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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.

Summer Movie Summary: Superhero Movies

If there is one genre of movie that stands out during the summer movie season, it’s the superhero movies. Every year they win crowds and give them their enjoyment for the most part. For this summary, I will review two such movies: Captain America: Civil War and The Suicide Squad. Both are two different types of superhero movies in the way the people try to be heroes and with the comic franchises: Marvel vs. DC once again.

Captain America: Civil War

captain-americaWhile DC Comics has the two biggest superheroes, Marvel’s edge is its multitude of different superheroes: take your pick. This time around in Captain America: Civil War, the focus is on Captain America. Or is it?

Watching the film, I was expecting it to be a story about Captain America. You can imagine my surprise to see all the other Avengers characters. I was cool with it at first. However things started getting uncomfortable for me when I saw them take up so much screen time. They all took up so much time, I even questioned whether Captain America was even the lead role in the film. I even thought if it was to have one hero as the lead role, it should probably be Iron Man.

Nevertheless the film does have a lot of excellent qualities. The first is a story that is thought-provoking. There’s a situation where international rules are imposed on the Avengers. Right when an incident happens, it causes friction within the team and even division. The question remains of what is the right thing to do? The movie attempts to give you the answer. Virtues and morals are an uncompromisable ingredient in superhero movies no matter how much action is involved. Even top directors will say that the values of humanity are necessary for a winning superhero movie. Here we have a movie that gets one questioning what is the right thing to do considering the situation. That adds to the film as it gets the audience thinking.

Of course high-tech special effects and action battles are a must in superhero movies. The crowds come to get blown away. Captain America: Civil War delivers on such action just like most of the Marvel comic movies before it. It has moments that will leave you on the edge of your seat. In addition, it adds some comedy too as it gives us a young Peter Parker, played by Tom Holland, as a preview for the new upcoming Spider-Man installment. Here Peter comes across as your typical young idiotic yuts. Gives anticipation of what to expect when Spider-Man comes out.

The Russo brothers return to direct the movie. They directed the last Captain America movie. They did a very good job of delivering another great superhero movie. Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely return with the Russos to write the latest installment. They did a good job despite the push of some actors to have more screen time. Of course, Robert Downey Jr. stole the movie and Chris Evans appeared to have a supporting role this time. The other actors did their parts well and didn’t appear to get into too much of the mix-up. The special effects delivered and Henry Jackson’s music added to the film.

For all intents and purposes, Captain America: Civil War is an Avengers movie in disguise. Don’t be fooled. However the quality of the story is maintained as it gives a thought-provoking story with the superhero action to deliver.

Suicide Squad

suicide-squadThere’s something about the knack to do an anti-hero movie. We saw that with Marvel when they released Deadpool. Now we see DC Comics making the attempt with the Suicide Squad. Do they succeed?

You’d think after Sausage Party, I’d start again on how this movie of a bad-guy superhero squad is trying to ‘bring back the 90’s’ but you’re wrong. A story where it takes bad guys and makes heroes out of them is actually a very common theme. It’s even been done in film as far back as the 1930’s as I once saw 1939’s Stagecoach take the outcasts of society and turn them into heroes. It’s a theme that has been done decade after decade. We see it done here again with the Suicide Squad. The people recruited to be part of the Squad are criminals and crazies that look like they deserved to be shunned away from society but an intelligence operative sees them as the right people for the job. They even make clear that they’re bad, not evil.

The ‘bad vs. evil’ theme is what makes this movie unique among the superhero movies of this year. Even from Deadpool. While Marvel’s Deadpool is about a selfish man who’s disinterested in being the superhero bestowed upon him, Suicide Squad is about a conscience present in even the baddest of badasses. A reminder that bad and evil are two completely different things. Don’t forget we’re dealing with a world where Superman is deceased, as exhibited in Batman vs. Superman: Dawn Of Justice months earlier.

Now the Suicide Squad is not a team of badass superheroes created in vain after Deadpool: an attempt at having ‘anti-Avengers.’ It’s a team that actually debuted in DC Comics in 1959 in their monthly Brave And The Bold series and made a return in 1987 in their Legends series back then. The comic would be a monthly series that would issue for some months, end temporarily for a year or two and then make a comeback from time to time. Now seems like the right time to bring them to the screen. I must say their craziness and eccentricities were big time scene-stealers. While Deadpool mostly relied on the idiotic actions and lines from its lead characters, the characters of the Suicide Squad were more about their crazy and even eccentric personalities. That was their edge and I’m sure that’s what won the crowds to them this year. It’s no wonder it’s the 4th highest grossing movie of the summer.

This is David Ayer’s first attempt at directing and writing a superhero movie. He has a resume for writing and directing a lot of good police dramas and action movies in the past. However his experience doesn’t completely translate the best. Imperfections are easy to notice and it seems the movie does get a bit disjointed at times. Even in terms of the characters, there’s not that much depth to their roles and it often appears like the actors are trying to play characters more than acting out roles. I’ve noticed that DC Comics movies this year are lacking in terms of writing. It’s noticeable in Batman vs. Superman too.

Nevertheless the actors do deliver on character acting and that’s one quality I feel made the movie. In addition the actors succeeded in making characters you want to hate at first and then surprise you as they become heroes and then return as bad guys. Margot Robbie was the standout as Harley Quinn. Her character was the one that knew how to grab your attention, even upstaging Will Smith.  Others standouts include Jared Leto as the Joker, Jay Hernandez as El Diablo and  Jai Courtney as Captain Boomerang. Visual effects were top notch and loaded with bright color that’s eye catching and very rare to see in most other movies, especially superhero movies. The mix of music was also an added quality. It seems like after Guardians Of The Galaxy, filmmakers are playing around and even experimenting with use of songs in the movies. Here they mix in music spanning five decades and it produces an entertainingly winning result.

Suicide Squad may be lacking in the script and in the editing but it’s the on-fire character acting, colorful visual effects and the eclectic music track that make the movie entertaining and a winner for the summer.

Sure, I only have two superhero movies in my summary of the genre but both do shed some light on the presence of the superhero movies of the summer and why they continue to win us over. They have spectacular action but they also test our conscience as well. I saw that in Batman vs. Superman earlier in the role of a superhero even after they cause destruction to do good. I see it again in Captain America as the Avengers question whether it’s right to break the law to do what’s right. I also see it in the Suicide Squad as outcasts get a shot at redemption and even remind themselves as well as others that they do possess a conscience and can even do what’s right despite their criminal minds.

Once again, the superhero genre remains one of the most winning movie genres of the summer. Even with the surprise success of Deadpool, families still come to the movies to see the good guys win. Some even like to get their ‘bad boy/bad girl’ kicks. All deliver in terms of action and a message.

Oscars 2013 Best Picture Review: American Hustle

Christian Bale and Amy Adams are partners in crime in American Hustle.

Christian Bale and Amy Adams are partners in crime in a 1978 sting in American Hustle.

American Hustle has a lot to attract crowds by the looks of the premieres: big name actors, 70’s setting, crime story, lots to stimulate excitement. The question is does it deliver?

The story is set in 1978 in New York. Irving Rosenfeld is a dry cleaning store owner as a profession, con on the side. His love interest is Sydney Prosser, a mid-western girl who came to the Big Apple to redefine herself. Once into the relationship, he reveals his ‘other side.’ She decides to be his partner in crime posing as a British aristocrat: Lady Edith Greensley. Even though they are a perfect match, he’s hesitant to leave his six year-old son Danny or divorce his young wife Rosalyn.

FBI agent Richie DeMaso has been keeping his eye on the pair and their scheming and even arrests Irving on a loan scan only to bargain Irving into lining up four additional arrests. Sydney is up on the heist, feeling she can manipulate Richie in the process. Also in the scheme is Irving talking about a wealthy Arab sheikh looking for investors. One person suggests the sheikh do business with Camden mayor Carmine Polito who’s helping to revitalize gambling in Atlantic City, a person

The funny thing is while Richie doesn’t seem to have what it takes to get Carmine, Sydney and Irving do. Richie wants to entrap despite the objections of his boss at a law firm. Sydney is able to help an FBI secretary manipulate $2,000,000 of wired money for the operation. The boss at the law firm is so impressed, he finally gets Richie’s approval. Richie is unable to win over Carmine at a meeting but Irving is with his sheikh story to the point Irving and Carmine become friends. The meeting with Carmine and the Irving’s Mexican friend disguised as the sheikh works.

Problem is Irving’s set-up with Carmine and the sheikh catches the attention of a Mafia overlord named Tellegio who is second-in-command to Meyer Lansky. Tellegio is more demanding as he demands the sheikh become an American citizen with Carmine expediting the process with bribery if needed, and a $10,000,000 wire transfer to prove the sheikh’s legitimacy. Richie agrees, eager to get Tellegio but Irving knows the operation is doomed.

Further signs of a downfall are seen as Richie, who falls in love with Lady Edith, learns of the truth of Sydney and becomes violent. Irving tried to stop Richie’s abuse and the deal but Richie tells them there’s no way out. If Tellegio learns the truth, he’ll kill Irving, Sydney, Rosalynn and Danny. To cause huger friction, Rosalynn starts an affair with a mobster. The mobster wants the deal with the sheikh to be true while Rosalynn knows the whole story and wants a divorce.

In the end, it turns out arrests are made successfully on members of congress and a lot of dirty secrets confessed on tape. A lot of things are lost too, like a chance to entrap Tellegio, Richie’s status with the FBI, Irving’s earned friendship with Carmine and his marriage to Rosalyn.

The thing about the film is one is left with the question of what is the point of this movie? Is the movie trying to tell of a crime heist that flopped? Is it trying to tell a political message about corruption? Is it trying to make the actors do showy acting? Is it trying to be a retro-70’s movie that captures the feel and sound of that decade? I’m left confused.

Another question is if this movie is trying to be a David O. Russell ego trip? This had me wondering because if you notice, American Hustle has actors in his previous two movies–The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook–acting in major roles. In fact the four Oscar nominated performances from this movie come from actors who have already received an Oscar or an Oscar nod for a performance in either The Fighter or Silver Linings Playbook. It almost seemed like it was packages as a ‘David O. Russell all-stars’ collaboration. I will acknowledge that Russell is the director that has most made the biggest impact on films in the past five years but still…

On a more positive note, I give them credit for saying “Some of these events actually happened.” at the beginning. It’s way less misleading than saying “Based on a true story.” I read in Wikipedia that it’s based on the FBI’s ABSCAM operation from the late-1970’s/early 1980’s. I never read anything about those operations but it does capture my intrigue about them and what the real story was.

On an additional note, I saw this just a month after I saw The Wolf Of Wall Street which also featured interesting and colorful characters based in New York/New Jersey. Seeing those two movies this past while really made me wonder about the behavior of people from New York City. Hey, I don’t want to think stereotypical thoughts of other people but it still makes you wonder.

I know I talked about my question of Russell’s intentions of directing. I also question the script Russell co-wrote with Eric Warren Singer. Sure, Russell knows how to direct actors. In fact eleven of the last eighty Oscar nominations in the acting categories over the past four years came from a performance in one of his films. Nevertheless the showy acting distracts from the story line. Even if Russell wanted to deliver a story that was more character-oriented than plot-oriented, the performances were too distracting for it to make much sense. Even some of the 70’s elements like the disco dancing between Irving and Sydney made me question whether that was intended to be part of the story or trying to get a 70’s feel.

As for the acting, I won’t completely blame the actors for the over-the-top showiness, not even the ones who were nominated for Oscars. I heard Russell encouraged some of the actors to improvise their roles. Christian Bale appeared to be the one lead role that most had it together. Amy Adams also showed some elements of control of story over ‘showtime-style acting. Not to mention she also did a good job playing her least sweet character I can think of. Bradley Cooper’s role was a bit confusing and was one of the prime distractors of the movie. Jennifer Lawrence was also another top distractor. One thing I most give credit for is Lawrence again does a great job of playing a woman years older than her. Jeremy Renner however had one of the most underrated performances of the movie. He was the one who most delivered in character acting that worked for the movie rather than distract. Looking back, I just wonder if the film was to do about some New York people with actual ‘drama queen’ personalities. Nevertheless it didn’t stop them from distracting me from the plot.

I know that I talked a lot of how the movie sometimes focuses more on giving a 70’s feel than telling the story at times. The inclusion of the various 70’s songs during certain scenes–most notably Goodbye Yellow-Brick Road in the scene where Rosalyn and Sydney meet eyes for the first time–had a lot to do with me questioning if the movie was telling a story or a 70’s throwback movie. Even the placement of certain songs in certain scenes had me wondering if it fit the story right. One thing I do give credit for is that in terms of the clothes, the hair, and the set designs, this is the most 70’s-like I’ve seen. I hardly ever sensed a trace of the modern times which is what a lot of aptly-named 70’s throwback movies often include. That has to be the one flawless thing of the movie.

American Hustle is a movie that will leave you scratching your head. If it’s trying to tell you a story of an FBI sting, it sure got lost in the showy character acting or the 70’s throwback elements.