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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The 89th Annual Academy Awards: Nominations and Notes

The Silver Screen Surprises of This Year's Oscars

By Chris Sabga

This year, I'm going to keep it simple and true to the theme of this site. I will list the nominees and then examine the "Silver Screen Surprises" for each of the main categories.

Which films and performers was I surprised to see on the list?

Were there any surprising omissions?

And the Oscar goes to...

Best Picture

Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea

Surprises: "Arrival" has gotten rave reviews from critics and audiences alike, but I never expected an "alien" movie to get nominated for Best Picture. After all, the Oscars tend to be rather exclusionary and snooty about such things – at least in the main categories. There are exceptions, of course – especially in the years since the Best Picture category has expanded from five movies to a maximum of ten (there are nine this year) – but it's still a surprise.

"Hacksaw Ridge" also received strong acclaim, but I'm still surprised to see it here. This nomination represents Mel Gibson's return to Hollywood's embrace after a decade of turmoil with himself, others, and the film industry at large.

"Lion" also came out of nowhere, but Dev Patel should be familiar to most audiences from past Best Picture victor "Slumdog Millionaire."

Nowhere to be found is the troubled "The Birth of a Nation," which some predicted as early as last year's Academy Awards to be a lock for this year's. Mixed critical reception and ugly rape allegations for its writer, director, and star, Nate Parker, have seemingly shut it out of the Oscar race.

Best Actor in a Leading Role

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

Surprises: Because I wasn't expecting to see "Hacksaw Ridge" nominated for Best Picture, I also wasn't expecting to see its star, Andrew Garfield, nominated in this category.

"Captain Fantastic" didn't have the hype or buzz of some of the other predicted Oscar front-runners, but I'm happy the Academy is mixing it up and making it more interesting this year with the inclusion of Viggo Mortensen.

The omission of Tom Hanks for "Sully," I suppose, is somewhat of a surprise.

Best Actress in a Leading Role

Isablle Huppert, Elle
Ruth Negga, Loving
Natalie Portman, Jackie
Emma Stone, La La Land
Meryl Streep, Florence Foster Jenkins

Surprises: French actress Isabelle Huppert has gotten some of the best reviews of her career for Paul Verhoeven's "Elle," so I'm not entirely surprised to see her nominated, but I wouldn't have been surprised if she wasn't because of the film's controversial subject matter: A woman who was sexually assaulted doesn't report the crime to the police but instead seeks out her rapist.

Ruth Negga has gone from "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." recurring guest star to Oscar nominee. No surprise, though, for anyone who knows the quality of her work. She draws people to her. Her soulful and enigmatic eyes and expressions are impossible to look away from.

While I wasn't expecting it to happen, I'm downright upset by the snub of Rachel Weisz for "Denial." It was an incredible performance and unjustly overlooked.

Silver Screen Surprises reader Lauri has more than a few problems with the nomination of Meryl Streep and the omission of another actress. Warning: Most of her rant was unfit for publication. "*BLEEP*... Meryl *BLEEP* Streep over Amy Adams in Arrival????????????????????" she screamed. "Who the *BLEEP* is she *BLEEP*-ing with this year? Amy Adams was so robbed. GRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRR! *BLEEP*"

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea
Dev Patel, Lion
Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals

Surprises: Chris Pine garnered the best reviews of his career for "Hell or High Water" but Oscar mainstay Jeff Bridges received the nomination instead – his 7th since 1972. It's hard to argue with that level of quality.

The inclusion of Dev Patel surprises me the same way "Lion" surprised me in the Best Picture category.

While Meryl Streep was recognized for "Florence Foster Jenkins," Hugh Grant was completely shut out of both the Leading and Supporting Actor categories. That's especially surprising considering that he has received the best reviews of his career for this film.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

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

Surprises: The parts played by Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer struck me as leading roles, not supporting, but the Academy has a history of playing fast and loose with this designation if it gives the actor a better chance of winning.

There is no sign of Spencer's co-stars, Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monáe, in either of the Acting categories. That's surprising to me.

Could this be Viola Davis's year? I would have mixed feelings about that. She's so incredible as an actress than anything less than a Leading Role Oscar seems like almost a snub.

I'll also take this opportunity to sound the trumpet again about Rachel Weisz, who should have been nominated for "Denial." That was definitely a leading role, but what the hell, I would have accepted her here too.

Best Directing

Denis Villeneuve, Arrival
Mel Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge
Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea
Barry Jenkins, Moonlight

Surprises: Whether accurate or not, it is commonly believed that the movies recognized in the Best Directing category are the five "true" Best Picture nominees – a throwback to when only five films were considered for the Academy's top award. If that's truly the case, "Arrival" being on this prestigious list is definitely unexpected.

Best Animated Feature

Kubo and the Two Strings
My Life as a Zucchini
The Red Turtle

Surprises: No "Batman: Return of the Caped Crusaders"? Okay, I wasn't really expecting it, but it's some of the most fun I've had all year.

Best Adapted Screenplay

Hidden Figures

Surprises: It would be silly to be surprised by "Arrival" at this point after all of its other nominations, but if you had asked me yesterday, I wouldn't have predicted its inclusion in this category – simply based on past Oscar history.

Best Original Screenplay

Hell or High Water
La La Land
The Lobster
Manchester by the Sea
20th Century Women

Surprises: "The Lobster" receives its one and only nomination in this category.

Best Foreign Language Film

Land of Mine (Denmark)
A Man Called Ove (Sweden)
The Salesman (Iran)
Tanna (Australia)
Toni Erdmann (Germany)

Surprises: After Isablle Huppert's somewhat surprising Best Actress nomination for "Elle," I almost expected the film to show up here too. Alas, it didn't.

Other thoughts: "La La Land" has scored a record 14 Oscar nominations, a feat achieved by only "All About Eve" and "Titanic." If it wins all or most of the Academy Awards, that would make for a very dull and predictable show. The Oscars have become better about that in recent years, so we'll see. This does appear to make "La La" a front-runner for Best Picture though.

The rest of the categories and nominees are:

Best Documentary Feature

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

Best Original Song

“Audition (The Fools Who Dream),” La La Land
“Can’t Stop the Feeling,” Trolls
“City of Stars,” La La Land
“The Empty Chair,” Jim: the James Foley Story
“How Far I’ll Go,” Moana

Best Original Score

La La Land

Best Cinematography

La La Land

Film Editing

Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
La La Land

Costume Design

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Florence Foster Jenkins
La La Land

Makeup and Hairstyling

A Man Called Ove
Star Trek Beyond
Suicide Squad

Production Design

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Hail, Caesar!
La La Land

Sound Editing

Deepwater Horizon
Hacksaw Ridge
La La Land

Sound Mixing

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

Visual Effects

Deepwater Horizon
Doctor Strange
The Jungle Book
Kubo and the Two Strings
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Best Documentary Short

4.1 Miles
Joe’s Violin
Watani: My Homeland
The White Helmets

Best Animated Short

Blind Vaysha
Borrowed Time
Pear Cider and Cigarettes

Best Live Action Short

Ennemis Intériuers
La Femme et le TGV
Silent Nights

Friday, January 13, 2017

Review: Collateral Beauty

Love. Time. Death.

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: December 16th, 2016 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Drama
Running Time: 97 minutes
Director: David Frankel
Writers: Allan Loeb
Cast: Will Smith, Edward Norton, 
Kate Winslet, Michael Peña, 
Naomie Harris, Keira Knightley, 
Jacob Latimore, Ann Dowd, 
Kylie Rogers

Can there be anything worse than losing a child? "Collateral Beauty" examines the raw depths of that pain. 

Howard (Will Smith) runs a successful advertising agency. He and his methods are described as "fearless." Then his daughter dies. She was only six years old. Overwhelmed by grief, Howard becomes a shell and retreats into himself. The day-to-day details of his work no longer interest him. He still shows up to the office, but he now spends his time there building elaborate structures using dominoes – only to knock them right back down after he's finished, tile by tile by agonizing tile. Then he starts the frustrating process all over again. After years of this, business is – needless to say – suffering badly.

It's up to his overburdened and overstressed co-workers to pick up the slack. His partner and best friend, Whit (Edward Norton), is kind of a twit. He got caught with his pants down, was forced into a divorce, and had to sell 10% of his shares in the company to pay for it. Howard, he explains, did him a great favor by buying him out. But that's also why the company is currently in the predicament it's in. Because Whit is no longer a 50-50 partner, nothing can move forward without Howard – who is inadvertently holding the business hostage by not being mentally or emotionally present. He has stubbornly closed himself off from the world and refuses to talk to even his closest friends and associates. Claire (Kate Winslet) is terrified that everything they've worked a decade for will suddenly "evaporate." Simon (Michael Peña) has his own personal, private reasons for wanting the agency to get back on its feet. His family's future is at stake. Meanwhile, Whit has family problems of his own. His daughter (Kylie Rogers, "Miracles from Heaven") says she hates him because he's a "philanthropist." She means "philanderer," of course – cute!

Whit, Claire, and Simon get together and attempt to orchestrate what is essentially a hostile takeover of their friend's organization. As understandable as their motives may be, their methods seem reprehensible on the surface. This is where "Collateral Beauty" almost lost me. Almost.

They hire a private investigator (Ann Dowd) to look for the "smoking gun" that will allow them to question Howard's competency in running the firm. She breaks into a public mailbox – a federal offense – and discovers that he has been writing angry letters. But they're not addressed to people. Without revealing too much, it isn't long before he receives a personal response to his heated messages – from Death (Helen Mirren), Love (Keira Knightley), and Time (Jacob Latimore). All of them, he rages, conspired to take his daughter away from him.

Would you believe it if Death, for example, visited you in the form of an elderly white woman? Howard does, and that's enough to motivate him to finally attend a grief counseling session. It's led by Madeleine (Naomie Harris), who noticed him standing outside and staring into the window during previous meetings. He is very reluctant to open up but responds positively to her patience and kindness. She lost a child too, so she understands. After her daughter died, she was approached in the hospital and advised to recognize the collateral beauty all around her. It took her a long time before she comprehended the meaning of those words, and he certainly isn't ready to hear that message yet.

"Collateral Beauty" is the kind of movie that you will either love or hate – there is no middle ground. It's getting ugly reviews by critics. Part of me can understand why. The trailer misleadingly depicts the movie as light and whimsical when it's actually anything but. Will Smith's character is maddeningly obstinate, his co-workers come across initially as unlikeable and opportunistic, and even Death, Love, and Time aren't given clear motivations at first. I spent the early portion of the film angered by its apparent bait-and-switch and dark, depressing, unexpectedly all-too-realistic tone.

But then, slowly but surely, the story sucked me in and the incredible cast won me over. After all, losing a child isn't supposed to be fluffy and full of rainbows. If the film had depicted a tragedy of that magnitude as airily and marshmallowy as the preview did, reactions would be even more negative than they already are. So much could have gone wrong with this concept logically, but the screenplay does a fairly decent job of explaining and adhering to all of the "rules" it sets up.

Whether you will be moved by the movie's message, I suppose, depends on how cynical you are. This, I think, requires a certain soft spot in your heart. It ultimately worked for me, even though it did take a while for me to warm up to it.  

The film is simultaneously ugly and beautiful, anger-inducing and serenely moving, heartbreaking and heartwarming – much like collateral beauty itself.

Side Note from Silver Screen Sister:

"This is the best movie I've ever seen!" she gushed. Then again, she says that after every movie. Clearly, she doesn't go to too many, but her picks are always top-notch ("Chef," "Steve Jobs," "Boyhood." The less said about watching "Black Swan" with her, the better.)

"Edward Norton was great," she praised. "Has he done anything else? He now has a new fan!"

"What else has Helen Mirren been in?"

I'm sure these two up-and-coming youngsters will greatly appreciate her support.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Review: A Monster Calls

Life is No Fairy Tale

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: January 6th, 2017 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Drama, Fantasy
Running Time: 108 minutes
Director: J.A. Bayona
Writers: Patrick Ness (screenplay and novel), 
Siobhan Dowd (idea)
Cast: Lewis MacDougall, Sigourney Weaver, 
Felicity Jones, Toby Kebbell, Liam Neeson

A bullied little English boy, Conor (Lewis MacDougall), lives alone with his mum (Felicity Jones), who is very ill and isn't getting any better. He has a grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) who appears to be stern and distant, and a deadbeat dad (Toby Kebbell) who moved to L.A. and started a new family of his own there – one that doesn't include Conor. If all of that wasn't difficult enough, when the clock strikes and the hand moves from 12:06 to 12:07, the lad is besieged by nightmares – or are they visits? – from a monster (voiced by Liam Neeson).

The monster, which takes the form of a giant yew tree, promises to tell Conor three tales and then expects to hear one from the boy in return. The tales are narrated by the monster and animated to look like hand-drawn paintings. Their grim beauty lets us know we're not in Disneyland this time.

The first tale is about an evil queen, a poisoned king, and a young prince. The second tale focuses on a disgraced apothecary (pharmacist) and progressive preacher. Neither ends the way you'd expect. Both frustrate and befuddle the anguished child. All of them contain verbal and visual clues that call back to the boy's real-life troubles.

As the second tale suddenly segues from fantasy to reality, its dazzling destructiveness is sure to elicit gasps. I certainly had my hand over my mouth.

I know what you must be thinking: "Fairy tales?" "A tree monster?" But it's never silly. It's serious and sad. It works. I credit that its superb combination of acting, writing, directing, cinematography, and artistry.

Director J.A. Bayona and Cinematographer Oscar Faura went through "The Impossible" together and deliver a visual tsunami of a different kind in "A Monster Calls."

Liam Neeson is such an extraordinarily gifted actor that he's able to bring credibility to a living, breathing tree.

Sigourney Weaver's English accent is never distracting, which is all you can ask for, and her character arc and performance encompasses a wide range of attitudes and emotions. In another actor's hand, the temptation would have been strong to chew the scenery and play up the accent to the hilt, but Weaver wisely delivers a lovely and understated performance.

Felicity Jones's role as a gravely sick mum could have easily devolved into tearjerking overacting. Instead, it's genuine, heartfelt, and never manipulative. Her speech to Conor late in the film is wonderfully written and acted.

As skilled as the cast is, the real standout is 12-year-old Lewis MacDougall, whose wounded portrayal of Conor never hits a false note. Scene by scene, frame by frame, this is a real kid, not a cloying child-actor. He has been tasked with the monumental responsibility of carrying the movie on his back – without the right person in his position, everything else would fall apart – and he succeeds.

The screenplay and book of the same name were written by Patrick Ness. Its origin is a sad one. The idea for the story is credited to Siobhan Dowd. Before she died of breast cancer at the too-young age of 47, she came up with "A Monster Calls." In the Author's Note, Ness explained: "This would have been her fifth book. She had the characters, a premise, and a beginning. What did she didn't have, unfortunately, was time." His only guideline, he felt, was "to write a book I think Siobhan would have liked. No other criteria could really matter." Siobhan Dowd's personal story seems intertwined with every page Ness penned.

The film can be depressing. Parts of it feel like a storybook come to life but never a whimsical one. Children are likely the target audience and there are certainly lessons here they can learn, but is this really suited to them? I'm struggling to say for sure.

"A Monster Calls" is a beautifully-realized parable about a young boy's grief, anger, pain, and doubt, and all the messy ways in which those conflicting emotions can manifest themselves. The story will take you on a journey to very center of his soul.