OSCARS 2017 recap

February 27, 2017

oscars-2017  In a year when Viola Davis urged us to “exhume those bodies” from the graveyard because that’s where the potential is, it wouldn’t be shocking to learn that long-ago-deceased Rod Serling actually produced the 2017 Academy Awards ceremony. Of course he didn’t, but … at the sign post up ahead …

In no particular order (other than the obvious #1), here are just some of the oddities – some pleasant, others head-scratchers:

  1. Re-defining ‘public debacle’, a confluence of factors caused the erroneous announcement of LA LA LAND as Best Picture, when in fact, MOONLIGHT was the actual winner. The correction occurred after a couple of acceptance speeches from the wrong film’s producers.
  2. A tour bus of surprised tourists was ushered into the Dolby Theatre leading to Denzel Washington unofficially marring Gary from Chicago and his fiancé.
  3. The “In Memoriam” section included a photo of the much-alive Jan Chapman, rather than the deceased Costume Designer Janet Patterson
  4. Amazon films won 4 Oscars (THE SALESMAN, THE WHITE HELMETS, 2 for MANCHESTER BY THE SEA)
  5. Sound Mixer Kevin O’Connell finally won an Oscar … he had previously been nominated 20 times without winning.
  6. A flag from the dance group whacked singer Auli’I Cravalho in the head as she sang the Oscar nominated song from MOANA.
  7. SUICIDE SQUAD, Oscar winner
  8. Brother and sister Warren Beatty and Shirley MacLaine were part of two separate memorable moments … 250,000 years apart.
  9. Jimmy Kimmel treating the ceremony as an all-out roast of Matt Damon
  10. Nicole Kidman clapping (Google it)
  11. The aforementioned Viola Davis being allowed to speak for almost 4 minutes, while others “played off” at 46 seconds.
  12. Damien Chazelle (age 32) becoming the youngest Best Director Oscar winner
  13. MOONLIGHT becomes one of the least expensive productions ($1.5 million) and lowest grossing movies ($22 million) to win Best Picture Oscar.
  14. O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA becomes the longest Oscar winner (7 hours 47 minutes) surpassing the 1969 Best Foreign Language Winner WAR AND PEACE (6 hours 36 minutes)
  15. 98 year old Katherine Johnson was brought on stage with the lead actresses from HIDDEN FIGURES. It was a wonderful moment that became slightly awkward as they weren’t sure whether to keep her onstage or help her off prior to the next award announcement.
  16. John Cho and Leslie Mann teamed up for a humorous overview of the Science and Technology awards from the prior day.
  17. Sarah Bareilles’ beautiful voice singing Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” during the In Memoriam section
  18. Justin Timberlake proving once again that he is one of the best contemporary performers, as his show opener of the Oscar nominated “Can’t Stop the Feeling” got the entire crowd up – dancing, singing, and clapping.
  19. A series of three Wal-Mart commercials directed by Hollywood stalwarts Antoine Fuqua, Marc Foster, and Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg put the Super Bowl ads to shame.

Maybe the only thing missing was Rob Lowe singing to Snow White!

It was nice to see the gold statuettes spread over quite a few films: La La Land won 6, Moonlight 3, Hacksaw Ridge and Manchester By the Sea each won 2, and one Oscar went to Arrival, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and The Jungle Book.

Fortunately, political views only snuck in a few times: Jimmy Kimmel’s opening monologue and a couple of other times through the evening (including a failed Twitter bit), and the statements from Iranian director Asghar Farhadi (The Salesman), the producer of The White Helmets, and the confusing remarks from the director of O.J.: Made in America.

At times it did feel like a long lost episode of “The Twilight Zone“, though there were enough moments to remind us that the ceremony, at its core, is a celebration of cinema – and the magic it brings.

oscars-2017b

 


THE SALESMAN (Forushande, 2016, Iran)

February 25, 2017

salesman Greetings again from the darkness. Iranian writer/director Asghar Farhadi won the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar for his 2011 A Separation, and with his latest (also Oscar nominated), he proves yet again that his unique approach to family/domestic dramas might best be described as simmering suspense artistry. He certainly knows how to tell a story and structure a film for maximum impact.

Shahab Hosseini (A Separation) and Taraneh Alidoosti (About Elly) star as Emad and Rana, a normal and seemingly happily married couple. One morning, some heavy equipment jeopardizes the stability of their apartment building and they escape to the streets. Husband and wife are both performing in a community theatre production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” and at that evening’s rehearsal, one of their castmates, Babak (Babak Karimi) offers the couple the use of a rooftop apartment … he has recently evicted the tenant.

Of course, this bit of luck comes with some baggage … specifically, the baggage and belongings of the previous tenant who (unseen to viewers) keeps telling Babak she will return for her stuff. Meanwhile, the neighbors inform Emad and Rana that the previous tenant and her “many acquaintances” (paying clients, if you get my drift) will not be missed. This history comes into play when one evening a home invasion leaves Rana dazed, injured and being treated at a local hospital. This sets off the cultural commentary about the roles and power of Iranian men vs women, as well as a psychological study of wounded pride, a need for revenge, and a scarred psyche who wishes to be neither alone nor coddled.

The strained marital relationship has some interesting parallels with the scenes depicted in the Miller play, and there are also a few key moments in the build-up … moments of subtlety for the discerning viewer. Foreshadowing occurs in a seemingly humorous moment when one of Emad’s students asks during class, “How does a man become a cow?”, and Emad answers “Gradually.” A throwaway line is never really that in a Farhadi script.

Most of the film centers on how Emad and Rana react to the traumatic event, and for the first two-thirds, it’s Emad’s movements that we follow. However, during the extraordinary final act, Rana becomes the focus and there is a tremendous performance from Farid Sajjadi Hosseini as an older gent in a key role. So much raw human nature is on display here – pride, revenge, forgiveness, trust, weakness, etc. It’s the type of film that has much going on even during the parts that might seem slow on the surface. Farhadi is an exceptional filmmaker, and evidently, he will just continue to prove it so.

watch the trailer:

 


DYING LAUGHING (2017, doc)

February 24, 2017

dying-laughing Greetings again from the darkness. We all want to be funny. Making people laugh allows for an immediate connection … plus it just feels good to make someone else happy. Co-directors Lloyd Stanton and Paul Toogood show us the dark side (or at least the backside) of comedy through a series of black and white filmed interviews with dozens of stand-up comedians. In this age of political correctness, Chris Rock explains that there is only one group who says what they want to say: stand-up comedians.

It plays not so much as “how to become a comedian”, but rather a therapy session for those who already are. It’s loosely structured into segments that provide very specific insight and real life stories on: the first time on stage, life on the road, dealing with hecklers, the devastation of bombing, how to connect with an audience, and what it’s like to be “on” or really kill it.

The list of participants is too long to list here, but includes such stalwarts as the aforementioned Mr. Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Sarah Silverman, Jerry Lewis, Kevin Hart, Amy Schumer, Billy Connolly, and Dave Attell. Those at the top of their profession open up about what it takes and how they made it. Think “Take a Parent to School Day”, without the societal filter or peer pressure. These folks spend most of their waking hours looking outward for material, but here they are generous enough to look inward so that we might better understand their craft.

A diverse cross-section of comedians provide examples of racism, sexism and most any other ism. There is also the admission that a need/desire for acceptance exists pretty much across the profession. The struggles and challenges make up the experience which is vital to the growth and survival of a comedian … and maybe even what strands of sanity they possess. We hear stories of writing and re-writing jokes over and over again for years, before finally hitting on the right wording and delivery. We learn Smartphones often contain pages of notes on ideas and partial jokes, and that pain on stage often leads to a better act.

Jerry Seinfeld produced a documentary in 2002 entitled Comedian, and it dealt with the rigors of honing the act in front of audiences, and when combined with this project, we are reminded that comedy is at its best when it is about SOMETHING (fertile ground these days) … and that every comedian gets knocked down – but then gets up again (tip of the cap to Chumbawamba). The film is dedicated to the late Garry Shandling (who also appears in the film) and leaves us with the thought that “the laugh is your reward as a comedian”. And that’s pretty sweet.

watch the trailer:

 


A UNITED KINGDOM (2017)

February 23, 2017

a-united-kingdom Greetings again from the darkness. Sometimes I just know immediately that I’m going to be out of touch with popular opinion on a movie, and this historical-romantic-biopic from director Amma Asante (Belle) and screenwriter Guy Hibbert (Eye in the Sky) is one of those times.

It’s a crowd-pleaser featuring David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike in a real life story with some similarities to last year’s Loving (the chronicle of Richard and Mildred Loving’s interracial marriage). Mr. Oyelowo plays Seretse Khama, a 1947 university student in London when we first meet him. Ms. Pike is Ruth Williams, a local Londoner working clerical at an insurance company when the two meet at a local dance. The attraction is immediate.

Not long after, Seretse discloses to Ruth that not only is he in love with her, but he’s also the King-in-waiting for Bechuanaland in Africa. The marriage is met with dissent from all fronts: family (racism), Seretse’s people (cultural and societal reasons), and Great Britain (mostly concerned with appeasing its ally South Africa and the growing notion of Apartheid). Seretse and Ruth believe their true love is strong enough to win over those dissenters. The backlash is much worse than anticipated.

A very cool element with the film is the use of the actual house Ruth and Seretse lived in, and the locals were more than willing to contribute. While the strength of these two individuals remains inspirational to this day, the film falters in a few ways. Both Jack Davenport and Tom Felton are stuck playing British foils in the overwritten manner in which we would expect from a 1940’s movie on TCM. Again acknowledging my out of step opinion, Ms. Pike simply lacks the range for such a role. Her deer-in-the-headlights go-to facial expression is a slap to the courageous woman she is portraying. However, the biggest issue with the film is its lack of continuity … its choppiness, if you will. So many scenes abruptly end right as the substance is beginning. Multiple times we are left hanging, wondering why we don’t get to finish a conversation or finalize a conflict. There are some terrific moments that are torn apart by the numerous butchered scenes, though the strong performances of Oyelowo and Terry Pheto (Tsotsi) as his sister shine through.

This is a terrific and interesting piece of history that deserved a better film. In 1966, Bechuanaland gained its independence and became what’s known today as Botswana, and the story of Seretse and Ruth is one that needs to be told. Most viewers likely won’t be bothered by the things that irritated me, and that’s probably a good thing.

watch the trailer:

 


AMERICAN FABLE (2016)

February 23, 2017

american-fable Greetings again from the darkness. The feature film debut of writer/director Anne Hamilton may cause Aesop to turn over in the grave, but it also supports the adage that desperate times call for desperate measures. Just how desperate is really the point here, and the moral line in the sand is drawn by an 11 year old girl named Gitty (short for Gertrude).

Gitty (an outstanding Peyton Kennedy) lives on a farm with her pregnant mother Sarah (Marci Miller), bullying brother Martin (Gavin MacIntosh), and beloved father Abe (Kip Pardue). Gitty is the kind of kid who loves stories with happy endings, has a pet chicken named Happy, and loves exploring the surrounding countryside with her friends … a dried water well, abandoned house, and lighting bugs are all part of their daily adventures. Only a remote silo is considered off-limits per her father.

It’s the 1980’s and times are tough for family farms. Making ends meet is incredibly challenging and the sagging economy has resulted in many sell-offs of generational farms and the subsequent suicides of farmers who simply can’t face the failure. Gitty blindly trusts her dad when he promises they won’t lose their farm. Doubt only enters her mind when she discovers a battered man (Richard Schiff) in business attire locked in that off-limits silo. The captive man tells her not to tell her dad, and instead asks her to bring food and books. Even an 11 year old cloaked in innocence begins to suspect something isn’t right.

We see the story unfold through the eyes of Gitty, and her fantasies, dreams and visions remind us just how the world looks to a kid. Her openness, curiosity and imagination all act as a kind of sixth sense that lead to the judgment of a child … what is right and what is wrong. Knowing Gitty is the source of our insight helps explain the near cartoonish evil perpetrated by Martin – an overanxious kid who sees himself as some type of “warrior” (an image bestowed by the mysterious Vera). Zuleikha Robinson plays Vera in the mold of a fairy tale witch influencing others … in this case, Gitty’s dad … to do her dirty work.

The film is beautifully shot by cinematographer Wyatt Garfield, and at various times recalls Pan’s Labyrinth, The Fall, and the camera work of Terrence Malick. Gitty’s character is easily compared to Scout from To Kill a Mockingbird, but her “Honest” Abe dad is no Atticus Finch. Richard Schiff is excellent as the captive man, while Peyton Kennedy reminds of a young Elle Fanning (very high praise indeed). Kids have an amazing ability to see the black and white of right and wrong despite all the extraneous noise going on in their young uncorrupted heads. It’s a shame it all turns to gray as we grow older. It’s a nice first film from Ms. Hamilton.

watch the trailer:

 


DECANTED (2016, doc)

February 23, 2017

decanted Greetings again from the darkness. Fantasizing about owning and running your own Winery is perfectly natural, and impossible to avoid, while on a weekend escape to Napa Valley, California. Director Nicholas Kovacic opens with a helicopter tour of the 30 mile long area courtesy of Heidi Barrett, winemaker extraordinaire, and wife of Bo Barrett (of Chateau Montelena and Bottle Shock fame). The terrain below is so beautiful, that when it’s combined with the industry it supports, a romantic vision is understandable.

The patchwork quilt of individual parcels falls in a geologic epicenter with near perfect conditions for growing the grapes that lead to the marvelous wine. Of course, Mother Nature is still in control, and that’s one of the points to the film (which could have been titled “Starting a Winery for Dummies”). Of course, Ms. Barrett is no dummy, and neither are any of the other winemakers we meet during the course of what’s probably a too long 82 minutes. These folks pour love, sweat, worry, and money into a once per year product that can go wrong at any of the numerous steps prior to having a glass poured as you settle in for a juicy steak of plate of pasta.

Much of the time is devoted to Texan Mike Martin as he shops for a new winery, and settles on one in Coombsville. His Italics Winegrowers makes the point, that it’s probably wiser to buy an existing enterprise, than wait the 4 to 5 years for the first crop if starting from scratch. The established Reynolds Family Winery provides another example of the complexity to this business; and just how much nurturing goes into farming and production, and the incredible variances experienced from year to year.

Napa Valley is described as still in the “Wild West” stage since the tradition goes back only a couple of decades (instead of centuries like in Italy and France). Creativity abounds as new winemakers thrill us with the discovery of new blends and varietals. A perfect example is Ms. Barrett’s 6L 1992 Screaming Eagle, which nabbed a record $550,000 for a single bottle at the 2000 Napa Valley Wine Auction (now called Auction Napa Valley).

The film does a nice job of talking about how the industry has evolved to one that pays attention to farming the vines and the full process … not just what happens when it hits the barrels. There is even mention of how branding plays a key role these days, yet is still sometimes overlooked. Beautifully filmed, with some gorgeous shots of the area, Mr. Kovacic’s project is bit more artistic than most documentaries, but might have benefited from a shorter run time … or better personal connection to the players.

watch the trailer:

 

 


OSCAR NOMINATED DOC SHORTS (2016)

February 21, 2017

OSCAR NOMINATED DOCUMENTARY SHORTS 

Greetings again from the darkness. When the feel-good movie of the bunch revolves around a Holocaust survivor, you know there aren’t many chuckles to be had for this block of Oscar nominated Documentary Short Films. However, if you can deal with being ultra-serious and devastated for 2 ½ hours, you will find high quality filmmaking focused on topics that are not just timely, but exceedingly important and vital. Below, in order of personal preference, are the nominated 2016 releases.

4-1-miles 4.1 MILES (USA/Greece, 26 min)

From 2015 through 2016 more than one million people were desperate enough to flee Syria, Afghanistan, and other war-ravaged areas by risking their lives in small boats launched from Turkey. The 4.1 miles to Greece, and hopefully freedom, is fraught with danger (more than one thousand have drowned). Director Daphne Matziaraki introduces us to a Greece Coast Guard Captain from the small island of Lesbos, as the captain and his crew remain diligent and dedicated to rescuing mothers, children and others so desperate for a new life. The camera work is a bit rough, but that’s to be expected given the harsh conditions of wind, waves, rain and frantic actions … when every minute counts.

 

joes-violin JOE’S VIOLIN (USA, 24 min)

If anyone deserves to be a little bit selfish, it’s a Holocaust survivor. Instead, 91 year old Joseph Feingold donated his beloved violin to Mr. Holland’s Opus Foundation – an organization that distributes musical instruments to inner city schools. Mr. Feingold tells the story of “purchasing” the violin after the war in 1947. When 12 year old Brianna is selected to receive the gift, we learn her story and how the violin and Mr. Feingold’s history profoundly affects her. Director Kahane Cooperman ties together a Siberian labor camp, the dreams of a bright, enthusiastic young girl, and an appreciative elderly gentleman to remind us of the power of music and how it can transcend generations, race, economic status and culture. It’s an inspirational story from two quite different perspectives.

 

the-white-helmets THE WHITE HELMETS (UK, 41 min)

In what would be viewed as an inspirational story … if not for the tragically violent environment of Aleppo City … this film from director Orlando von Einsiedel takes us to the front line with the civilian volunteer group known as The White Helmets. Numbering 2900 strong, these brave folks run directly into the buildings that have been bombed mere minutes before. We get interviews and discussions with some of the volunteers, but the most awe-inspiring moments come during the rescue missions, as they comb through rubble looking for signs of life. One of the most amazing sequences you’ll ever see on screen occurs during the rescue of a one week old “miracle baby”. Up to 200 raids per day have resulted in more than 400,000 deaths over the past five years, yet the volunteers have sayings like “To save a life is to save all humanity”. They provide hope to a place that has little, and possess a human spirit dedicated to helping.

 

extremis EXTREMIS (USA, 24 min)

Highland Hospital in Oakland, California is the setting for a first-hand look at the emotional and ethical complexities involved in end of life decisions. We witness the perspective of dedicated ICU doctors, terminally ill and confused patients, and the emotional families often burdened with making the final call between hoping for a miracle and allowing their loved ones to die with dignity. Director Dan Krauss introduces Dr. Jessica Zitter who takes a compassionate yet direct approach in her discussions with patients and families. Her goal is to provide the information that helps them make the most difficult decisions they will ever be faced with.

 

watani WATANI: MY HOMELAND (UK, 39 min)

Is there anything more frighteningly surreal than watching kids playing with guns as actual bombs are going off in their neighborhood, tanks are rumbling down their streets, and the constant sound of gunfire is present? Welcome again to Aleppo City. Directed by Marcel Mattelsiefen, we meet the father of four kids who is working hard to protect his city. We then flash forward one year and learn that the father has been taken by ISIS and the family is headed to Germany, seeking a safer life … new home, new friends, and a new school. Though they long to return to their original home, it’s a reminder that home is really where you are, not where you are from.