Thursday, February 23, 2017

MY OWN PRIVATE OSCAR PICKS 2017






I was tempted to title this post F***K THE ACADEMY'S OSCAR PICKS, after one of my favorite ever site titles, Fuck Your Noguchi Coffee Table. (Full disclosure: I possess a bona fide knockoff [no, that's not oxymoronic; it's moronic to think that all knockoffs are created equal] of the above Noguchi table, which gives me pleasure to behold daily.  But it's effing heavy to move, so just fugettabout attempting it by yourself, not to mention it leaves permanent dents in your area rug.  But iconic design--it's totally worth it, you know?)

And iconic, to my mind, is what an Oscar-winning film or performance should be.  So here's my list.



ACTRESS

Isabelle Huppert, Elle



Yeah, I know Emma Stone will win, but as LAT critic Justin Chang put it, the heart wants what it wants. Huppert fearlessly took on and triumphed in an ambiguous role that scared off several other actresses who'd been approached. She said in an interview with Peter Travers that director Paul Verhoeven "...gave me that big piece of work like an unshaped form and let me shape it the way I wanted all the way through." Huppert's the actress as auteur, which = iconic. 



SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea



Williams' character's gut-wrenching confession to her ex-husband played by Casey Affleck is a short scene I will never forget. Not convinced? Consider what Williams ("Randi") brought to the dialogue below:

Randi:  Could we ever have lunch?
Lee:     You mean us? You and me?
Randi:  Yeah. I, uh...Because...I said a lotta terrible things to you. But--
             I know you never--Maybe you don't wanna talk to me--
Lee:      It's not that.
Randi:  But let me finish.  However it--my heart was broken. It's still  
            broken. I know your heart is broken, too.



ACTOR

Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea



Viggo was excellent and looked real good; Garfield did a yeoman's job; Denzel declaimed vigorously; Gosling sang & danced & played piano while looking cute as hell in vintage togs.  But Affleck. Wow. Subtle, powerful--his character trying to do the right thing while tamping a lava flow of trauma and guilt. His performance took my breath away.


SUPPORTING ACTOR

Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals



Shannon is a chameleon--he completely transforms for every role. Even though all of the other actors in this category were excellent (Ali and Bridges in particular), Shannon's meticulously played "grotesque angel," as someone oxymoronically referred to his character, was unique and impeccable.


ANIMATED FEATURE

I don't do animation, but Zootopia will likely win, say those who do.  So here's a pic:




CINEMATOGRAPHY

Bradford Young, Arrival



Go ahead--check out the trailers for all the nominated films, and tell me the lighting in this one isn't amazing.  Remember the tunnel scenes?  Louise's house in the moonlight? And then the scenes like the one above--perhaps not as starkly memorable, but all exquisitely and moodily lit, composed, and shot. (Yeah, I know the guild gave it to Greig Fraser for Lion, the film with the really long scary train ride [I get it--mimetic] and interminable push-pin-mania scenes, but this is my own private list, remember? Besides, I liked Fraser's work in Zero Dark Thirty better.)


COSTUME DESIGN

Madeline Fontaine, Jackie



The costume design in this film wasn't just a matter of replicating, but rather of interpreting and rendering--you got it--iconic.  Like I said, not all knockoffs are created equal. 



DIRECTOR

Denis Villeneuve, Arrival



I deeply love this man's work (well, okay, I had some story issues with Prisoners, but man, oh man, Sicario!  And I can hardly contain myself for Blade Runner 2049).  Yeah, I know, Chazelle's gonna win for La La Land, and he did an excellent job. At least it won't be Mel....



DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

O. J.: Made in America



7+ riveting hours. The rise and fall of an American icon. And no glove is going to fit over latex, guys.



FILM EDITING

Joe Walker, Arrival




A story described as being "free of narrative," plus all those flashes. Gorgeously fluid.


FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

Elle





It wasn't nominated, you say? Quel dommage! That means the I-thought-it-would-never-end Toni Erdmann will probably win. Not that Maren Ade's film is without merit--it's just 40 minutes too long until that last brilliant scene. It's like a film struggling to have a climax, whereas Elle is one confounding orgasm of a sequence after another--punctured with comic zingers.



ORIGINAL SCORE

Mica Levi, Jackie



"Micachu" also scored Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin.  She's only 29, so you'll be hearing a lot more from her. That intro to Jackie in the theater (shame on you if you watched it on DVD) made the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. Click here to jog your memory.



ORIGINAL SONG

"City of Stars," La La Land



Catchy tune from composer Justin Hurwitz (who, incidentally, was Damien Chazelle's roommate at Harvard. Just sayin'--that was a good career move. I recall being stuck with a college roommate who hardly ever spoke and would sit facing me in lotus position doing TM). But I digress...do you sense I'm sort of...meh about this song?  Yeah, well, I'm afraid this is the best the category has to offer this year, IMHO, even though I do love Justin Timberlake--just not crazy about his music.



PRODUCTION DESIGN

Patrice Vermette, Arrival



I guess you can probably tell by now that I really, really like this film. Seriously, though, wasn't this tunnel dope? It was inspired by artist James Turrell, whose light installation was admired in different places by both Vermette and director Villeneuve, described here. (I saw it at LACMA, where you put on slippers and, 3 or 4 people at a time, entered a room to be enveloped by slowly morphing soundless light. It was the closest to heaven I'm likely to ever experience.) 



VISUAL EFFECTS

Beats me; I didn't see any of the flicks nominated.  The Visual Effects Society chose Jungle Book over Rogue One.  But since I love Tilda Swinton, here's a pic from Doctor Strange:





SOUND EDITING/SOUND MIXING

War films tend to be highly regarded in these categories (Saving Private Ryan and Apocalypse Now are considered among the finest examples of these crafts; I was particularly impressed with Paul Ottoson's sound design for Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty). So, Hacksaw Ridge may have an edge in this category, but to be honest, none of this year's films' sound design blew me away (although I did appreciate what I read of the sound editor and mixer of La La Land  creating car horns in the precise key for the opening traffic number, which you can read about here). My choice is to give you the iconic image below instead (yeah, I know there's also currently a Trump take-off meme). F***k this guy's Corbusier chair.





MAKEUP AND HAIRSTYLING

I didn't seen any of the films nominated. I would have chosen Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals (The Society of Makeup and Hairstyling artists did)Aging Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal 10 or 15 years was beautifully and subtly done (with the help of lighting, natch). And Laura Linney with the bleeding lipstick lines as the mother-you-inevitably-turn-into was brilliantly rendered:





ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Eric Heisserer, Arrival



If you've ever tried to read Ted Chiang's sci-fi classic Story of Your Life, the basis for Arrival, you'll understand what a feat Heisserer's adaptation is. He won the WGA award for it.



ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea



Lonergan, right, also directed his screenplay. I thought Taylor Sheridan's Hell or High Water was also a gem of a script, but Manchester has more gravitas and resonates in ways that haunt long after viewing it.


BEST PICTURE

Arrival



La La Land is poised to win, and I found it charmingly engaging, blah, blah, blah. But Arrival's a smart, emotionally sophisticated film that inverts thriller expectations to give us a thoughtful, moving, spiritual, and meticulously crafted work.  It will be a sci-fi classic. (SPOILER ALERT! The studio execs wanted the daughter to get all better in the end--but the producers thankfully prevailed. Phew.)


ALMOST FORGOT THE SHORTS!

I didn't catch any of them, but here are the categories:

Documentary Short




In 1965, a frat boy found himself on a subway in a strange city....


Animated Short


The cat short is darling, don't you think?


Live Action Short



Who can resist the double feature of Chuck and iconic denim cutoffs?


Okay, now go fill out out your own damn ballot.  I've got a martini to drink....




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Friday, February 17, 2017

THE YIN AND YANG OF THE YOUNG POPE





The photo depicts Jude Law's Pope Pius XIII in a nutshell--a Pope who smokes even though it's banned in the Vatican (by His Holiness, if I recall correctly); who is vehemently opposed to homosexual priests even though he ultimately elevates one to be his overseer; who wants to remain unseen by the masses to preserve the mystery of the Church, yet wears what might be called runway Vatican chic (glowing white robes and hats, a white cashmere-looking running suit, red loafers) and orders a triple tiara for himself:


The Pope's given name, Lenny Belardo, also reflects this contrast or duality.  His first name recalls Lennie Small of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, a bear of a man yet innocent and intellectually/developmentally handicapped.  "Belardo" is from the Old High German, meaning strong and powerful as a bear. Pius XIII certainly presents himself initially as a powerful entity--a Trump-like tyrant who demands you do things his way or get the highway.  Yet Lenny is psychologically and developmentally handicapped by his trauma of abandonment, having been orphaned by hippie parents who left him to the care of a Catholic orphanage, where Lenny's surrogate "Ma" was Sister Mary, played by Diane Keaton, below, who wears a traditional habit during the day (tinted glasses and high-button collared in that Keaton-esque style, of course), but who lets her hair down and, well, expresses herself at night.


While the abandonment theme may come off as simplistic, as a psychotherapist, I can tell you that Lenny's fixation on why his parents gave him up (read: rejected him) is anything but. His self-worth is deeply wounded under a defensive armor of narcissistic grandiosity. (Look no further than Trump's narcissism: it is so very sad to witness how desperately this POTUS needs mirroring and validation of his acceptance--hence his incessant assertions of the "tremendous" numbers of those who supported him and his "yuge" ratings.)

A friend and fellow watcher of this show asked, Is Lenny a tyrant or is he a saint?  Sister Mary believes the latter, but I'd say
he's neither and both.  Lenny's an uncanny reader of those around him--for example, he knows that Guttierez (Javier Cámara, right) is essentially trustworthy and that the tonic for his anxiety and fear of life outside the Vatican walls is for him to be sent to New York on a mission, even though it initially seems like a penance. (Guttierez does, succeeds, and comes back a changed man.)  Lenny's impatient, dictatorial, dismissive.  Yet his prayers for a sterile couple result in a baby (whom the Pope literally drops in one scene--oops!--I guess he isn't completely infallible), and his prayers for divine intervention with regard to a false saintly nun end with her getting...well, let's just say some unholy water.


Lenny's mentor Cardinal Spencer (James Cronwell) becomes his rival and tormentor, but also ultimately guides his student from innocence to experience, from narcissism to empathy:

Lenny:  "Abortion has nothing to do with life."

Spencer:  "Who gives a damn about life?  Life is not some stupid centerpiece of the side table of nothingness.  Life is meant to be used, and to be used well.  To love and be loved. And let me remind you what St. Alphonsus said about abortion.  In an abortion, everyone is guilty, except for the woman."

Warning:  mild spoiler ahead!

By the end of this series (or season, hopefully), Lenny has softened, evolved:  he accepts Guittierez' sexuality; he shows himself to the people of Venice (okay, even if for the self-serving hope that his biological parents may show up).  But the strain of this transformation and acceptance on the the Pope's psyche makes him faint (one hopes not worse).

This HBO limited series has a 75% fresh critics' rating on Rotten Tomatoes--I'm shocked it wasn't higher.  Perhaps it has to do with the fact that people are essentially xenophobic when it comes to what might appear as a Catholic story.  It is, but with a small "c"--in the sense of universal (see references to DT above).  Or perhaps reviewers aren't used to a lead character who is so flagrantly both persona and shadow--who embodies our own dichotomies (we can tolerate superheroes or archenemies more readily--they're the ones who are simplistic).  Ironically, viewers give the series an 82% fresh rating--our unconventional young pope is amassing congregants.


Writer-director Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty, Youth) extends the duality to every aspect of his series.  From The Pope drinking Cherry Coke to the use of contemporary music--the credit sequence diorama with Devlin's (All Along the) Watchtower and Law's wink is absolutely stunning.  (Click here for all the songs in the series.)  


Jude Law is hot as Pius XIII, and so is his publicist Sofia (Cécile De France), whom he lets sit on the papal throne. And how endearing does the Pope's potential nemesis Cardinal Voielllo (Silvio Orlando, below), with his yearning for Sister Mary, become?

This series is like Twin Peaks set in the Vatican.  It's written and directed with jaw-dropping style and verve.  It starts like a gangster movie but defies genre-fication.  So what's not to worship?

Let us pray for a Season 2.


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Sunday, December 25, 2016

TOP10 FILMS OF 2016

1.  ARRIVAL




Moving and meditative, Arrival is even better on second viewing--it resonates long after you leave the theater.  Amy Adams is wonderful.  There's Denis Villeneuve's soulful direction, Eric Heisserer's brilliant screenplay from Ted Chiang's Story of Your Life (no mean feat to adapt!), and a haunting, lovely score from Villeneuve's Sicario composer Jóhann Jóhansson (who's also composing for Blade Runner 2049).


2.  MANCHESTER BY THE SEA



Truth be told, I approached this film with some skepticism after having endured the 3-hour Lonergan cut of Margaret. But Manchester, with its seamless organic flashbacks and best-of-the-year actor and supporting actress performances from Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams, blew me away.



3. ELLE



Quite simply, I think it's the best work Verhoeven and Huppert have ever done.  They're both auteurs.  And for my money, there's nothing like a stylish, well-wrought, provocative thriller.  I hope Huppert gets the Oscar for this.  For my full post on the film, click here.


4.  THE HANDMAIDEN




Park Chan-Wook's stunning and sexy adaptation of Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith.  The plot, in three parts, from three different POVs, left me slack-jawed with awe.


5.  JACKIE



This appears to be director Pablo Larraín's year (his Neruda was also recently released).  The script for Jackie by Noah Oppenheim was originally to be an HBO mini-series produced by Steven Spielberg.  Natalie Portman gives an Oscar-worthy performance, and 29-year-old Mica (Micachu) Levi's arrestingly dissonant score knocked me out.


6.  NOCTURNAL ANIMALS



It appears to be Amy Adams' year as well.  I have to hand it to writer-director Tom Ford:  he took an interior, non-cinematic, not particularly well-written or engaging novel that somehow spoke to him, and he applied his vision to every aspect, resulting in a compelling, stylish neo noir.  And...Ford bankrolled the film himself (as he had done with A Single Man), because he can, and because he likes to have total creative control.  Kudos to him, Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Aaron Taylor-Johnson.  And a terrific Michael Shannon.


7.  HELL OR HIGH WATER



Sleeper of the year from Scottish director David Mackenzie and writer Taylor (Sicario) Sheridan (part two of a trilogy). Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges are particularly great.


8.  THE INNOCENTS (AKA AGNES DEI)




Superb film from director Anne Fontaine that's been puzzlingly missing from critics' top 2016 lists.  Here's the log line:   In 1945 Poland, a young French Red Cross doctor who's sent to assist the survivors of the German camps discovers several nuns in advanced states of pregnancy during a visit to a nearby convent.  The film is this year's Ida.



9.  PATERSON



Jim Jarmusch's latest is refreshingly sincere and less self-consciously hip than his previous films.  Quite simply, it's the story of a bus driver/poet (wonderfully played by Adam Driver) named Paterson who lives in Paterson, New Jersey, home to poets William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg.


10.  LA LA LAND




You'd have to be pretty jaded to not respond at all to Damien Chazelle's magical tribute to musicals (which I generally won't even see) and Los Angeles.  It's not nearly as accomplished a film as Chazelle's Whiplash, but it's a charming outlier, and as so, audacious.  And Stone and Gosling are eminently watchable.


RUNNERS UP/HONORABLE MENTION:  Loving (beautiful jobs by writer-director Jeff Nichols, Ruth Negga, and Joel Edgerton), A Bigger Splash (Swinton! Schöenarts! Fiennes!), Moonlight (the adult casting of the leads ruined it for me--they looked nothing like their younger counterparts), Captain Fantastic (Viggo Mortensen deserves a nomination for this), Kicks, Midnight Special (also by writer-director Jeff Nichols), The Neon Demon.


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