Why the Oscars Matter

It’s pretty easy to dismiss awards shows, like the upcoming Academy Awards, as pointless. Every awards season, you’ll hear the same mumblings about how the winners don’t really matter, it’s just Hollywood patting itself on the back, and other short-sighted dismissals of the ceremony.

To some degree, they are correct; the Academy Awards, and other awards shows, were originally formed by professionals within the industry to promote their artistic works. The concept of naming particular creative minds and talents in entertainment as the “Best” of that year was devised, essentially, as an elaborate marketing tool.

However, I find that awards ceremonies mean more with the passage of time than in that respective year. They’re a time capsule into pop culture of a specific moment in history, and are a great way to start venturing into film from a bygone era.

I am very fortunate to have had parents who shared classic films, like the works of Billy Wilder and Alfred Hitchcock, with us growing up. Sure, it kind of set my sisters and me apart culturally from our peer group (how many kids can quote Sunset Boulevard?), but it set a great foundation for our love of movies and for building a genuine interest in older films. From the movies our parents shared with us, my sisters and I went off in our own directions: the older sister going through a Grace Kelly phase, another delving into late 1980s / early 1990s camp, and me going for Oscar winners from yesteryear.

The building blocks my parents set, starting with Academy Award winners, were a perfect gateway into lesser-known and, in some cases, better movies that I would never have stumbled upon otherwise. I rented Roman Polanski’s The Pianist by Roman Polanski, who I had never heard of as a pre-teen, soon after he won the Oscar for Best Director. From there I wanted to see more works by him, which led me to his terrific older films, like Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown. I ended up liking those even more than The Pianist, so I’m grateful for the Academy Awards for first putting this director on my radar and indirectly bringing me to other films I would love.

Awards shows are more than just time capsules, of course, and can get us to enjoy entertainment we wouldn’t have even considered before seeing it listed on a nominees ballot. In the past few years, I have made a point to see all the Best Picture nominees by Oscars night. (TIP: It makes watching the awards WAY more fun when you know what’s at stake!) This introduced me to what have become two of my favorite contemporary films, Up in the Air and Silver Linings Playbook, neither of which I would have seen had they not been up for Oscars.

Sure, on some level they may be self-congratulatory, but awards shows have introduced me to what are now some of my favorite artistic works. They are a great tool for acculturating yourself and exploring new cultural horizons. Future generations may look to today’s nominees, like La La Land, Moonlight, and Arrival, as entry points to develop their own love of film. Everyone needs to start somewhere, and the Oscars are a terrific gateway.

Oscar Nominations 2017

This year’s announcements ceremony was, well, non-existent.

The nominations are typically announced as a big live press conference, with publicists and press agents gathered in Hollywood as the next year’s nominees are announced live.

Not this year – the event was scrapped and instead live-streamed from the Oscars’ web site. Most of the broadcast was pre-recorded interviews with past nominees (including Terrence Howard, Ken Watanabe, Guillermo del Toro) sharing stories from when they were nominated, and offering advice to this year’s nominees (“Don’t pop the champagne too early!”). Between all this was the actual listing of nominees by an (unseen) narrator. There was even a break between announcements, highlighting Jimmy Kimmel as he prepares to host this year’s Oscars.

Then the Best Picture nominees were announced by Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences president Cheryl Boone Isaacs.

The full list of nominations are available here.

SNUBS & SURPRISES:

  • While certainly not traditional Oscar-bait, Deadpool had been gaining steam since its nominations for Best Actor and Best Picture at the Golden Globes. There was quite a bit of talk that it could land an Adapted Screenplay and even Picture nod at the Oscars, but it was not too be.
  • Lots of love for Hacksaw Ridge. This film was not really on my radar, nor is it really being talked about, but its nominations for Picture, Actor, and Director (among others) certainly make this a movie to consider.
  • Amy Adams not being nominated for Arrival. While the film itself performed well (earning Picture, Director, and Screenplay nods), her performance is the heart and soul of the movie. A surprise in the Best Actress category is Ruth Negga from Loving (another film that has been largely left out during the awards season).
  • Hidden Figures also picked up steam, earning nods for Picture and Adapted Screenplay, as well as Supporting Actress (a nomination Octavia Spencer also earned at the Globes).
  • Finding Dory shut out of Best Animated Feature. This has also been left out of a few awards this year, including the Golden Globes, but I’m still amazed that such an emotionally powerful film somehow didn’t move the voters.

What movies are you rooting for? Who was shut out this year? Reply below in the comments!

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!

The Swedish Girl: My Day with Alicia Vikander

TIMG_8381oday I got to attend a screening of The Danish Girl, followed by Q&A with co-star Alicia Vikander!

The event was held at The Pacific Design Center SilverScreen Theater in West Hollywood, CA at 11 am. I got there around 9:30-9:45, where a small line had already formed. I chatted with the people in front of and behind me, each in various stages of working their way through this year’s Oscar nominees.

Followed by the movie (which I wasn’t really feeling), Alicia came out for a Question & Answer session. She came across very well, and genuinely surprised at how suddenly fame has hit her. The Danish Girl had finished production several months prior, and Ex  Machina about two years ago, and she commented on how funny it’s been that she’s become famous, now, for work she’d wrapped up quite a while ago.

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Answering someone else’s question, she mentioned how little information she was able to find on the real-life woman she portrayed, Gerda Wegener. I then asked her what she did to prepare for that type of role, and she replied how it was a combination of the research they could acquire, with learning more about the transgender community, particularly by their loved ones. Her goal was to bring together the timeless experience of being there for someone you love, going through that process, and the historical context of the true-life woman she was embodying.

Afterwards, there was a mad scramble for autographs and photos; I struck out in the selfie department, but did get her to autograph the Ultraviolet Digital Copy slip (!) from my Ex Machina Blu-ray! (A silver Sharpie on the cover would have been an excellent choice, but I didn’t have the goods.)

No, I didn’t love The Danish Girl but I did love the opportunity to hear The Swedish Girl speak and participate in the Q&A (plus score an autograph). She’s already won the SAG Award and an Oscar may be on the horizon – we’ll know in 3 weeks!

For Pluck’s Sake: Advocacy in the Current Oscar Nominees

Last year brought us two films of fighting “the system” (a term used, multiple times, in both films): Spotlight, the story of Boston Globe reporters investigating the Catholic Church abuse cases, and The Big Short, concerning several professionals in the financial sector who recognize the housing bubble is waiting to burst. In each, we are treated to many scenes of passionate, frustrated advocates, appalled at the wrongs they learn of, and how they will do their darnedest to make sure the world knows.

Maybe I’m being cynical, but films of this nature have zero appeal to me. Not that the causes depicted therein aren’t worthy ones, or aren’t stories that should be told, but these particular movies aren’t very challenging or even interesting. It’s not progressing art to showcase good people doing good things, without unique or innovative elements to heighten a formulaic narrative. Audiences aren’t grappling with any complex moral situations from these films; it’s all laid out pretty cleanly in front of us.

The most disappointing aspect of all is, I fear, the stereotypical millennial spirit of naivete and entitlement is invading film, infiltrating that most sacred of institutions: the Academy Awards. I can handle Lena Dunham-esque angst on HBO’s Girls; I don’t have to watch it, nor is it placed on some pedestal (anymore, at least). But I am shocked to see films of this simple, shallow nature to be considered among this year’s finest, and will become immortalized within the time capsule of award nominations, possibly wins. Whiny people outraged by wrongs until their voices get heard is a chilling echo of the often-parodied millennial entitlement attitude, of a naive oversimplified view of right versus wrong: the rallying cry of “Something bad happened, so we’re outraged, and where are the consequences!”

Such is the recurring, exhausting thread in both these movies. I fear for the future of cinema, or at least the critical recognition of what constitutes quality film, when this type of movie-making, which takes zero risks and offers audiences exactly what they expect (maybe want?) is what’s considered The Best. Is this daring? Does this progress film as an art form?

Take Spotlight, for instance. This subscribes to what I consider The Hills style of storytelling: scenes play out (which we see), then we are treated to a bonus scene where what we just witnessed is recapped. Many of these include scenes with lawyers, clergy, and victims – all of whom can neatly be categorized as good versus evil. The lines are not remotely blurred in this journalistic “drama” in which we already know the outcome.

Or even The Big Short. This narrative style is more aligned with Ryan Murphy, from its irritatingly short shots plus close-ups into random faces and images within the scene. I’d hope that this all meant something for the movie, but it sure felt less like a supplemental element to the storytelling and more a cure for short attention span. Even the story, minus its elements, is a continental journey of good-hearted financiers who know the crisis is coming and are frustrated at every turn. Each story development follows the standard arc of “new economic concept, respective personal element, the characters getting mad,” and repeat. Fortunately, celebrity cameo moments like Selena Gomez and Anthony Bourdain oversimplifying complex economic concepts make boring finance more fun, I guess.

I don’t like to write negative reviews. I want to like the movies that I see. Usually I just pass on a blog post if there’s something I’m really not feeling, but these two tales of plucky individuals fighting all odds, stories which have been told countless times before, have been considered among the year’s best despite being told in perfectly traditional, uninteresting ways.

Either something is wrong with our film industry (where everything is so bad that these two look good), or something is in the water among critics’ circles. I fear it is the latter, again tying back to an immature, undeveloped millennial angst. As it is unlikely these films are genuinely considered artistic achievements, it must be the severity of their subject matter that earns them such praise. It’s as though the act of recognizing films that chastise the corruption within the Catholic Church, or the evilness of the banks, is making a symbolic statement alongside the films, taking a stance against such acts. (How brave!) These feel like they should be important movies, so let’s just pretend they are.

Weekly Round-Up: January 10-16, 2016

Big week last week, between the Golden Globe awards and the Academy Award nominations announcement – awards season has officially begun and I’ve got my work cut out for me as far as seeing all the nominees!

Last week, I saw:

  • Descendants (2015) – Terrifically addictive Disney Channel Original Movie about the kids of Disney villains & heroes all going to high school together. RECOMMENDED.
  • 45 Years (2015) – Heartbreaking drama about an older couple dealing with the resurgence of the husband’s long-lost love in their lives. Delicately told and superbly acted. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) – Well-constructed action-adventure film brought down by an overly repetitive plot and weak script. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Eating Raoul (1982) – Wonderfully demented black comedy about a straight-edge couple who devise a plot to raise money for their dream restaurant by killing the swingers who torment them. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
  • Mistress America (2015) – Disappointing comedy from the Frances Ha dream-team of Greta Gerwig & Noam Baumbach about the burgeoning friendship between a college freshman and her big stepsister-to-be. Intriguing premise is brought down by an unwatchable third act, with overacting galore and pacing that’s suited more for stage and less for film. NOT RECOMMENDED.
  • Tangled (2010) – One of my favorite contemporary animated films, this is a perfect pivot blend of traditional Disney storytelling and modern computer animation, with a terrific script and music to boot. REQUIRED.
  • Spotlight (2015) – I’m guessing the hype around this movie is more the importance of the subject matter and not for the, uh, film itself. Formulaic journalistic drama about Boston Globe reporters investigating the Catholic Church’s involvement in & implicit support of abuse cases. This operates in The Hills style of storytelling, where scenes transpire followed by a scene of people recapping what we just saw. NOT RECOMMENDED.

What did you see last week? How do you feel about the Oscar noms?

Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

I must admit: I saw Mad Max: Fury Road months after its release and in the midst of its awards-season halo. That said, I do think the praise around this sci-fi/action/adventure/road popcorn flick is almost as insane as the movie is.

Even if the genre fit isn’t everybody’s scene, however, the film does have several strengths that shouldn’t be taken for granted:

  • Sense of place & setting. I’m not familiar with the original Mad Max films, but this revamp of the franchise laid out the universe pretty cleanly. The order and discourse operating through this bizarre post-apocalypse world is rich with iconic, engaging motifs (especially everyone with their own steering wheel — loved it!).
  • Visual style. The zombie horror-movie crispness & speed of imagery, paired with the vibrant oranges & blues, made this an exciting world to play witness to. This may be the most iconically stylized action movie this side of 300.

Where Fury Road fell short for me was in story and actual execution. The two strong elements above provided such a terrific infrastructure for what could be a real action masterpiece, but weren’t fully realized. Dragging the picture down were:

  • Repetition. Both from a narrative and visual level, this road movie (which takes place almost entirely on the road) felt like so much of the same. Sure, certain fight scenes would include bonus elements (War Boys on sticks! Warlord guitar player!) but the non-stop action was less meaningful because it was, well, non-stop.
  • Screenplay (possibly acting). Despite taking place in an interesting universe, the dialogue for this film came across so clunky. I’m not expecting Billy Wilder-level wit, but it was hard to invest into the characters when everything coming out of their mouths is so stiff and stagnant. This may have been partially due to the acting (I didn’t think Charlize Theron was all that great), though I can’t imagine anyone delivering those lines well.

I know I’m in the vast minority on this one – in fact, this morning Mad Max: Fury Road earned 10 Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture! It is great to see these kinds of movies earning Oscar attention; I just wish it wasn’t this one.

Am I way off on this movie? What did you think of Fury Road? Reply below in the comments!

The 73rd Golden Globe Awards

So this year’s Golden Globes went….not as planned.

I cut my cable cord a few months ago, and was going to tune into the show via NBC’s online Live Stream feed of their programming. I made it a mini-event, inviting several friends over to celebrate Hollywood’s (second-) biggest night. I’d prepped a mini bar setup as well as some nice fixin’s:

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  • Variety of California & Italian wines
  • Signature cocktail: Manhattan
  • Antipasi & bread
  • Chex Mix

Unfortunately, despite several media outlets reporting otherwise, NBC announced Sunday morning that they would not be streaming the Globes online, even for cable subscribers.

This meant we were limited to:

  • Watching the Hollywood Foreign Press live-stream (which had no commentary and questionable camera choices – often unexpectedly zooming into people’s feet or signs)
  • Refreshing the main Golden Globes live feed page. This outlined award wins and presenters, but had no video content.

So our Golden Globes experience turned into a sort of cocktail hour, plus refreshing a web site. This is the first Golden Globes viewing I’ve truly missed in years (maybe ever) but at least this was a fun alternative!

Did you watch this year’s Golden Globes? What were your favorite moments? If not — were you also a victim of NBC’s “no live stream” policy? Reply below in the comments!