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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

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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

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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.

Movie Review: The Way, Way Back

Sam Rockwell (centre) gives Liam James (right) more than just a summer job in The Way, Way Back.

Sam Rockwell (centre) gives Liam James (right) more than a summer job in The Way, Way Back.

If you’ve seen The Way, Way Back, I’m sure you’d feel it should be described as a ‘summer movie’ because it’s not only released in the summer but is set in the summer too. But it’s not your typical ‘summer movie’ as it doesn’t fit how we interpret the term ‘summer movie.’ Nevertheless it is worth seeing.

We meet Duncan: a socially-withdrawn 14 year-old heading to upstate New York for the summer with his mother Pam, her boyfriend Trent and his daughter Steph. Trent is quite overbearing on Duncan chastising him about his shyness which doesn’t help at all. It’s obvious Duncan is not looking forward to this trip, especially since he wants to spend time with his father. At the beach house, the family meet up with Trent’s friend, the free-spirited Betty and her family including sullen teen daughter Susanna and young son Peter who Betty often chastises about his ‘lazy eye.’ Betty wants Duncan to be a play friend for Peter but Duncan is disinterested. He’s more interested in daughter Susanna but doesn’t know how to talk to her. The place is best describes by Susanna as ‘spring break for adults.’ Over at the beach house, Trent is the life of the party especially to his long-time friends Betty, Kip and Joan. That makes Duncan feel even more alone.

One day Duncan goes biking to the town on Steph’s girlie bike from years ago. He notices a waterslide park: The Water Wizz. Over there he meets the middle-aged man whom one day earlier was playing PacMan at the gas stop and wanted Duncan to keep up the high score. His name is Owen, a carefree easy-going personality, and he runs the Water Wizz. Here he shows Duncan about the Water Wizz with the employees and doing business, teaching him the ‘legend’ of the park, and even introducing a trio of boys he befriends. He also gets Roddy to show him how he sets up the female sliders to slide.

The experience gets Duncan coming back to the Water Wizz day after day and he even gets a job there. First duty was to stop a breakdancer from stealing the crowd. The breakdancer agrees as long as Duncan shows his stuff. Duncan agrees and he would be known at ‘Pop-N-Lock.’ Soon he learns from Owen that one doesn’t just simply work at the Water Wizz but the workers all share a common bond with each other. Meanwhile people back at the resort are wondering about Duncan and why he’s gone biking off so often, including Susanna who’s slowly developing an interest in him. Susanna actually follows Duncan one day, determined to find out what he’s up to. There she’s introduced to the Water Wizz and the two have fun together including Duncan teaching her the ‘legend’ of the park.

However while things are getting better for Duncan at the Water Wizz, things are getting worse for him and his family at the beach house. Trent and Betty are too carefree in their partying and Kip is oblivious to the whole thing. Meanwhile Trent is undecided about rekindling romantic interests with Joan who wants him back. Little do they know Duncan saw the whole thing. It’s at a resort party Trent is hosting at the house where Duncan impulsively blurts out to Trent that he knows what’s going on right for all to hear. The party’s over for the family. It gets to the point they all can’t have a normal dinner together or play a game on a rainy day without some friction. It bears hardest not only on Duncan but on Pam too as she knows the relationship will be over.

Duncan however finds someone to lean on in Owen. Owen reminds him Trent doesn’t know Duncan and how great of a kid he is and it’s more of Trent’s problem. He even offers to cheer him up by inviting him to Lewis’ good-bye party. Duncan comes with Peter and they all not only have a good time but Peter develops a new confidence about his lazy eye. Unfortunately the situation between Pam and Trent has gotten to the point that the ‘family’ has to leave the beach house and return home. This especially shocks Duncan since the people of the Water Wizz make him feel like a somebody although his job is still a secret to his ‘family.’ Yes, it is a goodbye to the town but not without one last ‘moment’ with Susanna and a golden last-hurrah at the Water Wizz that you will have to see for yourself.

The film’s movie poster advertises coming from the studio that brought out Little Miss Sunshine and Juno. The movie does kind of have the same feel as the two previous movies. Unlike the previous two, this film doesn’t seem to have much of a theme or a message to it. But like Juno and Little Miss Sunshine, it shows adults to be the messy ones or the ones who don’t have their head on straight. Also like those two movies, it shows that sometimes the kids or teens are the ones who deal with the situation best despite their own flaws. You could tell with the stupidities of Betty getting drunk constantly and Trent’s cheating that these adults don’t have their head on right. Even the adults’ treatment of the children like Betty getting on Peter’s case about his lazy eye and Trent’s judgment and belittling of Duncan are examples of their stupidity. While Duncan may be sky and Susanna may be unhappy, they’re the ones that actually end up being the smarter ones in the end. Another unique thing about the film is that it showed the career-oriented adults to be the ones playing games and doing stupid things that hurt those that matter most to them while the workers at the Water Wizz are the ones that most have it together. Duncan should be fortunate to have bumped into the park by chance. It was the best thing for him.

This is yet another coming-of-age story but it’s not yet another. Sure the coming-of-age story has been done at great frequency and some would say this story isn’t all that original. What makes this coming-of-age story work is through the character of Duncan. Everyone who’s been through the high school years knows a teen boy that is very quiet and is an anti-social loner. Duncan carries those traits in a comical way without poking too much fun at shy teen boys. But what’s also unique about Duncan is that he makes his anger and frustrations present. The film succeeds in getting us to feel for Duncan and wanting him to find his place despite Trent’s overbearingness. We first think of Owen and the gang at the Water Wizz as overgrown idiots who should get a real job but we soon see them as the friends Duncan needed during his vacation. That’s the movie’s appeal: the young protagonist and the people that change his life.

Without a doubt, young Canadian actor Liam James was the star of the film. He did an excellent job in portraying a shy anti-social boy very well both emotionally and physically. Great to see a young actor like him do an excellent lead amongst an ensemble cast of established actors. Steve Carell was also good playing a person you just wanted to hate. Toni Collette didn’t have that showy of a role but she played it very honestly and added to the story. Sam Rockwell was great in playing a free-spirited middle-aged man. Great character acting also came from Alison Janney and Rob Corddry. AnnaSophia Robb was also very good in playing a young teen girl. Very different from the ‘sweet’ roles she’s been known to play. Also fun to see the writers/directors Nat Faxon and Jim Rash in roles in this film. Nat and Jim were writers who teamed up with Alexander Payne for The Descendants. This movie is a great way to show they can hold their own and hold it well. The movie also included a great mix of music both past and current.

Overall The Way, Way Back is a great summer film if you want to get away from your typical summer movie fare. This is a story you’ll really enjoy. Also movie fans should go see it if they want to get off the beaten path.