89th Academy Awards Nomination Predictions – POST-ANNOUNCEMENT REVIEW

On Tuesday, January 24th, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences are going to announce their nominees for the 89th Oscars and that means more fun predictions by ya boi. I’m posting relatively early my predictions for what will find their way to each nomination slate with my brief commentary simply because these past few weeks have been busy with the Miami Jewish Film Festival that I work at so come tomorrow, I’ll be back to back-to-back office+screening days until Thursday Night’s Closing. So I wanna get this out before I have to look like a smart alec because my predictions are always SO CORRECT, AMIRITE?!

Ah, now to take a look at how wrong I am about everything. My predictions on the winners are all non-binding and will be revisited come the week of the ceremony.

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BEST PICTURE

  • Arrival
  • Fences
  • Hacksaw Ridge
  • Hell or High Water
  • Hidden Figures
  • La La Land
  • Lion
  • Manchester by the Sea
  • Moonlight

MY PREDICTION: La La Land
MY PICKLa La Land

Yep, predicting eight nominees because I’m just too optimistic to predict Nocturnal Animals and FUCK OFF, DEADPOOL.

If I may, I had a funny encounter with a friend who was so very traumatized by the idea that Hacksaw RidgeSully, and Patriots Day would be nominated over Moonlight, he REFUSED to recognize that Moonlight was a lock for Best Picture almost immediately upon release. He swore those three films had a higher chance of nomination than Moonlight and he was so heated from the exchange (and the fact that I don’t hate Clint Eastwood as a filmmaker) that I was promptly blocked on facebook. It was the single funniest reason I’ve been blocked on facebook and, at the risk of sounding like a smug loser, I am going to be very pleased when Moonlight gets nominated on Tuesday morning and only Hacksaw gets in by the skin of its teeth.

8/9

Yep… the smugness feels good. However…

Goddamn, I missed Fences after being so on the fe–… after thinking about it for a while. But ah well, my caution has cost me.

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BEST DIRECTOR

  • Damian Chazelle – La La Land
  • Barry Jenkins – Moonlight
  • Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester by the Sea
  • Mel Gibson – Hacksaw Ridge
  • Denis Villeneuve – Arrival

MY IMMEDIATE PREDICTION: Damian Chazelle
MY PICK: Damian Chazelle

Self-explanatory with my Picture slate, behold the return of Mel Gibson’s love.

Called it.

BEST ACTRESS

  • Amy Adams – Arrival
  • Isabelle Huppert – Elle
  • Natalie Portman – Jackie
  • Ruth Negga – Loving
  • Emma Stone – La La Land
  • Meryl Streep – Florence Foster Jenkins

MY IMMEDIATE PREDICTION: Isabelle Huppert
MY PICK: Emma Stone

20th Century Women came too late to get serious awards consideration (between Silence and this movie, I’m mourning this movie’s losses more), Ruth Negga’s early goodwill since Loving‘s Cannes premiere died undeservedly as its release fizzled, and Oscar don’t see the great thing that is Taraji when it’s staring them in the face. Altogether that splits into the certainty that I’m finally gonna have to force myself to watch Florence Foster Jenkins. Forget Streep, I’d trade Adams’ nomination over any of those three easily.

4/5 Correct

Looks like they heard my prayers and replaced Adams with Negga outright. Now I can just glare at one nomination (Streep) instead. That said… what a shocker that Adams didn’t get in.

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BEST ACTOR

  • Casey Affleck – Manchester by the Sea
  • Andrew Garfield – Hacksaw Ridge
  • Ryan Gosling – La La Land
  • Viggo Mortensen – Captain Fantastic
  • Denzel Washington – Fences

Pretty much the lockiest lock of the ceremony, both in winner (children who live with wolves know Affleck will take the Gold) and nominees.

Nobody is surprised now. Nobody will be surprised then.

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BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

  • Viola Davis – Fences
  • Naomie Harris – Moonlight
  • Nicole Kidman – Lion
  • Octavia Spencer – Hidden Figures
  • Michelle Williams – Manchester by the Sea

No 20th Century Women love means no Greta Gerwig love which means hello Octavia by the skin off her teeth.

Called it once again.

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BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

  • Mahershala Ali – Moonlight
  • Jeff Bridges – Hell or High Water
  • Hugh Grant – Florence Foster Jenkins
  • Lucas Hedges – Manchester by the Sea
  • Dev Patel – Lion
  • Michael Shannon – Nocturnal Animals
  • Aaron Taylor-Johnson – Nocturnal Animals

That Golden Globe win in the middle of Oscar voting scares me enough to believe it will happen. Newcomer Hedges gets knocked off for Kick-Ass’ best Squidbillies impression.

3/5

I’d rather no Nocturnal Animals nomination, but I’ll take it.

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BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

  • Jared Bush & Phil Johnson – Zootopia
  • Damien Chazelle – La La Land
  • Yorgos Lanthimos & Efthymis Fillipou – The Lobster
  • Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester by the Sea
  • Mike Mills – 20th Century Women
  • Taylor Sheridan – Hell or High Water

I really don’t see much awards traction for Captain Fantastic beyond Best Actor. 20th Century Women and Jackie are DOA on awards love. Zootopia is getting an obscenely unnecessary amount of love for more than just how it looks, particularly. The love for its race content might just inch it into Best Original slot.

4/5

Never write out a movie too hard. Mills got one!

LION

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

  • Luke Davies – Lion
  • Eric Heisserer – Arrival
  • Barry Jenkins AND Tarell Alvin McCraney – Moonlight
  • Theodore Melfi & Allison Schroeder – Hidden Figures
  • August Wilson – Fences

All of them potential Best Picture nominees. One based on a much beloved stageplay by the original writer. They’re all in.

5/5 kind of

It’s a fact only known amongst my friends that it bugs the hell out of me that McCraney didn’t get a co-writing credit for Moonlight for reasons too complicated to go into right now. And now Oscar understands me and this is the happiest I’ve been.

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

  • Greg Fraser – Lion
  • James Laxton – Moonlight
  • Rodrigo Prieto – Silence
  • Linus Sandgren – La La Land
  • Bradford Young – Arrival

“Marty, we’re really sorry we missed you. At least your movie was really pretty” -Love, Cheryl

My dawg, Bradford Young, FINALLY GOT RECOGNIZED. Not for one of his best but…

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BEST COSTUME DESIGN

  • Colleen Atwood – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
  • Consolata Boyle – Florence Foster Jenkins
  • Madeleine Fontaine – Jackie
  • Jo Sang-gyong – The Handmaiden
  • Joanna Johnston – Allied
  • Renee Ehrlich Kalfus – Hidden Figures
  • Mary Zophres – La La Land

This category loves its historical drama, so why not assume that’s what it’s definitely gonna head for?

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BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

  • Stuart Craig – Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
  • Guy Hendrix Dyas – Passengers
  • Jess Gonchor – Hail, Caesar!
  • Jean Rabasse – Jackie
  • Shane Valentino – Nocturnal Animals
  • Patricia Vermette – Arrival
  • David Wasco – La La Land

Why wouldn’t a Tom Ford picture be recognized more for how it looks than what it’s about?

BEST FILM EDITING

  • Tom Cross – La La Land
  • John Gilbert – Hacksaw Ridge
  • Joi McMillion & Nat Sanders – Moonlight
  • Blu Murray – Sully
  • Jake Roberts – Hell or High Water
  • Joe Walker – Arrival

Always means the MOST editing and these are contenders that are so VERY MOST editing. A musical, a war film, and three movies that mess with chronology? Done.

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

  • Arrival
  • Deepwater Horizon
  • Doctor Strange
  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
  • The Jungle Book
  • Kubo and the Two Strings
  • Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Yep. Again… MOST.

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BEST HAIR & MAKEUP

  • Deadpool
  • Florence Foster Jenkins
  • Star Trek Beyond
  • Suicide Squad

Academy Award Nominee Deadpool. Trump’s America, now.

BEST SCORE

  • Nicolas Britell – Moonlight
  • Alexandre Desplat – Florence Foster Jenkins
  • Michael Giacchino – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
  • Justin Hurwitz – La La Land
  • Mica Levi – Jackie
  • Dustin O’Halloran & Hauschka – Lion
  • Thomas Newman – Passengers
  • John Williams – The BFG

The usual suspects and the new players on the coattails of their Oscar locked films.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG

  • “Audition (The Fools That Dream)” – La La Land
  • “Can’t Stop the Feeling” – Trolls
  • “City of Stars” – La La Land
  • “Drive It Like You Stole It” – Sing Street
  • “The Empty Chair” – Jim: The James Foley Story
  • “How Far I’ll Go” – Moana
  • “I’m Still Here” – Miss Sharon Jones

Usual where movies who don’t have a chance elsewhere get recognized, but La La Land is hefty enough to steal more seats (and probably the Gold). Poor Lin-Manuel Miranda will not become the youngest EGOT winner in this ceremony, I don’t think. While John Carney has never had one of his musical films unrecognized for their songs.

BEST SOUND MIXING

  • 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
  • Arrival
  • Hacksaw Ridge
  • La La Land
  • Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
  • Sully

BEST SOUND EDITING

  • Arrival
  • Deepwater Horizon
  • Hacksaw Ridge
  • La La Land
  • Sully

Again, the name of the game is MOST to these voters.

On the fucking point with Sound Editing. Did not expect the 13 Hours recognition for Sound Mixing and while I don’t like the movie as a whole… I’m pleasantly surprised.

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BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

  • Kubo and the Two Strings
  • Moana
  • My Life as a Zucchini
  • The Red Turtle
  • Your Name
  • Zootopia

4/5

Both Disney Features are in and if Zootopia doesn’t win, Moana will. The rest is just an educated guess based on the universal and industry love each has gotten.

 

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BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE

  • 13th
  • Fire at Sea
  • I Am Not Your Negro
  • Life, Animated
  • O.J.: Made in America

5/5

O.J. will win. Let’s go home.

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BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FILM

  • Land of Mine
  • A Man Called Ove
  • Paradise
  • The Salesman
  • Toni Erdmann

4/5

The question at this point is WHAT is going to compete with Toni Erdmann‘s win.

My office at the Festival (where we are showing Paradise and Stefan Zweig, two shortlisters) is actually surprised Paradise didn’t get it. I kind of am, but I should have recognized Tanna‘s speed.

One day I might be able to know what I’m doing with the short categories…

So I’ll abstain and wish you all a great rest of the weekend.

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Vampires and Werewolves… ON ICE!!!

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It’s pretty much a law of storytelling that drama is driven by conflict of some sort, even when it’s not violent, physical, or even particularly angry. Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, Man vs. Self, the gist of those kinds. So, people should want things that conflict with another person’s wants somehow and so on and so forth. Yet the Underworld franchise comes across to me as a story of problems that would probably be so very easily wrapped up if the characters were not all just assholes for the sake of being assholes. The whole mythos of the trilogy is little more than a cover for the fact that certain people hate other people hard enough to try to murder one another and it wasn’t something that was as obvious to me in the 2003 starter Underworld as it was halfway through its 2006 sequel Underworld: Evolution.

The assholery is begins with Evolution‘s prologue. After a title scroll that explains how the Corvinus line became involved with the everlong war between vampires and werewolf Lycans – brothers Markus (Tony Curran) and William (Brian Steele) were bit by a bat and a wolf, respectively and became amongst the most powerful of their kind – we are introduced to a scene in the 1200s where Markus and fellow vampire Elders Viktor and Amelia (Bill Nighy and Zita Gorog reprising their roles in brief cameos; Nighy is the only one who gets to make a huge impression) capture William after he rampages through a village. The capture is in some vague manner that upsets Markus (he seems angry about their intent to “harm” William, but they’re imprisoning William like they all planned). In any case, asshole move #1 is performed.

Following all of that, we’re back to the present day with vampire Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and Corvinus descendant vampire-werewolf hybrid Michael (Scott Speedman) are in hiding after killing Viktor in the previous movie (asshole move #2, being spurred by asshole move #3 – Viktor’s massacring of Selene’s family against her knowledge). With Viktor and Amelia both killed by the events of the previous film, Selene seeks to implore the assumed-dormant Markus’ favor somehow by rescuing him from the now-openly-trecherous Kraven (Shane Brolly). Which, by the way, opens up a big question: If Selene found out Michael’s last name to be Corvin and Markus is well enough known amongst the vampires as a leader, why the hell does it take her such a long movie as the previous Underworld to figure out Michael’s ties to the vampires and Lycans?

But anyway Underworld had its time to be hated on, now it’s Underworld: Evolution‘s turn.

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Markus doesn’t need Selene’s aid. He’s already been awakened, dispatches Kraven violently with more flat video-game CGI, and now outwardly seeks Selene to specifically kill her for matters he deliberately keeps coy about (asshole move #4) which means after running to reach Markus, Selene and Michael are running away from the heavily overpowered, largely made-up or CGI’d Markus (especially when he’s in huge bat form). With Selene’s final chance to get out of the vampires’ bad side ruined, she and Michael rush to find out what Markus’ hang-up with Selene is and what that has to do with his plot to free William.

 

This involves digging – and by digging we mean find an exposition machine of a character, Andreas Tanis (Steven Mackintosh), who explains the Corvinus lineage followed by the unsurprising revelation that an immortal with a SWAT team in his pocket (because vampires vs. werewolves + supergoth = gunfights!) is in fact the first of the Corvinus line, Alexander (poor Derek Jacobi, who is the only person in the world I’d say was better off working with Kenneth Branagh). I feel like stating there’s no consequence to these revelations is a severe understatement, the primary players are the only true non-human element to the film and despite the movie being a gigantic Corvinus family reunion, there is no reaction to Michael’s involvement in the line (in fact, his involvement in the story is obscenely arbitrary to the point that he’s dispatched from the plot in the middle of the film until the climax where we need two fights going on at once).

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The only real development comes from Selene’s family and why they were murdered (and Markus desires her blood – which could be accomplished without murder as has been established in the series) and still it muddles an already muddled-up mythology (not to mention what it does to vampire mythology on its final beat). None of the characters are anymore than functionary and have no emotional reaction to a plot that requires their emotions except for Curran and the man is too caked-up in makeup to do much. The permanently-scowling Beckinsale and non-entity Speedman are involved in one of the inadvertently coldest sex scenes I’ve ever witnessed because of how little the film’s blue and grey palette (more appropriate in Evolution’s wintery setting than in the previous film) and their writing affords them, though I’d never trust Speedman to play even drying paint.

 

It’s a sequel that exists for the sake of a sequel rather than any real narrative or character investment with nothing for the audience to hang on to and embarrassingly outdated visuals. Its leaves no room for fun in its grave tone and no real interest except as an obligation to someone who would be watching and writing about these films simply because the latest entry began 2017.

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It Bites

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It’s embarrassing to know that if I had seen Underworld at the age of 11 when it came out and I overheard some of the classmates I was desperately trying to be friends with say how cool it was, I would have loved it and thought “so awesome, man.” Instead, I am at the age of 24 when I have seen it for the first time in my life and know better than to fall for whatever faux-gothic slick leather cool wire-fu action flick comes out on the spurs of The Matrix‘s own slick leather cool wire-fu action flick success.

That’s not hyperbole. Underworld is exactly the type of movie that could only exist how it is in 2003, dated to the dot by its presence of Kate Beckinsale whuppin’ ass in tight black leather, its fascination with vampires and werewolves without real interest in using their mythology except insofar as a vehicle for bullet time sequences. It is a movie that wears its influence from Matrix and Blade on its sleeve while preceding so many women kicks ass in tight clothing movies such as Aeon Flux and basically Milla Jovovich’s entire career. The effects are that dated, with flat blood splatters, shiny and rubbery CGI, or static body prosthetics for practical werewolves. And director Len Wiseman giving the soundtrack it’s unrestrained indulgence with industrial metal and color correcting every single shoot to the steeliest of blue (which is at the least more visually pleasant than the greens of The Matrix) is part of what dates the film most. I’m serious about the industrial metal element, the score by Paul Haslinger thuds accordingly with echoes and, my hand to god, the movie shoves in a remix to A Perfect Circle’s “Judith” so eagerly it keeps certain lyrics audible, including “fuck your god”, for no other reason than it’s what the cool kids were into.

Looking cool in that early 2000s manner is exactly what Underworld is concerned with. No room for logic in a movie where the premise is as simple as an ongoing war between vampires and the werewolf Lycans rages on around vampire assassin Selene (the too-talented-for-this Kate Beckinsale in her unfortunately best-known performance). She discovers two things that must not be: that the Lycans’ leader Lucian (a never-more-hammy Michael Sheen relishing the scenery in his mouth) is alive despite the claims by vampire de facto leader Kraven (Shane Brolly) and Lucian is weirdly fixated on a medic Michael Corvin (Scott Speedman). With the alarming addition that the Lycans have weaponized UV rays into a bullet, Selene is getting close to appealing over Kraven’s obstruction to the dormant vampire superior Viktor (Bill Nighy) during her own investigation of the matter.

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It barely makes sense. It doesn’t make sense for vampires and werewolves to shoot each other in subways rather than fight like monsters. It doesn’t make sense for them to be shooting at each other when they knew it wouldn’t work until they weaponize light and silver. It doesn’t make sense that the sets look European (the international production was shot in Hungary) but half of the cast – including local police and medical – speak in American accents. Selene literally has a scene talking into a mirror and it doesn’t seem like it’s necessary to break vampire mythology so.

Beckinsale and Nighy both treat this scenario with more gravity than necessary (which is why the best scenes are when they’re confronting each other), Beckinsale with a confused yet compelling icy visage in every moment, giving focus to anything that crosses her and Nighy by upping the authoritative logos (even when Viktor is clearly wrong) that he heightens like he’s in Shakespeare. Nighy’s ability to be big is aided by Sheen using the pathos of Lucian’s tragic backstory to be the loudest figure in every shot and selling it because Sheen is every bit as qualified an actor as Nighy and Beckinsale. This trilogy is what drives a ridiculous premise and bootleg goth Matrix aesthetic a good half hour than it needs to be (the film is a little under two hours).

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The biggest sign of Wiseman’s poor craftsmanship of Underworld lies in two voices. Brolly is clearly attempting an American accent for his Kraven and yet there is not a second of this where he’s not obviously Irish and his laboring swallows the life out of any line readings. In the meantime, there is also the fact that Robbie Gee wears prosthetic fangs in his makeup and you hear it impede his speech in every scene he’s in and yet clearly they either didn’t bother doing ADR work on him or he was still wearing fangs during it. Why? Beats me.

Underworld‘s not trying to be a work of art. A man dies in it because his chain whip gets stuck under a rock. So I can see why people might find it trashy fun in all of the Victorian carts and overlit sewer action, but I’d be lying to say I don’t get tired of it before the halfway point and the work it goes through to complicate its plot – including how many times Michael slips between Vampire custody and Lycan custody – is alienating. It is what it is in the end and I still know kid me would have rewatched it. But kid me also had Van Helsing as a favorite movie.

shudder

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Behind Every Space Man…

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A disclosure that I can only get away with on a personal blog: the reason that the concept of a movie largely involved with academics in general puts me usually is the same as one of the (many) reasons that I, Grad student of computers, hate school. I can’t stand chalkboard sounds. Something about the silent scraping of chalk against that calcium sulfate material always gets my teeth grinding and on edge about how easily it could go wrong. There’s always a fine gravelly tone for the contact, no matter how softly you write. Chalkboard makes me anxious.

Anyway, part of the reason why Hidden Figures kept me from enjoying it was the fact that, because it revolved around characters needing to make calculations that are apparent to the audience and that means literal visual representations and that means a lot of chalkboards. It’s imperative to the plot of the film after all, which is to follow on three of the unsung heroines of the NASA Project Mercury between 1961-62 (the project lasted from 1958-1963, early in the Space Race). Which, being a Space enthusiast, obviously interested me heavily enough to forego the fact that I couldn’t even finish director Theodore Melfi’s first feature St. Vincent. To be honest, his bland “history class movie” work here is not good either and yet another reason why I didn’t dig Hidden Figures enough to understand why it’s such a heavy contender for the Best Picture Oscar.

Those unsung heroines of the field are notably African-American women working in a dungeon-esque basement in a bland building in NASA away from the real projects at the beginning of the film. The three central ones in our focus are Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), who spends the majority of her screentime going through a painstaking academic crucible to be promoted from mathematician to engineer, Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), the much-labored de facto supervisor-without-the-title of all the Afro-American female calculators who ends up getting ahead of NASA on their integration of IBM’s computers, and very much at the front of the picture, Katharine Johnson nee Goble (Taraji P. Henson), whose accuracy with complex calculations meant that she was able to figure trajectories and landing points better than the IBMs and helped send John Glenn (Glen Powell) to space and back again.

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If I do admit I somewhat dug Hidden Figures, it’s by the skin of its teeth and thanks entirely to its cast. You see, Hidden Figures is the sort of movie that under a director as lazy as Melfi pushes everything right into the indiscernable background of the film just to prostrate itself to actors (this as opposed to the much more skilled Pablo Larrain’s Oscarbait biopic this year, Jackie, which is undeniably a showcase for Natalie Portman’s performance but also an overall brilliantly crafted examination in trauma, grief, and identity). And when I say indiscernable, I mean, I can’t waste any more words trying to think of a manner that Melfi tries to make the movie have any personality beyond its soundtrack – a mix between Hans Zimmer & Benjamin Wallfisch trying to use unrecognizable motifs to make this feel like a Kevin Costner vehicle from the late 80s to Pharrell Williams writing original songs trying so hard to recreate the James Brown stylings of 1960s rhythm music. Otherwise, it’s the least effort I’ve seen in a visual vocabulary.

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Part of why this movie needed to have its cast – especially its three leads – do the heavy-lifting is from the frank fact that there is not as much fascination made with what the three did than it is with the fact that they ARE black women and unlike Tim Brayton, I really have no problem with that being the point of the film. The film portrays Johnson’s mathematical capability like it’s practically casual for her and the bigotry is the only real roadblock to seeing her accomplishments. In the meantime, the only reason Jackson has a tough time being allowed to join the engineers or Vaughan getting the recognition she deserves for being overworked as a supervisor without the recognition she earns for it is because of their color while their gender leads to them being doubted by many of the black men surrounding them, including briefly Johnson’s obvious to-be-husband Lt. Col. Jim Johnson (Mahershala Ali, because he’s everywhere in 2016 and I don’t mind with the life he gives to a functional role pretending the story is about his eagerness to marry Katherine). Could the film be less lead-footed about it? Lord, YES. There are two speeches by Henson given to Johnson and her supervisor Al Harrison (Kevin Costner as the good white man who again makes it work in his Costner wholesomeness) and they are brilliantly delivered, especially the latter in its exhausted fieriness, but the dialogue does her no favors overstating themes and the script by Melfi and Allison Schroeder never gets better.

And yet Monae provides more proof that with enough screentime, she can use sparks to make a presence even when her character is only driven by step-by-step plotting (Jackson’s academic pursuits are the least-developed area in the script). Spencer uses her usual screen persona to embody a mother hen role that portrays not only how easily she can have a relationship with our leads and the rest of the computers and defend their jobs, but even lets that extend to Vaughan’s skill with machinery, continuously remaking “that a girl” when she maneuvers a computer or car or tv or radio with ease and making it totally not hokey. And Henson… Henson’s facials alone embody a weariness and lack of confidence that translates to more focus on her work. And then Henson uses that build into an arc of growing confidence to call things how she sees it and finally get a seat at the table. It’s a performance deserving of a better movie. All of the performances are (save for Jim Parsons being… a non-entity). It’s a story deserving of a better director. The movie may have finally given these real-life heroines credit, but I’m cannot give it much more beyond its actors.

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Get the Hook

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WHY THE FUCK WOULD YOU POSITION SOMEBODY BEHIND A POLE AND THINKS IT’S GOOD FRAMING?!

Even after we’ve already squared the “First Best Picture” discrepancy, the Oustanding Picture slate for the 2nd Academy Awards is quite tricky. Movies get lost. That’s simply what happens. We can (and should) push for preservation of our art in this industry, but despite our best efforts, we might lose prints completely. And so it is a common tragedy that The Patriot, one of the nominees for Best Picture in that very ceremony, has no complete print remaining in the world and we might never see it ever again. I can’t speak to its quality, but given that it’s directed by the brilliant Ernst Lubitsch, I like to imagine it worthy of standing amongst the masterpieces in his career. At the very least, I like to hope it’s a good movie.

Its absence from the world means that we filmgoers are left with four nominees from the 2nd Oscar ceremony and bruh… they’re all fucking bad. If I were to group the nominees of the first ceremony of the Oscars to be broadcasted (on the radio) and count their collective redeeming features, I’d be able to do it on one hand and spare fingers. So, in this lost cause, I’m not sure we could do worse than the actual winner of the evening The Broadway Melody (itself having a lost Technicolor part), but I’ll tell you something… we could do much much better.

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In retrospect, it’s easy to see why The Broadway Melody was selected to take home the top prize: it’s about show business, it had the powerful Irving Thalberg of MGM producing it (Thalberg had another nominee within the slate – the variety special Hollywood Revue), but the most obvious one is a matter of historical precedence: The Broadway Melody is not only the first sound picture to have won the top Oscar prize, it is also the first all-talking musical (The Jazz Singer obviously predates it as the first sound musical, but is mostly made up of silent soundtrack-less moments).

There is one thing that is certain: it didn’t win that shit with merit. The Broadway Melody is one of only three movies to win the Best Picture Oscar without receiving ANY other Oscars at the ceremony (the others are Grand Hotel and Mutiny on the Bounty; also no film won more than 1 Oscar at this ceremony) and that says quite a lot.

The story is cookie-cutter showbiz, even as early as 1929: The Mahoney Sisters – Hank (Bessie Love) and Queenie (Anita Page) show up in New York to rendezvous with Hank’s fiancé Eddie Kearns (Charles King), who also happens to be a singer, songwriter, and their potential in on the Broadway stages. Indeed, they try to show off their nonexistent talent to producer Francis Zanfield and are barely able to get their approval to be in the play when the three of them make their appeal (Queenie having the most influence). The very number they try to show off to Zanfield is a good synecdoche for the quality – the girls’ voices of the screechiest quality and barely able to keep tempo, their dancing even clumsier and that’s even when them holding on to each other in the most boring fashion, the song (which I honestly don’t think I can identify) was hokey in the worst way, and the performance keeps getting stilted by the piano’s malfunction. “I’ve seen enough,” Zanfield eventually declares and he made it through the performance farther than I did. I hate to use a better movie to dig on something that already is poor on its own merit, but The Broadway Melody until this point basically promises the same type of backstage making-of-a-show drama that was more less perfected in 1933 with 42nd Street. While it tries to stick to the sameof structure in which dialogue scenes go long and far between poorly sung musical numbers (almost all composed by legendaries Nacio Herb Brown and lyricised by Arthur Freed, who have both obviously seen better days), things get more melodramatic but only less interesting.

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During their lucky break on the show, Queenie – whom practically nobody can pass by without commenting on how beautiful she is – gets the attention of rich playboy Jock Warriner (Kenneth Thomson), to the dismay of Hank at the potential of it breaking the duo up and Eddie as he slowly discovers that the empty air between him and Queenie must mean that the two of them truly love each other, since he has even less chemistry with Hank. In the meantime, the two girls’ Uncle Jed (Jed Prouty) keeps offering Hank a part in his 30-week traveling show and Hank considers it for longer than necessary. This all comes ahead to the most protracted and unengaging climax of shouting and manly punching with the sense that it’s more dramatic than it is (the wikipedia summary makes the ending sound more cynical than the vanilla film bothers to present it). I’m not sure if I don’t prefer the bad singing to the melodrama, since at least the terrible show performances have inadvertent humor in them. The first big revue we watch is the most laughably simplistic modeling of New York to the titular song where it’s just the flattest full frame shot director Harry Beaumont could come up with of Eddie and the girls finding their way around it (and filling it up later with a chorus line didn’t miraculously help). Its hilarious incompetence is the closest this gets to entertaining.

I’m not sure I can recommend this to even completists about film history, that it spawned a franchise to rival the Gold Diggers is a sham, and there’s much better movies that revolutionize musicals and sound within the same era (and without the poor sound quality of scratches and volume inconsistency either, but innovation means flaws with happen). It’s morbid mistake of the Academy to award such a film on their second year, but they got it right the following year, thankfully…

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For Your Consideration 2017

Ah, Oscar voting season has finally begun for the ceremony and whatever is still in the minds of those voters in the industry at this point is probably what’s going to find its way to those ballots and eventually to being an announced nominee come the 24th of January. It makes it just the slightest bit too late to express my own dark horse ideas of what should be nominated in the categories, but it’s not like any Academy members read this blog and this kind of wishful thinking is just as fun as it is harmful for my esteem.

So for your consideration for the Oscars, I’m gonna try to pick movies that I know have had some discussion but aren’t very strong contenders at this point…

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VISUAL EFFECTSDeepwater Horizon

I never in my life expected a day would come when I would suggest a Peter Berg movie to be nominated, but dammit if that isn’t a really physically surrounding mountain of effects in portraying the infamous explosion and oil spill. Like, the rest of the movie may be a dud just like the rest of that hack’s work, but the effects here are chaotic and full of mayhem and the result is a fire that feels like a complete danger even when the characters are cliche-o-mat extensions.

In any case, I’m sure Patriots Day will put me right back on hating that fool.

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BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY: Roger Deakins – Hail, Caesar!
BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN: Jess Gonchor – Hail, Caesar!
BEST COSTUME DESIGN: Mary Zophres – Hail, Caesar!

The lukewarm reaction to one of the densest films the Coens have given us (and unlike A Serious Man and Barton Fink, unpacking all the things the movie is about – like Hollywood, communism, Catholicism, etc. – doesn’t feel like a chore at all. It’s a lot of fun to dig deeper into this film!) is flat-0ut unfair. This movie deserves more praise for juggling so many dishes and dropping none, but I concede that it might not be some people’s thing so whatever. You can be wrong.

You are REALLY wrong to say this movie, in all of its happy homage to the studio system and 1950s Hollywood, is not absolutely positively gorgeous. Even if all you say is “well it’s just old Hollywood vignettes”, they’re stunning toybox vignettes that want to show off their stars’ skills in accents, stuntwork, dancing, and still give tribute to the glorious lie of cinema. Get out my face if you hate this.

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BEST ORIGINAl SCREENPLAY: Maren Ade – Toni Erdmann

People rallying over The Handmaiden (for Adapted Screenplay) and I think it’s the wrong Foreign-Language film. Erdmann is the one that doesn’t seem to lose itself in the third act. Now, I know it’s silly to look at the script for a movie that’s nearly three hours and commend it for its patience with its characters and sitting to watch them react and grow as respondents to one another, but the story of Winfried and Ines’ struggles to be father and daughter is sweeter and more touching than I expected of a German film without losing the realism behind and that’s to say nothing of its successes in convincing even when Ines tries to be different, she’s still Winfried’s daughter simply based on the way she speaks and does things. Plus, it’s hilarious. This movie is laugh-out-loud funny to me and I think that’s a real plus for comedy.

I can at least be satisfied knowing it’s absolutely going to win the Foreign-Language Picture Oscar.

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BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Whit Stillman – Love & Friendship
BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR: Tom Bennett – Love & Friendship
BEST ACTRESS: Kate Beckinsale – Love & Friendship

Anybody who has seen the movie or is remotely familiar with Stillman or Jane Austen knows how this is a no-brainer. Stillman was BORN to make an Austen film, he was practically making metropolitan Austen films until this point. Beckinsale was BORN to play a wickedly manipulative socialite woman in Austen fashion (+10 for having like thuh baist chemistry with Chloe Sevigny) and Tom Bennett needs to have his own show playing Sir James Martin, because his imbecility is a complete riot.

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BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Janelle Monae – Hidden Figures

So, like, if you’re gonna nominate this super-meh Oscarbait for Best Picture (and it looks like they might), you may as well nominate the very best part of it because I swear to God, Janelle Monae will become a movie star with or without good material (but thankfully Moonlight WAS good material, though Monae has much she can show off with this role).

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BEST ACTOR: Trevante Rhodes – Moonlight

I don’t wanna hear it about “Oh he’s only there for 1/3 of the movie”. He’s a co-lead with the other actors for Chiron. Nah, Rhodes does not only deserve the nomination, he deserves the Gold. Embody two performances we see before his (putting pressure on him), while personifying tropes of black masculinity, while subtly communicating a vulnerability and uncertainty underneath all that while keeping in mind Black has to react to seeing Kevin again.

All on this… no-name never-heard-his-name actor? This is some demanding work and Rhodes ACES IT. FUCKING ACES IT. The man should be a fucking movie star by this sort of performance and I really hope it.

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BEST DIRECTOR: Pablo Larrain
BEST PICTUREJackie

Remember when this movie felt for a comfortable bit like it would be a contender for both awards? And then it suddenly slowly faded out awards conversation except for the obvious one that gives the unfortunate look of Osca– well, I mean, it IS Oscarbait and there’s no going around that. And yes, obviously a goal of the movie (that it looks like it’ll achieve) is to get Portman a second Oscar. BUT… there’s more to it than that. Larrain and company have given us an abstract and disorienting presentation of violent grief and how it affects the memory and psychology. It’s a more impressive portrayal of immediate trauma than the same year’s Sully, by far. It just seems like one great big block of somebody’s mind trying to convince herself her husband’s brains are not on her, that she still has a home somewhere, and that she is more than just a shell of history. It’s the anti-thesis to Hamilton‘s “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story”. And… I’m sorry did people just decide not to watch this? It’s incredible and deserves more love than its not getting.

Rogue Leader Standing By

You want to click the link below before you read the actual meat of this review. Because, y’know, it’s fun.

https://brorlandi.github.io/StarWarsIntroCreator/#!/AK__EBd1Hb32o9VdxuMN

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Writing about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story this far after its release (but spurred by it being the first number-one box office winner of 2017 during its long and fast run up the film release records) is a great big bitch. Because, despite the pretty divided attitudes of the film, I really don’t think I have any new opinion to bring to the table. I truly deeply madly do not think I do. But I can at least start up with a summary of my views towards the film that I think most people can recognize and agree with:

When it came to atmosphere and scale, especially towards a Star Wars movie that focuses on the construction and revelation of the Death Star with a focus on ragtag militia response, it was a remarkably inspired and smart choice to go with the director of the recent American Godzilla, Gareth Edwards. I don’t think I need to expound upon how it would make sense for a guy who just made a movie about giant monsters lifting and towering menacingly over cities before bring about their fiery destruction to move on to a movie largely focused on the gigantic technological terror that is the Death Star and, man, is this the biggest and most dangerous the Death Star has ever felt as a presence since the original Star Wars declared “that’s no moon…”. This is a movie that uses the Death Star as its own big deadly monster, ready to be awakened.

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When it comes to the development of character and plot… well… I wouldn’t say Edwards, once again remembering him as the director of the 2014 Godzilla, was the worst option, but that’s certainly not the choice I would have gone with (his more character-based debut Monsters might have been worthwhile proof of his ability, but I honestly don’t remember much from that movie since I saw it half a decade ago). And Rogue One does not prove that intuition wrong either. The writing here originally by Chris Weitz (whose background of American Pie and Twilight films with his brother were not promising) could very well have been affected by the notorious post-production involvement of Tony Gilroy (who allegedly had almost as much authority on the project as Edwards as a well-known figure in Hollywood and is rewarded with a co-writing credit with Weitz), but let’s be real, looking at the film we have as it might have looked on paper… it’s rushed in terms of build-up until the final third where it spends more time than it should backloading itself up with a whole lotta fan service (though it is still admittedly an extremely fantastic final third that I’ll get into later) and the characters are so flat and personified by one-word descriptions that you might have gotten just scenery to play the roles as their dialogue would demand and STILL give performances that would satisfy a writer who is aware of how empty this script is, which Weitz is decidedly not. The famous Donnie Yen character, force-sensitive blind non-Jedi Chirrut, does one thing to aid the plot the whole movie, his armed wingman Baze (Jiang Wen) even less. Our protagonist Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is manipulated by the plot rather than vice versa and whereas Daisy Ridley gave a live-wire performance in Star Wars: The Force Awakens to sell her character, Jones kind of just sits and pleads with everyone around her. Her arc and that of co-protagonist Rebel assassin Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) is malformed and her relationship with Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker), whom the Rebels send her to acquire intelligence on, nonexistent (I would trade the better of the two Darth Vader appearances in this film, a highlight of the movie and franchise, for one or two flashback scenes of Saw raising child Jyn like we’re meant to believe).

Star Wars, like I have said before, has always been a franchise where the scripts were frankly weak, but Rogue One is more than weak. A whole potential conflict in which Saw’s prisoner, the defected Empire pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), is tortured via psychic Goosebumps-character-looking alien that is dropped and never discussed again. This sort of narrative incompetence has not been seen since Attack of the Clones, I’d dare to say. There is no greater sign of the obvious rushing of the cash cow that this spin-off series is than the fact that its script reads like a first draft, like ideas were hung on to that should have been dropped and surrogates put in place of characters they figure they’d work on later with the bare string of plot points.

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So here I am with my big thesis on how to approach Rogue One: A Star Wars Story: If you are in this for story and characters, you will loathe this movie. No other way around it (well, potentially one that I’ll get at). But if you are in this for atmosphere and spectacle and scale, you will probably feel like you got your money’s worth.

I won’t be coy. I really really really enjoyed Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. So it should be pretty clear which of those two sides I am on.

And I can’t take seriously any claim that Rogue One doesn’t supply atmosphere in full demand. Every single set physical and worn out like the tired stylizations of George Lucas’ original 1977 production. The desert planet Jedha is a lot more distinguishable as its own culture and isolated society as opposed to Tatooine than The Force Awakens‘ Jakku, the industrial elements of Ring of Kafrene feel like a nightmare of mechanical influences for the few seconds we see it. I swear there’s two gorgeous scenes – but only two, this is still simply popcorn cinema – where the constant motion of either wind or rain between two figures in dusk or night make the great Kurosawa Akira actually felt as an on-screen presence more than Lucas or Abrams could hope to accomplish, and both scenes involved Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), Jyn’s father and the target of her mission with Cassian.

And the action. Hoo boy, the action! If the final 30 minutes of Rogue One does not do anything for you, you may be clinically dead. Because by God, there is a yet another brilliant three-way climax like Return of the Jedi accomplished before it involving ground forces desperately pushing into each other on a beautiful beach base, intense dogfighting in the space above (with one my favorite moments being a big ship’s arrival flat-out rejecting a smaller ship’s attempt to hyperdrive) between star ships spinning and moving and being experiential as all hell with the way the effects play with dimension and color, and of course the obvious espionage element of Jyn and Cassian attempting to get certain plans most Star Wars fans would be aware of. The awareness of these three things happening at the same time gives a frenzy to the climax of the action that translates to urgency, something the mission entails and one of the moments the movie’s atmosphere serves as storytelling.

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Ah, that’s the thing about Rogue One‘s spectacle. It serves a greater purpose to the story than even a good script could possibly have. From early on, we’re made aware of the Death Star’s existence (and Galen’s hand in building it) and there’s no such thing as a promise for its destructive capabilities in this film… we’re almost just as quickly witness to its power in a manner surprising even for people who are already fans of the franchise. And keep in mind, this is absolutely a movie that rewards people who already know what’s happening in the 1977 film after this movie closes. But nevertheless, the Death Star is already a symbol of the doom to its characters even for newcomers. Does this make this “the war movie” people claim Rogue One to be? Hell no, not least of which because there’s still a romantic and swashbuckling flavor to most of the violence we see and an epic gravitas to each individual moment that does not mesh with the unconcerned inhumanity of a REAL war film. This is a war film as much as Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a political thriller. But it’s still damn good popcorn cinema.

And of course, it still earns our concern for those characters. Yeah, I said they’re badly written and they are. But this film assembles a dream team of a cast able to imbue enough of their own personality to do the extra heavy lifting needed to make these characters alive and likable, save for Jones and Luna (and in Luna’s case, it might not even be his fault, but his face will forever be way too boyish for me to take it seriously as grizzled disillusioned soldier). Yen and Wen have phenomenal chemistry together that I’m sure everybody walked out wondering why they don’t have their own movie, while the ever reliable pathetic and desperate villain actor Ben Mendelsohn as the primary antagonist Orson Krennic is the standout for me as a living man full of pretensions that are struggling to outweigh his fears of his superiors. And Mendelsohn doesn’t have it easy when that superior foil he acts against is a CGI uncanny valley zombie of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin, even though the inhuman element adds to the coldness of Tarkin’s presence.

The movie is rough. It totally is. I think this review made a lot of it sound like a jumble of moments, but it’s also proved to be a lot of fun for somebody like me who just wanted an avenue to live in the world of Star Wars like no other movie afforded us to. I don’t think any other movie save for The Phantom Menace truly opened us up to how expansive and large the universe is between all of Rogue One‘s locations and as an overall result of both its strengths and flaws, Rogue One feels to me like one moment where I actually got inhabit the galaxy rather than witness a story. That’s something I never knew I actually wanted from a franchise of pulp and it makes me a bit more eager to see how much more Disney, Kathleen Kennedy, and LucasFilm begin to rebuild the blank space they left where the Extended Universe of Star Wars once was.

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Living for the City

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So, where I left off talking about Wings, I was discussing a very unfortunate discrepancy involved in the very 1st Academy Awards on May 1929. You see, there were in fact TWO equally highest honors in the ceremony and while one of them – The Academy Award for Outstanding Picture – was adopted over the years into what would eventually become The Academy Award for Best Picture, the second honor was disposed of before the following year’s ceremony. That honor was The Academy Award for Unique and Artistic Picture and the main source for ire and controversy comes from the fact that the former would be awarded to Wings while the latter would be awarded to F.W. Murnau’s lovely melodrama Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans and practically everybody who has had the fortune of seeing both films recognizes that Sunrise is far and away the much better picture, making the abandonment and denial of its place in Academy history feel something like a heavy slight. Then again it’s kind of very easy to find such actions a slight and recognize Wings as the inferior choice when Sunrise is among several consensus picks for the very best film ever made and if you’re expecting me to break with consensus, nahhhhhhhh son. I’m basic like that too.

1927 is a year like no other in cinema. It’s right in the middle of that fantastic period in the late 1920s where the early experimentation inherent in the creation of a new artform – particularly led by European filmmakers and film industries, where each nation had its own vocabulary to visual storytelling – led to it taking the sort of narrative shapes we recognize as common in the movies we watch today, yet at the time of those films’ release, they were probably fresh enough to be mind-expanding to audiences. It’s especially great, in my eyes, when such filmmaking techniques can be seen as innovative in modern circumstances, just from the roughness of their genesis having a kind of realness to what we’re watching. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans does not just feel innovative – like we’re watching the beginnings of cinema anew – it feels heavily expressive and moving to an almost schmaltzy way.

1927 also happened to be the era in which European filmmakers were now being brought over to Hollywood on the merit of their talents, particularly Germans with their heightened shadow-based Expressionism style heralding Hollywood Studios’ interests in using that for genre tales, such as horror. F.W. Murnau was one such filmmaker – with possibly his most famous work, the vampire story Nosferatu, and the fable adaptation of Faust under his belt – but horror was not the genre for which he was recruited for. In fact, William Fox wanted Murnau to make whatever film he wanted with Fox’s production.

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Whatever film Murnau wanted to make turned out to be a picture about a tale written by Carl Mayer so simple and straightforward, it doesn’t even afford proper names to its subjects. Our primary couple is the Man (George O’Brian) and The Wife (Janet Gaynor) and they both live in the Countryside separate from the City where the vampish Woman from the City (Margaret Livingston) comes from to start an affair with the Man. The Man is so corrupted by this relationship outside of his marriage that he becomes malleable to the Girl from the City’s suggestions of leaving with her to live with in the City, but this would only be possible if The Man kills his wife (they are ambiguous as to what should happen with their infant child). The particular plan goes that The Man would take The Wife across the water that separates The Countryside from the City and arrange her drowning to look like an accident, but the Man finds himself unable to go through with it. The Wife, understandably frightened by her husband, rushes away when they get to shoreline while the Man chases her and her forgiveness into the City and it takes a while but they find their love for each other renewed in the day they spend enjoying the sites and sounds of the metropolis they found themselves in.

Certainly a story with major incidents but not much depth beyond the insistence on love triumphing over doubt and fear and a balanced ability to find room for the serenity in the simplicity of life in the Countryside – captured by cinematographers Karl Struss & Charles Rosher in a dreamy light haze that makes the day scenes glow and the night scenes become smoky and inky – yet merriment in the busy attitude of the City – brought to glorious toppling life from the ground up by uncredited art director Rochus Gliese in solid angular modeling and exciting lights, aided by an ambient soundtrack from Fox’s Movietone technology that gave us crowd noises, train sounds, and car sounds to immerse us into the city of The Man and the Wife’s pursuits.

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In any case, Sunrise is not a movie that tries to hide what emotions it thinks you’re supposed to feel. Expressionism earns its name for a reason and Murnau was possibly the most well-regarded filmmaker to invoke Expressionism in the majority of his work (I at one point called him the greatest filmmaker of all time and would probably still hold him in my top ten. I certainly still swear by most of his stuff.), he was interested in using as many toys he could pull out of the box from rear projection to chiaroschuro (especially used in moments that imply the Man’s capability for violence) and even my favorite, title cards that transformed with the mood and morphed (the only other film I can recall doing this so effectively, maybe even better than Sunrise, is Paul Leni’s The Cat and the Canary of the same year from another German Expressionist filmmaker come to Hollywood). All of these toys are used to project those feelings as directly as possible to the audience and it feels fine for a story that intends to be nothing more than fable, devoted to traditional story tropes from the very beginning. The archness of O’Brien’s foreboding presence where it feels like every step he takes is dragged by a weight alone and Gaynor’s muted but spirited feminity (as opposed to the loudness of Livingston’s flapper stereotype) is just another tool for Murnau to use to present that.

Everything about Sunrise comes together well. It feels ambitious even in moments where it’s only character based moments like when the couple are in a church musing upon their ordeal. It has a sharp handle on tone, such as when the affair between the Man and the Woman from the City turns a bit more towards Murnau’s familiar horror in a psychological sense, or one of my favorite instances, a perfect tossaround between happiness at the couple freshening up at a barber shop, followed by uncomfortable black comedy at the Wife being hit on by an insistent patron there, followed by turning again into brief horror as the Man threatens said patron with a pocketknife, before back to comedy as he frightens him with a swipe. The abstractness of the story made it all just so easy for Murnau and editor Harold D. Schuster to form single scenes into great big emotions while indulging playfully in moments like the Couple dancing at a fair and chasing a pig.

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This is silent cinema. It needs to be bold. It has no room for subtlety. Murnau was one of the greatest because he recognized that and yet he afforded his storytelling a level of sophistication because he took pride in his craft and looking for new ways to change up the shapes of emotions on the screen. And I don’t see any reason why he shouldn’t have been proud of the films he gave us nor should I be surprised that the director of The Last Laugh – my very first Murnau picture – is good at using award-winning visuals and performance (Sunrise also has the distinction of winning the very first Oscars for Best Actress and Cinematography) to manipulate our emotions and sympathies with our characters. Only that he was THAT fucking good, for Sunrise is a movie I’ve hardly ever seen improved upon in the 89 years since its release.

In the end, the arbitrary committee and decision-making that led to Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans being unceremoniously snubbed feels unfair to this day, especially appalling to me given that it’s in my top ten favorite movies, and so if I had to utilize this upcoming series to rewrite history in any manner as befits my tastes, it would be to recognize Sunrise as one of the first recipients of what was one of the highest honors American cinema would receive, a good pin on what the movie would promise for the medium it took to such dizzying heights, even when Oscar had to be retroactive in its own recognition for its merits.

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Aces High

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William Wellman’s silent dogfighting film Wings has two big distinctions within the annals of war fiction and another within the annals of cinema history and I beg your patience as I focus largely on the former before I start to discuss the latter for reasons that will be obvious soon. The first distinction is usually not very much discussed to begin with and it’s probably because it requires quite a bit of historical context.

Wings was released in 1927, just right in the middle between World War I and World War II. And that’s kind of an interesting place for war fiction. Most of war literature and war films around that time have a pretty clear attitude towards warfare as being an unfair and costly trauma to the world that we all prayed would have occurred when we dubbed World War I “The War to End All Wars”. In the 1930s leading up to World War II, fiction began to be filled with frightened and arch works that implied how WWII would just be reopening wounds we had just spent decades trying to close and began upping the nightmare quality of World War I as a tragedy for us. The Big Parade itself was one of the big WWI films prior to Wings‘ production that illustrates that, while the most famous example is probably the subtle trench-based imagery of Mordor in J.R.R. Tolkien (himself a jaded WWI veteran)’s The Lord of the Rings books. In these days where we do have several movies that touch on the human cost of war, it may be hard to recall that pre-WWII propaganda era had some pretty heavy stuff in the genre.

Wings, which was directed by the only WWI veteran directing in Hollywood at the time, probably didn’t stand alone on being a pretty romantic look at war in that era, but it did stand on that side of the line between pro-war and anti-war pictures. Its attitude on WWI was less concerned with the damage it made to the people of the world and more concerned with portraying the idea of war as just one of the many places where boys could heartily become men or meet with the glory that comes with giving your life for your country. In general, conflict is shown to be a source of honor and camaraderie amongst men (strictly men, this is a male-skewed flick) from the very get-go. German planes refuse to shoot down planes with jammed machine guns. Our two male leads start off with contempt for each other before they get a moment to punch out their feelings with each other and suddenly become the fastest of friends. Wings is even heavily apologetic about its final tragic beats in portraying the war, turning it into a moment of forgiveness for a character and a validation of one of the central romances.

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My attitude on the subject of war aside (which is not similar to Wings‘), this sort of optimism is probably part of why a silent film going for a little under 2 1/2 hours is probably able to get away with that stretch of time. It’s excited about the things it means to show us as more than just spectacle, but grounded myth of heroics and action. And I think it has a real good reason to be excited about that when its focus is on the daring field of dogfighting – aerial combat – in the war. What is already a pretty thrilling concept of warfare to me (aviation and aeronautics in general) is only made extraordinary by the craft of those very same scenes, mixing between as many possible techniques one could throw at real-life shots of planes zooming around each other in the sky, leading up to one of two Oscars that the movie earned at the very first ceremony the Academy had – Best Engineering Effects. Save for the painting in of flames (which has mixed results with me), every single one of the movie’s flying firefights has spared no expense in trying to gain urgency and pleasant perils out of a visual presentation of that. It’s easily the biggest reason to watch Wings and yet its storytelling between those battles is not extraordinary but still digestible to act as interludes.

That story is more-or-less a bromance between two men, small-town man Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and wealthy David Armstrong (Richard Arlen). This is no different than the kind of men in war relationship we’ve seen many times, particularly between flyboy flicks like Top Gun and Pearl Harbor – started over the affections of a pretty woman, Sylvia (Jobyna Ralston), grown into a masculine bond over their great work in the skies together. Sylvia’s affections belong strictly to David, despite leading Jack to believe otherwise, while Jack is the object of long-time friend Mary Preston’s (the iconic Clara Bow, in a performance that is limited in screentime yet eagerly uses all her strengths as tomboy, sex object, and dramatic actress) affections. Mary herself is so devoted to Jack and his patriotism that she herself enlists in the war as an ambulance driver. Obviously a large scale soap opera within itself and one that eventually gets tiring, especially when it tries to go darker with its ironic final dogfight scene (set after an amazing setpiece recreating the Battle of Saint-Mihiel), but nevertheless Wellman’s eagerness to go big on the melodrama helps such a long film feel like it keeps moving. And when I say big, I mean camera shots and tricks that are used for casual scenes one doesn’t really need unless he just wants to play around. My personal favorite touch is bubbles flooding a scene when Jack himself is drunk. I can hardly tell how this story I’ve seen many times before might have been perceived in 1927 as fresh or not. It certainly wasn’t when I first saw this movie in 2012. But it nevertheless was the best sort of digestible dramatics that leads to being loved by a large audience and so it’s easy to see how it won the first Best Picture Oscar.

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Which is where I rewind all the way back to my very first statement on this review, where I stated there are two big distinctions for Wings and address that second distinction for Wings. The very first Academy Awards ceremony took place in May 1929 and had presented one of its two highest honors The Academy Award for Outstanding Picture to Wings. The award would go on through different names over the years until 1962 when it would finally take its current form of The Academy Award for Best Picture (Wings is also the only silent film to have won Best Picture until The Artist, which still has two lines of dialogue). History has led this to be a point of contention as Wings was seen to have adopted the honor of being the very first Best Picture winner away from another more well-regarded film, which had been awarded that second highest honor from the very first ceremony – The Academy Award for Unique and Artistic Picture, which would only be given that one year before it was dropped. An unfair circumstance I intend to address as I continue from here into a retrospective of the Best Picture Oscar winners, if only to make a detour for one of my favorite movies of all time…

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Speaker for the Dead

Death has been busy. 2016 as a year has been taking an outstanding amount of public figures – from musical legends and icons of the likes of Prince to the humanitarian figures like Abdul Sattar Edhi and ranging from the expected such as the aging champion Muhammad Ali to the unexpected like Anton Yelchin. I wish I could say it’s been kept more to headlines than around me, but that’s not the case. So, I want to take a moment to identify, somewhere in the overwhelming statistic, that these were people who died and not just credits on screen (or page or stage) and so on. This page will take a while to be updated and completed, but it also allows for time to be given to recognize and identify each individual’s contribution to film rather than some arbitrary numerical body count attached to an arbitrary numerical year.

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I can only admit to knowing Don Calfa (3 December 1929 – 1 December 2016) from his work in Return of the Living Dead, which is admittedly a film I’m fond enough for that one association to matter. Especially since his character is the one I remember most from the movie save for Tarman and Suicide. I fondly recall regarding his character – given his getup and elements – as Nazi Pat Smear.

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Robin Hardy (2 October 1929 – 1 July 2016) made one movie and then spent the rest of his career just trying to remake it unofficially. I can’t give him much credit for imagination, but I can give him credit for that first movie that really left an impression in my formative high school years – The Wicker Man. How big an impression? Well, first I think its pleasant soundtrack both opened me up to European folk music while introducing me to how movies can use happy tunes ironically to unnerve viewers. But the bigger one is how it suddenly made me re-examine religion’s place in the world and how religious ideologies respond to each and so on and so forth that began interesting questions I still find fascinating today. Which are probably on the part of my own overthinking but not bad for a movie that’s essentially just trying to be an evil town horror flick with some very one-sided atheist attitudes.

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There are, in this world, people who have avoided the 1931 Spanish production of Drácula because they don’t want to watch the Spanish version of a movie they already saw and even further… people in the world who saw both versions and prefer the English one starring Lugosi Bela. Good for you. I personally am on Team Drácula and part of the reason is for Lupita Tovar (27 July 1910 – 12 November 2016) having charisma and chemistry and personality enough to play Mina as a human being that I should care about and not the cardboard that Helen Chandler acted like.

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There’s a great mistake early in Michael Massee (1 September 1952 – 20 October 2016)’s career that haunted over him for the rest of his life that was never his fault and I think it’s unfair, especially in consideration of how it made the headlines alongside his name in the time of his death. Most people familiar with the name would already remember it and the morbidly curious can look it up, so I won’t bother stating it. Instead, I insist my favorite performance of his is a small (for there’s hardly any lead roles under his belt) but nevertheless memorable one from David Fincher’s Se7en, where he plays a witness to a murder and his casual attitude towards it (without denying his shock at something horrifying taking place at his premises) is one of several moments that exhausts Brad Pitt’s character. That sort of reactionary acting that is the backbone of Se7en could only have worked if the performances against the lead had something apathetic or cruel to bounce off of and Massee’s apathy in the scene is off-putting yet understandable in consideration of everything else.

Nick Menza (23 July 1964 – 21 May 2016) didn’t have to wait until his death to stop him from drumming. He could have ended it early when he had a tumor. When he needed knee surgery. When he was unceremoniously kicked out of Megadeth by Mustaine. When he nearly lost his arm. When the Life After Death tour got shelved because two of his bandmates died at once.

But he was still kicking until he literally collapsed on stage mid-show last night. Menza, like anybody else from classic-era Megadeth, was a warrior. He didn’t take prisoners.

He didn’t take any shit.

 

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As a child, my brother’s friend at one point suggested some stupid sounding movie called Singin’ in the Rain to watch and I just told him to beat it like the punk he sounded like suggesting some fancy dancy flick like that. For that reason, not only did it take me until 2009 to watch what would remain one of my favorite movies of all time since for all its energy and joy expanded by performances like hers, but I’m this close to assuming my very first encounter with the legendary Debbie Reynolds (1 April 1932 – 28 December 2016) was as the kindly maternal witch Aggie Cromwell in the Halloweentown series of Disney Channel Original Movies. Because yes, I’m showing my age… I literally watched those as they premiered on the television. But that’s also assuming I didn’t first encounter her kindly warm voice as the titular spider in Charlotte’s Web. So despite watching her many times as a young peppy dancer, my first image of Reynolds is as a warm and motherly figure.

More particularly, a warm motherly figure who had a crazy envious set of movie memorabilia. Reynolds was a staunch advocate of preservation towards our film history in a manner that is largely ignored by those who can or can’t afford it and held on to a lot of priceless collectible material in order to memorialize the history of Hollywood cinema.

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I’m not saying anything new by reporting that Carrie Fisher (21 October 1956 – 27 December 2016) died in moonlight, strangled by her own bra.

Because that’s a fact.

I’d be lying in claiming that Fisher was ever thought highly of to me as an actor, with the only performances of hers ever truly being of note to me from Hannah and Her Sisters and Maps to the Stars. But there’s a reason for that last one that reflects upon what I really admired out of Fisher… her work as a writer. Which is the sort of stuff filled with candidness, wit, and confidence that makes me green with envy. Her sense of humor in works like Wishful Drinking never undercut her bravery towards her personal struggles and her own Devil-May-Care lifestyle while I would not be saying anything about Postcards from the Edge that other people haven’t put in better words than me.

Beyond that, she was also brave in the aspect of mental illness and bringing attention to it as a cause.

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And yet she’s not the only major Star Wars name to have passed either. One remembers Kenny Baker (24 August 1934 – 13 August 2016) having given life to R2-D2, a particularly well-loved droid and comic foil to C-3PO, imbuing into life into a robot without us ever being able to see R2-D2’s face.

Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher, mother and daughter that they were, were only one among several shocking amounts of pairings in death occurring including two previous cinematographers for Steven Spielberg before he stuck Janusz Kaminski, Vilmos Zsigmond (16 June 1930 – 1 January 2016) who lensed Close Encounters of the Third Kind‘s mix of New Hollywood earthiness and the fantastically dark mystery behind it… but Close Encounters of the Third Kind also had pick-up work by Douglas Slocombe (10 February 1913 – 22 February 2016), who also shot the great popcorn action cinema of the original Indiana Jones trilogy. Together, the two men are responsible for some of the cinematic images I’ve watched most in my life.

Guy Hamilton (16 September 1922 – 20 April 2016) directed several James Bond films, including arguably the most famous Goldfinger, and is responsible (along with director Terrence Young) for really getting Bond into stylish camp male fantasy form that we all know him for. But production designer Ken Adam (5 February 1921 – 10 March 2016) was the real source of all the visual elements of Bond’s adventures, especially those fiendish lairs during the Sean Connery run. And that’s only the tip of Adam’s career iceberg in consideration with his iconic War Room et al. work on Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove and lovely historical recreations in Barry Lyndon.

It’s kind of a stretch but Larry Drake and Ron Glass both made appearances in Firefly, my favorite show as an adolescent that still remains something dear to me. Albeit Drake’s appearance and brief and frankly not very remarkable as opposed to the multitude of villainous characters he indulged in playing – my favorite being a deranged Santa Claus from the second episode of Tales from the Crypt – while Glass’ warm and wise performance of the Christian Shepherd Book, imbuing wisdom with dangerous mystery, made Book pretty much my favorite character on the show that wasn’t Mal (because whose favorite character wasn’t Mal) and set the stage for my disappointment when the character had limited screentime in Serenity despite being a regular on the show.

In the meanwhile, Jon Polito and David Huddleston were two character actors and cast members from The Coen brothers cult detective comedy The Big Lebowski in pretty recognizable roles (especially since Huddleston portrayed the title character). Polito in particular was a regular collaborator for the Coens during the 90s leading to one of my favorite performances in Miller’s Crossing, while Huddleston worked all over including Blazing Saddles which co-starred…

Gene Wilder (11 June 19 1933 – 29 August 2016) who could be remembered for his charming chemistry with another late comedy legend in Richard Pryor, his inexhaustible energy for Mel Brooks’ multiple comedies such as SaddlesThe Producers, and Young Frankenstein, or just for the warm ability to be the best possible image of Willy Wonka we’ll ever have, given the off-kilter yet never less than genial nature of the performance.

Andrzej Wajda (6 March 1926 – 9 October 2016) and Andrzej Żuławski (22 November 1940 – 17 February 2016) are more than just the foremost names in Polish cinema with the same first name. They were essentially master and apprentice, the latter having started off as an assistant to the former. In the middle of their careers, they put out the most challenging works of cinema including Man of Iron and the Wajda’s war film trilogy for the former and Possession and Cosmos for the latter.

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Vanity (4 January 1959 – 15 February 2016) remains a staple of beauty in 1980s music and cinema as her group Vanity 6 was one of several acts the legendary artist Prince (7 June 1958 – 21 April 2016) put together. Prince himself is of course an absolute polymath of talent in both music and image. I would never be able to touch upon how far his versatility went.

I don’t think with the death of Keith Emerson (2 November 1944 – 11 March 2016) – arguably the greatest keyboardist of all time – and Greg Lake (10 November 1947 – 7 December 2016) – one of the greatest bassists – 2016 is probably not a fan of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer. Which is understandable for they’re one of those overachieving prog acts that like to show off their skill and turn into a music lesson, but nevertheless, they’re still enjoyable enough to revisit some great tracks and made up by some of the greatest musicians that ever lived. I would have expected the year to go and take another world-class musician, drummer Carl Palmer, to complete the band… but then one remembers Arnold Palmer (10 September 1929 – 25 September 2016), a world-class figure in a different field involving sticks… golf… to complete the Titled hat trick.

Everybody was on about Severus Snape when Alan Rickman (21 February 1926 – 14 January 2016) and I can understand it absolutely, since hell, I grew up with the same character as a young child at the time Harry Potter became a phenomenon. But my favorite story of Rickman doesn’t involve that at all. The man had already won a Tony in ’87 for his performance as Valmont in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Dangerous Liaisons. When his co-leads were grabbed for the subsequent film adaptation, he wasn’t. He was replaced by John Malkovich for the role.

No, instead Rickman’s film debut was Die Hard. Because who wouldn’t want to first be introduced to the world via Die Hard. It’s Die Hard.

My very first introduction to Angus Scrimm (19 August 1926 – 9 January 2016) was from his own introduction to the laserdisc release of Phantasm, a segue into the movie that already promised me that the man behind the imposing Tall Man was one who simply enjoyed the craft of acting – especially the moment in the video where he overthinks the meaning of “alien” – and working with somebody he knew as well as Don Coscarelli. Scrimm’s eager presence in every movie by Coscarelli and long association with him established him as an indie horror lucky charm and added to a very homestyle feel to a filmmaker I never got tired of watching. Thanks for the joy, Scrimm.

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I know bitter ass people like to pretend that Steven Spielberg and George Lucas and their success was what killed New Hollywood Cinema, but I submit instead the actual murderer who did the deed was Michael Cimino (3 February 1939 – 2 July 2016). Not necessarily because the man did anything wrong – although people will talk shit about Heaven’s Gate, I’ll defend to my own grave – but because he simply did not ever give up on his ambitions and that imploded in the end. One can see how that becomes an Achilles Heel financially as an artist, but we need more self-indulgence in cinema as great as Heaven’s Gate, not less.

I really can’t say more about Herschell Gordon Lewis (15 June 1926 – 26 September 2016) that I didn’t already say in my Blood Feast post or History of the Slasher Film, but I’d be remiss to go without mentioning the Godfather of Gore here.

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Anybody who spent enough time around me knows Blue Öyster Cult are one of my biggest jams, almost certainly the reason I got interested in music to begin with, and Sandy Pearlman (5 August 1943 – 26 July 2016) essentially made them from the ground up, from writing many of my favorite songs (including “Astronomy”), to forcing in the supernatural Lovecraft (and historical element) into their music, to producing pretty much all their classic albums. Pearlman is responsible for pretty every single thing I love about the BÖC that other Buck Dharma’s guitar playing. BÖC was already just one of those old legends that still play, but Pearlman’s death really nails in that they’ll never hit that gloriously weird mix of run-of-the-mill rock music with absurdly strange lyricism and production decisions that give it an old-timey nostalgic yet nonetheless monstrous feel – like if a Stephen King character returned to Maine and thought “wasn’t it great that one time I was chased by zombies in these woods as a young man?”

I make it sound less accessible than it is. But it was my type of weird. If Blue Oyster Cult were a film, Pearlman would be the auteur.

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Steve Dillon (22 March 1962 – 22 October 2016) probably best known for his work on Judge Dredd and the Punisher and spent the majority of his career collaborating with Garth Ennis, but given that my favorite comic in high school was Preacher, it should be hardly any surprise that it’s what I’m gonna remember him for. Guy did all 66 issues with Ennis writing and I can’t imagine it being drawn by anyone else for reasons beyond that…

Preacher matters to me as story of America from the perspective of non-Americans (Ennis is Irish, Dillon was English). Since the West no longer exists, Ennis and especially Dillon’s art gave it the country as a whole this revisionist lens as a grungy horizon and that – along with the romantic idealism behind Jesse Custer as a character and his relationship to Tulip O’Hare – gives the series its heart as a Western tale, while the geek show presentation of imperfect attitudes, profane and violent atmospheres, and still a clear-eyed humanity for anybody who isn’t out-and-out evil (it’s why the story can still live for me after high school) give it its horror-show blanket.

Everything about Dillon’s artwork MADE Preacher for me. Ennis is perfectly fine trying to tone down his “hurrhurrsoedgy” r/atheism attitude to give a road narrative and Custer would not be Custer without Ennis’ writing him to be THE COOLEST GUY EVER, but Dillon’s alternating between wide, broad-colored landscapes (usually of the desert night) cooling us after a moment of sudden carnage or boxing the characters travelling (usually the trio of Custer, Tulip, and Cassidy) together as they bond and learn each other’s doubts and fears in different ways. But my REAL favorite thing – something I think is a result of Dillon really trying to get into the American spirit – is the earthy manner he draws his characters. It doesn’t make them ugly and it’s not a barrage of lines trying to rough up the faces, but they’re rugged, they’re bright almost like they’re constantly sweating, they’re unkempt, and you just get the right amount of severity to feel like you’re in the room staring them in the face (and still whenever Custer uses the Word of God power, Dillon found a way to make him seem subtly alien by enlarging Custer’s eyes by just a bit and dousing the iris in red). Even in the masculine facial structure of Tulip and her shock-ended blonde hair, you get the feeling of worn youth with our heroes. And the villains – they’re ghouls, outright monsters. Jody and Starr still have that earthiness, but Jesse’s grandmother is an emaciated Satan of angles and sagging skin, T.C. is an uncomprehensible montage of round surfaces on his face that just make him look like a bug-eyed ghoul, Allfather D’Aronique is a giant emblem of glut and power, Odin Quincannon literally looks more like a penis than Starr as far as I’m concerned (btw, a lot of dick jokes about Starr’s appearance. It’s that kind of story.), and the Saint of Killers… he’s just Clint Eastwood with longer hair and his facial features more forced to the center. Dillon took time designing these characters, it was never one size fits all here and it’s how the story gets away with trying to mix genres that couldn’t be very easy to do (and in a style that could really only exist in the 90s while being a great salvation from the anatomical overkill in musculature that came from the character designs of Todd MacFarlane or Rob Liefield).

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Most people who know me know how fond I am of Casablanca. Fond enough that it’s the only movie that could have tried to dethrone Blade Runner from my favorite movie of all time. Fond enough that I took my girlfriend on a date to see it in 35mm so she could see it for the first time. Fond enough that I really have to acknowledge Madeleine Lebeau (10 June 1923 – 1 May 2016) as the last surviving credited cast member to Casablanca, especially given her small yet notable part in moments like the singing of “La Marseillaise” as she was one of several people on the set who had personal ties to the situation happening in Europe at the time.

Allan Fish (birthday unknown to me 1973 – 29 August 2016) is an online film critic/buff who seems to have seen every movie ever made. I can’t imagine somebody else would be ambitious enough to write a fully ranked list of the 3000 best movies he ever saw otherwise, although his inclusion of unreleased 2014 titles when he expanded it to 5,000 early that year leaves quite a bit of room for doubt. That doubt is assuaged when you go to his site with Sam Juliano Wonders in the Dark – one of the first film blogs I ever visited – and thus see just how inexhaustive his enthusiasm was and how eager the man could be to say anything about every single film he watched. For somebody like me who’s taking forever just to get back on a David Lynch retrospective, this man was unstoppable and never had a take that didn’t seem fresh.

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I can’t find the source anymore but a long long time ago, I read about how David Bowie (8 January 1947 – 10 January 2016) considers himself more of an actor than anything. Even if he never graced the silver screen in all of his career (and thank the world he has for such brilliance as Merry Christmas, Mr. LawrenceThe HungerThe Man Who Fell to Earth, and Labyrinth), that’s entirely believable. His albums are entire performances in themselves, his personal adoption of different personalities and characters he crafts up entirely like Ziggy Stardust or The Thin White Duke and completely embodies, even when it gets him into shit like his infamous Nazi interview. More method than most method actors just for recording music and heading on stage, Bowie is one of the few musicians for whom visionary is not simply a superlative but a direct description of how he got his work done and we’ll never have somebody in the music game like him again.

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Abbas Kiarostami (22 June 1940 – 4 July 2016) might have truthfully been my very first entry into how fluid film form can be and how the shape of narrative and non-fiction cinema can be mixed all around (the other possibility is Jim Jarmusch), but it’s more romantic to assume so for the purposes of this post. With a background in poetry, his films showcased that poet’s soul by always switching its structure all around and by his patient humane manner of storytelling. There is no greater blow to film in my opinion, this year, than the loss of this talented innovative man who was always interested in how cinema can be defined and re-defined over and over and over. There’s only one death of a public figure I never met personally that hit me harder…

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My dad and I have very very few things in common, I think. The strongest bond we have is in boxing. And him being a Muslim ex-boxer and me being a trash-talking ex-boxer, my dad had always blew up and hyped a particular figure, especially in my childhood, to be everything a man should be and more – steadfast in his beliefs, powerful and forceful in his conflicts, aware of when he’s wrong, relentless when he’s right, involved in the world around him, jovial no matter how severe the scenario, gentle with everyone (I’d say gentle with those who can’t match him, but we know it’s rare for him to be matched), smart on his feet when it counts, standing resistant when the pain comes, eloquent and expressive when given a penny for thoughts, and pretty oh so pretty. My dad especially had a story he relished sharing with me whenever he could of him meeting that figure in real life during the 80s – having gotten tasked by a local Sheikh to welcome him to London – and the figure’s playful response to challenge him to a fight. That story always brought him down to earth for me, but it’s absolutely no surprise – when I’ve been following and fanning over the figure since I was 5 years old at most – that I never saw the figure as less than larger than life.

On my bucket list is an entry to meet the man face to face one day and challenge him back to a fight. In spite of his late medical condition, it was still probably the most lethal entry in a list that includes self-immolation, but that’s ok, it doesn’t matter anymore.

My hero, Muhammad Ali (17 January 1942 – 3 June 2016), is dead.