2016 Oscars: Spotlight

Source: Wikipedia

Spotlight was this year’s surprise winner of the Best Picture Oscar, and though very few thought it would actually win the award, I would be surprised to hear many people say it was not deserving. The film was actually rather unique in the modern era – it was entirely dialogue-driven and featured no action sequences. The only suspenseful moments had to do with the information these brave journalists were unraveling and the sensitivity of the subject matter. The premise of Spotlight is that a small group of investigative journalists for the Boston Globe stumble across some old press clippings and case files that lead them to dig deeper into the, now famous, Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal. The movie shows these intrepid reporters’ journey to unravel decades of cover-ups, misinformation, and even outright collusion between church officials, Boston area lawyers, law enforcement, and even media executives. As the truth comes together, it becomes enormously clear just how horrible and how rampant the abuses were, making the cover-up that much more horrific. Plot-wise, the subject is certainly worthy of a film and makes for an important topic to be reminded of today. It is a timeless lesson in the importance of standing up against abuse and protecting our neighbors from systemic problems; a message that certainly resonates in today’s world, where media outlets, political agents, and corporations are becoming increasingly intermingle.

Regarding the film’s stylistic choices, the director, Tom McCarthy, deserves a lot of credit. The film is perfectly cast, and undoubtedly features the strongest ensemble cast of any film this year. The performances of Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Stanley Tucci, and everyone else were incredible. If there is any doubt that Mark Ruffalo is much more than just the Hulk, look no further. The format is also very enjoyable, with minimal film effects or dramatic lighting, it feels much more like a documentary in tone and feel. This makes the information being relayed and the heartfelt acting feel incredibly real and important. The content of the story is very upsetting, but the tone of the film is relies on dialogue and portrays the story’s development much more how it would have felt to the reporters who uncovered it. The result is that Spotlight is a must-see film and one of the most important stories of the year. Though it tells a very specific story in great detail, the film’s importance is much more far-reaching and its message is timeless. An unexpected, but well-deserved win for Best Picture. Academy Pick: Best Picture


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2016 Oscars: Mad Max: Fury Road

Source: Wikipedia

Mad Max: Fury Road: is a crazy, relentless action movie blockbuster about a post-apocalyptic world decimated by atomic war, drought, and lawlessness. Plus, it’s a reboot of an ’80s cult classic action series. Despite all of that, it was not only nominated for Best Picture, but considered by many to be a front-runner to actually win the award. On awards day, it cleaned house in a lot of the smaller, secondary awards categories such as Film Editing, Costume Design, Set Design, etc. But the truly amazing thing about this movie was just how complete it was. The artistic touch and authenticity under George Miller’s directorship were phenomenal. Many scenes were sped up slightly to create a visual representation of the stress and adrenaline-fueled action sequences. The make-up and costumes made the world feel dirty and hellish; characters are disfigured by radiation and a horrible, unforgiving landscape. And the society, if you can even call it that, is brutal and barbaric. The result was an almost overwhelming and psychotic world view that the audiences felt a part of. Mad Max also looked REAL — from the costumes and makeup to the series of actual explosions, the film presented a nice relief from the standard summer blockbusters that rely so heavily on CGI landscapes and characters. This seemed to learn from Peter Jackson’s ridiculous Hobbit trilogy (ugh I can’t believe it’s a trilogy): orc makeup in LOTR = awesome; CGI orcs in Hobbit = stupid.

Another impressive thing about Mad Max: Fury Road is that it could have easily been another cheap ’80s action movie reboot. The original starred a pre-crazy Mel Gibson and the special effects were a lot cheesier. Most of these reboots focus on improving special effects and replacing characters with CGI monstrosities, but Mad Max instead focused on creating a truly good film instead of following the failed formula of Terminator, Robocop, and Total Recall. It is the rare summer blockbuster that impresses the Academy’s voters, and Mad Max sure did impress. Rumors were even floating around that it had a chance to take Best Picture. It retained all of the weirdness and artistry of an Oscar film, while showcasing enough violence and explosions to earn the money of a summer action flick.

Source: wiccan92.tumblr.com via giphy.com

Though Mad Max is such a coherent film experience, it does have one weakness that affects its rewatch-ability. Much like the classic interview question, its weakness and its strengths are kind of intertwined. The lack of exposition, the relentless action sequences, and sparse dialogue, especially between main characters, adds a touch of realism to the world Miller created. However, it also gives the audience less time to really get to know the characters and see them develop. The result is that the movie is highly enjoyable, but it’s less engrossing and personal because we lack those connections to developed characters. Charlize Theron, Tom Hardy, and Nicholas Hoult are certainly compelling, but I didn’t feel like I really knew anyone’s motivations. This is no fault of the movie, but more of a style choice. All in all, this is definitely a unique action film and is tremendously well-made and a lot of that credit goes to Miller’s direction. Go see it. Blorg! Pick: Best Director


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2016 Oscars: Bridge of Spies

Source: Wikipedia

Bridge of Spies is a classic political historical drama under the proven directorship of Steven Spielberg and led by Tom Hanks’ dependable acting. Bridge of Spies is a beautifully crafted movie about an important, but dark time in our nation’s history: a prisoner exchange with the USSR during the early years of the Cold War. The US is in the grips of the Red Scare, as anti-communists like Senator McCarthy incited fears of anti-Americanism and paranoia. The lighting throughout the film is dark and shrouded in shadow, which lends itself well to the elements of mystery, espionage, and subterfuge that underlie the movie’s plot. The film follows a controlled, linear plot that successfully built suspense and set the stage for the internal conflicts of its characters. The depiction of occupied Berlin in the late 1950s as the wall is being built was jarring and made more real than any history book could achieve.

The true strength of the Bridge of Spies lies in the acting talents of its two main characters: Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance (who actually won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor). The relationship between Hanks’ character, the lawyer who becomes the unlikely catalyst for a prisoner exchange, and Rylance, the accused Soviet spy, show the complicated political and emotional factors at play, while still relaying the story in a very personal way. The mutual respect of Hanks and Rylance crosses the Cold War and guides the plot through an empathetic lens. Though hardly groundbreaking, with its period piece style and classic dialogue-driven format, Bridge of Spies is a well-executed film that is very worthy of a nomination and well-worth the time to watch. Academy Pick: Best Supporting Actor


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2016 Oscars: Brooklyn

Source: Wikipedia

Brooklyn is a personal story about a young girl’s journey to find her place in early 1960s Brooklyn. It is a very compelling story about the emotional ups and downs the main character, Eilis (prounounced Ay-lish) experiences as she uproots her life in small-town Ireland to move to Brooklyn in pursuit of opportunity. Saorise Ronan as Eilis is very believable and endearing, bringing the emotions of homesickness, hope, and desperation into the fore. Brooklyn is also a love story, depicting a cute and timeless romance blossoming out of Eilis’ loneliness, as she meets Tony (Emory Cohen) and quickly the two become inseparable. Though the film has no action sequences, the plot certainly drives the story, and key events in Eilis’ life do create a sort of emotional suspense. The whole cast and the direction by John Crowley make Brooklyn a wonderful and enjoyable film, and Cohen’s performance as Tony could easily have won himself a nomination as well.

This is the kind of story that is difficult to describe, since it is truly a personal story about a character evolving and finding herself in a new place, and the few plot points that could be outlined may give away too much of the story. Also, like Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn is not really a groundbreaking story or style so much as it is a nearly flawless execution of a classic format, making it definitely worthy of the Best Picture nomination, but not unique enough to win the actual Oscar. I feel that a film should win the Best Picture Oscar for taking a few risks and executing properly, without any real risk, a well-crafted film doesn’t really push any boundaries. Nevertheless, I definitely recommend it for anyone who enjoys a classic dialogue-driven, emotional story of love, loss, and personal growth.


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2016 Oscars: Room

Source: Wikipedia

If you are looking for a happy, fun movie for a relaxing night in, Room is not that movie. It is an emotional, stressful, and evocative tale about a young woman, Ma, played by Brie Larson, who was kidnapped as a teenager and has lived hidden away in captivity for seven years. Her captor, a creepy man she calls Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) brings her the bare necessities to survive and consistently rapes her and abuses her. During captivity, she gave birth to a son, Jack, who is 5 at the time of the movie and played by Jacob Tremblay. This horrific description is scarring and leads to many high-stress emotional moments throughout the film. Room is successful as a film just for showing all of these emotions in a genuine fashion, but its true achievement is the amazing ability to relay the story through Jack’s eyes. He has a child’s wonder and naïveté ‎that keeps him from seeing just how horrible his situation is. Jack’s entire life has occurred in the confined shed that he knows only as “Room,” to which the movie owes its name. Jack’s concept of reality is distorted, thinking of things through the lens of his extremely limited spatial understanding: things exist either in Room or in TV. Since he only knows of this limited reality, he refers to most objects with the “zero article,” treating things like unique objects with personal names rather than using definite or indefinite articles to identify a particular objects. For example, he refers to “chair,” “room,” and “door” rather than saying “the chair” or “the door.” This adds to the completeness of how Jack’s world-view is depicted and makes each interaction fascinating, horrifying, and terribly engrossing.

*Spoiler* watching Jack’s reactions following his and Ma’s escape is also very telling for some real-life victims of these kinds of horrible acts. He struggles to adapt to the direct sunlight, the prevalence of germs, and he is afraid of all of the things he’s never seen. The complex emotions of watching Jack experience the World for the first time is truly wondrous and simultaneously depressing.

Overall, Room is the kind of amazing film I never want to see again. I was blown away by this film and was glad I watched it during the day time. Everyone should watch, just prepare yourself a few hours afterward before trying to sleep. Amazing acting by both Larson and Tremblay, the kid definitely could have gotten a nomination and Larson most definitely deserved her awards. I picked Room for Best Picture because it really challenged and affected me more than any other film this year. I think it made the rash of captivity stories in recent years into something more personal and even more horrifying. This film did something unique and took risks, but it succeeded in making an unforgettable experience. Blorg! and Academy Pick: Best Actress; Blorg! Pick: Best Picture


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2016 Oscars: The Revenant

Source: Wikipedia

The Revenant, AKA, Leonardo DiCaprio tries everything he and a crazy Spaniard can think of to get him an Oscar. This film is the elephant in the room (or should I say bear?) Everyone has been talking about it for months. “Oh, Leo, simply must get his first Oscar!” This movie is beautiful. The landscapes and on-site filming definitely paid off. Gorgeous Chilean landscapes pretending to be Wyoming, overlaid with a CGI bear that was actually tastefully done, and some killer makeup work for all of Glass’ (Leo’s) implausibly severe injuries. While watching the film, I actually really enjoyed it. DiCaprio and Tom Hardy were absolutely captivating. I know, I know: it seems like I’m just buying into the hype, but DiCaprio’s physical acting worked remarkably well with little dialogue. However, I felt that in many scenes Hardy seemed to steal the show, creating the most complete character in the film, whose motivations and selfish brutality came through in every interaction he had. So between the strong acting, beautiful camera work, and some really startling, shock-value-type scenes (eating bison liver, neck cauterizing, Tauntauning*, and other nasty stuff), the movie is definitely good.

However, the more I think about it, the less this movie makes any sense. It’s shot and played like a period drama (or at least historical fiction), but the level of implausibility keeps escalating as the movie progresses. Quick *Spoiler* for the number of things Glass survives: bear attack, waterfall, riding a horse off a cliff, and all of the sanitary, injury, and climate-based complications he encounters. He crawls for miles, survives being shot, heals really fast(?), can swim with a broken leg, spends a night Tauntauning in his dead horse, and still is only barely behind Hardy the whole time? Eh, plot-wise it gets kind of lost in all of the fantabulous stunts that DiCaprio (or really his stunt double/CGI-workers) go through. Also, sorry, but the ending was dumb; there are huge plot holes with the Native Americans’ subplot and their role at the end is confusing. Also, the final fight scene is kind of anticlimactic after all of the lead in, the decoy horse, etc. *Spoiler* Hardy and DiCaprio clumsily rolling around in the snow seemed too drawn out and didn’t fit with the grit of the first 2.5 hours of the movie. It’s hard to see how there’s any emotional resolution for Glass, since he doesn’t have anything left to live for, presumably.

Literally Oscar bait. Source: ivassalkapcsolatosproblemak.tumblr.com


Overall, the movie is worth watching for the views and the acting, but why does the academy keep giving things to Innaritu? I completely disagree with the Academy’s choice two years in a row to give the Best Director award to this dude who continues to artsy fartsy his way to Oscars. Boo. Blorg! Pick & Academy Pick: Best Actor; Blorg! Pick: Best Supporting Actor; Academy Pick: Best Director


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*Tauntauning (verb) the act of cutting open and climbing into a dead animal to keep warm in a wintry night. Anyone who doesn’t know what a Tauntaun is needs to drop everything and watch the original Star Wars trilogy (Ep. IV-VI, obviously). The act of Tauntauning was made famous by Han Solo in Empire Strikes Back and replicated unironically by Innaritu’s The Revenant.

The medical feasibility of Tauntauning has been rigorously documented in this brilliant and amusing article by Keith Veronese.

Cute critter until you have to sleep in its gut. Image Credit: i09.gizmodo.com

2016 Oscars: The Big Short

Source: Wikipedia

Thoroughly entertaining. The Big Short succeeded in exposing mass audiences to the extremely complicated and nuanced market forces that led to the 2007 Housing Crisis. The inclusion of celebrity cameos like Anthony Bourdain and Margot Robbie were especially helpful in explaining the complex concepts into more relatable and easily digestible pieces. The Jenga scene is already iconic for its ability to explain the Collateralized Debt Obligation (CDO) crisis clearly and concisely (watch it here). A star-studded and hilarious cast, clever narrative style, and pseudo-documentary cinematography all lent themselves well to this timely and smart movie.

Christian Bale is one of the greatest actors that is currently active in Hollywood, and this film proves, yet again, that he can play any kind of character, from Batman to the Machinist, as he dives fully into his role as Michael Burry, an enigmatic genius with very few social skills. Steve Carrell, as Mark Baum, is also continuing to show that he is much more than a comedic actor. Carrell delivered another heartfelt and believable performance this year, earning his second Oscar nomination for Best Actor. He was never destined to win this year, since it is the year of the DiCaprio, but he will continue to get these kinds of roles and will certainly win one someday soon. Perhaps the most entertaining character of The Big Short though, is Jared Vennett, played by Ryan Gosling, whose performance blends the humor and fourth-wall-breaking documentary style that makes this film so unique. Half narrator and half supporting character, Gosling really ties a lot of the story together and shows his ability to play the serious moments and the comedic ones, all within the same film. Despite all of that, the crowning achievement goes to director and screenwriter Adam McKay, more famous for his comedic blockbuster Anchorman, who proved himself more than capable of handling a much more serious and intellectual film. McKay has proven his range and will likely produce more serious comedies in the future (here’s hoping!) He won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay, in translating the Michael Lewis book into such a clever film. It certainly makes me want to read the book, so maybe you can expect a post on that too in the near future!

Why Lehman Brothers? Why??? Image Source: Speakgif.com

My one big complaint, and probably the reason I think The Big Short should not have won Best Picture (which it did not, despite some late momentum in its favor) was that the final five minutes were overly politicized and a little light on facts. The fallout of the crisis, as described by the movie, leads audiences to believe that absolutely nothing had been done by the government or financial institutions to prevent a recurrence. There are certainly some politicians and economists who believe this, but the truth appears to be more nuanced, including the legal difficulties with prosecution of executives and the marginal (if not complete) success of Dodd-Frank legislation. A full account of the debate can be found at this Washington Post article. I recommend doing a little bit of independent research after watching the movie to help balance the facts with the opinions of the creators. Don’t get me wrong though, I really did enjoy the film and will recommend it to anyone who asks. I just think it’s important to temper the message with some research of your own. Overall, this movie is highly creative and very informative with clever writing and excellent casting, I strongly recommend it to all.

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The Martian – in print and film

A truly awesome cover. It is no surprise that it became a bestseller with this image on the front. Source: Wikimedia

I recently both read the novel and watched the film based on the novel of The Martian by Andy Weir. Since both came out relatively recently and there were some significant stylistic and event plot elements between the two, a combined review seemed to fit best, enabling me to compare and contrast the two versions. I will try to minimize spoilers in this review, but some comparisons will require referencing specific plot points, so anywhere that says *Spoiler* skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to have anything given away.

The basic premise, if you don’t already know, is that the story is set a few years into our future, in a world where humans have been to Mars. The idea is still novel, but much like with the Apollo missions to the moon, NASA is running periodic reconnaissance and scientific manned explorations to the Red Planet. Our hero, Mark Watney is one of a team of six NASA astronauts that have been sent to Mars to continue learning and exploring the planet. Only a couple of days into their planned multi-week expedition, a massive storm hits and the whole crew is forced to abandon their base and return to Earth. However, in the confusion of the storm, Mark Watney is lost and presumed dead as the rest of the crew flees to angry planet to return to Earth. What follows is Watney’s desperate attempt to survive on a foreign and unforgiving planet, alone, and with no plan to escape.

The Book:

Presented in a log format, the novel opens with Mark Watney speaking in first-person directly to the readers. From the first word, you are captured by Watney’s personality and the desperate nature of his situation. The author, Weir, is able to balance a format that provides some plausibility to the book’s narrative style (i.e. Watney’s first-person record of events) with the scientific and technical explanations that help a reader to understand how space travel and survival on another planet works, including, of course the theoretical advancements Weir’s nebulous near future setting makes possible. This combination: bringing hard science fiction into a personable and likable character’s log entries makes this book highly entertaining and an instant hit.

The first third of the book is pure science fiction gold. It opens with Watney already stranded on Mars, with the details of how he came to be stranded trickling in gradually through his log entries. One of the absolute best elements of the book is how well Weir portrays Watney’s loneliness. He is the only person on the entire planet. That makes the limited first-person perspective of the log entries a natural fit that only accentuates this feeling of loneliness. Watney’s perspective is THE perspective. The series of incredible and extremely dangerous crises Watney has to survive are met by the clever genius and biting wit of a super lovable character.

By the way, let’s increase funding for NASA. It’s really important. And awesome. Source: Wikimedia

The problems start about a third of the way in, when Weir starts to abandon this log format for narration, switching back and forth between the other astronauts returning to Earth, the teams of NASA scientists on Earth trying to orchestrate a rescue mission for Watney, and even a weird segment told from the a third-person perspective describing a tear in the base’s fabric. I understand why Weir went with this format, it allowed him to further the plot while keeping the action in the present tense. One of the limits of Watney’s log was that the readers heard about all of his troubles after the fact, making it very clear he had already survived them. However, this tonal change felt like an interruption from a format that had been working brilliantly. I suspect there was probably a way that could have been finessed to give the more active feel to the drama*.

These narrative changes continue throughout the end of the book, as these additional viewpoints continue to eat into Watney’s share of the page count, almost relegating him back into the ensemble of characters. The log entries are fewer and farther between and the plot seems to gradually fall away from that empathetic sense of being stranded on Mars with Watney that the novel had at the beginning.

The novel ended solidly, if not brilliantly, and the book left a feeling of wonder at the true scale of Watney’s journey. Overall, I think that this book is a very solid entry into modern science fiction canon. It has some truly inspiring moments, a highly memorable main character, and the rare ability to make scientific exploration a fun and exciting topic for the masses. However, this book is also a case study in the limitations of being self-published. Weir, a first-time author, originally published the book for free on Amazon and it took off, with the print version following much later. This trajectory is a real cinderella story, but it also means that the novel didn’t have a chance to get screened and edited by multiple sets of eyes. In a sense, it was still rough around the edges and it’s not really any fault to Weir, more the circumstances around the books “publication.” All that being said, it is a highly enjoyable book with great concepts and a wonderful story, that occasionally feels raw and unrefined due to some mild to moderate stylistic and tonal jumps. I would definitely recommend it to all fans of science and science fiction or survival adventures.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Twin Peaks on Mars, near the Pathfinder site. A real picture from NASA of a key location from The MartianSource: Wikimedia Commons.

The Film:

The decision to make the book, The Martian, into a movie seemed like a brilliant idea. You had this story of an intrepid explorer surviving on his own in a foreign land with no help from the outside, à la Castaway, plus the allure of space travel and all of the crowd-pleasing CGI enhancements that come with it. It was a slam dunk. Now, cast Matt Damon as Mark Watney. Boom, say hello Oscars!

Source: Wikimedia Commons

And that is actually what happened, only I’m not so sure those voters in the Academy actually read the book. As I relayed above, the book had some wonderful strengths, but the movie also had an opportunity to tweak some of the weaknesses and generate an even stronger product. In other words, The Martian movie could have been better than the book. That is a bold statement, and one I don’t take lightly. It is a rare feat, but this movie was really primed to take a unpolished nugget of a story and complete it.

Unfortunately, I think it missed the mark.** Matt Damon’s acting was superb and the visuals stunning. Plot-wise, it was ok. The main crux of the story was relayed well: potatoes, satellites and all that. But the issues were in the finer details of the movie’s presentation. For some reason, Ridley Scott’s movie decided to tell the story chronologically, starting from moments before the astronauts were hit by the storm that stranded Watney. The stories of the ensemble characters, all well-acted I might add, were thrown in from the start, giving the viewers no time to appreciate Watney on his own. That sense of loneliness and the log entry format was lost and a real opportunity was missed in the process. There were a few scenes where Damon spoke into the camera in a video log style, and those were the highlights of the film. Speaking to the wry wit and ingenuity of this lovable character. In the film, viewers are only given a few minutes to see this side of the character, while the book gave you about 100 pages.

Understandably, a movie cannot accomplish every single plot point in a 200 page book in the span of only two hours. But some key moments felt rushed and some of the most iconic struggle scenes from the book were left out of the movie entirely. Moments that changed how Watney approached he entire survival plan and showed the true strength of his character and depth of his cleverness. These plot cuts would have been more forgivable if they had not added multiple unnecessary scenes for the ensemble characters and an unbelievably hokey and ridiculous Hollywood ending. The last five minutes left such a bad taste in my mouth that I was surprised the Academy gave it a Best Picture nomination.

‘Nuff said. Source: filmlinc.org/nyff

Overall, the movie had some shining strengths: Matt Damon’s superior acting skills, a strong supporting cast (including the notable performances of Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, and Donald Glover), and some breathtaking visuals. The plot was solid, though it is hard to credit the movie with the plot, since Weir’s book laid it out pretty directly. But a lot of the directorial decisions surrounding tone and storytelling format, plot tweaks made for movie-goers, and the entire removal of the sense of Watney’s loneliness from the beginning of the story made the movie a weaker version than the original book. It is still worth seeing, especially if you have not read the book, but fans of Weir’s version may be disappointed.

Rating for book readers: 7 out of 10

Hypothetical rating for non-book readers: 9 out of 10

Best Picture Oscar considerations:

Though definitely the weakest overall film of the nominees, The Martian is a well-executed science fiction film about a man trying to survive in a desolate land with nothing but his wits and the supplies he can find. This extraterrestrial version of Robinson Crusoe features Matt Damon’s acting talents as the main character, Mark Watney in his struggle for survival. Though I have no complaints about Damon’s performance, and his Best Actor nomination is well-deserved, the nomination of this film for Best Picture seems like a stretch. I have already written about the differences between the film and book versions of the story above, documenting many of the film’s shortcomings and missed opportunities. Overall, I recommend it to science fiction fans, especially those who have not already read the book.

*Idea: maybe a voice recording function in the helmet of his spacesuit that integrated into the base’s log memory? I mean, why not? It’s science fiction after all.

**Watney. Pun intended.