Oscars Ballot 2016

BEST PICTURE

I’d rank the nominees as:

  1. Brooklyn
  2. The Revenant
  3. Room
  4. Mad Max: Fury Road
  5. Bridge of Spies
  6. The Martian
  7. Spotlight
  8. The Big Short

However, keeping that same number of nominees, I’d lose those bottom 4 and add:

Likely Winner: This is a big toss-up, between The Revenant (who I’m rooting for), Spotlight, and I’m even hearing The Big Short. I think the tide is leaning more towards The Revenant though this is pretty much up for grabs between all three.

My Pick: Of the nominees, Brooklyn made the biggest impact on me though I really liked The Revenant as well. I’d be glad if either won.



BEST DIRECTOR

Likely Winner: Alejandro G. Iñárritu for The Revenant. He’s been gaining steam and this award is his to lose.

My Pick: I’d also vote for Iñárritu, but honorable mention for Lenny Abrahamson for Room. While I wasn’t in love with the movie overall, the first half gradually builds up into a really terrific moment – only a master could have created such an impact.



BEST ACTOR

Likely Winner: Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant

My Pick: Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant. My favorite Leo performance is probably The Wolf of Wall Street (which he should have won for), but he certainly gives it his all in this as well.


 

BEST ACTRESS

Likely Winner: Brie Larson for Room

My Pick: Charlotte Ramplin for 45 Years or Saoirse Ronan for Brooklyn. Both give subtle yet powerful performances, communicating complex and layered emotions through their restrained expressions alone.


 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Likely Winner: Sylvester Stallone for Creed

My Pick: I haven’t seen Creed, but from the performances I have seen I’d root for Tom Hardy in The Revenant. He almost steals the show from Leo as a truly despicable villain.


 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Likely Winner: Alicia Vikander for The Danish Girl or Kate Winslet for Steve Jobs. This one is a bit of a toss-up.

My Pick: I’m prejudiced because Ms. Vikander and I had a “moment;” she should be nominated and winning for Ex Machina but I’ll take this too!


 

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Likely Winner: Spotlight, because writers love voting for themselves.

My Pick: Inside Out, which not only tells a great story but creates a profound, universal discourse about everyone‘s inner psychology – all within an efficient prologue. Terrifically layered and notoriously emotional, no movie dialogue was stronger this year than in Pixar’s masterpiece. I’d also be good with an Ex Machina win, for its engaging and nail-biting suspense between three twisted characters.


 

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Likely Winner: The Big Short

My Pick: Brooklyn – I’m not familiar with the source material, but this period drama is heightened by its poetic script, particularly in Eilis’s heartfelt monologue in the finale.


 

What are your picks for Oscar night? Who should take home the gold? Reply below in the comments!

Weekly Round-Up: February 21-27, 2016

It’s almost time!

I didn’t see all the movies I wanted to see by Oscar night (tonight!) but I did a pretty decent job, rounding out the Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay nominees this week.

I saw:

  • V/H/S/2 (2012) – I don’t know why I’m under the spell of these stupid movies. They’re pretty easy to watch, but this one is even worse than the first one. V/H/S/2 is more supernatural-focused, with ghosts and zombies and aliens rather than the human-based evil of the first one. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Bridge of Spies (2015) – For a movie about international intrigue and the exchange of Cold War spies, holy cow was this boring. The ultimate game of cinematic softball, as not once did this film have any sense of danger or uncertainty. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • The Martian (2015) – My last of this year’s Best Picture nominees. I didn’t like the book, and unfortunately the film adaptation kept the same douchey sense of humor and frustrating, disconnected storytelling. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • The Princess and the Frog (2009) – Magical hand-drawn animated musical about a young woman determined to fight for her dreams. This Disney film is strengthened by its solid soundtrack by Randy Newman and its memorable cast of characters. RECOMMENDED.
  • The Witch (2016) – Genuinely spooky tale of a New England family isolated from society and forced to defend themselves against nature, the elements, and ultimately each other. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Straight Outta Compton (2015) – Strong historical drama about the rise of west coast hip-hop, strengthened by electrifying musical performances. RECOMMENDED.

What did you see last week?

The Witch (2016)

The best horror movies don’t stoop to “jump” moments. They gradually get under your skin and stay in your thoughts, dreams, even nightmares long after the end credits roll. We can’t look away not to subject ourselves to momentary thrills, but to find out what happens – held in the grip of a rich, complicated plot. The best comedies have a funny story, not just script, and the same applies to horror movies: they must have a genuinely frightening story. The ExorcistThe Haunting, and now The Witch are among this company.

The Witch follows a 17th-century New England family who is exiled from their village and builds a modest farmhouse on the edge of the forest. When they arrive to their new home, they get on their knees and pray to God, holding their hands out towards the sky as we creep closer towards the dark woods and ominous voices wail on the soundtrack. It’s unsettling, otherworldly, and scary as hell.

There are lots of great moments, of seemingly un-scary images and plot points that nonetheless crawl under your skin. The oldest son Caleb sneaks more than a few peeks at his sister Thomasin’s developing body. The twins talk to the family’s black goat. Another animal is milked by Thomasin, and from its udders drips blood.

Tragedy after tragedy strikes, culminating these smaller elements into broader brushstrokes of this very dysfunctional Puritan family. Visions and accusations of witchcraft spew like venom as their desperation grows. We don’t know who to trust, and if there even is a witch; but we do know what the family members are doing, which may be just as horrifying.


I’m definitely picking this up on home video, and am eager to re-watch particularly with subtitles. The heavy accents paired with an archaic dialogue, while exquisite to listen to, was at times hard to make out; I confess I had trouble following the action for a while. So if you see this in theaters, definitely keep your ears open – maybe you’ll understand English better than I do!

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

I’m somewhat notorious among my social circles for not liking biopics or “based on true events” films. I’m not sure why they typically don’t click with me, but recent fare like Selma and The Danish Girl (to name a few) simply haven’t resonated despite being critical darlings.

Fortunately, Straight Outta Compton is an exception to this trend: a compelling and maturely filmed historical drama about the rise of N.W.A. and the political context fueling the west coast hip-hop scene.

The film’s strongest asset is the music, something it leverages to tremendous (while restrained) impact. The performance sequences are electrifying, some of the best concert footage in a film since the pop masterpiece Purple Rain. Like any good musical (historical or otherwise), the songs are heightened by their context within the story: Eazy-E going against his partner Lorenzo’s wishes and performing more hardcore hip-hop, their breakthrough tour performance, and most memorably, N.W.A. defying police pressure.

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These musical sequences are deliberate and thoughtful, exemplary of the overall approach director F. Gary Gray takes with this film. We aren’t pummeled with shot/reverse/shot sequences of dialogue, but mostly still, wider shots of N.W.A. in a recording studio, multiple characters interacting within the frame. We are trusted to see the action unfold before us, without close-ups or sweeping long takes driving the camerawork and numbing us to their impact.

And when they do happen, they’re to memorable effect. In one sequence, we witness a long take through a hotel suite: one room relatively calm and quiet, before passing into the adjoining room spinning gracefully around partakers in drugs and sexual activity. It’s outrageous and almost laughable, but still beautifully shot.

That’s the real power of Straight Outta Compton. It takes people and places who, frankly, aren’t well-represented in cinema, and elevates the narrative through mature technical craft and thoughtful pacing. The cast and crew take this larger-than-life story seriously, so we do too. It’s great to see this kind of story be told with the care and integrity that it deserves.

Finding Elaine: UC Berkeley in “The Graduate” (1967)

Remember me to one who lives there.

Since I first watched it about ten years ago, The Graduate instantly flew into the swirl of my favorite films. Of course, late middle school / early high school age me didn’t fully grasp the complex themes masked by uncomfortable comedy and moody ambivalence, but this classic still spoke to me in a primal, instinctive way.

When it came time to decide where to pursue higher education, I landed on UC Berkeley – where many other onscreen characters have attended, including High School Musical‘s Troy Bolton, Looking‘s Patrick Murray, and The Graduate‘s Elaine Robinson.

The Graduate is probably the most notable film to be partially set at my alma mater, and likely one of the only to have actually filmed there. As is show business, several shots of Cal within this film are really shot at USC (sss!) but several are filmed in the places and streets I called home for four years.

  • Moe’s Books & Caffe Mediterraneum

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Moe’s Books is a still-operating independent bookstore with a wide breadth of literature, new, old, and out-of-print. I discovered this later in college and even got a book about the making of All About Eve there.

More exciting (to The Graduate fanboys like myself) is there Benjamin is sitting: the Caffe Mediterraneum. This is one of Berkeley’s most well-known coffee shops, where I’ve attended multiple study groups, political meetings, and social catch-ups. It’s the self-proclaimed “home of the caffe latte,” and they also boast a great breakfast and lunch menu.

These are in the “Southside” neighborhood, just 3 blocks from campus and 1 block from a house I lived in.

  • Unit 1 & Theta Delta Chi

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In this brief shot, we view the 2600 block of Durant Ave, just 1 block south of campus. First we see Unit 1, a large dormitory complex. I didn’t live there myself, but several friends did so I became familiar with it. Durant was also home to many popular eateries, including Top Dog (known throughout the Bay Area), La Burrita (terrific Mexican food), and a collection of restaurants known as the Asian Ghetto (I didn’t come up with the name). Durant Avenue was part of my everyday life.

As Benjamin runs into a frathouse, the camera quickly pans into another real-life location: Theta Delta Chi, or TDX. (The interior shots unfortunately are not the “real” insides of this fraternity.)

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During my later years in college this frat earned a bad rep, but I had a lot of positive memories here. When my friends and I would frequent frat row, we’d always hit up TDX and even went to a charity haunted house event they hosted one Halloween.

  • Sproul Plaza

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Possibly the most exciting on-location shots are those in Sproul Plaza, as Benjamin continues to try to win Elaine over. Sproul Plaza is the real heart of the UC Berkeley campus: where student groups recruit members & publicize events, religious fanatics preach from soapboxes, and passers-by can pick up the Daily Californian campus newspaper. It is the place to see and be seen, and I’m not even joking.

More so than the other locations in this film, Sproul Plaza is one of the most iconic images of UC Berkeley and of my own college experience. I was there for key milestones in my student tenure, like running for student government (I lost) and watching (not participating in) the Occupy UC mayhem, but more importantly it was part of my everyday. It is the main strip between campus classroom buildings and student housing, where everyone intersects within one space. It’s only logical that Benjamin sees Elaine here, as this is the one place that every UC Berkeley student can be found.

I loved The Graduate years before I even thought about Cal, and will continue to be as my memories of college slip away. But having an intimate knowledge and personal experience with several of the locations, however minor, in a cinema masterpiece will forever tie me directly to one of my favorite films.


 

This post is part of the 31 Days of Oscar Blogathon hosted by Outspoken and Outfreckled. Check out the other great entries here!

Weekly Round-Up: February 14-20, 2016

Still chugging along to catch up with Oscar nominees. A highlight of this week was the Countdown to Zootopia programming at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood, CA. For the two weeks leading up to the release of Walt Disney Animation Studios’s newest film Zootopia, other contemporary Disney films will be shown accompanied by Q&A with cast & crew. Amazing opportunity not only to see some modern masterpieces back on the big screen, but to hear firsthand from the talent that helped bring us these contemporary classics!

This week, I saw:

  • Room (2015) – At its best, this dark drama is an emotional tour de force with exceptional film-making. At its worst, it’s another boring family drama. There is some terrific stuff in the middle, so I’d still call this RECOMMENDED even though it runs a bit dull.
  • Meet the Robinsons (2007) – While not the critical and financial powerhouse of other modern Disney fare like Frozen and Wreck-It Ralph, this sleeper hit has deservedly grown a strong following. Equal parts screwball comedy, mystery, and sci-fi, this inspirational story follows a young scientist trying to find a home. RECOMMENDED.
  • The Kid (1921) – My favorite Chaplin film. The Tramp becomes a de facto guardian for a presumably orphan boy, and a father’s love is put to the test when the state begins to intervene. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Frozen (2013) – Another new Disney classic, a twisty and stunningly animated story about a young queen who flees her kingdom and her daring sister who tries to bring her back. I’m not the first person to say this, but “Let It Go” is one of the best musical numbers of any film, animated or live-action. REQUIRED.
  • V/H/S (2012) – My friend recommended this horror anthology film (available on Netflix!). The premise is a band of hoodlums find a house full of tapes containing disturbing footage, and the bulk of this film is the content of those tapes. Some stories are pretty interesting, others boring, but they are so action-focused there isn’t much room for logical character motivation. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Tangled (2010) – Yet another contemporary Disney masterpiece, this adaptation of the Rapunzel fairy tale brings to life the terrific male co-star Flynn Rider, who has emerged as one of my favorite Disney characters. Like “Let It Go” from Frozen, the “I See the Light” musical sequence is captivating. As Disney’s 50th animated film, it does feel like a perfect blend of classic Disney storytelling with lush computer animation. REQUIRED.

What did you see last week?

Meet the Robinsons (2007)

Meet the Robinsons is the story of a good scientist and budding inventor, who struggles to get his inventions right in a world without emotional support or room to experiment. Lewis lives in an orphanage, where his tinkering annoys his roommate Goob, and his ideas often scare off potential adoptive parents.

Growing up friendless, and with no family, each new invention is an opportunity to impress and connect with others – making the stakes, and potential failure, that much greater. After suffering an invention mishap during an adoption interview, Lewis runs away and laments, “I have no future.” For him, failure in his inventions is inherently linked to failure in finding a home.

Circumstances whisk Lewis away from his constraining present into a positive, optimistic future. At the home of the Robinsons, Lewis tries, and fails, to fix inventions several times – and each time is met with encouragement and praise. The Robinsons happily insist that you learn from each failure to build a better future: to “keep moving forward.”

meet-the-robinsons5Such is the rallying cry of Meet the Robinsons. Through various degrees of time travel, Lewis glimpses a wonderful future before he returns to the present and work to build that future, today. He looks at the potential world awaiting him, asking “so this’ll be my future?” Future Lewis replies, “Well, that depends on you.”

There are two key themes running throughout this film: first, the importance of a space where creative minds can tinker, with room for trial and error. Second, the reality that you need to work to change your own future: no one is going to do that for you. This thread weaves together the importance of family with empowerment and humanism, leaving a positive message for all kids, scientist or not.


This post is part of the Movie Scientists Blogathon, hosted by Christina Wehner and Silver Screenings. Check out the other great entries on the full roster here!

Weekly Round-Up: February 07-13, 2016

Last week was a little slower movies-wise – I was pretty busy for the long weekend and it took me several rounds to get through The Two Towers (not the movie’s fault – I was just tired!).

I saw:

  • The Danish Girl (2015) – Frustrating true story about a transgender painter undergoing through her transition in the early 20th century. Its story is mostly by-the-books but occasionally delves into camp, whether or not the movie knows it. NOT RECOMMENDED. [Though I did get to see this movie as part of a great Q&A event with co-star Alicia Vikander.]
  • Black Orpheus (1959) – Wonderfully vibrant and kinetic adaptation of the Orpheus myth into modern-day Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro. The memorable music provides an exciting pulse all throughout this beautiful and romantic tragedy. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED. [I also wrote an accompanying piece, Criterion Goes to Carnaval looking at how the holiday functions in the narrative of this film and Gilda.]
  • The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) – Very strong “middle” film of the trilogy, with less concrete action taking place and more character development and laying the groundwork for the final film The Return of the King. This was my first time watching with audio commentary by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Shaun the Sheep Movie (2015) – Sweet animated film about sheep who travel into the city to bring their farmer home. The visual gags come a mile a minute, and you barely even notice that there’s no dialogue. RECOMMENDED.
  • Lady and the Tramp (1955) – Iconic Disney classic between two dogs from opposite sides of the tracks. The “Siamese Cat Song” and “Bella Notte” sequences are two highlights from this rich, complicated love story. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

What did you see last week?

“Room” and World

Oh, Jack. Everything has two sides.

Room is a movie that will always stay with me.

Its premise alone is dark and hauntingly believable: a teenager is kidnapped, held captive within a garden shed, and bears the child of her captor. Her son knows no world outside the shed, outside of what they call Room.

Even under the circumstances, we see the woman, Ma, and her son Jack operate in their sense of order. He says hello to all their furniture, watches TV, as she cooks, cleans, and tells stories to keep up with his imagination. He celebrates his fifth birthday and she makes him a miniature cake. The only link to the outside world is their captor, “Old Nick,” who brings them a “Sunday treat” of groceries and durable goods, and spends the night with Ma.

After two failed attempts, Ma comes up with a plan for escape – training Jack endlessly to prepare for it. The idea is dangerous, and comes with no guarantees, but it’s a risk Ma is willing to take. She rolls Jack up into their dirty carpet, tells Old Nick he is dead, and begs him to bury her son – having told Jack to roll out of the rug and escape just as Old Nick starts hauling the “corpse” away on his truck.

The film’s greatest scene, by a long shot, is this escape. Jack struggles, but succeeds in unrolling himself from the rug in Old Nick’s flatbed. We see the outside world as Jack sees it: our first blue skies after spending all of the prior scenes within that garden shed. The wind blows through his unkempt hair, and he gazes upon houses, cars, people – all for the first time.

Amplified by the powerful guitars of the song “The Mighty Rio Grande” by This Will Destroy You, this scene is film-making at some of its finest. So many movies follow a series of arcs of tension-release, tension-release, while Room held and maintained this tension visually, through placing us along with the victims in a confined space, as well as through its narrative building up to an eventual escape, before opening up into a glorious climax. A woman next to me in the theater was sobbing uncontrollably, and I can’t pretend I wasn’t close to it.

From here, unfortunately, the film wobbles into iffier terrain. Yes, Jack is found by the police who later free Ma, returning them to her parents. Once returning home, Ma is cold and distant to her family; Jack is nostalgic and homesick for Room – the only home he’s ever had. The repercussions of their ordeal come to the forefront, as they undoubtedly would in real life; but the characters we’d come to so dearly empathize with pivot to such un-likability.

The journey from Room to World is so fulling and culminates in a terrifically satisfying conclusion; while World and beyond deflates that dreamlike optimism into a dark reality. From a narrative perspective, it’s fair that the story addresses life before and after the escape, and examines the lingering effects of such a terrible experience. There are two sides to each wall. But the care and meaning that so dominated the first half of the film seems to be missing in the second.

While Room trails off in its third act and loses the spark that makes the bulk of the film so special, at its best it is nothing short of remarkable storytelling. This is not the best picture of the year, but is certainly a worthy contender.