I’m a little less excited than usual for the Oscars this year. Maybe it’s because there’s nothing I’m passionately rooting for, like MAD MAX: FURY ROAD last time. Or maybe it’s because shit is so bad it’s harder for me to care about the small stuff at the moment. But I still like the tradition and as usual I made sure to watch all of the best picture nominees, so here are a few thoughts on that.
Yes, you are correct, there is no way to scientifically measure or rank the artistic success of movies, and there is politics involved and my very favorite movie of a given year never wins. But I think this year is a real good example of how you can look at what got nominated and get a good idea what our country, or at least our film industry, cares about at this moment in time.
Take HELL OR HIGH WATER. Personally I thought the political subtext was the clumsiest aspect of the movie, but I’m sure it’s what got it nominated. Not just a cops and robbers procedural, it’s about farmers and war vets tired of their people being screwed over by the banks. And beneath that it’s a reminder of the history of our country and who it was stolen from. I should watch it again because I bet it wouldn’t seem as heavy-handed as the first time. (read the rest of this shit…)
Before LA LA LAND, before WHIPLASH, before writer/director Damien Chazelle graduated from Harvard Film School, he had already started his first feature, the musical GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH. Guy (Jason Palmer) is a young trumpet player, Madeline (Desiree Garcia) is someone he has apparently been dating, and she is looking for a new job and apartment and boyfriend throughout the movie. Another woman, Elena (Sandha Khin, RUNNER RUNNER), gets at least as much screen time. Guy meets her on a subway, but she was not on the park bench so she’s not mentioned in the title, which for reasons unclear to me is only concerned with who was on a park bench. Keep your eye on the ball, title.
Like LA LA LAND this is a tribute to old fashioned musicals and jazz and blossoming romance, but stylistically it’s completely different. Shot in 16mm black and white, it has a nice, timeless look (I would’ve guessed it was earlier than 2009). The cast is all non-actors, the style is cinema verite, none of the dialogue, or even the story, seems at all scripted. It’s just kind of a series of unfolding events and encounters. It’s a while before any of those are actual musical numbers, but we often see Guy playing gigs, and giving Madeline what seems to be a real first trumpet lesson. Later she gets a drum lesson from Chazelle himself. (Don’t worry, he doesn’t go J.K. Simmons on her.) (read the rest of this shit…)
HACKSAW RIDGE is a twisted, uninhabitable mass of rock with a steep edge and riddled with secret caves, one of which is home to 2×4-carrying WWF legend “Hacksaw” Jim Duggan. But there is no movie about that so until then we’ll have to make do with director Mel Gibson (APOCALYPTO)’s identically titled HACKSAW RIDGE, the best-picture-nominated movie based on the true story of Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield, THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN), the only WWII Medal of Honor recipient who was a conscientious objector. See, he wanted to do his part to fight Hitler, but he didn’t believe in killing or even touching a gun, so he went as a medic and was really fucking good at saving people’s lives. A reverse AMERICAN SNIPER.
I wonder if he traveled through time if he would kill Baby Hitler, or just try to give first aid to other babies fighting against Baby Hitler? It really makes you think.
The first half or so is before he goes to war. We see him as a little shit, constantly running and climbing and getting in violent scraps with his brother Hal, with no intervention from his drunk asshole dad (Hugo Weaving, BABE), a WWI veteran. Desmond could easily turn into the town bully, but maybe it’s his intense devotion to the family’s Ten Commandments poster that ensures he’s a big dork by the time he grows into Garfield. On one INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE style conveniently fateful day he discovers the two other loves of his life, because he 1) rushes to heroic action in administering a tourniquet and getting an injured person to a hospital where 2) he spots a beautiful nurse (Teresa Palmer, POINT BREAK remake) and decides he will marry her.
But not until his first furlough, because shortly after successfully wooing her he announces that he has to enlist. (read the rest of this shit…)
LION is one of those movies I never heard anybody talk about, but the Weinstein Company somehow got it a best picture nomination. That’s okay – it’s a well made movie and a powerful story, the kind of thing you go to this time of year and you cry and you’re uplifted and in this case I feel no shame about it. It’s based on the memoir of Saroo Brierley, who when he was a dirt poor peasant kid in India got very lost and never found his way back for 25 years.
Sunny Pawar as 5-year-old Saroo is one of those situations like past best picture nominees ROOM or BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD where a director (Australian TV guy making his feature debut Garth Davis) gets an almost supernaturally good performance out of a tiny little kid. Raised by a single mother (Priyanka Bose, JOHNNY GADDAAR) whose job is moving rocks, Saroo and his brother Guddu (Abhishek Bharate) go out in the day and find ways to scrounge up a little something, like they hop a train to steal coal to sell to buy two little baggies of milk.
The disaster comes when Guddu leaves Saroo at a train station while he goes to do something he says is only for bigger kids. Saroo falls asleep and is scared when he wakes up and his brother’s still not back. Looking for him he slips onto a train which, to his terror, starts moving before he can get off. It’s an empty train so he ends up trapped and traveling for days, finally getting off somewhere where they don’t speak Bengali. The feeling of helplessness is overwhelming. He’s in this terrible situation and he can’t even tell anyone. They just think he’s an annoying kid blocking them from the ticket window. They push him out of the way. (read the rest of this shit…)
THE GREAT WALL fulfills two different personal moviegoing habits of mine:
1) trying to see some of the higher profile Asian imports that play at the AMC theater here
2) going to lightly attended afternoon shows of almost every fantasy sword-dude movie that comes out
Maybe you can’t call this an import, because it’s produced by Universal and Legendary, it’s mostly in English and its star Matt Damon (SPIRIT: STALLION OF THE CIMARRON) is an American white in my opinion. And maybe you can’t call it a fantasy sword-dude movie either, because it’s more in a fantasy bow-and-arrow-dude vein. But it is from the great Chinese director of lush historical epics Zhang Yimou (RAISE THE RED LANTERN, HERO, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS), it’s the most expensive movie ever filmed entirely in China ($135 million), and it was released there two months ago and had already made $224.5 million worldwide by the time it came to us. So it’s close enough to these two categories that it piqued my interest.
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TANK GIRL is a messy, silly, winkingly obnoxious version of the ’90s expensive b-movie, one of those weird ones that doesn’t exactly work but is kind of charming just because they had the gall to try. John Waters producer/FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE director Rachel Talalay somehow convinced MGM to pump money into this adaptation of a cult British comic book about a smartass punk girl driving a tank through post-apocalyptic Australia. (Other MGM releases in 1995: FLUKE, SPECIES, GET SHORTY, also distributed THE PEBBLE AND THE PENGUIN, HACKERS, SHOWGIRLS, LEAVING LAS VEGAS, GOLDENEYE, CUTTHROAT ISLAND.) The movie’s story of facing off against a typical bad guy, even fighting him to the death on a raised catwalk for the climax, is too half-assed and conventional to work, but the frenetic style and goofy tangents are a successful extension of the main character’s personality.
Lori Petty (BATES MOTEL, POINT BREAK) pours every drop of hyperactive tomboy playfulness in her voice and persona into the character of Rebecca, who is never specifically called Tank Girl but does steal her would-be namesake when she escapes imprisonment by the wasteland’s fascist oppressors, Water & Power. This militarized corporation hordes the last of the water and cruelly attacks anyone who finds their own source. In my opinion they are not a good company to work for; when they fire employees they kill them with machines that harvest their body’s water content. (read the rest of this shit…)
GHOST IN THE MACHINE is the second movie directed by Rachel Talalay, a behind-the-scenes New Line Cinema person who went from assistant production manager on A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET to production manager on part 2, line producer on part 3, producer on part 4 and then director and story provider for FREDDY’S DEAD: THE FINAL NIGHTMARE. She followed that with this and then TANK GIRL and now she’s a very successful TV director who has done Supergirl, The Flash, Doctor Who, Sherlock, etc.
Back in 1993 when this came out I knew she was the FREDDY’S DEAD lady but I thought this looked really stupid: a dead killer’s soul gets into a computer and he can control machines? How does that make sense? Finally watching it 23 years later it turns out I was right, it is pretty stupid, and it doesn’t make much sense. But it was worth my time.
Terry Munroe (Karen Allen rocking Dana Sculley hair) happens to catch the eye of a serial killer (Ted Marcoux, DARK BLUE) shortly before he gets into a car accident (he giggles as his car slides upside down through a graveyard) and then is getting an MRI when there’s power surge and becomes a GHOST IN THE MACHINE(s). In my opinion MRI technology has gotten worse, because he gets scanned and given great power in less than a minute. Mine took a couple hours, cost me $6,250 and still didn’t make me into a magical being living inside computers and appliances. (read the rest of this shit…)
When I heard they made a movie about “Sully” Sullenberger, the pilot who heroically landed a downed commercial jetliner in the Hudson River, saving everyone onboard, I wondered how you would make a whole movie about that. Well, it turns out the story of Sully is a little more complicated than what I knew.
And I really mean a little more complicated. Not that much more complicated. He landed the plane, and then they said you know what, you might’ve done the wrong thing according some tests we did, and he said well this is why those tests are wrong, and after a while they said yeah you’re right, sorry about that Sully. The end.
So it’s weirdly uneventful for a movie about a famous airline disaster. But as a gentle character drama it’s not bad, the kind of thing that Clint Eastwood can make much more interesting than most directors could. (read the rest of this shit…)
JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 is the solid sequel we always hoped (in fact assumed) it would be. The first film – already a certified modern action classic – had a perfect combination of elegant high concept (legendary assassin comes out of retirement to avenge some dipshits who killed his dog) and interesting world (a society of killers with their own rules, services and even currency). Rehashing the former would make for diminishing returns, so returning screenwriter Derek Kolstad (ONE IN THE CHAMBER, THE PACKAGE) digs deeper into the latter, showing us more about the operations and codes of the Continental Hotel and its affiliates as Wick is forced to repay a debt, getting himself into more and more trouble and testing the limits of his unkillableness.
He’s still trying to retire. The movie has a sense of humor about it without undermining his sincerity. Moments after he finishes cementing his weapons back into the basement floor the doorbell rings and you think “Jesus, what now?” Well, it’s Italian gangster Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio, THE BEST OF YOUTH), who helped him escape the business and now is cashing in his favor to drag him back in. Wick would have to get into the Vatican to assassinate Santino’s sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini, THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST). Throughout the movie Wick finds himself backed into corners and all he can do is keep killing his way out of them. And the more killing the more corners. (read the rest of this shit…)
FENCES is a wonderful new Pixar movie about the secret world of fences. What happens when the barriers that keep people out decide it’s time to start letting them in? But it’s also the famous play by August Wilson (1945-2005) that Denzel Washington (VIRTUOSITY) has turned into a film as star and director.
There’s no mistaking that this was a play. It’s all talk talk talk, mostly by Denzel. Lots of telling stories. And it mostly takes place in his small backyard, kitchen and living room. He plays Troy Maxson, a bitter garbage man in racially discriminating 1958 Pittsburgh. Ten years before NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. He thinks he might get fired because he recently took a stand and asked why only white men get to drive the trucks. He likes to come home from work, shoot the shit and pass around a bottle of gin with wife Rose (Viola Davis from the Jesse Stone movies) and his co-worker Bono (Stephen Henderson, RED HOOK SUMMER, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA). (read the rest of this shit…)