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oscar nom: cinderella (kenneth branagh, 2015)

On the one hand, the only Oscar nomination is for Best Costumes, which I know little about, and when that’s the only nomination for a movie, it’s probably lacking in other areas. (Last year’s equivalent was Maleficent, which I actually liked, so maybe even this is better than nothing.)

On the other, good, hand: It’s not a musical, so I didn’t have to sit through a bunch of crappy songs. It has two actors from Game of Thrones, two from Downton Abbey ... heck, there’s even the title actor from I, Claudius. I don’t have an opinion about Kenneth Branagh’s directing ... in fact, this might be the first of his movies I’ve seen. The familiarity of the story served as comfort food. And, most importantly in my book, Hayley Atwell is in the movie.

Well, that didn’t work out. Spoiler alert: Atwell dies about five minutes into the movie. Sigh.

Cinderella is fine, but that’s all it is. My wife said the costumes showed an intelligent design ... at least, I think that’s what she said. I’m sure it deserved its Oscar nomination. (I’ve seen three of the five noms, and I’d go for Mad Max: Fury Road.) I just can’t think of any real reason to see this. Last year, I recommended Maleficent because Angelina Jolie was so good. In Cinderella, it’s Cate Blanchett as the wicked stepmother, and she’s tiresome.

The one thing this entry in the Cinderella sweepstakes does differently, I suppose, is give a little back story to the main characters. But learning about Cinderella’s parents is pretty boring (especially after Hayley Atwell dies), and Blanchett gets just one brief speech designed to make us feel her pain. It’s not enough. 6/10.

music friday: paul kantner, "have you seen the stars tonight"

The Jefferson Airplane were my favorite San Francisco band of the 1960s. Not sure I could rank the members ... not sure I should. Jack Casady was always my favorite, but what about Marty/Grace/Paul? Marty and Grace always had that singing together, maybe we’re in love, maybe we hate each other thing going ... Paul and Grace, not so much, even if they did eventually have a kid together.

We played Surrealistic Pillow over and over in the summer of ‘67. Grace stood out ... she had the hits ... Marty sang most of the other leads, although given the harmonies it wasn’t always clear who, if anyone, was the “lead” singer. Jorma played the guitar solos. Paul Kantner was certainly an important part of the band, but I don’t think I paid him much attention.

He was far more out front with the next album, After Bathing at Baxter’s. He wrote some of my favorite songs from that one ... “Wild Tyme”, “Won’t You Try/Saturday Afternoon”. Crown of Creation seemed like more of a group effort, although Marty didn’t seem as involved. The title track was Kantner, and it brought his sci-fi tendencies to the forefront.

Bless Its Pointed Little Head was probably my favorite Airplane album, if I’m being honest. It’s certainly Jack Casady’s finest. The emphasis on the Hot Tuna boys again pushed Kantner to the background, although he was better represented when a reissue added a couple of his songs.

Volunteers was great, and it was also the last time I loved, or even paid attention to, an Airplane album. Kantner’s “We Can Be Together” was arguably their best political track.

But then came Blows Against the Empire, attributed to “Paul Kantner and Jefferson Starship”. That was the first time the term “Starship” was used, and it was the only time a halfway decent album was attached to the name. In retrospect, the title is a bit of a stretch. And while we played Blows constantly when it came out, I can’t say I bring it out much any longer. But I’ve always loved “Have You Seen the Stars Tonight”, and that was the first song that came to mind when I heard that Kantner had died.

And here’s “We Can Be Together”, with great rhythm guitar from Paul:

oscar nom: sicario (denis villenueve, 2015)

This one picked up three “technical” nominations: Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, and Best Sound Editing. All three seem reasonable to me, although I’m not the one to pick a winner ... I haven’t seen them all, and would probably just vote for the movie I liked best overall (hello, Fury Road).

I have seen two other movies by Villenueve, Incendies, which I liked a lot, and Prisoners, which I also liked but not as much. Sicario is closer to the latter. It moves along at a nice pace, the cast is interesting, as I was watching it I thought it good enough. But it doesn’t stand up to post-mortem analysis.

Emily Blunt is very good as Kate, an American FBI agent who has blinders pulled from her eyes. Benicio del Toro is also good as someone who had those blinders removed long ago. But the key character is Matt Graver, a CIA agent played by Josh Brolin in casual, aw shucks mode. He doesn’t have the personal attachment to the case that del Toro’s Alejandro does, and it’s unclear if he ever had blinders. He accepts the situation as normal ... the world sucks, let's have a beer. He does his job, probably thinks he is a realist, but he accepts Alejandro’s vengeance more than he does Kate’s idealism. Graver was never idealistic in the first place. I think the movie shares his version of The Normal, even as it professes otherwise. Nothing is going to get better, there is no point.

And then there’s what my friend Nathan called the “torture porn”. Torture has been a plot device in all of the Villenueve films I’ve seen ... without it, Prisoners has no reason to exist. When the ramifications pass through generations, as with Incendies, the impact is essential and moving. When torture seems to merely move the plot along, you have something else.

So I’m torn about Sicario, which seemed so much better before I thought about it. 7/10. For a better examination of the border between El Paso and Juárez, see the U.S. TV series The Bridge, which had its own problems but which at least tried to confront those problems.

oscar nom: cartel land (matthew heineman, 2015)

This film about the drug trade on the Mexican/American border is up for a Best Feature Documentary Oscar. Heineman’s style as a director is best summed up by Andrew O’Hehir, who wrote, “he has a crucial attribute that’s very helpful for documentary filmmakers – he is apparently out of his freakin’ mind.” Heineman (and co-cinematographer Matt Porwoll ... it’s not clear who does what) appears to be taking enormous risks during the filming of Cartel Land, jumping into cars to avoid gunfire, conducting interviews with people who seem, at best, less than savory. Heineman doesn’t shy away from reminding us of this ... in one interview, he notes, “A lot of the more intense scenes, I was there alone during the shootouts and scenes like that and it was almost like every man for themselves. I was there looking out for my own back and taking care of myself and they were doing the same.” But in fairness, Cartel Land is not a movie about a brave and reckless director.

Heineman uses an interesting structural device, following two vigilante leaders, one on each side of the border. Tim “Nailer” Foley patrols that border, trying to keep the bad guys out of Arizona; José Mireles is a leader of a band of Mexicans trying to fight back against the power of the cartels in their towns. The structure is fine, but this is a movie, and it soon becomes apparent that Mireles has more charisma and screen presence than his American counterpart. This subtly throws off the so-called objective balance ... whenever we watch “Nailer”, we wish we were back in Mexico with Mireles.

The story of Mireles also seems more complicated than that of Foley, with most of the surprises coming when Mireles is the focus. Heineman doesn’t create psuedo-events, but he knows how to take advantage of turns in the narrative that would work equally well in a fictional film.

The immediacy of the filmmaking gives Cartel Land much of its power. But there is precious little context for what we see, which is partly why the reveals of the latter part of the picture work ... they really are surprising. But it feels a bit dishonest.

Heineman has said he was inspired by The Square, another Oscar-nominated documentary. But The Square is a great movie, the kind that inspires other filmmakers. Cartel Land is a good movie that leaves you hungry for more. 7/10.

what i watched last week

Unbreakable (M. Night Shyamalan, 2000). This got lost in the shuffle for me when it was released. I liked The Sixth Sense, saw a few other Shyamalans over the years, found Signs to be the best of a mediocre lot (and can’t remember now why I liked it). All I remember of Unbreakable was the ad campaign, and there must have been something in it to turn me away. The context of seeing it in 2016, when Shyamalan had long been known for his surprise endings, changes things ... I spent the entire movie wondering what the big reveal would be. This was unfair to the movie, which wasn’t that bad ... the ending was startling but also silly, and the first 100 minutes weren’t all that good, either. Still, Unbreakable has its fans, most notably Quentin Tarantino. #870 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 6/10.

Carol (Todd Haynes, 2015). 8/10.

The Godfather Epic (Francis Ford Coppola).

The Martian (Ridley Scott, 2015). 7/10.

Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015). 8/10.

oscar nom: ex machina (alex garland, 2015)

Alex Garland wrote a couple of movies I liked (Sunshine and especially 28 Days Later), and Ex Machina is a carefully written film that compares well to those other movies. Garland also shows a keen visual sense ... at least someone does, one of the film’s two Oscar nominations is for Visual Effects, with four people listed (Andrew Whitehurst, Paul Norris, Mark Williams Ardington, and Sara Bennett). Garland and company make good use of a fairly limited budget ($15 million), partly by creating something of a chamber piece: most of the action takes place within one large home, and there are only three actors with substantial parts. That Garland offers a film full of ideas is not surprising; that the film looks as good and as interesting as it does it a surprising bonus.

Garland’s screenplay is also up for an Oscar, and it’s an appropriate honor. Garland juggles his numerous influences (everything from The Tempest to The Shining) without letting them overwhelm the picture. The three main characters are well-drawn, and the actors (Domhnall Gleeson, Alicia Vikander, and Oscar Isaac) do well with them. Isaac chews the most scenery, but it’s a good compliment to Vikander, who properly underplays her robot, Ava.

There are some plot twists to keep things moving, but ultimately, the film succeeds or fails on its ideas, in particular the examination of artificial intelligence and the Turing test. It does indeed succeed, thanks largely to Vikander, who gives Ava just the right amount of recognizable “humanity”. The question isn’t whether Ava is “human” ... instead, it’s whether Ava can simulate a human with such skill that she can pass. And if she can pass, what defines “human”?

Ex Machina is reminiscent at times of the TV series Humans, which explored similar territory. More to the point, the movie brings to mind the reboot of Battlestar Galactica, with Cylons who look human. From my admittedly biased perspective, BSG is more successful at this than Ex Machina, but that leaves plenty of room for Ex Machina to stand out on its own. For the fascinating look of the robots, for the complex ideas, for the acting and visuals, for all of these reasons, Ex Machina is a very good movie that suggests Garland will continue to offer intriguing films in the future. In the meantime, 8/10.

oscar nom: the martian (ridley scott, 2015)

I was reminded of several other movies while watching this one. Most obvious was the 1960s low-budget Robinson Crusoe on Mars. I say “obvious”, but when I mentioned the connection on Facebook, I got a lot of puzzled replies. For one thing, The Martian had about 100 times the budget of the earlier film ($108 million vs. $1.2 million). For perspective, Matt Damon was paid somewhere between $15 million and $25 million to star as Mark Watney in The Martian. The budget also allowed Ridley Scott to have the services of the likes of Jessica Chastain, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Michael Peña, Sean Bean, Kate Mara, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Donald Glover in his supporting cast. (The supporting cast for Robinson Crusoe on Mars included Adam West before Batman, and Mona, the Woolly Monkey.) Anyway, The Martian’s plot can be summarized nicely via the other movie’s title, for it really is a Robinson Crusoe story that takes place on Mars.

Daniel Defoe’s novel is ripe for analysis ... it can be read as an apology for imperialism, for example. The Martian barely delves into this (Watney connects the potatoes he grows to colonization), although I’d say it’s implicit in the story. No, The Martian is pretty straightforward, which isn’t to say it lacks a point of view beyond what is necessary for the narrative. Andrew O’Hehir got this right, when he spent half of his review promoting space discovery, calling the movie “a feature-length advertisement for the possibilities of a new human spaceflight program”. My wife was also on this from the start ... she regularly congratulated Watney for using science to solve his problems as they arose, and it is true, it is human ingenuity fed by scientific knowledge that rules here ... there aren’t many metaphysics involved.

The film is structured in a way that retains our interest despite its length (more than half an hour longer than Robinson Crusoe on Mars, but I’m sure you’re sick of me bringing up that movie by now). There isn’t any suspense to speak of ... we know that Watney will solve every problem, because while you can imagine a movie that surprises us with the death of a main character early on, no one really thinks Matt Damon is getting paid millions of dollars just to get killed off. Similarly, we know that Jessica Chastain and her crew will return to save Watney because she wasn’t signed up to appear for ten minutes.

So The Martian is by-the-numbers. But it’s effective, and for the most part, Scott avoids smarmy scenes of the family back on Earth worrying about Dad. Damon is likable here, and since he’s on screen most of the time, often talking to himself, that’s a good thing.

But I was also reminded of another recent big-budget space picture, Gravity, which I loved. The shorthand explanation for why I prefer that movie is that I really like Alfonso Cuarón and think Ridley Scott is mostly overrated. But that’s just taste preferences, and doesn’t explain anything, really. Cuarón manages a mere 91-minute running time, which of course I like ... it’s one thing to say The Martian keeps our attention for 2 1/2 hours, but another to suggest we needed that long. Gravity strips things down to essentials ... Sandra Bullock carries the film as Matt Damon does in The Martian, but she doesn’t have a large supporting cast ... there are basically two characters, which doesn’t allow for a lot of expansion. Also, The Martian does not have the cosmic existential feel of Gravity ... the quasi-religious nature of the latter doesn’t really have a place in the science-oriented world of The Martian. I guess I’m just saying the two films aren’t as alike as they seem, and my taste preferences run in the direction of Gravity.

I feel like all I’ve done is compare The Martian to other movies, but outside of saying it was enjoyable and well-made, what else can I say? If it’s not as good as Gravity, it’s miles better than something like Apollo 13. Matt Damon is a deserving nominee for Best Actor ... the movie also has four tech nominations, along with Best Picture (I’m still going with Mad Max: Fury Road) and Best Adapted Screenplay (I’m a fan of Drew Goddard and think it would be fun to see him win an Oscar, but I don’t know that this screenplay is all that great). The Martian is a perfectly good movie, and there is nothing wrong with that. 7/10.

music friday: the violent femmes, "add it up"

Around here, it’s been pretty much All The 100, All the Time. Last night was the Season 3 premiere, and it was an encouraging beginning.

During one scene, a group of young people are driving to explore an area outside of their compound. One of them has a personal stereo of some kind, and as he sings to himself, the others want in, so they pull the headphone jack and hook the player up to an in-car audio system. The song they hear is “Add It Up” by The Violent Femmes.

We’ll ignore the part where the show takes place 100 years in the future ... let’s just pretend that after a nuclear holocaust, the Femmes somehow manage to retain their place in the cultural arena. Everyone in the Jeep starts singing along ... showrunner Jason Rothenberg called it “The 100’s version of the ‘Tiny Dancer’ sequence from Almost Famous.”

Later in the episode, Shawn Mendes turns up ... well, he’s playing a character, but he’s only there because he’s a 17-year-old Canadian pop star ... he sits at a piano and plays his own version of “Add It Up”, which The CW has kindly posted for our entertainment:

(I can’t resist ... the scene reminded me a bit in Ski Party, when James Brown and the Famous Flames just happened to show up at a ski lodge to sing “I Feel Good”.)

Anyway, the video of Mendes you see above isn’t exactly how it appeared in the episode. That was more like this scene of John Belushi in Animal House:

You see, as Mendes is playing his gentle version of “Add It Up”, one of the characters who is really stressing right now (well, they all are), runs over to him, knocks him down, and starts pummeling him. I wish I had video for it.

Well, I do, kind of. You can watch the entire episode on Hulu:

The Mendes version comes at the 37 minute mark. The Violent Femmes version is at 12:50.

the godfather epic (francis ford coppola, 1972, 1974, 1977?, 2016?)

I don’t even know what year to attach to this thing. The Godfather was released in 1972; The Godfather: Part II in 1974. In 1977, a chronological version of the two movies, titled The Godfather: A Novel for Television, was aired on network television. Coppola needed the money because Apocalypse Now was having so much trouble. Besides sticking the DeNiro-as-Vito material at the front, and the events that began in 1958 at the end, (with the original movie in the middle), Coppola added some deleted scenes, and edited some material for violence, sex, and language.

That’s not what I just watched. In 1981, a version was released to video that restored the violence (and, of course, removed the commercials). Somehow this version was almost an hour shorter than A Novel. That’s not what I just watched, either.

No, the one I watched was on HBO. It’s got all the violence and sex and cussing. It doesn’t have any commercials. It runs just over seven hours (ten minutes shorter than the 1977 “original”, twenty-eight minutes longer than the video version). I can’t tell what HBO did ... remastered it in HD and 5.1 audio, who knows what else. Of course I had to watch ... I’ve never seen the chronological version, although back in the 70s I did watch Parts I and II in one sitting at a theater. I named those two movies my all-time favorites, and without question, that is how you should introduce yourself to the films. Do not watch the “Saga” or “Epic” or “Novel” until you’ve seen the originals. This re-edit is for the fanatics who can’t get enough of The Godfather.

The added scenes are a bit startling if you’ve seen the movies a lot of times ... you don’t expect them. And they don’t really add much ... you can see why they were cut in the first place, although they aren’t bad. What really matters is the reframing of the narrative onto a chronological timeline, and this is occasionally quite bizarre.

When Part II came out, we got to see a great actor, Robert DeNiro, creating a character that was clearly believable as the same person who would grow into Marlon Brando’s Don in GF I. When you watch the movies “in order”, though, it appears that Brando is building a character out of what DeNiro has established.

There are admittedly certain pleasures to seeing the story unfold as it would on the calendar. You see the progression of the characters’ lives. But the back-and-forth of the flashback structure in Part II offers insights that, for me, outweigh the narrative comfort food of chronology. By seeing Vito as a young man interspersed with Michael as a man older than his years, we learn by contrast.

Part II broadened the first film ... it gave depth to the story and the characters we had already met. The Epic/Saga/Novel is best appreciated as a seven-hour bonus feature on the Blu-ray disc.

oscar nom: carol (todd haynes, 2015)

Nominated for six Oscars, but not for Best Picture or Best Director, which has some people pissed. As usual, I’m far behind on my Oscar films watch, but I can say I think Mad Max: Fury Road is a better movie, and better directed, than Carol, which isn’t to say Carol is undeserving of nominations.

I’ve seen several of Todd Haynes’ movies, with Far from Heaven at the top of my personal list. Haynes is at his best when he delves deeply into Douglas Sirk mode. Lots of people I know love Velvet Goldmine, but I’m in the minority on that one. Carol is closer to Far from Heaven, both in terms of quality and in its similarities to that movie.

As usual, Haynes does a wonderful job of placing the viewer in a different era, without overdoing the ironic knowledge of our present time. Carol feels like a daring movie from 1952 at least as much as it feels like a period piece from 2015, even given that the movie would never have been made in the 50s. Even the “bad guys” are treated as people of their time, rather than as characters we would hate in a 2015 setting.

For the most part, Carol avoids Well of Loneliness misery. The misfortunes of the main characters are socially imposed, and they are real, but you never get the feeling Carol or Therese think what they feel and do is bad. They are trapped in a time and place that makes their feelings and actions difficult, but they persevere. Therese is the key, and if I had to choose (I’m glad I don’t), I’d say it’s Rooney Mara who makes this film work. At one point, Therese says, “How could I know what I want if I say yes to everything?” It’s that yes which gives her power. She is young and unsure, but she always says “yes”, and that takes her places she would otherwise miss. Carol already knows who she is ... Therese is finding herself. And that search, and the many “yeses”, is why the Well of Loneliness never establishes a foothold.

Through it all, Haynes always errs on the side of subtlety. Carol is a quiet movie, almost internal, the way a woman like Carol would have to be in the 1950s. Blanchett has the look down, and she has the subtlety down ... it’s great casting. And Haynes doesn’t just recreate the 1950s ... he recreates the feel of a Sirk film, which is not quite the same but which is an interesting trick that works here as well as it did in Far from Heaven. This is a good return from the lows of Mildred Pierce. 8/10.