Sunday, January 31, 2016

The 2016 No Blogging for Old Men Awards - Best Actress

One of the things I will remember the most about 2015 in cinema were the brave, bold, beautiful performances by actresses in so many wonderful films. This is one of the only categories across the board that I feel the Academy did a terrific job with their nominations, and we almost match up. Almost. 

I think the reason why my opinions here match up with the consensus is because these powerful and moving portrayals were impossible to ignore. It doesn't get much better than this. 

I wish I could pick a five way tie here, but alas I must choose one winner and four remarkable achievements that fell just short. 

Cate Blanchett, Carol

While I was watching Carol, I recall being quite moved by the story and the performances, but the way it has lingered with me is the mark of a truly terrific film. When I see clips from the movie on award shows, I get chills all over again witnessing the beautiful chemistry between Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett. As I said in my supporting actress post about nominee Rooney Mara, I have no idea why Blanchett was deemed as the lead out of the two as they have essentially the exact same amount of time on screen, but I am following the Academy lead by separating them the same way. Honestly, as long as both get the recognition of nominations, go ahead and put them in whatever category you want. Just let the world see gorgeous and talented people tell a sublime love story.

Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

Speaking of words like gorgeous, sublime and love, another masterfully crafted picture from 2015 focused on romance was Brooklyn, and Saoirse Ronan puts the film on her back and carries it from start to finish by being adorable and charismatic and honest. The most important aspect of portraying love is making an audience believe in and root for it, and Ronan is so lovable here you can't help but feel her warmth in every frame, even when she has to decide whose heart to break. Her chemistry with Emory Cohen is wonderful and with Domhnall Gleeson a bit lesser but still strong. Brooklyn earned a Best Picture nomination and a major reason why is the performance of Saoirse Ronan.

Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max: Fury Road literally does everything right. Everything. It's a masterpiece from top to bottom, a spectacle that perfectly demonstrates the possibilities of cinema. It tells its story in so many different ways, an essential blend of style and substance.

I'm not surprised that Charlize Theron wasn't nominated for the film. I didn't expect her to be, but I was hoping I would be wrong. The "problem" with the movie being such a glorious, brutal beast is that a performance can get lost in the shuffle, but I never lost sight of just how special Theron was here. Her dialogue is delivered passionately but what impressed me the most were the moments in which she said nothing at all. When her eyes said everything that needed to be said. It reminded me of some of the finest work of the silent era and I was mesmerized. A stunning example of the art of acting that shouldn't be forgotten, Oscars or not.

Brie Larson, Room

The beautiful Brie Larson was my frontrunner this whole time, ever since I saw the film Room. She is incredible and totally worthy of receiving the award she will be getting in less than a month now, because much like in the Actor category we know the outcome already of Best Actress at the Oscars: Larson is winning the award. It's a done deal.

With me, however, she got surpassed during the 59th minute of the 11th hour by a performance in one of the last films I watched from the year. Even so, I still wrestled with the decision because I had penciled in Larson for quite some time and just assumed it wouldn't change. It still feels a bit weird and wrong not to declare her the winner because to say what she pulled off in Room was moving and spectacular doesn't even do it justice. 

I had to do it though, because my 2016 winner for Best Actress is...

Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years

What Rampling achieves in 45 Years is so remarkable it feels odd to even use the word performance to describe it. Using that word means I have come to accept that it was fictional and just "acting" and I still haven't yet. It still feels like I was watching reality, the devastating destruction of a long and once lovely marriage. Rampling is incredible throughout but two specific scenes elevated her above Larson for me: the scene where she goes through the old picture slides, and the absolutely perfect ending. If you have seen the film, you know what I mean. If you haven't seen it, find a way to so you will know what I mean. 

Charlotte Rampling gave not only my favorite performance in this category but my favorite performance of the year. Unfortunately I had to do my best to not allow her ignorant comments about the Oscar diversity issue to change my opinion on what really matters here, what she accomplished on the screen, and that is undeniable. 

Next up will be the Best Director category, and if you were surprised to see my picks here with Actress align so closely with the Academy, prepare to go the completely opposite direction with this one. The man pictured above will be in the mix, and as well he should. The Academy got that right and had they not I may have boycotted the Oscars. He is the only of the five that we agree on however.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

The 2016 No Blogging for Old Men Awards - Best Actor

I tend to gravitate towards the people that work behind the scenes on the production of a film rather than those in front of the camera, so I have always had trouble answering who my favorite actor or actress was at any given time. I'm even guilty of deflecting away from a performance by crediting the script or the director's vision for guiding the acting taking place. It isn't that I don't respect the artistry that goes into a brilliant performance, I just find myself gushing more about the photography or the set pieces or the editing or the direction than I typically do any one specific character and the actor that portrayed them.

I am rambling to make this point: right now, I have a favorite actor, and in my world he deserves to be nominated twice this year in the same category.

Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs

Fassbender simply can do no wrong in my book. The guy absolutely kills it every time he is in the frame, and his work as Steve Jobs in the new Danny Boyle film is no exception. The portrayal feels so honest and real, no holding back the social scars of a man who rubbed people the wrong way but also maintaining clarity that his genius should be admired and that to be flawed is human. A biopic does no one any favors by glossing over any harsh truths in order to paint a constantly rosy picture, and what Fassbender did with Aaron Sorkin's words resulted in a special, stunning performance. 

Michael Fassbender, Macbeth

Sure, I hesitated to do this. To list the same man back to back on the same list of personal performance achievements. At the end of the day though, I have to be honest and single out the greatest work by actors over the course of a year, and Michael Fassbender was extraordinary in two films.

From Apple to Shakespeare, Fassbender makes really difficult and heavy material look so easy. It all just comes so natural to him which is why I love the man so much. Watching him perform has a 100 percent success rate guarantee that the film will sweep me away and make me hang on every word of the script, every piece of the story. I haven't always bought into Shakespearean cinema, but this new take on Macbeth with the perfect actor leading the way ended up being an electrifying experience.

Abraham Attah, Beasts of No Nation

I don't think people truly take child actors seriously. Not serious enough at least. It seems like whenever a performance from a child is either nominated or even mentioned as a possibility, the general idea is that the notion of their recognition is cute and fun but less genuine than the same honor extended to an adult. 

Abraham Attah is a teenager and if you don't take him seriously, you haven't seen Beasts of No Nation. His performance, which was his acting debut, is so serious it's sobering and painful.

He has been cast in the next film by the marvelous Shane Carruth called The Modern Ocean. I can't wait to see what else Attah is capable of.

Michael B. Jordan, Creed

I am about to get on my lack of Academy diversity soapbox for a second here and just flat out say something: it is embarrassing that the completely misguided and nauseatingly over-the-top performance by Eddie Redmayne in The Danish Girl is nominated while someone like Michael B. Jordan missed the cut for his work in Creed. Embarrassing. Jordan is a powerhouse here, beautifully sharing the screen with my pick for supporting actor Sylvester Stallone. The timing of this film couldn't have been better because no one deserved to play the son of Apollo Creed more.

I am not going to debate the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio is going to win the Oscar, because he is and that's that. The recognition of a nomination is special though and Jordan should have been one of the five names mentioned on Oscar night.

Still though, despite all those bouquets being tossed at the feet of the remarkable men listed above, they are not my pick to win the award. That honor goes to...

Matt Damon, The Martian

When I read the novel of the same name by Andy Weir, I already had the knowledge of Matt Damon playing the lead role of Mark Watney in a film adaptation by Ridley Scott. When I finished the book it occurred to me just perfect that casting decision was. I knew Damon was going to nail the character and boy did he ever, essentially carrying the film for lengths at a time seeing as how he is literally alone on a planet for most of it. With the charisma and comedic timing to pull off a lot of the humor in the script and also an ability to be someone you can't help but root for when the circumstances get dire, Matt Damon gave my favorite male performance of the year.

It's important that I clarified favorite male performance from Damon, because 2015 was a year dominated by women. My picks for the Best Actress nominations will demonstrate just that.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The 2016 No Blogging for Old Men Awards - Best Supporting Actress

One thing I will say about award nominations, it is so damn difficult narrowing the field down to five. So many incredible performances throughout an entire year that it is impossible not to leave some truly beautiful work out of the race. Therefore, when a list gets churned out of the many actors snubbed by the Academy, remember just how small of an amount five is. 

Don't get me wrong, the across the board total lack of diversity at the Oscars is a shame, and a nomination or two are just baffling, so that isn't meant to defend their results. Just a general thought regarding any vitriol over your personal favorite performance missing the cut.

Anyways, onto the next category. My choices for Best Supporting Actress from 2015.

Kristen Stewart, Clouds of Sils Maria

Seems like a long time ago now, when Kristen Stewart was just a joke from the Twilight films. If you haven't been paying attention you may not have noticed that she has proven in a few films since that she can, well, act. Really damn well in fact.

In 2014, her shining moment was alongside the Oscar winning performance by Julianne Moore in Still Alice. In 2015 it was Clouds of Sils Maria, a terrific film carried by the performances of Juliette Binoche and Stewart. She may play second fiddle to two amazing actresses in both of these movies, but she does so with perfection.

Lou de Laage, Respire (Breathe)

One of the biggest surprises from 2015 was a French film titled Respire, directed by actress Melanie Laurent. Exquisitely made and wonderfully performed, the title of the film is quite appropriate because after a shocking and unnerving final sequence, you will be trying to catch your breath.

The story revolves around a teenage girl named Charlie who feels inadequate and out of place until she becomes friends with the sexy, rebellious new girl in school named Sarah. Playing Sarah is Lou de Laage and she is outstanding, portraying the type of girl you are instantly attracted to yet you know you should steer clear which is exactly what Charlie experiences. Laurent's confident eye combined with Lou de Laage in the frame results in must see cinema.

Rooney Mara, Carol

Listen, I don't quite understand what makes Rooney Mara the "supporting" performance in the film either. I think she may be on screen more often than Blanchett, ironically. I only chose to include her in this category as a means to achieve uniformity with the Academy here, because she is nominated with them and holy hell does she deserve it. Just a stunningly gorgeous performance in a stunningly gorgeous film, and the only of these four nominees that I truly considered declaring my winner. 

Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Faults

Here is another performance that might be more "lead" than "supporting", but I wanted to include it and it wouldn't make the cut in the other incredible and crowded category. I am certain Faults is a film that flew well under the radar, so if anyone is curious and has Netflix streaming capabilities, look it up. The story revolves around Winstead and she is chillingly great as a daughter whose parents pay a man to try and get her out of the cult she recently joined.

I am sure a lot of people had a crush on Mary Elizabeth Winstead after her work in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Faults may just make you forget all about that by the time she is done with you.

Four amazing performance but there can only be one winner...

Alicia Vikander, Ex Machina

Vikander is nominated at the Oscars this year for The Danish Girl, which is an offensive and terrible picture. She is still terrific in it and I don't really mind her personal recognition there, but it should have been for Ex Machina. I mentioned in my previous post for Best Supporting Actor that Oscar Isaac is amazing and yet still isn't the scene stealer in the movie. Well, here she is. 

Vikander plays the extremely human feeling artificial intelligence character named Ava and prior to this film I had never heard of her. Now I want to see everything she is ever in no matter what. An absolute home run performance in one of the finest films of the year. 

Now on to the lead categories, starting with Best Actor. Don't be surprised if you see the same person nominated twice in the category for two different films...

The 2016 No Blogging for Old Men Awards - Best Supporting Actor

It's finally time. All caught up on 2015 films and ready to move on to a new year, I feel fully prepared to unveil my choices of award worthy work in cinema.

Here are my nominees for Best Supporting Actor:

Oscar Isaac, Ex Machina

A long time ago, early in 2015, a film was unveiled named Ex Machina, a brilliant science fiction work by first time director Alex Garland. If you haven't seen it, do so, and a few of the reasons why you should are the performances, one of those being the incredibly talented Oscar Isaac. Playing Nathan, the CEO of the world's largest internet company, he does amazing supporting work here yet somehow doesn't even steal the show (we will get to that on a future list).

Don't be surprised to see Isaac pop up on my lists for years to come. I am drawn to pretty much every character he plays and I find his performances remarkable. Ex Machina is another example of this.

Paul Dano, Love & Mercy

A fascinating biopic that was released during 2015 was Love & Mercy, the story of Brian Wilson from The Beach Boys. Instead of following a typical point A to point Z story line, the film succeeded by instead taking two specific events from his life and focusing on those only. One when he was young, and one later in life. The younger version of Wilson is played by Paul Dano and, as usual, he is remarkable. His depiction of Wilson takes place at a time when he was becoming increasingly unstable, succumbing to the voices in his head.

Love & Mercy is a great film featuring an extraordinary performance by Dano.

Benecio Del Toro, Sicario

Frankly, I am stunned Sicario didn't get more recognition from the Academy. It's one of the finest films of the year and everyone in the film provides a terrific performance, but my main tip o' the cap points in the direction of Benecio Del Toro. What is fascinating is how little speaking he does in the film and yet when he is in a frame, you can't look away. A confident and chilling turn from one of the best actors working today.

Idris Elba, Beasts of No Nation

Another film shockingly left out of the Oscar picture, perhaps because of it being a Netflix Original and thus voters didn't take it seriously enough. It's a film that demands to be taking seriously though, a hard hitting and brutal picture and a crucial piece of setting the fierce tone is the powerful performance from Idris Elba. Playing a warlord whom recruits children to be his soldiers, Elba is stunning in a movie that is hard to swallow but impeccably crafted. 

Those four men deserve the recognition of receiving nominations, but the winner is...

Sylvester Stallone, Creed

Alright, I guess it isn't such a dramatic reveal given that I started this post off with a picture from the film.

Simply put, Stallone is perfect in Creed. He plays such a heartbreaking, nuanced version of one of his most famous characters, Rocky Balboa, and he quite literally made me cry during one specific scene. His ability to deliver dialogue and convey emotion with his mannerisms and eyes was second to none in 2015. I think the Academy is going to match my pick in this category, and I hope they do. I want to see Stallone up there holding the trophy he deserves.

The next category to be announced will be Best Supporting Actress, and while beautiful performances like the one depicted above are to be expected, trust me, there will be a couple surprises among that group. 

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

45 Years Review

"When a lovely flame dies, smoke gets in your eyes. Smoke gets in your eyes."

Gosh. It happens every year but it's never any less surprising. There is always one film that flies in out of nowhere, a work so completely off my radar that when it hits, it hits hard. Last year it was the Turkish masterpiece Winter Sleep from filmmaker Nuri Bilge Ceylan. The year before that it was the chilling movie The Hunt by Thomas Vinterberg, a film I haven't watched since and yet it continues to haunt me.

The 2015 edition of this wonderful phenomenon is 45 Years, written and directed by Andrew Haigh based on a short story written by David Constantine. It absolutely astonishes in its simplicity, and you can feel the emotional weight of the drama dripping from every second. The dialogue hurts but the silence devastates. This is a truly wonderful film, one of the finest of the year.

A married couple is days away from their 45th anniversary party when a letter arrives in the mail. Just one little envelope capable of destroying the seemingly incredible strength of their bond. Kate and Geoff. 45 damn years. 

The Swiss authorities have discovered the body of Geoff's first love Katya, 50 years after she fell into an Alpine crevasse. Frozen in ice, still perfectly preserved. Still her young, beautiful self. Much like the body, a jealousy not previously felt is unearthed when it becomes clear that Geoff is troubled by the loss of his former lover all over again. A crack in their foundation shatters when powerful, long hidden secrets begin bubbling to the surface.

I had considered Brie Larson a shoe in for my personal pick for the Best Actress Oscar for her performance in Room prior to watching 45 Years. Now I have a decision to make. Charlotte Rampling in the lead role as Kate...I don't even know how to describe it. How honest and tragic and perfect she is. It isn't just the words she delivers, it's how believable her pain is in between them. It's the look on her face during the remarkable and gut wrenching sequence involving old pictures, flipping through them slowly. A slideshow of heartbreak.

The power of this film isn't evident at first, but it builds like a crescendo until a final scene that is unforgettable. The most impressive aspect of the direction from Haigh is that he has the confidence needed to avoid trying too hard to impress. The material doesn't lend itself to style points and the perfect way to film 45 Years was to never try to unnecessarily earn them. It isn't until the final frame has left the screen that I began to reflect back on the entire experience. The way a scene was allowed to breathe to allow the performances to feel genuine. The look on her face and in her eyes with each passing image and the pace she moves through them, some worthy of being skipped but the most damning hanging there like a nightmare. The brilliant symbolic touch of Katya being forever young when the years have weathered everything else around Katya and Geoff. He not only misses her, he also misses the idea of her. What she represents, a time in his life he can never have back.

"When a lovely flame dies, smoke gets in your eyes. Smoke gets in your eyes."


The Revenant Review

"My heart bleeds. But revenge is in the creator's hands."

Apologies to the soon to be Oscar winning performance from Leonardo DiCaprio, but the most important character in The Revenant is not a person at all. It's the setting. The bleak, harsh, devastatingly cold winter that surrounds everything taking place. No individual carries this film. Nature does.

The opening sequence of the film is magnificent and gets your pule racing before you can even get comfortable in your seat. As a single long take, it occurred to me just how challenging of a scene this is to perfectly execute. Obviously with any long take the choreography and actors execution of it must be precisely on point, but if you add in the fact that the brilliant cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki only wanted to utilize natural light throughout the entire film, nailing it on the first time wasn't just preferred, it was a necessity. I have no idea how many takes or hours or days it took to get it right. All I know is the final product is so damn mesmerizing, I knew instantly I was in for something special.

On a performance level is where I must rain on the parade of many. It isn't that there are any issues with the acting in The Revenant. I would actually argue that what DiCaprio and Hardy and so many others across the ensemble bring to the table is exactly what the material needed, and I wouldn't change a thing. I just don't see Oscar worthy work here. I won't decry the moment we all know is coming, when Leo walks on stage and accepts that trophy because frankly I like the guy and have admired his career for some time now. I'm just surprised that actor who turned in far better, more nuanced performances in films like The Aviator, Catch Me if You Can, The Departed and The Wolf of Wall Street is finally getting the recognition here. 

I could be wrong and this is obviously only based on my personal opinion, but I have to wonder if the difficult nature of filming is a major factor as to why DiCaprio is going to win an Oscar. It seems like the narrative surrounding his award campaign is about what he went through, his commitment to the role, the conditions while shooting and so on. I hear very little about what he actually achieved in the frame, and despite being the "lead" I found him to be playing second fiddle throughout to a much more complicated and interesting turn from Tom Hardy. Hugh Glass, the character played by DiCaprio, is mauled by a bear early in the film and then spends much of The Revenant recovering from his wounds, barely speaking except for the occasional incomprehensible line. It's an important role and one he handles wonderfully, and the emotion he displays with just his eyes is moving and vital to the nature of what we are witnessing. It just simply doesn't match the hype associated with naming it the finest lead performance of the year.

As for the film as a whole, where as I refuted the claims that Birdman, the last film from director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, was all style and no substance, I find it harder to stand on that same soapbox here. I hate even typing those words, all style and no substance, because I find so much substance in the capabilities of telling a story with stylish cinema, but with The Revenant there really wasn't a ton for me to grab onto beyond the astonishing craft. It feels like a work that is desperate to mean something so deep and profound that a person would have to never stop digging to find it all, but frankly I don't have any urge to dig. Even some intrigue regarding the ambiguous ending has faded about as quickly as it did from the screen.

A technical masterpiece that is stunningly beautiful to watch unfold but The Revenant doesn't linger with me as I would have hoped. Which is fine. No, it's better than fine, it's pretty damn great for what it is, but the picture falls short of being what it ultimately strives to achieve: more. 


Thursday, January 21, 2016

The Big Short Review

"Truth is like poetry. And most people hate fucking poetry."

The global economic collapse that took place in 2007 and '08 was a dark time for so many people, and frankly there is nothing funny about it. Homes taken away, families devastated, lives ruined.

So why was I laughing so much during The Big Short?

The tonal shifts during this film were a bit jarring, but I have taken some time to think it over and what initially seemed a bit off may just be the movie's greatest achievement. This is a damn funny comedy, which both makes it an entertaining thrill to watch the film unfold and it also makes the gut punches sting that much more. 

In a way, it almost feels like director Adam McKay is speaking to the audience and their reaction to the material at times, especially one specific quote that comes from Brad Pitt's character Ben Rickert. While others are celebrating their personal success off of the massive economic destruction of millions of others, he delivers this line:

"If we're right, people lose homes. People lose jobs. People lose retirement savings, people lose pensions. You know what I hate about fucking banking? It reduces people to numbers. Here's a number - every 1% unemployment goes up, 40,000 people die, did you know that?"

Just like that, a sobering kick in the ass after a lot of laughs and a lot of fun, and as a person who has worked for over a decade in the banking industry, what he says is so true it hurts. I don't know people and I don't know their stories, but when a person has a vastly negative account they are judged for being delinquent. They are a red number. There isn't time for compassion or understanding when the work is moving fast and deadlines need to be met. They are just a number when in reality they are a person who might be truly struggling to get through each day.

Some minor issues with the film still bug me days after viewing it. For example, while the comedic tone was not only entertaining but also important to balance with the drama, McKay took it a little over-the-top for my tastes at times like when they use celebrity cameos to explain complicated banking procedures. Sure, it is entertaining and clever to see the beautiful Margot Robbie in a bubble bath simplifying some economics for the audience, but I felt like the breaking the fourth wall communication may have gone just a few steps too far along the way.

On a performance level, The Big Short is an ensemble piece that nails it across the board with Ryan Gosling, Steve Carell, Christian Bale, Brad Pitt and many others doing a fantastic job working off the Oscar nominated script from McKay and Charles Randolph, who adapted the novel of the same name by Michael Lewis. Bale and Carell are probably the strongest of the bunch but everyone here seemed to fit right in with what this film and the style of the material needed.

Maybe the genius of this film is that in order to find an audience willing to take a look at just how much big banking fucked us over and got away with it, we needed the comedy. Perhaps a doom and gloom approach just wouldn't latch on to our interests and fail to sell tickets. McKay delivers a strong, important message within the context of this fast paced, humorous picture and the more I sit here thinking about it, the more it works.

Margot Robbie in a bubble bath to make an economics lesson more interesting. Pretty smart indeed.


My 5 Favorite Documentaries from 2015

The calendar may say 2016, but the cinematic year of 2015 is finally starting to wind down. Only a few more films to see before I can finalize my top 50 films of the year list, but I am officially caught up in terms of documentaries. Therefore, a list can be made. 

All told, I watched 25 docs that were released in 2015. Here are the 5 best of the bunch.

5. Tig

A Netflix Original documentary, I was touched by the story of comedian Tig Notaro and her ability to move forward after the terrifying diagnosis of breast cancer. When she got the news, she did what she loved to do most: she performed and made people laugh, and the set she did at a Los Angeles comedy club named Largo is truly one of the bravest and most inspired moments in stand-up history.

Tons of heart, a few tears shed and a lot of laughs. I fell in love with Tig.

4. Winter on Fire: Ukraine's Fight for Freedom

Another winner from Netflix, and this one is nominated by the Academy (and for good reason). Be warned, this is not a documentary to be taken lightly. The content is hard to stomach but impossible to ignore. The cameras are right there in the middle of things during the unrest in Ukraine in 2013 and 2014 when what started as a student demonstration sparked a revolution. There is blood flowing through the streets and it is all too real, and while that may not sound fun to watch, Winter on Fire is a film that deserves to be seen.

3. The Hunting Ground

If you don't recognize the real and devastating problem going on across the United States on college campuses, you aren't paying attention. A single rape would be one too many, so the staggering numbers of such crimes is devastating and what makes matters worse is that the goal of many institutions is to sweep these cases under the rug to avoid bad publicity or to protect an athlete making a lot of money for the school. The Hunting Ground is a CNN documentary that covers this topic and allows some of the victims and/or their families to tell a story that school officials chose to ignore. 

The rape culture is horrifying, and parents deserve to know what is going on when they send their children away for an education. This is a terrific documentary that should be seen by everyone.

2. The Look of Silence

In 2013, director Joshua Oppenheimer delivered a documentary that was haunting and disturbing called The Act of Killing, a film about the Indonesian genocide that took place during the 1960's. What was completely fascinating about this documentary was that it didn't cover this topic in a traditional sense. Instead, Oppenheimer meets up with those that were responsible for so much murder at the time and asks them to reenact their mass killings in the form of mini films using whichever genre they desired. Watching these men who did such horrible things have to face their demons by "witnessing" the atrocities, even if this time it is faked, is difficult to watch but also quite eye opening. 

In 2015 Oppenheimer delivered a sequel of sorts with The Look of Silence, this time focusing on members of one specific family that survived the genocide, a family that is short one because a son/brother was among the murdered. The brother of the victim meets with the killers and their families and confronts them about what they did despite knowing doing so would put himself and his loved ones in harms way. 

It's another brilliant picture from Oppenheimer, and most years it would top my list of documentaries, but in 2015 there was one non-fiction masterpiece...

1. Amy

The Oscar front runner in the category and it deserves the award, Amy is the best documentary of 2015. The film depicts the life and unfortunately way too soon death of British singer Amy Winehouse, and before you go thinking that my list might be biased because of being a fan of her music, let me dispel those notions quickly. It isn't that I dislike her music either, I just didn't know it all that well besides the songs they played on the radio.

So powerful, so real, so honest, I couldn't look away from the screen from start to finish while watching Amy. The amount of actual footage they had of her during her life is remarkable to the point that it almost feels impossible, like I was falling for some sort of perfectly executed found footage horror film rather than non-fiction. I only wish that were the case and such an amazing talent didn't fall victim to the powers of celebrity and addiction at such a young age.

By using that massive amounts of raw, unfiltered footage of her life and having others speak over what we are seeing, Amy never feels stale and run of the mill like so many docs do with the constant talking heads filling the screen to tell a story. Much of her life is right there in front of us, and it's beautiful and heartbreaking.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Brooklyn Review

Recently I overheard a man complaining that his wife made him watch some "romantic bullshit" and his buddies laughed as if he had just told the greatest joke ever told. Now, granted, it is extremely possible that whatever he did watch was complete and utter bullshit, he may not be wrong. He never elaborated as to what it was so I wouldn't have the slightest idea as to the quality of the film or show. What really stuck with me in this moment though was that his friends never asked. It was inherently funny because of the word "romantic", and I could practically hear the stereotypes of dudes and their action film fantasies blasting off in the background. 

So my question is, why is romance a negative? Why is it a punch line? 

I was reminded of this as I watched the new film Brooklyn, directed by John Crowley and starring a glowing, perfect Saoirse Ronan. This is a syrupy melodrama, the type of film my late grandmother would have loved and young me would have rolled my eyes at, but adult me knows better than that. While syrupy melodrama sure sounds like a negative, I was captivated and smitten with every damn second of it. It is covered in just enough of the sweet stuff to taste delicious without going overboard. 

Brooklyn is a historical period romantic drama that actually feels pulled from the era it takes place in thanks to a consistently stunning aesthetic. The usage of color delighted my eyes in every frame, and the warmth of the performance of Ronan in the lead as young Ellis Lacey didn't hurt either. I found it impossible not to be charmed by her and the chemistry she shared with both Tony (Emory Cohen) during her time in Brooklyn and Jim (Domhnall Gleeson, who seems to be in EVERYTHING in 2015) in Ireland. This is a story about immigration and the fear that can come with picking up everything and trying to start over in a strange new world, the type of bravery I admire deeply when I consider what my ancestors must have went through that lead to me ending up where I am today. This is a story about being torn not just between two lovers but also two completely different worlds, one that feels familiar and one that is huge and new and exciting. The question is, which is home?

It's also and perhaps most importantly a love story, and a beautifully told one at that. I kept waiting for a cliche to pop up somewhere, one that bothers me repeatedly in films and ends up feeling so predictable and tired: the moment when one of the two people the main character loves does something egregious. The urge to write in a "jerk" moment in a screenplay to manipulate the audience into preferring the final choice. It never happens in Brooklyn. Ellis has to decide between Ireland and Brooklyn and between Jim and Tony, two completely different places, two seemingly wonderful men who care for her deeply and want to spend their lives with her.

To be fair, the moment that does end up pushing her towards her final decision comes together a little too conveniently for me, requiring a belief in small world coincidences at a time when a lack of technology and communication made everything feel huge, but at that point I didn't care in the least. Even now as I think of it, I shrug my shoulders and wonder when I can watch Brooklyn again, because I don't find the warm cinematic hug of a gorgeous, sweeping romance to be negative or a punch line.

Perhaps I should have asked the guy I overheard what his wife forced him to watch, even if it was none of my business. Had he answered Brooklyn, I wouldn't be laughing.


Saturday, January 16, 2016

Spotlight Review

Typically when I use the phrase "by the numbers" it is meant as a negative. For anyone who has been paying attention to my taste in cinema, I am easily wowed by style. The reason I believe Mad Max: Fury Road should dominate the Oscars this year is not that I was blown away by the story, it's that every tiny detail of the movie paints an epic, unforgettable picture for me. The photography, the frenetic brilliance of the editing, the costumes, the performance of Charlize Theron, the set pieces and the inventive genius of so many moments. All of it adds up to perfection.

Spotlight is, essentially, by the numbers. Thank god, because you know what seems to be nearly impossible for films revolving around journalism? Getting those numbers right.

With a work like Spotlight, it isn't about style of flash and it shouldn't be. The key is making sure the numbers add up, conveying an authenticity and professionalism that makes us believe in the characters and their goals. When we don't believe in those trying to break a story, why would we ever give a shit about the end result?

Directed by Tom McCarthy whom had one of the strangest years in 2015 when you consider he was also responsible for one of the absolute worst movies as well, The Cobbler (we will consider this an aberration from his usual quality work), Spotlight tells the true story of a specific team of journalists working for the Boston Globe in 2001. A new editor is hired named Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) and he asks the "Spotlight" team to focus their attention on a single pedophile priest named John Geoghan and whether or not the local Archbisop knew of his terrible actions yet did nothing to try and stop it. The deeper they look into it, the more they discover how horrifically widespread the actual problem had spread, far beyond a single priest. So many victims and the church simply tried to sweep it under the rug.

This is a special film that stands out because ironically it doesn't ever try to stand out. Everything about Spotlight just comes so naturally, with the wonderful ensemble cast always precisely on point working with a screenplay that not only knows journalism but also knows how to tell a true story of a very sensitive subject. It doesn't pull any punches nor does it throw too many. It is a film that demonstrates power through grace and honesty. 

No, Spotlight isn't my personal choice for Best Picture this year, but I also won't complain for a moment if it wins. It deserves recognition for knowing exactly when to be by the numbers. Tom McCarthy tells this unfortunately real story with intelligence and maturity, and it is an important film that deserves to be seen.


Joy Review

So, so many biopics. They're everywhere, and I fear them. Cinema can take us literally anywhere, a medium in which the only limitations to storytelling are what the human mind can concoct and yet week after week, year after year the moviegoing public is inundated with the words "Based on a true story" with a focus on a single person that left an indelible mark. I fear these films because they so often fall victim to relying on the same tired tropes. A life can be absolutely fascinating but the fatigue of familiarity can wipe all of that away in a hurry.

I don't recall every detail of the trailers and television commercials that were trying to sell the world on the new film Joy, so I can't remember if it was made clear that this was a picture derived from a non-fiction story. All I remember thinking was, based on this you would have no idea that the character being played by Jennifer Lawrence was the real life inventor Joy Mangano, the woman behind the Miracle Mop. Now I don't know nearly enough to be able to determine which pieces of this film are true and which are total bullshit meant to entertain, but I feel pretty confident in assuming there is far more of the latter than the former in Joy

Honestly, that's probably a good thing, because while far from perfect and at times quite phony, this is a pretty good and really entertaining movie.

I have only ever really loved one David O. Russell film and that remains true today, as Silver Linings Playbook stole my heart instantly and after multiple revisits it still has it. I admire him greatly though for the ability to take a story that doesn't sound all that intriguing on the face of it and making it unique and compelling. Try explaining the premise of Joy to someone without telling them that Jennifer Lawrence or Bradley Cooper are in it, see if you can sell them on it. The true story of the lady who invented a mop. Good luck. Yet, thanks to some fun storytelling and a terrific lead performance from the aforementioned Lawrence, it works.

I used the word phony before and I should probably elaborate on that a bit. At times O. Russell takes his gift for making the mundane a bit more magnificent and goes a little too far and the film strays a bit towards the ridiculous. Early in the film when approaching her fathers girlfriend for financial assistance to get her business off and running, Joy is asked to answer what she would do in a scenario involving a gun on the table in front of her, which is then handled in a very on the nose fashion later when she walks straight up to a gentleman with a shotgun and asks permission to fire away. The scene takes her strong, independent identity and takes it a bit too far and in the end just feels out of place. 

Another example of this, and the most egregious of anything is towards the very end of the picture when a young couple approach Joy with an invention idea. The entire vibe of the sequence makes it impossible not to roll your eyes, with an emotional young woman much like she once was over her hopes of finding the american dream and the forced dialogue from Joy to announce her willingness to help. Perhaps this actually happened, and maybe the real Joy Mangano used her success as a means to assist many others struggling like she did, but this scene is impossible to take as seriously as it wants you to.

Despite its issues, Joy is a biopic that at least tries to be different and for that I am appreciative. I will always take ambitions going a bit too far over playing it too safe.