Movies: Fences and a few quick thoughts on the Oscar nominations


The acting in Fences is superb and all the accolades coming Denzel Washington and Viola Davis’s way are well deserved. They can get all the Oscars in the world as far as I’m concerned. The problem I had with the film is that it was a play up on the big screen. After awhile, this very long film (2 hours and 19 minutes) got to me with all the talking. At least on stage, there would have been an intermission to break it up. I am somewhat surprised that the screenwriters did not create more of a story as opposed to giving us what I assume was pretty much word for word the over 25,000 words of the play. I would have preferred that along with the important soliloquies and major dramatic moments of the play, that there had been some flashbacks or other techniques to engage us in the story.

That being said, there are so many powerful moments in this film that in conjunction with the acting makes it one of the better movies of the year. Viola Davis being able to cry and have snot coming from her nose at the same time is an Oscar winning performance if I ever saw one. I think it is difficult to take a play and make it work on the big screen and this one has its issues but along the way, there is some glorious dialogue and amazing acting.  It is well worth seeing.

A Few Quick Thoughts on the Oscar Nominations:

The Positives:

  • Lucas Hedges for Manchester by the Sea – he is amazing
  • Much more diverse set of nominations which are all well deserved
  • By and large, the best films and performances are being honored

The Strange:

  • No Amy Adams for best actress? She has been nominated by every other major group and deserved a nod
  • Thought Hugh Grant would have received a nomination for Florence Foster Jenkins. His performance was deserving and recognized by the other major groups
  • Deadpool clearly did not resonate with the old white Oscar voters – too bad
  • No Taraji P. Henson? Great job in Hidden Fences

My Wish list – Outside possibilities that I wished for

  • Viggo Mortensen got his Best Actor nomination but would have loved to see Captain Fantastic get a best picture nod
  • Would have loved for Sonny Pawar to have been nominated for “Lion”. He made the movie
  • Wasn’t going to happen but I thought Chris Pine was better than Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water
  • My favorite foreign films of the year both came from New Zealand and weren’t nominated – “Hunt for the Wilderpeople” and “The Dark Horse”



The Oscars: The Good, the Bad and the Bizarre

The Oscars 2016 

Awards season is finally over and we can take a breather for a few months before the next crop of great movies start to hit the theaters. In the meantime, a few quick thoughts:

The Good:

  • I loved that Spotlight won for Best Picture. It was my favorite and for once, the “Preferential Balloting” (Google it – crazy complicated!) system worked! Revenant was not the best picture and did not deserve to win.
  • Mark Rylance’s win for Best Supporting Actor. I admit I did not see “Creed” although I understand Stallone’s performance was very good and he was the sentimental favorite. Mark Rylance is a brilliant actor and it is so nice to see such a humble and lovely man get an award like this after a career of toiling in obscurity.
  • Chris Rock’s monologue and general handling of the “Oscars So White” controversy. Many of his jokes were perfectly delivered and on target. I loved the sketches with the African American actors inserted into the white movies and the interviews with the Compton moviegoers who had not seen any of this years nominated films was an important revelation.  The monologue hit the right tone for the occasion although as the show went on there were some less than perfect moments (see below).
  • Leo finally gets his Oscar
  • Lady Gaga’s moving song with the sexual assault survivors coming in at the end
  • Loved the surprise win in Visual Effects for Ex Machina.

The Bad:

  • The length. This show was way too long. Movement of any acting awards to the middle of the show made for an excruciating first hour as did the long parade of technical awards all won by Mad Max.
  • Chris Rock’s monologue was brilliant and we get it but there was an overkill element to the message as the show went on though. We didn’t really need Kevin Hart hammering it in for example.
  • I must be the one person on earth who did not care for Mad Max although I did appreciate some of the special effects. That being said, its sweep of the technical awards  (except visual effects) was unfortunate. This was a place that Star Wars could have been honored and I believe it should have been. There were enough awards here to be shared and it would have been nice if there were more representation.

The Bizarre:

  • The bit with Stacey Dash fell flat. It was clear that I was not the only one who had no idea who this person is or why she was talking about Black History month. The audience had no idea what the joke was either.
  • Also the bit with the Asian kids fell flat as did Rock’s decision to make a joke about lynching.
  • Who the heck decided it was a good idea to only do three songs of the 5 nominated? I really liked the 50 Shades of Grey Song but the whole bondage/Cirque Du Soleil stuff going on was a tad strange

The Future:

A friend of mine sent this article to me about the High Tech Industry and Data Analytics being able to predict the Oscar awards without ever seeing the movies. They didn’t get the top award right this year but I suspect it has to do more with being able to control the variables for “Preferential Voting” in the top category, which with some more research could easily change. Big Data is the future and everyone doing Oscar ballots should take note!



Movies: Don’t race to “Race” and the race for the Oscars



If you love history  (in particular WWII and Olympic history) and/or you have read Unbroken and Boys in the Boat and appreciate some of the great performances of the 1936 Olympics, you will probably find Race interesting. Race covers the life of Jesse Owens from 1932-1936 and his decision to run in the Berlin Olympics. It’s a long movie to cover only 4 years.

Owens is adequately played by Stephen James (John Lewis in Selma) but don’t look for him to break the “Oscar so White” trend for 2016. I’m afraid we will have to wait for Birth of a Nation in the fall to do that. Jason Sudeikis plays his coach at Ohio State. While the role calls for a dramatic and serious demeanor, Sudeikis has a constant grin/smirk on his face making it seem like he is a comedian trying to play a dramatic role. It just didn’t work for me. Jeremy Irons (not surprisingly) was the strongest performance playing the evil and corrupt Avery Brundage.

The most bizarre casting/storyline was around Leni Reifenstahl, the Olympic photographer who came across as very “hot” and a bit of a rebel. This doesn’t align with what I have read about her. A good example of this is the men’s heavyweight 8 rowing event (one of the most prestigious of the Olympics), in which the American team was on the far outside lane and she just filmed the German and Italian rowers during the race. When the Americans won, she had to have them come back the next day and row so she could film it. This also happened in the movie with Jesse Owens winning the broad jump. I have to believe that the fact that she made him come back was more because she spent most of her time filming the German contender rather than because she had a special “bond” with Jesse Owens. Just not sure where all that came from but it was distracting.

It is a tough time of year to find a good movie and Race is ok. You could do a lot worse but I think you have to like history to enjoy it. B-/C+ 

Oscars – Who Will Win and Who Should Win: 

Best Picture:

Who will win: Revenant – it has momentum and has been winning in the lead-up award shows. Unfortunately it is NOT the best movie of the year (wasn’t even in my top 10).

Who Should Win: Spotlight – it is so great and in a subtle way. The film does everything right. I’d be ok with any of the others to win over Revenant including the Big Short which might play spoiler.

Best Actress:

Who will win: Brie Larson – she has won every award leading up to the Oscars

Who should win: I’m fine with Brie Larson although I love Saorise Ronan in Brooklyn and Charlotte Rampling – actually I loved all of these performances but Ronan just lit up the screen in Brooklyn.  

Best Actor:

Who will win – Leonardo DiCaprio – like Larson, he has won everything up to this point.

Who should win – I’m fine with Leonardo as his Oscar is long overdue. He deserves one for multiple films. This year is a relatively weak field so just give it to him now. I think the best performance, however, was Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs. He should win the Oscar for having to do 2 hours of Sorkin dialogue exceptionally well. Think he is in a universe of one in that regard.  That’s a big big ask!

Best Supporting Actress:

Who will Win: Alicia Vikander

Who Should Win: Alicia Vikander should have won this category for Ex Machina . It’s hard to argue that her brilliant performance in the Danish Girl was not a “Leading” role but this is her year and she carried that movie. Loved all the rest of the performances as well.

Best Supporting Actor:

Who will Win: Sylvester Stallone – sentiment is going to prevail and the academy will award him for Rocky 30 years later.

Who should win: Mark Rylance. Rylance was the lynchpin in Bridge of Spies and his understated performance was riveting. Mark Ruffalo was also wonderful in Spotlight and well deserving of the prize.

Best Documentary

What should and will win: Amy. I admit, I didn’t see all the documentaries this year but I saw enough to know that Amy is by far and away the best. It has won most of the awards in this category leading up to the Oscars and is well deserving. See it.

Best Director

Who will win: Alejandro Inarritu will make it two in a row for basically a difficult shoot.

Who should win: Tom McCarthy for Spotlight. It was a beautifully constructed understated film. Hopefully he’ll take best original screenplay but that should be about it for Spotlight.



Movies: The 2016 Oscar Nominated Live Action Shorts


Many theaters around the country have been showing the Oscar nominated short films – live action, documentary and animation. While I’m not interested in the animated shorts, I find the live action shorts to be dramatic and unique. This year there are 5 from different countries that range from a romantic comedy to a wartime tragedy set in Kosovo. The films are shown back-to-back and range from 12 to about 25 minutes.

My least favorite of the bunch is Basil Khalil’s Ave Maria. This film takes place on the West Bank where an Orthodox Jewish family’s car breaks down in front of a convent. It is supposed to be a comedy but I didn’t think it was very funny as we watch the nuns who have taken a vow of silence try to interact and communicate with the Orthodox Jews who can’t use their phone to call for help because it is the Sabbath.

Next is Patrick Vollrath’s Everything Will Be Okay a German film about a divorced father who tries to kidnap his 8-year-old daughter. The acting by both the father and the young daughter as his plan slowly becomes clear is outstanding.   The story is gut wrenching.

The third film in the series is Jamie Donoughue’s Shok a wartime drama, based on real events and set in Kosovo. It is about two young Albanian boys who run afoul of Serbian soldiers.  The story is a flashback with the beginning and ending tying nicely together. The acting by the boys was superb and the story filled with drama and tension amidst the tragedy of war with the end result being another emotionally devastating film.

Next up is the one film with a happy ending – Benjamin Cleary’s Stutterer. Unfortunately for those wanting a movie that is a little more upbeat, it is only 12 minutes long. The film showcases a young British man severely afflicted with a stutter who has a relationship with a woman on-line. When she comes to London and wants to meet him, he initially ignores her for fear of her reaction to his stutter. The ending has a special twist, which provides the one lovely moment in the 207 minutes duration of these five films.

My favorite of the group is Henry Hughes’ Day One, which is the story of an Afghan/American woman on her first day as an interpreter for the US Army in Afghanistan. She is called upon to deliver the baby of a terrorist’s wife without having any medical background. There is a male Muslim doctor who provides some verbal assistance but can’t go into the room to help when severe complications arise (because of his Muslim beliefs). How this plays out is riveting and emotionally exhausting and it is very unclear as to whether this woman ever returns for a second day.

On Oscar night I will be hoping that Shok or Day One take home the golden guy. If you get a chance to see these shorts, I’d recommend them.

“Son of Saul” and “Youth”

As the Oscars approach, I’m cramming in those “Indy” films.  This week I saw a couple of note.

The first was Son of Saul. This film is highly rated on Rotten Tomatoes, just won the Golden Globe for best foreign film and is the front-runner for the Oscar. That is about all I knew (along with the fact that it is a holocaust movie) when I bought my ticket. Let me just say this, I have read many books about the holocaust, seen a number of movies about it, have a real interest in this period of time but nothing prepared me for this movie. It takes place in Auschwitz where Saul is part of a group of Jewish prisoners who are responsible for leading Jews to the gas chamber, going through their things for valuables, cleaning up after the gassings and cremating the bodies. Everything is seen from Saul’s perspective and it is difficult even without close-ups. At the beginning of the movie, there is a young boy who doesn’t die in the chamber but is later suffocated by the Nazis.  Saul says he is his son although he really isn’t. The entire movie is Saul’s quest to have this boy prayed for by a Rabbi and buried. The point of the movie is that Saul is insane and dealing with the horrifying existence within the camp by trying to focus on a bit of normalcy from his past but I just wanted to shake him as the movie goes on. I also didn’t really care for the single camera motion and some of the other techniques the Director employed. This movie is not for everyone. Eyes Wide Open on this one. If you would like to see interesting foreign films from this period, I would recommend 2015’s “Phoenix” and “Labyrinth of Lies” as films you might like better. Both are German and deal with different aspects of post-war Germany. Score B

After Son of Saul “Youth”, a movie about the difficulties of aging, seemed pretty upbeat! the movie stars Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel and Rachel Weisz. The story centers on Caine, a retired conductor/composer and his long-time friend played by Keitel who is a famous screenwriter. They are vacationing in the Swiss Alps while dealing with issues of aging, their children’s broken marriage, their respective careers/legacies and a lot of other stuff. When I say stuff, there were many strange subplots going on here including a masseuse doing weird hand motions, lots of nudity, including “Miss World” (much to the joy of the many older men in the audience) and an actor dressed up as Hitler and parading around the complex. The best reason to see this movie is the interaction between Keitel and Caine. Their scenes are beautifully crafted masterpieces. The short scene with Jane Fonda was also amazing and she is well deserving of the accolades and award nominations. Not a great film but you could do worse. Score: B-.

Best Movies of 2015

Best Movies of 2015:
Ok…this is tough as I have seen just about everything except some current new releases like the Revenant, and Son of Saul but here goes.  As you can tell, I love anything that deals with an historic event.
1.     Spotlight .  Not only is the cast fantastic and all worth of major awards but Tom McCarthy has done an amazing job with the screenplay.  In addition, as the Director, his research uncovered one of the most incriminating pieces of the investigation and it was against the Globe.  How McCarthy took a story where we know the ending and made it full of tension and drama is mind-boggling.  Just a great film and it’s not because I loved all the scenes of Boston and my time living there but I do love Boston.
2.     Bridge of Spies.  I loved this movie.  I loved the history and what happens when Spielberg and Hanks get together.  Mark Rylance deserves all the nominations he is getting for stealing the show with his subtle delivery.  I have yet to meet anyone who has seen this movie who didn’t love it.  Very underrated.
3.     Phoenix.  This is a German film about a woman who everyone thought was killed in a concentration camp.  Not only is she alive but also she comes back to post-war Germany with a new identity as a result of some plastic surgery.  How she discovers who turned her into the Nazi’s and how she hides her identity until the perfect moment makes for a great film.  It is just a bit unbelievable that her husband didn’t recognize her but just go with the flow.  I’m not sure why Germany submitted “Labyrinth of Lies” (which was also post-war Germany and quite good) instead of “Phoenix” for the Best Foreign Film Oscar but they did.  Both are great but Phoenix is a little better.
4.     Brooklyn.  A great love story that takes place in the 1950s.  The story of a young girl who emigrates from Ireland to Brooklyn is a window into the world of the Irish immigrants in NYC during this time frame.  I’ll never be able to pronounce Saoirse Ronan’s name but she was riveting in the lead role.  You may remember her as the young sister in “Atonement” where she was also amazing.
5.     Me, Earl and the Dying Girl.  This little gem of an Indy came out last summer and everyone seems to have forgotten it for this Awards season.  A comedic tear-jerker, it is based on the Young Adult novel and unlike it’s sister movie “The Fault in our Stars” has moments of levity and fun amidst the tears.  The young actors are great and this movie won the same awards at Sundance as Whiplash did in 2014 so check it out.
6.     Amy, I saw a number of documentaries this year and this was the best.  The tragic story of Amy Winehouse was beautifully done using actual film footage and in-depth interviews.   When watching Amy, you can’t help but dwell on the fact that there were so many opportunities to save her during her downward spiral.  You will never forget her recording “Back to Black” after you have seen it.  It should win the Oscar.
7.     Star Wars.  What was not to like about JJ Abram’s “The Force Awakens”. This movie was everything and more that I hoped it would be.   JJ can do no wrong in my eyes and this movie is proof.
8.     Room.  Room was a really difficult film to get through but the acting of Jacob Tremblay as a young boy held as prisoner in a backyard shack with his mother (Brie Larson) is being recognized with multiple nominations.  Brie Larson is riveting as is the film despite the difficult subject matter.
9.     The Martian.  Who knew Matt Damon could hold down a film on his own for 2 hours but he did.  Just a really good film and Ridley Scott is back!
10. Steve Jobs.  I’m not sure why this didn’t get an audience but people may just be tired of Steve Jobs.  However, this was Aaron Sorkin’s Steve Jobs which means great dialogue and the acting of Michael Fassbender was award winning.  I loved that Sorkin chose to depict Job’s life into 3 product launches rather than do a straight biography.  Really creative twist that I thought made the film.
Also really good films:  Love and Mercy, Carol, Ex Machina, Meru, The Big Short, 71, Grandma.