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Oscars 2016 Best Picture Summary: Part 1

I know I’ve done individual reviews of Best Picture nominees in the past. This year I thought I’d try something new. I thought I’d do summaries of the nominees. Three blogs analyzing three of the nominees. It’s something new this year and I hope you like it. For my first summary, I’ll be reviewing the first three Best Picture nominees I saw: Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge and Moonlight.

ARRIVAL

arrival

Amy Adams knows how to communicate with aliens in Arrival.

When you learn Arrival is about aliens, I’m sure you have an idea of what you’d anticipate what a movie about aliens would be about. However, you’re in for a big surprise.

This is probably the first movie about aliens to earn a Best Picture nomination. The film appears to set up for a story that would most likely lead to big-time action sequences. Instead we get a film that’s very intellectual in dealing with aliens. Don’t forget Louise is a linguistics professor who was hired for this duty because of her language expertise. In this film, the focus is on communication. Louise has a way to communicate with the aliens and earn their trust even while those around her grow more hostile to the beings. Louise’s gift for communication goes beyond the aliens and she’s able to say to General Shang the words his late wife said to her. It’s like she has a sense for this.

Even with all this, the film is not just about aliens and preventing a human-alien war. The film is about Louise trying to heal after her daughter’s death. Her marriage is no more as well and she’s looking for her purpose. It’s even about Louise and her ability to foresee the future and the possibilities they can unfold. Louise is the central protagonist whom the whole story revolves around. She finds her true gifts at a time she least expects it and she’s able to find her life again. It’s almost like this alien invasion is like a godsend to her life. Right after her daughter dies, she learns of her purpose to the world and to others.

Denis Villeneuve did a top job of directing this film. He already has a reputation for films like Maelstrom, Incendies and Sicario. He’s also been hired to do the Blade Runner sequel. This film he directs is very tricky but he does all the right work for it. The script by Eric Heisserer is very smart and very deep. It does a very good job of getting the right moments of action and the right moments of drama pieced out.

The story also rested on the performance of Amy Adams. She knew the story was primarily about Louise and she had to make it work. Although the role didn’t have too much in terms of character development, her performance was solid and it held the story together. The supporting performers may not have had as big of roles but they still did well with their performances. Jeremy Renner definitely could have had more depth in his role. The music from Johann Johannson and Max Richter fit the movie perfectly. The visual effects were also excellent and just what the movie needed.

Arrival is a very intelligent movie. It’s an alien movie not like one you’d anticipate at first but you will leave the theatre pleased.

HACKSAW RIDGE

hacksaw-ridge

Hacksaw Ridge is about Desmond Doss (portrayed by Andrew Garfield) in both his convictions and his sacrifice.

Mel Gibson is back. This time he has Hacksaw Ridge. It’s a war drama that’s about more than just the war.

This film makes for an interesting topic: conscientious objection. I know all about it. For years I went to a Protestant church where the people were known for their anti-war beliefs. Conscientious objection is something that’s bound to make one question their morals and even act out of hostility. I know that we have conservative pundits who insist that fighting in a war is the definition of patriotism and will even use scriptures to justify why was is the right thing. Upon release of this film, I was anticipating a conservative backlash against it. So far no ‘Diss The Doss’ movement has happened. No movement to have his Medal Of Honor posthumously revoked. Nothing. It’s a good thing because the film does make one reconsider what defines a ‘patriot.’ I’m glad this story was told.

One of the biggest complaints from conservatives in the last 40 years has been either the negative depictions of religion or lack of positive depictions of religion in movies. True, this is not the Hollywood where the Hays Code calls the shots. For those that read my review of Of Gods And Men, I have a quote from Barbara Nicolosi about why that’s the problem. That explains why it’s hard to get a pro-religion movie to compete for Best Picture nowadays. There’s a fine line of showing a film with a positive depiction of Christianity without it being schmaltzy, hokey or overly sentimental. Plus with all the ‘game changers’ in the last few decades, writing a winning script or creating a winning film is just that much of a challenge.

I feel they did a very good job in Hacksaw Ridge. It was a very good story of the persecution Desmond Doss had to face for his beliefs. It was a very gritty story of the war and all the damage it caused. Some say the graphicness was comparable to Saving Private Ryan. It was an honest portrayal about someone’s faith. However there was one point when I felt it was borderlining on hokey during the scenes of: “Please, Lord. Help me find one more.” I know that was something Doss said in real life but I’m just wondering if it could have been done better.

This film is the first film directed by Mel Gibson in a decade. I know he had to take a break as he had a very public meltdown with the things he said about others and problems with alcohol. You could rightfully call this film the redemption of Mel Gibson. He directs an excellent film that took a lot of effort to make. 14 years to be exact even while Doss himself was still alive going from one writer to the next until finally they had the right script and right story thanks to Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan. Gibson and the writers did an excellent job with the film with the story and the depiction of war.

In addition, the story was made thanks to the performance of Andrew Garfield. This was more than just a war story. This was a story of a person’s heart and soul. Garfield knew he had to personify Doss in his convictions in order to make this story work. He did it excellently. It’s hard to pick out any supporting players who stood out. None of the roles of the supporting actors were as developed. However Teresa Palmer did a very good job as Dorothy Doss and portraying the concerned fiancee, as is Hugo Weaving as the father Tom Doss and Vince Vaughn as the hard Sargent Howell. The visual effects and the sound mixing were top notch, as it should be in a film like this. The score from Rupert Gregson-Williams fit the film excellently.

Hacksaw Ridge is a surprising film. Who would’ve thought that the best war movie in years would be about a man that didn’t fire a single bullet? Definitely a story worth telling.

MOONLIGHT

 

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Mahershala Ali (right) portrays a mentor to a boy named Chiron (played by Alex Hibbert at left) in Moonight.

At some point, you gotta decide for yourself who you’re going to be. Can’t let nobody make that decision for you.

This year’s surprise critical success is Moonlight. It’s a very unique film like no other seen this year.

The film is unique as it sets itself around three key periods in the life of Chiron. There’s his childhood where he’s known as Little, there’s his teenagehood where he’s simply known as Chiron and there’s his adulthood where he’s known as Black. The film does tell a story of a man who you think would die young. He has all the ingredients: gay, living in inner city Miami, a verbally-abusive mother addicted to crack, arrested at a young age and a future of being a pusher himself. Somehow he finds the will to survive. He’s able to withstand the bullying he faces for being gay, he’s able to decide his life to the best of his abilities without his mother. Often it’s not the best choices he makes in his life but he finds the ability to survive. You wonder how does he do that? Was it from that brief time with Juan and his mentoring? Was it the love from Kevin he always knew was there? I remember that scene of Little in the school dancing classes dancing like he was in 7th heaven: his escape from the bullying. Was it a spark within Chiron himself? Whatever the situation, it results in beauty at the end.

The film is not just about Chiron. As one can see, it showcases the lives of many different African-American people living in the inner city. It may show some of the more negative depictions like drug dealers, poverty and drug addicts but it also shows positive images too like in the case of Juan and his girlfriend or even in music being played. It showcases some surprising things as well as how Juan the pusher can be a very smart man. It even dispels some myths we have of inner city people. Like how Juan was good at handling Chiron’s homosexuality and gave him words of comfort while Paula acted out in hostility. Usually you’d expect ‘gangstas’ to have a homophobic attitude. It showcases what it’s like to be black and gay in the inner city. It also showcases people’s insecurities. It is overall one man’s attempt to find himself in the harsh world that he lives in. Yet despite all its harshness, it becomes something beautiful in the end.

The film is a triumph for Barry Jenkins. This is actually his second feature as a director. His first film, 2008’s Medicine For Melancholy, won a lot of attention and even earned him many directorial debut awards. Moonlight is only his second feature. This film which he adapts a script from a drama school project from Tarell McCraney is a masterpiece in both the story and its direction. The script is also excellent that there is not too much dialogue but is able to say lots even in the silent parts. Another quality of the film; it says a lot while saying very little. Overall the film is a real delight to watch and leaves one wondering what Jenkins will have next.

The three actors who portrayed Chiron– Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes- all did a very good job with the role and portraying him at the right ages. Mahershala Ali was excellent as Juan: the pusher who becomes a mentor to little Chiron for that brief period of time. Ali had to bring the right charisma and character for a role like Juan to work not just in his scenes but to have an influence throughout the whole film. He did a stellar job. Also excellent was Naomie Harris. Possibly the one actor or actress to be a part of all three scenes, Harris was excellent as the drug-addicted mother Paula. She had to go through three stages with her role from a simple crack user to a crack addict to recovering in rehab. Each time she had to give her role dimension and inner depth to keep it from being cardboard. She did excellent too. There were additional supporting roles that were also good like Janelle Monae as Teresa and Andre Holland as the adult Kevin.

The technical bits were also excellent. The film was edited very well, the cinematography from James Laxton was possibly the best of the year. The score from Nicholas Britell was excellent but the inclusion of track music from classical to Latin to funk to hip-hop to Aretha Franklin to Motown really added to the feel of the movie. Almost feels like an anthology. In fact that scene when Kevin sees Chiron (as Black) after so many years and plays the classic Hello Stranger is one of the best scenes of the film.

Moonlight is a story of a young black man coming of age in the big city but it’s a lot more too. Those who’ve seen it will know why this film is a masterpiece.

And there’s the first of my Best Picture summaries for this year. Next one coming up in a few days.

VIFF 2015 Review – Painted Land: In Search Of The Group Of Seven

The artwork of the Group Of Seven, like the Sketch Of The Lovely North as seen above, is looked at and tracked over a trip through a group of people in Painted Land.

The artwork of the Group Of Seven, like the Sketch Of The Lovely North as seen above, is looked at and tracked over a trip through a group of people in Painted Land.

Seeing the documentary Painted Land reminded me just how much we Canadians lack the knowledge of our artistic history.

The film is more than a documentary of art. It’s also a documentary of three adventurers retracing the trips taken by the seven Canadian artists known as the Group of Seven. For those who don’t know, the Group Of Seven were a group of seven Canadian artists from Ontario whom in the 20’s and 30’s visited landscapes of Ontario and painted images of what they saw in their own way. Many can say they were the first artists to define Canadian art. The Seven still rank among Canada’s most renowned artists.

In this documentary are three adventurers: author Joanie McGuffin, photographer Gary McGuffin and art historian Michael Burtch. They go on a journey along the various trails, coastlines and waterlines to retrace the route taken by the Seven and even see for themselves the natural places of Canada depicted in their paintings. The trip would involve many years of research, canoeing, portaging, mountain climbing and bushwhacking to retrace their steps and learn of their inspiration. At times, they’d even bring people along like the McGuffin’s daughter or other teens interested in art.

Group-of-Seven

The Group Of Seven artists were the first artists to define Canada artistically although their art was not completely accepted at the time.

The documentary is a documentation of their trip as well as a history lesson of the Group of Seven. We’re introduced to Tom Thomson who influenced the Seven shortly before he died mysteriously in 1919. We’re taken on the same journey the Seven took as they took their art from place to place and painted what they saw in their own unique way. Frequently we see images of the landscapes and how they match the paintings they painted. We learn of how each of the Seven dealt with each part of the journey and each town or camp area they took up. We occasionally see some moments of the Seven re-enacted by actors. We’re even taken to a cabin they once held during their journey. It’s an interesting tale as we learn from each story, each trail, each visit and each assimilation of the landscape with the painting that would become the ‘painted land.’

We even learn about the negative reception they received as their art premiered. Some people were unhappy with what they saw. Oddly some thought Canada was not ready to have what defined Canadian Art. Keep in mind Canada was just slightly over 50 years old at the time. The most fascinating comment I heard from one art pundit was she hated the paintings so much, she was afraid if she looked any longer, she might love them! Odd.

I found this documentary very valuable. I feel this is a great lesson for anyone who’s into art, Canadian or not. I especially feel that Canadian artists should see this as this will give them a good sense of their artistic history, even if the painting style of the Group Of Seven is not their style at all. I feel we as Canadians lack the knowledge of our renowned artists. I myself only learned of the Group Of Seven just as I was watching this documentary. Here in B.C., we’re mostly familiar with Emily Carr, who is one of Canada’s best artists in her own right. Nevertheless I found learning of the Group Of Seven very valuable and informative. I give the documentary big kudos for that.

For the most part, I feel this is not really a big screen documentary. Even seeing TVO, which is for the educational channel TV Ontario, at the end credits makes it obvious this is a documentary meant for television airing. I think if it were to be aired on the big screen, it would have to be in an art gallery that has a theatre screen or a performance stage, like the Winnipeg Art Gallery. It’s possible to show it on an art gallery theatre screen whether or not there’s a Group Of Seven exhibit.

Painted Land: In Search Of The Group Of Seven may be more of a television documentary than a big screen documentary. Nevertheless it’s a good educational documentary for both art and history.

Movie Review: Gone Girl

Gone Girl is a movie of a woman that appears to be a victim in a fading marriage but is actually the one in control.

Gone Girl is a movie of a woman who’s a children’s book author but her biggest masterpiece of storytelling isn’t written on pen and paper.

I’ll admit that I’m one of those people that went out to see Gone Girl later than the huge crowds. I will admit I was lax at it because of the tight times I was experiencing. I finally did see it just a while ago and I was impressed.

I usually do a run though the plot in my reviews. I have decided to skip it since most of you have already seen it. Instead I will focus on some of the unique elements and why this movie stands out.

One noticeable thing of the movie is that there is a big focus on the media, especially as it surrounds a murder story. There’s no doubt the message is about how the media takes on crime stories by being its own judge and jury, typing people and packaging them as good people and bad people. This was especially seen on how Nick is typed not only as the bad guy but as the murderer even though no body was found. This was also seen on the police as they eventually felt the pressure to make a move and arrest Nick for the murder. There was also the focus of the egos in the media behind it all and epitomized best by Ellen Abbott who mercilessly defames and slanders Nick as the murderer. Even before the interview of Nick and Amy after Amy’s arrival, you can tell Ellen shows no regrets about it all. Even as Nick confronts Ellen about how she dismissed him as a murderer, she simply says “I go where the story goes” without any noticeable remorse or apology. I guess it shows what it takes to be a talking head in the news.

Despite the exploitative judgmental ego-driven media being a major theme, it’s not the main focus of the film. The main focus is on Amy. Amy first comes across as a warm charismatic person with a lack of confidence but lives her confidence out through the character of Amazing Amy in her Amazing Amy books. As the story goes through the search for Amy day by day, the story flashes back to the first signs of their marriage falling apart. The marital troubles appear so much like millions of marriages before that hit rocky moments during hard times and even face ugly moments like infidelity and even physical abuse. That’s what the first half is all about.

It’s the second half that we see the twist in the story that Amy is not the sweet thing we think she is. She’s conniving, very clever and smart enough to make things work for her revenge plan to have Ben framed for her murder that never happened. Even faking things like her pregnancy, Ben’s alleged credit card debt and agreement to a huge life insurance payout was as clever as it was shallow. Her cleverness especially intriguing that she’s even able to make a calculating change of plans even after some neighbors of her getaway place rob her. She’s able to get Desi back into her life and appear to rekindle the romance only to have another thing up her sleeve after seeing Nick’s interview on the television. Her tricks are even crafty enough to get Nick trapped into the relationship without him being able to escape thanks to a pregnancy. Her tricks are even clever enough that there’s nothing Nick, Margo, Tanner Bolt or even Detective Boney can do to bring out the truth, even though they know it.

The funny thing is I’ve been watching a lot of crime shows like Forensic Files where they show of people committing murders and attempting to cover it up only to have advancing technology over time uncover the truth slowly but surely. They not only tell of people committing the crimes but what they do to get away from it all and even cop a new identity. Seeing Amy go about her charade not only reminds you of those diabolical minds but gets you intrigued in Amy’s own diabolical ways. Throughout the movie I was waiting for the moment for truths to be unraveled and Amy to get caught. Funny thing is that over time, it appears her new actions and tricks appear better executed than the ones Amy had planned on Nick from the start. It appeared Amy’s new plan to have Nick in a loveless marriage raising their child was a better form of torture on Nick than her original plan of having him convicted and executed for her fake murder. It’s like she told him after he hit her: “I’m the c*** you always wanted.”

I think that’s what makes this movie so winsome. Amy is a diabolical mind who’s not only that good but appears to get better and craftier over time. Funny thing is it’s one of those movies that had me leaving the theatre wondering how Amy gets away with it all? How Amy’s able to keep it all covered up even with all this modern technology and in control of everybody else involved including the law? That’s like the same wonder I had at the end of 1999’s Arlington Road of how a couple could pull off a terrorist explosion framing their neighbor and being a step ahead of everybody in every which way to get it done. That’s also like the same wonder I had in 1992’s Basic Instinct when Beth kills Gus with an ice pick and minutes later confronts a gun-wielding Nick with a normal pulse rate and no stress level at all. Then I remind myself it’s the movies where they can make anything happen and make us believe it at that moment.

Top kudos to Rosamund Pike. She delivered a character that made the movie. She gave a feel for the character right from the start and kept us intrigued right until the end. She had to be the top factor on why this movie is so winsome. Ben Affleck did well but he didn’t own the show the way Rosamund did. Carrie Coon was very good in the supporting role of the sister who knows the truth but is helpless to do anything. Tyler Perry was good as the lawyer. Missi Pyle came across as cartoonish as the Ellen Abbott but it fit well with the movie as I will reflect on later.

It seemed like the right thing for Gillian Flynn, the writer of the novel, to also write the screenplay too. It makes sense since she’s the one who knows Amy inside out. It’s also great to see her deliver an ending possibly unlike anyone would anticipate. David Fincher does an excellent job of directing the story. I know there were many times that the people in the murder scenario came off as cartoonish in the film but it seems fitting because all too often, people in the middle of a trial that involved heavy media attention often come off as cartoonish or like drama queens. Even as we read murder stories or murder dramas about real-life murders, it’s as much about personalities as it is about the people. David did a good job of making it the focus in the movie. You could say David delivers another winner. In addition kudos to the music of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross that added to the feel of the film.

Gone Girl is a story that keeps you interested from start to finish. You think it will go one way but it goes the other way. Even after you leave the theatre, you’re left wondering how she was able to make it work. I guess that was the secret of the movie.