Tuesday, February 9, 2016

"Spotlight" and "The Big Short"

I am so behind on my 2015 reviews, it's ridiculous.  I'm determined to at least get through all the Best Picture nominees before the Academy Awards ceremony.  So I'm lumping together "Spotlight" and "The Big Short" here, even though they have very little do with each other.

"Spotlight" is one of the dying breed of journalism movies, a no-frills, no-nonsense look at the investigation and reporting on the 2002 Catholic church sex abuse scandal in Boston.  We follow The Boston Globe's "Spotlight" team of reporters, headed by Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton), under new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber).  Other members of the team include Matt Carroll (Brain D'Arcy), Sasha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Ben Bradlee (John Slattery) and Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), who gather information, struggle to access reluctant interview subjects, and balance various interests as they decide when and how to publish what they've found.

I appreciate that "Spotlight" stays focused on the reporting, which generates plenty of drama without ever getting into the particulars of the crimes committed, and only the barest details of the reporters' personal lives.  A procedural through and through, its best moments coming from watching committed professionals doing their jobs in the face of great opposition.  But more than that, this is actually a movie about journalism more than it is a movie about a scandal, which is fantastic to see.  There's a revealing, vital subplot about Keaton's character trying to figure out why the story was overlooked or possibly buried at the paper years earlier, when they had much of the same information.

The ensemble is uniformly strong, and it's hard to single anyone out for praise because all the performances are low-key, and fairly utilitarian.  Under the minimalist, intimate eye of director Thomas McCarthy, everything is kept very grounded and free of embellishment, undercutting any hints of sensationalism.  The camera stays put for the most part, and any melodramatic dialogue tends to be brisk and to the point.  There are certainly some thrills as the story unfolds, but it comes from the mechanics of the story itself, and the real-world facts and circumstances of the scandal and cover-up.  The obvious point of comparison here is "All the President's Men," but "Spotlight" actually takes itself more seriously, resisting witticisms and style in favor of the cold, hard, facts.  And it's still so entertaining and absorbing, you're left wondering how they did it.

Now "The Big Short," on the other hand, takes the opposite approach.  Adam McKay, director of many a Will Ferrell comedy in years past, also tackles a real-world scandal - the 2008 sub-prime mortgage crisis.  However, his goal is to get his usual mainstream audience invested in a subject that most find impenetrable.  His solution is to pile on the humor, metatextual elements, and loads of style.  Celebrities are recruited for cutaway segments to explain various financial terms.  Characters break the fourth wall to comment on what has been changed in a scene for dramatic effect.  The editing is frenetic and the cinematography unorthodox - often to the picture's detriment - but McKay succeeds in delivering one of the freshest, most invigorating films of his career.

Now, all the Wall Street players involved can be considered unscrupulous to some extent, but McKay puts us on the side of a relatively sympathetic group of them, the few oddballs that saw the crisis coming, and managed to come out ahead by shorting the US housing market.  Hedge fund managers Michael Burry (Christian Bale) and Mark Baum (Steve Carell), veteran trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), and newbies Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) all find themselves ahead of the curve, and scrambling to verify their information and best position themselves to weather the oncoming storm.  The more they dig into the situation, the more horrible financial practices and outrageous lack of oversight they uncover.

The ensemble is very good, but Steve Carrell is the clear standout as Mark Baum, the one character who is really bothered by the thought of profiting off of others' misfortunes.  He's an anti-corruption crusader and the film's conscience, who is truly shaken to the core by what his team uncovers.  Sure, all the fast, zippy pulling-off-the-big-job shenanigans are a lot of fun, but what makes the film so memorable and so effective is the way that the narrative guides the audience from amusement to outrage.  This certainly isn't the first film about the 2008 financial crisis, but it's one of the most important, because it really gets across on a relatable level how heinous the behavior of the bad actors was, and how complicit so many of our major institutions were.

I have some minor issues with the film - McKay's quick cutting and weird framing make the action difficult to follow at some key points, and the decision to narrow the scope to a group of photogenic white guys grates a bit - in real life the players were more diverse - but overall it's remarkably solid.  It's not in the same class as "Spotlight," but then it's not trying to be.  This movie seemed to come out of nowhere, fairly late in the season, and it's one of the year's best surprises

---

Sunday, February 7, 2016

2016 Films I'm Anticipating, Part II


Continuing from yesterday, below are my most anticipated films of 2016, in the indie/foreign/not getting a big marketing campaign category.  Picks are listed below alphabetically, since most of these don't have release dates yet.  I admit this is a weird list with a lot of omissions, including the latest Scorsese, Linklater, and Malick films.  I'm also leaving off films that I previously wrote about but ended up delayed, like "The Ferryman."

"Certain Women" - Kelly Reichardt returns, with a story of three women from a small town in Montana, played by Laura Dern, Kristen Stewart, and of course Michelle Williams.  This one was previously known as "Livingston," for those of you keeping track.  I've had my ups and downs with Reichardt, but when her films work for me there's nothing better.  This one just premiered a few days ago at Sundance, and I expect to see it making the usual rounds at the indie theaters later in the year.

"Hail Caeser!" - I greet every new Coens brothers comedy with great enthusiasm, because nobody makes them like the Coens do.  This time we have a farcical mystery set in the Hollywood Golden age, with a tonne of great actors: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, and Channing Tatum are all aboard.  The trailers have been great, with Clooney as his hammy, imbecilic best.

"A United Kingdom" - I adored Amma Asante's second feature, the period melodrama "Belle."  She's following it up with another romance, about Prince Seretse Khama and his wife, Ruth Williams Khama, the interracial couple who caused a storm of controversy when they married, and would become Botswana's first Prime Minister and First Lady in the 1960s.  David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike are set to star.  I expect something indulgent and sentimental, and to have an absolute blast watching it.

"High Rise" - I do love a good dystopian thriller, and this one has a great cast, a brutal director, and is based on highly recommended source material.  Tom Hiddleston plays a man who moves into an exclusive high rise community, created to separate the upper echelons of society from the deteriorating world outside.  Of course, everything goes to hell.  Reviews have warned that this one isn't going to be mainstream-friendly, which is what I already expected since director Ben Wheatley is involved.

"Personal Shopper" - Olivier Assayas's latest, which will probably be making appearance at Cannes in a few months.  Now, I usually don't get along with Olivier Assayas' work, and have only liked one of his films without reservations.  I had plenty of issues with "Clouds of Sils Maria," for instance, but I thought Kristen Stewart's role in it was fantastic.  The two will be teaming up again for "Personal Shopper," described as a ghost story set in the fashion world.  I'm very curious how this one will come out.

"Raiders!" - The story has been circulating for ages that in the 1980s, a group of enterprising kids got together and tried to recreate "Raiders of the Lost Ark" shot for shot by themselves.  I've always been sort of curious about the finished product, "Raiders: The Adaptation," but of course there are endless copyright issues preventing any sort of real release.  So I'm glad that the documentary about the making of the fan-film, "Raiders!" will be coming our way soon to let me get a glimpse of the fun.

"Birth of a Nation" - Here's another one that recently premiered at Sundance to considerable acclaim.  Director and star Nate Parker embarked on a seven-year battle to get his film about Nat Turner's 19th century slave revolt financed and made.  Guaranteed to be part of next year's awards conversation after recent events, and already provoking a variety of heated responses due to its unpopular subject matter, this is certainly going to be a major contender for the most timely film of 2016.

"The Circle" - .  Based on Dave Eggers' dystopian novel, "The Circle" will follow a young woman played by Emma Watson as she explores the inner workings of a sinister technology company that threatens society as we know it.  Tom Hanks and a slew of good actors are also in the cast.  Indie darling James Ponsoldt, best known for his wonderful character pieces like "The End of the Tour," will be tackling a genre project for the first time.   I can't wait to see what he does with this one.

"The Red Turtle" - It turns out that Studio Ghibli's work on feature films isn't quite finished yet.  They made a surprise announcement a few months ago that they would co-produce the feature film debut of celebrated European animator Michaël Dudok de Wit. "The Red Turtle" will feature a man stranded on a desert island and no dialogue.  I don't expect to see this one pop up in the U.S. for quite some time, but I'm so glad that the project exists and I'm excited for all the possibilities that it represents.

"The Story of Your Life" - Denis Villeneuve is on a roll, having delivered a string of strong, bleak dramas over the past few years.  Next year he's doing a science-fiction film starring Amy Adams and Jeremy Renner.  The only thing here that makes me pause is screenwriter Eric Heisserer, who has done nothing but horror and action schlock.  But with Villeneuve involved, even if this does turn out to be schlock, at least it will be entertaining schlock.  We know Villeneuve can do a lot with very little.
---

Saturday, February 6, 2016

2016 Films I'm Anticipating, Part I


I like writing these posts every year a little bit later than everyone else to get a better sense of what the film landscape looks like.  It's hard sometimes to get a bead on what's going to make it to screens by the end of the year and what isn't.  This year, audiences look to be in for some very good things, though it may be a rocky year for the movie business as we settle into the post- "The Force Awakens" period.

As always, I split this feature up into two posts, one for the mainstream would-be blockbusters that everybody hears about, and one for the artsier fare that may break through to the mainstream eventually, but only the cinephiles will be anticipating.  The big films go first, which is ironically the leaner list this time out.  We're being promised a lot of fireworks with superhero showdowns and franchise favorites, but most of the big titles I really want to see aren't going to be due in theaters until very late in the year.  Films are ordered below by release date.

"Money Monster" - Now here's a scenario that I bet many people have secretly wanted to see.  An investor who lost all his money based on a bad tip from a Jim Cramer-esque TV show, breaks into the financial guru's studio and takes the program hostage.  George Clooney will play the Cramer figure, with Julia Roberts as his producer, and Jack O'Connell as the desperate investor.  Jodie Foster is directing.  I have no idea if this is going to be any good, but it's something different and it sure sounds like a good time.

"The BFG" - Though not one of my favorite Roald Dahl books, I have a great fondness for the silly story of The Big Friendly Giant, who along with a brave young girl named Sophie, saves the children of the world from some nasty giants.  Steven Spielberg is directing, "Bridge of Spies" actor Mark Rylance is playing the title role, and Disney is picking up the tab.  We haven't had a proper children's fantasy film from Spielberg in a long while, and I am very excited at the prospect of seeing him have some fun in this universe.

"Doctor Strange" - Who could say no to that cast?  Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead, with Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen, and Michael Stuhlbarg supporting?  It's impossible.  But it's Marvel and it's Disney, and they make impossible things happen every day.  So of all the superhero movies coming out next year, this is the only one I really have any enthusiasm for.  Sure, Scott Derrickson's not who I would have gotten to direct this, but hey, they let Spill.com's Carlyle co-write this sucker!  I'm in!

"Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them" - The whole "Harry Potter" gang is back because Warner Brothers needs more money.  But that aside, I find the idea of Eddie Redmayne playing a bumbling wizard in this universe tremendously appealing.  And the promises of visiting the American wizarding world and exploring a different point in time do intrigue.  This is the kind of spinoff I wish we could see more often, one that is built around familiar concepts rather than familiar plots or characters - though I expect more than a few cameos to pop up here.

"Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" - And speaking of  impossible casts that happen to include Mads Mikkelsen, I will never forgive Gareth Edwards if he screws this up and wastes the talents of Mads, Felicity Jones, Riz Ahmed, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker, and Alan Tudyk.  I'm hoping this one can fulfill its promise to put the war in "Star Wars," and be an entirely different beast than any of the previous "Star Wars" films.  Maybe it'll be a prequel in this franchise that's finally worth watching.

"Assassin's Creed" - I haven't seen Justin Kurzel's adaptation of "Macbeth" with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard yet, but I'm itching to, because it might offer some clues as to what "Assassin's Creed" is going to look like. This is still the best hope of a good movie based on a video game property that we've got for the foreseeable future.  I'm not too familiar with the source material, but I know it's got some real potential.  I'm hoping that the late December date doesn't mean that Fox is trying to bury this - we'll just have to wait and see.

"Passengers" - I really do enjoy Jennifer Lawrence in just about everything she's in, and I'm glad to see her being paired up with Chris Pratt for next year's big space thriller.  I don't know much about this one except who's involved, and I think I'd like to keep it that way for as long as possible.  I do know that the Jon Spaihts script made the Black List, and director Morten Tyldum has a lot to prove coming off last year's Oscar nom.  Let's just say that I have a good feeling about this, and I'm going to enjoy the mystery for as long as it lasts.

"The Light Between Oceans" - Finally, this one has no release date yet, but we've known it's been coming from DreamWorks for a while now.  Derek Cianfrance is taking on his biggest film yet, an emotionally fraught drama about a foundling child, starring Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz.  I expect some devastating melodrama, picturesque cinematography, and for DreamWorks to stuff this into the middle of the Oscar race next year.  Bring it on.
---

Thursday, February 4, 2016

My Favorite Clint Eastwood Film

It feels strange to be in the middle of an Oscar season without Clint Eastwood.  Over the past two decades it's seemed like Eastwood always had a film in the conversation, even if it was one that I disliked.  I've had trouble with much of his recent output, such that I think it's beneficial to step back, look over his complete body of work, and remember that he's made several films that I like very much over the years, films that transformed his image from that of iconic Western star to dependable auteur.  His first directorial outing was a thriller, followed by westerns, crime, noir, war, action, and comedy films.  And there was also one, perfect romance.

"The Bridges of Madison County" has no business being as good as it is.  It's based on a bestseller of questionable literary merit, often castigated for being smarmy and maudlin wish-fulfillment.  The plot couldn't be more dubious: an Iowa housewife, the lonely and unappreciated Francesca (Meryl Streep), meets a National Geographic photographer, Robert (Clint Eastwood), who is in the area to take pictures of the covered bridges.  The two begin an affair while Francesca's husband is away for four days, and matters escalate from there.  All very trite and familiar, right?  However, the book generated enough attention to get Hollywood's attention.  And then Steven Spielberg bought the rights.  And then Richard LaGravenese added a new framing device and ditched the florid prose.  And then Eastwood and Streep got involved.

Cinematic romance is harder than it looks, because emotional connections are very difficult to fake onscreen.  Either there is chemistry or there isn't.  Between Eastwood and Streep, however, there are plenty of sparks.  Eastwood isn't usually seen as a sentimentalist, but it's the little moments of love and affection in movies like "Madison County" and "Million Dollar Baby" that tend to stick with me more than the hard-edged grimness of the more celebrated "Unforgiven."  I must have seen a dozen of the crime movies that Eastwood directed and starred in during the 1990s, but I can barely recall anything about them.  "Madison County," I remember, though, as if I'd only seen it yesterday.  I remember Meryl Streep's lovely transformation from dowdy housewife into sensual lover.  I remember the tender, patient cinematography.  I remember Francesca's incredulous grown children in the framing story being slowly, steadily won over by their mother's narrative along with the audience.  
Eastwood's biggest contribution here is his minimalism, his lack of frills and fuss.  The elements he needs to tell a good story are few, and he's always been known for working quickly and efficiently, under budget if possible.  While he does make good use of some scenic views of the Iowa countryside, reportedly inspired by John Ford, the film revels in its intimacy, the quiet moments that the characters enjoy alone or together.  It invites emotional responses because it isn't afraid of showing emotion and placing it front and center.  And it's not afraid of letting the characters talk and talk, and really say things to each other.  The final act hinges on the car scene, which is physically so limited, but so intense thanks to Streep's performance and the careful editing.  And it should be noted that Eastwood fought for Streep, over dozens of other actresses who were up for the part.  I wish this hadn't been the only time they worked together.

I've heard some comparisons of "The Bridges of Madison County" to "Out of Africa," mostly because of Streep's similar character, but the latter movie left me disappointed when I finally saw it.  The austerity and grandeur of the imagery wasn't as effective as the careworn, down to earth filmmaking of "Madison County."  It's far from a perfect film, with occasionally odd lines of dialogue, and some of the minor roles could have been cast better.  However, it has so much heart and soul, and it's unmistakably Eastwood's work through and through.  I love that he decided to play Robert himself, taking on a role that doesn't fit his usual persona, but he proved to be a great fit for anyway.  More modern directors should follow his lead.

"The Bridges of Madison County" is the reason I was so looking forward to Eastwood's planned remake of "A Star is Born," that sadly never got off the ground.  I'd like to see his softer side more often, because it is capable of so much more than it's given credit for.

---

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Star Wars "Awakens" (With Spoilers)

All the spoilers ahead.  All of them.

"The Force Awakens" was probably always doomed to be a mess because it's obligated to do way, way too much.  It has to introduce all these new characters and places, then integrate them into the existing "Star Wars" universe that the fans know and love, but without alienating newcomers.  I'd say the film is very successful at doing the first, but stumbles with the rest.  When Han Solo and Chewbacca showed up, and almost instantly got into the thick of the action, I thought we were going to be okay.  But then the action slowed down, and the dialogue got more expository and clumsy.  Things got especially awkward when Princess Leia showed up, and she and Han would only refer to Kylo Ren as "our son" because his real name was played up as a big reveal.  And then we were in the middle of the Skywalker family soap opera again, trying to catch up with decades of past traumas, and bracing for more to come.

I cringed my way through most of Carrie Fisher's scenes.  I respect the woman immensely, but her screen presence just isn't what it once was, and her whole demeanor was just unbearably stiff.  Harrison Ford was much better, and brought so much to the scenes with Finn and Rey.  But I knew that it was pretty likely that the only reason he came back to the series was to be killed off, and the grandiose way it happened left me a little cold.  Han was always the cool everyman who stayed out of the Jedi stuff, and to see him in that operatic confrontation scene with Kylo Ren was just bizarre.  It would have helped so much if we could have gotten a little more of a sense of their relationship, some better understanding of what the hell happened to Ben Solo beyond Han and Leia talking obliquely around the old hurts.  I know that's all coming in the next two films, but we sure could have used some of the highlights up front.

And on that note, I have no idea how this movie could successfully play to newcomers.  There's so much here that requires that you know who these characters are, their history, and their existing dynamics.  Yes, it's quickly explained who Han and Leia and Luke are, but See Threepio's entrance is absolutely reliant on having watched the old trilogy.  So is that amazing moment with the "garbage" ship and Han calling out to Ben.  Some of the worst dialogue involves the clumsy rehashing of concepts like the Force and the Rebellion.  This was a movie made for the fans of the original trilogy, and that's not going to be sustainable in the long run.  The franchise is nearly forty years old, and can't afford to get bogged down in too much nostalgia.  Keep in mind that the movie may be breaking records at home, but it's not playing so well in parts of the world where "Star Wars" was only recently introduced.  

With all that off my chest, I think the set up for the rest of the new trilogy is pretty good.  The mystery of Rey's origins was handled nicely, and I can't wait to see Finn and Poe teamed up again.  Kylo Ren is almost certainly getting a redemption story arc, and Luke Skywalker's story will surely play into that.  I'm more confident about Mark Hamill's acting than Carrie Fisher's, so that's something to look forward to.  Daisy Ridley really is an instant superstar - some of her reaction shots alone made such a difference.  I think Finn got the shorter end of the stick as far as character development, but John Boyega's energy was great.  I really want to see him have some big, triumphant moments in the future films.  As for Kylo Ren, his character is similar to the prequel version of Anakin Skywalker, but there's already a huge difference because Adam Driver is a much better actor than Hayden Christiansen.

The humor in "The Force Awakens" remains its best asset.  Most of my favorite moments were the funny ones - the Millennium Falcon reveal, the stormtroopers backing away from Kylo Ren's tantrum, and Finn going a little overboard telling Phasma that he's "in charge now."  BB-8 worked so well, it caught me completely off guard in the best way.  I don't know if it's going to be a good idea to continue with the same volume of gags and jokes in Episodes VIII and IX, but it's such a relief to have this element of the original trilogy back after the prequels.  I'm fully subscribed to the theory that Han Solo and Chewbacca were a major reason for the success of "Star Wars," and having the two of them and their banter back for this round was vital.      

However, I do think that the training wheels have to come off, and the new trilogy has to find its own footing.  In some ways I'm glad that Han Solo is out of the picture now, so that "Star Wars" won't be tempted to keep relying on his presence.  "The Force Awakens" was a lot of fun, but I thought that "The Phantom Menace" was a lot of fun in 1999.  The sequel trilogy could very well end up like the prequel trilogy, even though it's had a stronger start.  "The Force Awakens" didn't have a Jar-Jar, fortunately, but it has its own set of weaknesses.  Too much retreading old ground, and not enough striking out on its own.  I'm glad that J.J. Abrams isn't going to stick around - I thought his handling of the action sequences was only so-so, and the callbacks really were too much.  The 2009 "Star Trek" is still his best film and best reboot.

Here's looking ahead to Gareth Edwards' "Rogue One," which I suspect may turn out to be a better film for having a completely different story and set of characters from any of the previous "Star Wars" installments.
---

Monday, February 1, 2016

Star Wars "Awakens" (Without Spoilers)

Well, I'm late to the party, aren't I?  I bet you're all sick of "Star Wars" by now, but I'm determined to have my say, putting general impressions in this review, and a more spoilery reaction post tomorrow.  Ready or not, here we go.

Well, "The Force Awakens" isn't the best "Star Wars" movie ever made or the worst.  It's very reverent and derivative of the original trilogy, often to a fault, but its original elements are all very strong and give me real hope for the following movies in a way that "The Phantom Menace" didn't.  Consider our new heroes: Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger eking out a meager existence on the desert world of Jakku, Finn (John Boyega), a stormtrooper deserter who only wants to get as far away from his pursuers as possible, dashing X-wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), and the little soccer-ball of a droid, BB-8.  They're all so much more interesting than Anakin Skywalker and Queen Amidala in the prequels ever managed to be, and had me invested in their stories almost immediately.

And consider Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the new Sith baddie who menaces our heroes on behalf of the First Order, which succeeded the fallen Empire and.  Ren is a different kind of villain than we've seen before, someone young and unstable, still finding his footing, though he wields a great amount of power.  It creates such a different dynamic with the heroes and with the other characters than we've seen before.  I think it's going to be as much fun following him through the new trilogy as it will be to follow Rey and Finn.  I'm less enthusiastic about Ren's master, Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) who we get to see briefly via hologram.  He's one of the characters who seems to follow the template of the previous films a little too closely, along with a new diminutive wise alien figure named Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyongo).

"The Force Awakens" is at its worst when it's catering to the existing "Star Wars" fanbase with a constant stream of callbacks, cameos, and references.  The movie captures the feel of the original trilogy to a large degree, but too often does it by creating variations on familiar scenes - droids lost in the desert, a rescue that requires running around an enemy base, a visit to a watering hole full of seedy alien toughs, and of course the final epic battles involving a doomsday weapon.  At certain points the movie feels like a highlight reel of the entire first trilogy crammed into one movie - we're constantly hustling through new environments that feel strangely familiar, meeting old friends again, and there's hardly a moment to stop and catch your breath.  Then again, the slower scenes tend to be the weakest - too many clumsy exposition dumps and not enough character moments.

I liked the early scenes best, where the new characters are being introduced, and old characters are being reintroduced with a great deal of restraint.  Time and care are taken to show that Rey is similar to Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), but she's not him.  And Finn might be a good guy at heart, but it takes him a while to wrap his head around the idea.  However, about halfway through the pace picks up, and suddenly we're in the well-worn groove of a typical modern blockbuster reboot, and the goal seems to have become to hit as many of the plot points from the original "Star Wars" as possible before the end credits roll.  I was simultaneously gleeful that all my nerdy "Star Wars" fangirl impulses were being thoroughly indulged, and distressed that I could predict every single beat in the third act well in advance.    

At least with J.J. Abrams in the director's chair, this is all a lot of fun.  Thankfully all the humor works, and there's plenty of it.  No more tin-ear Lucas dialogue.  Finn and Rey are constantly bantering, BB-8 is a great source of physical gags, and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) gets all the best lines, as always.  At least two great bits involve stormtroopers - remember all the silly stormtrooper humor from the old movies?  It's great to see that again after the self-seriousness of the later prequels.  However, I've got to say that the lighter tone and manic pacing does get in the way of the big dramatic moments of "The Force Awakens."  The whole Jedi mythology has never seemed shakier.  And as happy as I am to see the characters from the first trilogy back again, a few of the old actors just weren't up to the task.

I'm grateful that "Star Wars" is back, and that it's in the hands of filmmakers who clearly care a great deal about honoring its origins.  However It's time to move on, and the further the new "Star Wars" films get away from its predecessors, the better.  This is a movie to build on, a good step in the right direction.  However, it's not a "Star Wars" film I think I'll be too keen on revisiting soon.

---

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Oscars So White



I don't want to write this post, but I feel that I have an obligation to offer my perspective, as someone who has been an avid award show watcher for over two decades, and has been keeping an eye on diversity issues in Hollywood for nearly as long.  You may have heard about the brewing controversy over this year's Academy Award nominations.  For the second year in a row, all twenty of the acting nominations went to white actors.

Yes, this is a problem.  I'm going to tell you why.

Let's get a few things out of the way first, though.  Yes, there are plenty of non-white nominees in the other categories.  However, we're focusing on the acting nominations because those are the most visible, high profile races, and the ones that most viewers actually care about.  With all due respect to Alejandro G. Iñárritu and El Chivo, nobody pays much attention to Directing or Cinematography outside of the filmmaking community, because your average moviegoer has no idea who is standing behind the camera 99% of the time.  But Leonardo DiCaprio possibly getting an Oscar this year?  Suddenly, a lot of people care.

Second, it should be stressed that the beef isn't with the individual actors themselves, but what they represent.  We can argue all day about whether Bryan Cranston deserves to be up there on the Best Actor nomination list over Will Smith or Michael B. Jordan, but what's important is that Cranston was picked by an overwhelmingly older, white, insular Academy membership.  Also, the financiers and filmmakers involved with "Trumbo" decided to make a biopic about him where the only minority actor plays Trumbo's hostile prison bunkmate, and the distributors decided to push it as an awards contender.  This is absolutely a systemic problem, not the fault of any one person or studio.

Still, the lack of non-white contenders can be traced directly to a lack of support for films featuring non-white talent.  We had some potential contenders this year, including "Sicario," "Creed," "Beasts of No Nation," "Concussion," "Tangerine," and "Straight Out of Compton."  However, campaigning for awards takes a lot of effort and politicking, and none of these movies managed to gather the right combination of critical, popular, and industry support necessary to get ahead in the Oscar race.  There are plenty of theories as to why this happened - I know a lot of people cared and a lot of people tried - but what's undeniable are the results.  No black, Latino, Asian, Middle-Eastern, Native American, or otherwise non-white actor is in contention this year.  

This galls so much because we know the Academy can do better.  It's not like we haven't been through this whole controversy before.  The most diverse set of acting nominations I've ever seen were back in 2007, when the nods went to twelve white, five black, two Hispanic, and one Asian actor.  That was the year of "Babel," Dreamgirls," "The Pursuit of Happyness," and "The Last King of Scotland."  Notable contenders that year also included "Pan's Labyrinth," "Letters From Iwo Jima," and "Apocalypto."  Now how did we go from that to two Oscars in a row of all-white acting nominees?   You have to go back to 1997 to find the most recent all-white acting nominations before 2014.  For two in a row?  You have to go back to 1979 and 1980.

To the Academy's credit, they are trying.  They know that this is a problem.  Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the organization's first African-American leader elected in 2013, has expressed her disappointment with yesterday's results.  This year Chris Rock is hosting the ceremony and Spike Lee was honored at the Governors Awards a few months ago.  However, there's only so much that the Academy can do when non-white contenders are either not getting the support they need for nominations, or simply aren't there at all.

I've noticed that we're missing films that feature non-white actors in smaller roles, which is where their nominations in the past usually came from. Instead, "The Big Short" essentially wrote out the major female and minority characters that featured in their original source material.  "Spotlight," "Brooklyn," and "Bridge of Spies" have these big ensembles with no minority actors in sight.  In the Best Picture nominees where they do appear, like "The Martian," "Room," "The Revenant," and "Mad Max: Fury Road," the parts are tiny, perfunctory.

I have my own theories about why we're seeing such a sudden shift.  Most Oscar films are midrange, midsize films, and they're disappearing as the business changes.  Executives are worried about marketability, especially overseas, and their first instinct is to hide the black guy on the poster.  But whatever the reason, please let's recognize that this is a problem.  That's the only way we can even start to try and fix it.

---