination Predictions

The Oscars will be announced in less than two weeks so this will be my final stab at predicting the ultimate nominees. Within each category, the nominees are listed in the order in which I think they stand to be nominated; i.e., the nominee listed first is the one I think most likely to get a nominaton. The number in parenthesis is the nominee's ranking in my December predictions.

Spotlight (1)
The Martian (3)
Carol (6)
The Revenant (2)
Mad Max: Fury Road (NR)
The Big Short (NR)
Brooklyn (8)
Room (5)
Bridge of Spies (7)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (NR)
Dropped out: Joy, Steve Jobs, Inside Out

Ridley Scott, The Martian (3)
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight (1)
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road (NR)
Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, The Revenant (2)
Todd Haynes, Carol (5)
Dropped out: David O. Russell, Joy

Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant (1)
Michael Fassbinder, Steve Jobs (2)
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl (4)
Bryan Cranston, Trumbo (NR)
Matt Daman, The Martian (3)
Dropped out: Johnny Depp, Black Mass

Brie Larson, Room (1)
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn (4)
Cate Blanchett, Carol (3)
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy (2)
Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years (5)

Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies (3)
Sylvester Stallone, Creed (NR)
Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation (4)
Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight (2)
Michael Keaton, Spotlight (1)
Dropped out: Tom Hardy, The Revenant

Rooney Mara, Carol (1)
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl (2)
Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight (5)
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs (3)
Helen Mirren, Trumbo (NR)
Dropped out: Jane Fonda, Youth

Spotlight (1)
Inside Out ((3)
The Hateful Eight (4)
Bridge of Spies (5)
Joy (2)

Room (2)
Carol (3)
Steve Jobs (1)
Brooklyn (4)
The Big Short (NR)
Dropped Out: The Revenant

The Revenant (1)
Mad Max: Fury Road (2)
Sicario (3)
Carol (5)
The Hateful Eight (NR)
Dropped out: Bridge of Spies

Carol (2)
Cinderella (1)
The Danish Girl (3)
Brooklyn (4)
Mad Max: Fury Road (5)

Mad Max: Fury Road (1)
Spotlight (2)
The Revenant (3)
The Martian (4)
The Big Short (NR)
Dropped out: Bridge of Spies

Mad Max: Fury Road (2)
Black Mass (NR)
The Revenant (NR)
Dropped out; The Danish Girl; Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Mad Max: Fury Road (1)
Carol (2)
Bridge of Spies (4)
The Martian (5)
Cinderella (3)

Star Wars, The Force Awakens (1)
Carol (4)
The Hateful Eight (5)
Inside Out (2)
Bridge of Spies (NR)
Dropped out: The Danish Girl

(This is my first month predicting the nominees in this category)
"See You Again," Furious 7
"Simple Song 3,: Youth
"Til It Happens to You."The Hunting Ground
"Writings on the Wall," Spectre
"Love Me Like You Do," Fifty Shades of Grey

Mad Max: Fury Road (1)
The Martian (4)
The Revenant (3)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2)
Sicario (5)

Mad Max: Fury Road (1)
The Martian (3)
The Revenant (4)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2)
Straight Outta Compton (5)

The Martian (1)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (3)
Mad Max: Fury Road (4)
Jurassic World (2)
The Walk (5)

Inside Out (1)
Anamolisa (2)
The Good Dinosaur (3)
Shaun the Sheep Movie (4)
The Peanuts Movie (5)

(This is my first month to predict the nominees in this category)
The Look of Silence
Going Clear
Cartel Land
He Named Me Malala

(This is my first month to predict the nominees in this category)
Son of Saul
Labyrinth of Lies
The Brand New Testament
A War