Sunday, January 31, 2016

Live Action Short Film Nominees (Oscars® 2016)

Last night I saw all five of the nominated films in the Live Action Short category. I'll present my reviews in the order they were shown.

AVE MARIA (Palestine, France and Germany)

Of all the things Orthodox Jewish settlers could crash into in the West Bank, a convent of Catholic nuns is unlikely. But that's what happens here when a family trip takes a turn (literally) into one. Problem is: the nuns have taken a vow of silence and due to the Sabbath, the family is unable to use the telephone to call for help. Through a series of comedic events, the two groups together find a surprising solution. The one is light and the story is cute; I just don't think I'd consider this Oscar caliber material.

SHOK (Kosovo and UK)

Amidst the Yugoslav wars two young boys form a deep friendship that is tested repeatedly by the pressures of the time. Instead of making choices about what games to play each night, they're faced with much more grim decisions—some even a matter of life and death. The film is about war, but above all else, about love. Though hard to watch because of the subject matter (these horrors took place not long ago, after all), it's expertly done with two lead actors that deliver on every note.

EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY (Germany and Austria)

A divorced couple shares custody of their young daughter. The father comes to pick the girl up for a routine weekend and the tension between the parents is evident. The father quickly takes his daughter shopping to spoil her with new toys, then makes a trip to the nearby bumper cars for additional fun. Things only go sideways when he tricks her into taking passport pictures at a nearby photo booth. The girl soon realizes they're not having a normal weekend and calls him out on it. Just how far (and how fast) this weekend goes off the rails is what makes this my pick for the Oscar. I don't think I breathed for the last 10 minutes. It was that good.

STUTTERER (UK and Ireland)

There have been six months of flirtatious Facebook bliss for a couple and now there's a chance for them to meet. The man has reservations because he suffers from a severe stuttering problem—so much that he's learned sign language to imply to strangers that he's simply deaf. As the day approaches, he at first hides, then practices his speech, hoping not to disappoint this love of his life. It's a sweet, sometimes funny story with a lot of heart.


An Afghan-American interpreter is assigned to an Afghanistan tour of duty with the U.S. military, and on her first day the team is sent to investigate a report of bombs in a nearby residence. As the weapons are found and the man of the house is being arrested, his wife goes into labor—with complications. As the only woman present, the interpreter has to begin acting as a doctor to save the mother and baby. 

This was the only of the five films where people actually got up and left the theater. It was incredibly intense and touched on several sensitive subject matters (religion, birth, war, death, etc.). But I stuck it out and was glad I did, if not only for the life-affirming ending, but the photo of the real interpreter, for which the film was based, that appears at the end.


Saturday, January 30, 2016

Documentary Short Film Nominees (Oscars® 2016)

Tonight I saw all five of the nominated films in the Documentary Short category. I'll present my reviews in the order they were shown.

BODY TEAM 12 (Liberia)

The 2014 Ebola outbreak in Liberia devastated the country, leaving nearly 5000 dead and over 10,000 infected. In the midst of the chaos, 29-year-old Garmai Sumo is the only female on a team tasked with safely removing bodies from infected locations. In this film, as we watch the horror unfold, she describes what it's like—the fears, the sadness and even the hope. Her commitment and compassion for her fellow people make this otherwise gloomy subject bearable.


In Pakistan, men sometimes beat or kill female relatives who they perceive to have 'disrespected' them. They call these 'honor killings,' as they are meant to restore honor to the family. One such attempted murder happened to 18-year-old Saba when she fell in love and her family told her the boy she wanted to marry wasn't rich enough. She defied them by gaining support from her future in-laws, who helped the couple elope. Her father and uncle then shot her in the face and threw her in the river to die. But ... she didn't die. She lived to tell the tale and tells it here, as she's in the midst of a legal struggle in her community. Her path toward forgiveness under pressure is hard to watch, especially considering that her attackers show no remorse, but it's so well done, I conclude that this is the strongest of the five films.


A man has a younger brother. The younger brother gets hit by a car during adolescence and is never the same. With a middle school education, said brother enters the service. He goes to Vietnam. Bad things happen. He comes home, again a changed man. His PTSD gets really bad. He does a bad thing. His brother turns him in. He gets the death penalty. The brother is sick with guilt and tells his story here, but we only hear him as the entire short is animated. Though the animation is artistically brilliant, I didn't feel it was the right way to tell this story and it distracted me from the core of the emotion. Meh.


The effects of Agent Orange are still prevalent today, as evidenced in this documentary focusing on Chau, a disabled Vietnamese boy with a triumphant spirit. We're first introduced to him in the orphanage-like home he's living in, though he's still in touch with his family (and will go back to them briefly before setting out in the world on his own). The staff at the home, which primarily serves children affected by Agent Orange, don't recognize that Chau's a gifted artist with real potential; they discourage him from pursuing what they see as a futile dream. Thankfully, he ignores them and forges on, despite the fact he doesn't have a knee on one leg and his arms and hands are disproportionate to his body. If you're able to stop crying, this is a life-affirming gem of a film.


In 1985, Director Claude Lansmann released a documentary that had consumed him for 12 years: Shoah. Remembered now as perhaps the most important Holocaust film ever made, the creation of it still haunts him this many years on. In this talking-head short—the most traditional documentary of the bunch—we hear from Lansmann directly as he shares stories of the horrors he drew out of various survivors. It's riveting and depressing and makes you respect the classic work all the more, even if his methods for making it weren't always noble.


Friday, January 08, 2016

My 2016 Golden Globe Picks

Here are my selection and predictions, in order of how they're listed on the official site:

Best Motion Picture Drama

What I want to win: I give this to ROOM. No film has stayed with me more than this can't-look-away nail biter about a kidnapped woman and her son held in captivity.

What will probably win: I think THE REVENANT, which is also deserving, but didn't hit me as emotionally hard as the other.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture Drama

Who I want to win: Brie Larson from ROOM. Earth-shatteringly good.

Who will probably win: Brie Larson from ROOM. She is getting universal praise, for good reason.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture Drama

Who I want to win: Without question, Leonardo DiCaprio for THE REVENANT. He's good in everything he's in, but in this role he got attacked by a bear and had very few lines.

Who will probably win: Leo has terrible luck during awards season, so I think Eddie Redmayne of THE DANISH GIRL will take this one. I liked him in the role, but still think Leo had a more difficult job.

Best Motion Picture - Musical or Comedy

What I want to win: TRAINWRECK. Amy Schumer. Need I say more?

What will probably win: I have a good feeling about TRAINWRECK and Amy's string of success this year.

Best Performance by an Actress - Musical or Comedy

Who I want to win: Amy Schumer, of course.

Who will probably win: Amy Schumer, of course.

Best Performance by an Actor - Musical or Comedy

Who I want to win: Christian Bale was creepy good in THE BIG SHORT, right down to actually wearing the guy's clothes. He gets my vote.

Who will probably win: I think more people saw THE MARTIAN, and Matt Damon will walk away with the Globe.

Best Motion Picture - Animated

What I want to win: No film had more heart this year than INSIDE OUT. I hope it takes the honor.

What will probably win: Pixar rules. INSIDE OUT it is!

Best Motion Picture - Foreign Language

Shamefully, I have seen none of the nominees, so I will remove myself from weighing in on this race.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in Any Motion Picture

Who I want to win: STEVE JOBS was held together by Kate Winslet. She deserves the trophy.

Who will probably win: Alicia Vikander of EX MACHINA has gotten a lot of press. I'm guessing if Kate loses, it will be to her.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in Any Motion Picture

Who I want to win: Mark Rylance was absolutely charming in BRIDGE OF SPIES. I'd like to see his acceptance speech.

Who will probably win: Paul Dano, though probably should have been considered a lead, made an excellent Brian Wilson in LOVE & MERCY. He could be the night's showstopper.

Best Director - Motion Picture

Who I want to win: I go with Alejandro G. Iñarritu for THE REVENANT. Shooting in the wilderness, in natural light, using very little CGI and not a lot of dialogue. The film is a cinematic treasure.

Who will probably win: Ridley Scott and his crowd-pleaser THE MARTIAN will most likely walk away with the prize.

Best Screenplay - Motion Picture

Who I want to win: Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer for SPOTLIGHT deserve the honor for their fast-paced, perfectly crafted script.

Who will probably win: Charles Randolph and Adam McKay had a lot of crackle in THE BIG SHORT. Audiences will remember the dialogue; especially because a lot of it was spoken directly to them in the "how this happened" vignettes featuring famous cameos.

Best Original Score - Motion Picture

Who I want to win: Alexandre Desplat painted a beautiful picture of both the era and the landscapes of the two major European cities featured in THE DANISH GIRL, while managing to convey the emotion of the leads. I loved it.

Who will probably win: Ennio Morricone is the rock star of the bunch, so I'm guessing his work for THE HATEFUL EIGHT will yield the Globe.

Best Original Song - Motion Picture

Who I want to win: When the subject of the movie is also the composer of the song in the movie, it's hard to argue with it. My vote goes to Brian Wilson for LOVE & MERCY.

Who will probably win: Everyone wants to see a Beach Boy on stage. I think Brian Wilson will indeed win for LOVE & MERCY.

Best Television Series - Drama

What I want to win: Funny story: I only started watching MR. ROBOT because when I lived in NY for a brief time last year for work, they filmed it on my Upper West Side apartment's street. It became a fast favorite and it gets my vote here.

What will probably win: I wasn't the only one who loved this show. I'm guessing MR. ROBOT will prove victorious.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series - Drama

Who I want to win: The intensity she exudes (in the contexts of both sex and violence) qualify Catriona Balfe of OUTLANDER to win, in my book.

Who will probably win: I think Viola Davis, who is the most buzzed-about leading lady, will take it for HOW TO GET AWAY WITH MURDER.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series - Drama

Who I want to win: Don Draper forever! John Hamm of MAD MEN, please.

Who will probably win: Since MAD MEN has ended and it's Hamm's last chance to win, I think my wish will come true.

Best Television Series - Music or Comedy

Who I want to win: An admittedly recent convert, I'm all about TRANSPARENT.

Who will probably win: I feel like I'm not the only one who loves TRANSPARENT.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Series - Music or Comedy

Who I want to win: Jamie Lee Curtis kept SCREAM QUEENS alive on my DVR. She gets my vote.

Who will probably win: Julia Louis-Dreyfus in VEEP seems to have quite the winning streak (though I hate that show).

Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Series - Music or Comedy

Who I want to win: Is it any surprise? I go for Jeffrey Tambor in TRANSPARENT.

Who will probably win: I think the HFP will agree with me and go with Jeffrey Tambor for his role as a trans parent in TRANSPARENT.

Best Television Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television

What I want to win: My vote would go to the always-interesting AMERICAN CRIME.

What will probably win: The critics can't seem to get enough of FARGO, so I'll bet it beats out the rest.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Television Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television

Who I want to win: Lady Gaga has been fantastic in AMERICAN HORROR STORY: HOTEL, so she gets my vote.

Who will probably win: Though I didn't see it, I hear Queen Latifah was transcendent in BESSIE. My guess is she'll be the one walking away with the win.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Television Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television

Who I want to win: Idris Elba has made LUTHER iconic in his own right, so he's my pick.

Who will probably win: I think voters will award Patrick Wilson of FARGO with the Globe.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Television Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television

Who I want to win: Maura Tierney was nothing short of brilliant this season on THE AFFAIR. She deserves the honor.

Who will probably win: I have a hunch about the always-wonderful Regina King of AMERICAN CRIME.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Television Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television

Who I want to win: Alan Cumming for THE GOOD WIFE. Anything else is a conspiracy.

Who will probably win: I can't see anyone in their right mind disagreeing with me on this one. Alan Cumming, Sir Eli Gold, THE GOOD WIFE.

We'll find out on Sunday if I was right!


Thursday, January 07, 2016

The Revenant

Tonight I saw The Revenant, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hardy.

Hugh Glass (DiCaprio) is a fur trapper in the early 1800s (and yes, this character is based on a real person and a real incident, though many of the characters are fictional). He's on an expedition along the Missouri River when he's mauled by a grizzly bear. He survives the violent attack, but can barely move. And winter is coming—so instead of the entire group putting themselves in further danger, they offer cash rewards to those willing to stay behind and either nurse him back to health or give him a proper burial when the day comes. Two men, plus the man's son, volunteer for the duty and the rest leave.

After days of no improvement, one of the men, John Fitzgerald (Hardy) gets anxious and wants to put Glass out of his misery. He's not ready to go and his son attempts to save him. Fitzgerald kills the son and convinces the other man to leave Glass for dead. He even takes his gun.

But Hugh doesn't die. His resolve for revenge against Fitzgerald fuels his will to live and the next 2+ hours are spent battling tribes, nature and his own rotting flesh. Just watching him shiver in the snow is enough to put an extra layer on in the theater. In fact, with the exception of the tender moments Hugh shares with his son, the ghost of his son's mother, the ghost of his son and a friend he makes along the way, there's not much about this film that's pleasant.

It's brilliant, though.

From the stunning cinematography to the horrific, so-real-it-makes-you-squirm bear scene to DiCaprio's almost mute performance that somehow exhibits more emotion than anything we've seen on film this year, it's a triumph.

Visceral, painful, frightening, satisfying, terrifying—all of those things. And if Leo doesn't win the Oscar this year, I will lose all faith in the Academy.


Sunday, January 03, 2016


This morning I saw Carol, starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara.

There's a chronic ache one endures when love is unrequited. A pain detected by others only when looking deep into the afflicted's eyes. Carol (Blanchett), the subject of this film, feels this pain. She is on the verge of divorcing her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) and is smitten with a young shop girl she met while searching for her daughter's Christmas gift.

As fate would have it, Carol accidentally left her gloves behind at the department store when purchasing said gift, so the shop girl, Therese (Mara) has them sent back to her. To show her gratitude for the gesture, she treats Therese to a fancy lunch and a new friendship is formed.

Meanwhile, Therese is somewhat confused about where she wants life to take her. She has a solid job at the store, but her passion is photography. She has a devoted boyfriend, but another friend likes her and also wants to be with her. Therese has little interest in either of them.

As Carol progresses with her separation, an ex-girlfriend, Abby (Sarah Paulson), helps her deal. But her association with Abby makes Harge believe she's going back to her—though she's not—so he begins proceedings to keep Carol from seeing their daughter. This drives Carol to quickly seek comfort in Therese's friendship and explore where it will go.

Did I mention it's the early 50s? And it's not okay to be an 'out' lesbian in the early 50s?

The whole film centers around this repression, despite the fact Carol seems very comfortable in who she is and makes no apologies for her feelings. It's one of those films where very little happens, yet everything does change.

If you're looking for a fast-paced love story, this is not the film for you, but if you have the cinema patience for quiet scenes, sexual frustration and longing looks, you may find yourself satisfied by its undercurrent.

Cate Blanchett is fantastic as always, as the cold, yet compassionate Carol. Mara didn't impress me as much with her deer-in-headlights glances and wooden dialog delivery, but Kyle Chandler playing against type as a jackass was fun to see.

I'm glad I checked this one off my list, even if it's not as flashy as competing films in this year's Oscar race.


Saturday, January 02, 2016


Last night I saw Joy, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Robert De Niro.

Joy Mangano (Lawrence) is an inventor, entrepreneur and multimillionaire—but it took a lot of work for her to get there.

As a single mom in the late 80s, Mangano was always thinking up ways to make life a little easier. One of those ideas led to her invention of the Miracle Mop; at the time, a revolutionary cleaning device that was self-wringing and machine washable. This film tells the story (loosely) of how she was able to sell her idea to the right entity despite a difficult dysfunctional family and no prior business experience.

Jennifer Lawrence (though a bit young to be playing Joy) dazzles as the headstrong woman who seems to solve all of her family's problems. She has a depressed mother living downstairs and a friendly ex-husband in the basement as she raises her two kids, juggles a crazy sister and works full time. But she manages to do it all as she invents what will become her breakthrough product.

De Niro plays her father Rudy just as you'd expect him to; forcefully, lovingly, borderline annoyingly. Of course, he's perfect. But unfortunately, the film isn't.

Each step taken, each word spoken, each concentrated look delivered is far too exaggerated. The camera whizzes around each scene like a drunk cocktail party guest while us audience members spend more time looking at Lawrence's hair than thinking about the developing plot.

Sure, there are brief "miracle" moments, like every time Bradley Cooper shows up as Joy's business contact. And the story itself (especially for women) is inspiring because the real-life woman went on to be an even greater success (and yes, the Miracle Mop is being re-released with a new spin TOMORROW, so she's obviously still entrepreneurial-minded).

But unlike the sincerity of director David O'Russell's other hits like Silver Linings Playbook, the heart was missing from Joy, leaving us bleached of emotion.