Thursday, February 23, 2017

Oscars 2017: So, We're Doing This Again...


It's Oscar time again. Pardon my asterisks, but I am completely out of f***ks to give.

It's not that 2016 wasn't a fantastic year for films (It was!) or that the really great ones aren't up for any Oscars (Many of them are!).  It's just that ... I'm SO DONE with 2016 and I'm tired of celebrating anything to do with it.  Outside of the cinema, 2016 was a thoroughly crap year that I don't want to revisit - even through film clips and ESPECIALLY not through a weepy "In Memoriam" montage. (Frankly, just the experience of living through 2016 felt like being trapped in an "In Memoriam" montage that just kept rolling and getting sadder and sadder.)

Also, I'm REALLY TIRED of talking about La La Land. And I loved La La Land!  It was at the top of my list of the best films of 2016. But it doesn't merit the level of bickering and controversy it's generated. Seriously, everyone needs to chill out and rent The Young Girls of Rochefort this weekend. (Get a clue, people - it's not based just on Hollywood musicals!) Meanwhile, I will keep trying to get the melody of "City of Stars" out of my head, where it's been stuck for over three months now.

But... I'm a film blogger who writes about the Oscars every year, so I'm digging deep for the motivation to give you my annual "Good, Bad, Undeserving and Overlooked" assessment of this year's nominees. (Disclaimer: as of this moment, I still have not seen Lion, Nocturnal Animals or Elle. Watch this space for late-breaking updates, as I plan to finally see at least one of those in the next 48 hours...)

Before we begin, a word about this year's host: I have only the highest hopes for Jimmy Kimmel, who seems like the perfect choice to helm this year's ceremony.

Last year, at the height of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and Chris Rock's edgy hosting gig, I predicted that "we can probably expect an old-fashioned, crowd-pleasing white host in 2017." I fully expected that host to be Billy Crystal; even so, I wasn't entirely off the mark. Kimmel is the easiest to take of the network late-night hosts: funny but not too edgy, naughty but not smutty, topical but without the bite or sting of pointed satire.  He occupies a comfortable, enjoyable middle ground between the exuberant ass-kissery of Jimmy Fallon's "Tonight" show and the barbed political takedowns on Stephen Colbert's "Late Show."  Kimmel's emcee chops were developed over years of hosting  the American Music Awards and the Emmys. He'll be funny, and he'll keep the show humming along nicely, without too many Trump jokes. And despite the fact that I enjoy a good laugh at the President's expense, I'm actually looking forward to that.

And now, on to the nominees. Due to my overwhelming Oscar ennui, I'm keeping it to bare-bones predictions and shout-outs this year. No long-winded essays or cries of shock and outrage - just the facts, ma'am:

Best Supporting Actress
     Will Win:  Viola Davis for Fences
     Should Win: Viola Davis for Fences
     Overlooked: Julianne Moore for Maggie's Plan (Because she was so funny! After playing so               many silently suffering women, we forgot she had such wicked comedy chops.)

Best Supporting Actor
     Will Win: Mahershala Ali for Moonlight
     Should Win: Mahershala Ali for Moonlight
     Overlooked: Hugh Grant for Florence Foster Jenkins (best performance of his career), Alden             Ehrenreich for Hail Caesar! (he stole the film!), Ralph Fiennes for A Bigger Splash (his                       happy dance to the Stones' "Emotional Rescue" alone merits the nomination)

Best Actress
     Will Win: Emma Stone for La La Land
     Should Win:  Natalie Portman for Jackie
     Overlooked: Molly Shannon for Other People (she's come a looong way since SNL), Susan                  Sarandon for The Meddler (a lovely performance in a underseen, underrated film), Amy Adams        for Arrival (because how is she not on this list?)

Best Actor 
     Will Win: Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea
     Should Win: Denzel Washington for Fences
     Overlooked: Tom Hanks for Sully (contrary to popular belief, he does NOT play every role the              same), Joel Edgerton for Loving (every bit as great as his nominated co-star).

Best Director 
     Will Win:  Damien Chazelle for La La Land
     Should Win: Barry Jenkins for Moonlight OR Mel Gibson for Hacksaw Ridge
     Overlooked: Pablo Larrain for Jackie 

Best Picture
     Will Win: La La Land
     Should Win: Does it matter? La La Land is going to win and that's fine, although I'd also be               happy to see Moonlight take the top prize.
     Overlooked: Jackie and Allied.



Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A Kangaroo at the Vatican and Other Surprises


So here's something that actually happened on last night's episode of The Young Pope: the Pope ordered a kangaroo to be let loose in the Vatican Gardens.

Not just any kangaroo, mind you, but the one sent to him by the good people of Australia as a congratulatory gift on his ascension to the papacy.  A kangaroo that whimpered and growled quietly inside his crate until Pope Pius XIII gently summoned him forward with a whisper of "C'mon, sweetie..." and a beckoning hand gesture not unlike that shown in pictures of Jesus bringing Lazarus back from the dead.

Is it wrong that I laughed out loud for a full 30 seconds during this scene? Or that I broke out in fresh peals of laughter all over again every time we saw someone walking or sitting in the gardens, thinking "Now'd be a GREAT time for that kangaroo to show up and kick those cardinals in the head with his giant kangaroo feet!"

HBO's advertising for its miniseries, The Young Pope, suggests scintillating prestige television drama. But the actual show suggests that writer-director Paolo Sorrentino dropped acid, then decided to make a mash-up of Angels and Demons and The Devils, but without the sex or Tom Hanks.  It's gorgeous, but not salacious, shocking not because it's dishing up prurient details, but because it ricochets from straight-faced seriousness to Cloud Cuckooland without warning. The titular young pope doesn't swear or screw around (although he does enjoy cigarettes), but he demands a Cherry Coke Zero for breakfast and makes it clear that a regular Diet Coke simply won't do.  He gives his first address from his balcony at night and in silhouette so that no one can see his face and bellows like Ned Beatty in the "You have meddled with the primal forces of nature" scene from Network. Also, that kangaroo thing.

Another thing that actually happened in last night's episode: Diane Keaton - playing Sister Mary, the nun who raised Lenny in an orphanage and is summoned to Rome to be his personal assistant - gets a late-night visit in her room by the pope.  She opens the door, not wearing a prim, nun-like nightgown buttoned up to her neck as you might expect, but a flimsy robe over a T-shirt that announces in bold letters, "I'M A VIRGIN. THIS IS AN OLD SHIRT." (And, in case you're wondering, she retains that status when the scene is over. Like I said, nothing freaky going on here.)

Jude Law plays the former Lenny Belardo, now Pius XIII with a little bit of slippery charm and a whole lot of sociopathic menace. It's as if his Dickie Greenleaf character from The Talented Mr. Ripley was resurrected and swathed in papal robes, only now he's scarier. He's actually uncomfortable to watch; every minute feels like Pius XIII is about half an inch away from a full psychotic break.  I guess that's evidence that Law is great in the role, but ... yikes!

On the other hand, you'd be hard pressed to find a mini-series so visually sumptuous. Cuckoo-bird though he may be, Sorrentino has an unerring eye for shot composition and the dramatic use of color. The shots of St. Peter's Basilica are unbelievable - in some cases, literally so.  Those close-ups and overhead shots of the Pieta would be impossible in reality, since the Michaelangelo sculpture is kept behind bulletproof glass.  Are these CGI shots? (Because if so, they're much better than the God-awful-obvious CGI kangaroo.)

Sorrentino made the acclaimed 2013 film, The Great Beauty - a rambling, gorgeous meditation on modern Italy that opens with one of the greatest party scenes in movie history. Then he made the 2015 film Youth (also playing on HBO this month) which was also gorgeous and seemed to be about something, but finally had no discernible point whatsoever.  With just a couple episodes down, it's still too early to tell if The Young Pope has a viable through-line, or whether it, too, will be an accumulation of visually arresting absurdities with little ultimate meaning.

But I've decided that I'm in for the whole ride. The Young Pope won't be to everyone's taste, but for me, it's already headed towards my personal pantheon of exuberantly nutty Over-the-Topness - a collection which includes Kenneth Branagh's Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, those Cate Blanchett biopics of Elizabeth I, the opening scenes of Heaven's Gate and pretty much all of Ken Russell's career.

And I really hope the kangaroo is back next week.


Monday, January 16, 2017

These Might Be the Best Films of 2016



It' s that time of year again: the doldrums of mid-January, in which I finally get around to naming the best films of the previous year, mere weeks after the real critics have published their lists and moved on.

My list, as always, is preceded by a self-deprecating preamble where I explain that I saw only a fraction of the 2016 films that serious and/or professional critics took time to view. (A grand total of 77, as of this weekend.) Also, I remind you that the list of films I see is shaped both by my personal tastes and the rigors of my work schedule; as such, it generally excludes anything excessively violent, anything produced by the Marvel franchise, or anything that was in-and-out of theaters in two weeks or less, especially if those two weeks coincided with a looming work deadline.

On the other hand,  the fact that I'm not obligated to see the many, many crap movies released in a given year means that the ones I do see are carefully curated to ensure maximum viewing value.  So the list you're about to read might, in fact, be the best films of 2016. You've already seen almost all of these on 'real' critics' lists. There won't be many surprises here.

A couple of quick notes about eligibility:

To be on my "Best" list, the film must have been released in the Chicago area for the first time sometime during the 2016 calendar year, whether in theaters or via home streaming.  By this criteria, the following 2015 films were under consideration for this year's list: 45 Years, Anomolisa, The Revenant Son of Saul. (SPOILER: None of them made it.)  It also means that some films showing up on other "Best of 2016" lists will be considered for my 2017 list: Silence, Hidden Figures, Toni Erdmann, 20th Century Women, Neruda, PatersonThings to Come.

The other criterion for eligibility is, of course, that I had to actually see the film.  I ran out of time, opportunities, or (in a couple of cases) inclination to see all of the following: Loving, Elle, Arrival, Green Room, Nocturnal Animals, Hacksaw Ridge, The Handmaiden.

The good news?  There was a whole lot of great film to be enjoyed in 2016 - so much so that I decided to do a "Fifteen Best" list this year, rather than the traditional "Ten Best."

In ascending order of preference, those films are:

15. Everybody Wants Some! (Richard Linklater)



Linklater's easygoing campus comedy takes place over a late August weekend in 1980, following the members of a Texas college baseball team as they settle into a ramshackle shared house, party, chase girls, smoke weed and play ball.  It's atmospheric and meandering, rather than heavily plotted, but it captures the mood and spirit of the times damn near perfectly (as I can well attest, having been a college senior myself at that time). To my great shame, I have never seen Linklater's Dazed and Confused, so I can't make an intelligent comparison to his well-loved high school comedy.  But I greatly enjoyed this one on its own terms.

14. The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos)



When I first saw The Lobster in the theater, I was so overwhelmed by its bleakness and cruelty that I almost wished I'd never seen it.  But I couldn't get it out of my head. I've since watched it two more times via home streaming; the smaller screen (and access to a fast-forward button for one particular sequence of animal abuse) made the bleakness more bearable and enhanced the subtle brilliance of the deadpan, jet-black humor.  In this oddball dystopian tale, single people are rounded up and taken to a remote hotel where they have 45 days to find a mate or else be turned into a animal of their choosing. If you (like me) are a single person, you'll especially appreciate how Lanthimos finds the absurdities in society's disapproving take on the unattached and cranks them to a lunatic nth degree.

13. Allied (Robert Zemeckis)



A superbly crafted World War II romantic thriller that feels old-fashioned in all the right ways. It channels Casablanca and a little of Alfred Hitchcock, yet never feels entirely derivative.  The less you know about the plot and its twists going in, the better; it sweeps you up and away into its narrative with classic storytelling and gorgeous cinematography.  Rush to see this while you can still find it on a big screen. It's glowing, glamorous opening scenes set in wartime Casablanca won't be nearly as dazzling on your TV.

12. Little Sister (Zach Clark)



A bittersweet comedy of family heartache and healing with a few surprises.  A badly burn-scarred Iraqi war veteran returns home; his sister (a former Goth teenager turned Catholic nun) comes to visit and helps to bring him back to life.  Set in 2008 against the election of Barack Obama to the presidency, the film's political themes are underdeveloped, but its unsentimental depiction of family quirks and conflicts is perfectly tuned. I especially liked that the young sister's religious devotion was depicted respectfully and without comment. As in his 2013 film, White Reindeer (which also made my "year's best" list), writer/director Zach Clark skillfully blends genuinely moving moments of human connection into the most outrageous scenes.

11. Hail Caesar! (Joel and Ethan Coen)




The Coen's love letter to early '50s studio filmmaking takes scattershot aim at a whole lot of targets (Communists, musicals, Biblical epics, studio meddling in the morals and private lives of its contracted actors) and culminates in a heartfelt, if barbed, appreciation of the magic that comes from it all.  Alden Ehrenreich steals the film as the young cowboy actor being uneasily shoehorned into a sophisticated comedy. An extended sequence of him on a date with an up-and-coming actress is a particularly sweet digression from the hi-jinks.

10. 13th (Ava DuVernay)




DuVernay's powerful, damning documentary examines a little-remembered qualifying clause in the 13th amendment and how it's been used to keep institutional racism alive.  She lays out a carefully assembled, multi-faceted case. (Hell, she even gets Newt Gingrich to make some of her points on camera.) An important film for anyone to see - and a particularly enlightening one for anyone who doesn't fully understand or believe in white privilege.

9.  Little Men (Ira Sachs)



Writer/director Ira Sachs continues to make intensely moving personal drama about New Yorkers at the mercy of their city's ever less affordable real estate market. (See also his 2014 film Love is Strange.) The close friendship between two  boys - one is a dressmaker's son, the other is the son of the dressmaker's landlord - is severely tested when the dressmaker's rent is raised higher than she can possibly afford.  It's gentle and sad, and not a single character is portrayed in black-and-white terms. Sachs, the most generous and sensitive of filmmakers, shows us neither villains nor tragic heroes - only flawed, decent humans struggling to make the best of a bad situation. Heartbreaking and sweet in just the right proportions, with the tiniest bit of satire just to keep things from sinking into bathos.

8.  Sing Street (John Carney)




No one captures the infectious joy of making music quite like John Carney (who previously brought us Once and Begin Again). In his best film yet, Carney focuses on aspiring young musicians in mid-1980's Ireland who write songs inspired by Duran Duran and meet after school to play and shoot videos.  It's a feel-good film with a healthy, leavening dose of reality, effectively capturing the excitement of a cultural moment as well as the economic desperation that led many young people to leave Ireland for England. There's a nicely played romance in the mix and, of course, lots of very enjoyable music.

7.  Krisha (Trey Edward Shults)




The story template is familiar: a long-absent recovering addict returns to the family fold for Thanksgiving, where's she's handled with everything from kid-gloves kindness to indifference to outright hostility.  What distinguishes this film is its uncanny way of putting us inside Krisha's head as she navigates a minefield of family conflict with ever-increasing anxiety.  Director Trey Edward Shults cast his real aunt Krisha in the title role, and himself and his relatives as her family members; they bring an unsettling naturalism to the proceedings.

6.  A Bigger Splash (Luca Guadagnino)




Like Guadagnino's previous film, I am Love, this is a decadent and sumptuous watch. It verges on being travel magazine porn with scenes of characters languishing around a pool and savoring freshly made cheeses and freshly stirred daquiris in an exotic island setting. I'm not immune to the charms of ogling beautiful people enjoying beautiful things; I'd watch this over and over just to see Ralph Fiennes' exuberant dance to the Stones' "Emotional Rescue"  on a lazy, sunny afternoon. But Guadagnino adds subtle layers to his remake of the equally decadent French film La Piscine by setting it on Panetelleria Island - off the coast of Sicily and within sight of Tunisia, smack in the path of refugees heading toward Europe.  Those refugees play a minor role around the edges of the gorgeous, privileged life depicted here, but their desperation casts a shadow over the beautiful people's story as it edges towards tragedy. As you would expect, Tilda Swinton - playing a rock star whose recent throat surgery has rendered her speechless - gives a stunning performance, even without words.


5. Sully (Clint Eastwood)




A no-fuss depiction of heroic action, with Tom Hanks rather brilliantly portraying Captain "Sully" Sullerson as a man who simply did what needed to be done in the moment. The highly fictionalized drama that Eastwood makes out of the investigations follwing the celebrated "Miracle on the Hudson," sometimes seems a bit forced.  But his minute-by-minute recreation of the crash and subsequent rescue is a breathtaking piece of cinema, the kind which literally keeps you on the edge of your seat even though you know how it's going to come out.

4. OJ: Made in America (Ezra Edelman)




This has the unusual distinction of making both this list and the number 2 spot on my "Best Binge Watches of 2016," since it was also shown on television.  As I said on that other list, it's "a masterful, nearly 8-hour documentary that exhaustively examines race and celebrity in America through the prism of O. J. Simpson's rise and fall. Simpson's story plays like Greek tragedy. Director Ezra Edelman shapes a mountain of material and interviews into riveting drama, the television equivalent of a great book that you can't bring yourself to put down.  Interestingly enough, this five-part TV series has landed on most critics list of the year's 10 best films, and is short-listed for the Best Documentary Oscar.  And deservedly so. I'm going to predict, here and now, that it will win that award."


3. Jackie (Pablo Larrain)



Among the many things this film does to brilliant effect is to capture the fragmented mental state of a woman struggling to process her own trauma while taking care of business for her family and her country.  That's not to trivialize the horror or the historical impact of JFK's assassination itself, because Jackie certainly makes those things clear; in fact, it concurrently captures the fragmented and frightened state of the entire nation with equal brilliance. Natalie Portman's canny, finely calibrated performance gets at both the steeliness and the vulnerability beneath the First Lady's flawlessly composed patrician exterior. Larrain approaches a frequently depicted historical event from a fresh and original perspective and gives it renewed relevancy. (Some passages in which Mrs. Kennedy ponders the nature of truth and whether it is contained in the written words of a news story feels all too relevant to our current times.)That's no small achievement.

And then ... we skip to first place, which is a TIE, because... don't make me choose...

1. TIE - Moonlight (Barry Jenkins) and La La Land (Damien Chazelle)

Two very different films: both are equally masterful, and both seem like the films we most needed in the tumultuous, contentious year just past.




Moonlight is a beautiful, poetic, emotionally shattering coming-of-age drama of a young, gay, black man growing up in the projects of South Florida.  It's a linear narrative, but one that communicates most powerfully through images and wordless sequences (the motion of water beneath and around the boy as he learns to swim, the sensation of his free hand digging into beach sand as he embraces and kisses another boy for the first time.)  These scenes have an intimacy and emotional resonance that nearly breaks your heart.

There's a welcome subtlety and an unforced impact to the revelations in Moonlight, particularly when its young protagonist realizes that the neighborhood man who's become a badly needed father figure to him is also the dealer supplying his crack-addled mother.  The moment is heart-stopping, yet we're left to let the process the significance of that for ourselves.

Given our current political climate, it's no stretch to worry that stories like Moonlight might be suppressed in the near future, but that's not the only reason to celebrate it. It is a stunning cinematic achievement in its own right - and would be so at any time.


La La Land is a bit of an escape, yet I would argue it is no less emotionally resonant and no less needed.  The recent backlash against its heralding as the second coming of the Hollywood musical was both predictable and misguided.  Make no mistake, La La Land makes many conscious references to the great musicals of the Vincent Minelli/Stanley Donen heyday, but let's not kid ourselves - that heyday is never truly coming back. It was a product of its own time, one that this film looks back on with admiration and longing but was never going to fully re-create. Besides, La La Land owes as much, if not more, to the bittersweet and modest charms of Jacques Demy's Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort as to the MGM masterworks.

I never minded that the song-and-dance talents of Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone were serviceable, but hardly dazzling; that's entirely in keeping with the Demy influence. (Although, truth be told, I did wish that someone had coached Stone on the proper technique for belting before she recorded her eleventh hour solo number. There's a bit more involved than just yelling the lyrics.)

Damien Chazelle infuses La La Land with a spectacular visual beauty that underscores its themes of yearnings for love, for times and art forms that are passing away, for success and artistic fulfillment. That the film builds to a bittersweet climax in no way dashes the hopefulness that drives its narrative.  And hope is something badly needed now.


Tuesday, January 3, 2017

2016 in the Rearview: Reactions I Wasn't Supposed to Have

This is the first in a series of posts looking back at the films of 2016.

For many years now, I've had a film blog or one sort or another.  And along with my annual ten best list, I've always identified at least one film that "I Liked More Than I Was Supposed To" - the kind of film that no one in their right mind would put on a Ten Best List, but which I remembered fondly for providing a rollicking good time and little-to-no artistic merit. (The honorees have included Ted, 2012, Neighbors, and It's Complicated.)

There were a few contenders for this dubious accolade in 2016, but surprisingly there was also one film that begged to receive its Bizarro World equivalent: the "Film I Was Supposed to Like, But Didn't."


Every year has its share of overrated critical darlings, but Manchester by the Sea is an entirely different case. It's well made, impeccably acted and written with emotional authenticity and genuine human insight. It probably deserves every award nomination it gets. And it's just about unbearable.

Because it's one thing to tell a story about a man in deep emotional pain who repeatedly fails to overcome the traumatic events of his past. But it's quite another thing to make people watch that in excruciating, unrelenting detail for two-and-a-half hours: every awkward conversation, every painful confrontation with an estranged family member, every rejection of help or new relationships. And it doesn't help that director Kenneth Lonnergan underscores the film's most tragic scenes with bombastically mournful music, as if he couldn't trust the audience to have the correct reactions. There are occasional bits of attempted comic relief, but played so dryly they barely register. (One screwball-worthy scene with Gretchen Mol and Matthew Broderick seems to have been spliced in from another film altogether - until it, too, ends on a depressing note.) By the the two-thirds point, I wanted to escape the theater so badly, I was gripping the armrests to try to keep myself in my seat.

Manchester by the Sea is by no means a bad film. But its authenticity works against it. It feels like emotional torture porn.

After seeing it, I went home and popped in the Blu-Ray disc of the 2016 film I most liked (that I wasn't supposed to) as a corrective. And it worked. Which is kind of a miracle...


Because Bridget Jones's Baby is a film that no one was clamoring for, with a premise that makes no sense and a hackneyed plot contrivance that plays out almost exactly as you'd expect.

That it succeeds as a funny, cozy, heartwarming bit of entertainment is a testament to the one quality that covers a multitude of cinematic sins:  star power.  Or, more to the point, the enduring spark of chemistry between Colin Firth and Renee Zellwegger. Early in the film, there's a scene at a christening party where Firth's Mark Darcy looks on as Zellwegger's Bridget dances to "Gangnam Style" with a gaggle of children; between her bubbly good spirits and his adoring gaze, it's as sweet a depiction of a match made in heaven as I've seen on screen all year.  In the hands of these two most appealing actors, Bridget remains lovably and laughably flawed , while Mark Darcy retains his status as the most attractively repressed English male since, well, the original Mr. Darcy of "Pride and Prejudice."

Otherwise, nothing here makes much sense. No one who's followed the exploits of Helen Fielding's plucky, faux-pas-prone heroine - on the page or onscreen - would expect her to have reached the age of 43 without marrying Mark Darcy. (In fact, Fielding's own 2012 novel, "Mad About the Boy" gave us Bridget as the widowed mother of two young children, re-entering the dating world after Mark's tragic death.)  But Bridget's alternate history on film is hardly a drag; she's still upbeat, still plucky, still surrounded by funny, slightly ribald friends and co-workers who clearly love her, and her world is a sweet and friendly place to spend a couple of hours.

Oh, and Patrick "McDreamy" Dempsey is on hand, too, as a dating website billionaire who could be Bridget's baby daddy.  But honestly, he's the least interesting thing on the menu. Next to the longing gaze of Colin Firth, he doesn't stand a chance.