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Friday, January 15, 2016

Remembering Alan Rickman

No Awards Needed

By Chris Sabga

The news broke of Alan Rickman's death – from cancer at the age of 69 – around the same time the Oscar nominations were announced.

The ultimate irony in that: Alan Rickman has never been nominated for an Academy Award.

I just about gasped at that shocking tidbit. But Rickman's passing so thoroughly overshadowed the awards announcement that it's safe to say his incredible career more than transcended those empty accolades.

In a 2008 interview with IFC, Rickman expressed a British workingman's sensibility about the Oscar rat race: "Parts win prizes, not actors. You always know a part that’s got ‘prize winner’ written all over it, and it’s almost like anybody could say those lines and somebody will hand them a piece of metal."

Like most of you reading this, my first exposure to Rickman's immense talents was as the charismatically villainous Hans Gruber in 1988's "Die Hard." It was an incredible performance that elevated the entire film and helped launch Bruce Willis's career as a major movie star. "Die Hard" is now considered one of the greatest action extravaganzas of the already excessive and explosive 1980s, and Rickman's character is universally recognized as one of the best bad guys ever.

My next glimpse of Rickman probably came three years later – in 1991's "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves." I despised the movie – I think I'm the only one – but Rickman was great in it. He always is.

Many years would pass before I would see Rickman again on-screen. I'll admit that I didn't particularly care for "Michael Collins," but Rickman was mesmerizing in it as Eamon de Valera, the real-life political figure who opposed the Irish resistance against the UK. Truthfully, I had no idea at the time that it was Rickman playing the part. He was such a chameleon as an actor that he completely disappeared into the role. It wasn't the only time I was fooled by one of his performances – even when I definitely should have known better.

The character he's perhaps most associated with is the complex and conflicted Severus Snape from the "Harry Potter" series. Yet, it took two or three movies before it finally clicked in my mind who was behind the sneering professor's raven hair. It was Rickman! Once again, the actor had vanished entirely in service of the character he was portraying.

I hate "Love Actually," and Rickman is actually to thank for that. He was such a downright cad that it spoiled my enjoyment of the movie and I remain upset on poor Emma Thompson's behalf to this day. That's how good he was as an actor.

His characters could be dark and dangerous, sneaky and shifty, but he was also an incredibly gifted comedic actor. His roles in "Dogma" and especially "Galaxy Quest" are proof of that. If you somehow haven't seen "Galaxy Quest," it's a fantastic satire on the "Star Trek" and sci-fi movies and culture – and Rickman was superb in it.

A legend of the screen and stage, was there anything Alan Rickman couldn't do?

Well, maybe get nominated for an Academy Award.

But that's a reflection of the broken Oscar system, not of Rickman's immeasurable gifts as an actor. He never needed "a piece of metal" to affirm his greatness. 

Thursday, January 14, 2016

The 88th Annual Academy Awards: Nominations and Analysis

Thoughts, Snubs, and Probably Wrong Predictions

By Chris Sabga

With the news breaking this morning that Alan Rickman has died of cancer at the age of 69, I'm not really in the mood to look through the Oscar nominations. It doesn't help that I'm completely bored with the Academy Awards, as I wrote a mere few days ago. The only reason I'm even bothering with this right now is because I wrote about the Oscar nominations last year and the year before and...well, you get the idea. So, in the interest of OCD, I have to continue the pattern this year.

Here are my views (probably more abbreviated this year than usual), broken down into three categories.

Thoughts: Just my general take on the various nominations.

Snubs: What I feel got left out. I knew certain movies wouldn't make it to the Oscars, but that doesn't mean I can't personally champion them myself.

Early (and Probably Wrong) Prediction: Don't make your Oscar pool picks based on my thoughts.

And the Oscar goes to...

Best Picture

The Big Short
Bridge of Spies
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant

Thoughts: I'm surprised to see "Mad Max" on this list. It has been widely acclaimed by both critics and audiences, but action films are usually shunned by the sometimes snooty Oscars.

Snubs: Because I think the Academy should automatically love the movies I love, I'm going to say "Mr. Holmes," "The Intern," "Predestination," and "Steve Jobs," because why not. And I'm assuming "Straight Outta Compton," "Ex Machina," and "Sicario" will end up on several of these lists as well.

Early (and Probably Wrong) Prediction: "The Revenant" has the most nominations this year.

Best Actor

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

Thoughts: Maybe I shouldn't be, but I'm somewhat surprised to see Michael Fassbender here, even though "Steve Jobs" was a notorious flop at the box office.

Snubs: As Harvey Weinstein pointed out, no love for Ian McKellen in "Mr. Holmes." I haven't seen "Concussion" yet, but Will Smith's acting was incredible in the trailer.

Early (and Probably Wrong) Prediction: This has to be Leo's year – right?

Best Actress

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

Thoughts: Is Saoirse Ronan a surprise, or was she expected? I'm honestly not sure.

Snubs: Helen Mirren was great in "The Woman in Gold." Sarah Snook was amazing in "Predestination." I liked Anne Hathaway in "The Intern" – but Oscar never shines a spotlight on such light, breezy, enjoyable performances. Women (and men) have to suffer for their art to gain recognition by the Academy.

Early (and Probably Wrong) Prediction: Brie Larson, who has been gaining recognition since her great performance in the powerful but problematic "Short Term 12."

Best Supporting Actor

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

Thoughts: Always glad to see Sly take the Oscar stage.

Snubs: Little Milo Parker was phenomenal in "Mr. Holmes." I realize it was more of a lead role, but since kids aren't always seen as real people, he probably would've been bounced down to Supporting anyway. Ryan Reynolds' performance in "The Woman in Gold" was underrated, and he went through the type of physical transformation Oscar usually loves. Robert De Niro was terrific in "The Intern" but that's not the type of performance or movie that the Academy tends to reward.

Early (and Probably Wrong) Prediction: Sylvester Stallone or Tom Hardy.

Best Supporting Actress

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

Thoughts: I wasn't sure Kate would make it, but I'm glad she did. Her ascent as the Academy's "modern Meryl" continues.

Snubs: Probably.

Early (and Probably Wrong) Prediction: Kate Winslet. Hey, she made it this far already!

Best Director

Adam McKay, The Big Short
George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road
Alejandro González Iñárritu, The Revenant
Lenny Abrahamson, Room
Tom McCarthy, Spotlight

Thoughts: Can Alejandro González Iñárritu win for a second year in a row?

Snubs: Maybe Danny Boyle for "Steve Jobs" – not that anyone was expecting too much Oscar love for that movie.

Early (and Probably Wrong) Prediction: I'll be bold and say Iñárritu gets it again.

Best Adapted Screenplay

The Big Short
The Martian

Thoughts: See below.

Snubs: I'm assuming "Steve Jobs" would count as as an Adapted screenplay because it was inspired by several sources. But if everyone in the Academy was as confused as I am, that could be why it's not here. Or maybe everyone is taking Aaron Sorkin's great writing for granted at this point. "Mr. Holmes" realistically had no chance in hell to begin with, but I'll list it anyway. "Predestination" somehow took a story that was only a few pages along (Robert A. Heinlein's "All You Zombies") and turned it into a two-hour film, all while remaining true to the source material. That's impressive to me!

Early (and Probably Wrong) Prediction: The Big Short.

Best Original Screenplay

Bridge of Spies
Ex Machina
Inside Out
Straight Outta Compton

Thoughts: "Straight Outta Compton" gets its sole nomination in this category. Has an animated film ("Inside Out") ever been nominated for Best Original Screenplay before?

Snubs: "What We Do in the Shadows" was pretty clever, but good luck getting a vampire movie nominated for anything!

Early (and Probably Wrong) Prediction: Could "Compton" win its only nomination? Nah. I'm guessing the spotlight will go to … drumroll … "Spotlight."

Other thoughts: I definitely sound like a broken record about "Steve Jobs" at this point, but I'm wondering if it deserved a Cinematography nomination too. The film somehow managed to turn sterile corporate environments and bland backstage areas into beautiful setpieces. As I wrote in my review: For a film that essentially consists of nonstop dialogue and people walking into different rooms, it is subtly stylish. The three time periods are each filmed differently: 1984 is grainy with a dark and drab color scheme, 1988 feels more open with a richer palette but retains a traditional film look, and 2008 is shot digitally and looks clear and bright. There are also other visual flourishes, such as a nighttime board meeting with rain pouring behind a glass window – a dazzling backdrop. 

The rest of the categories and nominees are:

Best Animated Feature Film

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

Best Cinematography

The Hateful Eight
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant

Best Documentary Feature

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

Best Documentary Short Subject

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

Best Film Editing

The Big Short
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Best Foreign Language Film

Embrace of the Serpent
Son of Saul
A War

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

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

Best Original Score

Bridge of Spies
The Hateful Eight
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Best Original Song

"Earned It"
"Manta Ray"
"Simple Song No. 3"
"Till It Happens to You"
"Writing's on the Wall"

Best Production Design

Bridge of Spies
The Danish Girl
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
The Revenant

Best Costume Design

The Danish Girl
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant

Best Live Action Short Film

Ave Maria
Day One
Everything Will Be Okay (Alles Wird Gut)

Best Animated Short Film

Bear Story
Sanjay's Super Team
We Can't Live Without Cosmos
World of Tomorrow

Best Visual Effects

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

Best Sound Editing

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

Best Sound Mixing

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

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Review: Goodnight Mommy (Ich seh, ich seh)

Why is Mommy Wearing Bandages?

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: September 11, 2015 – U.S.
Rating: R
Genre: Horror, Drama, Thriller, Mystery
Running Time: 99 minutes
Directors: Severin Fiala, Veronika Franz
Writers: Veronika Franz, Severin Fiala
Cast: Elias Schwarz, Lukas Schwarz, 
Susanne Wuest  

I figured out a major plot development in "Goodnight Mommy" within seconds – assuming it was supposed to be a surprise, that is, because it was immediately obvious to me. Then it was just a matter of getting to that point in the film.

The movie begins with two twin brothers at play (Elias and Lukas Schwarz, whose characters are also named Elias and Lukas). They are about 8 or 9, and they live with their mother (Susanne Wuest) in a big house. There has been an accident of some kind. That much is obvious because their mother's face is completely wrapped in suitably creepy bandages. But the details of what happened are never really made clear.

It has been a rough road for this little family. The mother is impatient, sensitive to sunlight, and doesn't hesitate to raise her hand in discipline if her demands are not met: play very quietly and don't bring animals into the house. Have you ever known a little boy who could follow such unreasonable restrictions?

Elias and Lukas begin to fear that this strange, angry woman whose face is wrapped like a mummy isn't, well, their mummy.

From there, let's just say she's forced to prove herself.

I didn't quite see the third act going in the direction it did – that was somewhat of a surprise, at least – but I found it difficult to watch and deeply unpleasant. Look, I get it: this is a horror movie and it has to be sick and cringe-inducing. I also realize what happens later in the film is a reaction to, and reflection of, earlier actions and events – a mirror image, almost. Even though the story and dialogue don't reveal much overtly, it was obvious to me that grief weighs heavily on this family – and that emotion is what influences their behavior, especially at the end.

Still, despite the careful craftsmanship of the plotting, what was the point being made? "Goodnight Mommy" feels almost irresponsible – nauseating for the sake of it, just to produce a few thrills and chills – with any significant meaning or lesson blunted by gross-out shock tactics.

It doesn't help, either, that these characters and their behaviors are not entirely believable at times. There is one scene, in particular, that is superbly suspenseful but otherwise ridiculous. It involves a pair of elderly Red Cross workers who come to the door looking for a donation.

I will give this German-language import from Austria credit where it's due – it is beautifully shot, well-acted, moody and eerie – but I can't say I ever enjoyed it. There are children's books with more dialogue. That isn't necessarily a bad thing – there's nothing wrong with storytelling that's stripped to the barest essentials – but for something so minimal, this takes a little too long to get to the point.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

2015: A Year of Two Great Actors Working Together

Will Oscar Shine a Spotlight on These Fine Films and Performances?

By Chris Sabga

The Weinstein Company studio co-chief Harvey Weinstein wrote an editorial for "The Hollywood Reporter" lamenting that several worthy films and performances will probably end up being snubbed by the Academy when it comes time to hand out Oscar nominations. Among those he cites are Ian McKellen in "Mr. Holmes" and Helen Mirren in "The Woman in Gold." Both are indeed wonderful performances. Weinstein also carries a torch for "Burnt," which I did not enjoy nearly as much as he apparently did. Of course, his motives are probably not entirely magnanimous – he is obligated to promote and defend his own studio's films, after all – but that doesn't mean he has any less of a point.

It's blasphemy to say in some cinematic circles, but I'm completely bored with the Oscars. Even though the Best Picture award now includes up to ten films, there are always ridiculous omissions. It's worse in the other categories, which still contain only five nominees – not that I'm advocating for an increase, because I'm definitely not. Don't get me wrong: I still love the excitement and frustration that accompanies every Oscar season, but the show itself is usually a bloated bore.

I don't have a crystal ball, but I am going to assume that most of these – but perhaps not all – will be absent when the Oscar nominations are announced. I'll be happy if I'm wrong.

My favorite Silver Screen Surprise of 2015 – "Predestination": I went back and forth on this one, but ultimately, this movie checked all the right boxes for me: Ethan Hawke, time travel, a great story (adapted from Robert A. Heinlein) with an authentic retro feel that kept me hooked, and fantastic performances (especially from Hawke and Sarah Snook). The Blu-ray is routinely $5 or $10, so you owe it to yourself to check it out. It's likely not for everyone, and it probably won't be on too many other lists, but keep an open mind and sample this mind-bending sci-fi treat.

My favorite television show of 2015 was "Wayward Pines." I am a sucker for these "special events": self-contained shows that are ten episodes or under ("Gracepoint" – which was my favorite in 2014 – was the same way). "Pines" was destination television for several weeks and the source of constant discussion. Terrence Howard, in particular, was memorable as the rum-raisin ice cream-gobbling sheriff facing off against Matt Dillon's frustrated gumshoe. As it turns out, a surprise season 2 is coming for "Wayward." Without spoiling anything, I'm not quite sure how that's going to work. I was excited when I first heard the news, but now I'm nervous.

My favorite performances of the year all featured two great actors working together and bouncing off each other. In "Mr. Holmes," Ian McKellen as an aging Sherlock Holmes and Milo Parker as his young apprentice made for a delightful duo From my review: At the heart and soul of the movie is the tender mentor-student relationship between Holmes and the boy. As Roger, newcomer Milo Parker delivers an outstanding performance that is every bit the equal of Ian McKellen's. That's no easy feat, because McKellen himself is fantastic as he switches between the great man with a gleam in his eye to the aging, fading legend who can barely get out of his own bed. He makes his incredible acting appear effortless – but it isn't, of course.

It shouldn't surprise anyone for Kate Winslet to turn in yet another stellar performance, as she did in "Steve Jobs" opposite Michael Fassbender, who was absorbing to watch as Jobs. What I wasn't expecting was for Winslet to almost take the movie for herself with her riveting portrait of Jobs lieutenant Joanna Hoffman. As I wrote at the time: The best supporting roles make you want to see a movie about them. Just as Tommy Lee Jones accomplished that as Thaddeus Stevens in "Lincoln," so does Winslet as Joanna Hoffman in "Steve Jobs."

I have a soft spot in my heart for Anne Hathaway and Robert De Niro in "The Intern." Was there a cuter "couple" in 2015 than these two? They make it look so effortless that it's easy to forget they're really two acting heavyweights volleying back and forth.

And, of course, Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook take up most of the screen-time in "Predestination" – and they're spellbinding together.

I saw several older films too, and the most memorable was undoubtedly 1985's "The Last Dragon." In 2015, "racebending" – changing the race of an established character or archetype – became a major point of contention in movies, comics, and other forms of entertainment. Yet, "The Last Dragon" did exactly that with almost every character – and it worked. It helps, though, that its intentions were purer. The movie never felt like it was trying to be "progressive" for the sake of it. All anyone involved in this project wanted, it seems, was to have some fun and create an homage to the type of films they loved. Even though a black teenager is playing a martial arts master, Taimak still manages to give the role heart and authenticity.

A surprisingly great year for horror: I am not a big fan of the genre – that's what I don't pay Matt Wintz to write about – but I saw several great ones over the past twelve months. From 2015: "The Atticus Institute," "What We Do in the Shadows," and "Maggie." From earlier: "Trick 'r Treat," "The Babadook," and "Horns."

The best $1 DVD I bought all year: "Nothing But the Truth" – inspired by the real-life incidents involving CIA agent Valerie Plame and New York Times writer Judith Miller – is a fictional drama about a reporter who refuses to give up her source, despite mounting legal pressure. It features an incredible cast: Kate Beckinsale, Matt Dillon, Angela Bassett, Alan Alda, Vera Farmiga, David Schwimmer, Courtney B. Vance, and Noah Wyle. It would be easy to credit "Wayward Pines" as the reason I thought so highly of "Nothing But the Truth" – Matt Dillion plays very similar roles in both – but that would be shortchanging just how good this is. I have no idea how Alan Alda, especially, was passed over for an Oscar nomination. I'm glad I found it for a buck, but this is worth seeking out at any price. I loved it so much that I even bought extra copies to hand out as gifts.

The jury is still out on the Oscars. For all we know, Ian McKellen, Kate Winslet, and all of my other personal favorites from 2015 will sweep the nominations. It could actually happen for Winslet – she is an Oscar darling who is seemingly being positioned by the Academy as the modern Meryl Streep – but "Steve Jobs" was a commercial flop, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (what an earful) sometimes tends to shy away from those. Any nomination for "Steve Jobs" would probably be enough of an excuse for its studio, Universal, to re-release it in theaters in the hopes of capturing the audience that wasn't there the first time.

No matter what the Academy recognizes or doesn't, there will be plenty to talk about – and plenty more to see. I can't wait!

Today marks the third anniversary of Silver Screen Surprises. Whether this is your first time on the site or you've been here all along, thank you for reading!