Category Archives: movies

the rundown: oscar’s best picture nominees, ranked.

Now that I’ve seen all nine Best Picture nominees just in the nick of time for tonight’s Oscars, here’s how I slotted them (from least favorite to favorite). Your mileage may vary. If you disagree, let me know.

9. La La Land
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That’s right, Hollyweird! The movie you’re going to choose as Best Picture shouldn’t have even been nominated. Look, it was a decent movie. The second half was better than the first. But this entire thing feels like a cheap gimmick. You know how I know how? Nobody’s talking about any of the songs in the film. You can’t boast a great musical without a great song! Still, Emma Stone should call me, though.

8. Hell or High Water
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I love Jeff Bridges and I enjoyed how this film was shot and acted. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it was good for me. Not sure if it’s truly Best Picture material or not, but so what? Enjoy the movie!

7. Fences
Pictured: Denzel Washington (Troy Maxson) & Viola Davis (Rose)
Strong acting throughout the film. Denzel Washington and Viola Davis are outstanding together. And, seriously, I hated Denzel by the end! Hated!

6. Hidden Figures
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Great storytelling about an important footnote in 20th century history. Sure, the movie’s a bit of Oscar-bait, but it’s well executed on every level. Perhaps a bit too polished at times but still an entertaining, positive film to watch.

5. Manchester by the Sea
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Kinda dark, kinda gray, kinda sad. Casey Affleck and Lucas Hedges were great, but maddening at times. The creepiest character in the entire movie was played by none other than Matthew Broderick.

4. Arrival
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Like I said yesterday, this is how alien movies should be made. It was a plausible view on how the world might react and interact with aliens, should they ever stop by for a visit. Underneath it all, a rather deep thought about the passage of time.

3. Hacksaw Ridge
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I’m mostly glad to see Mel Gibson out of the doghouse and directing quality films again. And, to be fair, Hacksaw Ridge is a great film. Great storytelling and one of the best battle sequences I’ve seen since Saving Private Ryan.

2. Moonlight
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Possibly the most daring of all the Best Picture nominees and easily one of my favorites. Director Barry Jenkins took chances in composing Moonlight that I loved. It’s poetic, it’s fluid and it’s emotional. Truly a great film.

1. Lion
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My absolute favorite of all nine films I watched. Dev Patel was great, but the entirety of this film—the pacing, the dialogue, the acting, the cinematography…everything!—drew me in from the very start and kept me waiting for more. No other film evoked the same feelings for me as Lion.

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for your consideration: hacksaw ridge.

hacksaw-ridgeHacksaw Ridge (2016 Summit Entertainment, Pandemonium Films, Permut Productions)
Starring Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Luke Bracey, Teresa Palmer, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths & Vince Vaughn.
Directed by Mel Gibson.
Producers: Terry Benedict, Paul Currie, Bruce Davey, William D. Johnson, Bill Mechanic, Brian Oliver, David Permut.
Written by Andrew Knight & Robert Schenkkan. Cinematography by Simon Duggan. Edited by John Gilbert.
The extraordinary true story of conscientious objector Desmond T. Doss who saved 75 men in Okinawa, during the bloodiest battle of WWII, without firing a single shot. Believing that the war was just but killing was nevertheless wrong, he was the only American soldier in WWII to fight on the front lines without a weapon. As an army medic Doss single-handedly evacuated the wounded near enemy lines – braving enemy fire and putting his own life on the line. He was the first conscientious objector to ever win the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Oliver Stone’s 1986 film, Platoon, revolutionized the genre of war films. The stories got more intense, the battle scenes were more realistic and the lines between heroes and villains became blurred. Then along comes Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan in 1998 to reclaim some of the space from Platoon; at least in the sense of un-blurring the hero/villain line (but even then, ethical questions abound).

Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge is truly a new masterpiece in every way. He succeeds where so many before him have failed in a modern story about wartime love and combat (Michael Bay’s crapfest, Pearl Harbor, comes to mind). Hacksaw Ridge succeeds because it never tries to check the compulsory boxes to be a “Hollywood” movie. Instead of trying to be a love story/action flick/buddy pic, Gibson keeps the story on its protagonist: Desmond Doss. Everything that happens throughout Hacksaw Ridge jumps off from him. From the early years growing up with an abusive father, to falling in love, to challenging the U.S. Army, to serving in combat (without a weapon).

Andrew Garfield’s gives a solid performance as Doss. He’s a skinny, unassuming pacifist whose unwavering dedication to his faith can’t be broken. It’s shaken at times, but Doss never breaks. Where Garfield shines in Hacksaw Ridge is portraying Doss not as a superhero (which Garfield knows how to do well), but as a vulnerable but dedicated soldier. You see his fear as well as his bravery. And through it all, Doss gains the trust, admiration and respect of his fellow soldiers.

If there’s one flaw in the film, it’s a minor one (and maybe it’s me). I enjoyed the entire cast. Every actor played his or her part very well. But I have to admit it was hard to take Vince Vaughn seriously as a hard-assed drill sergeant. I like Vince Vaughn and have seen him take on serious roles in the past. But it’s difficult to watch Vaughn go through the obligatory steps of verbally assaulting his recruits without thinking about his monologues in movies like The Wedding Crashers, The Break-up, Couples Retreat, etc. But I’ll give him a pass. Overall, Vaughn held his own.

One under-appreciated performance that I’d like to call out is Hugo Weaving as Desmond’s father, the drunken, abusive Tom Doss. Initially, we see the elder Doss as a villain, but Weaving’s portrayal gives depth and clarity to Tom Doss’s pain and, in the end, he gains a small measure of sympathy. He’s not a hateful man. He’s a man who’s seen the horrors of war and doesn’t want his sons to suffer the same fate.

Gibson never loses the narrative throughout Hacksaw Ridge. He moves the story effortlessly from Desmond’s youth and young adulthood in Virginia to boot camp to combat in Okinawa. Yeah, Mel was in the doghouse for several years over his drunken anti-semitic and racist rants, but it’s good to see him finally earn some redemption. There are no excuses for that behavior, but he’s worked to atone for those sins and I, for one, am glad to see him receive accolade for Hacksaw Ridge. He and this film truly deserve it.

**** stars (out of five)

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for your consideration: lion.

lionLion (2016 The Weinstein Company, Transmission Films, Entertainment Film Distributors)
Starring Dev Patel, Rooney Mara, David Wenham, Nicole Kidman.
Directed by Garth Davis.
Producers: Iain Canning, Angie Felder, Emile Hershman.
Story by Saroo Brierley and Larry Buttrose. Screenplay by Luke Davies.
Cinematography by Greig Fraser. Edited by Alexandre de Franceschi.
Five year old Saroo gets lost on a train which takes him thousands of miles across India, away from home and family. Saroo must learn to survive alone in Kolkata, before ultimately being adopted by an Australian couple. Twenty five years later, armed with only a handful of memories, his unwavering determination, and a revolutionary technology known as Google Earth, he sets out to find his lost family and finally return to his first home.

This will be the shortest and rawest movie review I’ve ever written, so please bear with me. It’s not because I’ve got Oscars fatigue. It’s because this movie struck such a chord in me that I don’t really know how to put in words how it made me feel. It was emotional, fascinating and gripping, from beginning to end. Saroo’s “journey” (if you want to call it that) for the first half of the film was heartbreaking to watch. A five-year-old boy falls asleep on a train and wakes up half a world away and wants nothing more than to go home to his “Mum.”

Lion is a story of survival, of personal discovery and of learning to cope with your own past; even when you don’t know what your past is.

Dev Patel was, as always, great. But the little boy who played five-year-old Saroo, Sunny Pawar, was really fantastic. His scenes with Abhishek Bharate, who played Saroo’s older brother Guddu, were simply perfect.

Truly, the entire film is perfect. Visually stunning, emotionally wrenching and unflinchingly realistic, Lion may very well be the best picture of 2016.

****-1/2 stars (out of five)

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for your consideration: fences.

fencesFences (2016 Paramount, Bron Creative, Escape Artists, Scott Rudin Productions)
Starring Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby, Mykelti Williamson, Saniyya Sidney.
Directed by Denzel Washington.
Producers: Todd Black, Scott Rudin, Denzel Washington.
Written by August Wilson. Cinematography by Charlotte Bruus Christensen. Edited by Hughes Winborne.
Fences is the story of Troy Maxson, a mid-century Pittsburgh sanitation worker who once dreamed of a baseball career, but was too old when the major leagues began admitting black players. He tries to be a good husband and father, but his lost dream of glory eats at him, and causes him to make a decision that threatens to tear his family apart.

I don’t think this film was marketed correctly. The television commercials leave the impression this is a story about a bitter father who’s taking his anger at never getting his shot at greatness out on his son. Well, that’s part of the storyline in Fences, but hardly the entire plot.

Set in post-WWII Pittsburgh, Fences tells the story of Troy Maxson; a charmer, a bullshitter, a guy full of opinions about everything, a guy still carrying anger over not getting to play Major League baseball because of the color of his skin. But the grievances don’t stop there. In his world, everything revolves around Troy because that’s how Troy wants it. In his world, Troy is owed better than he has it. Sometimes he goes out and gets it, but usually, he ends up on the stoop on Friday night, bitching about it as he shares a pint of gin with his best friend, Bono, while Troy’s wife Rose looks on from the kitchen.

It doesn’t take long to figure out Fences is an adaptation from a play. It’s two solid hours of dialogue; truly an actor’s movie. I say that as a credit to Denzel Washington, who not only plays the lead role but also co-produced and directed Fences. Rather than short takes and quick cuts, the actors envelop the set, stretch into the scene and pull all the emotion and drama out of every line of dialogue. I love movies that allow the actors to be actors. That is the real strength of Fences.

As an actor in Fences, Denzel is…well, he’s Denzel freakin’ Washington. The man can make you love him and hate him in a film. In Fences, he manages to do both. Initially, Troy seems like a charismatic, life-of-the-party kind of guy. By the midpoint, Troy’s demons and his self-centeredness make you hate him.

Speaking of performance, the best scenes revolve around Troy and Bono, who’s played by ohhhh, THAT guy actor Stephen Henderson. There is a natural rapport between the two as they hash over the injustices at work, their wives’ cooking or Troy’s sons. Viola Davis gives a masterful performances as Troy’s wife, Rose. She’s tough, compassionate and carrying her own struggles as she tries to balance her needs against her husband’s selfishness. Even Troy would admit Rose balances him out most of the time. But what does Rose do when Troy’s selfishness forces her to make even greater sacrifices of herself?

The undercurrent throughout Fences is Troy’s deep-seated anger and frustration, which he forces upon everyone close to him, one way or another. Whether it’s his mooching son, Lyons, or his athletic, teen-ager son Cory neither can do right by him. It doesn’t take long to see Troy for who he is: an angry narcissist. But his family and friends are forced to bear the weight of all his decisions—good and bad—including brother Gabe (Mykelti Williamson), whose WWII injuries left him with permanent brain damage.

In the end, Fences is about family in all its dysfunction and imperfection. It’s about a man who, in his heart, believes he always does right by everyone…even when he’s clearly not doing right. It’s an emotional tug-of-war that leaves each character constantly asking how much more can I give and how much more can I take? The answers to those questions don’t always come with happy endings. Perhaps that’s the strength and the lesson in Fences. You have to learn to accept people for who they are, because holding onto the anger doesn’t make it any easier.

***-1/2 stars (out of five)

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for your consideration: hell or high water.

hell-or-high-waterHell or High Water (2016 CBS Films, Liongate)
Starring Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Gil Birmingham.
Directed by David Mackenzie.
Producers: Sidney Kimmel, Peter Berg, Carla Hacken, Julie Yorn, Gigi Pritzker, Rachel Shane, Braden Aftergood.
Written by Taylor Sheridan. Cinematography by Giles Nuttgens. Edited by Jake Roberts.
A divorced father and his ex-con older brother resort to a desperate scheme in order to save their family’s ranch in West Texas.

Nothing like a good ol’ modern Western! Is that a genre? It is now. One word best describes Hell or High Water: dusty. Set in the desolate and wide open spaces of West Texas, Hell or High Water tells the story of brothers Toby and Tanner, who are on a collision course with Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton, as they rip their way through the tiny towns and burgs dotting rural Texas highways. As the patient, yet dedicated Ranger Hamilton, Jeff Bridges gives a sturdy performance of an aging lawman on the cusp of retiring.

Sure, it might be slightly cliché—a retiring cop on one last mission—but Hell or High Water avoids those pitfalls. Bridges is He’s at his best sharing dialogue with Rangers partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham), who has to endure Hamilton’s incessant put downs and passively racist comments at Parker’s heritage. It’s less a love-hate relationship and more like the banter between old friends.

Director David Mackenzie embraced Texas culture throughout the film to give Hell or High Water an air of authenticity. This is not a Hollywood rendition of Texas! In addition to colorful extras, he treats the scenery like a character in the movie to establish the mood of isolation and desperation of surviving in East Jesus Nowhere, Texas: population, 19 + two anthills and a rattlesnake. Credit cinematographer Giles Nuttgens photography of the landscape in achieving the film’s ambience. He doesn’t treat the Texas plains and oil fields like a hellscape or anything, but the film definitely feels like the lonely roads of a Bruce Springsteen song.

Ultimately, Hell or High Water is a cops-and-robbers chase movie, but the subplots lie at the heart of this drama. It’s certainly not a one-dimensional, good guys vs. bad guys movie. At the heart of Hell or High Water is a story of defiance and anger, of triumph over past failures and of sacrifice for the sake of others; all carried by phenomenal performances.

Hell or High Water succeeds as a dialogue-driven film with a little bit of action sprinkled in. The strength of the movie is in the acting. Ben Foster, as Tanner—the reckless, loose cannon—is a wildly under-appreciated actor. Once again, he delivers a knockout performance by bringing an edge to his character that always leaves the impression of a powder keg about to ignite.

For my money, he’s gives the best performance in the movie, which is saying something when he’s paired with Chris Pine in most of his scenes. Pine is no slouch either. Sure, he has matinee idol good looks (he is Capt. Kirk, after all) but delivers subtle, measured performance as Tanner’s younger, calmer brother, Toby. He has to be the rational one while Tanner does the dirty work. Though he’s eternally conflicted by Tanner’s methods, Toby never walks away from him…to his credit or his failing, as it were.

To its credit Hell or High Water doesn’t lay it on thick with faux emotion. These are stoic men with their respective marching orders and are going to see it through to the end, consequences be damned (come Hell or high water, I suppose). The combination of tight dialogue, good pacing and visually fascinating cinematography make Hell or High Water an enjoyable, quick 100-minute movie. Is it worth its Oscar nomination? Well, I’ll let you decide.

*** stars (out of five)

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for your consideration: moonlight.

moonlightMoonlight (2016 A24)
Starring: Trevante Rhodes, André Holland, Janelle Monáe, Ashton Sanders, Jharrel Jerome, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali.
Directed by Barry Jenkins.
Producers: Adele Romanski, Dade Gardner, Jeremy Kleiner.
Screenplay by Barry Jenkins. Story by Tarell Alvin McCraney.
Cinematography by James Laxton. Edited by Nat Sanders, Joi McMillon.
A timeless story of human self-discovery and connection, Moonlight chronicles the life of a young black man from childhood to adulthood as he struggles to find his place in the world while growing up in a rough neighborhood of Miami.

In a word, wow. I’m not even sure where to begin. Moonlight tells a story in such a unique, lyrical manner that I can’t quite get a handle on it. Yes, there’s a strong, emotional center to Moonlight. The story and performances revolve out of that emotional center and are woven together into tight-yet-unconventional manner.

Depicted through the eyes of the lead character, Chiron, at three critical stages of his life, Moonlight is the story of perseverance, personal discovery, acceptance, forgiveness and, in some ways, surrender. Whether it’s to bullies or his drug-addicted mother, Chiron is forced to mostly persevere and surrender throughout his young life. How does that shape a boy who’s coming of age and just beginning his own journey of self awareness? That’s what unfolds throughout Moonlight.

Director Barry Jenkins relies less on dialogue throughout much of Moonlight to tell Chiron’s story. While slightly reminiscent of Terrence Malick’s style in that horrendous picture, Tree of Life, Jenkins is able to do something Malick couldn’t do: maintain both the emotional impact and the story’s thread throughout the film. We see Chiron connecting with local drug dealer Juan, magnificently portrayed by Mahershala Ali (who’s quickly becoming the newest Ohhhh, THAT guy! actor in Hollywood). Ali’s Juan is sensitive, empathetic and ultimately feels a sense of responsibility in caring for Chiron.

While Jenkin’s fluid directing style gives Moonlight a somber and, at times, dark tone, the actors’ performances keep the story stitched together. Three separate actors—Alex R. Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, Trevante Rhodes—portray Chiron at different stages of his life. Most impressive is all three maintain the character’s doubts, anger, fear and confusion.

Yes, Moonlight is about one character’s personal journey, but it avoids the cliché pitfalls of typical triumph-of-the-human-spirit fodder. It’s about acceptance; acceptance of who you are, what you’ve become and, ultimately, acceptance of your past. Moonlight succeeds in connecting with audiences because it shows that, no matter where you come from, the emotional complexities of that journey are familiar for all of us.

**** stars (out of five)

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for your consideration: la la land.

la-la-landLa La Land (2016 Summit Entertainment)
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend, Rosemarie DeWitt.
Written and Directed by Damien Chazelle
Producers: Fred Berger, Jordan Horowitz, Gary Gilbert, Marc Platt
Cinematography by Linus Sandgren. Edited by Tom Cross.

The story of Mia, an aspiring actress, and Sebastian, a dedicated jazz musician, struggling to make ends meet while pursuing their dreams in a city known for destroying hopes and breaking hearts. With modern day Los Angeles as the backdrop, this musical about everyday life explores what is more important: a once-in-a-lifetime love or the spotlight.

This is from the same guy who wrote and directed Whiplash? Seriously?!?! Everything Whiplash was—dark, intense, mentally exhausting—La La Land ain’t. Yes, it’s the story of Mia and Sebastian, but the real story is it’s a throwback to the mid-20th century heyday of big-time Hollywood musicals. Well, for the first half of the movie, at least.

I’ll be honest, I found myself tapping my watch throughout the first 60 minutes or so of La La Land. It felt cheesy, gimmicky and like it was trying too hard to be an old movie. Instead of paying homage to the Busby Berkeley era, it got a little too homage-y there for awhile, if you ask me. Sure, the backdrop of vintage Los Angeles landmarks and scenery were visually satisfying and harkened to movies of days gone by, but it seemed forced, at times.

The musical numbers were quaint and kinda fun, but watching two great actors in Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling soft-shoe their way through a couple of these numbers was a bit like pounding a square peg into a round hole. Fun? Sure. Emotional depth? Well…

That didn’t come until the second half of the film, when writer/director Damien Chazelle focused less on the gimmick of a big, ensemble song-and-dance routine and more on the burgeoning relationship between our protagonists, Mia and Sebastian. Both were interesting characters with big, Hollywood dreams of their own that seemed at odds with their relationship.

At its heart, this is what La La Land is about: can young love survive one’s professional aspirations? It’s this intersection where La La Land’s impact comes to bear. It’s also where Stone and Gosling flourish as actors in this picture. Both are such gifted performers, they are able to squeeze out visceral, emotional responses between lines of dialogue simply through their eyes. That, to me, packs more punch than breaking out into song-and-dance at a party (although, to be fair, that party scene was pretty fun…just sayin’.).

La La Land is an enjoyable throwback to old-time Hollywood productions, but it succeeds better on the drama, rather than the musical aspects. No disrespect intended for the songwriters, though. Give credit to John Legend for delivering one of the best musical moments in the picture, but I have to say my favorites were the jazz ensembles. Your mileage may vary, which is sort of how I feel about La La Land as a whole. I know what I liked the most, but you might see it otherwise.

*** stars (out of five)

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