I love watching the Oscars because I love the idea of celebrating movies for three hours. But I don’t take the Oscars too seriously, because if I did, I’d just get maddeningly upset about their choices. Instead, I prefer to relax, not place too much importance on who wins and who loses, and hope for great humor from the host and a fun look back at the last year in movies.
Here are the films the Academy has selected:
Arrival: A great choice. This intelligent sci-fi film was in my Top Five of 2016. Wouldn’t it be nice if this film about the importance of science and communication won Best Picture? Click here for my review.
Fences: One of two Best Picture films that I haven’t seen yet. I am really sad to have missed this, it looks terrific. I love Denzel Washington, as an actor and also as a director. (The little-seen Devil in a Blue Dress is highly underrated.) I tried hard to see this over the past many weeks but it was gone from my area too quickly. I hope to see it soon.
Hacksaw Ridge: This is the other Best Picture film I haven’t seen, but unlike Fences, I have no desire to see this. I don’t think I have the stomach for this film’s blood-and-guts, and after his anti-Semitic outburst I decided I was done with Mel Gibson.
Hell or High Water: I loved this film. Glad to see it was nominated. Jeff Bridges gives one of his best performances. This movie was number seven on my Best Films of 2016 list. Click here for my review.
Hidden Figures: This movie tells an important, incredible true story. I just wish the actual film was better. Click here for my review.
La La Land: A solid, sweet, beautifully made film. Damien Chazelle proves that Whiplash was no fluke, and Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling are both terrific. I didn’t worship this movie the way many critics seem to have, but I really enjoyed it and it made number eleven on my Best Films of 2016 list. Click here for my review.
Lion: I just saw this film last week, and I was blown away by it. It definitely would have made my Best Films of 2016 list had I seen it in time. I’m glad this little film is getting some love from the Academy. It’s devastatingly sad and also uplifting. … [continued]
The film Lion begins in 1986. In a poor area of Khandwa, India, a young boy Saroo lives with his mother, younger sister, and older brother Guddu. One evening when their mother goes to work, young Saroo prevails upon Guddu to allow him to accompany him to a train station where Guddu hopes to find additional work. But it’s late at night, and Saroo, just a little boy, falls asleep. When he wakes up later that night, his brother is gone and he is all alone. He wanders aboard one of the trains parked at the station and again falls asleep. When he wakes, he discovers that the train is in motion, traveling with him locked aboard for several days until he reaches Calcutta. Saroo has no idea where he is, in a big city where no one speaks his language. He survives on his own on the streets for months, before eventually winding up in a large orphanage. No one there recognizes the name of the town from where where Saroo says he comes. Eventually, he gets adopted by an Australian couple. Twenty years later, a grown-up Saroo is studying hotel management in Melbourne when an encounter with some other Indian young people sparks his memories of home. He begins a years-long quest to discover where he came from, dreaming of someday finding his home and reuniting with his brother and mother, who have lived twenty long years without any idea of what happened to him.
Lion is directed by Garth Davis, making his feature film debut, and written by Luke Davies, adapting the book A Long Way Home that Saroo Brierley wrote with Larry Buttrose. The film is extraordinary, painful to watch at times but also deeply exhilarating and emotionally rich.
I was not prepared for the emotional wallop that this film packs. The true story that Lion depicts is incredible. The idea that this five-year-old boy was separated from his family, left to fend for himself in a strange city where he knew no one and didn’t even speak the language, is incredibly wrenching. It’s also incredibly inspiring that young Saroo was able to survive, never giving in to panic or despair. The film strikes the same balance when it shifts to older Saroo. His dreams of his lost family, of his brother returning to the train station to find him gone, are devastatingly sad. And yet, that Saroo was able to use burgeoning internet technology to painstakingly search the Indian continent, over the span of years, looking for and eventually finding his home is inspiring and heartwarming. Watching Lion is to get on board an emotional rollercoaster. I cried a lot. But when the film arrives … [continued]
In Barry Jenkins’ riveting, heartbreaking film Moonlight, we follow the journey from childhood to manhood of a gay, African-American boy Chiron. The film presents Chrion’s story in three parts. At first, we meet Chiron as a quiet, lonely boy who is bullied by his peers and being raised by a single mother. Chiron forms a connection with a drug-dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali), who takes Chiron under his wing. In the second part, we see Chiron as a high school student, struggling to come to grips with his homosexuality while dealing with his mother, now lost to drug abuse, and the increasingly brutal torment from the other boys at school. In the third part, we see Chiron as a muscled drug-dealer himself, styled after Juan, who is drawn back to his home town and a re-connection with a childhood friend, Kevin.
Moonlight is a triumph, a deeply emotional film that is a richly affecting character study of this lost boy, Chiron. The central question of Moonlight is of Chiron’s identity. Who is he, at heart, and who will he become? The three chapters are each titled with one of his names or nicknames (part one is “Little,” part two is “Chiron,” and part three is “Black”). In a critical scene in the first chapter, Juan tells a story of how he earned the nickname “Blue” as a child. When Chiron asks him if that’s the name he then went by, Juan responds by saying that you can’t let others define your identity for you. In that chapter, we see that Chiron as a boy is known as “Little” by the other kids because of his small stature and quiet, gentle nature. They look down on him, and bully him. ”Black,” meanwhile, is an affectionate nickname that his friend Kevin gave him. But in chapter three, the persona of “Black” that Chiron has created seems to be a striking recreation of Juan, the role model who, briefly, meant so much to Chiron as a little boy. But none of these personas represent who Chiron is as a person; “Black,” the hardened drug-dealer, least of all. The wrenching question raised by the film, and running across all three chapters, is whether Chiron can somehow navigate the tough circumstances in which he has grown up in order to find himself. The movie’s ambiguous ending does not allow us any happy, easy answers.
Mahershala Ali has had a hell of a 2016. He was phenomenal as the villain in Luke Cage, and very solid in a small but important role in Hidden Figures. But man oh man does he crush it here in this role of Juan. I’ve been a fan of Mr. … [continued]
In David Mackenzie’s film Hell or High Water, Chris Pine and Ben Foster star as brothers robbing small banks across Texas, while Jeff Bridges plays the Texas Ranger determined to catch them. The film explores the poverty rampant across Texas (and so much of the U.S. these days), and as the story develops we understand that the boys are robbing branches of Texas Midland Bank in an effort to get payback for what they see as the wrongs that bank, which is about to foreclose on their late mother’s ranch, has done to them and to others across Texas.
I was not prepared for what a powerhouse film this would be. The idea of Robin Hood-like bank-robbers is a familiar one, as is the structure of following both the breaking-the-law bandits and the police officer(s) chasing them. But there is so much more to Hell and High Water than just that.
First and foremost, the film is a blisteringly angry picture of the state of so many communities these days, feeling left behind my modernity and globalization, and with the gap between the haves and the have-nots widening into a seemingly unbreachable gulf. But like a well-mannered Southern gentleman, the film doesn’t convey this anger through hysterics or big speeches. No, so much of the film’s message is conveyed in simple, quiet imagery of the Texas towns in which the film is set, with the “get out of debt” signs everywhere and the striking images of run-down cars and run-down homes. This is a film with a broken heart, and by the end the audience will feel that too.
Secondly, the film is a wonderful character study. Both Chris Pine and Ben Foster do the best work of their careers. Chris Pine first came to my attention — and so everyone else’s — in his role of Captain Kirk in J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek reboot. There’s no question that Mr. Pine is a movie star, but Hell or High Water proves that he’s a great ACTOR. I loved the quiet, understated way he played Toby. I knew Ben Foster, meanwhile, only from his role of Warren Worthington/Angel from the disappointing X-Men: The Last Stand. I’d heard that he had developed into a great actor but I don’t think I’ve seen any of his films from the past decade. But now I know what people meant, because he’s dynamite here as Tanner, Toby’s louder, more reckless brother. In lesser hands these two characters could have been cliches, but Mr. Pine and Mr. Foster bring them to life with great depth and dignity. I love their chemistry together. These brothers are oil and water in many ways, and yet we also … [continued]
I must confess that I didn’t start reading the first book in John Jackson Miller’s new trilogy of Star Trek novels, Prey, with great enthusiasm. Mr. Miller has written some wonderful Star Wars novels, and while I enjoyed his first Star Trek adventure, the short e-book Absent Enemies, I didn’t at all care for Mr. Miller’s first full-length Trek novel, Takedown. As for Prey, his new trilogy, I wasn’t enamored by the plot description that I’d read on-line — a rift in the Federation-Klingon peace felt like a step backwards for a Trek story, rather than a step forwards — and the cover to book 2 in the trilogy looked ridiculous, one of the worst covers I’ve seen to a Trek book in years. With the previous Star Trek 50th anniversary trilogy, Legacies, having left me somewhat cold, I wasn’t expecting greatness for this second 50th anniversary trilogy of novels.
And so I must stand and doff my chapeau to John Jackson Miller, who blew me away with Prey book 1: Hell’s Heart, a magnificent Star Trek adventure that I tore through with enormous enjoyment. This is a terrific novel, one of the best Trek books of the past few years.
Legacies attempted to connect several different generations of Star Trek adventures. (In that case, it was the era of “Number One,” who was first officer of the Enterprise under Captain Christopher Pike, with the later era of Kirk and Spock.) Prey is structured with a similar goal in mind, one achieved far more successfully. Mr. Miller’s story deftly weaves together multiple characters and story-threads from across a hundred years of Trek history. Set in the post-Nemesis 24th century that Pocket Books’ interconnected series of Trek novels have been so skillfully crafting, Prey explores what happened to the house of the Klingon General, Kruge, who was played so memorably by Christopher Lloyd in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. In this novel we meet Korgh, a Klingon who, while not Kruge’s son by birth, considered himself the general’s son and heir. After Kruge’s death on the Genesis Planet, Korgh found his dreams for the future shattered. For a hundred years, Korgh nursed his hatred for the Federation and developed a far-reaching plan to shatter the peace treaty that was forged in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and that, by the TNG era, had stood for almost a century.
As the book opens, while the newly-promoted Admiral Riker attempts to prepare for an important peace conference between the Khitomer Accord powers (the Federation, the Klingon Empire, and the Ferengi Alliance) and the Typhon Pact, Captain Picard and the USS Enterprise escorts a group of elderly Klingon … [continued]
I first became a fan of Ben Affleck from his work in Kevin Smith’s early nineties films, and in particular his so-funny, good-natured participation in the DVD commentary tracks for Mallrats and Chasing Amy (which are, seriously, among the greatest commentary tracks ever recorded). Mr. Affleck seemed like such a good guy in those commentary tracks that I stuck with him when his career went south, and I was happy when he was able to relaunch himself as a director. As I have written about multiple times, Gone Baby Gone, which was Mr. Affleck’s directorial debut (and he also co-wrote the film!), is one of my all-time favorite movies. It was a triumph, a dramatic assertion of Mr. Affleck’s talent as a writer and director. (Remember also that Mr. Affleck had previously won an Oscar, with Matt Damon, for writing Good Will Hunting.) I didn’t love The Town, but Argo was terrific. And so I was hugely excited for Mr. Affleck’s fourth film as a director: Live by Night. I loved the idea of Mr. Affleck once again adapting a Dennis Lehane novel (as he had done with such success with Gone Baby Gone), and the merging of Mr. Affleck’s fondness for Boston-based crime stories with a big-budget period-piece setting seemed like a terrific match.
And so I was bummed that Live by Night left me somewhat cold. The film looks gorgeous, and has a terrific cast. There are lots of individual moments and sequences that are terrific. But it doesn’t hang together as well as it should. There is too much plot, too many characters, and not enough actual character development.
Mr. Affleck stars as Joe Coughlin. Though his father (played by Brendan Gleeson) is a police captain, Joe himself comes back from WWI to become a bank-robber. He falls in love with a beautiful woman, Emma (Sienna Miller), who is the mistress of the head of Boston’s Irish mob. That all comes crashing down on Joe’s head rather spectacularly. After several years in prison, Joe goes to work for a rival Italian mobster and moves down to Florida, where he quickly becomes the head of the local bootlegging business. Joe’s big plans for the end of prohibition soon put him in conflict with his new boss.
I like Mr. Affleck as an actor, but his Joe disappointingly remains a cypher throughout the film. (This feels more like a script problem than a performance issue.) I don’t feel I ever got to know or understand this character. The film hints that his experiences in WWI brought him back to Boston a changed man, but the film never really allows us to understand what’s going on inside … [continued]
I’m late to the party on this one. I vividly remember all the hoopla surrounding the OJ Simpson trial twenty years ago, and frankly I wasn’t in a rush to revisit that tragic circus. And while I respect what Ryan Murphy has accomplished in television over the past decade, none of his shows have particularly interested me. But for months now I’d been hearing about how spectacular The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story was, and so I finally decided to see what all the fuss was about. Holy cow, why did I wait so long??
This ten-episode mini-series is a masterpiece. It was created by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, who are executive producers along with Brad Falchuk, Nina Jacobson, Ryan Murphy, and Brad Simpson. The American Crime Story show is intended as an anthology series. This first season, titled The People v. O.J. Simpson, is based on Jeffrey Toobin’s 1997 book The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson.
It’s staggering to me that the O.J. trial was twenty years ago. I am confident I am not alone in feeling like those events happened only recently. I remember so many different aspects of this saga, and the incredible media circus that surrounded it for so many months, so clearly, from watching the Bronco chase to Johnnie Cochran’s famous: “if the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” Even more than specific events, I have distinct memories of so many of the cast of characters involved in the trial: Mr. Cochran and Robert Shapiro, Marcia Clarke and Chris Darden, Judge Lance Ito (particularly immortalized in my mind by Jay Leno’s “Dancing Itos”), Mark Fuhrman, Kato Kaelin, and so many others.
The People v. O.J. Simpson succeeds both at perfectly dramatizing the moments that are indelibly seared in my (and so many others’) memories (such as the Bronco chase and O.J. trying on the glove), while also shedding light on so many other aspects of the trial that I was never aware of, despite the near-constant media coverage at the time.
What’s even more remarkable is the way that The People v. O.J. Simpson manages to humanize almost all of the individuals involved in the trial, so many of whom were reduced to caricatures by the media coverage and the late-night mockery. The show demonstrates an extraordinary tenderness in its approach to presenting these famous people as human beings trying to do their best. This approach is used for both sides of the case. Much has been written, and rightly so, of the show’s incredible job at resuscitating the reputation of Marcia Clark, so brilliantly played here by Sarah Paulson. And, indeed, this is amazing work. But I … [continued]
On Monday I began my list of my Top 15 Comic Book Series of 2016! And now, onward to my TOP FIVE!
5. Lazarus (by Greg Rucka and Michael Lark) — In the future, the planet has regressed into an almost feudal system, with several warring families controlling the planet. The young woman named Forever is the “Lazarus” of the Carlye family, her family’s ultimate warrior/protector. Lazarus is an incredible example of world-building, as Mr. Rucka and Mr. Lark have put enormous effort into fleshing out every detail of this world they have created. With each and every issue, more fascinating pieces of this world come to light, an enormously entertaining journey of discovery for the audience. And yet Lazarus works as well as it does not just because of the depth of this world that has been created, but because of the array of wonderful characters who inhabit that world. I love Lazarus for the politics and combat, but I also love it for the coming-of-age story of Forever herself, and for the exploration of the many flawed characters who also populate the book. I read each issue of Lazarus with my stomach clenched, hoping for the best for the characters I have grown to love, but fearing the worst. As for Mr. Lark’s art, I don’t think I have enough compliments with which to praise his work. He is as skilled at capturing individual characters and their subtle facial expressions as he seems to be at drawing any location, any vehicle, anything at all. Amazing, inspiring work on every page. This year the story grew even richer and more complex, as the cold-war between the families erupted into open combat, and Forever was challenged more than she had ever been. I was also blown away by the twist that the audience had deeply misunderstood scenes from previous issues that we’d interpreted as flashbacks to Forever’s youth. Wow. I love this book.
4. Velvet (by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting) – What if Moneypenny was actually a former double-oh agent, now assigned to a desk at HQ but forced back into the field by a terrible betrayal? That’s the brilliant hook of Mr. Brubaker and Mr. Epting’s phenomenal spy yarn Velvet. The year is 1973, and Velvet Templeton has been, for eighteen years, the secretary and right-hand woman for the Director of Arc-7, a super-secret British organization of spies. When their best agent (think James Bond) is murdered on assignment, Velvet finds herself framed for the deed and on the run from everyone she once trusted. Velvet is a rich conspiracy thriller and a loving homage to the mystique of sixties-era James Bond adventures. Mr. Brubaker’s twisty story … [continued]