Salim’s Broken Bike Lock of the Century of the Week – 88th Academy Awards REDUX

I HAVE NO FUCKING CLUE WHAT I AM DOING!

Seriously.

There are a few definite locks in the upcoming Oscars this Sunday but there is a lot of straight up free for alls where it could be anybody’s race. Especially the big prize tonight which has three main contenders and even a dark horse running for it.

And yet that makes things spicy and fun enough to make this year’s Oscar ceremony one I actually want to catch on television rather than follow on IMDb. The anticipation in how many awards just might swing way out of left-field makes me kind of anxious to show my predictions of Sunday evening’s results, but if I’m a psychic… DAWG, I’M A MOVIE PSYCHIC!!!

Well, the Oscars are behind us. I didn’t live-blog during it on here because, well, I was at a friend’s place watching it. Still, I want to make a note and reaction of everything that won and how far I came in predictions.

Basically Mad Max: Fury Road won everything. YEAH!!!!

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Red indicates what my prediction is
Blue indicates which is my personal champion, the nominee I’m rooting for.

BEST PICTURE

  • The Big Short
  • Bridge of Spies
  • Brooklyn
  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • The Martian
  • The Revenant
  • Room
  • Spotlight

Until this morning I was running on the idea that The Revenant would win based on its omen lapping of most of the awards. But Tim Brayton at Antagony and Ecstasy scared the shit out of me with his logic based on how each of the awards calculate their winner and now the PGA award The Big Short took seems most prophetic. Either way, Big Short or Revenant are the weakest in the bunch in my eye.

Fury Road will always be the winner in my heart, but even as the critics’ favorite, it looks right out from this view alongside Spotlight.

WINNER: Spotlight – Prediction Tally: 0/1

It’s a CHRISTMAS FUCKING MIRACLE!!! Neither The Big Short and The Revenant took the big prize and… while it ain’t Fury Road… Spotlight made the distance with only one other Oscar. Hallefallujah!

BEST DIRECTOR

  • Lenny Abrahamson – Room
  • Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu – The Revenant
  • Tom McCarthy – Spotlight
  • Adam McKay – The Big Short
  • George Miller – Mad Max: Fury Road

All the good will Miller had for himself has been lapped right up by Inarritu’s awards streak. We get it, bro. You vape.

WINNER: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu – Prediction TaWlly: 1/2

What a surprise.

BEST ACTOR

  • Bryan Cranston – Trumbo
  • Matt Damon – The Martian
  • Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant
  • Michael Fassbender – Steve Jobs
  • Eddie Redmayne – The Danish Girl

OK, like, there’s certainly the chance DiCaprio’s curse will turn out to be a real thing, but come on. It’s the first year where it’s actually sitting there in a silver platter waiting for him to take it home with him. He’s disappointing but man… those other guys are disappointing.

WINNER: Leonardo DiCaprio – Prediction Tally: 2/3

Whelp, R.I.P. to those Leo Oscar memes. Wish we knew in time for the Memorium. My mom will be so happy.

At least props to him using his speech to talk about Global Warming and Environmental protection. Even if it’s obvious that the music guys weren’t gonna cut him off.

BEST ACTRESS

  • Cate Blanchett – Carol
  • Brie Larson – Room
  • Jennifer Lawrence – Joy
  • Charlotte Rampling – 45 Years
  • Saoirse Ronan – Brooklyn

Man, I love all of these performances. Did 2016 use up all its energy on brilliant leading actress performances? ‘Cause got damn, I can’t tell if this is my favorite slate of the year…

WINNER: Brie Larson – Prediction Tally: 3/4

Larson is a class act and deserves it. Everybody on that slate deserves it, but Larson’s win should not be undermined. Plus when she went to hug everybody who was on stage for Lady Gaga’s performance and her friendship with Jacob Tremblay makes me like her more as a person.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

  • Roger Deakins – Sicario
  • Edward Lachman – Carol
  • Emmanuel Lubezki – The Revenant
  • Robert Richardson – The Hateful Eight
  • John Seale – Mad Max: Fury Road

… or if this is my favorite slate of the year? I mean, I don’t mean to cut in, but this is some damn good selections. In both cases, it’s pretty obvious who is getting the nomination (and Chivo’s certainty hurts just a bit ’cause Deakins may be out of the count soon), but m’got damn, not any of the other nominees winning in these two slates would bug me in the slightest.

WINNER: Emmanuel Lubezki – Prediction Tally: 4/5

Again, no surprises here. I am a bit sad about Deakins probably not going to get a shot next year, but hey, one day Deakins ought to get it. Just. Don’t. Die.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

  • Christian Bale – The Big Short
  • Tom Hardy – The Revenant
  • Mark Ruffalo – Spotlight
  • Mark Rylance – Bridge of Spies
  • Sylvester Stallone – Creed

With four of these characters based on real people, it bemuses me that three of them are practically fucking cartoons. While Rylance gives himself a detached humor based on Abel, at least he does it with restraint. Still, the prize is totally going to Stallone and all the more cheer for him, since that’s quite a lovely turn for a familiar character.

WINNER: Mark Rylance – Prediction Tally: 4/6

What a shocker! Stallone was ripping all the nominations out of Rylance’s hands until the big time. He didn’t look very pleased, but it’s ok, Stallone! You’re still great!

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

  • Jennifer Jason Leigh – The Hateful Eight
  • Rooney Mara – Carol
  • Rachel McAdams – Spotlight
  • Alicia Vikander – The Danish Girl
  • Kate Winslet – Steve Jobs

LOOKIT ALL THAT CATEGORY FRAUD! I mean, it’s clearly running to be Vikander’s year, so I guess it paid off for The Danish Girl‘s campaign, but the only actress who could say they’re in the right spot is Winslet and they’re all way better than Vikander’s performance in The Danish Girl, but Oscar likes her.

WINNER: Alicia Vikander – Prediction Tally: 5/7

I really don’t have a reaction to this except to pretend it was for Ex Machina. I can’t figure out if this is the year of Larson or Vikander.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

  • Emma Donaghue – Room
  • Drew Goddard – The Martian
  • Nick Hornby – Brooklyn
  • Adam McKay and Charles Randolph – The Big Short
  • Phyllis Nagy – Carol

THIS SUCKS! But of course, I can’t predict a movie will ONLY win Best Picture.

WINNER: Adam McKay and Charles Randolph – Prediction Tally: 6/8

Adam McKay’s a big guy. I probably wouldn’t talk shit about his movies in his face. I would still do it, though.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

  • Matt Charman and Joel and Ethan Coen – Bridge of Spies
  • Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley, and Ronnie del Carmen – Inside Out
  • Alex Garland – Ex Machina
  • Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff, S. Leigh Savidge, and Alan Wenkus – Straight Outta Compton
  • Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy – Spotlight 

Hopefully the first award of the night where Oscar and I will see eye to eye. Well, not really since I kind of think the script doesn’t move me as much as I’d like, but it doesn’t have as many flaws as the rest of these nominees (some more than others).

WINNER: Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy – Prediction Tally: 7/9

This was a blur to me because it was so damn obvious. My friend Josh was saying “‘Original’? But these all happened!” and I couldn’t help laughing. He also was mad Spotlight won stuff.

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

  • Anomalisa
  • Boy and the World
  • Inside Out
  • Shaun the Sheep Movie
  • When Marnie Was There

WHAT THEY SAY: “Inside Out/Anomalisa deserve the Oscar.”
WHAT I HEAR: “I didn’t see Boy and the World.”
OK, that’s kind of unfair. I really really loved Inside Out and I make no secret of that, but Boy and the World is such a perfect little gem.

WINNER: Inside Out – Prediction Tally: 8/10

Boy and the World was never going to win. Inside Out was amazing. I will take this in stride. I saw a facebook status that said “All I wanted was to see beloved Pixar characters announce the winner to be the movie where puppets fuck.”

BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FEATURE

  • Embrace of the Serpent
  • Mustang
  • Son of Saul
  • Theeb
  • A War

I only saw Mustang so far. In any case, this is still the stone-cold lock of the night and I’m gonna be grumbling loudly that it belongs to that shortlist-snub The Assassin, no matter how good they all are.

WINNER: Son of Saul – Prediction Tally: 9/11

Duh. It ain’t no Palme d’Or, but at least it won the popularity contest against Dheepan.

Truth be told, it looks like every movie is winning the popularity contest against Dheepan. I hope Dheepan is good when I see it in a few weeks.

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

  • Amy
  • Cartel Land
  • The Look of Silence
  • What Happened, Miss Simone?
  • Winter’s on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom

Yeah… let’s all reward Kapadia for being a such a disrespectfully imposing person towards one of the most reclusive living tragedies in recent music. That’s some good stuff. It’ll be the second time Oppenheimer’s brilliance loses out to a doc about pop music and, unlike the last time, this will leave me with an awful taste in my mouth. Maybe not if Miss Simone takes the gold, but that’s not likely to happen. Even if we ignore how blatantly the Academy made their feelings clear about Netflix when they snubbed Idris Elba, Amy is more popular than any of the nominees by a large margin.

WINNER: Amy – Prediction Tally: 10/12

FUCK THAT MOVIE!!!! OPPENHEIMER, NUMBER ONE!!!!

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT

  • Body Team 12
  • Chau, Beyond the Lines
  • Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah
  • A Girl in the River – The Price of Forgiveness
  • Last Day of Freedom

OK, time for the really categories where I’m really swinging wildly. Chau is the only one I’ve seen and it seems sobering and weighty enough to take the prize in the most surface way. I mean… a short about Claude Lanzmann seems that way too, but it sounds like it’s getting a lot of dismissal and that means something here.

WINNER: A Girl in the River – The Price of Forgiveness – Prediction Tally: 10/13

Whelp, one short wrong. At least it tickled me to see my name in special thanks roll.

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT FILM

  • Ave Maria
  • Day One
  • Everything Will Be Okay 
  • Shok
  • Stutterer

I’ve seen them all and they all fucking suck, so I’ll be damned if I pick a champion. I guess I’ll be less mad if Shok wins, but maybe that’s just because I’m sure the whole serious tale about kids thing will attract Oscar voters.

WINNER: Stutterer – Prediction Tally: 10/14

Whelp! Two shorts wrong. Everybody was predicting Stutterer too so I think it’s my own damn fault for not guessing it, but there we have it. I wanted to be so left-field.

BEST ANIMATED SHORT FILM

  • Bear Story
  • Prologue
  • Sanjay’s Super Team
  • We Can’t Live Without Cosmos
  • World of Tomorrow

It’s probably my inner optimism leading me to picking one of the latest entries in my personal canon to take this award, but it’s also the most popular entry yet again with some serious critical love. If that can work for Amy, that MUST work for Hertzfeldt’s overdue Oscar.

WINNER: Bear Story – Prediction: 10/15

All three short categories wrong and this one may actually make me cri mane.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

  • Carter Burwell – Carol
  • Johann Johannsson – Sicario
  • Ennio Morricone – The Hateful Eight
  • Thomas Newman – Bridge of Spies
  • John Williams – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

This is the first Star Wars score nobody really loves, Oscar clearly feels more obligated to give Carol nominations than committed to letting it win, Newman winning will be just silly. Between Johannsson and Morricone (both easily the best in this slate), we know there’s nothing like a good ol’ Morricone Western score and it’s about damn time the Academy caught up to it.

WINNER: Ennio Morricone – Prediction Tally: 11/16

The Legend earned it. No playoff music for him either.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG

  • “Earned It” from Fifty Shades of Grey
  • “Manta Ray” from Racing Extinction
  • “Simple Song #3” from Youth
  • “‘Til It Happens to You” from The Hunting Ground
  • “Writing’s on the Wall” from Spectre

It is extremely telling when two of the nominees are cut off from the broadcast in performing (unfortunately the Asian performer – the only nominee here that’s actually good imo – and the transgender performer, which makes the Oscars look hella worse in my eyes than they already did from #OscarsSoWhite). In favor of Dave Grohl. I mean, much love to Dave Grohl but… seriously Academy?

In any case, Fifty Shades of Grey has enough baggage to avoid any Oscar win leaving just “Writing” and “Happens”. Lady Gaga is super popular enough with the addition of having regular nominee Diane Warren as a co-writer and, while some people may disagree with me that “Simple Song #3” is the only one worth a damn, anybody with ears can tell that “Writing’s on the Wall” is one of the worst things to happen to music and movies in a long time and it’s clearly just cashed-in on Sony’s dime. Sorry, buddy, it’s an honor to be nominated.

WINNER: “Writing’s on the Wall” – Prediction Tally: 11/17

The Academy doesn’t have ears, only fucking pockets. That was a godawful song and it’s made all the worst in my mind because of Lady Gaga’s powerful performance during the show. Fucking bullshit.

BEST SOUND EDITING

  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • The Martian
  • The Revenant
  • Sicario
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I don’t fucking know. Mad Max is the loudest of the bunch so it wins!

WINNER: Mad Max: Fury Road – Prediction Tally: 12/18

Lucky guess.

BEST SOUND MIXING

  • Bridges of Spies
  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • The Martian
  • The Revenant
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I. DO NOT. FUCKING. KNOW. Mad Max is once again the loudest, plus Doof Warrior is the most memorable thing about it. When in doubt, go with the “most”. In any case, the sounds are only going with the only two Best Picture nominees that have a shot at the title: Max and Revenant and I see Max getting it more.

WINNER: Mad Max: Fury Road – Prediction Tally: 13/18

Lucky guess.

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

  • Jack Fisk – The Revenant
  • Colin Gibson – Mad Max: Fury Road
  • Arthur Max – The Martian
  • Eve Stewart – The Danish Girl
  • Adam Stockhausen – Bridge of Spies

Once again, going with the “most” principle. Any movie is going to win except Max and Martian (though I think Bridge has some kind of chance and wouldn’t be bothered by its win). What, the movie with trees will get it?

WINNER: Colin Gibson – Prediction Tally: 14/19

Hell yeah, witness that witness!

BEST MAKEUP AND HAIR

  • The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared
  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • The Revenant

Because I only want Mad Max to get everything because hell with The Revenant, but it’s foolish to pretend it won’t at least get some kind of push in technical awards.

WINNER: Mad Max: Fury Road – Prediction Tally: 14/20

Aw yissss!!! I love being wrong

BEST COSTUME DESIGN

  • Jenny Beavan – Mad Max: Fury Road
  • Paco Delgado – The Danish Girl
  • Sandy Powell – Carol
  • Sandy Powell – Cinderella
  • Jacqueline West – The Revenant

“Most” principle again… Max‘s shot at Production Design promises that the crazy costumes will catch voter eyes as well. Danish Girl and Cinderella seem to have a shot as well, but… I dunno, Cinderella‘s nomination alone is just silly in my eyes.

WINNER: Jenny Beavan – Prediction Tally: 15/21

My friend Erickh from A Night at the Opera said everybody who’s winning for Mad Max: Fury Road looks like a character from Mad Max: Fury Road. Jenny Beavan walked up the stage wearing a leather jacket that had the War Boys insignia in sequins behind it and a scarf. So I guess, yeah.

But I don’t even care! I love that it’s mostly women winning for the movie too!

BEST FILM EDITING

  • MaryAnn Brandon and Mary Jo Markey – Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  • Hank Corwin – The Big Short
  • Tom McArdle – Spotlight
  • Stephen Mirrione – The Revenant
  • Margaret Sixel – Mad Max: Fury Road

Everything about me wants to claim Mad Max will win it, logic dictates The Revenant will win it, but if I’m going to stick to my influenced by hearsay guns, I can’t pretend The Big Short will lose this if it gets Best Picture. Especially considering all its super-show-off editing styles going about “lol we saw The Wolf of Wall Street“.

WINNER: Margaret Sixel – Prediction Tally: 15/22

I really love being wrong! Especially since George Miller’s wife winning the Oscar means that now they’ll still have one in their household. WHOOOOOOOTTTTTT!!!! WITNESS!!!!

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

  • Ex Machina
  • Mad Max: Fury Road
  • The Martian
  • The Revenant
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Let’s be for real, it’s got to go to one of the Best Picture nominees. Ex Machina being nominated is sheer luck and Star Wars is disappearing from memory quickly – namely the first CGI character performed by Andy Serkis that didn’t feel like a character at all. I don’t know, maybe Star Wars can win, but the nominees themselves are all pretty effects-heavy themselves. The Revenant‘s bear is unconvincing at points and the only real effects moment, but if it wins this award, it’s certain to win Picture. The Martian lost all its goodwill. And I’m sure they’ll want to give Miller’s ambition some recognition short of giving him the Director award so I’m hoping for Fury Road which would not make me sad at all.

Really the whole slate is good (though not as great as cinematography and Actress). I’m just throwing a fucking dart here. It’s 4 am here. I have nothing more to say. Why do you think I’m not even putting in pictures?

WINNER: Ex Machina

OH MAN! Biggest surprise of the night and well deserved! I would have never expected Ex Machina to go home with any of the Oscars, but for it to go to the one that most intelligently and restrainedly applies its VFX to the story and not vice-verse…. that’s some real thoughtful voting for once.

Hell with it, the ceremony is going to be really shocking no matter what. I’m always going to be surprised with this, so let’s make it happen. See you there.

FINAL PREDICTION TALLY: 15/23

I really went off the mark with this one, but that’s fine. Most of the unexpected ones are pleasant surprises. It was actually a hell of ride from the win to Ex Machina to Stacy Dash’s appearance confounding me (I…. ugh…) to Louis CK jokingly calling Mad Max: Fury Road winner of Best Documentary Short.

Yep… this was a damn weird show and I was glad I caught it.

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You Are Tearing Me Apart, Lenny

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Every year, there is a movie that gets released where I simply don’t get it. I simply don’t get the amount of praise it gets away with. It’s never that the movie is out-and-0ut bad, but that the movie doesn’t live up to the overhype of its prestige to me and it USUALLY gets a Best Picture nomination. And it’s usually the darling of a film festival.

Last year, it was the functional Sundance thriller Whiplash took up to be a heavy psychological piece when its leads were too surface to give any internal commentary on their characters.

The year before it was the reductive Toronto Oscarbait Dallas Buyers Club and the sleepily subdued Cannes Best Actor winner Nebraska.

The year before that, it was the Palme d’Or winning misery of Amour, lifted solely on the power of its lead performances rather than Haneke’s direction or script.

And this year, it is the Telluride horse in this year’s Oscar race distributed by the much-beloved indie company A24 and starring the latest female indie star darling to replace Jennifer Lawrence, Brie Larson. It is the Canadian-Irish-British film Room by Lenny Abrahamson. And it’s reputation well preceded by actually watching it, such being an illustration of how behind I am.

And my word, for such a bleak scenario as a woman who is imprisoned with her son (a child of rape), I was uncompelled. And this is only in recognizing the common consensus that Room‘s first half is indeed stronger than the second half. But of course stating how and why would require SPOILERS, so yeah, there’s that warning. If you haven’t seen Room, it is a much beloved Best Picture contender so the odds are you will love it and I don’t want to be the one who spoils it for you. Please go and watch it.

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Like, I stated Room is from the perspective of a young boy, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who has spent all of his life behind the four walls of a single room as a companion to her fatigued and high-strung Ma (Brie Larson). It is almost immediately clear to us that Ma and Jack are the prisoners of a man named Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), who kidnapped many years earlier when she was a teenager and visits constantly to rape Ma. It is a very grim situation – added on by the fact that we can figure out of course that Old Nick is Jack’s father and by the fact that Jack has obviously never seen life outside of these walls at all. So why am I not really moved?

It’s not the fault of Brie Larson, who is probably one of the most intelligent young actors we have in the industry that is able to give her characters a shocking amount of psychological agency even while enduring everything that even Room didn’t underwhelm me overall, she would still be the flat-out best thing about it. Ma is put in a delicate situation of having to keep up with her child’s exuberant attitude, even in spite of her awareness of how awful her life is right now and instead of hamming it up like Roberto Benigni in Life Is Beautiful, she attempts to mask her trauma without being less than genuine (even if at moments it is clear Ma as a character is not entirely sincere) and is given several cracks by Emma Donaghue’s script (adapting her own novel) to let out her sneak out a few hints that she’s not ok that are missed by the guileless Jack. This isn’t the first time she’s had to portray this sort of layered thick skin before – Short Term 12 is a more complex performance out of her demanding the same things in a more reserved manner, but when Larson wins the Oscar this year, even when I root for another, I’ll be cheering her on. I mean… even if Lawrence wins the Oscar, I’ll be happy. Dat’s a strong Best Actress slate, y’all.

Jack is not at all the problem either. Jacob Tremblay in the first half of Room is an incredibly charismatic young actor whose fancifulness for the prison he lives in gives the production more of a personality than director Lenny Abrahamson could hope to (though he tries by having cinematographer Danny Cohen get in cramped yet unorthodox angles to give the prison they call Room have some semblance of involvement). And that’s not even counting the bridge between first and second half where Room has to double as a ticking-clock thriller and as singular character drama because…

OK, seriously if you did not heed my warning before, this is your final point of return for Spoilers.

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Because Jack escapes Room and has to realize just how much bigger the world is beyond his early life. And the sequence in itself is heart-pounding and exhilarating. It’s exactly the sort of shock to the system you’re expecting Jack to go through as our audience surrogate, so it’s his shining moment as an actor as he decides when to make his move.

When that does happen is when the movie regrettably falls apart and all that Larson and Tremblay still hold onto their characters for dear life don’t make up for how Abrahamson, Donaghue, and the rest of the cast and crew simply don’t know what to do with the movie once it moves beyond Room. The mission statement of the movie is clear from this point on – parallel how Ma and Jack now adjust around Ma’s home and family. Namely in the manner that Ma has baggage with the family, while Jack has an apprehension to the world.

And the film is fine with just letting Larson and Tremblay do every bit of heavy lifting in regards to that. Neither Abrahamson or Donaghue seem to have much material to pry out of the very obvious PTSD scenario, letting things sit for long enough that give away that the two of them are just barely trying to figure out the way to go with the presence of Ma’s mother (Joan Allen) and father (William H. Macy), which only leads to letting us examine Ma’s trauma from the greatest distance possible since suddenly her parents’ feelings are now in the mix. Macy in particular is grievously underused. Had his character simply been a something of a cameo, I’d be able to forgive it, but we’re given very explicit cues to the fact that he’s an alcoholic AND that certain elements of Ma’s situation – namely the presence of a child who is so clearly the product of someone taking advantage of his daughter that he can’t stand seeing Jack and…

… and it goes nowhere. It just disappears. Like the movie wasn’t satisfied with having some guide as to where to go with their characters. It eventually takes hold of Jack when Ma has her own scene blowing up at her mother basically telling us that the movie refuses to dig into the damage of Ma’s previous life and Tremblay does enough to try to keep the movie moving when it lets him on the reins. As schmaltzy as the manner of Jack’s growth of a character is (one involving his association with his first dog), it’s one of the only times the second half of Room can go steady. And yet Room still insists there is more movie to follow on Ma and Jack but does so in the most embarrassingly contrived manner that speed with which it wraps itself up and decides that it’s all done here after it makes a certain decision with Ma’s character is very telling to me.

Maybe it was the overhype. Maybe I came into Room expecting a different movie. Maybe I’m just perplexed. Because there is a lot of good movie in the first half of Room, very moving material, but the fact that it’s fallen apart at the tail end of itself left a bad taste in my mouth, especially with the gravity of its material or the fact that it is one of only two Women’s Pictures nominated for Best Picture this year (how I weep over Carol‘s snub).

Still I can’t say I don’t recommend it. I can’t say Larson doesn’t deserve that gold she’s gonna get. I especially can’t even say Tremblay wasn’t snubbed – he’s head and shoulders above the Best Actor nominees except for maybe Fassbender and don’t give me that Oscar fraud neither. But if I am left stewing over how lazy and unable to stir me Room‘s second half is as a drama, I hope I would not be held harshly to it.

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Shine a Light

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Spotlight was a movie I was relatively late to the party on. Not that I was completely late to it, but by the time it was even on my radar, it was the most locked Best Picture nominee.

And upon reading the synopsis for the film, explaining itself as retelling the 2001 story of the titular investigative team for the Boston Globe as it digs into a story of conspiracy within the Catholic Church to cover up the sexual abuse of minors as perpetrated by several priests within the Church. If that sort of historical biopic backdrop for social issues heavily moral doesn’t sound like Oscarbait, you don’t know Oscarbait.

And upon seeing it’s directed by Thomas McCarthy, I had a lump in my throat, for my very first exposure to his work was earlier in the year with the appalling Adam Sandler dramedy mess The Cobbler. A reprehensible enough movie to make me wary to see anything else done by anybody involved with that film in the slightest – as a Wu-Tang Clan fan, I’m not even sure I want to listen to Method Man anymore. So, since THAT had to be my first Tom McCarthy picture, I was afraid that Spotlight would be similarly incompetent with the worst possible material to screw up.

Now, on the one hand, Spotlight indeed turned out to be the Oscarbait we were expecting. But, it is phenomenally well-crafted Oscarbait, sophisticated enough that I don’t hesitate in calling it my second favorite of the Best Picture nominees, even if Mad Max: Fury Road is the only one that I think belongs there. Much of the praise on the film is rightly given to how McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer dedicate their focus on the painstaking meticulous manner of digging through as many sources and asking as many questions as possible to slowly bring together a full picture on how far and deep does this conspiracy run, with editor Tom McArdle being the film’s biggest weapon taking time to show how messy the pile of information that the Spotlight team has to work with is before letting them making their tedious cracking at it run right on without any slowdowns nor making it seem like this work was easy.

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The other main source of praise, the one that actively has my head scratching, is where I’ve seen people claim Spotlight is entirely unbiased to the events the team is reporting. Which isn’t true at all. Spotlight could have been an objective recollection of the events (though, without going into the morality, I don’t think it’s possible to be objective about child rape), but it’s not, for the other shocking strength of Spotlight is how it achieves being an ensemble character study.

Well, ideally, the CHARACTER central to this is Spotlight, but that Spotlight team is made up of head Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James). All of whom are humans whose reactions we have to witness as they’re digging up more and more information, most of whom are lapsed Catholics themselves who now have to witness the Church in a different light. It doesn’t override the movie’s intentions to be a story about how the system of journalism works, but it’s there and it’s sneakily snuck into the places where we think the investigation is at the front-and-center of the movie, only to see McArdle cut many times to the faces listening to the victims rather than the faces talking to them (Spotlight is not at all dismissive of the victims either, the moments where we listen to their accounts are sobering without manipulating the audience the gravitas of the recollections). There are few visual noted visual flourishes, for Spotlight is a very muted film (my first reaction was almost to add on to the “this would be a better film as a documentary” brigade only to figure that to miss the point), but its most obvious one is how it portrays that act of listening as taking its mental and emotional toll on each of the characters as they realize what grim reality this paints and what repercussions their story will have.

Spotlight is of course not the only one affected by this – new editor-in-chief Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who is trying to get a good feel for this new position of his, and section editor Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Slattery) begin at ends in regards to this story (Baron being the one who prods Spotlight into taking it and taking brunt for it as well as being an outsider), while Rezendes constantly compels exhausted attorney Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) to pull out a lot of old skeletons out of the legal closet to help Spotlight get decisive information on the case while attorney Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup) regrettably maintains his representation for the church.

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The machinations of the journalistic and legal process becomes a smokescreen for a picture of all the people affected by this case from the outside and later, a portrait of Boston as a city with this as a dark shadow behind it (there is at least one shot to my memory of a church overlooking our characters, though I can’t say I buy that as the movie not dipping its hand). And this wouldn’t work half as much if the cast were not as successful as they were in making characters whose sole function is to move us closer and closer to unveiling the truth we already know, with Tucci being the standout best. Ruffalo is the only one who actually gets caught acting. Like, really caught acting. He is the movie’s biggest weakness as he stares as goes out of his way to broadcast ticks of Rezendes and overshoots his Big Acting Moment in the movie (everybody gets one). That he’s the one actor with an Oscar nomination for this film makes me slightly bitter, but he’s outnumbered by so many restrained performances under McCarthy that turn humanity into drama instantly assuages that bemusement of mine.

It’s not All the President’s Men and it’s not going to be. Nor is Spotlight trying to be, since All the President’s Men asphyxiates itself on tension and paranoia while Spotlight is not much more than a well-crafted social piece by a director who knows where his strengths are. It doesn’t break the mold of journalism pictures and I wouldn’t make it a Best Picture nominee and yes, it is at times semi-anonymous for those reasons, but it’s satisfying and intelligent and that’s all it needed to be to go and redeem the name of a director I was barely familiar with.

On the nicest note to possibly end on, I have since seen all the other Thomas McCarthy films – The Station AgentThe Visitor, and Win Win – and can safely say McCarthy is a really good director. A very strong director of character and acting, in case Spotlight didn’t already display that. Maybe I can pull a retrospective soon…

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Salim’s Favorite Movies of 2015

I dun goofed and been taking forever with making any video about film in 2015 while exhausting between all the stuff on my plate and waiting for more 2015 releases to slowcrawl to Miami and IT IS HALFWAY THROUGH FEBRUARY ALREADY. I might eventually be able to make a video for it by the end of March talking about all the films that were even CONSIDERED for this most arbitrary and harrowing of lists and have some friends join me in my gushing. In the meantime, I gotta bite the bullet and make my top ten already.

So, in a nutshell: 2015 was… not as great a year as 2014. For one, we didn’t receive any films nearly as transformative as Goodbye to Language. It was largely a year of movie events – the new Star Wars, the new Jurassic Park, the new Avengers, all just big budget box office breaking crowdpleasers and sleepy disasters like Fantastic Four and Seventh Son (and, though I’ll defend them in a knife fight, Jupiter Ascending and Blackhat). It was a commercial year (and 2016 itself promises to be even more commercial).

And yet, there turned out to be a virtue in my patience nonetheless, as the later months of the year turned out to reveal a backload of some really enjoyable works within the moments in the theaters. Nothing revelatory in the end, a lot of it just classicism adopted from olden playbooks that proved successful (some more obvious than others), but my what impressive brilliance. Especially a lot of genre play between romances, horror, and science fiction in my eyes.

In the end, it means the year wasn’t a total wash and I also take great relish in the fact that 4 of my top 5 have Oscar nominations (nominations that all but one are certain to lose, but still).

The eligibility for this list is obviously based on Oscar eligibility in the strictest sense (meaning even foreign films and documentaries follow along) in being released in America in limited or wide release between 1 January 2015 to 31 December 2015.

Before I begin, I want to make a couple of acknowledgements:

Movies I Couldn’t See in Time:

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I’m still not an entirely patient person and so I regret to state that I missed out on Son of Saul and The Tribe. The former is still playing in Miami, so if I see it sometime in March and find out it was worthy of my top ten I will be very disappointed in myself. The latter is more alarming since I discovered it was playing at Cannes 2014 while I was there and yet I didn’t even know about its existence. Now it’s flooring critics and I slept on it. Serves me right for wanting to see How to Train Your Dragon 2 and The Rover when they were just months away from coming to America.

Eden only got one showing in Miami. Not even one theater playing it for a few days, ONE. SHOWING. Do you believe that? So of course I missed it, because sometimes distributors won’t let you catch a good thing.

Apologies to both The Duke of Burgundy and Queen of Earth on my Netflix queue as I ran out of time. My allergy of Noah Baumbach has kept me from exploring Mistress America. My allergy of Marlon Brando has kept me from checking out Listen to Me Marlon.

In addition, my general allergy for young adults movies has kept me from actually sitting down to check out DopeGirlhood, and The Diary of an Teenage Girl and I’m just sorry I feel that way. Especially since Dope‘s usage of a Kendrick Lamar song – if I didn’t shut up about Mad Max, I’m still not shutting up about Kendrick – still couldn’t attract me to it enough. I tried for Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and I simply walked away when it started feeling like The Fault in Our Stars by way of Stan Brakhage. Maybe I’m just becoming a crotchety ol’ man with them damn kids. But if I am, shit, I’m only 23, what’s wrong with me?

Finally so many people whose opinions I trust have recommended Victoria to me that I can’t not be sorry I missed it, even if I keep forgetting it exists.

Movie I’m Going to Remove from this List Simply Because I Already Put It in Last Year’s List Pre-Emptively:

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I dun goofed again, y’all. You know I’ve talked up Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu to be a painfully gorgeous work of social commentary in a city smothered by religion to its dying breaths, only to discover it technically did not come to America until 2015. Still I accidentally put it in my Top 10 of 2014, like an idiot, but now I can make things right. It would be unfair to list it this year (and rest assured, it would be Top Ten for me AGAIN) when I qualified for the wrong year already. So screw it, I’m going to just go ahead and leave it out of the discussion, only nudging to its brilliance and telling y’all to go see it if you haven’t (and yell at The Academy for giving Ida the Oscar instead of… ok, Ida was fantastic, but it’s no Timbuktu).

Full Review of Timbuktu

Movies I Slept on Listing in 2014 Because I am a Goof:

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I can’t say if I’d truly have put Maps to the StarsSong of the Seaor Over the Garden Wall in my top ten of 2014, but they would have certainly been in my mind while putting it together. Maps to the Stars was a movie I was under the impression was going to come to America in 2015 and then SURPRISE! LIMITED RELEASE 2014. Besides which I wasn’t really certain that I loved it when I saw it in Cannes, I needed the time to warm up to it like I did Cosmopolis. So the gap is entirely in its favor between my first viewing and my last.

Full Review for Maps to the Stars

As for Song of the Sea, it simply didn’t come to Miami until the Oscars ended. By then, I barely caught it before it left. Shame on me, because it was a visual (and musical) beaut, based in calming blues and round soft shapes moving all around the eye in a delight. After watching it, my sister wouldn’t stop hounding me until I was able to get her to see it too. GKIDS is the real MVP.

As for Over the Garden Wall, OK, I’m not normally a fan of Cartoon Network so I avoided the gloriously Halloween-esque treat. So this is what I get for not being a fan of Cartoon Network. Likewise, I’m going to suffer this by having to go through Gravity Falls only AFTER it ended, because I’m a prejudiced man.

And now without further ado…

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10. 45 Years (dir. Andrew Haigh, UK/USA)

The fact that Haigh is disciplined enough not to take attention away from his two leads externally struggling with the resurfacing of old ghosts and internally with their old age and what it means to their marriage is not a show of weakness in his direction and storytelling at all. Indeed, what he does is provide a lived-in four-walled stage for Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay to turn the scenario into more and more of a crisis because of the simple mistake of not seeing certain things the same way. It’s human in a most agonizing way and able to take advantage of that in such a short runtime.

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9. Black Coal, Thin Ice (dir. Diao YinanChina)

It is a film noir. I am in the bag for film noirs with little exception. But of course, it is also in its greatest favor that it’s shot in such a wide variety of color choices while stick hearkening to the old-fashioned shadowplay that the genre is known for. In the meantime, it’s your old-fashioned detective murder yarn with not much room for complexity. But did I not just say I am totally in the bag for that genre and don’t care if it tries to be anything more than it is?

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8. Taxi (dir. Jafar Panahi, Iran)

Jafar Panahi is a miracle of defiant cinema, the fact that the guy keeps rolling in spite of his sentence illustrates how impossible it is to silence artistic voices. That doesn’t automatically make any of his films masterworks – Closed Curtain wasn’t anything I could really enjoy, and truth be told, even Taxi is no This Is Not a Film. And yet every bit of it – from the limitations of the DSLRs mounted around the car to Panahi integrating himself as a character and conversing with all the amateur actors that pass off their  – just bursts of humanity that results in making this little cramped production feel so much looser and freer than it has any right to be.

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7. Carol (dir. Todd Haynes, UK/USA)

The aesthetic is Douglar Sirkian on a design level, but Haynes and company do something really sneaky with this romantic drama and completely temper the colors down until its just a blotty sort of dark. I’ll be damned if that’s an accident, because as a result, the movie feels at once more stately towards its tragic central romance and yields itself entirely to how well Rooney Mara and Cate Blanchett’s not-even-close-to-similar performance styles give the film a true richness in various personalities interacting with each other (especially aided by a phenomenal cast that simply gets overshadowed by these two women). Here’s the rub: it’s not something brand new. In fact, the movie really reminds of Brokeback Mountain in many ways (not simply because they both focus on homosexual relationships), and even THAT wasn’t anything new. But, like Brokeback Mountain, it is perfect and if it comes off as chilly to anyone, it’s not a flaw on the movie’s part as far as I am concerned.

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6. The Assassin (dir. Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Taiwan/China/Hong Kong)

It seems inevitable that every worthwhile China-based filmmaker make a wuxia picture, but what I feel we have here is anti-wuxia picture. Instead of the broad emotional strokes of love and life, desire and duty, that the genre usually tries to put its protagonists through, we have something that demands we have to piece together what our heroine is going through, even when she’s entirely sure of it herself. And what results is not just an extremely engaging piece of character study, but a meditation on what makes and breaks someone’s identity. It’s a complicated film that takes its time to piece itself together as a whole story and Hou’s decision to make what should have been a mainstream affair into a much more-rewarding two hours.

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5. World of Tomorrow (dir. Don Hertzfeldt, USA)

Full Review

Does Hertzfeldt lose some of his characteristic messiness in finally making the shift to digital animation? Of course. But the trade-off is perfect for a film dedicated to portraying a loss in human connection with anyone and everything in the fruitless quest to evolve and be better. Besides which it’s not all depressing when we have such an adorable leading performance in Winona Mae’s voice or such dazzling use of shapes and colors to make such paradoxically alienating eye candy.

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4. Arabian Nights (dir. Miguel Gomes, Portugal)

If you ever want the rug pulled right the hell out of from under you, Miguel Gomes is just the guy to do it. He did it with Tabu and he does it again with this three-part brilliance. At heart, Arabian Nights is about an artist (ostensibly Gomes) trapped like Scheherazade in between the stories he must tell and the stories he wants to tell. It turns to structuring itself messily and excitedly into collages of tales that methodically adopt novel fableism to pointedly comment on the political atmosphere of Portugal at the time and sneaks in real people commenting on their own living circumstances, without ever ruining any of the energy that makes such an ambitiously imbalanced project leave me feeling so much more learned about a country I’ve never once set foot in and a gigantic grin on my face at how the storyteller is never satisfied with just one angle of a segment, so “we must switch it around to another” or “hey, I don’t think this is proper way to tell this story, why don’t we try this method?” all right in the thick of things.

Y’know what? I guess we do have at least one transformative film in 2015. Shit, I can’t believe I was that dumb to think all was lost and I’m not even on number one yet.

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3. Boy and the World (dir. Ale Abreau, Brazil)

If there is one thing I really have to steel myself for, it’s the certainty that Boy and the World is going to lose the Best Animated Feature Oscar (even if the movie it loses to is on my honorable mentions coming up). At least I can tell that my number one is not the type of movie people will feel good about voting for, but Boy and the World has no reason not to be more popular with audiences than it is. It is a glorious kaleidoscope of colors with only the wonderfully vibrant score to split into the visuals rather than any intelligible dialogue and yet it knows when to tone things down into immense simplicity for the more sobering elements of the film’s attempts to show its target audience of children that the world is a totally destructive and scary place but it can also still be a beautiful one, while telling adults that children do have an idea of the grim truth of the world but that doesn’t mean they must relinquish their optimism by any means.

Seriously, if there is a single film I’d say you need to walk away from this post and go watch as soon as you can, it is this one.

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2. Mad Max: Fury Road (dir. George Miller, Australia/USA)

Because I’m super basic and you all know how much I love the film. I’ve seen it six times by now (the latest being in an astonishing 35mm screening I had to see to believe thanks to the Secret Celluloid Society – and I wonder if it’s because Juan Barquin and I wouldn’t shut up about the movie at the time) and it hasn’t been hurt in the slightest by seeing it so many times in such a small span of time. I’m just thrilled by it, no matter what. I cannot say any more about this film that I haven’t already said. What do you want? Something something speed! Something something adrenaline! Something something totally sensory in spite of a limited palette of colors and a sparseness in landscape! It doesn’t matter – George Miller’s ambition does not care. It’s high-octane visionary cinema in all the ways we forget movies aren’t made anymore like this.

And before I get to my final number one pick…

Honorable Mentions:

All of these are movies that at one point or another entered my mind after watching them as possibly being part of my Top Ten. Some were closer than others, others were shaken quickly out of mind, but if all these movies had arms, I’d tell them to pat themselves on the back and recommend them to anybody.

And now my number one film of 2015…

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1. The Look of Silence (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer, Denmark)

Full Review

Sure, it is not as singular as a picture ought to be with its companion The Act of Killing sticking around behind it. And it may be largely because of my attachment to the former picture that I am so willing to hold its equal to higher esteem. But I think it’s because the knowledge of what occurred in Indonesia by the end of The Act of Killing informs the slow boil in The Look of Silence and how the perspective has shifted upon a victim now, bringing us a documentary about his personal confrontation with his brother’s murderers. The Look of Silence becomes an astonishingly meditative yet shaking picture of frustrated patience in that context, and only brings more urgency to the visible damage that people refuse to answer for. Only to be all the more heartbreaking when the man we follow the entire movie is just resigned to never being able to receive any honest answers about why he’ll never meet his closest relative.

And with that, save for the Motors coming up and hopefully time to make a video encompassing all these films I’ve named, it’s a wrap on 2015. Let’s get a movie on, Salim.

Seriously.

My Short is Bigger than Yours

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The best possible thing about Adam McKay’s Oscar-nominated PGA-winning biography of the 2007-08 financial meltdown The Big Short, based on the book by financial journalist Michael Lewis, is what mostly all of its supporters say about it: it really does make a complicated and imperative subject accessible and understandable in every way. This is coming from someone for whom Macroeconomics was out-and-out his worst subject in high school (and I had the best possible teacher for that subject, my hand to God). The movie’s documentation of the complex and messy fact of what the fuck happened in when the streak of fraudulent mortgages led to an economic bubble that destroyed the US economy and, in turn, the world economy dedicates most of its energy to allowing the audience to follow along with what our “heroes” are finding and how it leads them to this devastating conclusion. I could very easily see it used in a high school economics class, while I don’t suddenly consider myself any more knowledgeable on the subject than I was before, it really guided me along in the moment of the film itself.

I’m not going to say the worst thing about The Big Short is how it works as a movie, for it’s not anywhere near a bad film. But its aesthetical choices, painting it as just another Wolf of Wall Street with all its wildin’ whiz-bang and gags providing unnecessary irreverence to a topic that demands our taking seriously, do not aid it the way that its purpose as a film does.

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In any case, what that purpose is is to spread across the story of three different parties (technically four, but two of them work together) who made note of the upcoming economic collapse and in turn moved to cash in on it – first in 2005, Michael Burry (Christian Bale) discovers the majority of loans that the housing market is founded upon have alarmingly little chance of being paid back as they are subprime and creates a credit default swap market so he can start betting against the housing market.

His actions catch the attention of Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), a bond salesman, who immediately catches up on what’s going to happen and begins shorting the housing market as well, despite going against his own employer Deutsche Bank in the process. Vennett inadvertently catches the attention of a hedge fund manager Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) and of up-and-coming hedge fund partners Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock). Geller and Shipley bring in Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt) to help them trade in the Mortgage Securities Forum, while Baum reluctantly teams up with Vennett.

Baum and Rickert are complete pessimists in the action they are involved in, Baum especially makes up the moral spine of the story when he’s the one who actively investigates why the market is at the state it is in before profiting off of the mess that comes of it. And yet, the main problem with the movie’s style is that it’s way too excited about what’s going on, especially since the majority of the movie is narrated by Vennett, who spits it all out in his own pseudo-Belfort slickness and with a trivialising attitude towards everything that’s going on. And the likewise levity the movie chooses to adopt – namely in Hank Corwin’s Oscar-nominated editing (ugh!) – drowns out all of the doom that Baum and Rickert are desperately trying to communicate to the world. Even in the manner of its explaining the minutiae of the discussions, McKay chooses to adopt specifically flashy asides featuring celebrities such as Margot Robbie, Anthony Bourdain, and Selena Gomez lecturing the audience briefly before returning to the matter at hand.

What of course is most unfortunate is that the movie probably wouldn’t succeed at being so informative if it wasn’t so shallow like this, as it assumes the audience would not be interested with Margot Robbie being in a bubble bath drinking champagne while informing us on subprime loans. And yet it’s a double-edged sword, as it’s just an attempt to make everything these guys do to fuck over the little guy seem so cool. At least when The Wolf of Wall Street took on its facile attitude it was to reflect the protagonist’s amorality.

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Speaking of The Wolf of Wall Street, another thing The Big Short adopts from that film is simply an inconsistent editing style. There’s no real rhythm behind its choice of fourth wall breaks (Vennett passes in and then suddenly another character gets to talk to the audience as well because we clearly need a guide, before losing that privilege suddenly)nor is there one in the moments where it decides to amp up its comedic elements. It would also probably help if you’re simply not a fan of Adam McKay’s earlier comedy ventures – Step Brothers and other Will Ferrell comedies – which, lo and behold, I ain’t that guy who likes those movies. Humor is super subjective, I came for what the movie had to say, and instead it goes “lol look at that gator in the pool” when we’re meant to be dismayed at another family being forced out of their home. Maybe I’m just chastising the movie’s attitudes like Rickert kills the joy out of Geller and Shipley when it’s clear they are profiting off of the suffering of others.

The acting’s not terrible – Gosling is disappointingly inert, but Carrell is the total opposite of his previous big drama performance in FoxcatcherHe’s human and broken and conflicted in a believable manner that it’s hard to argue he is not the closest thing we have to a “hero” while still retaining a straight man comic timing. Magaro and Wittrock don’t have half of Carrell’s comic timing, but they do have that dynamic follow-up on their characters’ rise to the top only to find how horrifying the view still is from the top. Pitt controls every scene he appears in by bringing the mood very much down low. The one big anomaly I have a problem with is Christian Bale and that’s not only that his character’s contribution to the story essentially ends at Act 1 and returning to him just feels unnecessary, but because it’s exactly like Carrell’s performance in Foxcatcher. It’s totally a bunch of notes, it’s an actor getting caught acting, it doesn’t feel like Bale is at all lost in the character. The fact that it was expendable to the film just makes me more disappointed in it. The fact that it’s the one performance out of this ensemble to get an Oscar nomination leaves me bemused.

Yet a lot of The Big Short leaves me bemused. Some deliberate in the content, much unfortunate in the presentation of that content. It’s not a bad movie, I don’t think. Truth be told, for the first time in years, I think none of these Best Picture nominees are “bad” (though, lawdy, The Revenant gets closest out of them all), but The Big Short is made in sure an amateurish manner that it’s recognition for anything except telling the American public what truly happened to their money in a coherent manner is frustrating. But maybe it’s just that the value in its message is enough to give it that sort of spotlight.

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Someone Get Me Off This Ride

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There’s something undeniably strange about Ride Along 2, the latest Ice Cube/Kevin Hart buddy cop vehicle directed by Tim Story, who also helmed the first movie. And I don’t just mean the fact that I knew literally nothing about its existence until it shockingly dethroned Star Wars: The Force Awakens from its number one weekend spot. Even when it happens to have been shot in the city I currently reside in, Miami, a fact which would also perplex me as we already have a Miami-based buddy cop franchise in the form of the Bad Boys franchise (but hey, I don’t think anybody wants Michael Bay representing their city). Nor is it the amount of backtracking the movie goes through simply to justify its existence, largely undoing most of the “growth” of the previous movie simply to start back at square one with its characters.

No, what very much throws me off most about Ride Along 2, more than all these things, is how underneath so much of it is a movie that acts like it desperately wants to be considered an intelligent parody of buddy cop pictures without actually putting in any of the intellectual hardwork that earns it consideration as one. Maybe I’m just overthinking the decisions Story made or maybe he actually looked back on Ride Along and thought “you know what? I’m saying absolutely nothing new.” But from the end of the very first scene where we are introduced to Benjamin Bratt’s smug Miami philanthropist villain Antonio Pope and pulls a murder based on the same kind you see in those 80’s Miami crime pictures (in fact, it’s especially when Bratt is on-screen that I got this vibe), I got the underlying sense of a self-awareness out of Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi’s script to most of the paint-by-numbers plot developments and a fruitless attempt to make moments outrageous based on . But I think that may just be wishful thinking on my part, because very little of the rest of the movie actually qualifies as a consistent or coherent movie, especially compared to its disappointing but at least functioning predecessor.

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For one, Ride Along 2 takes a long while before it gets moving with green-eared Ben (Hart) and his soon-to-be brother-in-law loose cannon detective James (Cube) investigating a Miami-based drug ring that found its way into Atlanta PD jurisdiction. Because first it goes out of its way to have Ben return on James’ shitlist when his ridiculous hijinks leads to James’ partner Mayfield (Tyrese Gibson in a role that seems like way too little screentime for him, coming from a guy who doesn’t even like Gibson) getting shot, a moment that leads to Ben’s suspension. James is assigned to Miami to trail the dealer the three of them had just busted to his boss, while Ben is stuck at home annoying his fiancee Angela (Tika Sumpter). James suddenly and arbitrarily decides that taking Ben off of his sister’s hands while she plans their wedding will scare him out of wanting to be a detective and so Ben and James are headed to Miami FINALLY. The movie dedicates this retroactive manner of plotting to get our heroes actually involved in the movie when it would be infinitely simpler to just establish the two of them as partners from the get-go. Ice Cube is angry enough to make his scowl natural even when Kevin Hart is doing nothing wrong.

And so that sort of summarizes the script for the entirety of it, Hay and Manfredi as screenwriters dedicating themselves so thoroughly to making the plot complicated, almost to avoid being mistaken as boilerplate buddy cop action-comedy, except that it’s exactly that once you cut through all the bullshit, from the introduction of Olivia Munn as a tough-as-hell Miami detective (she’s simply no match for Cube, though) and the certainty from her very first scene that she will be a romantic interest for James, to the moment under fire that Ben proves to have skills that save the moment (in an ugly animated sequence that feels like if the video game Grand Theft Auto were made by the guys who made the movie Foodfight!), to Pope telling a failed lackey that he won’t kill him before ordering him killed. It’s all the same beats that you’d find in any other movie, but Ride Along 2 shoots itself in the foot by convoluting the moments in between those recognizable cliches and failing to come off as anything less than annoying.

It also probably doesn’t help its case when it gives itself more comedy than the first movie, because now its not just Hart yapping at his bemused co-stars forever and ever but Ken Jeong enters the scene as a hacker-turned-hunted-informant. Jeong, like Hart, can either be passably amusing when he’s in the right sort of role and gets the right sort of material (CommunityThe DUFF) or he can be the fucking worst when he doesn’t. Take a good guess at what the circumstances are here.

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But of course, I guess I should be especially alarmed when the idea behind setting anything in Miami is to make it feel like luxury porn by any means, and Ride Along 2 doesn’t care so much for that, not even the blandest travelogue fashion. The closest Story gets to tapping that shimmering city look to it is a sequence in which the protagonists infiltrate Pope’s mansion and… well, that’s all interiors. The second closest it gets to that is another darkened interior, a club that looks no more distinguishable from any of the clubs in Atlanta. All with either flat or underlighting that is way beyond the usually competent director. The movie can’t even be bothered to make a car chase on Ocean Dr. feel anywhere near hectic or busy as it would be at any point or a party yacht near Miami beach feel anything but cramped with Ken Jeong spending the sequence smiling at a computer. I’m not attached to this city at all, but a movie shot in Miami that doesn’t feel at all like it lives in Miami just feels sad to me. Even with all of Hart’s tacky shirts trying to come off as vibrant.

It’s still not anywhere near as dysfunctional as the Fantastic Four movies, but it’s proof that Tim Story always gets to his worst when he has to make a sequel to his films, even if Ride Along was never as enjoyable as Think Like a Man was. Everything’s just slightly more broken than before, Cube and Hart’s chemistry is getting more worn-out to the point of outright incompatibility, the energy is unsteady and frenetic, it’s just all feeling like this franchise outstayed itself and it’s only a sequel already. But yet that doesn’t assuage the fact that this is a ride that feels like it really went nowhere in the end.

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FILM REVIEW – THE OSCAR NOMINATED LIVE ACTION SHORT FILMS

I’ve never really followed the short film Oscar race. I saw a few shorts here and there, but never really cared enough to see the five nominated shorts compiled together in theaters. When this category is announced during the Oscar telecast I’m usually getting more queso dip in my friend’s kitchen or taking a shit, preferably in a bathroom.

These were five live-action shorts nominated by the Academy out of surely hundreds of submissions, so I was a little disappointed that only two were good. It makes me want to watch more of the 2015 life action submissions. Surely there were better shorts than at least three of these ones, deemed the cream of the crop. This category might be the weakest #OscarsSoWhite has to offer. I will be reviewing the five shorts in the order they were presented to me at the ridiculously overpriced $14 screening. Thanks Camelview, you goshdarn jerks.

 

AVE MARIA

AVE MARIA

Palestine / France / Germany

In Arabic, Hebrew and English w/ English Subtitles

15 minutes

What starts out as a quirky little story about nuns in the middle of a vow of silence trying to communicate with each other, quickly turns anti-semitic when a car full of Jews crash into their convent. Complaining of course, the Jewish family gets out of their car and doesn’t really care that they accidentally decapitated a Virgin Mary statue. A young nun goes out to help them and they complain more, especially the grandma. The adult male Jewish man needs to call a tow truck, but he can’t operate the phone because he’s not allowed to operate electrical equipment for religious reasons. The nun has to dial it for him and we get to listen to him argue about money on the phone, while the grandma breaks Jewish dietary laws by drinking water from a kitchen with a lovely looking prosciutto in it. I guess I just didn’t like the idea of the Palestinian nuns being portrayed as martyrs while the Jewish family was just this loud, destructive force that found a million things to bitch about. Even without this sour anti-semitic slant, the story of two religions trying to put aside their differences to work together is such a bullshit, schmaltzy premise that the old out-of-touch whores of #OscarsSoWhite would eat up like free samples at Costco. The first two minutes of this short are actually pretty funny and the acting is solid enough. Plus, it’s only 15 minutes. Grade: C- ***PREDICTED WINNER***

 

SHOK (FRIEND)

SHOK

UK / Kosovo

In Albanian and Serbian with English subtitles

21 minutes

Predictable but extremely powerful, Jamie Donoughue’s Shok begins with a man coming across a bicycle in the middle of the road which takes him back Citizen Kane-style to his childhood during the Kosovo war in 1998. Two fantastic performances by the lead child actors and dialogue that never seems inauthentic or forced make it all the more tragic the film resolves on such a cliche note. Grade: B 

 

EVERYTHING WILL BE OKAY

EVERYTHING WILL BE OK

Germany / Austria

In German with English subtitles

30 minutes

After two disappointing shorts about really heavy world issues, it was interesting that Germany’s Everything Will Be Okay, about a contained domestic issue, was so much more effective. More than effective, Everything Will Be Okay is just about perfect. The story of a divorced father trying to kidnap his eight-year-old daughter is an absolutely riveting and emotionally draining half hour, imbued with so much honesty and tension it will break you apart, piece by piece. The two lead performances are both outstanding, but it’s young Julia Pointner (pictured above), who steals the film with her disappointed and hurt glares at her father. Sometimes it takes someone as un-jaded as an eight year old to see through all the bullshit of a divorce and resulting custody battle. Grade: A

 

STUTTERER

STUTTERER

UK

In English

12 minutes

Coming off the pure cinematic bliss that was Everything Will Be Okay, I was forced into the festering shit pile that was Stutterer. A Wes Anderson hipster love story stripped of any creative and compelling visual flair, the short follows a young attractive dude with a really extreme stutter. He falls in love over Facebook, but when presented with the opportunity to meet his online sweetheart he fears she’ll be repulsed by his inability to speak properly. The dude coaches himself into meeting her and when he finally does, the film ends one of the most saccharinely sweet, mind-blowingly stupid and sadly predictable notes possible. The only decent thing about the short is the performance of the lead actor, which is actually pretty convincing. It’s a shame he’s working with awful material. My advice for the filmmaker would be to edit the short down to about 90 seconds, and make a really shitty but effective Facebook commercial with it. This guy has a real future in social media commercials. Grade: D- 

 

DAY ONE

DAY ONE SHORT

USA

In English

25 minutes

USA’s entry into the live action short race is an incredibly well-acted but very awkwardly constructed. Zero Dark Abortion might have been a more appropriate title for it, since it follows an Afghani interpreter for the US Army who is tasked with cutting up a pregnant woman’s dead fetus in order to save her life. A nauseating premise somewhat redeems itself along the way but ends on a sour note. Layla Alizada gives a powerful lead performance and the dialogue isn’t ever really ham-fisted or over-the-top in a way military movies tend to be. It’s just the premise…why was this short made? Grade: C+ 

 

Well, that’s it unfortunately. I wish the nominees were better. Everything Will Be Okay was one of the best short films I’ve ever seen, and completely undeserving of being surrounded by these other shorts. It makes me really wonder what great live action shorts were submitted and rejected by #OscarsSoIncapableOfCompetentlyAssessingMedia. I heard Night of the Slasher was fantastic, did anyone see that? In all honesty, I’d nominate Netflix’s Kung Fury over Ave Maria, Stutterer and Day One. Tomorrow I’ll post my reviews of the Oscar Nominated Animated Shorts. They were a lot more consistent.

 

 

 

 

X Marks the Spot

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So entertain me for a moment if you would, I want you to try to think back upon a time in which there wasn’t as much an overglut of superhero movies as there is now, much less the concept of the film universe except in non-film spin-offs like comic books or video games. It’s tough to imagine since movies based on comic movies were actually in existence for a long time well before you’d imagine. We have the theatrical serials of the 30s and 40s based on your favorite characters of Superman and Batman before they got their large scale feature film debut in 1978 and 1966 respectively (yeah, Burton’s film came out in ’89 and really brought out the Batmania but we forget Adam West introduced the world as we know it to Batman, however campy that Batman is). Hell, we don’t even necessarily have to stick out of superheroes to claim comic book movies an inconsistent practice, since we have Dick Tracy, Howard the DuckFlash Gordon, and so many others roaming around to varying effect.

But we weren’t so saturated with superhero films as we are now (e.g., this year has us see the release of Batman v. SupermanCaptain America: Civil WarDeadpoolX-Men: ApocalypseSuicide SquadDoctor Strange, and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows) to the point of them becoming a mainstay of cinema like Westerns in the early decades or Slashers in the 80s. That didn’t come from Superman or Batman‘s successes, as impressive as they were, for some reason or another. They were already cultural icons.

My personal suggestion is a 1-2-3 triple threat in the years entering the new millennium that truly kickstarted the free-for-all scramble studios made for as many comic book properties as they could get their damn hands on, knowing that even the worst of them were growing to be a money-printing industry. First, in 1997, Men in Black was released by Sony Pictures, loosely based on the Marvel Comics to a degree that I can’t entirely cover (having never read them) but I understand to be an extreme tonal shift. Yet, Men in Black became the first comic book movie ever to make half a million dollars at the box office and, while it wasn’t marketed as a movie based on a comic book so much as a Will Smith/Tommy Lee Jones vehicle – the former being in the middle of his rise from The Fresh Prince into one of the biggest movie stars of all time, the latter a fresh Oscar winner – and effects extravaganza, and convinced Marvel Studios to continue its relationship with Sony Pictures by granting them the rights of a particularly recognizable superhero. That superhero being Spider-Man, which released in 2002, to even more astonishing success – making $821.7 million that overshadowed the success of Men in Black, being the first movie to ever make $100 million in its first weekend, and at the time having the largest opening gross of all time.

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And yet between those two, the real ignition underneath Spider-Man that already had studios keeping their eye on how these superhero movies did was Fox’s 2000 release of X-Men, a movie Fox had gotten rights to in 1994 after the success of the animated series in the 90s and that had – at just $300 million – promised that at worst you’d make a whole lotta money and while Spider-Man promised at best you’d make all the money in the world and then some.

Following the comic book with relatively surprising fidelity, X-Men tells the story of a race of humanity that possess a variety of superpowers, known to the world as Mutants. They are all feared and mistrusted by the rest of the world, as we witness the United States Government early in the film attempting to figure out the best and safest way to decidedly marginalize and disenfranchise them, with psychic Jean Grey (Famke Janssen) being the Mutant’s sole representative to these discussions and constantly being shut-out and shut down by vehement anti-Mutant Senator Robert Kelly (Bruce Davison). In the meantime, there is just as much in-fighting among the Mutants as there is the few Mutants that try to give a public front for America, namely Grey and her psychic mentor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), the latter running a school for Mutants that doubles as a refuge from the alienation of the rest of the world. Xavier himself also has to keep eyes on his former partner and now nemesis, bitterly vengeful Holocaust survivor and master of metal manipulation Erik “Magneto” Lensherr (Ian McKellan), who promises something very nasty for Kelly and indeed the entire world for threatening to put him through the same trauma again. And thus Xavier has the X-Men, a mutant team to keep the world safe from Lensherr’s own Brotherhood of Mutants.

It’s a very focused narrative for such a wide scope of issues that David Hayter’s screenplay tackles, based on a storyline constructed by director Bryan Singer and Tom DeSanto. Especially ones so bluntly politicized as racism, runaway youths, immigration (not as easy to recognize without the foreknowledge that Wolverine is Canadian), domestic terrorism, and even others that can be applied based on the perspective of the viewer (the openly gay Singer had always approached the issue as he would homophobia while I actually found the movie to come to my life at the perfect point to acknowledge post-9/11 Islamophobia as a Muslim child, especially projected by the opening scene of X2: X-Men United). And it largely gets to clean itself up this way by focusing primarily on two points of views that I will get to later on in this review, but in the meantime, Hayter’s writing – while very mindful of keeping separate the way Lensherr and Xavier would express ideals and giving Kelly especially McCarthy-esque attitudes to exude – mirrors Singer in a manner that one doesn’t really realize until you probably have the retrospect a crapload of superhero movies since affords you: Singer’s direction and Hayter’s script is for the most part has a herculean amount of restraint, especially when you consider both have proven to be extreme fans of the X-Men comics that relished the chance to make this movie. I don’t know if it has to do with the still-shaky computer-generated imagery at the time but a lot of the story beats are grounded in dialogue between characters drawing lines in the sand than actual action setpieces, though there are plenty effects numbers to keep us satiated and stunned by what the characters can do. There are arguably two action setpieces and that’s it: the train station battle and the Liberty Island battles, both in the back half of the film (There is also the climax immediately after the latter on top of the Statue of Liberty but it is most certainly one of the times where the movie’s CGI fall most grievously apart). But there are smaller moments where the movie gets to interject some showcase of the Mutant’s capabilities and it’s almost always to the aid of the script rather than divorced from it. Meanwhile, Singer and his frequent cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel approach the film in a composed manner that compliments the anamorphic ratio of the picture without making it show off until the team gets into the Liberty Island’s head and grounds so much of the design of the movie in cold and tired blues and greens and browns without falter. This isn’t a movie that wants to pop, this is a movie that wants to feel like its in the real-world without sacrificing any of that realism. Which is probably why Hayter’s script is also so definitely grounded and to the point with every discussion, there’s no place for Joss Whedon’s quips in here (two of which survived an early draft of his and both of them astonishingly out of place, though “you’re a dick” at least made me laugh as a kid).

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Hayter’s manner of grounding the film and streamlining all these incidents into one narrative is by starting with the point of view of one character, the runaway Rogue (Anna Paquin), and deftly turning the perspective halfway through to the real breakout star of the film, Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) as both encounter Xavier and his School for the Gifted for the first time. Which explains why I tried to hold off talking about them for so long because, just as much as Singer’s winking love for these characters and attempts to visually sympathize with them in every manner, Paquin and Jackman’s performances are the secret weapons of this movie. Paquin doesn’t get enough love for her ability to communicate the sense of dislocation, unbelonging, and anxiety that a teenage girl forced to abandon her life would feel (as she absorbs the energy and powers of every she touches to their complete pain), with wide eyes and a coiled-up discomfort that she implies that she could turn every bit as jaded as healing knife-handed Wolverine while Jackman, in the role that not only made him a BIG DAMN STAR but also made me actually admire a character I otherwise hate in other medium (A small, hairy, smelly ball of anger? No thanks.), actively amplifies the primal nature of Wolverine’s personality in every aspect from his distrust and paranoia to his  his paternal tenderness towards Paquin by only making surface expressions with a suppression of inner commentary, implying the fact that Wolverine doesn’t want to live inside his head for even the smallest while (something explored once again in the immediate sequel). Together, they make a very relatable pair of protagonists and their chemistry makes an interesting father-daughter dynamic based on how damaged they are as characters. Early on, Rogue asks with a stir of sympathy and fear if it hurts when Wolverine unleashes his adamantium claws (a very early effects shot shows one such claw tearing its way out of his middle knuckle in bloodless speed yet uncomfortable closeness) and Wolverine responds with a resigned sadness “every time”, a moment that marks how the two of them begin to relate in their hurt.

And they’re still only second-best to what may be the finest comic book movie cast ever assembled (only rivaled by its sequel, Spider-Man, and The Addams Family), one where every single actor selected smacks of inspiration from Singer and co-producer Tom DeSanto eager to see the characters they love brought to life. Stewart – already a star for his Shakespearean work and Star Trek: The Next Generation – is a complete no-brainer, Janssen carries an intellectual air to Jean while also juggling the subtle sexuality that puts her in the middle of a romantic triangle between Wolverine and her boyfriend Scott “Cyclops” Summers (James Marsden), Davison a self-satisfied despicability in his Senator Kelly followed by overwhelming terror as he turns into a Cronenberg character later in the film, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos a mysterious and dangerous aura that makes me kind of hate what Jennifer Lawrence has done to her shapeshifting Mystique since, and even bit roles like Ray Park and Tyler Mane as Toad and Sabretooth respectively have a very physical personality to their villainous henchmen to Magneto (a repulsively inhuman athleticism to the former, an imposing stature and feral facial features in the latter) that couldn’t possibly be done without the actors they used, even given their heavy make-up work. Best in show is of course McKellan as Magneto, who takes great relish in the villainous affiliation of the character, striding into every scene with confidence and underlining it by the pathos of the character’s justification to himself of the horrors he’s witnessed and his vehement refusal to suffer once again (the character was based in the comic by Jack Kirby, Stan Lee, and Chris Claremont on Meir Kahane and his relationship with Xavier based on Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X).

The ensemble cast is not entirely perfect: James Marsden as Cyclops doesn’t give agency to an already pretty bland “Boy Scout” of a character (and Cyclops is meant to be the leader) and Halle Berry as Ororo “Storm” Munroe has every bit of acting she can spare in the role eaten up by an awfully unbelievable Kenyan accent. Truth be told, X-Men is never anywhere close to a perfect movie – the climax blowing up in the movie’s face, Michael Kamen’s score being aimlessly bombastic (I can never not think of him as more of a metal composer), the overstuffing of the cast means that Hayter and Singer need to think of some dodgy ways to put some characters out of commission (always a problem in this franchise, though Singer is at least the one filmmaker who knows how to juggle as many characters as he can). Still, X-Men proved to be successful enough in all the things it wants to do – distinguishable characters, human-based narrative, impressive fight scenes, comic book imagery – that its sophisticated subduction of style makes it an interesting hallmark for a genre and culture in film that has just begun to get noisier and bigger without an ounce of the impact X-Men makes as a film on its own terms. The idea that we can have such an unabashed fan be willing to make hard decisions and watch over his aesthetic like this, as opposed to say Zack Snyder, is part of what made the X-Men franchise work out against all odds and keeps it rolling to this day.

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… Those Animals Was Fast as Lightning

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When I finished the review of Kung Fu Panda hours ago, I implied already that its sequel, Kung Fu Panda 2 released in 2011, surpasses it in quality and that’s not me being untruthful. Unlike the other sequel to the other worthwhile Dreamworks Animation film, How to Train Your Dragon 2, we do not have a film here that is completely inert towards it predecessors. Kung Fu Panda 2 knows what strengths Kung Fu Panda had and leaves as is, sure, without allowing it to progress in those areas, but it works itself in the spaces Kung Fu Panda didn’t feel as lived in with. At this point, its more than just the animation being so much better as would be with age, but so much of the environment is given a harsh crimson tone to the frames to really make everything so much… god, do I have to say it?

Darker.

I hate saying that because I don’t think making a story “darker” makes it better, but when the visuals are so dedicated to giving the moment gravity even when intercutting the confrontation with a joke. It also probably helps when your villain is voiced by Gary Oldman, an actor who knows all too well how to make even just his voice make you shudder and avoid him. He’s not that bad here (we’re still in a kids’ movie, guys), but he’s pretty damn villainous as far as event the script aids him – introducing his peacock Lord Shen at the very beginning as an aristocrat who obsessed with the potential of fireworks to be weaponized. When his family’s soothsayer (Michelle Yeoh, who is also fantastic as the personified wisdom) foretells of “a warrior of black and white” taking down Shen, Shen commits the mass genocide of all pandas (told you it was darker) and is banished for it once his parents find out.

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But hey, Shen’s not the guy we came to see. Instead, that is the very protagonist from the first film, Jack Black’s big panda Po, who is now a member of the Jade Temple with the same kung fu masters he admired – Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen), and Monkey (Jackie Chan) – training and fighting crime and maintaining a status as a legend. Which is great, Po never needs to reprove his worth, he doesn’t have trouble with Furious Five or their red panda Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). Unlike most sequels (*cough*The Force Awakens*cough*), returning writers Jonathan Aibel & Glenn Burger don’t see a need to backtrack and bring Po back to square one at any point, just using the first Kung Fu Panda for familiarity rather than as a blueprint. In addition, Tigress has much more to do as a character, becoming Po’s closest ally and confidante (and displaying a natural rapport between Black and Jolie that I would have never guessed existed… it sure wasn’t in the first movie).

That doesn’t mean that Po is suddenly without conflict as Shen suddenly returns to his old home after his parents’ death and intends to use his gunpowder harnessed now to build cannons, a weapon that will render kung fu an obsolete form. In the meanwhile, Po has to face the familiarity of Shen’s sigil – bringing back childhood memories long since repressed – and his goose father Mr. Ping’s (James Hong) admittance that Po is adopted. Both have answers that are obviously easy for us to figure out but it doesn’t make Po’s struggle to find “inner peace” any easier.

The name of the game for that struggle is of course combat, given that the movie does have the words “Kung Fu” in its titles but that also happens to be the point in which I am most impressed by Kung Fu Panda 2 as a movie. I don’t know that I’ve seen enough fight scenes in animation (I certainly don’t watch enough anime, in which I’m certain there’s a lot of fighting), but Kung Fu Panda 2 has, as far as I have seen, some of the best fighting animation yet. The sequences are edited in a manner that totally pays kindred to the martial arts films of Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee and Gordon Liu and such, long wide angle shots of combat between characters in the middle of battle, at points struggling to catch up with them but always having them impressively in the frame. In the meantime, the actual movements of the characters are elegant and – especially in the case of Shen – base their actions on their animal basis that I’m actually very impressed that the filmmakers dedicated so much time to this. Kung Fu Panda 2 may very well be more of an action film than a comedy and I’m not just saying that because the comedy is admittedly more lousy than the already simply tolerable humor of the first film.

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It’s clearly no accident that the director of this movie, Jennifer Yuh Nelson, also directed the opening of the first movie, which – remember – is my favorite moment of the first movie (in a very impressive twist off of that opening scene’s 2D, Kung Fu Panda 2 introduces 2D flashbacks of Po’s childhood that increase depth and dimension as he revisits them until they are CGI as well… it’s a really intelligent use of the animation to reflect clarity of mind and memory. I wish I caught this movie in 3-D.). Kung Fu Panda 2‘s choice in character movement is so deliberate and aware of itself that it’d have to be made by a person who really wanted to show just why these characters are considered kung fu masters and given the medium of choice and how much variety would be necessary to give even non-entity characters (like frankly most of the Furious Five) personality and presence in their fighting styles is extremely admirable.

But man, I guess I’m just gushing because Kung Fu Panda 2 is not close to a perfect movie. Like I said, characters are roundly ignored (I feel Shifu – given his importance as the Five’s master – gets the shortest end of the stick, but I also always felt Hoffman was the weakest voice performance of both movies). There’s not a really clear thoroughline of Shen’s parental issues (which are dropped and picked up again and again) and his intentions with the cannons and gunpowder (first he uses it to ransom China from the Kung Fu Masters; then to ransom China from… China?). The comedy is worse here than the first movie, since even if the comedy wasn’t sophisticated before, at least it didn’t threaten to derail some scenes.

And yet the movie satisfies me immensely. I’m willing to call it the second best Dreamworks Animated Film yet (How to Train Your Dragon still mows it down) and that comes from how willing it is to real gravity to its scenario (even if the stakes aren’t fully defined) and make Po feel more evolved. It is the greatest respect ever given to a Jack Black character to show that his characters can possibly continue to grow and learn to be at ease with themselves.

Or maybe I’m just gushing because I’m just as fanboyish about martial arts movies, animation, and Jack Black as Po is about kung fu. But I don’t give a damn.

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Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting…

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If I am ever to be a father (and the following should illustrate why I say God forbid – I’d be a very awful parent), there’s an epic legend I will tell my cinephiliac children about the legend of an animation studio once heralded by a bitter man. A man so bitter that he used any possible avenue of success to go ahead and spit spite at his old bosses instead of moving in a new direction, flinging shit at the hand that fed him. “The same bosses’ whose canonical work you have been indoctrinating us with, master?” one of my accidental offspring would inquire, knowing to refer to me by my proper title towards them. “Indeed,” I’d respond tersely and without any potential window for nonexistent tenderness. Not only would said movie studio base their most popular franchise on basically bitching about their founder’s old job, but every picture of theirs would be an unashamed attempt at marketing at the same subject matter their rival was releasing at the time. All with poor storytelling and just under-the-edge animation work, including very off-putting character design. *shudders* (inwardly, not outwardly… any sign of weakness towards my tykes would give them sign of possibility of overthrowing their Shogun).

But, the legend would turn around. After a while perhaps the animation studio would decide that hate is absolute baggage and suddenly change their contemptuous game into a film not really that extraordinary and yet that film would be the very first to be enjoyable on its own merits and be compulsively rewatchable by yours truly on the merits of its low-stakes yet clearly defined arc and its amiably visual characters and its humor.

“What did the studio do?” that one indistinguishable child whose name I totally forgot would ask (narrow the possible names down, Salim, is it a boy or a girl? I can’t tell).

They decided that making a star vehicle was a little less shallow than making a company hate-letter. And it probably is a much better thing that I have a lot more attachment to Jack Black than, say, if it were a star vehicle for James Franco.

The funny thing is that that particular vehicle for Jack Black, 2008’s Kung Fu Panda, begins with a much less esoteric and more wonderful opening sequence. Indeed, it is my favorite sequence in the entire movie as we hear Black’s voice recite with no less than 100% gusto of a fantasy scenario for his lead character illustrated in a style of faux 2-D somewhere between the flatness of depth of South Park and the angular movement based in Japanese anime. It’s through this that our panda narrator Po (Black) informs us of the kung-fu legends Furious Five (a poor choice in team name as it makes me think about either Grandmaster Flash or the Fast and the Furious series depending on how my day goes) – Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Viper (Lucy Liu), Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen), and Monkey (Jackie Chan).

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Po is obviously an enthusiastic fan of kung fu and so when news goes about of the grandmasters Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), a stern and irritable red panda, and the relaxed tortoise Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) are selecting the legendary Dragon Warrior out of their ranks, Po struggles to witness the festivities and ends up being selected accidentally, to the chagrin of Shifu and the Five. Because what Po and everybody except Shifu and Oogway do not know is that their original snow leopard pupil Tai Lung (Ian McShane) is out to escape from his prison for revenge against his master for what he feels was abandonment.

Anyway, I mentioned how the opening sequence is of course the height of the film for me based on its stylized animation and Black’s voice performance, but that’s not at all to say that there’s a severe gap in quality between that and the film proper. What we have here is a truly quick bit of kids’ picture fun with a design to its CGI animation that is actually pretty gorgeous, even if its not anywhere near Pixar’s work. The day backgrounds are full of light colors that bring up the frivolity of this semi-disposable film, while the dark blues of night have the whole coolness of their moments amped (since these are the moments most poignant to characters – Shifu taking Oogway’s counsel, Po confronting Shifu’s antagonism towards him, etc.) while the shapes of the scenery give it a sophistication that compliments their beauty.

But of course most of all to me is very wonderful the character designs are. There’s a bit of laziness in how similar Tigress and Tai Lung look but there’s a fierceness to the shape of their skulls that already tells us of how serious they are as the “best” warriors, Oogway as a turtle has an aged looseness to him that makes him lovable as a character despite getting some pretty senile lines, but most obviously is Po because well… they just knew how to make an animated feature still work visually as a Jack Black vehicle. Po’s shape and size makes us think of Black, it’s not a stretch to consider him a panda, and not only does it allow us to associate his recognizable voice to the visual representation (which is kind of tough for most of the other voice performances save for Jolie and McShane, though they also kind of play their stock types as well: ferocious female fighter and dastardly villain, respectively), it allows for some very tasteful slapstick. Not necessarily unforgettable slapstick, we’re not talking Marx brothers work here, but slapstick that is pretty good considering the sort of unsophisticated slapstick they feed children these days.

This is not the best work of Dreamworks Animation’s day for it would be truly unextraordinary in the end (or even the best Jack Black film, given School of Rock‘s existence and this movie’s sequel). We still have quite an average yet well-worth watching picture here, no storytelling at the level of the finest fables nor animation of immense detail, but all of it is still enjoyable. What I can say is that it is the first good work Dreamworks Animation put out from their CGI lot, the first time I actually left one of their works with a big grin on my face in faith of their potential, and that’s really quite a worthwhile milestone in itself, doncha think?

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