Sunday, February 18, 2018

REVIEWS: The "Wonder" Year or, Ground Control to Major Tom

Wonder Woman wasn't the only film released in 2017 with the world "wonder" in it. And Lego Batman, Ferdinand, and My Little Pony (to name a few) haven't been the only "family" movies released the same year. Furthermore, it's very easy to forget that there's more to "family entertainment" than just cartoons.

Two live-action 2017 films (courtesy directors Todd Haynes and Stephen Chbosky, respectfully) were both based on bestselling novels. They each feature stories of young adults who may not have superpowers (although one does imagine he's a spaceman or a Star Wars character), but they have determination, real human empathy, and a desire to, shall we say, "reach for the stars," which is very rare, even in live-action movies these days. (Or maybe they just don't make enough of them lately.) Did I mention that both films include references to David Bowie's "Space Oddity"?

Oakes Fedley in Wonderstruck
Upon finishing Brian Selznick's amazing, illustrated bestselling novel from 2011, Wonderstruck, I decided not to see any previews or photos from Haynes' big screen adaptation. For one, I wanted to maintain that same sense of amazement, excitement and, of course, wonder, from when I read the book, especially when it got into the climax. Selznick's novel tells the stories of two deaf children--one told in words, set in the late-Seventies; the other, told in pictures, set in the late-Twenties--, their journeys to find something greater than themselves, and how their stories (set half a century apart) intersect unexpectedly.

The former story centers on Gunflint, Minnesota, resident Ben, who lost his mother in a car accident recently and now lives with his aunt and uncle and cousins. Fascinated by astrology (his mother loved Bowie's aforementioned classic track) and curating (he wonders about an Oscar Wilde quote his mother once had framed), he searches through some things in his old house next door one stormy night and stumbles upon a bookmark he believes to be a clue to the father he never knew. While trying to call the number on the bookmark, lightning strikes through the phone and Ben eventually becomes deaf. He soon sets out to New York in search of his father, and perhaps something more.

The latter story centers on New Jersey native, Rose, a deaf girl who has a knack for making paper buildings, and running to the local cinema to see the latest silent film release. She hates her home life, her stern father, and her books on sign language. She dreams of running away to New York and following in the footsteps of a famous actress (a "star," in her own way). She keeps a scrapbook of such newspaper clippings.

Millicent Simmonds in Wonderstruck
Both stories deal with two "curators"--one who collects various things, while the other builds paper cities. Both reach for the stars, like constellations (explaining why they're both drawn to a meteorite in the Museum of Natural History), and they even find new journeys that are just as "electrifying," even when initial dreams can feel lost, as they can be in everyday life. It's also a story of two outcasts who can't communicate other than through written words or body language, and who deal with childhood angst and wanting to belong somewhere. The aforementioned Wilde quote reads, "We are all in the gutter, but only some of us can see the stars."

The way that both stories lead to the aforementioned Museum, with an attraction called the "Cabinet of Wonders," is one thing. The same goes for the back-and-forth parallels between both time periods (which can be a tad much at times, like a few too many cliffhangers). But the way these narratives pay tribute to (and respect) the deaf community is remarkable. And it's a credit to Selznick (who also wrote the screenplay, as well as the original novel "The Invention of Hugo Cabret"), Haynes, composer Carter Burwell, actresses Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams, up-and-comer Oakes Fedley (Pete's Dragon), and newcomer Millicent Simmonds (deaf in real life), for their contributions to it.

Although I prefer the book, the film does stand on its own very well. Part period piece and part silent film, Wonderstruck is visual poetry and reminds us of the power of cinema and pictures to tell a story. The overall effect is nothing short of remarkable and, yes, wonderful.

Jacob Tremblay and Julia Roberts in Wonder
Based on the bestselling novel by R.J. Palacio, Wonder is about a young boy with a facial disorder, who goes to a public school for the first time. And as opposed to paying homage to cinema and the deaf community as Wonderstruck did, this story pays tribute to a different community of individuals and social "outcasts," and celebrates the #choosekind movement that everybody and anybody can choose to be a part of, without getting too preachy.

"I know I'm not an ordinary kid," says the titular Auggie Pullman, whose facial scars have been the result of over twenty hospital surgeries since he was born. Said hospital visits have helped Auggie to eat, breath, and try to live as normal a life a possible. And yet, he prefers wearing his space helmet to escape the potential harsh realities that are out in the outside world.

Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson play the parents of Jacob Tremblay's Auggie (who resembles a young Eric Stoltz from Mask). Mom Isabel (who calls Auggie a "wonder") has homeschooled him for so long, that she believes it's time he gets out into the world and experience life on his own, despite doubts from dad Nate. It's clear both parents and older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) try to prepare him for school in advance. And though he's invited by the school principle (Mandy Patinkin) to take a tour with current students, it's clear most of the students initially just show up to "play nice." The story that follows tells shows how they really feel, or how they begin to feel, about Auggie. Kids and even adults are, after all, different--and even good--at masking their true feelings. "I can't wait until Halloween," yearns Auggie.

(l-r) Jacob Tremblay, Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson,
Izabela Vidovic, and Danielle Rose Russell in Wonder
The film mostly avoids the cliches of similar coming-of-age stories involving certain outcasts, and allows its sentimentality to be understood and earned, not forced. One such element is the likelihood of friendship betrayals, such as when Auggie hears who he thought was his best friend foolishly talk behind his back, potentially because of classmates' peer pressure, or possibly the fear of being hated or embarrassed, or losing a reputation. ("You're not the only one with bad days," Via tells Auggie.) What's even more challenging (and sad) is how adults can be just as insensitive. For other parents, however (Auggie's, in particular), the lesson they have to take to heart is that their children will need to get out into the world, sooner or later, and experience and grow in all the things that come with it. These un-sugarcoated elements get to the heart of people, why they do what they do, or what influences them to change (or not to), to make the choice to be kind over prejudice.

Wonder brilliantly makes the bold choice to show not just Auggie's story, both the stories of those he impacts: his sister Via, who feels neglected by her parents because of Auggie ("My mom and dad and I are all planets orbiting the sun [or, son]"); his new friend Jack Will, who, at first, helped Auggie for his mom's sake but then grew to like him as a friend; and Via's estranged friend Miranda, who considers the Pullmans a second family from her own divorced family. Even the family dog, Daisy, who was there for Auggie after each of his hospital visits, is given a bit of limelight. ("Real friends are hard to find," Auggie says of her.) What's great about Roberts and Wilson's involvement, for one, is you don't even consider their star power. They are their characters.

The advice that Auggie receives throughout the story may sound preachy to some. "If you don't like who you are, just picture who you want to be," says Nate. "You can't blend in when you were born to stand out," says Via, who also informs Auggie that "there's nothing we can do about other people but ourselves." Says Isabel, pointing to her face, "This is the map that shows us where we've been, and [pointing to her heart] this is the map that shows us where we're going." It's a credit to director/co-writer Stephen Chbosky (who also wrote and directed The Perks of Being a Wallflower) and co-writers Steve Conrad and Jack Thorne, who handle the material with care by (again) not sugarcoating it, but really grounding it in reality. Teacher Mr. Browne (Daveed Diggs)'s class precepts, for instance, speak to all kinds of kids and adults, and not just those with disabilities, which inspires classmate and new friend Summer (Millie Davis). "I want some nice friends for a change," she states. With all the hatred and cynicism currently going on in the world currently, this story and movie is what audiences (especially families) may want and need, too.

Jacob Tremblay in Wonder

Friday, February 2, 2018

REVIEWING CLASSICS: "Well, it's 'Groundhog Day'. Again."

Holidays, both national and general, have become synonymous with certain movies, and not just in and of themselves and their respective traditions. Said films or specials have even become traditions year after year. For Halloween, many hold It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966) above other fright-fest features often associated with pumpkin-carving and costume-wearing. For Thanksgiving, there's John Hughes' Planes, Trains, & Automobiles (1987), where Steve Martin's impatient Neil Page is forced to share a road trip with John Candy's slobby-but-warm Del Griffith. And don't get me started on the countless Christmas movies that are watched annually, from A Christmas Story (1983) to National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation (1989) and, of course, It's a Wonderful Life (1946). Even late director Garry Marshall's last three films were about annual holidays and events.

This year marks twenty five years since the release of the Harold Ramis-directed Bill Murray vehicle, Groundhog Day (1993), a high-concept, philosophical comedy about a cynical weatherman who gets stuck in a small town--and an unexplained time loop--and keeps living the same day over and over and over again.

Travelling to Punxsutawney, PA, to cover the Groundhog Day festivities with producing partner Rita (Andie McDowell) and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott), weatherman Phil Connors (Murray) just wants to leave town, only to be trapped by a blizzard he failed to predict. (Ironic, right?) Waking up on February 2nd at 6:00 am to Sonny & Cher's "I Got You, Babe," certain things start to take place. An old classmate stops Phil in the street to sell insurance. Phil steps in a giant puddle on the street corner. He visits a diner later in the day where a waiter accidentally drops a tray of dishes, and so on. The next morning, however, Phil gets confused. The same song plays on the radio, as does the same broadcast. The weather looks as it did the day before. He runs into the same classmate and the same puddle. And on it goes. It's as if he's in an episode of "The Twilight Zone". But by Day 3, he becomes really stressed. Furthermore, Rita doesn't believe his predicament, and the local neurologist and psychiatrist don't seem to be much help neither.

Venting his melancholy at a bar with two other patrons, Phil wonders, "What would you do if you were stuck in one place and everyday was the same, and nothing that you did mattered?" The patron's response: "That about sums it up for me." Eventually, Phil figures since he's apparently trapped without a certain tomorrow, he could do anything without any consequences.

By Day 4, he starts acting so cynical and egocentric that he even eats like a glutton. "What makes you so special?" argues Rita, who refuses to believe Phil is acting and living without a care in the world, "Everybody worries about something." She even goes so far as to call Phil's egotism his "defining characteristic." One of his other acts for the time being involves meeting up with various women, including an old high school classmate, whom he tries to take advantage of (clearly not knowing what real love is).

By this point, anyone who hasn't seen this film may think the repetition of the same day, events and circumstances, becomes tiring. The genius of the script by Ramis and Danny Rubin, however, is that while each day is replayed, it's seen slightly different based on Phil's view, even based on what time of the day it is. One of these days (replays, rather), he speaks like he's directing the events unfolding, decides to steal bank money and buys an an expensive car for a movie night (with a new date). Everybody does the same thing, of course, but not Phil. More specifically, the things that change are his influences on the day, for better or worse. (Other movies have used this same formula since this films release, including the Adam Sandler-Drew Barrymore comedy 50 First Dates (2004), the sci-fi action-thrillers Source Code (2011) and Edge of Tomorrow (2014), and the recent horror-thriller Happy Death Day (2017), but not to the same level of fresh avail that Murray, Rubin and Ramis reached with it.)

Then, Phil turns to Rita. He asks her what she wants out of life, as if she had one day to do it. She asks him the same thing. He decides he wants to get to know Rita more, what she's looking for, including the "perfect guy." His many opportunities to get to know Rita--and to try and be better--over and over seem to mirror our own fallen or failing nature, and our need to be better people. (It's interesting that the film's trailers seemed to emphasis this romance notion, leading viewers to believe the film was going to be a romantic comedy.) Phil may think he knows Rita, but he really doesn't. (Not yet, at least.)

The parallels between Phil and groundhog "Punxsutawney Phil"s, considering the aforementioned loop, start to come into play as the story goes on. There are the themes of predictions, expectations, and things turning out not as people planned or hoped, no matter how hard we try. Rita is wise enough to see through to Phil and his feeble attempts, which result in slaps in the face. ("Is this what love is for you?") The moral here: love and sex are not the same thing.

Phil eventually sinks into depression, venting angrily at everyone around him, believing there is no way out of his situation. (The slow-motion shot of the alarm clock switching from 5:59 to 6:00 is loud and profound.) "As long as this groundhog sees his shadow, we'll be stuck in winter. And I have to stop him." He tries to end the cycle on his own terms, such as breaking the alarm clock several times, and even tries to kill himself in a dark montage (driving off a cliff with "Punxsutawney Phil" in their only scene together, putting a hot toaster in a bathtub, stepping in front of a bus, and jumping off a building). I have a general view on the theme of suicide, that it is not, nor should it be, funny. In the case of Groundhog Day, there seems to be a real sense of gloom to this montage, especially the latter moment with the building.

Thankfully, the story and movie doesn't end there.

From the next time in the diner, the story takes a different turn, and one for the better. After eventually (and genuinely) convincing Rita, she decides to spend the rest of the (current) day with him, though Phil knows she won't remember anything the next day. From here, Phil really starts to change, and becomes more understanding. He realizes he cannot change the circumstances around him, although he can have an effect on them. He can only (and must first) change himself.

He begins to do unto others, such as buying his colleagues coffee and Danish, taking piano lessons, learning how to ice sculpt, and even helping a homeless (and dying) man.

Illustrating the value of community, Phil, in a way, becomes something of a local town hero. "No matter what happens tomorrow, or the rest of my life," he tells Rita later, "right now I'm happy, because I love you." The late Roger Ebert noted and claimed, regarding the earlier scene between Phil and Rita in the diner (as he tells her, "When you stand in the snow, you look like an angel"), that Phil hasn't learned to love Rita, but that "he has learned to see the angel."

Ramis (who passed away in February 2014) said of the film's moral, "If you change one thing in your own life, everything could change." Well done for a now-revered, classic "holiday" film that handles its respective themes (including subtle spiritual elements) very well, not to mention its balancing of comedy and genuine drama.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

B.e.'s Standout Films of 2017

(WRITER'S NOTE: This post was initially published one day ago, but after some careful reconsideration and reevaluation, elements in the opening section have been changed/modified to ensure the most honest post possible by yours truly.)

2017 was a really challenging and difficult year for so many people, in politics, in Hollywood and elsewhere. Which could explain why so many films and filmmakers created or adapted stories that were angst-ridden cries, or hope-filled virtues that countered them.

The following ten films were selected by yours truly based on some of these aspects, but more specifically for their universal undertones in terms of the way we see everything from pop culture to the media, to racism, to women, and to heroism.

It should also be noted that the following reviews reference film performances and achievements by actors and filmmakers. However, certain actors and filmmakers (including Casey Affleck, James Franco, and Kevin Spacey) have come under fire recently for misconduct allegations, and these reviews, in no way, endorse such private matters.

Also, click on the underlined bold titles (like so) to read my full reviews of said films.

To start, here are a few notable mentions that didn't make my top ten.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi 
Director Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) follows up J.J. Abrams' successful continuation of George Lucas' space saga with an unexpected bang. Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver develop and excel their characters (Rey and Kylo Ren, respectively) with grit and emotional conflict, while veterans Mark Hamill (as a pessimistic and aging Luke Skywalker) and the late Carrie Fisher (whose given a loving tribute in her final on-screen role as Leia) show they are still forces to be reckoned with. Probably the most surprising Star Wars chapter since The Empire Strikes Back, and one of the most original, that takes the series in a new direction.

War for the Planet of the Apes 
20th Century Fox has been on a role in rebooting the Planet of the Apes franchise this decade. Rise was impressive, what with its emotional investment almost solely from motion-capture performances, while Dawn improved its story and visuals in almost every way. War continues that streak, almost working as a silent post-apocalyptic battle between man (did I mention Woody Harrelson's the bad guy?) and primates. Kudos to Weta Digital, performance maestro Andy Serkis, and director Matt Reeves.

Brian Selznick's award-winning novel (told half in words, half in pictures) is a work for the ages. And while director Todd Haynes' film adaptation falls short of some of the novel's translucency, it's still a remarkable and, or course certainly, wonderful achievement on its own. Julianne Moore, Oakes Fegley, and newcomer Millicent Simmonds (deaf in real life) shine in roles and stories that jump back between the late Seventies and the late Twenties.

There have been many other incredible onscreen performances this year, including

Gary Oldman as a superb Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour,

James Franco as the enigmatic and highly-eccentric Tommy Wiseau in The Disaster Artist,

a down-to-earth Willem Dafoe and the irresistible Brooklyn Prince in Sean Baker's bittersweet and heartbreaking The Florida Project,

McKenna Grace as a child prodigy in Marc Webb's Gifted,

the always-radiant Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf as a daughter-mother duo in Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird,

Daniel Day-Lewis and Vicky Krieps in a Hitchcockian romance in Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread,

and Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslanay and Miranda Richardson in David Gordon Green's Boston Marathon retelling Stronger.

Hey, I'll even throw in Alec Baldwin's hilarious voice over work in DreamWorks Animation's The Boss Baby for equal measure ("Cookies are for closers").

Anyway, onto the main list.

10. The Lego Batman Movie
Arguably the first film of any kind to bridge the gap between the dark and brooding version of DC's famous Caped Crusader and the campy and silly version. Although it falls short of the charm that its predecessor (The Lego Movie) had in playing with toys, Lego Batman still manages to parody and pay homage to the overall mythology. It's hysterical and entertaining, and quite poignant. The first ten minutes alone are some of the funniest material ever written in any film this year. (See how many references you can find.)

9. The Post
A belated entry on this list, but so well-executed to not mention. A true story where audiences know the outcome, but are still on the edge of their seats in a gripping dramatization of the Washington Post's coverage and publishing of the Pentagon Papers in the early 1970s. First-rate direction (courtesy Steven Spielberg), acting (screen vets Meryl Streep, as Post Publisher Kay Graham, and Tom Hanks, as Post Editor Ben Bradlee), cinematography (it looks like it was shot in the Seventies), tension, and relevance to current political and ethical morals. A very committed achievement, which also connects to the events of All the President's Men.

8. Baby Driver 
British director Edgar Wright uses all the trademark idiosyncrasies that helped make his Cornetto trilogy of genre comedy hits (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, The World's End). Here, he pulls out all the stops with an audio-visual music playlist that drives the story of a getaway driver who plots to escape a world of crime--a violent and even shocking one, at that. Teen heartthrob Ansel Elgort is a revelation here, and is backed up by an A-line cast that chews up the scenery. The highlighted sequence: The opening heist set to the Jon Spencer Orchestra's "Bellbottoms".

7. I, Tonya 
A dramatization of the controversial true story of disgraced figure skater Tonya Harding, I, Tonya is a very profane and tragic "anti-redemption" story, to be sure. But it's also a compelling and engrossing one that mirrors the way people view others in the media and how the media has made certain famous (or infamous) people the way they are. Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, and an almost unrecognizable Allison Janney (as Harding, ex-husband Jeff Giloolly, and abusive mother LaVona Golden, respectfully) deliver nail-biting and brutally-honest performances from a script by Steven Rogers that attempts to give Harding's side of the story justice.

6. A Ghost Story
One of the year's most striking images was seeing actor Casey Affleck in a ghost sheet. Director David Lowery (Ain't Them Bodies Saints, Pete's Dragon) manages to take a rather silly image (think It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown) and mold it into a haunting, beautiful and mesmerizing tale of loss, love, and time. Arguably, the most famous scene involves Rooney Mara nearly scarfing down a whole pie (it's actually four minutes of an uncut take that feels long), and shedding tears in the process. Many shots, in fact, are very long and intimate, evoking the notion of making such moments last long as if they were the last, or like they were home movies (hence, the full screen aspect ratio the director chose). Affleck and Mara display varying emotions without much dialogue, while Lowery showcases a less-is-more approach to the unlimited possibilities of filmmaking.

5. Wonder
R.J. Palacio's bestselling book, about a young boy with a facial disability who goes to a public school for the first time, is brought to cinematic life by director/co-writer Stephen Chbosky (The Perks of Being a Wallflower). It's also a much-needed story in today's news of hatred and prejudice still going on. The filmmakers also make the bold choice to not just focus on central character Auggie Pullman (Room's Jacob Tremblay), but also on the lives of those he impacts, from his family members to his classmates and teachers. Julia Roberts and Owen Wilson (who play Auggie's parents) put aside their star power and are fully-committed to this film, one you owe yourself to see.

4. Logan 
Hugh Jackman ends his eight-film run as the fist-clawed mutant Wolverine on a violent, raw, and gripping note in James Mangold's more-western-drama-than-comic-book-action story. (For the record, this is the most violent film I've seen this year, and I pity parents of X-Men-loving children who allow their tykes to view such carnage.) On the other hand, as far as story goes, Jackman and Patrick Stewart show different sides to their respective characters, portraying Wolverine and Charles Xavier at their most broken, compelling, profane, and human, as they head on a road trip to deliver a girl (with powers similar to Logan's own) to a secret and safe place up north. An unlikely and extremely well-executed deconstruction of the superhero/comic-book genre.

3. Get Out
It seems a little ironic that in such a challenging year, the horror genre has experienced something of a renaissance. With works from M. Night Shamaylan (Split), Stephen King (It) and Darren Aronofsky (mother!) frightening or polarizing audiences, the main kudos goes to Jordan Peele's surprisingly intriguing--and creepy--directorial debut. Centered on the African-American experience, as a young black man (a breakout Daniel Kaluuya) goes with his girlfriend (Allison WIlliams) to visit her family for the weekend, racial paranoia in tow, when things get suspicious and take a turn for the worse. Kuluuya is thoroughly relatable and likable, while most of the supporting cast succeeds in making us cringe. A horror film with actually engaging and provocative social commentary; that's rare, I guess. Just don't say you haven't been warned.

2. Dunkirk
Director Christopher Nolan has tackled everything on the big screen from mind-bending thrillers to comic-book heroes to space wormholes. Three of these movies (The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, and Interstellar) have been partially filmed with state-of-the-art IMAX cameras. With Dunkirk, he uses the technology in service to the story (and this is a story that must be seen in the IMAX format), by recreating the jarring, suspenseful, and clock-ticking experience of the 1940 evacuation of nearly 100,000 soldiers on the beaches of Dunkirk by way of Winston Churchill's Operation Dynamo. Told boldly and unconventionally from three perspectives (land, sea, and air) and even different time durations (one week, one day, one hour, respectfully). While many have argued that this isn't really a character-driven piece, there are still some brilliant performances on hand, particularly from newcomers Fionn Whitehead and singer Harry Styles as soldiers on land, Cillian Murphy as a traumatized soldier, Mark Rylance as a civilian answering the rescue call, and Tom Hardy as a spitfire pilot. A very visceral and thrilling filmgoing experience.

1. Wonder Woman
Of all the films released this year (and possibly of all superhero films in recent years), this adaptation of the famous DC character from director Patty Jenkins was the most sincere, heroic, and inspiring. Not only is this the highest-grossing female-led action movie of all-time, but it's also (and more specifically) the first DC universe film to right the identity crisis its initial films (Man of Steel, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad) had struggled with. Jenkins and star Gal Gadot have helped craft a story and character worth rooting for and believing in, because she fights for and believes in something real: justice, peace, and, above all, love. Gadot embodies everything about the Amazonian warrior, and the film does a great job treating her as such and not as a pinup girl that she has partially been known for over 75 years. If anything, this film challenges the notion of whether the world and people are worth saving, despite their/our shortcomings and failures. As one character says, "It's not about 'deserve.' It's about what you believe. And I believe in love."

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Oscar Nominations 2018: #MeToo, Not So White, and Wonder Women (Except One or Two)

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (with assistance from actor Andy Serkis and comedienne Tiffany Haddish) announced its annual list of nominated films, directors, actors, technicians, and so forth yesterday morning. Similar to recent years, many worried if those voting would leave out people of color in lead acting categories. The same went for this year's worry over any potential lack of female directors, as well as actors who have allegedly been charged with sexual misconduct. Well, supporters of the #MeToo movement and critics of the #OscarsSoWhite campaigns can rest assured, as this year's Oscars prove to be some of the most diverse, perhaps even more than last year.

First things first. The film with the most nominations goes to Guillermo del Toro's period-fantasy The Shape of Water, including a Best Picture nod--a rarity for the fantasy genre, considering the last film to be nominated--and win--was The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King in 2004. The Mexican filmmaker picked up nominations for directing, co-writing, and co-producing the film (some have theorized that he may form a trifecta with his fellow Mexican filmmakers and friends Alfonso Cauron and Alejandro J. Innaritu, directors who have previously won golden statues), while the film's stars Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer, and Richard Jenkins picked up acting accolades, and almost every technical category was filled by the Cold War-set underwater tale. (Read my review of the film here for a more in-depth and discerning perspective.)

Meanwhile, World War II epics Dunkirk and Darkest Hour picked up several technical nods, including Best Picture for each, director Christopher Nolan for the former, and actor Gary Oldman (a high contender) for the latter. And speaking of technical awards, the critically-praised sequel Blade Runner 2049 was congratulated (many fingers are crossed for Roger Deakins' unforgettable cinematography), as was the musical-chase hit Baby Driver (which got three nods).

Guillermo del Toro, Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones
on the set of The Shape of Water
The black (and rage-filled) comedy-drama Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, collected six nominations, including its performances from Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, and (surprise) Woody Harrelson.

Other nominations that weren't so surprising were Saoirse Ronan and Laurie Metcalf for Lady Bird, Allison Janney for I, Tonya, Willem Dafoe for The Florida Project, Kumail Nanjiana & Emily V. Gordan's script for The Big Sick, Pixar's Coco for Best Animated Feature, Daniel Day-Lewis's performance in Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread (reportedly the actor's last), and Meryl Streep's performance as Katherine Graham in the free-press drama The Post (also nominated for Best Picture). That film's director Steven Spielberg, co-star Tom Hanks, and screenwriters Josh Singer & Liz Hannah were left out of the race, however.

Speaking of Phantom Thread, the film received other surprising nominations, like Best Supporting Actress for Lesley Manville (who plays Day-Lewis's sister) and directing for Anderson (his first since There Will Be Blood ten years ago).

Mudbound, the 1940s-set slavery tale from director Dee Rees, became the first Netflix film to be honored by the Academy, collecting nods for its adapted screenplay (by Rees and Virgil WIlliams), cinematography (Rachel Morrison became the first nominated female cinematographer in the awards' history), and actress Mary J. Blige (who co-wrote the nominated song in the film as well).

Kevin Spacey (left) was replaced by Christopher Plummer (right)
during an unprecedented post production for All the Money in the World
James Franco's fully-committed performance as Tommy Wiseau in The Disaster Artist was left out, potentially due to recent misconduct allegations against the actor, following his Golden Globe win this month. (The film did get recognized for its adapted screenplay, though.) Speaking of allegations, 88-year-old Christopher Plummer was recognized for his supporting role as J. Paul Getty in All the Money in the World, a role that was originally completed with Kevin Spacey, but was replaced by Plummer in a one-month post-production period due to allegations against Spacey.

And although I am a fan of Denzel Washington's work (I've yet to see Roman J. Israel, Esq.), I feel his acting nomination may have been an excuse for the Academy to remain a little more diverse.

But the biggest disappointment of all was the Academy's apparent undervaluing of comic book-related movies (much like the animation medium continues to be). Sure, Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 was given a Best Visual Effects nod, and the hard-R Logan (another Marvel property) got acknowledged for its adapted screenplay. But Wonder Woman (based on the popular DC warrior) was one of the most influential and inspiring films this past year, especially for women in the industry, audiences in moviegoing droves, and for proof that superheroes are not strictly a boy's club. So the very fact that director Patty Jenkins, star Gal Gadot, and the film itself weren't recognized at all is an utter shame.

(l-r) Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman) and Hugh Jackman (Logan)
Still, Logan getting nominated in a category that wasn't a mere technical one is pretty incredible. (The only other comic-book-related screenplay that comes to mind is 2003's American Splendor.)

The biggest acknowledgements (and deservedly so) go to first-time directors Jordan Peele and Greta Gerwig, who were also recognized for their original screenplays for Get Out and Lady Bird, respectfully. Not only were their films acknowledged for what they were (one, a horror feature; the other, a coming-of-age story), but they also benefited from elements of comedy and realism. And kudos to British director Christopher Nolan, who, finally, was recognized, thanks to his work on the excellent Dunkirk.

I mentioned in my post two years ago that the nominees then were still a diverse crowd, despite. And here is no exception. Although many have argued about the Academy's lack of acknowledging Latino and Asian performers and filmmakers (Vietnamese-American actress Hong Chau has been getting accolades in recent weeks for her role in Alexander Payne's Downsizing), the nominees this year still range from black (Peele, Spencer, and first-time nominees Blige and Daniel Kaluuya) to represented countries like Mexico (del Toro), Ireland (Ronan), Australia (Robbie), and of course England (Hawkins).

A few other interesting facts:
(l-r) Frances McDormand, Meryl Streep, and Saoirse Ronan
are nominated for Best Actress
2011 was arguably a good year for women in film, in front of and behind the camera. Two key female-led films were recognized by the Academy that year, including the raunchy comedy Bridesmaids (writers Kristen Wiig and Annie Mumolo, and supporting player Melissa McCarthy, all received nominations) and the period drama The Help (Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, and Jessica Chastain were honored with acting nominations, with Spencer winning that night). This year, no less than ten nominated films feature female protagonists at the realm: Beauty and the BeastThe Florida ProjectI, TonyaLady BirdMolly's GameThe PostThe Shape of WaterStar Wars: The Last Jedi, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; and Victoria & Abdul.

Jordan Peele and Betty Gabriel behind the scenes of Get Out
Jordan Peele has become the fifth black director to receive an Oscar nomination (three in his case, for Get Out), following John Singleton (Boyz N the Hood, 1991), Lee Daniels (Precious, 2009), Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, 2013), and Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, 2016). He has also become the fifth person to be nominated for writing, directing, and producing a film that was their directorial debut following Warren Beatty for Heaven Can Wait (1978) and James L. Brooks for Terms of Endearment (1983).

Get Out has also become the sixth horror film to be honored with a Best Picture nomination, following The Exorcist (1973), Jaws (1975), The Silence of the Lambs (1991), The Sixth Sense (1999), and Black Swan (2010).

Timothee Chalamet, Saoirse Ronan, and Greta Gerwig behind the scenes of Lady Bird
Greta Gerwig has become the fifth female director to receive a nomination, following Lina Wertmüller (Seven Beauties, 1975), Jane Campion (The Piano, 1993), Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation, 2003) and Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, 2009). The latter won the award at the 82nd annual ceremony.

Although animated features arguably didn't hit a peak for me this year (sorry, Coco), the news of a particular nominated short film (and the people behind it) got me excited. Veteran Disney animator Glen Keane (whose credits include The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, and Aladdin) and composer John Williams collaborated with retired basketball star Kobe Bryant on a subject called Dear Basketball, based on a poem Bryant wrote around his retirement in 2016. (Click here to watch that short.)

Sunday, January 21, 2018

REVIEW: "I, Tonya"--Is Truth Really Stranger Than Fiction, Especially In the Media?

Many of us are familiar with the infamous scandal from the 1994 Olympics involving skaters Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan. The story goes that Harding staged an attack on Kerrigan that resulted in a broken knee, and eventually led to two-time gold-medalist Harding being banned for life from the sport.

I, Tonya, written by Steven Rogers (Stepmom, Love the Coopers) and directed by Graig Gillespie (Lars and the Real Girl), dramatizes this wild, shocking and unbelievable true story of the disgraced Harding, from her abusive upbringing (by mother LaVona Golden and ex-husband Jeff Gillooly) to her skating victories (including the famous triple axel) and what led to her downfall. What makes Rogers' script clever and insightful is that it's told from multiple (and contradictory) points of view, from Tonya, Jeff, and LaVona. There's even Tonya's former skating coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), her self-appointed bodyguard Shawn  who tried to provide a healthy influence in her life, and a tabloid reporter (Bobby Cannavale).

The stellar, nail-biting casting of Margot Robbie (as Tonya), Sebastian Stan (as Jeff), and an almost unrecognizable Allison Janney (as LaVona) illustrate the different notions of what is true and what is not true in these characters, who occasionally break the fourth wall (with Tonya intervening most of the time) to remind us that this is Tonya's side of the story, hence the title of the film. "She always skated better when she was enraged," argues LaVona. Jeff describes her as "the Charles Barkley of figure skating." One critic even describes this film as "the 'Goodfellas' of figure skating."

Sebastian Stan and Margot Robbie
Allison Janney
Make no mistake, I, Tonya is a very profane and graphic story, often portrayed as a black comedy. But it's also a relevant one in light of the choices made by people (famous or not) and how success, the media--along with the love-hate relationship Americans have with it--and the world, for that matter, present them or choose to see them. The same goes for how out-of-control things can get, both in and out of the spotlight. "I was loved for a minute, then I was hated," Tonya tells us, "Then I was just a punchline."

Another aspect of Rogers' script that makes the story compelling is that it portrays these characters as more than mere punchlines that the media eventually made them to be. They're portrayed as human beings, and incredibly raw and flawed at that. The film doesn't tell viewers whether they should like these characters or not, but it does give a better understanding of them and, of course, certainly Harding, what she went through as far as complicated relationships and a bad reputation, and the story she never got to share at the time. One powerful scene shows Tonya putting on makeup before her final skating event, trying to push through her pouring emotions and tears.

One could argue that I, Tonya, in a way, gives Harding the opportunity to set the record straight, no matter how complicated or wild it may be. "The world's giving you a second chance," coach Rawlinson tells her during a low career point. "I know you don't believe in them, but I do." Kudos to Rogers, Robbie, and Gillespie, for believing as well.

REVIEW: Masterfully-Made "The Shape of Water" Unfortunately Exposes More Than It Should Below the Surface

If I told you about her, the princess without voice, what would I say? ~Giles, The Shape of Water

Guillermo del Toro's latest period-fantasy, about a mute cleaning lady in the 1950s who discovers (and falls for) a mysterious creature, has been gaining universal acclaim for its visual and visceral impact, including its lead performance from the remarkable and infectious Sally Hawkins (Happy-Go-Lucky, Blue Jasmine). Set during the Cold War era, Hawkins and Octavia Spencer play cleaning ladies at a testing facility, when a mysterious asset is brought in. Hawkin's Elisa forms a special bond (well, more than a special one) with the creature and eventually plans to break him out.

The central characters are three-dimensional and perfectly cast. Elisa lives above a movie theater (talk about fantasy and reality living next door to each other), boils eggs (a key visual motif) every day, and goes by daily routine. Her neighbor Giles (an unrecognizable Richard Jenkins) is an unemployed artist and closeted gay man who seems to be at the end of his rope. Elisa's friend Zelda (Spencer, as always, chews the scenery) often speaks for the both of them, Zelda being the more stern one. Facility head Strickland plans to tear apart the beast for testing and examining. (Michael Shannon is, as always, great at being effectively menacing, even when he does it subtly and quietly.) A fellow scientist, Dr. Hoffstetler (a compelling Michael Stuhlbarg), who may secretly be a Russian spy, empathizes with the asset and wants to understand it more. "This creature is intelligent, capable of language and understanding"

Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones
The visual impact of The Shape of Water is breathtaking, and complete with a captivating and fantastical score by Alexandre Desplat. It's as if del Toro and Desplat combines influences from Creature from the Black Lagoon (one of del Toro's favorite films), The Little Mermaid, Amelie, and French arthouse cinema into a beautiful and frightening fairy-tale world. There are also homages to classic film, from musicals to Biblical epics. The same goes for the Sixties era, from the recreation of vintage TV boxes to products like Corn Flakes, and jazz music by Benny Goodman for dancing and romanticizing. This is visceral and masterful filmmaking, for sure, and del Toro is certainly a pro, as his previous awards-winner Pan's Labyrinth (one of my favorite films of the past two decades) proved. With expert camerawork, suspenseful timing, and the aforementioned score and performances as key components (del Toro veteran Doug Jones plays the creature incredibly believable, although more time could've been spent on his backstory), this is a story of love and loss, and "the monster who tried to destroy it" (a possible nod to Victor Hugo's duel theme in Hunchback of Notre Dame). It's also a story about longing, connections, and distances, to and from family and close friends. The way Hawkins signs and expresses with her face most of the time is, for one, evocative.

But then there's all that problematic sexual content and "graphic nudity" that the R-rating has been warning us about. Hawkins is an amazing actress, but do we really need to see her without clothes so much? Take into equal account a character who masturbates in a bathtub, graphic bloody images, some misguided references to Scripture, and unnecessary conversations about said sexuality (potentially uncontrolled emotions and hormones) What are we to make of this in a culture that currently brings awareness to sexual misconduct, complicity, and exploitation? Is on-screen nudity really any different?

Richard Jenkins
Writer Adam R. Holz sums it up best:

So deep is that longing [from Elisa], of course, that she's quick to enter into not just an emotional relationship with the aquatic amphibian alien she rescues, but a physical one as well. And at that point, the wonder-filled innocence that's filled much of the movie falls away as quickly as her bathrobe does.

I think [del Toro] could have told this unconventional love story without including the graphic nudity the camera repeatedly gazes at, and without the clear implication of an interspecies sexual relationship.

But that is not the story he's chosen to tell. What we have instead is a fairy tale that is at times sweetly sentimental, other times exceedingly explicit.

Yes, that about sums it up.

REVIEW: "The Disaster Artist" or, the Strangely-Interesting Influence of Tommy Wiseau (Or Is It Interestingly Strange?)

As any cinephile or moviegoer can tell you, the filmgoing experience takes many forms. For one, there are hundreds of "great" movies we'll keep watching every year (from The Wizard of Oz to Casablanca), while there are thousands beyond thousands of "bad" movies we'll never see again (Battlefield Earth, anybody?). What's ironic is how certain pieces of art that were initially perceived as "bad" have, in time, become celebrated. "Midnight" showings, in particular, have developed a cult status over the course of the last half-century, with such titles as The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), Pink Floyd - The Wall (1982), and Donnie Darko (2001). The Room (no, not the great 2015 film with Brie Larson) is another such movie.

Released in 2003, The Room starred, was written, directed, produced, and self-financed (a reported $6 million budget) by the enigmatic and eccentric Tommy Wiseau, a long-haired, sunglasses-wearing, vampiric figure with an accent that sounds European and a mysterious bank account. There are, in fact, three mysteries about Tommy Wiseau: how old he is, where he's from, and where he gets his money. (For the record, he claims he's from New Orleans.) The plot itself involves romance, betrayal, and James Dean references. In 2013, Greg Sestero (one of the film's co-stars, and friend to Wiseau) wrote a book called "The Disaster Artist" about the making of what is now considered "the greatest bad movie ever made," and how it has developed a cult-following. For one thing, midnight screenings of the film have theater attendees wearing tuxes, carrying footballs, quoting infamous lines ("You're tearing me apart, Lisa!") and, oddly enough, throwing spoons at the screen.

Actor James Franco first read the book about four years ago, and quickly became a Room-devotee. And with help from his brother, Dave Franco, friend Seth Rogen, and various famous faces, he's directed and starred in an impeccable and respectful film adaptation of The Disaster Artist. (The real Tommy claimed that 40-percent of the book is accurate, whereas he ironically gave the film a 99.9-percent approval rating.)

The film is set between 1998, when Tommy and Greg (then a shy and struggling actor) meet, and 2003, during the film's initial release. Both share a desire to become famous in Hollywood. The latter is inspired by Tommy's fearlessness, despite his odd quirks ("You really gotta go . . . express yourself," says Tommy), while Tommy gives Greg more than enough resources and opportunities that he can. But for Tommy, the opportunities become slim to none. A producer candidly tells him, "Just because you want something doesn't mean you get it," and then claims no opportunities will ever come for Tommy. Many don't take him as a "hero" character, but rather as a villain or the like. Then, he and Greg come up with the idea to just make their own movie. And the rest becomes history.

Franco is phenomenal and fully committed as Tommy in all his strange mannerisms, his voice, and his questionable motives and emotions. (He was reportedly in character, full prosthetics and makeup, while directing the movie.) Besides being the first film he's acted in with his brother, he does a terrific job directing equally-committed performances from Seth Rogen, Alison Brie, Ari Graynor, Paul Scheer, and cameos from Melanie Griffith, Judd Apatow, Zac Efron, Megan Mullulay, Jacki Weaver, Bryan Cranston, and even the real Wiseau in a brief cameo. (Celebrity fans of the actual Room film, including Kristen Bell, Ike Barinholtz and Adam Scott, also make appearances.)

From earlier trailers, viewers wondered if this was going to be a parody of the real people, but it turns out to be the opposite. As mentioned earlier, James treats Wiseau's character with respect, as does Dave in portraying the friendship between Tommy and Greg. The recreation of scenes from the film, along with production and costume design of the sets and the LA billboard, is nearly spot-on. (The end credits include side-by-side comparisons.)

The brothers Franco, Dave and James
On one hand, this is a story of characters with misguided sensibilities. True, there is the pursuit of the American dream, persevering through adversity, and taking "No" for an answer. It's just that the central character does it in the wrong way. Besides comparing himself to James Dean, Tommy also uses the controversial on-set antics of directors Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick as excuses for his own growing tension, unsympathetic for how it's effecting everybody involved, including the brief relationship that Greg has with his girlfriend at the time. This toll especially effects Greg, who gradually feels he has no social life.

Despite its R-rated content choices in and out of the film-within-the-film (Is it really necessary to be nude on a film set, or to cheer an on-screen character to shoot himself in the mouth?), The Disaster Artist also stands as a story of how we ironically view the media, and tries to understand what makes a movie "good" or more specifically "bad." This is a story about people, no matter how normal or strange they may be.

In Tommy's words, "I tried to open my heart, open my soul." In all fairness, The Room continues to get mixed reactions, from laughs to boos to cheers. "How often you think Hitchcock got a response like that," Greg asks Tommy. An interesting scene has one of the cast members asking, "What's this movie [The Room] about?" Another theorizes that it's an autobiography of Tommy's life. Before the premiere screening, Tommy does, in fact, state, "This my movie. This my life." Oscar Wilde was right when he said how art imitates life just as life imitates art. Now that's ironic.