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Friday, November 16, 2018

Review: The Samuel Project

Art. History. Life.

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: October 5th, 2018 – U.S. • Rating: PG-13 • Genre: Drama • Running Time: 93 minutes • Director: Marc Fusco • Writers: Marc Fusco, Chris Neighbors, Steve Weinberger • Cast: Hal Linden, Ryan Ochoa, Michael B. Silver, Mateo Arias, Philippe Bowgen, Catherine Siggins, Callie Gilbert, Pia Thrasher, Trina Kaplan, Dylan James Weinberger, Malina Moye, Liza Lapira

"You're a lucky kid."

That's what Samuel Bergman (the great Hal Linden of "Barney Miller" fame) tells his 17-year-old grandson, Eli (Ryan Ochoa). 

The teenager retorts that "old people" – "adults," he quickly corrects himself – always say that.

In this case, it's true. But Grandpa isn't talking.
A surprise letter leads to an unexpected meeting between Samuel and a dear old friend of his named Uma (Trina Kaplan). 

Eli is full of questions:

– Who is this woman?

– How does Samuel know German?

– What is the story behind the teenage girl and the bandaged boy in the photograph Eli saw?

Questions without answers, because Grandpa still isn't talking. 

It would end up being Samuel's last meeting with Uma.

Not even Matzo Ball Soup – courtesy of a surprise nighttime visit from Eli – is enough to get the old man to open up. Some things are too tough to talk about.

The reason for the soup and the visit: Samuel doesn't show up for work that morning. He runs a successful dry-cleaning business in San Diego. One of Samuel's employees has been there eight years and says his boss has never missed a day of work in all that time. Samuel is the best in town, according to his customers – even if he can't ever seem to remove a stain from the butcher's apron. The butcher's name is Vartan (Ken Davitian), and he comes around to the store not only to have his clothes cleaned, but also to exchange constant verbal jabs with Samuel and continue their seemingly never-ending chess game on a board set up behind the counter. 

Meanwhile, Eli wants to be an artist – much to the chagrin of his father, Robert (Michael B. Silver), who is still struggling to pay the bills even with a "real job." Robert's advice: go to community college, get a degree in a stable profession, and be an artist on the weekend. But Eli has to be an artist now because he has been assigned a "historia" project in Mr. Turner's (Philippe Bowgen) media class. The winning entry gets a scholarship to art school, which Eli desperately needs because he doesn't have his father's support – financial or otherwise. Samuel doesn't quite understand his grandson's "doodles" either, but he's fascinated that people can actually make a living doing that.

For the project, Eli pairs up with Kasim (Mateo Arias), a brooding musician who is being pressured into working at his father's butcher shop. (Free Matzo Ball soup to anyone who can figure out which character Kasim is related to.) Even Eli – reflecting his own father's dream-crushing negativity – thinks Kasim's future is as a butcher. (Another free bowl of Matzo Ball Soup if you can figure out what – and who – Eli and Kassim's project will be about.)

The way to a man's heart is usually through his stomach, but as we saw with Eli's offer of Matzo Ball Soup, that doesn't work with Samuel. In this case, the way to a man's heart is through is through free employment. Eli offers to work at the dry-cleaning store before and after school without pay if Samuel will open up to him. That story – about a young boy whose entire family was torn away from him in the blink of an eye by the Nazis, the teenage girl who rescued him from a gunshot wound inflicted by her own father, and his eventual journey to America all alone – becomes the basis for both Eli's project and the movie itself. 

"The Samuel Project" works because all of the characters come across as real people. Their interactions feel natural. There's a certain "lived-in" quality to everything we see in the movie. Much of that has to be credited to masterful veteran actor Hal Linden, whose "Barney Miller" is still considered one of the most realistic cop characters and shows ever put to film – but his Samuel Bergman is a worthy successor several decades later. Young Ryan Ochoa is every bit as good as his experienced co-star and has a bright future ahead of him if this movie is any indication. The teacher, Mr. Turner, is played nicely by Philippe Bowgen – with the sharp, sarcastic edge of a jaded instructor who still cares about and encourages the students willing to put in the time and effort. Ken Davitian, as the butcher, is an entertaining presence who adds just the right touch of lightness to his scenes. Mateo Arias does the same as Eli's project partner, Kasim. 

There are no major surprises in "The Samuel Project," but there don't need to be. It shines because it shows all of those little moments that come with living a life. 

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

Review: Crazy Rich Asians

A Crazy Rich Cinematic Experience

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: August 15th, 2018 – U.S. • Rating: PG-13 • Genre: Comedy, Romance • Running Time: 121 minutes • Director: Jon M. Chu • Writers: Peter Chiarelli (screenplay), Adele Lim (screenplay), Kevin Kwan (novel) • Cast: Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Gemma Chan, Lisa Lu, Awkwafina, Harry Shum Jr., Ken Jeong, Michelle Yeoh

Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love with girl. Boy takes girl to Singapore meet his parents and attend a wedding. Boy neglects to tell girl he's from one of the richest and most famous families in all of Asia. (Boy uses girl's Netflix password instead of having his own account, so how could she possibly know?)

That's the tantalizing premise behind "Crazy Rich Asians." 

Much has been made of the fact that this is the first American film since "The Joy Luck Club" in 1993 to feature an all-Asian cast. It's a historic and long overdue development. But let's face it: anything historic doesn't always sound like very much fun. Rest assured, that isn't a problem here. This movie is a pure joy to watch from beginning to end.

Rachel Chu (Constance Wu, "Fresh Off the Boat") has no idea what she's in for when her boyfriend, Nick Young (newcomer Henry Golding in his first film role), invites her to Singapore. Nick Young is a household name in Singapore. Before he even finishes telling his mother he's bringing Rachel with him, everyone in the family – and everyone in Singapore – knows her name too. That's how much status the Young family has.

As Rachel experiences for the first time the overwhelming opulence and extreme extravagance the Youngs are accustomed to, so too does the audience. Watching "Crazy Rich Asians" is like going on an all-expenses-paid vacation to Singapore that you could otherwise never afford. You'll meet memorable characters, in breathtaking locales, wearing gorgeous outfits, eating mouth-watering food – be sure to grab a bite before the film, or you'll be ravenously hungry long before the credits roll! The Royal Wedding seems humble compared to the Young Wedding.

But if I'm making "Crazy Rich Asians" sound like a glorified travel program or reality show, nothing could be further from the truth. The movie wouldn't work if it was only a surface-level look at the glitz, glamour, and excesses of a wealthy and well-known family. 

One of the main themes in the film is the perceived differences between people who are Chinese from those who are Chinese-American. Children of immigrants from any country or culture can relate. 

There are also differences between the "old money" Youngs and other families in Singapore. While the Goh clan is presented as wacky and played for laughs, they are also unapologetically themselves and instantly warm, inviting, and accepting of Rachel and everyone else they meet. (Awkwafina – whose over-the-top character is described in the movie as an "Asian Ellen" – and "The Hangover's" Mr. Chow, Ken Jeong, play two members of the outrageous Goh family.) 

Meanwhile, the matriarch of the Young family, Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh, in an Oscar-worthy performance), is cold, distant, and critical of her "chosen one" son's American girlfriend. And she is far from the only one at the wedding who is unhappy about Rachel's presence. 

However, not everyone shares those views. Astrid (Gemma Chan) and Oliver ("Superstore's" Nico Santos) are happy for Nick and Rachel. Astrid is a particularly fascinating character, as she'll think nothing of dropping over a million dollars on ridiculous pearl earrings, yet isn't presented as a spoiled snob. 

Also interesting and perhaps unexpected: the Youngs are a Christian family – there's an early scene of a Bible Club meeting, and the wedding takes place inside a church – which is notable, because Chinese characters are usually depicted as followers of more traditionally-Eastern religions. (However, it should be noted that the characters in the Amy Tan book The Joy Luck Club are also Christian – they attend a Chinese-Baptist Church. I'm not sure if this carries over to the film adaptation, which I haven't seen.) 

But none of that would matter if we didn't care about these people – and we do, thanks to stellar performances by all involved. Constance Wu admirably anchors the movie, serving as the audience's proxy into this unimaginable other world of loud luxury. Henry Golding is incredibly impressive in his first film role – no doubt an instant star-making performance. And if there's any justice in the world, Michelle Yeoh's name will be on the Oscar ballot. 

Beneath a flashy veneer, "Crazy Rich Asians" expertly explores issues of family, culture, finance, and happiness. But it's still a whole lotta fun! This is one of the most thoroughly enjoyable films of the year.

Friday, July 13, 2018

Review: 350 Days

Pro Wrestling from Every Angle

By Chris Sabga

"350 Days" refers to the amount of time the average professional wrestler spent on the road and away from his family. Driving many miles, working through multiple injuries, and combating loneliness, fatigue, and problems at home, they wrestled every night of the week and "twice on Sundays." The highlight of their day was often those few minutes inside the ring. But that wasn't the only thing they had to look forward to! After the matches, they had instant access to drugs, alcohol, and willing women known as "ring rats."

This documentary assembles a who's who of great names to discuss the professional wrestling lifestyle from every perspective:

Tito Santana • "Mr. Wonderful" Paul Orndorff • Greg "The Hammer" Valentine • Bret "The Hitman" Hart • Wendi Richter • George "The Animal" Steele • Don Fargo • "Superstar" Billy Graham • Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka • Bruce Allen (Promoter) • JJ Dillon • Ox Baker • The Masked Superstar (Bill Eadie) • Lanny Poffo • Abdullah the Butcher • "The Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase • Gangrel • Angelo "King Kong" Mosca • Farmer Pete • The Wolfman (Willie Farkas) • Howard Jerome • "Butcher" Paul Vachon • Angelo Savoldi • Stan Hansen • Gino Caruso • Ricky Johnson • Doink the Clown (Ray Apollo) • Lex Luger • Paul Lazenby • Slick (Ken Johnson) • Davey O'Hannon • "Pretty Boy" Larry Sharpe • Ric Drasin • "Cowboy" Johnny Mantell • "Bushwhacker" Luke Williams • Gene LeBell • Don Leo Jonathan • Marty Jannetty • Nikolai Volkoff

Filmed over five years, a staggering number of wrestlers were interviewed for "350 Days." Several of them are no longer with us.

The movie often switches from the silly to the surreal to the sublime, sometimes in the same scene.

One of the highlights: footage featuring the "crazed" Ox Baker preparing a meal in his own kitchen. Was it entirely necessary to include five full minutes of this? Possibly not. But I can't lie: I wouldn't have been in the least bit disappointed if the rest of the film consisted of cooking lessons from Ox Baker.

Here's a picture of Ox Baker, in case you need a visual aid:

This alone would have make Ox Baker a star again – it's a shame he didn't live to see it.

On the other end of the emotional spectrum, there's a touching segment with "Superstar" Billy Graham (not the preacher) discussing his health issues. Known for his outrageous catchphrases, such as "the man of the hour, the man with the power, too sweet to be sour," Graham puts aside the bluster of his bombastic character to discuss his battles with Hepatitis C and the young lady who died, which allowed him to live by receiving her liver.

However, Abdullah the Butcher has been accused of infecting other wrestlers with Hepatitis C (not Graham) by using an old razor blade to draw blood in matches – a common, if barbaric, practice in wrestling – but the movie completely ignores his irresponsible, reckless, negligent, and potentially murderous actions. A similar blind eye is also turned to "Superfly" Jimmy Snuka, who allegedly beat his girlfriend to death in 1983. (He was arrested and indicted in 2015, 32 years later. He died in 2017.)

At first, I was distracted by these omissions. The endearing scene of a loving, nurturing "Superfly" feeding and petting adorable farm animals takes on an almost dreamlike quality. People are complicated! But I can also partly understand why the filmmakers decided to shy away from spotlighting such shocking stories. The darker side of these wrestlers' personal live might have overshadowed the rest of the film and obscured the overall purpose of the documentary.

Despite that, there is still plenty of bad behavior to go around.

Bret "The Hitman" Hart spent his entire career portraying a virtuous "Canadian hero." The revelations in "350 Days" won't be surprising to anyone who read his voluminous almost-600-page tome, Hitman: My Real Life in the Cartoon World of Wrestling. But for the average fan, this film will definitely expose a different side of "The Hitman." Anyone who has listened to any recent Bret Hart interviews will already know that he's honest to a fault (potentially the result of a stroke he suffered in 2002). Here, his "Canadian hero" persona is laid bare. In one startling speech, he practically endorses cocaine by fondly reminiscing about the drug while going out of his way to point out that it did not impair him. He claimed to retain everything he ever learned from veteran wrestlers during those powdery bonding sessions. Later, he concedes that drug testing has been good for the industry. "The Hitman" also makes no apologies – and has no regrets – for indulging in extramarital affairs during his career. He said he made many friendships that way. Wrestling is indeed a hard life – as this documentary points out – but coming from the mouth of Bret Hart, you would think he was a combat veteran who served in two World Wars. Then again, "The Hitman" has always taken himself very seriously – as demonstrated in another excellent wrestling documentary, 1998's "Hitman Hart: Wrestling with Shadows."

What makes the movie so fascinating is the often contradictory opinions expressed by different wrestlers on a wide variety of topics. For example, one common belief expressed in the film is that the wrestling business ruins marriages. Lanny Poffo, however, is quick to dispel that notion.

"350 Days" is a revealing look at the human beings behind the wrestling personas. "Mr. Wonderful" Paul Orndorff expresses regrets about placing wrestling and money ahead of his family and laments that he can barely move his arm after years of abusing his body in the wrestling ring. "Superfly" Jimmy Snuka somehow come across as calm, clear, and coherent – a far cry from one of his wild "Superfly" wrestling promos that were nearly impossible to decipher – while "Rocker" Marty Jannetty is sadly almost unintelligible.

The sheer breadth of wrestlers interviewed in "350 Days" is ultimately what gives this documentary its considerable depth. 

Friday, June 1, 2018

Review: Bipolar Rock 'N' Roller

How Mauro Ranallo Became the Most Trusted Voice in Wrestling, Boxing, and MMA

By Chris Sabga

"Mamma Mia!"

That is Mauro Ranallo's catchphrase and rallying cry. When he unleashes it in the middle of a heated wrestling match, you know he's excited about the action in the ring. He's bouncing with energy, and taking the fans right along with him.

Listening to Mauro's creative commentary and infectious enthusiasm, it would be easy to mistake him for a happy-go-lucky guy who is always smiling and full of joy. In reality, every day is an exhausting mental and emotional struggle for Mauro Ranallo.

Showtime's "Bipolar Rock 'N' Roller" takes a hard look at Mauro's battle with bipolar disorder. The documentary's depiction of the disease is as raw and real as it gets. No attempt is made to ease the audience into it or smooth out the rough edges. The film is intentionally uncomfortable.

We've all heard stories about people drifting aimlessly through their 20s. Mauro Ranallo's circumstances during those years were far more serious and dire. He spent his entire 20s in and out of mental institutions. His first breaking point came after the sudden shock of his best friend's death at the all-too-young age of 19. For Mauro, it was like losing a brother.

Among the tragedies, there are also many triumphs. Early footage of a teenage Mauro as a heel (bad guy) motormouth for a local wrestling show in Vancouver is great fun to watch. In general, combat sports – pro wrestling, boxing, and mixed martial arts – would become a safe haven for Mauro Ranallo.

Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor was a "dream match" between a boxer and an MMA fighter that fans of both sports clamored for and debated endlessly. Johnny Gargano vs. Tommaso Ciampa was a slow-burning, smoldering, bitter rivalry between former tag team partners that diehard wrestling fan couldn't wait to see. Mauro Ranallo was the voice of both.

Mauro Ranallo's bombastic commentary style is often the subject of discussion. His love of language and steady stream of pop culture references are two of his unmistakable trademarks. The reason: merely "calling the fight" is anathema to Mauro, as we see in one scene where he berates himself for doing too much paint-by-numbers play-by-play during one event. His goal, he explains, is always to be a storyteller and entertainer. Through tireless research and copious notes, he constantly strives to be as creative as possible.

Bipolar disorder used to be referred to as manic depression, and it's obvious that the "manic" side aids his commentary at times. WWE released footage of Mauro's "priceless reactions" during the Gargano-Ciampa match. He can barely sit still.

Treatment for bipolar disorder is covered at length in the documentary, including – surprisingly – marijuana, which Mauro freely admits is his medication of choice. His reasoning make sense: When he would ask doctors how or why certain pills, doses, and combinations worked, they were often unsure. Because he had no way of knowing exactly what he was putting into his body or what it would do to him, he felt more comfortable treating his mental illness with marijuana.

Some would say that Mauro Ranallo succeeded despite bipolar disorder, while others would argue that his greatest successes may very well be because of the disease. Both are true and neither are true. It's more complicated than that. What cannot be debated, however, is the common denominator in both of those statements: his success. Because "Bipolar Rock 'N Roller" never sugarcoats Mauro Ranallo's struggles or minimizes the realities of mental illness, his success story ultimately serves as a message of hope.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Review: I Can Only Imagine

The True Story of the Man Behind the Music

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: March 16th, 2018 – U.S.
Rating: PG
Genre: Drama, Family, Biography
Running Time: 110 minutes
Directors: Andrew Erwin, Jon Erwin
Writers: Alex Cramer (story), 
Jon Erwin, Brent McCorkle
Cast: J. Michael Finley, Brody Rose, 
Madeline Carroll, Trace Adkins, 
Cloris Leachman, Dennis Quaid

"I Can Only Imagine" by Bart Millard and his band MercyMe is the bestselling Christian song of all-time. It attained Triple Platinum status, with over 2.5 million in sales, and became a massive crossover hit that reached secular audiences as well.

The film of the same name tells the true story of Bart Millard and how the song came to be.

Growing up, Millard (played as a boy by Brody Rose, in a heartbreaking performance) is abused by his dad, Arthur (Dennis Quaid), whose only facial expression is a deep scowl of disapproval and discontent. He actively discourages his son from following his musical dreams. "Dreams don't pay the bills," he lectures. "Nothing good comes from them. All it does is keeping you from knowing what is real."

His mother, Adele (Tanya Clarke), and his "Memaw" (Cloris Leachman) try their best to look out for him. Adele sends her son to a week-long Christian camp, where he meets Shannon (Taegen Burns), who has been harboring a secret crush on him. It's the best week of his life. But everything changes for the worse when he comes back home.

Left alone to fend for himself, Bart (J. Michael Finley) eventually abandons his music to play football – because it's the only thing he and his father can find common ground on. An injury leads Bart to the one extracurricular activity in school that's still open: Glee Club. There, he meets a teacher (Priscilla C. Shirer) who encourages and nurtures his musical talent.

Through it all, Shannon (now played by Madeline Carroll, who you may remember from "Swing Vote" and "Flipped") has remained by his side.

After high school, he leaves town and forms a band – MercyMe – whose name comes from an expression his "Memaw" used. To get their big break, they need to impress Brickell (the always solid Trace Adkins). Bart is full of himself but Brickell brings him back down to earth. "I don't think you found your song, found your soul," he cautions. Until Bart can tap into something's real, he advises, MercyMe will never truly succeed.

Bart's troubles – with his music and girlfriend – send him on a soul-searching journey back home, back to the father who abused him. But his dad is no longer the same man. There's now a Bible by his bedside and a ticking clock on his lifespan.

Through those trials and tribulations, Bart puts pen to paper and writes "I Can Only Imagine." It eventually reaches the hands of beloved Christian singer Amy Grant (Nicole DuPort), whose angelic voice lifted Bart up during some very tough times in his life. What happens next is probably unheard of in both the music and entertainment industries at large.

Because of Bart Millard's beliefs, "I Can Only Imagine" is considered a Christian movie. But it doesn't make the same mistakes most religious films do. 99% of movies that call themselves "Christian" focus first and foremost on religion, at the expense of story and character. They're heavy-handed, preachy, unrealistic, and intelligence-insulting. They don't operate in the real world. "I Can Only Imagine" works because it's about people who are Christian instead of being a blunt manifesto on Christianity itself. Like the song that inspired it, the film version of "I Can Only Imagine" will be able to cross over and appeal to audiences from all walks of life. Many Christian films are too narrow in scope to be enjoyed by anyone other than priests, nuns, and pastors – and even they're probably secretly rolling their eyes at the majority of the genre. I can only imagine most of them used a few unholy words to describe what cockamamie drivel "God's Not Dead" was. (I'm a fan of David A.R. White, who produces and acts in those movies, but he can do so much better.) If their ultimate goal is to reach more people with their message, they're failing miserably by playing only to their own base and no one else. "I Can Only Imagine" avoids the same pitfalls.

Bart Millard claims it took him only ten minutes to write the song that would launch his career, but as the movie says and shows, it really took him a lifetime. Whether it was "God's hand," life's random but always unpredictable circumstances, or both, the process that led to the creation of "I Can Only Imagine" is a fascinating one to watch unfold onscreen.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

The 90th Annual Academy Awards: Results and Reactions

"The Shape of Water" vs. "Three Billboards" – or Will They Have to Get Out for "Get Out"?

By Chris Sabga

Nothing was going to top the chaos and buzz of last year's Oscars, but the 90th annual Academy Awards felt like its age.
Before the Show

Jimmy, Warren, Faye, and That Mix-Up!

A year ago, I wrote:

To Jimmy Kimmel's credit, the lengthy ceremony raced by. This may be the most fun I've had watching the Oscars in years."

Part of that was because of last year's shocking "twisting ending," which became the "water cooler moment" of the broadcast.

"La La Land" was announced as Best Picture – and then it wasn't. In a stunning faux pas by presenters and "Bonnie and Clyde" stars Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, it turns out the wrong movie was named. (They were somehow mistakenly handed the envelope for Best Actress, which went to Emma Stone for "La La Land.") Their error was acknowledged – as the world collectively held their breath and gasped – and then the actual winner was announced: "Moonlight" scored Best Picture in one of the most surprising upsets in Oscar history.

Jimmy is back this year, and so are Warren and Faye – but I don't expect lightning to strike twice. If anything, I'm anticipating an even more by-the-books and controlled ceremony than usual, and that's really saying something considering how stuffy and rigid the Oscars normally are.

Any Potential Surprises?

The "safe money" seems to be on "The Shape of Water" or "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri." But will the entrenched "business-as-usual older Oscar voters split the vote between the two projected front-runners, paving the way for another film entirely to reap the big reward? Could the Academy's efforts to recruit a younger and more diverse voting base end up "playing spoiler" and pushing ahead a movie like the wonderfully creative and buzz-worthy "Get Out" instead?

Full results are listed at the end.

The Oscar Ceremony

The Host: The opening monologue was more serious than usual. Only a few clever jokes broke up the unusually heavy atmosphere.

Between Parkland, #MeToo, and #TimesUp, there's not much to laugh about these days. As Kimmel said later on, "reality can be depressing."

Still, Jimmy is a natural and can easily do this for another ten years like Billy Crystal and Bob Hope before him.

Best Oscar Speeches: The speech by the winners of "Coco" about representation – people of all races, colors, and creeds needing to see themselves on screen – was possibly the first great one of the night.

Rachel Shenton and Chris Overton using sign language during their entire speech for "The Silent Child" was amazing – and quite fitting considering both the subject matter and star of their movie.

I loved Jordan Peele's speech for Best Original Screenplay. He talked about wanting to give up 20 times because he didn't think anyone would ever actually agree to let him bring "Get Out" to the screen. I'm glad he kept writing, because not only did he get to make his movie, he won the Oscar for it.

Frances McDormand – long overdue for an Oscar – made an impassioned plea for women's rights and equality. She mentioned the term "inclusion rider" in her speech. What does that mean? According to The Hollywood Reporter, she's asking for "requirements in contracts that provide for gender and racial diversity." I expect that to be the most talked about issue brought up at the Academy Awards, both within the industry and by the moviegoing public at large.

Best Presenters: Eva Marie Saint – who admitted she's older than Oscar – did such a classy job of recapping her career and presenting the award for Costume Design.

Taraji P. Henson positively beamed when she revealed that Mary J. Blige is the first person ever nominated for both Best Song and Best Supporting Actress in the same year.

Lupita Nyong'o and Kumail Nanjiani – two names people "have trouble pronouncing" – were funny, charming, and inspiring. They recounted their journey to the film industry as immigrants from Kenya (Lupita Nyong'o) and "Pakistan and Iowa (Kumail Nanjiani) – two places people in Hollywood can't find on a map."

Tiffany Haddish and Maya Rudolph were hilarious. I love Tiffany Haddish!

Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway made the most of their second chance. Their presentation was short but sweet.

I was hoping they would announce a winner that wasn't even nominated – a terrific punchline to last year's monumental mistake – but no one was willing to be that daring this year, much to the show's detriment.

Best Moments: Jimmy Kimmel announced that speeches wouldn't be interrupted by music this year. Instead, Lakeith Stanfield ran out and re-enacted a scene from "Get Out." Oscar winners whose speeches are too long, Kimmel said, will have to "get out." Cute!

The "Price is Right"- like jet ski contest for shortest speech – which was won by Costume Designer Mark Bridges.

Best Dressed: I don't usually care about this, but the timeless Rita Moreno was in the same dress tonight that she wore 55 years ago when she won the Oscar for "West Side Story" in 1962 – and she pulled it off spectacularly!

Biggest Surprise: None in the major categories. Both Documentary awards and the Live Action Short Film winners went against general projections. Otherwise, this was the most predictable Academy Awards in years.

Overall: There were a few good lines, and Kimmel is a comforting presence, but this year's ceremony felt too safe and stuffy. After last year's fiasco, it seemed everyone went out of their way to avoid making any mistakes at all. There were a few good zingers and moments, but almost everything was too buttoned up and restrained. The winners were predictable, and with an overabundance of musical acts, video tributes, and skits, the show was too long.

Full Results

Best Picture: "The Shape of Water"

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Gary Oldman, "Darkest Hour"

Best Actress in a Leading Role: Frances McDormand, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"

Best Actor in a Supporting Role: Sam Rockwell, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"

Best Actress in a Supporting Role: Allison Janney, "I, Tonya"

Best Director: Guillermo del Toro, "The Shape of Water"

Best Animated Feature: "Coco" – Lee Unkrich, Darla K. Anderson

Best Adapted Screenplay: "Call Me by Your Name" – James Ivory

Best Original Screenplay: "Get Out" – Jordan Peele

Best Foreign Language Film: "A Fantastic Woman" (Chile)

Best Documentary Feature: "Icarus" – Bryan Fogel, Dan Cogan

Best Original Song: "Remember Me" from "Coco" – Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez

Best Original Score: "The Shape of Water" – Alexandre Desplat

Best Cinematography: "Blade Runner 2049" – Roger Deakins

Film Editing: "Dunkirk" – Lee Smith

Costume Design: "Phantom Thread" – Mark Bridges

Makeup and Hairstyling: "Darkest Hour" – Kazuhiro Tsuji, David Malinowski, Lucy Sibbick

Production Design: "The Shape of Water" – Paul D. Austerberry, Jeffrey A. Melvin, Shane Vieau

Sound Editing: "Dunkirk" – Alex Gibson, Richard King

Sound Mixing: "Dunkirk" – Mark Weingarten, Gregg Landaker, Gary A. Rizzo

Visual Effects: "Blade Runner 2049" – John Nelson, Paul Lambert, Richard R. Hoover, Gerd Nefzer

Best Documentary Short: "Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405" – Frank Stiefel

Best Animated Short: "Dear Basketball" – Glen Keane, Kobe Bryant

Best Live Action Short: "The Silent Child" – Chris Overton, Rachel Shenton

Friday, February 23, 2018

Review: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

A Hilarious Love Letter to Video Games

By Chris Sabga

Release Date: December 20th, 2017 – U.S.
Rating: PG-13
Genre: Action, Adventure, Comedy
Running Time: 119 minutes
Director: Jake Kasdan
Writers: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, 
Scott Rosenberg, Jeff Pinkner
Cast: The Rock, Kevin Hart, 
Jack Black, Karen Gillan, 
Rhys Darby, Bobby Cannavale, 
Nick Jonas, Alex Wolff, Ser'Darius Blain, 
Madison Iseman, Morgan Turner, 
Missi Pyle, Marc Evan Jackson 

"Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" is an unapologetic love letter to video games that left me laughing almost nonstop.

The film begins with four high school kids getting detention: shy nerd Spencer (Alex Wolff), stocky football star Fridge (Ser'Darius Blain, whose character seems like an obvious nod to NFL player William "The Refrigerator" Perry), socially-awkward loner Martha (Morgan Turner), and vapid teen queen Instagram addict Bethany (Madison Iseman).

There are a couple of fun adult cameos, with Marc Evan Jackson as the principal (he's perhaps best known for his role as Shaun from "The Good Place," playing the same type of dryly entertaining character here) and Missi Pyle ("Dodgeball") as the coach.

As punishment, the children are forced to clean the school basement. There, they discover a dusty old video game system. The cartridge included is, of course, "Jumanji." As soon as they press "Start" on the controller, they're suddenly inside the game, where they literally turn into the characters they just selected.

  • Geeky Spencer becomes musclebound action hero Dr. Smolder Bravestone (The Rock).
  • Imposing football star Fridge shrinks into a mini-refrigerator, embodying the much shorter and scrawnier form of zoologist Franklin "Mouse" Finbar (Kevin Hart).
  • Bookish outcast Martha morphs into buxom Lara Croft wannabe Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillan), complete with a tight top and overly short pants that could work nowhere else but in an over-the-top action movie or video game like "Jumanji." (Luckily for them – and us – "Welcome to the Jungle" is both.)
  • And – most hilariously of all – phone-addicted queen bee Bethany transforms into Professor Shelly Oberon (Jack Black), not realizing until it's too late that Shelly is actually short for Sheldon.

"Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" smartly spends several minutes allowing the kids to explore their new bodies, characters, and abilities. It's hysterically funny watching them to react to such an unimaginable situation.

But the real fun comes from the way "Jumanji" inhabits the world of a video game, with amusing nods to all of the quirks and idiosyncrasies gamers take for granted that are bizarre in any other context.

Almost every video game has a "life bar." So, too, does this one – in the form of disappearing tattoos on the characters' wrists. There are also pop-up menus in most games that display important information. In the world of "Jumanji," a character can press on his or her pec like a button to bring up a list of skills, strengths, and weaknesses – the funniest of which are cake (weakness) and dance fighting (strength). Naturally, death is never final in any game – unless you're down to your last life. Like many video games, dying in "Jumanji" takes the form of a quick explosion – poof! they're gone – and then the character falls down from the sky to play again. Real-word logic and physics don't apply here, just as they don't in many games. There are also "NPCs" – non-player characters – who repeat the same scripted, stilted dialogue whether appropriate or not. The most amusing of these is their tour guide, Nigel (Rhys Darby).

All of this will seem like a foreign language to anyone who has never picked up a video game controller, but any gamer reading this will smile in recognition.

The Rock, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, and Jack Black do an incredible job of portraying confused, scared kids who are stuck in new bodies and trapped inside a video game. They may be adults in the world of "Jumanji" but they're still really children. That has its benefits too, though, because Spencer can use his gaming skills to progress from "level" to "level" with the goal of getting everyone back home to the real world. As much as I love The Rock and Kevin Hart (I hope they do 20 more movies together), and as great as Karen Gillan is here, the underrated Jack Black steals the show as a shallow teenage girl who now has to contend with being a fat middle-aged man.

As the fearful foursome progresses, they eventually run into two other major characters. Jefferson "Seaplane" McDonough (Nick Jonas) seems like a heroic fighter pilot but he's really another kid named Alex who is also stuck in the game. He's down to his last "life" and afraid to move forward because a tough "level" has claimed his previous" lives." They all have to contend with the villainous Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale), who is the "final boss" – another video game staple.

"Welcome to the Jungle" comes 22 years after 1995's "Jumanji." but it's a standalone "sequel" that requires no knowledge of the original. However, there is one reference to Robin Williams' character, Alan Parrish, from the first film. There are also nods to The Rock's other career – as a professional wrestler. In an action scene, we see The Rock's finishing move, the Rock Bottom, and his character refers to himself in the third person at one point like The Rock always did in the WWE. All of that is right in line with the clever winks provided throughout.

"Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle" is the rare example of an action-comedy that's smartly written, has clever characterization, and is actually funny. It's the perfect movie to see when you need to take your mind off your problems and simply laugh in the dark for two hours. 

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The 90th Annual Academy Awards: Nominations and Notes

The Oscars Turn 90 – Here are the Silver Screen Surprises of This Year's Nominations

By Chris Sabga

Just as I did last year, 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

"Call Me by Your Name"
"Darkest Hour"
"Get Out"
"Lady Bird"
"Phantom Thread"
"The Post"
"The Shape of Water"
"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"

Surprises: With all of the hoopla surrounding "Wonder Woman," I really expected it to the lead the pack – and maybe even win. Instead, it has been completely shut out. That's somewhat surprising in the year of #MeToo and #TimesUp where women are rising up and exposing widespread systemic sexual abuse, unfair gender wage gaps, skewed power dynamics, and many other major problems both in and out of Hollywood. It's long overdue. If there was ever a movie I assumed the Academy would choose as a "symbol" of everything that's happened, it was this one. In the past, phony Tinseltown has shamelessly attached itself and certain movies to major issues going on in the world in a futile attempt to "look progressive." While this omission is sure to upset many, perhaps it's a sign that everyone in Hollywood finally realizes that these women aren't going anywhere – nor should they – and a token nomination or award isn't going to be enough this time to solve all of the very real problems plaguing the film industry.

However, in the battle of "superhero movies," my heart was with the surprisingly powerful and poignant "Logan" – which stripped the iconic X-Men characters of most of their powers and instead explored their humanity and fragility. Alas, it too was completely omitted from most of the major categories.

Another major omission, for me, is the wonderful "The Big Sick." It takes real artistry to turn a movie about a girl in a medically-induced coma into one of the funniest and most heartwarming films of the year. Combining comedy and drama is never easy, and this movie does it effortlessly.

Of the current nominations, none of them are even remotely shocking to me. They're the same movies I've seen in other awards ceremonies and on various prediction lists for the past several weeks.

Lead Actor

Timothée Chalamet, "Call Me by Your Name"
Daniel Day-Lewis, "Phantom Thread"
Daniel Kaluuya, "Get Out"
Gary Oldman, "Darkest Hour"
Denzel Washington, "Roman J. Israel, Esq."

Surprises: "Roman J. Israel, Esq." has been plagued by critical scorn and audience indifference, so I wasn't necessarily expecting Denzel to show up here. He is always solid though.

James Franco was predicted to be the front-runner at one point for "The Disaster Artist," but allegations of sexual misconduct may have put the deep freeze on his Oscar chances – and his career in general. A far cry from just one year ago where Casey Affleck faced similar accusations and sailed away with the Academy Award anyway. #TimesUp indeed.

I loved Kumail Nanjiani's semi-autobiographical performance in "The Big Sick," and while expected, I'm still sad to see him left off this list.

Lead Actress

Sally Hawkins, "The Shape of Water"
Frances McDormand, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"
Margot Robbie, "I, Tonya"
Saoirse Ronan, "Lady Bird"
Meryl Streep, "The Post"

Surprises: Meryl Streep gets an unexpected nomination. Oh, who am I kidding? There are only three certainties in life: death, taxes, and Meryl Streep getting nominated for an Academy Award.

Supporting Actor

Willem Dafoe, "The Florida Project"
Woody Harrelson, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"
Richard Jenkins, "The Shape of Water"
Christopher Plummer, "All the Money in the World"
Sam Rockwell, "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri"

Surprises: I'm not sure I was expecting both supporting actors to be nominated for "Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri," but you can never go wrong with Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell.

Patrick Stewart's heartbreaking turn in "Logan" as an elderly superhero who can no longer control his powers was unjustly overlooked by the Academy. Surely, we could've had one billboard outside Ebbing, Missouri in this category to make room for the former Captain Picard.

Speaking of former TV actors, Ray Romano's kicked puppy dog performance in "The Big Sick" was quietly powerful – and unfortunately nowhere to be found in this category.

Supporting Actress

Mary J. Blige, "Mudbound"
Allison Janney, "I, Tonya"
Lesley Manville, "Phantom Thread"
Laurie Metcalf, "Lady Bird"
Octavia Spencer, "The Shape of Water"

Surprises: No real surprises here. Octavia Spencer has become the new Meryl Streep with all of the nominations she's racked up over the years – not that I'm complaining, because she's terrific. It's also nice to see Laurie Metcalf too.


Christopher Nolan, "Dunkirk"
Jordan Peele, "Get Out"
Greta Gerwig, "Lady Bird"
Paul Thomas Anderson, "Phantom Thread"
Guillermo del Toro, "The Shape of Water"

Surprises: With "Wonder Woman" not in the Best Picture race, its director Patty Jenkins isn't here either. Neither is James Mangold for "Logan."

Animated Feature

"The Boss Baby" – Tom McGrath, Ramsey Ann Naito
"The Breadwinner" – Nora Twomey, Anthony Leo
"Coco" – Lee Unkrich, Darla K. Anderson
"Ferdinand" – Carlos Saldanha
"Loving Vincent" – Dorota Kobiela, Hugh Welchman, Sean Bobbitt, Ivan Mactaggart, Hugh Welchman

Surprises: I never expected "Loving Vincent" to be recognized. Look for a review soon!

Adapted Screenplay

"Call Me by Your Name" – James Ivory
"The Disaster Artist" – Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber
"Logan" – Scott Frank & James Mangold and Michael Green
"Molly’s Game" – Aaron Sorkin
"Mudbound" – Virgil Williams and Dee Rees

Surprises: "Logan" gets something at least – this is its one and only nomination – but can it win?

Original Screenplay

"The Big Sick" – Emily V. Gordon & Kumail Nanjiani
"Get Out" – Jordan Peele
"Lady Bird" – Greta Gerwig
"The Shape of Water" – Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" – Martin McDonagh

Surprises: No real surprises, but I'm happy to see "The Big Sick" here. This is its lone nomination.

Other thoughts: This is the first Oscars of the post-Weinstein era. In addition to being a horrible monster accused of multiple counts of sexual assault and misconduct, he also used his considerable power and influence to shift the awards advantage to movies under his own banner. Ask any regular person why they stopped taking the Oscars seriously and they'll likely point to the year "Shakespeare in Love" upended "Saving Private Ryan." Now, "Shakespeare" was a nice little trifle of a movie – I enjoyed it well enough – but nothing in it comes close to the staggering open scene of "Ryan." Let's hope for a purer and fairer Academy Awards this year.

Note from Silver Screen Lawyer: Please automatically assume "alleged" or "allegedly" are attached to every sentence written here about famous and powerful men accused of sexual abuse and misconduct, whether the words are actually present or not – even if they aren't grammatically correct or otherwise appropriate to include. Also, add "Mr. [Fill-in-the-Monster-Here] unequivocally denies any allegations of non-consensual sex."

The rest of the categories and nominees are:

Animated Short

"Dear Basketball" – Glen Keane, Kobe Bryant
"Garden Party" – Victor Caire, Gabriel Grapperon
"Lou" – Dave Mullins, Dana Murray
"Negative Space" – Max Porter, Ru Kuwahata
"Revolting Rhymes" – Jakob Schuh, Jan Lachauer


"Blade Runner 2049" – Roger Deakins
"Darkest Hour" – Bruno Delbonnel
"Dunkirk" – Hoyte van Hoytema
"Mudbound" – Rachel Morrison
"The Shape of Water" – Dan Laustsen

Best Documentary Feature

"Abacus: Small Enough to Jail" – Steve James, Mark Mitten, Julie Goldman
"Faces Places" – JR, Agnès Varda, Rosalie Varda
"Icarus" – Bryan Fogel, Dan Cogan
"Last Men in Aleppo" – Feras Fayyad, Kareem Abeed, Soren Steen Jepersen
"Strong Island" – Yance Ford, Joslyn Barnes

Best Documentary Short Subject

"Edith+Eddie" – Laura Checkoway, Thomas Lee Wright
"Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405" – Frank Stiefel
"Heroin(e)" – Elaine McMillion Sheldon, Kerrin Sheldon
"Knife Skills" – Thomas Lennon
"Traffic Stop" – Kate Davis, David Heilbroner

Best Live Action Short Film

"DeKalb Elementary" – Reed Van Dyk
"The Eleven O’Clock" – Derin Seale, Josh Lawson
"My Nephew Emmett" – Kevin Wilson, Jr.
"The Silent Child" – Chris Overton, Rachel Shenton
"Watu Wote/All of Us" – Katja Benrath, Tobias Rosen

Best Foreign Language Film

"A Fantastic Woman" (Chile)
"The Insult" (Lebanon)
"Loveless" (Russia)
"On Body and Soul (Hungary)
"The Square" (Sweden)

Film Editing

"Baby Driver" – Jonathan Amos, Paul Machliss
"Dunkirk" – Lee Smith
"I, Tonya" – Tatiana S. Riegel
"The Shape of Water" – Sidney Wolinsky
"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" – Jon Gregory

Sound Editing

"Baby Driver" – Julian Slater
"Blade Runner 2049" – Mark Mangini, Theo Green
"Dunkirk" – Alex Gibson, Richard King
"The Shape of Water" – Nathan Robitaille, Nelson Ferreira
"Star Wars: The Last Jedi" – Ren Klyce, Matthew Wood

Sound Mixing

"Baby Driver" – Mary H. Ellis, Julian Slater, Tim Cavagin
"Blade Runner 2049" – Mac Ruth, Ron Bartlett, Doug Hephill
"Dunkirk" – Mark Weingarten, Gregg Landaker, Gary A. Rizzo
"The Shape of Water" – Glen Gauthier, Christian Cooke, Brad Zoern
"Star Wars: The Last Jedi" – Stuart Wilson, Ren Klyce, David Parker, Michael Semanick

Production Design

"Beauty and the Beast" – Sarah Greenwood; Katie Spencer
"Blade Runner 2049" – Dennis Gassner, Alessandra Querzola
"Darkest Hour" – Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer
"Dunkirk" – Nathan Crowley, Gary Fettis
"The Shape of Water" – Paul D. Austerberry, Jeffrey A. Melvin, Shane Vieau

Original Score

"Dunkirk" – Hans Zimmer
"Phantom Thread" – Jonny Greenwood
"The Shape of Water" – Alexandre Desplat
"Star Wars: The Last Jedi" – John Williams
"Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri" – Carter Burwell

Original Song

"Mighty River" from "Mudbound" – Mary J. Blige
"Mystery of Love" from "Call Me by Your Name" – Sufjan Stevens
"Remember Me" from "Coco" – Kristen Anderson-Lopez, Robert Lopez
"Stand Up for Something" from "Marshall" – Diane Warren, Common
"This Is Me" from "The Greatest Showman" – Benj Pasek, Justin Paul

Makeup and Hair

"Darkest Hour" – Kazuhiro Tsuji, David Malinowski, Lucy Sibbick
"Victoria and Abdul" – Daniel Phillips and Lou Sheppard
"Wonder" – Arjen Tuiten

Costume Design

"Beauty and the Beast" – Jacqueline Durran
"Darkest Hour" – Jacqueline Durran
"Phantom Thread" – Mark Bridges
"The Shape of Water" – Luis Sequeira
"Victoria and Abdul" – Consolata Boyle

Visual Effects

"Blade Runner 2049" – John Nelson, Paul Lambert, Richard R. Hoover, Gerd Nefzer
"Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2" – Christopher Townsend, Guy Williams, Jonathan Fawkner, Dan Sudick
"Kong: Skull Island" – Stephen Rosenbaum, Jeff White, Scott Benza, Mike Meinardus
"Star Wars: The Last Jedi" – Ben Morris, Mike Mulholland, Chris Corbould, Neal Scanlon
"War for the Planet of the Apes" – Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, Daniel Barrett, Joel Whist