Monday, January 26, 2015

2015 Academy Awards Looks Like A Two-Category Race

This is one of the poster designs that were unveiled in the Academy Awards Tumblr site, with the statue covered by categories and show biz jargon.
Anyway, the first stage of the award season is done, and it looks like the Academy Awards on February 22nd will be a two-category race...Best Picture and Best Actor.

There's nothing more boring than an Oscars show where all the big nominations, the ones even casual fans care about, are already decided. That's the case for the supporting categories and Best Actress. We'll get to that later, but first...the undecided categories:

Thanks to wins from the Screen Actors Guild and Producers Guild, Birdman is being considered as a firm choice for Best Picture when the Oscars are given out on February 22nd. It's a pretty way-out look at an actor trying to shed the super hero that made him famous, and actually become a real actor. It's a great comeback for Michael Keaton, and a great story told and directed by Alejandro Gonzalez IƱarritu. Boyhood still has momentum from the Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards, and may gain a bit when the Directors Guild and Writers Guild give out their awards in February. Those awards, and the BAFTAs on February 8th, will decide who will have the edge in the final days before the big event.

That'll also be the case for Best Actor, which is now down to Keaton and Eddie Redmayne for The Theory of Everything. Both got Golden Globes, while Redmayne won at the SAG awards. It's likely Redmayne may get the edge at the BAFTAs, but might lose votes to Ralph Fiennes and Benedict Cumberbatch, giving Keaton the win.  If the BAFTAs choose Cumberbatch (and it would make sense if you've seen The Imitation Game already) or Fiennes, it's anyone's race.

Now for the races already settled:

When Whiplash was released, and people got a chance to see J.K. Simmons as the cruel music teacher, Fletcher, talk of him getting an Academy Award started. It's also surprising, since it's more likely you'll see him sell Farmers Insurance than creating a shocking movie performance. Then again, he was also Spider-Man's least favorite newspaper publisher and Juno's dad. The movie just arrived in one theater in Reno, as if it was hiding from more popular movies like American Sniper and The Wedding Ringer and Oscar contenders like Selma, Wild and The Imitation Game. Whiplash should have a more extensive release than just one screen, but at least Simmons will get notice when he hosts Saturday Night Live this weekend.

Boyhood is readily available, thanks to streaming sites and Redbox. Before that, it's been getting positive reviews in theaters, as the story of a boy growing up that was literally 12 years in the making. Patricia Arquette as the mom, Olivia, has been praised as a woman who has evolved as her children have grown, then is worried that now that they're gone, her life is done. The son, Mason, disagrees, and maybe a mini-sequel should be made to show he's right. Anyway, Arquette has been picking up awards, including a Screen Actors Guild Award last night, and the only complaint people have is that she can't memorize an acceptance speech. Maybe by the time she arrives at the Dolby Theater, she will...not that it matters.

The third decided race is Best Actress, most likely to be won by Julianne Moore for Still Alice. This movie is practically unknown outside major cities, which is a crime. Her portrayal as a woman in her 50's dealing with the early stages of Alzheimer's is wonderful. It would be better if more people didn't have to wait until the night before the Oscars to see it.
It is in 38 screens, much less than Wild, with Reese Witherspoon, which is in more than 500 screens. The film's website says it will go into "wide release" (including Reno) on February 13th, which is a bad date because it's the same day as 50 Shades of Grey and Kingsman: The Secret Service. It would have been better if it was the week before, where its competition would be Seventh Son and Jupiter Ascending. Moore will get the public's attention and admiration for Still Alice, but it should be a lot sooner.

While casual fans care about acting and Best Picture, film buffs care about other big categories, like Best Director. Richard Linklater still looks like the top choice, but that won't be certain until the  Director's Guild Awards February 7th, then the BAFTAs on the 8th. If Birdman takes either of those awards that weekend, the race gets more interesting.
As for writing, Adapted Screenplay still looks like a battle royal. The BAFTAs and WGAs should bring in more focus. For now, The Imitation Game, American Sniper and Gone Girl seem to be leading in Adapted Screenplay, while Boyhood and Birdman are favored in Original Screenplay. However, the WGAs  only have Boyhood in Original Screenplay against movies like Whiplash and Foxcatcher, while Adapted Screenplay has Guardians of the Galaxy in the final mix. That's mainly due to eligibility rules, but it would be amazing if GoG got it. It's more likely Imitation Game will could get it.

The BAFTAs should also be great if The Lego Movie, which isn't in the Oscars because the voters thought Legos were too high-tech for them (as was the movie), won for Best Animated Film. However, there could be the chance of an upset with The Boxtrolls. Birdman is also up for Best Score, and a win there would be a sign to the Oscars to fix its rules on what could be eligible for that category.

Oscar season will really get tense as we head into February. At least we can relax by looking at more frivolous events, like Super Bowl XLIX.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Oscar Nominations: Birds, Boys, Grand Hotels, But A Girl And a King Are Gone

As I'm typing this, it's been nearly two and a half hours after the Academy Award nominations have been announced.

The main talking point is likely to be Boyhood snagging six nominations, and being the odds-on favorite to get Best Picture. It's a coming of age story that's literally 12 years in the making, but the story and direction have been two of many reasons why it is now the favorite.
Birdman is also kind of a gimmick because it seems to be one long take, but it also has nine nominatons, and might steal Original Screenplay and maybe Best Actor.
The Grand Budapest Hotel, now playing on HBO's side channels (HBO2 and HBO Comedy mainly), also did well with nine nods. While it's a candy colored look at the adventures of a concierge between the wars, I still say Moonrise Kingdom was better.

Now let's look at the snubs....

Selma getting shut out of Direction, Actor and Adapted Screenplay will be discussed for weeks, The whispering campaign against it apparently worked, which proves once and for all that there's no difference between political campaigns and Oscar campaigns. Those who were upset that the movie allegedly lied about President Johnson's commitment to civil rights must feel justified a bit. It did make Best Picture, but Ana DuVerney and David Oyelowo more than deserved to make the final cut. Besides, the movie made it clear Johnson was worried about losing a lot of Southern Democratic voters if he was too agressive to make sure Blacks could vote without unfair barriers. However, Selma and a meeting with Governor Wallace changed his mind.
It might get Best Song, as it did at the Globes, but I suspect Glen Campbell could win that award because of sentimental reason. It's from I'll Be Me, his documentary of his final tour as he's battling Alzheimer's.

As expected, Rosamund Pike got in for Best Actress for Gone Girl. Her portrayal of a wronged wife was unforgettable, but Gillian Flynn should have gotten a nod for Adapted Screenplay, and it was one very good film.

Some are complaining Jennifer Aniston should have been in for Cake, thanks to her aggressive campaigning. However, the movie was not well received, or seen widely.

It's also too bad Lorde didn't get in the Best Song race for "Yellow Flicker Beat" from Mockingjay. I bet "The Hanging Tree" would have made it, but it's not eligible because the lyrics are part of the book. As I said, it'll be between Selma and I'll Be Me.

The Lego Movie got Best Song for "Everything is Awesome", but it wasn't awesome enough to get Best Animated Feature? Is it because there's too many superheroes in it, or is it because there's a section that isn't animated? It's still a great mix of CGI and stop action animation. It's also on HBO, so see for yourself.

It's also a crime that Life Itself, the story of Roger Ebert, didn't make Best Documentary, and Force Majeure got snubbed from Best Foreign Language Film. This will wind up being good news for CitizenFour and Leviathan, respectively.

Now to some surprises:

Whiplash getting in Best Picture race along with Adapted Screenplay and Supporting Actor. That shows it's getting recognition as a story about how far someone will go for perfection.

Nightcrawler with Jake Gyllenhaal makes Original Screenplay, even though it has been in very limited release. Some were hoping for him getting an acting nod, along with Rene Russo.

Inherent Vice gets Adapted Screenplay, even though it's really puzzling. It clearly took Gone Girl's spot. That category should be a very close race

Oscar is finally saying "Make Mine Marvel":  three of its films are up for Visual Effects. It could be between Interstellar and Guardians of the Galaxy, with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as a dark horse, Guardians will be an easy choice for Makeup/Hairstyling, despite a challenge from Grand Budapest Hotel.

Also, Big Hero 6 is up for Best Animated Feature. That category may be more obscure than recent years because there's no Disney/Pixar nominee (since Big Hero 6 is considered Marvel). Two of the nominees, Princess Kayuga and Song of the Sea, have had limited releases. If it wins, How To Train Your Dragon 2 could be the comeback story of the year. While it was more popular overseas, the movie didn't get a lot of attention in the states. It's readily available through DVD and streaming, and it's likely to get a second look.

I'll likely be back after the Critics Choice Awards are given out. Boyhood should get Best Picture here, since the critics have already rewarded it in city awards for weeks. If Selma does well, this will make the Academy look bad,

Update:  Boyhood and Birdman did dominate the Critics Choice Awards, but it looks like Boyhood is headed towards Best Picture come Oscar time. Michael Keaton's victory means we could have a real race for Best Actor. It all depends on what will happen with the Screen Actors Guild awards later this month. Selma got Best Song again, which means it could be the favorite for that category. It should be in the race for more, of course. Three movies that weren't nominated did wind up making an impression:  The Lego Movie for Animation, Life Itself for Best Documentary (which was expected), and  Force Majeure for Foreign Film,

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Two Best Picture Possibilities: Boyhood and Selma

The Golden Globes show, and movie award season, is just hours away. I've been able to catch up with the list of nominated movies available in Reno. It's not quite as much as much as the selection I used to enjoy in Sacramento. Otherwise, I would have seen Whiplash and Foxcatcher by now. It seems those movies won't be in Reno until they reach Redbox. American Sniper, though, will likely be in theaters sooner or later.

Anyway, this weekend, I got to see two likely Best Picture nominees when the Academy makes its choices on Thursday. Thanks to Redbox, I saw Boyhood, a movie that was literally 12 years in the making, Writer and director Richard Linklater decided to make a movie about a boy's life from six to 18 in real time. That means the main character Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, was filmed all that time. That also goes for his sister Samantha, played by Lorilei Linklater (yep, his daughter), and the parents played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette. The movie shows Mason's milestones, and how his family evolves with him. It's been getting attention because Linklater did this coming-of-age story in real time. The main actors actually had to set aside time to make the movie, no matter what they were doing.

While the movie centers on Mason's boyhood days, it also shows how the parents evolve, too. Arquette starts as a single mom set to move to Houston and go back to school, She marries her professor, but that does not work. There's a scene at the dinner table that is very difficult to see.
Hawke, as Mason Sr., starts as a dad who seems a bit irresponsible, but he also changes his life. Samantha's relationship with her mom is also interesting. There's some really good acting by the main characters. Usually a coming of age movie covering 12 years involves having more than one actor for the son or daughter. Not here.

The movie has been the near-unanimous choice for Best Picture by lots of movie critics competitions from L-A to New York. Still, if there's any flaw in the movie, it doesn't have much of a plot. It's just the story of a boy, and the many milestones in his life. It's also very long, at 2:45, which may have put off some Oscar voters. Still, the acting and directing in this movie are still first-rate. It'll probably do very well in the Spirit Awards, but I don't think it's an absolute lock for Best Picture in any of the upcoming awards. There's already been some backlash, but the real test will start tonight.

Then I went to see Selma, which has been under historic scrutiny lately. While I did read up on it, I just looked at the movie as the story of how injustice was fought by Martin Luther King and his supporters. People are especially upset that it makes President Johnson look like someone who didn't care Blacks were being killed in the South just because they want to vote. I think he cared, but he was obsessed with other things, poverty and Vietnam especially. Maybe he thought if he solved those problems, he could do everything after that without much opposition. He does figure out King was right, and it's done in an interesting way.

I was also impressed by Ana DuVernay's direction. Early in the movie, we see four girls in a church talking about things, then an explosion suddenly happens. We see it's that church that was blown up in Birmingham, AL in the fall of 1963. It makes a big impression of what someone people will do to prevent Blacks from exercising a right the Constitution gave them nearly a hundred years before.
There's also a scene where Coretta Scott King (Carmen Ejogo) is hearing a tape supposedly delivered by the FBI (which historians say never happened, but a similar note was sent) that also supposedly gives proof King cheated on his wife. Seeing both of them dealing with that tape, whether it's true or not, speaks volumes of how much they are devoted to each other. The scenes of the march at the Pettis Bridge, including the violent response from the Alabama state troopers, was also very impressive.

David Oyelowo is just incredible as King, especially when he makes his speeches calling for the President to do something. Ejogo is also good as Mrs. King. Tom Wilkinson is also very good as LBJ, but Tim Roth was even better as Governor George Wallace. It is amazing what he does to preserve his state's way of life, while claiming his hands are tied when it comes to county offivials and sheriffs doing what they can to keep Blacks from registering. Oyelowo could conceivably win for Best Actor, and DuVernay could give Alejandro Gonzalez Inrarritu a run for his money in the Best Director race, too.

However, it is too bad the producers took too long to get screeners to SAG and BAFTA voters, which is why the movie won't be part of those award shows. That also means the last word on who is the best in movies this year will come on Oscar night. The Globes and the Critics Choice Awards will be this year's version of the "New Hampshire Primary" of the award season, while the SAGs won't be "Super Tuesday". No matter what, the real race starts Thursday.

For the record, Birdman should be Best Picture. It may also have a gimmick, just like Boyhood, but its story of an actor trying to escape the one role he's been identified with, and how that story is told,
makes it the Best Movie this year.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Review of The Imitation Game: Solving the Ultimate Puzzle

Usually movies about World War II involve soldiers facing insurmountable odds to defeat the enemy. Unbroken looked at Louis Zampirini and his struggles against a sadistic guard at a Japanese POW camp, and how his training as an athlete helped him survive. Brad Pitt's movie, Fury, looked at a tank crew behind enemy lines trying to get deep into Germany.

In The Imitation Game, there's also a struggle, but an internal one suffered by mathematical genius Alan Turing. He not only has to solve the Germans' unbreakable code known as Enigma, he also has to hide the fact that he is a homosexual, which, to people back then, was the more serious crime. Benedict Cumberbatch is just incredible as a man who starts as an insufferable genius and ends as someone who is tormented by that genius and the secrets he's had to hide.

His story takes three roads. The first road starts in 1951, when Turing's flat in Manchester is robbed, yet nothing is missing. That has the attention of a local cop (Rory Kinnear), who wonders if Turing may be hiding something.

Actually, he is:  the fact that he broke a code and helped the Allies win the war. The second road for Turing starts in 1939, just as the war starts. He's recruited by Commander Kennison (Charles Dance), who doesn't like Turing's tone. When Turing mention Enigma, Kennison gives him a chance. He's also gotten the attention of Menzies (Mark Strong), who is with MI-6. The scene shifts to Bletchley, where Turing and other cryptographers try to break the code. He rubs the others the wrong way, especially when he thinks he can invent a machine that can solve Enigma. He gets some help from Joan Clarke (Keira Knightly), who's also good at mathematics. While the Enigma team treat Joan like an equal, she's still worried about what her parents will think. As the effort continues, she's determined to stay.

The third road the movie takes is his time in school at 16. He befriends a fellow student named Christopher, but the movie doesn't hint on whether they were intimate. He was still very special to Alan, which is why he named his machine Christopher.

Once the military decides to shut Turing down, This is where his arrogance turns into desperation. He insists his machine can work, and unlikely support from his crew gives him more time. However, he's also accused of being a Soviet spy, which has upset a movie reviewer because that never happened. However, his secret that he was gay is exploited by one of the crew who is a spy.

Another thing that's surprising about this movie is the moment when the crew does break Enigma. That means Germany is doomed, right? Well, Turing figures out that isn't quite true, and that their discovery has to be secret..or at least kept from the Germans.

Back in 1951, the officer finds out Turing is homosexual, although he suspected Turing of something worse. Here, they talk about the "imitation game", whether machines can think just like people. Actually, the movie shows he has been playing a different "imitation game" by hiding his homosexuality as well as making a machine that, in many ways, has changed the world.

This movie, though, gives a very real look at World War II where minds are the only weapons used. This should should be a strong contender during the awards season, especially Cumberbatch and Knightly. It may also wind up in Adapted Screenplay, but that will be more competitive than Best Picture. Still, it's been a great time for WW2 movies, and The Imitation Game shows that trying to beat the Axis powers through minds and codebreaking can be just as devestating as being on the battlefield.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Rifftrax Presents Wonder Women...Without Lynda Carter or Gal Gadot

When Rifftrax revealed its first movie of 2015, people may have been confused by the title, "Wonder Women". Could this be a lost episode of Wonder Woman, where Lynda Carter squares off with another version of herself played by Cathy Lee Crosby, who played the same role in a TV-movie two years before?

Well, no such luck.

This was really a 1973 Filipino sexploitation film where a group of evil yet sexy women (who seem to be allergic to pants) kidnap athletes for evil experiments by their boss, a less-sexy-but-still-cute mad scientist. An insurance investigator named Mike Harber (now that's a '70s name) is in Manila to find a missing jai-alai player, apparently the Pele/Babe Ruth or whatever of the sport, or Lloyds of London will lose half a million dollars.
The people responsible work for a mad scientist named Dr. Tsu, who has a business of selling high-quality body parts to the rich. Her headquarters looks like a community college, and the operating room probably doubles as a disco. One of her customers is a old British lord named Paulson, who wants his brain put in a new body. He's so old the Rolling Stones would call him grandpa.

What's interesting is who plays the main characters. Dr. Tsu is played by Nancy Kwan, best known for Flower Drum Song and The World of Suzie Wong. That's not a bad resume. Even though this movie is a decade after those movies, Kwan looks great.

Mike Harber, though, is played by Ross Hagen, best known to MST fans in Sidehackers and Hellcats. In this movie, he looks like a Robert Urich knockoff (although the Rifftrax crew thinks he looks more like Lee Majors).
Also, Sid Haig, an actor well-known for being a nasty-looking guy in action and horror movies, looks a LOT different in this movie

Imagine Capatin Spaulding from House of 1000 Corpses looking like that.

Anyway, Harber travels with his sidekick Lapu-Lapu and his garish taxi, trying to find clues. He gets some info from a fake blind beggar/draft dodger and a guy running a cockfight. Meanwhile, Harber spends much of her time dealing with the feminine wiles and questionable martial arts skills of Linda, played by Maria De Aragon. She'd have a more famous role as Greedo in some scenes of Star Wars IV:  A New Hope. She's not in the scenes with Han Solo, but if Greedo looked like her it would have been a different movie.

Eventually, Harber is taken to Dr. Tsu's lair, where she naturally tells him the whole plan since there's no chance he'll defeat her. She even introduces him to where she keeps her failed experiments, like an ex-basketball star who now has a light fixture covering his exposed brain, and a woman who looks like one of those Incredibly Mixed-Up Zombies.

What's more, she introduces him to brain sex, experienced through what's described as the set of a 1970s talk show, When Harber gets a good dose of brain sex, it's almost as if he's ravaged by an invisible Farah Fawcett, while the doc just opens her eyes wide a couple of times.

The plot, such as it is, isn't just one movie, but several quite familiar to fans of MST3K after pureed in a big movie blender. We have hot babes from Wild Wild World of Batwoman, a victim that would come from Incredibly Mixed-Up Zombies or The Unearthly, a smug guy that would be from Secret Agent Super Dragon or Agent from HARM, and a mad scientist from several MST3K targets, The old guy hoping to have his old brain in a new body is right out of Atomic Brain, while Tsu's "body parts for sale" racket is from Clonus: The Parts Horror.

Now to the riffs:

The movie starts with topless female swimmers, Sexy, right?
Mike Nelson:  Topless swimmers might seem sexier, if they weren't swimming in a giant pool of blood. (actually, the water changes color a few times)

Sid Haig shows up as Gregorious
Bill Corbett:  His smile can light up an adult book store. 

Harber gets chased and shot at by a couple of guys in a moped.
Kevin Murphy:  Leisure Suit Larry is the Bourne Supremacy

Linda tries to seduce Harber from afar
Mike:  It's either a "come hither" look or acid reflux.

She kisses him after...we
Mike:  You taste like Iron City (beer) and Steakumms

Then, there's the fight scene, punctuated by Linda head butting Harber in his groin
Kevin:  Is that the brain sex they keep talking about? 

There's also riffs on Orlando Bloom, Channing Tatum, Marvel's Agents of SHIELD, REM, Ralph Lauren, Twitter, Pete Seeger, ACI Films (the "At Your Fingertips" people), The View and Chicken on a Stick.

Then there's the ending, which is supposed to be a very sensual game of chess that is broken up by a plot twist that doesn't improve the movie one bit. It inspires Kevin to figure out why the movie is called Wonder Women:  "Because I wonder why any women would agree to be in it."
If nothing else, it does make the all-girl crew from Angel's Revenge look like Melinda May, Sydney Bristow, Peggy Carter and Natasha Romanoff.
The movie is available at