what I’m watching

I was inspired by my brother’s podcast, Does Anyone Really Need to Hear This(listen to the latest episode here) to begin regularly reporting on what I’m watching, reading, and listening to.  But since the blog format is less tolerant of long-windedness than the podcast format, I am going to focus on just one of these today—on the three movies I watched this past weekend, to be exact.

  1. Logan.  I may have mentioned before that I’m a regular platelet donor and that one of my favorite parts about donating (aside from knowing that I’m helping to save people’s lives) is getting to watch a movie while tucked under one or more electric blankets.  Last Thursday, I chose to watch Logan, the first X-Men movie—indeed, the first Marvel movie—to have Oscar hopes.  I’m always a little hesitant to watch violent movies while donating because it’s hard to escape or even look away from a particularly gruesome scene when I’m strapped to a bed, but even though this R-rated film was very violent (more than I expected), I’m glad I watched it.  Probably the most striking feature of Logan is how well it captures the artistic trends and cultural anxieties of 2017.  The setting—a not-too-distant, not-quite-apocalyptic future (technology still works, but things are quickly falling apart, especially along the US/Mexico border)—reminded me of The Walking Dead and even more of its borderland spinoff Fear the Walking Dead.  Fears about genetic experimentation devoid of human conscience were represented in the character Laura, basically an 11-year-old female Wolverine, who, in her silent and deadpan (and occasionally delighted) observation of the “normal” world, reminded me of Eleven from Stranger Things.  The cinematography made the whole world look hot and tired, and the music (especially the Johnny Cash song in the credits) added to the weary and foreboding tone.  In spite of the cynicism of both the characters and the general tone, the movie still had the heart of a more traditional Marvel film, and I nearly cried at the end.  I had always thought of Wolverine as one of the least interesting X-Men, but, like many viewers of this startling film, I’ve done a complete reversal on that opinion.
  2. Jaws.  One of our local theaters was showing this 1975 classic last week, and I saw it Friday night.  It was my first time seeing it in many years, and it was both gorier (they blew up a shark!) and better than I remembered.  John Williams’s score, though sometimes over the top, is a classic of his early style.  The acting is fantastic, the writing is straightforward yet understated, and even though the special effects are not what they would be today, the pacing of the film contributes to a dramatic tension that never lets up.  I’m kind of a sucker for male bonding stories, so I really like the camaraderie (and tension—more tension) among the three men who go out to hunt down the shark.  It’s a classic seafaring story.  And now that I’ve used the word “classic” three times in one paragraph, I think I’ve made my point, so I’ll move on.
  3. Moonlight.  On Saturday night, I finally watched the real Best Picture winner of 2017.  I can’t comment on whether it’s better or worse than La La Land; the movies are too different.  But I can say that it’s very good.  And although it couldn’t be more diametrically opposed to Jaws in every way, Moonlight, too, has some great dramatic tension.  I think I may have been holding my breath for the last 20 minutes of the movie as I watched the main character and his old high school friend (and lover? That’s what he wants to find out) conversationally dance around and around the topic neither of them wants to broach.  The score of this movie is also excellent, and the camera work and lighting, combined with the bright colors of many of the buildings in Miami, make everything look not cheerful but lurid and sad, in keeping with the story.  And Maharshala Ali deserved that Best Supporting Actor win, even though he’s only in the first third of the film.

If you’ve seen any of these movies, let me know what you thought.  Next week I’ll be back with what I’m reading.

It’s not a competition.

This past weekend, I participated in two competitions: a chocolate-themed 10-mile road race, and my family’s annual Oscar prediction contest.  Of course, the Academy Awards themselves are also a competition and are surrounded by a number of unofficial competitions of the “who wore it best?” variety.

I am a competitive person, and specifically, I like to win.  This explains why I prefer playing trivia and word games, which I’m good at, over playing card and strategy games, which I’m not.  It explains why I was disappointed not to receive the Dissertation of the Year award last year when I should have been happy just to be done forever with being a student.  It also explains why, although I’m proud of both of my friends who completed Saturday’s race with me and I’m glad we got to have that experience together, it irks me that one of them finished five minutes (and five places in our age and gender category rankings) ahead of me.  I’m not mad at her; I’m mad at me.  I should have trained better.  I shouldn’t have eaten all those fish and chips the night before.  I should have started slower to preserve my stamina.  I could have beat her–that’s what I’m still telling myself three days later.

I have this mantra/piece of unsolicited advice that I frequently use on myself and others: “It’s not a competition.”  Of course, some things, like races and the Oscars, actually are competitions.  But there are a lot of things that we turn into competitions that were never intended to be.  Who contributed the most to this project?  Who’s the busiest?  Who has the most friends?  When I was in grad school, the competition that never stopped happening in my head was about who made the smartest-sounding remark in a class discussion.  Now I host a similar head-competition: Which professor is the most popular with the students?  But that’s just one of my many mental Olympic events.  There’s also “Can I run longer than that guy two treadmills down from me?,” “Do I look more physically fit than that woman my age?”, “Whose food looks the nicest at the potluck?”, and “Who knows the most about [insert topic here]?”

Participating in all these competitions all the time is exhausting.  It’s also antithetical to the way Jesus lived and asked us to live.  When Jesus’ disciples were arguing about which of them would have the highest place in the kingdom of God, he told them that they had to become like little children in order to even enter said kingdom.  Here’s something about little children (older children start growing out of this): They’re not good at games, in part because they don’t understand the concept of competition.  Another competition I tried to get started this past weekend was a relay race in the 3-year-olds Sunday school class I teach.  A very small minority understood what they were supposed to be doing, but most of them just stood there and looked cute at me.  And I got annoyed with them for not being competitive enough.  True, little kids will fight over toys–they can be a bit greedy–but that’s not the same as competing.  They really seem unconcerned about who wins and who’s the best.

I would love to press a reset button and go back to that non-competitive mental mode of childhood.  Because I can’t do that, I have to work really hard to be happy for others who can do things better than I can, to be content with who I am and what I’m capable of (not that I shouldn’t strive to improve where I can), and to be like Jesus, who was perfectly happy giving all the credit to his Father.

all of your Oscar questions answered

Ok, so my title is shameless click bait.  I don’t know what all of your Oscar questions are.  But I know the questions that are generating the most buzz in my own circles, so I’m going to extrapolate from said buzz and assume that you’re asking some of the same questions.  And then I’m going to answer them from the perspective of an amateur film critic who’s seen more of the nominated movies than the average American has, which is still not very many.  Here we go.

Q: What does Lion have to do with a lion?

A: Absolutely nothing.  I saw this film over the weekend, and I enjoyed it very much and was moved by it, although I think this was partly due to the extremely emotional soundtrack (nominated for Best Original Score) by Dustin O’Halloran (a favorite on the hip instrumental music playlists I frequent on Spotify) and Hauschka.  But the title is a real stretch.  Here’s what it’s really about: A little boy from rural India gets lost at a train station and ends up over 1,000 kilometers away from his family.  After living on the streets and in an orphanage for a couple of months, he gets adopted by a family in Australia.  Almost 25 years later, while he’s in Melbourne taking a hotel management course (a little Easter egg for Dev Patel fans), he decides to try to find his birth family, but he has almost nothing to go on–not even his mother’s first name.  (As a little boy, he thought her name was “Mum.”  This is why parents should teach their kids their real names.)  Spoiler: He succeeds in finding them.  But he doesn’t run into any lions.  And it’s not called Lion because of the way he lets his hair and beard grow out like a crazy mane while he’s holed up in his apartment searching Google Earth.  No, we find out literally in the last seconds of the movie that his name means Lion.  It doesn’t even really work symbolically–there’s nothing predatory or dominant about this protagonist.  Good movie, iffy title.

Q: Will the ending of La La Land make me sad?

A: It depends on who you are.  I know one person who was absolutely devastated by the ending, in which the main characters do not end up together.  However, the general consensus among my family and friends is that the ending is bittersweet–heavier on the sweet–and appropriate to the story, which is more about pursuing one’s dreams than about finding true love.  When you see the two protagonists smile at each other in the very last scene, I’m confident that you’ll be confident that they are both happy with the way their lives have turned out.

Q: How many Oscars is La La Land nominated for?

A: Fact: 14

Q: How many is it going to win?

A: Research-based opinion: 12.  I think it’s going to win all but Best Actor (my research says that one goes to Denzel Washington for Fences) and Sound Mixing–that will be Hacksaw Ridge‘s only win.

Q: Is Hacksaw Ridge as gory as they say it is?

A: It depends on who “they” are, but it is pretty graphic, and this is coming from a person who eats snacks while watching The Walking Dead.  Also, there are rats.  If you can get past all that, though, it’s a very good movie.

Q: What should I wear to my Oscars party this year?

A: If you’re in it for “the long haul” (a key phrase in La La Land), you should probably wear your pajamas, because you know the telecast never ends when it’s supposed to.  But if you want to wear something thematic, the bright primary colors and swingy skirts (if you’re a lady) and classic-cut suits (if you’re a gentleman) of La La Land would be a fun choice.  You can also look to the Costume Design nominees for some inspiration–the 1920s look of Fantastic Beasts would be fun and not too difficult to pull off.

Q: When do the Academy Awards air?

A: This Sunday night, February 26, at 5:30 if you’re in La La Land, 8:30 if you’re on the East Coast.  See you then!

my thoughts on the Oscar nominations

If you’ve been reading my blog long enough, you know that most years, I have at least a bit of commentary on the Oscar nominations.  I don’t predict the winners–it’s too early to do that anyway, and I don’t have the magic formula–but I like to throw in my two cents about whom and what I hope will win.

  1. Best Picture: This is an unusual year in that I had already seen three of the Best Picture contenders before the nominations were even released.  I’ve already shared my thoughts on Hacksaw Ridge in this post.  The other two I’ve seen are La La Land and Manchester by the Sea, two excellent films that are polar (or at least West Coast/East Coast) opposites in setting, aesthetic, and topic, but that both deal with the theme of rebuilding a life from the ruins of hardship and disappointment.  I’d be happy if either of those won the top prize.  Hacksaw Ridge won’t win it–because of its subject matter, its director, and its fairly conventional story trajectory.  Speaking of conventionality, I was surprised to see Hidden Figures on the list because the trailers made it look like a standard feel-good movie.  Trailers can be misleading, though.  As for the other nominees, Fences looks like the kind of emotionally raw family saga that the Academy loves, Arrival looks like one of those surprisingly deep space travel movies we’ve been seeing a lot of in recent years (Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian), and the other three I have nothing to say about because I know next to nothing about them.
  2. Best Original Score: This is typically one of my favorite categories, but this year, with the exception of La La Land, it’s a total snoozefest so far–I say “so far” because I’ve been listening to all of the scores on Spotify throughout the day, and I just (like 30 seconds ago) started the last one, Passengers.  (I have hope for this one because it’s by my favorite film score composer, Thomas Newman.)  La La Land, as we would expect from a movie about music, has a very good score–it’s peppy and poignant by turns in all the right places.  One film whose score I would have included, if I’d been asked, would have been Manchester by the Sea.  Maybe it was left out because some of the finest musical moments in the film were not original at all but from Handel’s Messiah and other classical works.  But the original portion of the soundtrack was beautiful and unexpected for this understated story (it’s mostly choral, which gives the film a sacred quality).
  3. Miscellaneous categories they sneak in near the beginning of the broadcast when I’m out in the kitchen getting snacks: Know what else had a really good score?  My favorite movie of the year, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.  James Newton Howard didn’t get nominated in that category, but the film did get nods for Production Design (formerly known as Art Direction) and Costume Design.  I think it’s significant that it was nominated in these categories rather than in those where we often see fantasy/franchise films, such as Visual Effects and Sound Mixing.  This seems to be another indication that the Harry Potter franchise is growing up–the Academy sees Fantastic Beasts as a period piece, not a special effects blockbuster.  By the way, I was cherishing a secret hope that Eddie Redmayne would get nominated for Best Actor for his third year in a row.  Alas.
  4. Best Animated Feature: I’ll close with this: One of the best films I saw in 2016, categories be darned, was Zootopia.  It dealt with serious current issues in a complicated, far from heavy-handed way, and it was that rare animated movie that remained a kids’ movie even while appealing to adults.  It should have been nominated for Best Picture, but I hope it at least wins the animated feature category.

I’ll probably blog about my reactions to the winners on February 27.  Meanwhile, what are your thoughts on the nomination slate?

My belated Oscar wrap-up

It’s been nearly two months since the Academy Awards aired, but I’ve been mentally reliving the event a bit recently, not only because I’ve finally gotten around to watching several of the Best Picture nominees, but also because I read a brief “news” article yesterday in which Jared Leto said that his Oscar statue is all sticky and gross because his apparently grubby friends have been playing with it. And these are the people we admire and aspire to be like. Anyway, in place of a traditional recap, which would be pointless by now, here is a stream-of-consciousness presentation of some of my thoughts during and after the ceremony.

As I look into Jared Leto’s beautiful yet strangely vacant eyes, I wonder if he’s shown up to the Academy Awards as stoned as the character he won his Oscar for portraying (a person called Rayon, frequently stoned, and appearing for much of Dallas Buyer’s Club in a covetably comfy-looking pink cable-knit bathrobe).  But no, surely not, since he’s accompanied by his mom.  And his acceptance speech is lucid–not brilliant, but lucid, a high compliment indeed on this night.  I mean, the literal kind of “high.”

Thinking about Best Supporting Actor nominees accompanied by their moms turns my thoughts toward Jonah Hill, and I think to myself that someday he is going to be a real contender for this category and not just a person that the presenters make gratuitous comments toward because they feel charitable toward him because he is less sexy than they are.  And he is going to win, and he is going to throw his Oscar in their stupid condescending faces.

Then I wonder why I am throwing so much imaginative energy into my Jonah Hill revenge fantasy, and I realize that it’s because I’m bored, because essentially none of my favorite actors are here.  This has a lot to do with the fact that most of my favorite actors are British and obviously couldn’t make the long trip to Los Angeles.  Or, more likely, they weren’t invited.  If you are an actor from the UK and you want to be made much of at the Oscars, you have to either 1) be Colin Firth, although even that doesn’t work every year, 2) be old enough to be an institution, or just not dye your hair, so that people think you’re old (that’s you, Helen Mirren), 3) always play Americans, like Christian Bale or last year’s Best Actor Daniel Day-Lewis, or 4) find your way into a small role in pretty much all of the Best Picture nominees, like Benedict Cumberbatch did this year (okay, I think he was in two of them).

*Long mental digression while I calculate the odds of Martin Freeman ever being an Oscar nominee*

My guests are gasping, and I gradually realize it’s because they think Ellen Degeneres is being “mean.”  And I’m thinking, did you ever see Ricky Gervais host the Golden Globes?  This is like Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood in comparison.

Which brings me to the pizza interlude.  There is a lot of debate about how spontaneous, hence “authentic,” this actually was, but that’s not the question that captivates me.  My question is: Do these people actually eat pizza?  On paper plates, no less?  The possibility boggles the mind.  One of the actors we saw ostensibly preparing to eat pizza was Brad Pitt.  It’s true that Brad Pitt is seen constantly eating food in many of his movies (e.g., Meet Joe Black, in which he develops an obsession with peanut butter), but I guess I just assumed he spit it out after the take.  Did Angelina make him spit his pizza out during the commercial break?

These, thank goodness, are not questions that keep me up at night.  However, this is: What in the world was Matthew McConaughey talking about?

 

My annual Oscar rant

Right on cue, here is my yearly collection of thoughts on the Academy Awards.

  • Gravity is clearly going to win a lot of awards.  One that it seems nearly guaranteed to win is Achievement in Directing for Alfonso Cuarón.  When people like me think of Alfonso Cuarón, we think of his darkly whimsical interpretation of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.  Do you think he could find a way to work an Azkaban shout-out into his acceptance speech?
  • I was excited when I saw that my favorite movie music composer, Thomas Newman, was nominated for his beautiful score to Saving Mr. Banks.  But I was annoyed when I did my predication research this evening and saw that he isn’t even being mentioned as a possibility to win.  All I can say is that the Academy is going to owe Thomas Newman one massive Lifetime Achievement Award segment.
  • I never thought I’d see the day when a movie called Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa was nominated for an Oscar.  I realize that the category is Achievement in Makeup, and I’m willing to concede that the nominee, Stephen Prouty, did a pretty good job on that guy’s face.  But I’ve vowed never to watch the Oscars again if this movie wins.
  • I have a plan.  The Academy should create some new award categories: Best Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, and Supporting Actress in a Genre Film.  That way, the people who do excellent acting work in films that aren’t “literary” (to borrow a term from the book publishing world)–e.g., science fiction, fantasy, and superhero movies; romantic comedies; “children’s” movies that aren’t animated–can be honored.  Because, let’s face it, they’re not going to be nominated in the traditional acting categories, except in very unusual cases like those of Johnny Depp in the first Pirates of the Caribbean (and there was no way he was going to win) or Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight–an extremely unusual case indeed, since he did win.  The only potential problem here is that creating such a category could further marginalize these types of movies and prevent genre-transcending films like The Dark Knight from getting the recognition that the Academy was actually prepared to give them.

So I’m curious: Who would you nominate if we had the Acting in Genre Films categories this year?  And what are your two cents, in general, on the 2014 Oscars?  Do share.

More thoughts for the Academy

I’m slowly working my way through the Oscar-nominated films that I actually want to see.  I watched Moneyball a couple of weeks ago and really enjoyed it, though I wouldn’t exactly say that my mind was blown.  I just saw The Help this afternoon and liked it in spite of trying hard not to.  I would still like to see The Descendants and Midnight in Paris; the rest of the nominees I could take or leave.

I was looking at the list of nominees the other day and thinking about how few of them I’ve actually seen–and not just in the Best Picture category, but all of them.  I thought, “Did I just not see very many movies this past year?”  That’s somewhat the case; my intense summer of PhD classes didn’t leave me much time for film-going (though I did make an exception mid-July; you get three guesses what the movie was).  But as I reached back into my memory, I recalled that I did see a fair amount of movies released in 2011, and for the most part, they were good movies.  Movies like Crazy Stupid Love, Take Shelter, 50/50, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (yes, I’m a bit biased on that last one, but I’m not the only one who thinks it got stiffed).  Even Winnie-the-Pooh: no, it isn’t a Best Picture, but surely it’s better than at least one of the Best Animated Feature Film nominees?  (I’m talking to you, Puss in Boots.)

What I’m saying is nothing new.  You’ve seen this rant plenty of times already if you’ve been paying attention to Oscar buzz at all.  But I’m going to steer my rant in a different direction.  My admonition to my fellow armchair film critics is this: We can’t influence the mercurial tastes of the Academy.  So let’s stop whining, and let’s stop feeling guilty if we don’t see all the films that get nominated.  As I hope my list has shown you (and this is indeed a partial list; I would love to see your additions), good movies come out every year that don’t get recognized.  We can still enjoy those movies, demonstrate our approval of them by paying to see them, and spread the word about them, as I’ve just done.  Seriously.  You should see those movies I mentioned.  I have good taste. 😉