Friday, February 24, 2017

Who Will Win the Oscars: Best Picture

Best Picture
9. Lion
For It: The Academy clearly loved the film – it wasn’t a big critical or commercial hit, and yet, here it is as Best Picture nominee – with multiple supporting noms to go along with it. There is a lot of darkness in this lineup – if they want pure inspiration, they can go here.
Against It: But they can also go elsewhere – lots elsewhere. The only recent Best Picture I see that wasn’t a huge critical or commercial hit was Crash – and even that made a lot more money than Lion, and had a very vocal supporters in the critical community (like Roger Ebert). The nomination is the win here – and they’ll hope to milk some more Box Office out of it.
8. Fences
For It: Actor make up the single largest voting block within the Academy – and no film was more of an actors showcase than Denzel Washington’s Fences – which gave its great cast a chance to dig in August Wilson’s great dialogue. The film is actually better directed than some have given it credit for.
Against It: It still feels stagey at times and you can award an actors showcase by giving the actors Oscars, not the film itself. Everyone seems to like Fences, but I wonder just how many people love it enough to put it high on their list. The lack of a director nomination – or any “below the line” nominations probably kills its chances.
7. Hacksaw Ridge
For It: There is clearly a contingent of the Academy that loved this film – Picture, Director and Actor nominations attest to that. War films are a traditional Oscar favorite, so I can certainly see quite a few members voting for this one.
Against It: While at least some have forgiven Mel Gibson for his past sins – no director nomination for him without it – has the Academy as a whole done so? I doubt it. I think this is the type of film that a passionate minority can get into the race, but not enough to push it over the finish line.
6. Hell or High Water
For It: Oscar loves a come from nowhere hit – and that describes David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water – a genre film, that slowly built its audience throughout the summer, to become a genuine indie hit – and it’s a critical favorite to boot. Something for everyone – the film is well directed, acted and written, with impressive technical credentials – it’s a film that may not get a ton of number 1 votes – but I can see it ranking very high (two or three) on a lot of ballots – and in recent years, consensus has trumped passion in the Best Picture race.
Against It: It’s got a fairly difficult path to actually win a lot of supporting awards – Original Screenplay and Supporting Actor are going to be tough – editing even tougher – and that’s all its nominated for. You can get a film like this in the winner’s circle – just see No Country for Old Men – but that was a film by respected auteurs, in a strange year without a more traditional winner in sight – Hell or High Water doesn’t have either of those things going for it.
5. Arrival
For It: The Academy has opened up to science fiction in recent years – see Gravity’s haul from 2012 – and Arrival is brainier than that, and has more weight to it, not just a thrill ride, so it may feel more like an Oscar film. With 8 Oscar nominations, it’s quite clear the Academy loved the film.
Against It: The fact that Amy Adams didn’t get into the Best Actress race is probably the films death knell in terms of its chances of winning this – despite all the praise and precursors Adams got, the Academy went with performances from movies that had far fewer nominations, which says to me they still don’t take sci-fi, even brainy sci-fi, quite seriously enough to give it the big prize.
4. Hidden Figures
For It: A late breaking, genuine audience hit – Hidden Figures is a hell of a lot fun, inspirational, and very well written, directed and acted. Because it broke into the season so late, it’s harder to get sick of it, or a backlash to form. The best ensemble cast award at SAG shows the largest single voting block loves the film – which counts for a lot.
Against It: It perhaps broke too late to actually win. It didn’t get in for director and only one acting nomination – and no “below the line” categories, despite a period setting, and famous people behind the music. A little earlier in the season, to build a more complete Oscar campaign, and maybe, just maybe, this would be a legit challenger.
3. Manchester by the Sea
For It: As far as a traditional drama goes – Manchester by the Sea is the best of the bunch and it may well appeal to the traditionalists in the Academy, who want something with weight, and that they can relate to. It’s hard to find a better acted or written film this year. It has been running just slightly behind Moonlight and La La Land all awards season long without much of a backlash forming. Perhaps its sneaks in.
Against It: You would expect that if Manchester by the Sea was going to make a late move, we’d see more evidence of it – a few big wins along the way, which it really has not got. Its well on its way to a Best Actor win – and perhaps screenplay – and that will likely have to be enough – its running a close third, but that’s still third.
2. Moonlight
For It: Undeniably the critical favorite of the year – the film has won more Best Picture prizes than anything else this awards season, has many, very passionate fans, and is perhaps the film that will be best remembered from 2016 when all is said and done. If anything is going to beat La La Land, it’s Moonlight.
Against It: The Box Office hurts – it’s very low by Oscar Best Picture standards (only The Hurt Locker in recent memory is even close to it – and that was released in the summer, outside of Oscar season buzz – and had a narrative of going against the HUGE Avatar). People will remember Moonlight for a long time – but for some reason, not a lot of people went to see it in a theater. Hate to say it, but the still largely white, largely old Academy may not take to it like critics did – who remember, don’t vote at the Oscars.
1. La La Land
For It: La La Land fits very neatly in with recent winners like The Artist, Argo and Birdman – about Hollywood and dreamers, and how art matters, etc. It’s also a film that will appeal to movie buffs – especially older ones, who will catch all the references. The movie is pure charm, pure joy – and unlike Moonlight or Manchester – will not be seen by anyone as a chore to sit through (those people, who think Moonlight or Manchester would be too tough to sit through are idiots, but they exist). You cannot argue with its ambition, and the film is an utter charming. It makes you feel good leaving the theater. It has the precursor love. One of the three most nominated Oscar films in history – the other two won.
Against It: The backlash has formed – more than any other film in contention, by far – which could hurt it. Does the film have any weight at all? If you want to vote for a film you feel is “important” – this ain’t it. A musical hasn’t won since 2002 – and original, written for the screen musical hasn’t won since Gigi in 1958 (and that was based on a book).
Who Will Win: La La Land. Every year people bring up the backlash forming against the frontrunner, or things splitting the vote and something coming down the middle, etc. – and you know what, the frontrunner usually still wins. I’d love to see Moonlight or Manchester upset – I just don’t see a path for that to happen. La La Land wins it no matter how I calculate it.
Who Should Win: Manchester by the Sea. The film utterly destroyed me, and left me a puddle on the floor, at TIFF this year – the most emotionally satisfying film of the year, the best acted and written – and wonderfully directed. Its quiet – perhaps too quiet to win – but it really should be the winner here. It will last longer than most of the films this year.
Least of the Nominees: Lion. I usually dismiss the effect Oscar bloggers have on the race – but when something like Lion gets in – which isn’t really like by critics, and largely ignored by audiences – I have to wonder if they really can muscle something into the race, simply because they keep predicting it. Lion is an average film – with a much better first half than second – but it’s still the weakest film here – even if I think Hacksaw Ridge is more problematic, its highs are higher than Lions.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Movie Review: The Great Wall

The Great Wall
Directed by: Zhang Yimou. 
Written by: Carlo Bernard & Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy and Max Brooks and Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz.
Starring: Matt Damon (William), Tian Jing (Commander Lin Mae), Willem Dafoe (Ballard), Andy Lau (Strategist Wang), Pedro Pascal (Tovar), Hanyu Zhang (General Shao), Lu Han (Peng Yong), Kenny Lin (Commander Chen), Eddie Peng (Commander Wu), Xuan Huang (Commander Deng), Ryan Zheng (Shen), Karry Wang (Emperor). 
The last time a film by Chinese director Zhang Yimou was released on thousands of screens in North America, it was 2004, and the film was his action masterwork Hero – a film that had been nominated for the foreign language film Oscar two years prior, but that the studio had sat on since. In retrospect, Hero marked a definitive turning point for Zhang and his career. As part of the Fifth Generation group of filmmakers, Zhang had made several great films in the 1980s and 1990s – the content of which made them controversial in China. He had been moving away from that for a while when Hero was released – while his 1990 film Ju Dou was banned for a short time (and got a lot of people fire when they submitted it the Academy as China’s Foreign Language submission in 1990) and his follow-up, Raise the Red Lantern was submitted to the Academy by Hong Kong, not China, his 1992 film The Story of Qiu Ju was back as China’s submission – but Hero kind of cemented Zhang Yimou as one of the Chinese government’s favorite filmmakers. That film, which is an action masterpiece, is also very much a Nationalistic film (some have used harsher words to describe its politics) – and he has also directed the opening ceremonies for the Beijing Olympics. So it certainly make a lot of sense that he would be the director to get to make The Great Wall – a co-production between China and Hollywood, starring Matt Damon, many Chinese stars, and a lot of special effects. The film tries to recapture the action brilliance of Zhang’s Hero and House of Flying Daggers (released later in 2004) – but unfortunately, it doesn’t come close. The film is another one in which the action sequences are basically a bunch of CGI soup, lacking in any real distinctive visual flair. The film is a fairly uneasy mix on a plot level as well – trying to find a way to make Matt Damon both the star of the film (White Savior would be going too far – but not by much), and as part of the collective – a message that is inherent in many Chinese films of this kind. The result is a confusing mess of a film.
In the film, Damon plays William – a European trader, who has come to China to get some “black powder” to make himself rich in Europe. His travelling companion is Tovar (Pedro Pascal) – and the movie tries very hard to make these two into bickering buddies, with no success (for the most part, it’s all just horribly awkward). The pair of them – being chased through China by some local hordes – come across the Great Wall, and are invited inside. Because they have killed something – that moved so fast they didn’t get a good look at it, but they do have its arm – they are not immediately killed. The people – the Nameless – serve the Emperor, and are China’s final defense against a horde of invading creatures – part dragon, part alien, part insect, etc. – which attack every 60 years. One of those things is what William had killed. While Tovar teams up with the only other white man at the wall – Ballard (Willem Dafoe) – to try and steal a lot of black powder, and flee (something Ballard has apparently been planning for 25 years – although his plan sucks) – while William finds his conscience, and decides to help fight off the horde. Whether he does so because he actually believes in the cause, or because the leader of the Nameless is Commander Lin (Tian Jing) – a stunningly beautiful woman, and the only woman person in the Nameless not wearing a helmet, probably because it would mess up her perfect hair is open for debate.
Damon is one of the best movie stars we have – someone who is effortlessly able to pull off the movie star persona thing. Oddly, here, his performance is more awkward then anything else. When the movie begins, he is hidden under matted hair and a bushy beard, and he’s doing the strangest accent this side of Shartlo Copley in Oldboy (or Jodie Foster in Elysium or Forrest Whitaker in Arrival or Tom Hardy in anything – take your pick) – and it takes a minute to register it’s even him. Even when he shaves, his performance lacks his normal charming swagger – in part because the dialogue is so awkward – but also in part because the movie tries to integrate him into the larger cast, but it doesn’t quite work. The movie isn’t quite the white savior narrative the films detractors feared when the first images (of just Damon) surfaced, but it’s not exactly not that either.
Still, had the action sequences worked, the rest of it would probably have been acceptable. Sadly, they really don’t. The CGI creatures are odd, but unmemorable (I’m writing this about 13 hours after the film ended for me, and I’m having a hard time picturing them in my mind). They swarm like insects – or the zombie in World War Z – working as a collective – which is what the people will need to learn how to win if they are going to win (yes, William and Lin kind of go it alone at the end – but it’s made possible by all the brave sacrifices made before then). Yet, the CGI sequences – especially in 3-D- all seemed overly fake to me. Strangely, the effects work here is far less convincing than it was in Hero – nearly 15 years ago - in part, that’s because Hero didn’t have creature – but even the sequences in which people hurtle themselves done huge bungee lines seemed off.
In short, The Great Wall feels like a movie in which everyone is just going through the motions – a cynical attempt to appeal to both American and Chinese audiences by combining the two countries different styles in a single film. Yet the result seems to be homogenized – lacking any real personality – a movie built by algorithm to appeal to everyone, which ends pleasing no one.

Who Will Win the Oscars: Acting

Best Actor
5. Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic)
For Him: A well liked movie veteran, a previous nominee, with no Oscar wins under his belt. The performance is clearly loved by some in the Academy – this is a small movie, released in the summer that somehow managed to get all the way through the season and end up with a nomination.
Against Him: This is only Mortensen’s second nomination – this isn’t a situation where they are embarrassed at not having giving him a nomination before – nor should it be. The other four are from best picture nominees –
He’s his film’s only nomination. It’s great that he got in – the nom is the reward here.
4. Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge)
For Him: Garfield has been around for a while now, but this was his real breakthrough year as a serious actor – with Hacksaw Ridge, and Martin Scorsese’s Silence. Garfield anchors this film with his plain, homespun mannerisms, you cannot help but like him – and gives the film its core. They obviously like the film a lot.
Against Him: His accent is perhaps too broad, which won’t help him. There is a lot of competition above him, in which it’s going to be hard to overcome. He’s a young guy, so the nomination is the win for his career.
3. Ryan Gosling (La La Land)
For Him: Gosling is almost certainly going to win an Oscar at some point. He’s the charming leading man in the presumptive Best Picture winner, which is likely to sweep a lot of awards on Oscar night. He’s got a solid resume, he’s on his second nomination, and is a genuine star. If La La Land really sweeps, it could drag him along with it.
Against Him: La La Land cannot win every Oscar that night – and there are two performances in this category that I think they’re just going to respond to more. Gosling may face the same thing that DiCaprio faced – make the charming, good looking movie star wait a while for a win.
2. Denzel Washington (Fences)
For Him: Washington looks to become only the 7th actor to win 3 (or more) Oscars – an elite group, and I think it’s safe to say Washington would not look out of place among them. It’s been 15 years since his last win, so that’s enough time. His performance in Fences won him a Tony – and his work in the film is amongst his most praised, fiery performances. The Academy clearly loved the film more than many thought – the Best Picture nom shows that.
Against Him: He’s up against a performance that has won most of the major prizes this year. Winning that third Oscar is often tough – and I’m not sure Washington is quite there yet. I won’t be shocked if he gets there – I just don’t think it will be this year.
1. Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea)
For Him: He’s won most of the prizes that he can for this film this year. He’s run a long race, from Sundance on, and there has yet to be a serious backlash against the performance. He’s a respected actor, a previous nominee, and in a film that they clearly love – and will want to give a major prize to. It’s his to lose.
Against Him: It’s a quiet performance – perhaps too quiet for Oscars, especially compared to the fire and brimstone of Washington. While no one much criticizes the performance, Affleck has come under fire because of the resurfaced allegations of sexual harassment against him from a few years ago. That hasn’t blown up yet – but if the race is tight, a few lost votes because of it could cost him the Oscar.
Who Will Win: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea. It could be very close between Affleck and Washington, but I think that Affleck holds on for the victory.
Who Should Win: Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea. As someone who (mostly) separates the artist from the art, Affleck’s performance in Manchester by the Sea was clearly the best one I saw – in any category – this year.
Least of the Nominees: Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic. I wish I was a fan of this movie and performance – it’s always fun to be a supporter of the little film that could – but I didn’t much like the film, although I thought Mortensen saved it. I may have gone with Garfield, but I’m choosing to pretend he got nominated for Silence, and I’m fine with that.
Best Actress
5. Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins)
For Her: She’s Meryl Streep. It’s her 20th nomination – 8 more than any other actor – so if anyone is ever going to tie Katherine Hepburn’s 4 wins, it will be Streep.
Against Her: Come on. I love Streep, and think she’s one of the greatest actresses ever – and I’m still sick of her getting nominated for okay, over-the-top performances, in bad movies – and Florence Foster Jenkins is perhaps the most egregious example of this. She may well win a 4th – it damn well better not be for this.
4. Ruth Negga (Loving)
For Her: Negga is a newcomer, who was able to get into the Best Actress lineup, despite weak support for the film in general (it’s the only nomination it got), so it’s clear they like. In a category filled with a lot of large choices by the other nominees, Negga delivers a simple, quiet, subtle performance.
Against Her: Quiet and subtle don’t often win – and certainly won’t here. Negga is a newcomer, and this will do wonders for her career – which means that the nomination is the win here, and there is no way she’s going to pull off an upset.
3. Natalie Portman (Jackie)
For Her: Oscar loves a biopic, and Jackie is one of the best in recent years – all of it anchored by Portman, doing a great interpretation of Jackie Kennedy in the aftermath of her husband’s assassination. Portman is a prior winner – and well-liked by the industry. She’s done in the precursors, showing up everywhere.
Against Her: While she’s been nominated everywhere this year, she hasn’t won a lot. With her previous win, there’s no real need for a second win – at least not right now. The film was a critical favorite, but didn’t break through with the Academy in a major way.
2. Isabelle Huppert (Elle)
For Her: Huppert was probably at the top of everyone’s list of Best Working Actors never to be nominated for an Oscar, and if she doesn’t win, she’ll go right to the top of everyone’s list of Best Working Actors never to win an Oscar. Hers is probably the most praised performance in this category – even those who don’t like the movie, love her in it. If you want a dramatic performance, this is it. 
Against Her: There are a lot of people who don’t like the movie – and not only that, they find it offensive – and I can imagine some Academy members not making it far into their screeners. It is a foreign language performance – and they don’t often win. 
1. Emma Stone (La La Land)
For Her: She has become one of the most liked actresses of her young generation – and as this her second nomination, it isn’t that they are giving it to a complete Oscar rookie. She really is the heart and soul of the movie – more of the focus than Gosling. While she didn’t win a lot of critics’ awards – they don’t vote.
Against Her: Like the film itself, some may see the performance as too lightweight for the win. She is still young, so there’s lots of time to award her – and she’s going up against a legend.
Who Will Win: Emma Stone, La La Land. This really does remind me of Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Living Playbook vs, Emmanuelle Riva for Amour – just like that year, go for the younger American, over the European veteran. Stone fits in with a lot of previous winners more easily than Huppert – which can make it close if her passionate supporters are more numerous in the Academy than I expect they are.
Who Should Win: Isabelle Huppert, Elle. It is an amazing performance – one that will be remembered forever, and one of the great performances in a legendary career. It would immediately be one of the coolest wins in Oscar history.
Least of the Nominees: Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins. As much as I love Streep, I really do wish she would take on something other than a role where she sucks all the oxygen up in the room. Please Academy, make her work for nomination 21.
Best Supporting Actor
5. Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals)
For Him: I think Michael Shannon is probably on the verge of becoming an Oscar favorite – he’s one of the best actors in the world, and he’s always good. This is his second nomination – and he’s been close several times as well. There is almost no scenario in which he ends his career without an Oscar, right?
Against Him: As soon as Shannon gets nominated for a better liked film, he could easily win – like his first nomination, for Revolutionary, he’s the films lone nomination. People love him, but he’s often better than the movies themselves. The nomination is the reward here – although he’ll get one eventually, this isn’t his year.
4. Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea)
For Him: He’s young for an Oscar nominee – and he still got in with relative ease. He goes toe to toe with Casey Affleck, perhaps giving the performance of the year, and doesn’t miss a meet. While being young hurts actors in the lead category – that’s not so much the case in the supporting one. They clearly love the film, and the acting in it, so perhaps he can ride a wave of support into the winners circle.
Against Him: You would expect to see him win something by now if he had a serious chance of pulling off an upset. He would be the youngest actor ever to win in this category – ironically enough, beating out Timothy Hutton for Ordinary People, a film this has been compared to. If he’s as good as this breakthrough implies, he’ll get another chance for a win.
3. Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water)
For Him: They clearly love Jeff Bridges – he’s on his seventh nomination now, which is more than enough to justify a second win, if they love the film and performance enough. Hell or High Water is one of the most loved films of the year – and yet, it’s probably going to go home empty handed, unless Bridges can pull off the upset here.
Against Him: This kind of feels like it’s so much in Bridges’ wheelhouse, all he had to do was show up and he’d be brilliant. His first win wasn’t all that long ago, so there’s probably no rush to give him a second one right away. You would expect him to win at least one major precursor if he’s going to win this – and he hasn’t.
2. Dev Patel (Lion)
For Him: A well liked actor in a well-liked performance in a well-liked movie. He’s probably the lead – and while that annoys some, it usually doesn’t seem to affect the Academy, who is fine with it. He’s made good since his breakthrough in 2008’s Best Picture winner, Slumdog Millionaire. He won the BAFTA – and there is membership overlap there.
Against Him: No one seems to really love the film – everyone just likes it. His one major award was the BAFTA – which is good – but then again, he was the hometown hero there. I cannot be the only one who thinks that Sunny Pawar, playing the younger version of this character, was far better, right?
1. Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)
For Him: Other than the Golden Globe, there is hardly an award for this performance than Ali has NOT won – and the winner of the Globe isn’t nominated. He’s having a career year – great here, and also in Hidden Figures and in Luke Cage – he’s a star in the making. The performance is brilliant, and it’s looking less and less like the film is going to win that much on Oscar night – here, with no La La Land to contend with, it should be easy.
Against Him: The role is small – too small? He is a newcomer to the Oscar circuit and sometimes they make them wait a little bit before they give them an Oscar
Who Will Win: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight. The Globes and BAFTA have been hiccups to be sure – signs that the industry may not love it as much as critics - but he’s rolled through winning everything else possible. The great SAG speech won’t hurt – and he’ll win this unless an upset happens.
Who Should Win: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight. It’s a quietly, subtle remarkable performance in a great film. I like most of the nominees – but is easily the best nominated.
Least of the Nominees: Dev Patel, Lion. It’s not really Patel’s fault that the movie becomes extremely dull when his part starts – he plays the role as best as he can. It’s not all that much of a roll though.
Best Supporting Actress
5. Nicole Kidman (Lion)
For Her: She was once an Oscar staple, now she’s returning for the first time in a while, for an emotional performance playing one Oscar’s favorite type of rolls – supportive mothers. It’s been over a decade since her only win – some may think it’s time for number 2.
Against Her: She doesn’t show up until the halfway point in the film, and doesn’t really have all that much to do aside from her one big speech. I just don’t think Lion is well-liked enough to push her into the winners circle. With the win already – and several multiple nominee who are still winless, it’s just not time for number 2.
4. Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures)
For Her: Hidden Figures broke into the Oscar race late – perhaps too late to pick up as many nominations as it may have otherwise - there isn’t a lot of places where it can win, so if they like it enough, why not Spencer? The film did win the SAG ensemble award, which seems to mean the actors are behind it. Spencer really is quite good here – and she is a well-liked, previous winner.
Against Her: It’s the previous winner thing that kills her chances. When you have Viola Davis with three noms and no wins and Michelle Williams with four noms and no wins, there really is no reason to give Spencer her second for this performance.
3. Naomie Harris (Moonlight)
For Her: She’s been around for a while, doing solid work, but never quite breaking through. Her work here really should change that – it’s a powerful and emotional performance. Most of the work in Moonlight is quiet and subtle – Harris has an opportunity to go slightly bigger than anyone else in the cast – she stands out, and in a great way.
Against Her: In a Viola Davis-less race, I think she would have a shot at the win. With Davis in, I just don’t see how she does it. If she was going to beat Davis, she’d have done it somewhere by now – and she hasn’t. She’s a newcomer to the Oscar, so they’ll make her wait.
2. Michelle Williams (Manchester By the Sea)
For Her: Williams is on her fourth nomination – which is really around the time the Academy starts thinking it’s ridiculous that they haven’t already given you an Oscar. Her role in Manchester by the Sea is small, but it is powerful, having a few devastating moments.
Against Her: I think in a Viola Davis-less year, we’d be talking about Williams finally winning her Oscar – but it isn’t a Viola Davis-less year.
1. Viola Davis (Fences)
For Her: Remarkably, Viola Davis is now the most nominated African American actress in history – on only her third nomination. There are a lot of people who think she should have won for The Help (and then those of us who think she should have won for Doubt), so it’s about damn time. To me, this is clearly a lead role – as it was on Broadway – which doesn’t hurt it, since it just gives her more screen time to use.
Against Her: Not a lot really – who doesn’t love Viola Davis? And even those who don’t love the movie, agree she is brilliant in it.
Who Will Win: Viola Davis, Fences. She has won the major precursors, and given one great speech after another. I think it’s too bad she didn’t go lead – she’d win there too – but she didn’t, and she’ll win this category without much trouble.
Who Should Win: Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea. Davis is brilliant and fiery in Fences – Williams is brilliant, and restrained – conveying so much in such a small amount of screen time – that’s impressive, and truly a supporting performance.
Least of the Nominees: Nicole Kidman, Lion. Why do I keep picking on poor Lion? It’s not that it’s a bad movie or a bad performance per se – just that there is a lot of others they could have gone with.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Movie Review: The Salesman

The Salesman
Directed by: Asghar Farhadi.   
Written by: Asghar Farhadi.
Starring: Taraneh Alidoosti (Rana Etesami), Shahab Hosseini (Emad Etesami), Babak Karimi (Babak), Mina Sadati (Sanam), Farid Sajjadi Hosseini (Naser), Mojtaba Pirzadeh (Majid), Emad Emami (Ali), Maral Bani Adam (Kati), Mehdi Koushki (Siavash), Sam Valipour (Sadra). 

 Iranian director Asghar Farhadi makes tricky movies in which our sympathies shift throughout, often in very unexpected ways, as situations that at first seem so simple, become massively complex. His masterpiece is the Oscar winning A Separation (2011), in which one decision has many consequences for all involved. His latest film, The Salesman, does something similar – although I think Farhadi is also trying to do something more this time around (I know many people loved the film he made in between A Separation and The Salesman – the French co-production, The Past, but I thought it wasn’t a particularly good retread of what he had already done). This film isn’t just a moral question, where our sympathies shift as we learn more information – but it is also about the different roles we all play in our lives – most of those roles self-imposed. I don’t think Farhadi is quite able to bring everything together in the way he attempts – but he comes close, and you have to admire the attempt.
The film focuses on the a married couple – Emad (Shahab Hosseini – who won the Best Actor Prize at Cannes for this role) and Rana (Tarraneh Alidoosti – who was excellent as the missing title character of Farhadi’s 2009 film About Elly). They are actors – about to embark on a local production of Death as a Salesman – playing Willy and Linda Loman when an earthquake rattles their apartment building, and forces them to move out on short notice. A friend in the theater company Babak (Babak Karimi) – is a building manager, and has just had an apartment open up – and the couple move in. Then one night, while she is alone Rana buzzes in a visitor – who she thinks is Emad - and heads to the bathroom – where she ends up being attacked. She is left bloody, but generally okay. The rest of the movie involves Emad trying to track down the man who committed the crime – Rana doesn’t want to go the police, but Emad does have the man’s truck and keys and cell phone – which he left behind in his hurry to escape. He also starts to learn a little about the former tenant – who the neighbors refer to as “promiscuous” – but it’s easy to tell they mean she was a prostitute.
The Salesman is an interesting movie from beginning to end – and it certainly does ask some tough questions. Emad is at the heart of nearly every scene – we see him trying to investigate the crime, as well as at his teaching job, on stage playing Loman, and trying to deal with his traumatized wife. His desire to find his wife’s attacker is genuine – but you also get the impression that he’s doing it in part because he feels that he is “supposed to” – that he feels that he should be the one to avenge his wife. This becomes even more pronounced in the film’s final act – when he finally gets to confront the attacker, in an intense sequence of events, where Farhadi excels, once again, at making our sympathies shift. Emad does seem overly concerned with what the neighbors think- and appearing strong from them. He is playing a role in these scenes as much as he is when he is onstage – on in front of his classroom, or even when he’s trying to comfort his wife – and it eventually exhausts him.
I wish some of the complexity had extended to some of the other characters – in particular Rana. I think Alidoosti’s portrait of a woman dealing with PTSD after her attack is excellent, yet in the third act, her actions don’t entirely seem genuine. I also wish that the film had done a better job of tying together Death of a Salesman to the action of the rest of the movie – it doesn’t have to be in an obvious sort of way (like in George Cukor’s A Double Life from 1947, where an actor – Ronald Colman in an Oscar winning role – playing Othello becomes a jealous monster), but it almost seems like the point Farhadi is making here could be made with any play (I have heard some compare the attacker to Willy Loman – which, I guess, I could see – but it’s a stretch). Also I do think Farhadi needed to do a better job with some of the gender dynamics in the film – which are fairly retrograde - the prostitute, who we never even see, is basically blamed for everything, by everyone in the film, with no hint of any critique of it, as well as the fact that Emad is playing out a very old fashioned view of masculinity, in which the wife being attacked is almost viewed as an attack on the husband more than on his wife.
Still, while these are issues I had with the movie – and they keep it from being as great as A Separation (or About Elly), doesn’t completely derail the film either. Farhadi remains one of the most interesting writer/directors around, making morally complex film that challenge the audience to see things in multiple ways. The Salesman isn’t his best work – but even lesser Farhadi is well worth seeing.

Movie Review: A Cure for Wellness

A Cure for Wellness
Directed by: Gore Verbinski. 
Written by: Justin Haythe & Gore Verbinski.
Starring: Dane DeHaan (Lockhart), Jason Isaacs (Volmer), Mia Goth (Hannah), Ivo Nandi (Enrico),  Adrian Schiller (Deputy Director), Celia Imrie (Victoria Watkins), Harry Groener (Pembroke), Tomas Norström (Frank Hill), Ashok Mandanna (Ron Nair), Magnus Krepper (Pieter The Vet), Peter Benedict (Constable), Michael Mendl (Bartender), Maggie Steed (Mrs. Abramov), Craig Wroe (Morris), David Bishins (Hank Green), Lisa Banes (Hollis), Carl Lumbly (Wilson), Tom Flynn (Humphrey).
I wish we lived in a world in which Gore Verbinski’s A Cure for Wellness was a box office hit – instead of it bombing, which it pretty much did in its opening weekend. This isn’t because the film is particularly great – or even all that good (it’s not) – but because this is a large budgeted film that takes genuine risks and chances for the entirety of its two-and-a-half hour runtime, and even if the film flies off the rails at some point, it’s interesting to see how it does that. No, A Cure for Wellness isn’t a very good film – but in a world in which most wide-release, big budget films have become interchangeable, it’s certainly different.
The film stars Dane DeHaan as Lockhart – a young Wall Street asshole, who is sent by his firm to a spa in Switzerland to retrieve their CEO – Pembroke. There is an upcoming merger, and Pembroke has seemingly gone crazy – refusing to come back after his vacation. Lockhart is the one chosen because he has apparently done something that will get him in trouble with the SEC – but the Board tells him if he gets Pembroke back, they’ll make that go away. When Lockhart arrives, it at first seems like a normal spa, catering to the ultra-rich and aging – one built in the Swiss mountains, on top of some sort of special watering hole. But it doesn’t take long before Lockhart starts hearing stories about the places distant past – when it was a Castle, and a Baron, obsessed with his bloodline wanted to marry his sister – and the villagers who burnt the place done. And everyone there seem more like cult members than people on a spa retreat. And the head of the spa – Volmer (Jason Isaacs) is one of those creepy people who is incessantly happy all the time. When Lockhart tries to leave – he gets into a car accident, breaking his leg, and ends up back at the spa – but now as a patient. He’s still trying to reach Pembroke, but they won’t let the two of them speak. He is also drawn to Volmer’s daughter Hannah (Mia Goth), a strange young woman, who acts even younger than her age – who is at the spa, in an old fashioned dress, riding a bike everywhere.
There is so much to A Cure for Wellness that I liked. The visual look by director Gore Verbinski and his team is distinct- everything drained of color, but not in a way that simple recalls Tim Burton or other such directors. The clinic/castle is a wonderful example of production design, and creates memorable locales – the pristine, cleanliness of the room, the well-manicured lawn, that barely hides dark gates leading somewhere vile. The underground levels, in which horrible things happen. This is a Grand Guignol film – something that could very well have been (and perhaps should have been) made in black and white. This sort of thing is tough to pull off these days – Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island being the exception – and visually, at least, A Cure for Wellness comes close. Verbinski has even perfectly cast the main roles, both in terms of acting ability, and more importantly (to him anyway), because they all perfectly look the part. Dane DeHaan will have a career as long as directors need snide, contemptible, entitled assholes – he’s got a face you want to punch – and even if he’s the hero of the movie, it’s not because you actually like him, it’s because you have no one else to side with. Mia Goth delivers an excellent performance, which is impressive when you consider how underwritten her character her. She looks the part – and I think her performance helps (a little) to get over some of the questionable things to the move does to her. Jason Isaacs is essentially playing his character from Netflix’s The OA again – this time with a German accent (for the record, I really liked the first episode of The OA – and disliked every subsequent episode a little more than the last, until the finale, which was downright awful).
There are too many problems with A Cure for Wellness though to really be a good movie however. At two-and-a-half hours, the film is way too long, and struggles to maintain a consistent tone. For the most part, unless you’re Martin Scorsese or Stanley Kubrick – don’t make your horror movie this long, because all it does is draw out the suspense for so long that the audience is going to start thinking about all the ways your film doesn’t make sense (and in A Cure for Wellness that is a lot of way). The film seems to want it have it all ways – at times being subdued – a slow burn horror film, at times going for the jugular with the blood, and in the final act, going batshit crazy over-the-top. Had Verbinski picked a tone, it may have worked a lot better than this tonal mess of a film.
Still, what we are left with is a film that has a lot of memorable moments. If you were creeped out by eels before, this one will give you nightmares. Or a dental surgery scene that will haunt me forever. A strange sequence at the local bar – that starts with Mia Goth dancing, that goes kind of crazy. The strange final shot of the film. A Cure for Wellness has moments that will stick you, no matter how silly the film as a whole is.
I really do wish there was more of a market for a film like A Cure for Wellness – that there were more people out there willing to take a chance on a film this weird. If people don’t go see something like this, Hollywood won’t make anything like it anymore – they already barely do as it is. I’m not going to claim that the movie is great – or even good – it isn’t. But you’re not likely to forget it anytime soon.

Who Will Win the Oscars: Directing & Writing

Best Director

5. Mel Gibson (Hacksaw Ridge)

For Him: Not only is he the only Best Director winner nominated this year – he’s the only one who has been nominated for this award before. Hollywood loves a comeback story – and Gibson certainly qualifies. The Academy does love war movies – and the battle parts of the film are impressive.

Against Him: While some have clearly forgiven Gibson – or he wouldn’t be nominated – I don’t think everyone has, which will hurt him going for the win. This is the film with the least amount of buzz in this race, and it feels slightly old fashioned compared to everyone else. It’s a nice honor for Gibson – but the nomination is as far as its going.


4. Denis Villeneuve (Arrival)

For Him: He has been a rising director for a while now – having gotten nominated for a Foreign Language Oscar, and making an effortless transition to Hollywood. It’s hard to imagine that Villeneuve will not be an Oscar winner at some point if he continues to do work as good – and as mainstream – as his recent output.

Against Him: It isn’t this year though. The buzz just isn’t there for him – this is a two way race, and his name isn’t Barry Jenkins or Damien Chazelle, so the chances of him winning are practically none.


3. Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea)

For Him: Lonergan is a well-respected filmmaker – he’s been around for a while now, previously nominated twice (for writing) and is kind of a feel good story, considering what happened with his last film, Margaret – and how he rebounded quickly with this one. A very traditional directed film that may resonate with older viewers.

Against Him: If they want to reward Lonergan, they can (and probably will) give him the Screenplay award. In recent years, they like flashy direction – even if they go with a more traditional film for Best Picture, and that certainly isn’t Lonergan’s work here.


2. Barry Jenkins (Moonlight)

For Him: Perhaps the very passionate fan base for Jenkins is enough to push him into the winners circle, even if La La Land wins Best Picture – it worked for The Revenant last year for example. Unlike Best Picture, this is a pure most votes win, so a passionate fan base can move a film with less consensus into the winners circle. He has won a lot of big awards this season. After #oscarssowhite last year, some may want to give the first African American the best director Oscar.

Against Him: He’s lost most of the big, big ones though. It’s rare that a filmmaker as new as Barry Jenkins wins the award (yes, I know Chazelle doesn’t have many more films than Jenkins – he does have a previous Best Picture nominee though). Again, I cannot help but wonder if some are skipping the film (the box office isn’t good). He’s almost assured a screenplay win, so maybe the director win will seem like overkill.


1. Damien Chazelle (La La Land)

For Him: It looks like La La Land is going to win the Best Picture Oscar, and a film this flashy that wins that prize and doesn’t win Director would be rare. The film is going to win a lot of Oscars – so to not reward the Director would also seem odd. They clearly love the film.

Against Him: The backlash has formed, and if it grows, perhaps it’s enough to push Jenkins above him. While I do think that La La Land has broader support, I think Moonlight has more passionate support – which is good for Jenkins. The last musical to win Best Picture – Chicago – did NOT win best director.


Who Will Win: Damien Chazelle, La La Land. I’ve looked for a reason NOT to bet on Chazelle – not because I don’t like him or the film, simply to see if I can make a case, and while I think there’s more of a chance here for Jenkins to upset than in Best Picture, I still don’t think it’s good.

Who Should Win: Barry Jenkins, Moonlight. A very tough call for me between Jenkins and Lonergan – but Jenkins film is wonderfully directed, do so much stylistically that is marvelous, I’ll go with him – and the hope of making history – by just a little bit.

Least of the Nominees: Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge. Those early scenes are awfully ham-fisted, and most of the performances aside from Garfield’s aren’t particularly good. No matter how good the war sequences are, that should have disqualified him from contention for me.

Best Original Screenplay

5. 20th Century Women – Mike Mills
For Him: The film is well-liked, down-to-earth and very funny. They like his films – he’s already directed an Oscar winning performance. Some truly do love the film.
Against Him: But not enough to get in anywhere else – not even best actress for Annette Bening. He didn’t get nominated for Beginners, so his nomination for this is his first – meaning the nomination will be his award this time.

4. The Lobster – Yorgos Lanthimos & Efthymis Filippou
For Them: If they really take the “original” in original screenplay seriously (as they do once in a while), then The Lobster would win this hands down. Many people love the movie, and the screenplay showed up everything – even when they film didn’t show up elsewhere.
Against Them: As the films only nomination, it just doesn’t have the support needed to push aside any of the three frontrunners.

3. Hell or High Water – Taylor Sheridan
For Him: A surprise hit, and one of the most popular films of the year amongst award voters. The film is unlikely to win any other awards – so if the Academy thinks La La Land is winning enough already, and Manchester by the Sea is as well, I could easily see this one pulling off a “shocker”.
Against Him: This is fairly under the radar, and while I can make the case logically, I just don’t think the film has quite enough behind it to actually come through and pull it off. It’s a longshot.

2. La La Land – Damien Chazelle
For Him: The film is the Oscar frontrunner, is likely to sweep through the tech categories, as well as Picture, Director and Actress. Winning all of those, and not winning screenplay would be strange, right? It is well written and funny.
Against Him: Doesn’t Chazelle have enough? He’s likely winning for Director, so does he really need this as well? Musicals – even ones that win Best Picture – often don’t win the screenplay award as well. I cannot help but think that they’ll see it as a technical and directing achievement more than writing.

1. Manchester by the Sea – Kenneth Lonergan
For Him: Probably the most honored screenplay of the year (certainly amongst the original nominees) – Lonergan is a well-respected veteran, and he wrote a movie they love – with balances heartbreak, tragedy and humor brilliantly. With no Moonlight to compete against it – and La La Land not being quite the writer’s movie, I could easily see this winning here.
Against Him: All of that (except for Moonlight not competing) was true at the Globes, and La La Land STILL won. If they love La La Land enough, it will sweep through, no matter how illogical that may seem (see Birdman or Argo for recent examples).

Who Will Win: Manchester by the Sea. I still think the Academy is going to give Lonergan an Oscar for Manchester – but it’s going to be very close. Why do I have sinking feeling Hell or High Water is going to win?
Who Should Win: Manchester by the Sea. It is my favorite screenplay of the year – so complex, later and beautifully written. I know most of my favorites aren’t winning – this could be the exception.
Least of the Nominees: 20th Century Women. It’s still a strong screenplay – I just don’t really like the main character, or the strained premise – but 90% of it is wonderful, so I don’t really have too many complaints.
Best Adapted Screenplay

5. Lion – Luke Davies
For Him: It’s a best picture nominee, and its has no chance to win anything else, so if it’s going to win something…
Against Him: It’s got no chance here either. It seems like they really did like this movie – but I don’t think they loved it enough to give it a major award like this.

4. Fences – August Wilson
For Him: August Wilson is a legendary playwright – one of the greatest of the 20th Century America, and Fences may just be his masterpiece.
Against Him: August Wilson is also dead – and has been for more than a decade. How much did he “adapt” his play for the screen? He’s got stiff competition.

3. Hidden Figures – Allison Schroeder & Theodore Melfi
For Them: The film is loved by many – and getting more so. It broke late, too late to get into a lot of categories probably, and if they really want to give it an Oscar, this could be the films best chance.
Against Them: I still don’t like those chances. It is fairly mainstream entertainment – and the screenplay, while good, is elevated by the cast – not necessarily great by itself. Not sure the optics of this winning would be great.

2. Arrival – Eric Heisserer
For Him: Arrival is a beloved film by the Academy – and this really is its only shot at a major award. What Heisserer did on a writing level, working with a complex story and time bending narrative, and an emotional main character, really is quite astounding.
Against Him: Most of the talk about the movie has centered on Villeneuve, Adams and the tech credentials of the film. This has a shot – but it really isn’t a great one.

1. Moonlight – Barry Jenkins & Tarell Alvin McCraney
For Them: Moonlight has become one of the most beloved films of the year. As the season has progressed, Chazelle has pulled away in the director category – but giving the award to the screenplay would be an away to reward Barry Jenkins, also nominated for directing. It’s the most acclaimed screenplay in this category, easily.
Against Them: A lot of what makes Moonlight great is in the direction – the visuals – and the screenplay is subtle and understated, which isn’t great for winning Oscars.

Who Will Win: Moonlight. Had the Academy sided with the guild – and ruled this an original screenplay – that category would have been a bloodbath, and this one barren. They didn’t, and ever since then, Moonlight has been the prohibitive favorite – and I don’t see how something else wins.
Who Should Win: Moonlight. I love the Arrival screenplay- but the Moonlight Screenplay really is next level great – simple, yet powerful, subtle and complex – its one of the best of the year, in either category, and should easily win.
Least of the Nominees: Lion. Sorry, I really don’t see why this one is here. The screenplay never really did find a way to make starring at Google earth interesting, or what to do with Rooney Mara. It was a weak year in this category – but not this weak.