Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Review of Beasts of No Nation: Childhood's End

Why isn't this movie in any category at the Academy Awards?
Most polite guess:  enough voters thought if the movie was made by a streaming service, it's disqualified. Even if it was shown in theaters, it couldn't be considered.

More accurate guess: it's just too scary for most of the voters.The BAFTAs and Screen Actors Guild recognized it, though. They weren't scared.

This is really an intense movie about a child in a West African country, and his journey from a child to a soldier in wartime. Agu, played by Abraham Attah, is enjoying his childhood while in a war somewhere in West Africa. Suddenly, his world is torn apart when the war overruns his village, and government soldiers kill his father and brother. He runs into the jungle and is captured by another rebel force, the Native Defense Force. It's led by the Commandant, played by Idris Elba. Seeing him train and command kids to fight is amazing. He's the biggest man there, with the biggest presence and authority. No way could you say no to him. He's kind of like a military version of Fagin of Oliver Twist.

From there, we see how Agu loses his soul, then his identity, to the cause. It happens when the Commandant orders Agu to kill someone, but even more so when they do something else. It's enough to make Agu more of a killer. Through all of this, he talks to God, quite aware of what he has done. He wonders what happened to his mom, and whether he will see her again. He'a also aware if he's ever captured, he can't go back to being a child again. That's what war does. Attah is heart-breaking as a child who grows up too quickly

This is a very intense movie, and it would make sense if Oscar voters were a bit too scared over a subject like war and turning children into soliders. Seeing kids that, in another country, would talk  about Drake and Jay-Z instead of firing mortars and shooting innocent civilians is a tough thing to see. Yet the movie does a fine job showing an ugly part of the world and who the real victims are.

While this movie was snubbed by the Oscars, it's still in good company. Entertainment Weekly points out a few glaring omissions like Trainwreck and Crimson Peak. Still, Elba should have been in the final cut for Supporting Actor.

Monday, February 1, 2016

Now That The Oscar Primaries Are Over...

February is here, and in Reno we'll be lucky if Spring arrives in April, judging from the snow we had over the weekend. Still, maybe it will melt just before the Oscars in four weeks.

Anyway, three award shows are in the books, the Golden Globes, Critics Choice and SAG Awards. The Best Picture race is now a three-movie race, while the Best Actor and Actress races are just about done. I'd include Supporting Actress, but that race may be settled if the new front-runner wins at the BAFTAs for her other movie.

First off, Brie Larson and Leonardo DiCaprio are your Best Actress and Actor of 2016, period. Brie's dominance is earned, and if you saw her in Room, you know why. For DiCaprio, it's just his turn, but an old trick has also helped him. After being in suits and romantic roles, he went out of his comfort zone as a mountain main dealing with a bear  and a double-crossing friend in order to survive. It's really impressed the voters, and it looks like he'll finally get his Oscar.

In my last two-bit opinion piece on the Oscars, I thought Rooney Mara would win for Carol, but the movie's stock is sinking. A TV spot that ABC won't air because it features Mara and Cate Blanchett kissing in bed--and topless (which would have set off the Parents Television Council's letter-writing alarm)--isn't helping, either. Mara could win at the BAFTAs on Valentine's Day because she won for the same role at Cannes. Her competition includes Jennifer Jason Leigh for Hateful 8, Kate Winslet for Steve Jobs (which got her a Golden Globe), and Alicia Vikander for Ex Machina. Vikander's already won SAG and Critics' Choice Awards for her role in The Danish Girl, but she's in the Best Actress race at the BAFTAs. Larson should win there, but if Vikander wins for Ex Machina, she'll be the big favorite come Oscar time. If Mara wins, her chances will get better. It all depends on what the BAFTAs will do.

The race for Supporting Actor will not be affected by the BAFTAs, though. Those who saw the SAGs know why. Idris Elba won for Beasts of No Nation (available on Netflix), and he's a nominee at the BAFTAs. He could win there, and also faces a challenge from Mark Rylance, who played a Russian spy in Bridge of Spies. Mark Ruffalo from Spotlight is also there but Sylvester Stallone from Creed is not. Stallone is still considered the sentimental favorite to win at the Oscars, with Ruffalo his biggest competition. If Elba also snagged a nomination there, he could have gotten a serious look,. Maybe Oscar voters should have realized the movie wasn't made just for Netflix. In any case, a win by Elba in London will show what could have been.

People are hoping for a real battle for Best Picture. Spotlight was considered the favorite until The Revenant got Best Drama at the Golden Globes. Then the Producers Guild said The Big Short (aka The "Better Grasp of the US Economy Than The Wall Street Journal" Movie) was Best Picture. This was big because it's had a better track record of predicting the top film at the Oscars than most award shows. Spotlight still has the edge mainly because of its win at the SAG Awards, and I think it will win at the Oscars. Voters may like that movie better than a movie made by the guy who made the Anchorman movies and has the gall to use Margot Robbie in a bathtub to explain sub-prime loans better than CNBC. Then again, it will be enough for Adam McKay to get Adapted Screenplay, and maybe Best Director. The only way this changes if the BAFTAs do choose The Big Short over Spotlight.

P.S. Just saw Beasts of No Nation. Either the Oscar voters thought this was made for TV (or actually streaming TV) or they were just too scared of this movie. I'll have more about this later, but Idris Elba could have given Sylvester Stallone and Mark Ruffalo runs for their money in the Supporting Actor race.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Creed is "Rocky" Full Circle, Just Like Star Wars 7

Remember when fans of Star Wars complained that The Force Awakens was a bit too much like the first movie?

Well, what is Creed but the Rocky story, only this time it's based on Apollo Creed's son? No one seemed to complain about that.
For example:

When we first meet Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), he's been in and out of foster homes and gets in a lot of fights. When he gets older, he's making money fighting in Mexico, and doing quite well, It's not against high-quality opponents, but he's fighting. That's not too far off from when we first meet Rocky, whose boxing career is on the way down and also has to be an enforcer for a loan shark.

When Adonis moves to Philadephia to hopefully get some tips from Rocky, he meets Bianca (Tessa Thompson), a singer who has progressive deafness. That's an interesting contrast to Adrian, a shy girl who "filled gaps" for Rocky.

Apollo Creed chose Rocky as his opponent to replace the one who was injured just before the fight. In Creed,  Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew) chose Adonis because Ricky accidentally injured his opponent at the pre-fight press conference, and he wanted to exploit Adonis' connection with Creed.

Aside from that, the movie takes different moves to tell Adonis' story. He actually has a good job at a financial firm before he decides to switch to boxing full-time. He plugs away at Rocky before he decides to train Adonis. Jordan does a fine job as a man who wants to create his own legacy, while eventually learning how to embrace his father's name.

Still, Stallone's performance blew me away. When Entertainment Weekly handicapped the Supporting Actor race, it looked at how he played Rocky Balboa differently compared to the previous six movies. Rocky was shown as more vunerable, especially when he faces health problems. However, when he's training Adonis, his spirit is revived in a big way, more than when he did the same for Tommy Morrison in Rocky V. It's a great new take on a classic movie character, and it may be enough to get Oscar Gold in February. Mark Ruffalo's performance in Spotlight is still formidable, though.

As for the chance we'll get a Creed 2, it might be possible, Maybe this time he'll be light heavyweight champ, and Conlan will challenge him. We'll see, but Creed is still a fine boxing movie, much more than Rocky 6 1/2.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Review of Room: The Broken Joy and Jack Newsome

There's been movies about women kidnapped by bad men. They always end with the victim rescued, and we think she will recover eventually and live her life.
But what if the kidnapped woman has a tough time recovering from her ordeal, and so does the son who was fathered by the kidnapper?
That's the plot of Room, which, if not for Spotlight, would win Best Picture at the Oscars, in my opinion.(Come to think of it, how come it's not in the Best Picture race in the Spirit Awards?) It is a harrowing tale about a mother and son trying to survive a terrible ordeal, and how recovery could be even more difficult.

When the story begins, we hear Jack (Jacob Trembley) describe his world as a room. He lives there with Joy, his mom (Brie Larson). We soon learn they're being kept there by a guy named Old Nick. In fact, he grabbed Joy seven years before, and it's been the two of them ever since. She even told him the whole world is just their room.

They do come up with a plan to escape, but that doesn't mean it's a happy ending. Joy is having a lot of problems getting back into the real world, while Jack is surprised how much of the world exists outside the room.

Director Larry Abrahamson made a wise move making most of the movie through the point of view of Jack. The movie is his explanation of what his world is. We see him hiding in the closet (called Wardrobe) while Joy is with Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), and seeing it from his eyes. We see him astounded by how big the world really is, and almost forgetting the escape plan. It really makes you appreciate how fantastic Trembley is as Jack. Who cares if he's nine? He should have been in the Supporting Actor race, which was proven when he got a Critics' Choice Award for Best Juvenile.

Then there's Brie Larson. Her Best Actress Oscar is, in the words of Branch Rickey, as inevitable as tomorrow morning. When we first meet Joy, she seems to be resigned to being stuck in Room with Jack. She tries to keep what seems to be a normal life. She has tried to escape, but after seven years she seems to have given up hope. It's when Old Nick complains about not being able to get another job and takes it out on her is when she changes her mind. It's when she is reunited with her parents (Joan Allen and William F. Macy) is when her real problems emerge. She literally goes from one room to another, stuck in her life and wondering how she can move on. She's surprised to learn that even her mom has moved on with a new man in her life. It's very painful seeing her trying to recover, even in a TV interview.

The movie is based on Emma Donoghue's novel in 2010, and some of the people I saw the movie with mentioned that the movie changed a few details,
Still, this movie will leave you a big shaken, but it's a great story about perseverance and recovery.

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Nintendo Film Festival on Rifftrax

This took me a long time to write because I've been distracted by movie awards, really weird football games, and mostly uncut episodes of Johnny Carson now available on TV.
When Rifftrax offers occasional discounts, I consider doing interesting double-features. For example, matching Fists of Fury with Miami Connection or possibly Death Promise is an interesting night of bad martial arts movies. I recently saw the good Star Wars movies over a weekend to test drive the new Rifftrax app, too. Once they let people download the mp3 riffs they already have, the sky's the limit.

This review is about what I call the Nintendo Film Festival. It's made of two movies, The Wizard, aka an infomercial for Nintendo products especially Super Mario 3, and Super Mario Brothers, also known as Bob  Hoskins and Dennis Hopper's Living Nightmare.

I had heard of The Wizard when it was released in 1989, mainly commercials for it. They played up the fact that Fred Savage was the star because this was during his heyday on The Wonder Years. The story, though, is about a kid named Jimmy, who is determined to walk to "California" for some reason. This reminded me of the early scenes of Nebraska, where Bruce Dern was also determined to walk to claim a fake Publishers' Clearing House prize.
Anyway, he's traumatized from losing his sister when she drowned in a river. He's placed in a home in Utah because his mom and stepdad can't handle him. Fred plays Corey, his brother, who's living with his dad and brother. Since they seem to don't care about Jimmy, Corey frees Jimmy and they head to California. They meet up with some sassy girl named Haley (Jenny Lewis), and they discover there's a big video game contest in L-A. Since Jimmy apparently is a "wizard" in video games, they hope to enter him.
While Jimmy's dad heads out to find him, mom has a bounty hunter looking for him. He seems to have a lot of bad luck, and is also doing it for the money.

This is also one long ad for Nintendo, including slogans that would never had worked in real commercials. For example, there's a kid who has the Power Glove, and he loves it because it's so bad. There's also Jimmy's dad and brother occasionally getting sucked into the Nintendo video game system. This is supposed to show video games are for all ages.

It all ends with the big contest with Jimmy being one of the finalists. Then we see why he wanted to go to California. It's a poignant scene, and makes his family, except for Corey, look bad.

Time for riffs:

The cops grab Jimmy for walking to California
This is the first arrest for little Anton Chigurh.

Haley asking what's Jimmy's problem
Stuck playing Teller to Fred Savage's Penn

Dad and Nick (Jimmy's brother) are at a mechanic
Christian Slater even plays video games sarcastically.

Kids wind up sleeping in an abandoned truck
You mean Optimus Prime's Bed and Breakfast?

The bounty hunter grabs Nick
When's Little Monsters coming out?

There's also riffs on Gwyneth Paltrow, Wacky Races, Point Break, Weird Al, Frasier,  Supertramp, "Stand Your Ground" and even Gleaming the Cube.

The other movie is Super Mario Brothers, also known as "What The F Was I Thinking, starring Bob Hoskins, Dennis Hopper and John Leguizamo". The only thing the game and this movie has in common is the fact there are plumbers. Aside from that, anything goes.

The deal is someone drops off a dinosaur egg outside of a church, and a girl hatches. She's Daisy (Samantha Mathis), who later grows up to be an NYU student who finds very strange bones. She corsses path with the Mario Brothers, Mario and Luigi. While that's going on, some girls in Brooklyn have been kidnapped by two dopes who are actually trying to find Daisy. They work for Koopa, played by Hopper, who wants to merge his world with ours. At this point, you'll wonder why they couldn't think of a better way to turn a Nintendo game into a movie.
If nothing else, former as-seen-on-MTV artist Mojo Nixon is there for exposition and an attempt at a comeback that didn't pan out.

Riff time:

Koopa's henchmen grab the wrong girl again
This is exactly how Rudy Giuliani got his second and third wives.

The brothers find themselves in Koopa's city
It looks like they pulled an old Total Recall set out of the dumpster.

Koopa's secretary goes to get Daisy, who finally gets captured
Mr,. Cruise needs a new fake wife....

Koopa tells Daisy "ready to help me destroy humankind?"
Kanye's wedding vows.

There's also riffs on The Blues Brothers, Roger Rabbit, Jesse Ventura, Delta Airlines, John Mayer, and the media company formerly known as Clear Channel.

Both of these movies are available at