Update On Academy Award - Oscar Picks

Last night I went to my neighbor’s home to watch a Best Foreign Language Film nominee. My neighbor is a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences having once been President of LucasFilms Ltd. In one of our discussions, he mentioned that the film Capernaum (Chaos), regardless of category, was one of the very best films of last year.

He was right, it is a fantastic film, and my follow-up blog on this film will reflect this. However, I must alter my choice for Best Foreign Language Film to Capernaum. And if it were up for Best Picture, I’d put it in a tight race with Blindspotting (not nominated) for this honor.

Cold War (Zimma wojna)

First Hit: I liked the quality of sets, the black and white photography, and the feel they gave for the time this film covers.

I like good period pieces, and the timing of this story is smack dab in my childhood days. Although it begins before my birth, in the 1940s, it moves through into two additional decades in Poland, Russia, and France.

The feel of the stage shows, the night clubs, and the music really stood out for me. The oppression of the Polish and Russian governments are what the characters played against in choosing their path and livelihoods.

The story is about a Zula (Joanna Kulig) who finds herself auditioning to become one of the state-sponsored singers in a Polish youth group.

The beginning is touching in that a small team of people is combing the countryside looking for authentic voices to sing traditional songs. We follow them as they record these untrained voices in their homes and the fields.

Zula is not one of these country voices. We learn that she has been recently released from jail because she took a knife to her father. And paraphrasing her words when she speaks to Wiktor (Tomasz Kot), one of the school’s music teachers, about why she was in jail; he was mistaking me for my mother, so I took a knife to him to remind him of this.

This statement along with the way Zula teams with another girl to sing a traditional song shows something about her will to survive and the myriad of ways she’ll do it.

Wiktor is the pianist for the music dance school and is impressed with Zula, her voice, and mostly her extra special something. He supports choosing Zula to become part of the stage act. He’s also attracted to her and begins to fall for her romantically. She, in turn, during a walk in the countryside, falls for him as well and here begins their love story for the next twenty or so years.

The film then shows how the stage show moved from being a taste of traditional Poland to a tool used by Stalin and the Polish quasi-government to promote communism. Wiktor cannot take it and decides to defect to France where he can use his musical talents in arranging and musicianship to make a living. He hopes that Zula goes with him.

However, she’s playing it safe and stays with the group but they both pine for each other.

Their love, how they meet up multiple times throughout the film, and the inability to keep their love alive is what this film is about. The oppressiveness of the Cold War is the backdrop for the challenges Zula and Wiktor navigate to stay together.

What didn’t work for me in this film was the editing. Scenes end abruptly, and a new scene begins with little context. It isn’t that the scenes are not within the scope of the film, it was the harsh and jarring way it was cut from one to another.

Kulig was excellent as the strong, apparently aiming to survive, girl/woman who loved Wiktor more than anything because he supported her. Her passion for him on the screen was palpable. Kot as Wiktor was outstanding. His performance as a musician was perfect. I fully believed him as a pianist and his love for Zula. Borys Szyc as Kaczmarek the promoter who was always looking for the angle while being politically on the side that was winning was perfect. He carried the right look and feel for the role. Paweł Pawlikowski wrote and directed this film. As I mentioned, I didn’t like the scene edits, but the writing and overall look and feel to the film was outstanding.

Overall: I can see what this was an Academy Award nominated foreign film from Poland.

Serenity

First Hit: As a thriller it was average, but as the characters begin to question everything and reaching the end of their roles or usefulness, it became more obvious about how this story was unfolding.

The film starts with Baker Dill (Matthew McConaughey) fishing on his boat Serenity based at Plymouth Island. He, his vessel, and his deckhand Duke (Djimon Hounsou) were chartered by two drunk guys who want Dill and Duke to help them catch fish.

However, they hook up “The Big One,” Dill takes over the pole and attempts to reel in “The Big One.” They get it close to the boat but end up losing the fish. The charter guests are pissed because they didn’t get to catch the fish themselves. Dill is obsessed with catching “The Big One.”

There is a strangeness to the way Duke talks with Dill, and it is even stranger when Dill visits Constance (Diane Lane) for a quick roll in the hay, and then she pays him. Then she asks about her cat.

Dill needs money, and he thinks Duke is terrible luck, so he fires Duke. Dill then starts fishing alone for sailfish at night and trying to catch “The Big One” during the day. Although he’s successful with the night fishing, he’s not making any progress on his real goal, to catch “The Big One.”

One day Karen Zariakas (Anne Hathaway) shows up, and we learn she is his ex-wife and that the son he had with her, Patrick (Rafael Sayegh) is the same boy Dill telepathically communicates with and the audience has gotten a glimpse constantly typing at a computer in some unknown spot.

Karen wants to give Dill (AKA John to her) 10m dollars cash if he kills her current husband, Frank (Jason Clarke) who beats her and Patrick. Dill refuses and Duke continue to reminds Dill about following the righteous path of the Lord. Karen says her husband is coming to this remote island anyway and that she’s arranged for Dill to take Frank out on a charter. She hopes that Dill will get Frank drunk and toss him overboard and let the sharks eat him.

This is the set up for the film’s story, and it takes a while for it to gel.

In the meantime, there are plenty of hints for the audience about the surrealism of this story. These hints include the bar tender’s actions and words, the silent old man sitting at the table in the bar, the fishing store proprietor always saying everyone knows everything about everybody, Constance and the way she acts, and a new character who sells electronic fish finders, Reid Miller (Jeremy Strong). These hints include oddly controlled dialogue, references to being on this island and nowhere near a mainland, Reid walking around in a suit, the traffic light dance Dill does every morning, and The Doc (an unknown or seen character).

I enjoyed parts of the film with out-loud laughter, but I was the only one laughing in the theater maybe because I was the only one who figured it out or everyone else was bored. I liked that I felt the boy’s intensity when the film showed his eyes against the computer screen full of code.

McConaughey brought his standard look and feel to the role. It wasn’t anything unique. Hathaway was OK. The scenes where she succumbs to her husband's demands were intense, but other times her performance didn’t carry the power it needed to. Lane had a small, yet pivotal role and was good. Clarke was well suited to the part of cruel husband and general jerk. Strong had an interesting character because he seemed so out of place, and I didn’t get why he was in the story although he was a great sounding board for Dill. Sayegh was outstanding by expressing his intent through his eyes as we saw them on the computer screen. Hounsou was terrific as the good angel in the film, trying to keep McConaughey on course. Steven Knight wrote and directed this film. I can see why he got the talent he got to star in this film, but somehow the execution or the lack of additional depth in the story made it only mediocre.

Overall: The film has its moments, but somehow it doesn’t quite add up to the film it could have been.

The Academy Awards - Oscars

Once again it is time to celebrate a year of film watching. My last post shared a listing of films I enjoyed in 2018. Below are the choices for the following awards along with my thoughts about the selections and non-selections the Academy made. 

  • Actor in a Leading Role – The nominees are: Christian Bale (Vice), Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born), Willem Dafoe (At Eternity's Gate), Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody), and Viggo Mortensen ("Green Book). Who else could be on this list? Ethan Hawke (First Reformed), Ryan Gosling (First Man), and Lucas Hedges (Boy Erased) all did a fantastic job in their roles. From the Academy’s list: For me, the best actor is, Viggo Mortensen, and Christian Bale will probably win.

  • Actress in a Leading Role – The nominees are: Yalitza Aparicio (Roma), Glenn Close (The Wife), Lady Gaga (A Star Is Born), Olivia Colman (The Favourite), and Melissa McCarthy (Can You Ever Forgive Me?). Who else could be on this list? Elsie Fisher (Eighth Grade), Carey Mulligan (Wildlife), Rosamund Pike (A Private War), Jodie Foster (Hotel Artemis), and Rachel Weisz (Disobedience) were strong performances. From the Academy’s list: For me, best actress is, Olivia Colman and Glenn Close will probably win.

  • Supporting Actress – The nominees are: Amy Adams (Vice), Marina de Tavira (Roma), Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk), Emma Stone (The Favourite), and Rachel Weisz (The Favourite). Who else could be on this list? I liked Julia Roberts (Ben is Back) and Claire Foy (First Man). From the Academy’s list: For me, the best-supporting-actress is, Emma Stone or Regina King, but Marina de Tavira will probably win.

  • Supporting Actor – The nominees are: Mahershala Ali, (Green Book), Adam Driver (BlacKkKlansman), Sam Elliott (A Star Is Born), Richard E. Grant (Can You Ever Forgive Me), and Sam Rockwell (Vice). Who else could be on this list? Jack Black (Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far On Foot). From the Academy’s list: For me, the best-supporting-actor is Richard E. Grant or Mahershala Ali, and Mahershala Ali will probably win.

  • Best Cinematography – The nominees are: Robbie Ryan (The Favorite), Caleb Deschanel (Never Look Away), Alfonso Cuaron (Roma), Matty Libatique (A Star Is Born), and Lukasz Zal (Cold War). Great list of people creating and delivering great pictures. I thought “Roma” was enchantingly shot and it will probably win.

  • Writing (Adapted Screenplay) – The nominees are: Eric Roth, Will Fetters, and Bradley Cooper (A Star Is Born), Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (The Ballad of Buster Scruggs), Charles Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman), Barry Jenkins (If Beale Street Could Talk), and Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty (Can You Ever Forgive Me?). My vote would go to “BlacKkKlansman,” and it may win.

  • Writing (Original Screenplay) – The nominees are: Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara (The Favourite), Paul Schrader (First Reformed), Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly (Green Book), Alfonso Cuaron (Roma), and Adam McKay (Vice). I loved the writing in all these. “Blindspotting” would have been in this category and for me would have won. This category is probably the tightest category to be contested and my hope is for “The Favourite.”

  • Film Editing – The nominees are: Barry Alexander Brown (BlacKkKlansman), John Ottman (Bohemian Rhapsody), Yorgos Mavropsaridis (The Favourite), Patrick J. Don Vito (Green Book), and Hank Corwin (Vice). All very good, and I think Bohemian Rhapsody.

  • Best Foreign Language Film: “Capernaum” (Lebanon), “Cold War” (Poland), “Never Look Away” (Germany), “Roma” (Mexico), and “Shoplifters” (Japan). I was blown away by “Shoplifters.” It was a wonderful story. But they may give this to “Roma” thereby allowing a different film to win Best Picture.

  • Directing – The nominees are: Alfonso Cuaron (Roma), Yorgos Lanthimos (The Favourite), Spike Lee (BlacKkKlansman), Adam McKay (Vice) and Paweł Pawlikowski (Cold War). What is missing is Carlos Lopez Estrada for “Blindspotting.” I think Cuaron and Lanthimos are the top contenders although I think Lee has a real shot.

  • Picture – The nominees are: “Black Panther,” “BlacKkKlansman,” “Bohemian Rhapsody,” “The Favourite,” “Green Book,” “Roma,” “A Star Is Born,” and “Vice.” Although a varied and eclectic listing, for me it leaves out the best picture of the year, “Blindspotting.” It also leaves out “Disobedience” and “The Hate U Give” to name two other strong films. I’m sad that “Blindspotting” wasn’t promoted in such a way that it was considered. Given the nominees, I think it comes down to “The Favourite,” “Green Book,” and “BlacKkKlansman” although “Roma” might be in this group if it doesn’t win Foreign Language film. I liked all the choices and prefer “The Favorite” and “Green Book” over the others.

Reviewing the choices brings me to comment on this process: Year after year films rise into the Oscar lists because they promoted by the studios that financed the movies. For instance, this year’s version of “A Star Is Born,” for me, isn’t an Oscar contender. It was entertaining, and Lady Gaga was very good in this, her first, major motion picture role. She’s popular as is her co-star and director Bradley Cooper. But that’s not enough and the story, although well told, is nothing new (there are two previous versions of this film). However, it appears that Oscar choices are about promotional money, what’s popular, and in the film business, who likes whom.

“Blindspotting” has a great unique film story to tell, they tell it very well, and it reflects some of the difficulties of today’s society.

Films that rose above the fray in 2018

This was a particularly good year for films. At first I didn’t think so but after I reviewed the films I watched and wrote about this past year, I was pleasantly surprised. I was entertained by outstanding acting, strong and poignant films about racism, and out loud laughs. My next post will be about the Oscar nominations.

Game Night: This film was funny from the get go and I laughed out loud all the way through.

Leaning Into the Wind: Andrew Goldsworthy: If you liked the film River and Tides, you’ll love Leaning....

The Death of Stalin: There are very funny moments, but I couldn’t help but wonder was his regime filled with that much personal corruptness? Probably.

Flower: The acting lifts this bizarre storyline to funny, engaging and entertaining levels.

Red Sparrow: Although long at 2h 19min, it had enough twists, turns, and detail to keep me fully engaged.

You Were Never Really Here: Beautifully shot scenes, dynamic soundtrack, but this oddly paced film tells a story of redemption, salvation or deeper despair.

Beirut: I really liked the way this film was put together and came to fruition.

A Quiet Place: Well done film and the silence of the actors made all the difference in the world.

Deadpool 2: First Hit: This film is fun, irreverent and filled with out-loud laughs.

RBG: Excellent film about a woman who lives within her strength and defined and changed U.S. law.

Disobedience: Extremely well-acted film about how antiquated thinking can split families and a loving relationship.

Hotel Artemis: Who says Hollywood cannot create a unique and well-acted film.

Blindspotting: Extremely powerful and pointed film and raises the bar for Best Picture of the Year. In my view this unnominated film is by far and away the best film of 2018.

Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far On Foot: A unhurried film revealing the power of how forgiveness of others and self, can make one’s life different.

Three Identical Strangers: A truly amazing story about how sciences’ curiosity didn't take into account the effects on human beings.

Sorry to Bother You: What I liked about this film is that it is funny, unique, and unlike any other film I’ve seen.

Leave No Trace: Sublimely acted and evenly paced film about a man and his daughter living in a public forest.

Puzzle: I thoroughly enjoyed this poignant film about a woman finding herself through a passion.

BlacKkKlansman: Fantastic film about race relations in the United States while reminding the audience about how far we have to go.

Eighth Grade: Outstanding acting and script gives us an insightful view of what it is like to be in the Eighth Grade today.

Fahrenheit 11/9: Covers a lot of stuff but I think it was mostly about Presidents and people in power managing and acting poorly.

Pick of the Litter: It was an fantastic and interesting way to learn about how guide dogs are taught to be amazing caretakers for the blind.

First Man: Compelling reenactment of an audaciously brave time in the 1960’s where we were challenged by President Kennedy to go to the moon.

The Hate U Give: A fantastic film about the existence of racism and, as indicated here, in our police departments as well.

Green Book: Excellent acting, engaging story, and both funny and thought-provoking make this film fun to sit through.

Boy Erased: Outstanding cast delivers sublime performances in a powerful story about LGBT conversion programs.

A Private War: Rosamund Pike (as Marie Colvin) gives a deeply complex performance of a war correspondent who brought personal stories of war victims to the forefront.

Bohemian Rhapsody: Accurate or not, this film was fun, well-acted, engaging, and joyful.

Can You Ever Forgive Me: Excellent acting about a caustic, friendless author that finally finds her voice.

Mary Queen of Scots: Saoirse Ronan (Mary Stuart) and Margot Robbie (Queen Elizabeth 1) give powerful performances in this adaptation of how Mary Queen of Scots tried to claim her title to the throne of England and Scotland.

Vice: I liked this oddly created film about a powerful yet enigmatic man who really ran our country for a period of time.

Ben is Back: Extremely well-acted story based on 24 hours of a mother and her addicted son’s return for the holidays.

Roma: Outside of the beautiful black and white photography and languid movement of the story, I left the theater with little.

The Favourite: A stark, intense musical score underscores the bizarre and tension filled interrelationships between the queen and her court.

Shoplifters: Wonderfully engaging film about a Japanese family who chose each other while fighting to stay nourished and together.