Monday, February 27, 2017

Oscars Night in Review

I have a long track record of falling in love with a film that I think is the best in the year and seeing it lose on Oscar night. That streak snapped last year when "Spotlight" claimed Best Picture. Moments after Faye Dunaway announced "La La Land," I thought it had happened again.

Five minutes after that, I didn't know what to think. For the first time I can remember, there was an error when reading Best Picture. While "La La Land" was announced, and the team came to the stage and made speeches, that wasn't the winner. Then, amidst confusion, "Moonlight" got the call. The teams shuffled, like seeing a turnover reversed on replay in an NFL game, and they tried to make their speeches.

Doubtless this will be remembered for a long time. I'm bummed "La La Land" lost, though it's not totally surprising "Moonlight" won. What's heart-breaking is the disservice done to those who worked on both films. It should have been a moment of triumph, but instead it was an embarrassment that's had people talking ever since.

But enough about that. What about the awards. Well, in keeping with recent tradition, members tried to spread the love around among Best Picture nominees. Here's the award count for those nine:

* La La Land — Six wins
* Moonlight — Three Wins
* Manchester By the Sea — Two Wins
* Hacksaw Ridge — Two Wins
* Arrival — One Win
* Fences — One Win
* Lion — No Wins
* Hell or High Water — No Wins
* Hidden Figures — No Wins
* Suicide Squad — One Win...

So what were the surprises:
* Suicide Squad is an Academy Award winning film. To be fair, there was only a few nominees and the best odds were one of the summer movies that didn't fair well at the Box Office would win. I thought it would be "Star Trek." Instead, "Suicide Squad" has more Academy Awards than "Hidden Figures."

* Casey Affleck won after all. For months Affleck seemed like the leading contender, and it felt like he was the best and worthy of the win. But in recent days, following the SAG awards, it seemed like Denzel Washington had the edge. In the end, Affleck heard his named called. Now we have to see what kind of backlash will arise based on his personal life and actions.

* Moonlight wins the top prize. It was always a possibility, but it seemed remote. However "Moonlight" was the little movie that could, and once again we saw a split between Best Director and Best Picture.

* La La Land has a modest night. Sure, it led the way with six awards. And it is still a great film. But some talked about it reaching all time levels, myself included. In the end, it fell short of that mark and fell short in the most important race of all.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Oscars — My Predictions

It's time, once again, for the Academy Awards. And, as always, my quest to go 24-for-24 begins again. Below are my predictions for tonight's awards.

Best Picture:
Will Win — La La Land
About: Quite simply, "La La Land" was my favorite film of the year. It's a stunning masterpiece, and I think it will have quite a night.

Best Actor:
Will Win: Denzel Washington, "Fences"
About: This is a tough category, and I love all the nominated performances. I think Casey Affleck might have given the best performance, but it feels like Denzel has the momentum right now.

Best Actress:
Will Win: Emma Stone
About: Another tough category, but Stone has been the favorite all season for her beautiful, bubbly performance in "La La Land."

Best Supporting Actor:
Will Win: Mahershala Ali, "Moonlight"
About: He gave one of the most beautiful and nuanced performances of the year. I loved his work in a movie that wasn't my favorite. He should win.

Best Supporting Actress:
Will Win: Viola Davis
About: Davis was practically a co-lead, something that gives her and edge here. It also helps that she gave a powerful and beautiful performance in a role that was a true acting showcase.

Best Director:
Will Win: Damien Chazelle, "La La Land"
About: Chazelle did a brilliant job with this film, which is a nod to classic Hollywood and one of the most beautiful films I've seen in years.

Best Original Screenplay:
Will Win — Kenneth Lonergan, "Manchester By the Sea"
About: I wouldn't be surprised to see Chazelle win here, but I think Lonergan gets the nod as the Academy spreads the love among some talented filmmakers.

Best Adapted Screenplay:
Will Win — Barry Jenkins and Tarrell Alvin McCraney, "Moonlight"
About: "Moonlight" is a beautiful film and a Best Picture contender, and I think its script will win here.

Best Animated Feature:
Will Win: Zootopia
About: Gut call here, but I think "Zootopia's" themes help to bring this to the top.

Best Documentary Feature:
Will Win — O.J.: Made in America
About: This was, quite simply, the documentary of the year.

Best Foreign Language Feature:
Will Win — "The Salesman," Iran
About: Given the current cultural climate, and the quality of this feature, this feels like a lock.

Best Documentary Short Subject:
Will Win — Joe's Violin
About: Call me sentimental, but I loved this story. This is more of a wish than a certainty.

Best Animated Short Subject:
Will Win — Piper
About: When in doubt, go "Pixar"

Best Live Action Short Subject:
Will Win — Ennemis Interieurs

Best Editing:
Will Win — La La Land
About: I think this goes with the Best Picture winner

Best Cinematography:
Will Win — Bradford Young, "Arrival"
About: I wouldn't be surprised to hear a couple of these called, but I think "Arrival" gets in the game here.

Best Original Score
Will Win — La La Land
About: There's some great nominees here, but "La La Land" takes it.

Best Original Song:
Will Win — "City of Stars," La La Land
About: Personally, I loved "Audition," the other nominee. I would love for that to win, but I think "City of Stars" takes it.

Best Production Design:
Will Win — La La Land
About: The rising tide lifts all boats.

Best Costume Design:
Will Win — La La Land
About: Again, I think the love for this film carries the day here.

Best Makeup and Hairstyle
Will Win – Star Trek Beyond
About: It's a weird category. I think this gets the nod over "Suicide Squad."

Best Visual Effects:
Will Win — Dr. Strange
About: This will probably go to "The Jungle Book," which was a critical favorite. But I loved "Dr. Strange," and I think it should win.

Best Sound Editing:
Will Win — Hacksaw Ridge
About: La La Land or Arrival could win here, but I'm giving the edge to the war movie, "Hacksaw Ridge," as this could be a place where the Academy spreads the love.

Best Sound Mixing:
Will Win — Hacksaw Ridge
About: A lot of times those sound awards go together, so I'm picking it that way here. Though, again, "La La Land" or "Arrival" could easily sneak in here.

That's it! Tune in for the show, beginning at 8:30 p.m. EST.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Oscars Week — Technical Awards

When it comes to the Oscars, people tend to focus on the big categories. There's the acting prizes, directing prizes, writing prizes and, of course, Best Picture. But that's only part of the field. There's plenty of technical categories that can bring films Oscar Glory. Here's a few of the bigger ones.

Best Cinematography:
* Arrival
* La La Land
* Lion
* Moonlight
* Silence

About: Four of these films are Best Picture nominees, and that's where the edge lies. The favorite here is "La La Land," which is the likely Best Picture winner. The thinking here is that the Best Picture winner will help carry the down ballot categories. And that's certainly possible. But My favorite here is "Arrival," which was the most technically accomplished film in the Best Picture field. I think it may take this category.

Best Editing:
* La La Land
* Arrival
* Moonlight
* Hacksaw Ridge
* Hell or High Water

About: This is an interesting technical category. In many years, this award flows to the film that wins Best Picture. That's just a trend, though, and not a rule. I think it will hold here, too, and "La La Land" will win this award. But if they decide to break with tradition, I think a dark horse is "Hacksaw Ridge," which was another technically proficient film.

Best Production Design:
* La La Land
* Arrival
* Hail, Ceasar!
* Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
* Passengers

About: Only two Best Picture nominees in this field, and I would expect this to go to one of them. But interestingly, "La La Land" and "Arrival" may be discounted by some because they have a design grounded in the real world. That shouldn't be a discount. The sets and colors in "La La Land" are beautiful, and I think its momentum will carry the day here.

Best Special Effects:
* Deepwater Horizon
* Dr. Strange
* Rogue One
* The Jungle Book
* Kubo and the Two Strings

About: No Best Picture nominees here, which is typical. This is a place where popular commercial films can get some kuddos. But which one? "Rogue One" was a fascinating film, but I'm not sure it's a strong contender, here. "Kubo" and "Deepwater Horizon," too, feel like long shots. I think a favorite here might be "The Jungle Book," which was a surprise commercial hit and a film many loved. Personally, I'm leaning toward "Dr. Strange," which featured some beautiful and fascinating special effects.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Best Picture Nominees — La La Land

Nine films are vying for the title of Best Picture in 2016. In the run up to the Oscars I'm taking a look at all the contenders. We have just one film left, a beautiful musical that is not only my favorite but The Favorite on Sunday night.

La La Land
Starring: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, John Legend, and J.K. Simmons
Director: Damien Chazelle
Total Nominations: 14
Nominated For: Best Picture, Best Actress (Stone), Best Actor (Gosling), Best Director (Chazelle), Best Original Screenplay (Chazelle), Best Original Score, Best Original Song (2), Best Editing, Best Cinematography, Best Costume and Makeup, Best Production Design, Best Sound Mixing, and Best Sound Editing
About: Hollywood has a long history of musicals that have dominated the awards, but it's been a while since that was the case. "La La Land" is set in contemporary Los Angeles, but in a lot of ways it's a movie out of time. It feels quite retro in both its tone and storytelling. Chazelle, who is a talented young filmmaker nominated as both a writer and director, has talked openly of his old Hollywood influences in telling this story. And in Stone and Gosling, he appears to have found the perfect muses to make this beautiful musical really hum. This film has been nominated for 14 Academy Awards, and I think it will win a bunch of them. It's the most nominated film of the year, and it's been a frequent winner throughout awards season. The film has a whole host of technical awards, but it's hard to say what it will win. I think it will take home both music awards. Gosling was great in this film, but he is in a tough battle in the Best Actor race and it's far from a lock. Stone has a much better chance. She's been the favorite for a while, and I think she'll come out on top Sunday. Chazelle is nominated in two categories, and I think he's likely to win the Best Director race, while the screenplay award goes to one of the other filmmakers. Finally, I would expect "La La Land" to win the editing award as, in the past, it's frequently gone to the winner of Best Picture. And I expect "La La Land," the front-runner, to get that big prize, too. This is a great film, and the most joyous film of 2016 in a lot of ways. I think it will be the big winner Sunday night, potentially winning a half dozen or more awards.
Rating: PG-13 for some language.
Verdict: Four stars out of four.
Where to See It: "La La Land" is now playing in theaters nationwide.

Oscars Week — The Music Awards

On Sunday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will hand out its annual awards, the Oscars. Until then, it's time to take a look at the races. Today, I turn my focus to the musical categories.

Best Original Score:
* La La Land
* Jackie
* Lion
* Moonlight
* Passengers

About: There's plenty of quality contenders in this race, including three of the Best Picture nominees. You could make a case for several of these films, but "La La Land" is not only a musical, but the Best Picture nominee with the most nominations and the favorite to win. Also, "La La Land" has an incredible score that has been incredibly popular and memorable. It's the favorite here and should come out on top.

Best Original Song:
* "Audition," La La Land
* "City of Stars," La La Land
* "How Far I'll Go," Moana
* "Can't Stop The Feeling," Trolls
* "The Empty Chair," Jim: the James Foley Story

About: This is another tough category, which also features two nominated songs from "La La Land." It's a good field this year full of plenty of catchy tunes. There's two schools of thought. First, it would be that "La La Land" is the clear front-runner. Second is that with two nominees in the field, "La La Land" might split the votes, opening it up for another contender. Lin Manuel Miranda, who's insanely popular and riding the "Hamilton" wave, worked on the song from "Moana," and that makes it an interesting contender. So, too, is the ear worm of the summer from Justin Timberlake courtesy of the film "Trolls." My personal favorite in the field is "Audition," which is a beautiful piece and, to me, the emotional high point in "La La Land." Emma Stone's performance and singing is perfect, too. But I think the real favorite to win is "City of Stars," which has become the film's anthem. It won the Golden Globe and I'd look for a repeat.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Now Playing

Here's a look at the new movies I saw this week.

Fist Fight
Starring: Ice Cube, Charlie Day, Dean Norris, JoAnna Garcia Swisher, Tracey Morgan, Christina Hendricks, and Jillian Bell
About: Being a teacher is hard, especially during the dog days of the school year in an impoverished school environment. That's the set up for "Fist Fight." It's the last day of school, it's a poorly run and poorly funded school, and teachers are being laid off in droves. And after an incident with students, a brash history teacher (Ice Cube) and a laid back English Teacher (Day) clash. Soon, Day's character is challenged to a fight after school. He tries a myriad of things to get out of it and that leads to a new found commitment and plenty of hijinks. There's a lot of fun to be had in this film, which offer some breezy comedy and outrageous situations. I particularly liked the character played by Bell, a guidance counselor with a serious Meth issue. This isn't a deep or complex film and story, but it's entertaining and good for a laugh.
Rating: R for language throughout, sexual content/nudity and drug material.
Verdict: Two stars out of four.

The Great Wall
Starring: Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, Willem Dafoe, and Tian Jing
Synopsis: This is a time of year when we get some interesting options at the Box Office. While some are running around trying to catch up on the Academy Award nominees they missed in December, new movies with a decidedly different tone are filling the rest of the screens. This usually results in a mix of Valentine’s Day themed films, a few comedies, some cheap horror films and plenty of action films. Many of those action films aren’t really concerned with things like story and character development. When you see Matt Damon fronting a film, you might expect a little cinematic depth. But “The Great Wall” more closely resembles a February action film in its formula, offering plenty of action, some interesting set pieces, and little else. And for those that think it’s some kind of historical drama, think again. “The Great Wall” comes from director Yimou Zhang, who previously delivered western nation crossover films like “The Golden Flower,” “Hero,” and “House of Flying Daggars.” He brings a similar sense of visual style and choreographed action to this film. And if that’s all you’re looking for — a couple hours of battles and CGI — then you’re in luck. But “The Great Wall” is hardly a great or memorable film. I was drawn to the interesting use of colors and some of the lavish sets. And the action pieces, for the most part, are well done. I would argue that the final battle is a little too effects-driven. But There isn’t much in the way of developing a story or characters. We get pieces of character development for William and for Lin Mae, and there’s the hint of a friendship/romance that’s never really defined and never goes anywhere. The rest of the characters are fairly flat. Tovar seems to be there for some comic relief, and Ballard is basically a one-dimensional plot device that doesn’t even really seem to fit in the narrative. There was potential here, but it quickly devolves into something else. The biggest point of interest might be trying to figure out why an actor like Damon agreed to take this part in the first place. That, or trying to figure out what he’s doing with his accent. None of that is a great sign when considering the quality of the film. “The Great Wall” isn’t a terrible movie, it’s just a mediocre one. That’s likely why it was dropped on an unassuming week in February with little fanfare.
Rating: PG-13 for sequences of fantasy action violence.
Verdict: One star out of four.

I Am Not Your Negro
Starring: James Baldwin and Samuel L. Jackson
Synopsis: This is one of five documentaries nominated for Best Documentary by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It's based on a book treatment from the last James Baldwin, a book he was planning to write that tied together the deaths of Medgar Evers, Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., and what it meant for the American story. The film uses his treatment, as read by Samuel L. Jackson, and archival footage of Baldwin to give viewers a feel for Baldwin and his hopes and fears for America, contrasting that with all that's happened in the years since. It's a fascinating and powerful film.
Rating: PG-13 for disturbing violent images, thematic material, language and brief nudity.
Verdict: Four stars out of four.

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Auli'i Cravalho, and Jermaine Clement
Synopsis: This is one of the nominees for Best Animated Film, and a classic Disney tale. It features a young girl, in this case the village chief's daughter, who has to come into her own. It's also a musical, with a lead song also nominated for an Oscar. Released before Thanksgiving, "Moana" continues to be a force at the Box Office, which makes it a decent contender for the animated film prize. I thought the film was fun and enjoyable, and it was one of the better recent Disney features in terms of memorable songs. This is a story that traffics in a lot of familiar cliches, but it's good entertainment for the whole family.
Rating: PG for peril, some scary images and brief thematic elements.
Verdict: Three stars out of four.

Upcoming Releases:
Friday, February 24 — "Collide," "Get Out," "Rock Dog"

Oscars Week — Documentaries and Animated Features

It's Oscars week, and the golden statues will be handed out on Sunday. Until then, it's time to preview the races. Today I'll be looking at Animated Films and Documentaries.

Best Animated Feature:
* Kubo and the Two Strings
* Zootopia
* Moana
* The Red Turtle
* My Life as a Zucchini

About: So the big thing about this category is probably which movie didn't get nominated — namely "Finding Dory," which was a sensation at the Box Office this summer. Instead, we have a different Disney entry, two other films that got major releases and a couple independent features that few will have seen. So who's the favorite here? Well there are a lot of fans of Laika Studios, the group responsible for "Kubo," but that doesn't seem to be pulling it to the lead. "Moana" has had strong staying power at the Box Office, and is also nominated in the original song category. But many are predicting "Zootopia," which had an interesting message about tolerance, to come out on top. I honestly wouldn't be surprised to see "Zootopia" or "Moana" walk away with the top prize.

Best Documentary Feature:
* O.J.: Made in America
* 13th
* I Am Not Your Negro
* Life Animated
* Fire At Sea

About: It's an interesting field this year, and a strikingly political one. In this field there is one film about refugees in Europe and three films that, in different ways, look at race relations in America. The final entry is a sweet film about an autistic man who learned to connect to the world through Disney animated films. So it's an interesting slate. I think one of the three films that tackle the subject of race will be the winner. I feel like it comes down to "13th," which takes a hard look at the prison system, and "O.J.: Made in America," which looks at justice and race relations through a single, high-profile case. I think "O.J." is the favorite, and is the likely winner on Sunday.

Best Documentary Short:
* Extremis
* 4.1 Miles
* The White Helmets
* Joe's Violin
* Watani: My Homeland

About:  Four of these films are readily available online and to Netflix subscribers, so those that want to see the films this year have an easier path. And refugee stories are a dominant theme in three of these films. The fourth takes a look at end-of-life care and decisions at a hospital while the final one is a sweet story of a Holocaust Survivor who donates his violin to a New York public school program that provides instruments to under-privledged students. That film, "Joe's Violin," was my favorite, and could pull on enough emotions to win the vote. But it feels like a stretch. The likely front-runner is "Watani," which tells a heart-breaking refugee story. If I had to pick, I'd say that's the likely winner on Sunday night.