Some of you may be confused about the order of how I do each film of my Best Picture summary. It’s definitely not alphabetical. How I do it is in the order in which I saw the nominees. For example, I saw all the films in my first summary before Christmas. I saw La La Land on my father’s birthday, Fences the day after New Years, and Manchester By The Sea on the day of the Golden Globes. That explains why they’re the three films part of my next Best Picture summary.
LA LA LAND
We don’t see musicals on the big screen as often as we did back in the 60’s and 70’s. La La Land may not make the musical phenomenon come back but it is very entertaining.
We’re constantly reminded that bringing a musical to the big screen is a very tricky job. In the past 15 years, I’ve seen a lot of cases of musicals being put on the big screen– most of which are adaptations of Broadway musicals– and it’s always been a case of sink-or-swim. There have been those done successfully like Moulin Rouge, Chicago, Dreamgirls and Les Miserables. There have also been adaptations with bad results like Rent, Nine, The Phantom Of The Opera and Mamma Mia. It’s a very tricky job and it may explain why we don’t have musicals as frequent as in decades past.
Now try putting a fresh original musical on the big screen. That’s what writer/director Damien Chazelle does here in cooperation with composer Justin Hurwitz who was Chazelle’s Harvard classmate. The musical is a story we’re familiar with: boy meets girl, boy learns girl also has showbiz dreams, both boy and girl are supportive of each other’s dreams, boy and girl both have long bumpy roads to get to their successes, boy and girl both achieve their own successes but their love is put to the test. One could argue anyone could create a musical with that kind of premise. Whatever the situation, it would have to take a lot of hard work and a lot of brainstorming to make a very good musical out of this. In addition, it would have to have the right songs, the right singing moments and the right dancing moments to make it succeed.
Chazelle and Hurwitz succeed in pulling it off. The story is familiar but they deliver all the right moves in making the story and the songs of the musical work. It’s not just about making a common story work as a musical on screen but have it set in the modern times too. I’ll admit that opening in the movie where there’s a song-and-dance number on a jammed-up freeway was unexpected. It’s not just set in modern time but it also brings back a lot of the classic scenes of Hollywood; the Hollywood we’ve all come to know and love. I think that’s why La La Land comes off as a gem. Because it’s a reminder of the great musicals of the past and why we love them so much. It’s just that charm.
It’s not just up to Chazelle and Hurwitz to make this musical work but also the actors too. Both Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone had to make things work as well both as individuals and both as the couple Mia and Sebastian. They had to tell their own stories of love and passion for their crafts and the heartbreak they had to endure to achieve their dreams. They both also had to play a couple with the right chemistry to work. They pull it off excellently both as a couple and in their own individual moments too. The supporting actors/singers/dancers also had their parts to play too and add to the zest of the musical. Their own participation also added to the movie. Sure some of the bigger supporting performances from John Legend, J.K. Simmons and Tom Everett Scott lacked range–I mean Mia and Sebastian were the dominant focus of the musical– but they did very well too. The film did a very good job in terms of the use of sets both set up and various Los Angeles locations. The film even scouted out some ‘old L. A.’ locations to add the charm. That was not an easy find, I’m sure.
And now onto the songs. My father who likes musicals believes having a memorable song is what makes a musical a masterpiece. I have to agree. I’ll say I agree with him that there is no single song in La La Land destined to be a memorable classic. True, ‘City Of Stars’ is getting a ton of awards but I don’t think it will be a classic 20 years from now. Actually my favorite songs were the opener ‘Another Day Of Sun’ and ‘Audition (Here’s To The Ones Who Dream).’
It’s funny. Years ago, I jokes the unique thing about my father is that he’s straight and he likes musicals. He was quick to remind me that back when he was dating my mother, musicals were the ideal date movie. My how times have changed. What defines a date movie has changed as much over the decade as ‘real man’ standards.
La La Land may not have what it takes to bring the musical phenomenon back to the big screen but it’s winning in it’s own right. Anytime soon I’m expecting a stage adaptation of this.
Fences is a play by August Wilson that won raves when it first came out in the 1980’s. Denzel Washington brings Fences to the big screen at long last and the end result is something wonderful.
Fences is unique as a stage play. It’s a story about Troy Maxson: an African-American man in 1950’s Pittsburgh who makes like he has it together but he doesn’t. He thinks he could have been the next Jackie Robinson but feels racism kept him from moving out of the Negro League. He wants to mould his son the way he feels right and wants him to be better than him but doesn’t sense how harsh he is. He wants to be seen as a loving husband to his wife Rose but secrets of his infidelity are about to unfold. He gets an opportunity as a driver of a garbage truck–the first ever for a black man in Pittsburgh– but is reminded of his weaknesses when he accidentally signs for his brother to be admitted into a mental hospital. He has his own feelings about what should be right such as how he feels it’s better to raise his son right than like him only to see it backfire. I’ve heard some writers say that every African-American male has some aspect of Troy Maxson in them. Some people say that Troy Maxson is the African-American everyman. Some can even say Troy Maxson is the black Willy Loman. Whatever the situation, it was the toast of the 1987 Tony Awards and definitely made a legend out of scriptwriter August Wilson.
Now Wilson had always dreamed of bringing Fences to the big screen. I know one of the things he insisted on was that it be directed by an African-American. That may or may not have been the biggest obstacle but it was never realized in Wilson’s lifetime; he died in 2005. Hope was revived in 2013 when Denzel Washington expressed interest in bringing it to the big screen and star as Troy Maxson. Washington played Maxson in a Broadway revival in 2010. He’s even had experience as a director with 2002’s Antwone Fisher and 2007’s The Great Debaters. The production was realized early in 2016 when Washington was joined by producer Scott Rudin who also produced the 2010 revival. Viola Davis who was also part of the revival as Rose Maxson soon joined in along with other actors from the revival like Mykelti Williamson, Russell Hornsby and Stephen Henderson. One thing was that Washington wanted to remain true to Wilson’s own adaptation in respect to his work.
Now adapting a play to the big screen is as much a tricky challenge as bringing a musical to the big screen. It’s a matter of choices of what to include and what to keep as is. Theatre and film are two different formats of medium. Film scenes are numerous and can be set in an unlimited number of places in various amounts of time. Theatre scenes are often few, often quite lengthy, set in a limited number of places, and often consists of ‘moments of monologues.’ There’s even that 20-minute final scene in Fences where the family is getting ready for Troy’s funeral. Rarely in film do you have a scene after the death of the protagonist that’s even five minutes long. It’s a matter of making the adaptation work on the big screen. It’s also about what choices to add to the film adaptation and if they work. It was about choosing to add the scene of Troy and Jim Bono on the back of the garbage truck at the start. It was about including the scene without dialogue of Troy and Gabriel in the mental hospital. It was about keeping Alberta the mistress from being seen in the film in any which way.
Then there’s the acting. Of course it’s beneficial for most of the actors to have previous experience with the roles. However, it’s a known fact that stage acting and film acting have their differences. The biggest difference for film is that the audience expects a 100% believable performance, especially since it will be witnessed on a screen five-stories tall.
Overall I feel that Denzel Washington as a director/producer did a good job in adapting the play to the screen. It may not have the fast brief dialogues you get in your typical big screen fare but it was still done well and with the same truthfulness. The choices of what to add to the big screen adaptation were good choices, if not perfect. Denzel as an actor was definitely phenomenal in embodying the role of Troy in all of his triumphs and struggles. You could feel the pride and demons Troy was struggling with. Just as excellent is Viola Davis as Rose. The role of Rose was also a strong challenging role: a wife who appears happy and loving on the outside only to suddenly let out her hurt and inner wrath towards Troy and somehow come to peace with him upon his death. She does an excellent job of finally exposing Rose’s inner hurt and inner personal strength at the right times and even ending with believable delivery. The acting of the whole ensemble was very much there and as excellent as it can get. Of all the supporting performances, the one that stood out most was Stephen Henderson whose performance as Jim Bono came across as a common man at first but would soon come off as the man with a lot of wisdom and was able to see the good in Troy even while his terrible misdoings were being exposed. The ‘newcomers’ Jovan Adepo and Saniyya Sidney were also very good in their roles. Jovan especially did well as the son struggling to relate to Troy.
Fences is a triumph of a twelve year-old dream coming true. August Wilson dreamed it. Denzel achieved it. The end result is a masterpiece.
MANCHESTER BY THE SEA
Manchester By The Sea is a film that has been loaded with Oscar buzz ever since it made its debut at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. It’s easy to see why all the buzz.
The film presents a hurting person and showcases all the things that led to his hurt. It shows why he had to leave the town he always had as his home and why returning can’t be done. It shows why Lee Chandler comes across as a jerk in the present when he wasn’t like that at all years ago. The film is also about the relationship of Lee and Patrick. Rarely do we see a film about an uncle-nephew relationship. You think the relationship is something all of a sudden at first forced by something in his brother’s estate but it was always there even when the two were apart.
The film also presents a situation where healing or leaving the past behind is next-to-impossible. I’ve always believed people need to heal. It’s not right to hurt. I still believe it. However I can easily see how healing is very hard. You can see why it’s extremely hard for Lee to heal, especially upon returning to Manchester By The Sea, Massachusetts. His negligence that one night is why all three of his children were killed in that fire. The divorce from his wife Randi was bitter and she gave him hurtful words in the process. The town has not forgiven him for what he did: his name is still mud. Even moving to a suburb of Boston has not ended his hurt as he’s rude during his job and starts bar fights over the simplest thing.
The film does showcase Lee’s attempt to assimilate into the town and try to become the guardian to Patrick he hopes to be. The story does not water down as it exposes Lee’s failings. It also exposes how complicated the situation is as Patrick’s mother is a recovering alcoholic and still under strict control by her husband. It also shows how hard it is for Lee to forgive himself. Even as Randi says she’s forgiven him, Lee still can’t heal.
The story does not water down the situation or try to aim for the type of happier ending you’d get in a film like Arrival. The story does not end the way you hope it does. Nevertheless it does end with a ray of hope. Patrick is the closest relative to Lee. His parents and brother are gone and his other brother lives with his own family in Minnesota. Patrick is the one person in Manchester By The Sea outside of family friend George who doesn’t see Lee as this terrible person or rubs into Lee the tragedy he caused.
The film was not just about Lee trying to heal for Patrick but about Patrick too. Patrick is a teen with a lot of common ‘teenage make jerk’ traits like starting fights in hockey and cheating on girls but you know he has a naïve, innocent and even sensitive side and it comes out in his relationship with Lee that starts uneasy at first. Patrick still wants to live a normal teenage life by dating around, playing with his band, and talking about Star Trek with his friends, but you know he has feelings of hurt and frustration on the inside and you know they’ll come out eventually. For all the teenage jerk traits Patrick has, his respect for Lee is his best quality. Patrick could have easily come across as a rebellious teen and gone as far as calling Lee a ‘child killer’ but he doesn’t. Possibly it’s being Joe’s son that may be why Patrick is the person most forgiving to Lee now that Joe is gone. Joe was the one person willing to help Lee live life again after the tragedy and Patrick accompanied Lee and Joe during that time. You can see how Patrick adopted his father’s sensitivity to Lee.
The story of this film is definitely not a crowd-winner. You can understand why a film like this would rely on the Film Festival circuit to get its exposure and its chances of making it to the box office. Nevertheless it is an excellent story about loss, grief, hurt and an attempt at healing. The film fest circuit was the best way for a story like this to get a box office release. It’s good because it is a story worth seeing.
Writer/director Kenneth Lonergan delivers an excellent original story. Lonergan has few works writing and/or directing to his credit but they have a lot of merit: like Analyze This, You Can Count On Me and The Gangs Of New York. This is his best work to date. He delivers a story that’s honest and even brutal at times and doesn’t water down but doesn’t try to rip at your heartstrings too often. He also gives characters that are three-dimensional and will remind you of people or situations you may know about.
Actor Casey Affleck fit the role of Lee excellently. He captured Lee’s inner demons excellently and played them very truthfully. He was able to make you hate Lee at first but come to understand him later, even feel for him, and make you want the best to work out for Lee in the end. Also excellent was Lucas Hedges. Hedges’ role of Patrick grows in its complexity over time and he does an excellent job of it. The two together had to have the right chemistry to make an uncle-nephew relationship like this work and they had it.
The only other significant supporting role in the film is Michelle Williams as Randi. The various scenes as the typical wife before the tragedy to being the remarried ex-wife who healed better than Lee and wants to make peace with him is also a complex role too and she does an excellent job of it too. Actually the whole cast did an excellent job of acting and they delivered one of the best ensemble performances of the year. It’s not just the basics that made this film great. There’s also the cinematography from Jody Lee Lipes where she’s able to get some of the most picturesque shots of the east coast. There’s the editing of the story shifting from the present to the past back to the present on a constant basis at the right times. There’s the inclusion of dialogue at the right moments and even moments of dialogue muted at the right times where you just know what they’re saying. The muted parts work to the story’s advantage. There’s also the arrangement of music–original, classical and choral– that add to the story.
Manchester By The Sea may come across as a film that’s unwatchable if you take its premise at face value. In the end, it turns out to be a great story that’s worth seeing.
And there you go. That’s the second of my review of the nominees. One’s an original musical, one’s an original story and one’s an adaptation of a renowned stage play. All three make it obvious why they were nominated for Best Picture as all three have what it takes to be among the Top 10 films of the year.
Final Best Picture summary is expected to be up by Tuesday.
I know the awards season is just starting to declare winners en route to the Oscars. I will have a lot of movie watching to catch up with. I finally did see Birdman, one movie with a lot of big buzz, and I’m glad I did.
Riggan Thomson is a former Hollywood movie star who hit the big time as Birdman: a movie that propelled his fame and had him act in two more sequels. However he soon became yesterday’s news after he left the Birdman franchise and he’s aiming for a Broadway comeback. His plan is a stage adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love which he plays lead, directs and writes. However something is knwing at him. He hears a voice and he has telekinetic powers.
Upon rehearsal, he is pissed off with the male lead actor. Suddenly a stage light lands on his head. Everyone is shocked and fearing for his life except Riggan, who just walks away. He soon admits to his lawyer friend Jake that he rigged the light to fall on him to get popular stage actor Michael Shiner into the play. Getting Michael came from him refinancing a house that should belong to Sam, his recovering drug-addict daughter and assistant.
However friction eventually happens. Riggan is unhappy with how Mike does a scene during rehearsal and he storms off violently. Even Mike’s suggestion of using a more realistic gun for the suicide scene doesn’t sit well with him. The feelings are justified when Mike is scene in a news story and how he mentions Raymond Carver made him want to become an actor. On top of it, reviews of the dress rehearsal are not impressive at all and it hits Mike bad. Meanwhile the voice inside his head is either supporting him or mocking him for turning his back on Birdman. Adding to it, Sam is unhappy with him and tells him that his play is garbage and that he doesn’t matter. Not in this day and age of Facebook and Twitter, media streams he consistently rejects.
Things actually take a turn for the better but through some of the most unlikely of methods. Right in the middle of a preview, Riggan accidentally locks himself out of the theatre with the door accidentally catching hold of his robe. He impulsively walks around Times Square in nothing but his underwear to get back to the theatre and catches the notice of everyone whom he walks by and even enters the theatre leaving the audience confused and delighted. After the show, he gets drunk and encounters theatre critic Tabitha Dickinson who says she will crucify his play because of her detest of Hollywood movie stars trying to pass themselves off as legitimate actors. The next day, a drunken Riggan actually has a hallucinative conversation with Birdman and he gains powers including flight. It’s like he became Birdman again as he’s flying all around Manhattan.
Then opening night for the play happens. Riggan uses a real gun for the suicide scene shooting himself in the head in front of the audience. Everyone in the audience gives him a standing ovation but Tabitha just walks out without emotion or applause. Turns out Riggan didn’t kill himself. He survives but wakes up in a hospital bed learning the bullet badly damaged his nose. On top of that, he learns from Jake that Tabitha gave the play rave reviews. He’s even able to spend a poignant moment with Sam in his hospital bed. After Riggan is left alone, the film ends in a way I don’t think most people will understand. I guess the point was to have you the audience decide the ending. You’ll have to see it for yourself.
This film is a unique method of telling a story and giving portraits of the characters. The film’s method of following characters around and often appearing like one non-stop shoot adds to the film and can make the audience curious to what will happen next. However the most striking thing for me about the film is how it shows actors and even those involved in the whole showbiz scene. We have a lead actor who’s a former movie star now struggling to re-establish himself. We have a daughter who’s loving but ill-tempered and frequently at odds with him. We have a supporting actor who isn’t as big a name but well-respected and tries to use this opportunity to promote himself further. We have both an ex-wife and a current flame struggling with personal issues with him. We have a theatre system that demands the movie be a hit for the sake of the show, the sake of the theatre and for the sake of Thomson’s finances. We have the fame system which has had major changes in the ‘fame game’ in recent years thanks to online technology giving us video sites and personal homepages. We have media critics who not only make judgments about plays but are egotistical enough to unapologetically trash a work if they see fit. It’s no wonder an actor/director like Riggan Thomson drinks a lot. Heck I’ve frequently said: “Actors and drinking go together like ham and eggs.” Here I’m finally shown why!
The funniest thing about the film is that while I was watching, I was constantly sensing that Birdman may be about Michael Keaton himself. For those that don’t know, Michael Keaton was the first Batman when the franchise was revived on the big screen in a big way back in 1989. He also starred in the second Batman movie Batman Returns from 1992. The role of Batman has since gone onto Val Kilmer and now Christian Bale. Michael Keaton had some continued commercial success for a few years after his last Batman movie. Actually he even had some healthy commercial success before thanks to 80’s movies like Mr. Mom and Beetlejuice. So it had me wondering if Riggan’s struggle of coming back while having the baggage of being famous as Birdman was a parallel reflection of Michael Keaton being famous as Batman. I found it odd because I’ve never heard of Michael having a struggle with it. I even looked over his biography and info of his personal life at Wikipedia to see if it was. Although I saw some parallels, I was still left without a conclusion. I haven’t even seen an interview of Michael Keaton where he publicly declared it synonymous.
I will say that Keaton did an excellent performance as Riggan. This is not like any performance I’ve seen from Keaton and this is the best acting I’ve seen from him. Possibly the best acting performance of the year. Edward Norton was also great as Michael Shiner and did a great job of showing ego conflict between actors. Emma Stone also delivered her best ever performance as a daughter who’s also an assistant with the same showbiz-style nastiness to her own father. Zach Galifianakis gave what I feel to be his best acting performance and one where I actually end up liking him in a film. Additional standout supporting performances are Amy Ryan as the ex-wife, Andrea Riseborough as the new girlfriend and Lindsay Duncan as the theatre critic who did a lot in that one scene of hers.
The technical aspects are also excellent and one-of-a-kind for this film. Emmanuel Lubezki did a smart job with having the follow-around method of filming. Usually such a method is risky in the storytelling aspect of film making but it works to near-perfection here. Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione also did an excellent editing job especially in how they made it look like there was a single non-stop scene for over an hour. Of course modern technology can do the film fakery to make it look like a non-stop scene but Crise and Mirrione did it all right and made it work. Also kudos to composer Antonio Sanchez. I like how he delivered a score that was a jazzy style of music for the stageplay scenes and then our typical grandiose orchestrated score for the Birdman scenes. That score that corresponded with the themes was an excellent choice for the film.
Birdman is not your typical Hollywood fare but it’s all the better for it. It doesn’t make sense to a lot of people but would make more sense to those who see it twice or even those that know acting or showbiz as a whole.
I know what you’re going to say before I talk about The Help. There have already been a lot of movies about racism and segregation. Yes there have been. Nevertheless The Help is a well-made story about showing a black woman’s point of view on racism from a state most synonymous with segregation: Mississippi.
The movie revolves around three women in particular. The first is Abilene; an African American maid whose latest maid work comes right after the death of her son. The second is Milly; another African American maid who was recently fired from Hilly Hollbrook–Jackson’s white female ringleader–for using a toilet meant only for Hilly’s white family and is only rehired by a white ‘misfit’. The third is Skeeter; a white journalism grad from Ole Miss who is unmarried and wants to make a career for herself in writing but lacks a story.
The setting is Jackson, Mississippi. Segregation is alive and well but is facing abolishment. The black maids have had enough while the white upper class females want to see it kept. Hilly herself wants to enact a passage of a law to make it standard for separate bathrooms for white and colored people. Skeeter is tired of writing a housekeeping column and wants an actual story. She comes across it just after her former maid Constantine, who she always looked up to as a child, is mysteriously gone, Hilly speaks her pro-segregation mind at her ‘clique meetings’ and she encounters Aibilene and Minny. They have quite the story to tell and she learns a lot from what they have to say and what they’ve experienced. Even Milly’s story of her revenge on Hilly with ‘the pie’ makes for some colorful. Nevertheless a book publishing company wants to have the points of view from twelve maids, not two. It’s a struggle for Skeeter as she becomes more of a misfit in Hilly’s clique for being unmarried and being opposed to segregation and because of state law: Mississippi law can imprison writers and interviewees for cross-race writing. It isn’t until the shooting death of Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers that Skeeter finally gets her twelve to interview, however giving them pseudonyms to protect their identity. The result is the novel finally being made and boy does it stir up a lot of debate and reactions.
One thing about the ending is that a lot is accomplished and many good things come out of it. Despite positive changes, some bad things still remain and the movie doesn’t end on a completely positive note. The ending takes a turn for a different more negative ending. Nevertheless it did so on the right note. It reminds us that even after segregation was ended for real in the Southern States, some negative aspects of racism still remained and some changes didn’t go as far as it should have.
There have been movies about racism in the past and conquering racism but hardly has there ever been such where it’s on the basis of the black maids for white families. It touches on a common notion. The white children were raised and cared for by the African American maids and many of the children would look up to them as a mother figure. As most of those white children grew up as adults, they would then go on to the hiring and firing of them. They would adopt the cruelness to the maids their own parents had. The story is set in Jackson, Mississippi around the time of the civil rights movements and around the time Jackson, the capitol of Mississippi, is where segregation is possibly the most alive and well. The story features Skeeter, an aspiring writer who’s looking for a story and sees one. Remembering how Constantine was like a mother to her and wondering whatever happened to her, she hasn’t developed the hardness of heart her girlfriends had developed over the years. It is with her willingness to see the maids’ side and write about it that made her want to set the record straight. That helps to create the intrigue of the story.
One of the interesting themes in the movie is oddly enough its use of toilets. Many people including myself still look at toilets as something taboo but in recent decades, many people and many creative artists have defied this taboo and become more public about it and even incorporated it into art. In this film, it plays a significant role because as we remember, toilets were a part of the days segregation: separate ones for whites and colored. The Help presents toilets in many different references. It is Aibilene’s toilet teaching where she shows she’s a better mother to Mae Mobley Leefolt than Mrs. Leefolt is. It is where Minny uses a toilet for white people only in Hilly’s house that gets her fired. It’s where Hilly strongly believes in segregated bathrooms to the point to where she’s willing to take her plea to the surgeon general. It’s also the prank Skeeter uses to pull on Hilly for her lobbying. As taboo as it is, there’s no denying the significance of toilets in the movie.
One thing about the movie The Help is that it’s based on a novel that is complete fiction. That fact might make some question the triumphant moments in the movie. Question it all you want. One thing you can’t deny is that despite it being fiction, there are a lot of hard truths experienced by the African Americans in Mississippi that are portrayed very well and will make you think. Seeing how Hilly treats her maids meanly to the point of firing them instantly and even getting them arrested makes you think how many others were as mean as Hilly. That scene where Minny is with her eldest daughter in a maid’s uniform about to board the bus can also disturb you. Imagine a future that limited. Also that scene where Charlotte told how and why she fired Constantine. How many times do you think that has happened in the past? So the novel may not be based on a true story but possibly based on a thousand true stories.
The directing from Tate Taylor was top notch. He did an excellent job of directing the movie and writing the storyline well. The acting however is what made the movie most. The standout without a doubt was Viola Davis. Her performance of Aibilene was the glue of the movie and had the most to tell. Her acting was full of believability from start to finish. Octavia Spencer was the top scene-stealer as Minny. She was able to make for an excellent turn with adding elements of humor to her role. Emma Stone delivered possibly the best performance of her career. Already people are saying she’s the next big thing. Her performance of Skeeter demonstrates she can also make a good actress of herself. Also a standout is Bryce Dallas Howard. Her character acting was so excellent, she will easily make you hate Hilly.
Overall, The Help is a very excellent movie revealing a harsh reality of 60’s Southern racism. Some say it’s not as harsh of a depiction as it should be. Nevertheless we shouldn’t forget that even in racism situations that aren’t as harsh, the hurt can still be felt and the picture can have an ugliness of its own.