Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Film #172: Quatermass and the Pit

I'm surprised by the seemingly large number of rabid science-fiction fans who have never seen the Hammer Studios' classic Quatermass and the Pit. Why have they missed this essential entry in the Bristish studio's treasured output? Well, neither Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing are in it, first of all. It wasn't a major hit when it arrived in 1967. It’s been out of print on DVD for many years, and was only released on Blu-Ray in 2011, and has quickly gone out of print again. Also there could be some confusion lingering as it was (not badly) renamed Five Million Years to Earth upon its 1968 American release, since the estimable UK TV and movie hero Professor Bernard Quatermass was largely an unknown quantity on US shores. Anyway, it's a film that's never been talked about in the same breath as other heady sci-fi classics like Solaris and Blade Runner, though it certainly deserves to be. If I’m correct and many of you have missed this bonafide masterpiece--or somehow have forgotten its rather nightmarish power--I’m happy to lead you to a visitation (or re-visitation) of its estimable horrors.

The Quatermass series has a complex history. It originated on British TV in 1953, with actor-turned-writer Nigel Kneale’s serial The Quatermass Experiment dramatizing the aftermath of a failed mission to space; a single astronaut (out of a three-man crew) returns to Earth, upon which Quatermass is charged to figure out why the spaceman’s flesh is slowly deteriorating. Reginald Tate would be the first of many actors to assay the role, and the piece would be remade for cinemas in 1955 with Brian Donlevy in the lead (the film would be rather strangely retitled The Creeping Unknown in the US).

The TV serial was a huge hit for BBC, so they quickly were on board for a 1955 sequel, Quatermass II, which had John Robinson taking over the role after Reginald Tate’s untimely death at 58. In this installment, Quatermass studies the effects of a meteor shower and uncovers an alien invasion that has reached the top echelons of the British government, and so it’s up to the professor to weigh the pros and cons of using a nuclear device to upset the alien plot. Once again, this massive hit was remade for cinemas in 1957 with the highly difficult Brian Donlevy in the lead (he was battling serious alcoholism). The US distributors, obviously continuing to have a difficult time with the character’s name, decided to give this one the drab moniker Enemy From Space.

By 1958, BBC was again badgering Kneale for another series, so he came up with Quatermass and the Pit. In this cycle, the professor (here played by Andre Morell) and his team soon ferret out a mind-boggling theory that puts forth not only answers to our derivation from alien species, but also to the very human notion of abject evil and its representatives here on Earth. This turned out to be the most thoughtful and unsettling entry into the series, and it’s for this reason that the cinematic adaptation didn’t arrive for almost another decade (not surprisingly, the American financiers were flummoxed by the story). Anyway, it was probably a bear for Kneale to reduce his tale down to a more movie-shaped 90 minutes (by the way, the 3 ½ hour, six-episode original is now available on You Tube).

It’s good they waited, though. As fine as Hammer house director Val Guest’s work was on the first two black-and-white cinematic installments, by 1966, when Hammer was charged with remaking Quatermass and the Pit, the addition of color was absolutely necessary, and director Roy Ward Baker’s use of Hammer’s team in this regard was exemplary. Hammer films are always better in color, and as always, red is there favorite hue. It pops up most creatively all throughout this film, and is invariably a sign of scary things to come. But blues, greens and grays are equally important here.

The unusual burning-red credits that open Quatermass and the Pit are a portent of hellish things to come. Under Tristam Cary’s stinging but sparse score, blazing puzzle pieces fit together to construct a horrific skull as the unusually shortened credits sequence unfolds into a thin horizontal image of a London bobby patrolling the street’s outside of the Hobbs End underground station, where tunneling workers are dutifully peeling away layers of gooey clay. Director Baker keeps things moving quickly in this picture, so in only seconds, the major discovery of a glimmering, simian-looking skull appears in their sights. “Look at those dead eyes, and those gnashers,” a worker says. And before we can breathe again, another skeleton unglued from the mud, and the government is called in to investigate as Mod London looky-loos are gathering outside the station.

Leading the excavation is Dr. Matthew Roney (James Douglas), a grey-suited, serious-faced sort of chap, thin and pinched though joyful at his new find. His second is Barbara Judd (Barbara Steele), who supervises the various spots where fossils have been located. Roney manages the tour of the site for the press, who are present as new pieces are uncovered (one of the excavators is played by Bee Duffell, who portrayed the book-loving woman forced to see her library go up in flames in Francois Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451). Under the interrogation of a red-coated journalist, Roney admits his belief that the fossils are evidence of an ancient ape-man that predates science’s view of man’s arrival on Earth. Just as this is unfolding, Duffell discovers a wall of metallic material she cannot define. The possibility is raised that this is an unexploded bomb dropped during the German blitz, and as far fetched as this is, it’s a good enough cover story to keep the public far away from their findings.

But it necessitates the arrival of the military, who have no time for science. Roney sees his site taken over and demands answers from the higher ups. This introduces Julian Glover as hawkish Colonel Breen, who’s introduced battling rocket scientist Professor Quatermass (Andrew Keir, who is superb here in his bearded authority) over the future of moon colonization, which is wholly being taken over by the military against his peaceful objections (“Nose to the grindstone,” says the prim government bureaucrat as he leaves them to it). Breen gets a call to Hobbs End, and he invites Quatermass to join him in a shakily placid collaboration.

When they see the “unexploded bomb,” it’s instantly clear this is not a construction of 1940s Germany. It has been excavated further, and looks like something constructed by a young H.R. Giger, with sharp lines and weird curves that connote something from another world (I guarantee, this film was a big influence on Ridley Scott’s Alien). Of course, the colonel stays his course, but Quatermass immediately thinks bigger. This craft they discover doesn’t conform to anything known by man. It’s a metal that doesn’t conduct magnetism and is resistant to any damage. But the military man, realizing his job is over if it’s NOT a bomb, stick to his story. But when another skull is discovered under the craft’s hull, Quatermass asks how did it get there, and remain there intact. The colonel is clearly disturbed by this, and by the news from his captain (Bryan Marshall) that there are no records of unexploded arsenal landing in the area. Quatermass is clearly both an establishment and anti-establishment figure here. I love how the movie sets him up as an authority and as a protester against military aggression. Thank goodness Kneale and Ward did this without introducing any hippie characters that could have badly dated the film.

It’s told that the area around the station had been abandoned during the war, not by evacuation, but by choice; the population had abandoned the area out of some “superstition” that the area housed a terrible power. “A lot of nonsense, I dare say,” a policeman tells an intrigued Quatermass. In examining the abandoned flats across the street, the professor learns of noises heard, things seen, that frightened the inhabitants away. The eerily scratched walls seem to bear this out, and so does the sweaty bobby who crumbles under the pressure of inhabiting the area. Miss Judd then informs Quatermass, upon his notice of the area’s original name Hob’s Lane, that Hob was once a popular nickname for Satan.

I think that’s quite enough to get one interested in the film. I don’t want to reveal any more than is uncovered in its first third. But, of course, I do want to trumpet the movie’s later success. It’s really a celebration of science (as is the entire Quatermass series). It’s a film about keen observation and its resulting conclusions. Quatermass and the Pit is, all at once, a piece concerned with fear, curiosity, and revelation. Quatermass, Roney and Judd form a triad devoted to discovering truth, even in the face of remarkably preposterous evidence. Watching it is to look into the face of those who believe one thing, only to discover another, more outlandish reality. It’s the essence of science (“The Germans didn’t make this and lose the secret,” Quatermass says of the harder-than-diamond craft. “You ask Von Braun”).

Quatermass and the Pit doesn’t shirk away from terror. As the process goes on, the threats mount, and the implications mount even higher. But it becomes a film that doesn’t accept superstition as rote, but as a jumping-off point for recognizing the reasons behind false beliefs. In that way, it’s very much unlike most science-fiction films. It has its roots firmly planted in the terra firma, and yet it becomes so otherworldly. The sequence following the exploration of the craft is unnerving; its results are even more so.

Proper respect must be given here to the movie’s art direction (by Bernard Robinson), makeup (by Michael Morris), and sound design. At times since its release, the film’s low budget has been held against it. But these artisans really make their creations sing. It’s true that, later on in the film, the visual effects let us down a bit. But I contend they add, in their ineptness, a kind of odd movement that better effects would fail to achieve. They somehow hit the abstract mark of pure, primordial dread. I've always thought it interesting that this film and 2001: A Space Odyssey arrived on screens at nearly the same time. Both films are about dug-up discoveries that send humans hurtling towards disclosures about our past for which our species is not quite prepared. Both are about the co-mingling of alien and human experience, and even of their shared DNA. I have no doubt that Kubrick viewed the original BBC production, since he watched even the most obscure science-fiction films in preparation for 2001. But, by the time its screeching, glaringly strange and harrowing denouement, Quatermass and the Pit provides an insight that Kubrick’s film arguably misses: in this co-mingling, a myth was formed, and that myth created religion—the uneasy cohabitant of science. This idea creeps me out, and is the chief quality that makes this smart, fast-moving, highly entertaining film unforgettable.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

2016--The Year in Review

As in the past few movie years, most of 2016 felt like a bottomless nadir for cinema--I know it looks like I'm listing a lot of movies here, but the real achievers end at about the halfway mark. By November, seeing that the studios had abandoned all good taste, and that foreign product was nearly impossible to see, I was ready to name the collected titles in the current TV revolution as my number one pick of the year. I mean, when you have miniseries like American Crime Story: The People Vs. O.J. Simpson, Horace and Pete, The Night Of, The Crown, and The Night Manager, and series TV like Atlanta, Baskets, Ray Donovan, The Americans, Black Mirror, Better Things, black-ish, Stranger Things, and This Is Us, plus occasional TV movies like Madoff, Confirmation, and All The Way...well, that's an avalanche of great stuff that can't be ignored. I still probably got more enjoyment out of TV than the movies this year, but the big screen finally came through with a tsunami of distinguished titles at the end of the year (to be fair, the indie world gave us some terrific material during its midsection). I still think the movies are in deep trouble, but maybe the current direness in the real world is gonna give the creative community a generous goose.

The film that gave me the biggest cinematic recharge this year was Damien Chazelle's chancy yet unspeakably glorious La La Land, which, by virtue of its early frontrunner status as Best Picture, got a big ol' target painted on its back for no good reason. This year, movie fans were either Team La La or Team Moonlight, referring to Barry Jenkins' widely loved character study of a gay and closeted black boy's progress from childhood to man. I appreciated many things about Jenkins' bravery and filmmaking prowess, yet I feel strangely distanced (and frankly a little bored) by the movie and its inexpressive main character (whose journey I could not completely buy into). All of this contributed to that now-famous clusterfuck at the end of this year's Oscar ceremony, when a Price Waterhouse screw-up of gigantic proportions led to the wrong film being announced as Best Picture (with La La Land, despite winning six awards including Best Director and Best Actress, becoming another victim of the preferential ballot, and the first 3-minute Best Picture winner in Oscar history). Part of me, though, is happy that a small, mini-budgeted indie like Moonlight actually became the winner; maybe, as a result, we'll see more intimate movies like it in the future runnings for Best Picture.

But I'm still in the La La Land cheering section. Chazelle's nostalgic, daring film just floored me with its energy, sweetness, and vivacious craft. Emma Stone ended up besting a formidable slate of competing actresses, totally deserving her Oscar as the film's MVP, though Gosling was very much her perfect match. The art directors' and costumers' bright colors, the daring camera moves by cinematographer Linus Sandgren, and Justin Hurwitz's gorgeous score all ensured this movies quality from the get-go, even if Chazelle's scripting let the film down a tiny bit. I'm as cynical as they come, and I can confidently tell you that this is the movie of the year--a movie lover's movie, eaten up with an adoration of what makes the art form lavish and exciting. Screw the bitter naysayers of the Oscar season: with its often dark and always enraptured examination of things that might have been, La La Land captured my heart from its first frame and never let go. It continues to do so with many others moviegoers, and I'm happy to be in this cabal.

So many of the best movies this year got a little love from the critical community, but not nearly enough in the end. Movies like Whit Stillman's endlessly clever Jane Austen adaptation Love and Friendship,  Mike Mills' revealingly autobiographical 20th Century Women, Jim Jarmusch's gleaming celebration of the average man's creative spirit Paterson, Ira Sachs' aching tale of a dissolving teenage friendship Little Men, Ken Loach's devastating indictment of the UK's unforgiving health care bureaucracy I, Daniel Blake, the Barack-and-Michelle first date movie Southside With You, Jon Favreau's blockbuster remake of The Jungle Book, and the crushing biopic Christine (with the unforgettable Rebecca Hall putting a sure face to a famously mysterious victim of depression) were all largely edged out of the running for year-end acclaim. Yet there was still a little room for Kenneth Lonergan's bleak but emotionally effusive Manchester by the Sea to send that underappreciated filmmaker and his low-key yet immanently deserving star Casey Affleck into the winner's circle.

Sadly, though, one of the year's most undeniably notable films, writer/producer James Schamus' directorial debut Indignation, culled from a Philip Roth novel, was unjustly forgotten by nearly everyone. I correct that injustice here by giving Schamus and co-star Tracy Letts (stunning as a snooty university dean) their due. I also concurred with the Academy that Viola Davis deserved her Supporting Actress Oscar in reprising her stage role as Denzel Washington's neglected wife in the star's adaptation of August Wilson's Fences. I also agreed with them that the excellent documentary O.J: Made in America definitely deserved the Documentary Feature award, even it it was really a TV production (recent rule changes in the Academy have insured that this sort of confusion won't ever happen again). Two notes: a terrible year for foreign product (at least that of which made it to American shores) and a really incredible year for the Best Song category. In the end, I agreed with 12 of the Academy's 24 choices--not bad! But, finally, I woulda given La La Land nine Oscars in total. NOTE: These are MY choices for each category, and are only occasionally reflective of the selections made by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (aka The Oscars). When available, the nominee that actually won the Oscar will be highlighted in bold.

PICTURE: LA LA LAND (US, Damien Chazelle) (2nd: Manchester by the Sea (US, Kenneth Lonergan), followed by: O.J.: Made in America (US, Ezra Edelman); Love and Friendship (Ireland/France/Netherlands, Whit Stillman); 20th Century Women (US, Mike Mills); Indignation (US, James Schamus); Paterson (US, Jim Jarmusch); I, Daniel Blake (UK/France/Belgium, Ken Loach); Little Men (US, Ira Sachs); Southside With You (US, Richard Tanne); Christine (US, Antonio Campos); Kate Plays Christine (US, Robert Greene); The Jungle Book (US, Jon Favreau); Weiner (US, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg); 13th (US, Ava Duvernay); Things to Come (France, Mia Hansen Love); Toni Erdmann (Germany, Maren Ade); Sully (US, Clint Eastwood); Loving (US, Jeff Nichols); Rules Don't Apply (US, Warren Beatty); Cameraperson (US, Kristen Johnson); Sunset Song (UK, Terrence Davies); Blood Father (US/France, Jean-François Richet); De Palma (US, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow); Hunt for the Wilderpeople (New Zealand, Taika Waititi); Eye in the Sky (UK/South Africa, Gavin Hood); Certain Women (US, Kelly Reichardt); The Neon Demon (US/Denmark/France, Nicolas Winding Refn); Elle (France/Germany/Belgium, Paul Verhoeven); The Edge of Seventeen (US, Kelly Fremon Craig); Maggie's Plan (US, Rebecca Miller); Silence (US/Taiwan/Mexico, Martin Scorsese); Tower (US, Keith Maitland); A Hologram for the King (UK/US/Germany/France, Tom Tykwer); Sing Street (Ireland/UK/US, John Carney); Moonlight (US, Barry Jenkins); Fences (US, Denzel Washington); Aquarius (Brazil, Kleber Mendonca Filho); War Dogs (US, Todd Phillips); The Founder (US, John Lee Hancock); Nocturnal Animals (US, Tom Ford); Remember (Canada, Atom Egoyan); The Salesman (Iran, Asghar Farhadi); The Infiltrator (US, Brad Furman); Jackie (US/France/Chile, Pablo Larrain); The Invitation (US, Karyn Kusama); The Witch (US/UK/Canada, Robert Eggers); The Phenom (US, Noah Buschel); Don't Think Twice (US, Mike Birbiglia); Zootopia (US, Byron Howard and Rich Moore); Hell or High Water (US, David MacKenzie); Amanda Knox (US/Denmark, Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn); The Birth of a Nation (US, Nate Parker); Train to Busan (South Korea, Sang-ho Yeon); Bad Moms (US, Jon Lucas and Scott Moore); Bleed for This (US, Ben Younger); Mr. Church (US, Bruce Beresford); Lion (US/UK/Australia, Garth Davis); Audrie and Daisy (US, Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk); The Trust (US, Alex Brewer and Ben Brewer); Kubo and the Two Strings (US, Travis Knight); Into the Inferno (UK/Germany/Canada, Werner Herzog); The Fits (US, Anna Rose Holmer); Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (US, Werner Herzog); The Nice Guys (US, Shane Black); The Accountant (US, Gavin O'Connor); Pee-Wee's Big Holiday (US, John Lee); Keanu (US, Peter Atensio); The Bandit (US, Jesse Moss); Deepwater Horizon (US, Peter Berg); The Shallows (US, Jaume Collet-Serra); Class Divide (US, Marc Levin); Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You (US,  Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady); Imperium (US, Daniel Ragussis); Hands of Stone (US/Panama, Jonathan Jakubowicz); The Hollars (US, John Krasinski); Denial (UK/US, Mick Jackson); Anthropoid (UK/France/Czech Republic, Sean Ellis); Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (US/UK, Gareth Edwards); Team Foxcatcher (US, Jon Greenhalgh); Patriot's Day (US, Peter Berg); Hidden Figures (US, Ted Melfi); Hail Caesar! (US, Joel Coen and Ethan Coen); Everybody Wants Some!! (US, Richard Linklater); Midnight Special (US, Jeff Nichols); Eddie the Eagle (UK, Dexter Fletcher); Elvis and Nixon (US, Liza Johnson); The Beatles: Eight Days a Week--The Touring Years (US/UK, Ron Howard); Ghostbusters (US, Paul Feig); Florence Foster Jenkins (US, Stephen Frears); Cafe Society (US, Woody Allen); Life, Animated (US, Roger Ross Williams); Miss Sloane (US/France, John Madden); Snowden (US, Oliver Stone); Morris from America (US/Germany, Chad Hartigan); Fire at Sea (Italy/France, Gianfranco Rosi); Pete's Dragon (US, David Lowery); Popstar: Never Stop Never Stoppin' (US, Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone); Arrival (US, Denis Villeneuve); Passengers (US, Morten Tyldem); Hacksaw Ridge (US, Mel Gibson); Green Room (US, Jeremy Saulnier); Don't Breathe (US, Fede Alvarez); Approaching the Unknown (US, Mark Elijah Rosenberg); Money Monster (US, Jodie Foster); USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage (US, Mario Van Peebles); The Girl on the Train (US, Tate Taylor); Triple 9 (US, John Hillcoat); Get A Job (US, Dylan Kidd); Captain Fantastic (US, Matt Ross); Bad Santa 2 (US, Mark Waters); Deadpool (US, Tim Miller); Sausage Party (US, Greg Tiernan and Conrad Vernon)) 

ACTOR: Casey Affleck, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2nd: Dave Johns, I, Daniel Blake, followed by: Adam Driver, Paterson; Tom Hanks, Sully; Peter Simonischek, Toni Erdmann; Logan Lerman, Indignation; Denzel Washingston, Fences; Ryan Gosling, La La Land; Michael Keaton, The Founder)

ACTRESS: Emma Stone, LA LA LAND (2nd: Annette Bening, 20th Century Women, followed by: Kate Beckinsale, Love and Friendship; Isabelle Huppert, Things to Come; Rebecca Hall, Christine; Natalie Portman, Jackie; Ruth Negga, Loving; Sonia Braga, Aquarius; Sandra Hüller, Toni Erdmann)

SUPPORTING ACTOR: Tracy Letts, INDIGNATION (2nd: Tom Bennett, Love and Friendship, followed by: Issei Ogata, Silence; Michael Barbieri, Little Men; Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea; Michael Shannon, Nocturnal Animals; Mahershala Ali, Moonlight; Greg Kinnear, Little Men; Alden Erhenrich, Hail Ceasar!)

SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Viola Davis, FENCES (2nd: Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea, followed by: Hayley Squires, I, Daniel Blake; Linda Emond, Indignation; Paulina Garcia, Little Men; Greta Gerwig, 20th Century Women; Sarah Gadon, Indignation; Gillian Jacobs, Don't Think Twice; Angourie Rice, The Nice Guys)  

DIRECTOR: Damien Chazelle, LA LA LAND (2nd: Kenneth Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea, followed by: Ezra Edelman, O.J.: Made in America; Whit Stillman, Love and Friendship; James Schamus, Indignation; Jim Jarmusch, Paterson; Mike Mills, 20th Century Women; Ken Loach, I, Daniel Blake; Clint Eastwood, Sully) 

NON-ENGLISH-LANGUAGE FILM: THINGS TO COME (France, Mia Hansen Love) (2nd: Toni Erdmann (Germany, Maren Ade), followed by: Elle (France/Germany/Belgium, Paul Verhoeven); The Salesman (Iran, Asghar Farhadi); Aquarius (Brazil, Kleber Mendonca Filho); Train to Busan (South Korea, Sang-ho Yeon)) 

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: O.J.: MADE IN AMERICA (US, Ezra Edelman) (2nd: Weiner (US, Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg), followed by: 13th (US, Ava Duvernay); Cameraperson (US, Kristen Johnson); Kate Plays Christine (US, Robert Greene); Tower (US, Keith Maitland); De Palma (US, Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow); Amanda Knox (US/Denmark, Rod Blackhurst and Brian McGinn); Audrie and Daisy (US, Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk); Into the Inferno (UK/Germany/Canada, Werner Herzog); Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World (US, Werner Herzog)

ANIMATED FEATURE: ZOOTOPIA (US, Byron Howard and Rich Moore) (2nd: Kubo and the Two Strings (US, Travis Knight))

ANIMATED SHORT FILM: PEAR CIDER AND CIGARETTES (US, Robert Valley) (2nd: Pearl (US, Patrick Osborne), followed by: Piper (US, Alan Barillaro); Blind Vaysha (Canada, Theodore Ushev))

LIVE ACTION SHORT FILM: TEN METER TOWER (Sweden, Axel Danielson and Maximilien van Aertryck) (2nd: Watani, My Homeland (UK, Marcel Mettelsiefen), followed by: Sing (Hungary, Kristóf Deák); The White Helmets (UK, Orlando von Einsiedel) (won as Documentary Short))

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Kenneth Lonergan, MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (2nd: Mike Mills, 20th Century Women, followed by: Jim Jarmusch, Paterson; Ira Sachs and Mauricio Zacharias, Little Men; Ken Loach, I, Daniel Blake)

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: James Schamus, INDIGNATION (2nd: Whit Stillman, Love and Friendship, followed by: Tom Ford, Nocturnal Animals; Taika Waititi, Hunt for the Wilderpeople; Todd Komarnicki, Sully)

CINEMATOGRAPHY: Linus Sandgren, LA LA LAND (2nd: Caleb Deschanel, Rules Don't Apply, followed by: James Laxton, Moonlight; Vittorio Storaro, Cafe Society; Rodrigo Prieto, Silence)

ART DIRECTION: LA LA LAND, Hail Caesar!, Jackie, The Witch, The Neon Demon

COSTUME DESIGN: JACKIE, Love and Friendship, La La Land, Hail Caesar!, The Neon Demon

FILM EDITING: LA LA LAND, O.J.: Made in America, Nocturnal Animals, Sully, Hell or High Water

SOUND: LA LA LAND, Sully, Deepwater Horizon, The Jungle Book, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story


ORIGINAL SCORE: Mica Levi, JACKIE (2nd: Abel Korzeniowski, Nocturnal Animals, followed by: Nicholas Britell, Moonlight; Cliff Martinez, The Neon Demon; Dickon Hinchliffe, Little Men)

ADAPTED OR MUSICAL SCORE: Justin Hurwitz, LA LA LAND (won as Best Original Score) (2nd: John Debney, The Jungle Book)

ORIGINAL SONG: "City of Stars" from LA LA LAND (Music by Justin Hurwitz; lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul) (2nd: "Rules Don't Apply" from Rules Don't Apply (Music and lyrics by Lorraine Feather and Eddie Arkin), followed by: "Audition (The Fools Who Dream)" from La La Land (Music by Justin Hurwitz; lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul); "Waving Goodbye" from The Neon Demon (Music and lyrics by Sia Furler); "Drive It Like You Stole It" from Sing Street (Music and lyrics by Gary Clark); "Can't Stop the Feeling" from Trolls (Music and lyrics by Justin Timberlake, Max Martin, and Karl Johan Schuster); "Another Day of Sun" from La La Land (Music by Justin Hurwitz; lyrics by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul); "I'm Still Here" from Miss Sharon Jones (Music and lyrics by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings); “Stay Here” from Presenting Princess Shaw (Music and lyrics by Kutiman); "The Empty Chair" from Jim: The James Foley Story (Music and lyrics by Sting and J. Ralph); "Try Everything" from Zootopia (Music and lyrics by Sia Furler, Tor Erik Hermansen, and Mikkel Storleer Eriksen); “Hurry Home” from Max Rose (Music by Michel Legrand, lyrics by Alan Bergman and Marilyn Bergman))

SPECIAL EFFECTS: THE JUNGLE BOOK, Deepwater Horizon, Sully, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Doctor Strange  

MAKEUP: THE NEON DEMON, Suicide Squad, Sing Street

Thursday, March 30, 2017

2015--The Year in Review

This year I found myself bristling with disappointment at the movie theater. With the ever-escalating number of productions being made, this might be attributable to cinematic burnout--though I prefer to chalk it up to refined taste. In general, I just found this year's crop of movies to be thuddingly unimpressive (sorry to repeat an old trope, but the best TV was way more engaging). Even more irritating is the fact that, uncomfortably often and for whatever reason (ignorance as prime), the critical mass covered up for the industry's downfalls by goofily overpraising a great many titles while outright ignoring so many outstanding, less hyped ones. 2015 was a year that clued me into the changing pace of movie criticism, and as such, I was confounded by the adoration that many felt for year-end Oscar bait (the adoration of the insufferable Room is a particularly drab dislike of mine; I'm much less mystified toward the love for the accomplished yet problematic Spotlight, The Big Short, and Brooklyn). Anyway, it's an off-year, but I'm not a complete sad-sack: as with all years, I could at least find a generous number of pictures that inspired my passion for cinema.

Chief among them was Pixar's Inside Out, the outfit's finest production since their Toy Story feature debut two decades earlier (I loved Toy Story 2, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Monsters Inc., and most of WALL-E, but none of them reached this film's towering emotional height). Visually lush and, frankly, raucously funny and still very sorrowful, this was the 2015 film that really made me FEEL more than any movie out there. Brilliantly performed by its cast (I particularly loved Phyllis Smith as Sadness and Richard Kind as the fading imaginary friend Bing-Bong), the movie is conceived with such lithe, detailed care that it transformed the way I think about my own thoughts, and I suspect it did the same for many filmgoers. It might be a difficult movie for some Pixar fans to love, as it's essentially about gloom (parents were likely challenged to explain its details to their kids, who will benefit from its insights) but I think that's its prime attribute; we don't get many movies about that subject, and certainly none directed at children, who are always smarter than we think. As a person that suffers from depression (a daily struggle), Inside Out honestly helped me gain valuable perception into my past, present, and future; that it made me laugh, cry, marvel and cheer was a generous bonus. How I adore Inside Out for this!

But my second favorite movie of the year also still resonates fully. Andrew Haigh's 45 Years, in telling of a happy marriage reduced to ashes upon a joltingly blithe revelation, is so haunting it almost feels like a ghost story. Impressive in its economy, it speeds by, its laconic pace never feeling rushed as every coming moment finds a fresh reveal in the weathered faces of our leads, Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courteney, who both deliver career-best performances (though it's clearly Rampling's story, and a shining vehicle for this neglected actress). 45 Years has the single most stunning closing shot of any 2015 movie--one that, when coupled with that final song and dance, reduces me to shivering tears. And still there's Creed, probably the last movie we thought would reach greatness, and yet Ryan Coogler--a big fan of the original Rocky--delivers the most powerful and loving example of fan service ever with his well-modulated sequel (the sixth film in the series), providing us with Michael B. Jordan's deeply nuanced, understated but muscular Adonis Johnson, and reviving our admiration of Sylvester Stallone as his finest (and self-written) role. I was heartbroken when Mark Rylance--a respectable actor--stole the Oscar from Stallone, who deserved the award not only for his aching and lively performance as an aging athlete, but also as a filmmaker who willingly let go of his hold on the franchise to give things over to Coogler, who took it in a (finally) respectful direction. Basically, Stallone will always be more of a movie persona, and Rylance was primarily a stage presence and, as such, I will eternally have a problem with Rylance's ultimate win.

As for the leads in the Oscar race this year, I found Spotlight to be a respectful, "important" TV-movie-like tale, but it had no visual pop to codify it as a great movie. The Revanant had riper prospects for Best Picture, but it was also often violently hard to watch, especially since it was basically a revenge tale, and we should all be decidedly tired of those. But this one was so well-crafted that I had little complaint (though I have already given DiCaprio his long awaited Oscar for the movie he deserved it for, The Wolf of Wall Street, so I felt no need for make-up sex here). I feel like there were at least four forgotten movies that should have gotten more attention: newcomer Josh Mond's James White, a movie most moviegoers (if they even knew of its existence--another failure of the critical mass) didn't get a chance to see until the following year, with a devastating supporting performance from Cynthia Nixon as the cancer-ridden mother of Christopher Abbott's unprepared party guy; James Ponsoldt's The End of The Tour, with jittery Jesse Eisenberg as a journalist needling his way into a deceptively genius author's life (with Jason Segal commanding as the late David Foster Wallace); Spike Lee's Chi-Raq, a fantastically funny, iron-heavy look at the American gun violence problem, creatively shunted as a poetic adaptation of Aristophanes' Lysistrata that obviously hit home too problematically for politically-divided audiences, even if it contained one of the best ensembles of the year, led by the dynamic Teyonah Parris; and the astonishing, animated Anomalisa, based on a play by Oscar-winner Charlie Kaufman and led by amazing voice performances from David Thewlis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tom Noonan (who portrays nearly every character in the film, and even sings the final song).

As for Mad Max: Fury Road--which mystically commanded the 2015 critical accolades--well, that film felt like it capitalized on the lengthy period since the original Mad Max series hit the screens back in the '70s and '80s. I'm convinced the audience that lost their collective shit over this rather anemic story had never seen Mad Max or The Road Warrior on the big screen, and were thus suitably stunned by George Miller's radically motorized vision of the apocalypse--an enhanced but basic repeat of the original films which strangely reduces the title character to a supporting role. I don't get Miller's urge to jettison his character's past (it doesn't even remember that the kid he lost was a boy, and there's no appearance of his murdered wife, either), but I do understand the filmmaker's urge to revisit his world with modern technology and. in that way, I admire his work here--yes, the visuals are terrific, but I'm like "Yeah, but where is Max's story?" Still, I give Miller a nomination here as Best Director, just because I think he deserves it as the progenitor of a unique filmic universe that's extremely worthy of note.

As for the Oscars So White controversy, clearly the subject was relevant given the presence of movies like Creed, Tangerine, Dope, Chi-Raq, What Happened Miss Simone, and Straight Outta Compton, though few of these titles really register as Oscary movies (that's a justifiable problem that urgently needs correction, though I enthusiastically call on black filmmakers to focus on stronger, more serious subject matters; what is needed are less immediately green-lit action and comedy movies, and more penetrating dramatic stories--and we need to see more movies that are more enthused with present-day black lives, and more movies that are concerned with the lives of those essential black historical figures who have enriched our world). Also, I should point out that Best Original Song is a category that really pops this year with a surprisingly impressive slate, though the Academy decided to ignore all of this year's terrific songs and reward a damnably idiotic ditty from a sup-par Bond film. Meanwhile, songwriting genius Brian Wilson was disqualified from the final running because of arcane Academy rules. I rejigger that hurtful injustice here. NOTE: These are MY choices for each category, and are only occasionally reflective of the selections made by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (aka The Oscars). When available, the nominee that actually won the Oscar will be highlighted in bold.

PICTURE: INSIDE OUT (US, Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen) (2nd: 45 Years (UK, Andrew Haigh), followed by: Creed (US, Ryan Coogler); Amy (UK/US, Asif Kapadia); The Revenant (US, Alejandro G. Inarritu); Anomalisa (US, Charles Kaufman and Duke Johnson); Chi-Raq (US, Spike Lee); James White (US, Josh Mond); The End of the Tour (US, James Ponsoldt); Sicario (US, Denis Villeneuve); Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (Israel, Shlomi Elkabetz and Ronit Elkabetz); Bridge of Spies (US, Steven Spielberg); The Tribe (Ukraine, Miroslav Slaboshpitsky); A Despadida (Farewell) (Brazil, Marcelo Galveo); Son of Saul (Hungary, László Nemes); Dope (US, Rick Famuyiwa); Krisha (US, Trey Edward Shults); Carol (US, Todd Haynes); Two Step (US, Alex R. Johnson); The Gift (US, Joel Edgerton); God Bless The Child (US, Robert Machoian and Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck); Straight Outta Compton (US, F. Gary Gray); Mad Max: Fury Road (Australia, George Miller); In Jackson Heights (US, Frederick Wiseman); Spy (US, Paul Feig); Tangerine (US, Sean Baker); I'll See You in My Dreams (US, Brett Haley); Heaven Knows What (US, Ben Safdie and Joshua Safdie); A Monster with A Thousand Heads (Mexico, Rodrigo Plá); Experimenter (US, Michael Almereyda); Love and Mercy (US, Bill Pohldad); Cartel Land (US/Mexico, Matthew Heineman); Spotlight (US, Tom McCarthy); The Yes Men are Revolting (US, Andy Bichlbaum, Mike Bonnano, and Laura Nix); 3 1/2 Minutes Ten Bullets (US, Marc Silver); Brooklyn (UK/Ireland/Canada, John Crowley); Embrace of the Serpent (Columbia, Ciro Guerra); Welcome to Leith (US, Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker); Best of Enemies (US, Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville); Meru (US/India, Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi); What Happened, Miss Simone? (US, Liz Garbus); Bone Tomahawk (US, S. Craig Zahler)Magic Mike XXL (US, Gregory Jacobs); The Hateful Eight (US, Quentin Tarentino); Irrational Man (US, Woody Allen); Merchants of Doubt (US, Robert Kenner); The Assassin (Taiwan/China, Hou Hsiao-Hsien); Hitchcock/Truffaut (US, Kent Jones); Shaun The Sheep Movie (UK, Mark Burton and Richard Starzak); Mistress America (US, Noah Baumbach); A Walk in the Woods (US, Ken Kwapis); Steve Jobs (US, Danny Boyle); Dante's Down the Hatch (US, Jef Bredemeier); Where to Invade Next (US, Michael Moore); Learning to Drive (UK/US, Isabel Coixet); Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (US, Christopher McQuarrie); The Duff (US, Ari Sandel); Christmas Again (US, Charles Poekel); Results (US, Andrew Bujalski); The Stanford Prison Experiment (US, Kyle Patrick Alvarez); Trumbo (US, Jay Roach); Danny Collins (US, Dan Fogelman); Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (US, Alex Gibney); Concussion (US, Peter Landesman); Finders Keepers (US,  Bryan Carberry and Clay Tweel); Mr. Holmes (US, Bill Condon); Winning: The Racing Life of Paul Newman (US, Adam Carolla and Nate Adams); Star Wars: The Force Awakens (US, J.J. Abrams); Ex Machina (US, Alex Garland); The Martian US, Ridley Scott); The Big Short (US, Adam McKay); Hello My Name is Doris (US, Michael Showalter); By Sidney Lumet (US, Nancy Buirski); The Witness (US, James D. Solomon); Consumed (US, Daryl Wein); Everest (US/UK/Iceland, Baltasar Kormákur); Knight of Cups (US, Terrence Malick); A Bigger Splash (Italy/France, Luca Guadagnino); The Lobster (Greece/UK/France, Yorgos Lanthimos); Trainwreck (US, Judd Apatow); Beasts of No Nation (US, Cary Fukunaga); Spectre (US/UK, Sam Mendes); Cop Car (US, Jon Watts); Youth (Italy/France/UK, Paolo Sorrentino); Manson Family Vacation (US, J. Davis); Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (US, Alfonso Gomez-Rejon); A Man Called Ove (Sweden, Hannes Holm); The Meddler (US, Lorene Scafaria); The Diary of a Teenage Girl (US, Marielle Heller); Avengers: Age of Ultron (US, Joss Whedon); Victoria (Germany, Sebastian Schipper); The Program (UK/France, Stephen Frears); Jurassic World (US, Colin Trevarrow); High Rise (UK, Ben Wheatley); Ant-Man (US, Peyton Reed); Joy (US, David O. Russell); Jupiter Ascending (US, Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski); Room (US/Ireland, Lenny Abrahamson); The Wave (Norway, Roar Uthaug); Victor Frankenstein (US/UK/Canada, Paul McGuigan); Ricki and the Flash (US, Jonathan Demme); Mortdecai (US, David Koepp); The Peanuts Movie (US, Steve Martino))

ACTOR: Michael B. Jordan, CREED (2nd: Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant, followed by: Christopher Abbott, James White; Géza Röhrig, Son of Saul; Tom Courteney, 45 Years; Matt Damon, The Martian; Paul Dano, Love and Mercy; Jesse Eisenberg, The End of the Tour)

ACTRESS: Charlotte Rampling, 45 YEARS (2nd: Ronit Elkabetz, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem, followed by: Rooney Mara, Carol; Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn; Krisha Fairchild, Krisha; Teyonah Parris, Chi-Raq; Cate Blanchette, Carol; Blythe Danner, I'll See You in My Dreams

SUPPORTING ACTOR: Sylvester Stallone, CREED (2nd: Jason Segal, The End of the Tour, followed by: Benicio Del Toro, Sicario; Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies; Tom Hardy, The Revenant; Jason Michell, Straight Outta Compton; Tom Noonan, Anomalisa; Jason Statham, Spy)

SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Cynthia Nixon, JAMES WHITE (2nd: Elizabeth Banks, Love and Mercy, followed by: Jennifer Jason Leigh, Anomalisa; Mya Taylor, Tangerine; Tessa Thompson, Creed; Phyllis Smith, Inside Out; Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs; Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight)

DIRECTOR: Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen, INSIDE OUT (2nd: Andrew Haigh, 45 Years, followed by: Ryan Googler, Creed; Alejandro Inarritu, The Revenant; George Miller, Mad Max: Fury Road; Asif Kapidia, Amy; Josh Mond, James White; Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, The Tribe)

NON-ENGLISH-LANGUAGE FILM: GETT: THE TRIAL OF VIVIANE AMSALEM (Israel, Shlomi Elkabetz and Ronit Elkabetz) (2nd: The Tribe (Ukraine, Miroslav Slaboshpitsky), followed by: A Despadida (Farewell) (Brazil, Marcelo Galveo); Son of Saul (Hungary, László Nemes); A Monster with A Thousand Heads (Mexico, Rodrigo Plá); Embrace of the Serpent (Columbia, Ciro Guerra); The Assassin (Taiwan/China, Hou Hsiao-Hsien))

DOCUMENTARY FEATURE: AMY (UK/US, Asif Kapadia) (2nd: In Jackson Heights (US, Frederick Wiseman), followed by: Cartel Land (US/Mexico, Matthew Heineman); The Yes Men are Revolting (US, Andy Bichlbaum, Mike Bonnano, and Laura Nix); 3 1/2 Minutes Ten Bullets (US, Marc Silver); Welcome to Leith (US, Michael Beach Nichols and Christopher K. Walker); Best of Enemies (US, Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville); Meru (US/India, Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi); What Happened, Miss Simone? (US, Liz Garbus); Merchants of Doubt (US, Robert Kenner))

ANIMATED FEATURE: INSIDE OUT (US, Pete Docter and Ronnie Del Carmen) (2nd: Anomalisa (US, Charles Kaufman and Duke Johnson), followed by: Shaun The Sheep Movie (UK, Mark Burton and Richard Starzak))

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Pete Docter, Ronnie Del Carmen, Meg LeFauve, and Josh Cooley, INSIDE OUT (2nd: Taylor Sheridan, Sicario, followed by: Shlomi Elkabetz and Ronit Elkabetz, Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem; Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy, Spotlight; Rick Famuyiwa, Dope


ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Andrew Haigh and David Constantine, 45 YEARS (2nd: Donald Margulies, The End of the Tour, followed by: Kevin Wilmott and Spike Lee, Chi-RaqPhyllis Nagy, Carol; Charlie Kaufman, Anomalisa)

LIVE ACTION SHORT FILM: A GIRL IN THE RIVER: THE PRICE OF FORGIVENESS (US/Pakistan, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy) (won as Documentary Short), followed by: Body Team 12 (Liberia, David Darg), followed by: Stutterer (UK, Benjamin Cleary) (won as Live Action Short); Everything Will Be Okay (Germany/Austria, Patrick Vollrath); Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah (US/UK/Germany, Adam Benzine))

ANIMATED SHORT FILM: WORLD OF TOMORROW (US, Don Hertzfeld) (2nd: We Can't Live Without Cosmos (Russia, Konstantin Bronzit), followed by: Prologue (UK, Richard Williams); Last Day of Freedom (US,  Dee Hibbert-Jones and Nomi Talisman); If I Was God (Canada, Cordell Barker)) 

CINEMATOGRAPHY: Emmanuel Lubezki, THE REVENANT (2nd: Roger Deakins, Sicario, followed by: Ed Lachman, Carol; John Seale, Mad Max: Fury RoadMaryse Alberti, Creed)

ART DIRECTION: MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, Inside Out, Carol, Bridge of Spies, The Revenant

COSTUME DESIGN: CINDERELLA, Mad Max: Fury Road, Carol, The Revenant, The Assassin

FILM EDITING: MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, Creed, Sicario, The Revenant, Son of Saul

SOUND: LOVE AND MERCY, Mad Max: Fury Road, Creed, The Revenant, Sicario

SOUND EFFECTS: MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, The Revenant, The Martian

ORIGINAL SCORE: Johann Johannson, SICARIO (2nd: Michael Giacchino, Inside Out, followed by: Carter Burwell, Carol; Ennio Morricone, The Hateful Eight; Ludwig Goransson, Creed)

ORIGINAL SONG:  "One Kind of Love" from LOVE AND MERCY (Music and lyrics by Brian Wilson) (2nd: "Cold One" from Ricki and the Flash (Music and lyrics by Jenny Lewis and Jonathan Rice), followed by: "Who Can You Trust" from Spy (Music and lyrics by Theodore Shapiro and Craig Wedren); "Simple Song #3" from Youth (Music and lyrics by David Lang); "Don't Look Down" from Danny Collins (Music and lyrics by Don Was and Ryan Adams); "Earned It" from Fifty Shades of Grey (Music and lyrics by The Weeknd, Amhad Balshe, Jason Quenneville, and Stephan Moccio); "So Long" from Concussion (Music and lyrics by Leon Bridges, Josh Block, Austin Jenkins, and Chris Vivion); "Sit Down for This" from Chi-Raq (Music and lyrics by Kortney Pollard, Dean McIntosh, and Peter Martin); "I'll See You in My Dreams" from I'll See You in My Dreams (Music and lyrics by Keegan DeWitt); "Waiting for My Moment" from Creed (Music and lyrics by Ludwig Goransson, Donald Glover, Ryan Coogler, and Vince Staples); "See You Again" from Furious 7 (Music and lyrics by Justin Franks, Andrew Cedar, Charlie Puth and Cameron Thomaz); "Til' It Happens to You" from The Hunting Ground (Music and lyrics by Diane Warren and Lady Gaga); "Manta Ray" from Racing Extinction (Music by J. Ralph, lyrics by Anohni); "Feels Like Summer" from Shaun the Sheep Movie (Music and lyrics by Ilan Eshkeri, Nick Hodgson, and Tim Wheeler); "None of Them Are You" from Anomalisa (Music by Carter Burwell, lyrics by Charlie Kaufman))

SPECIAL EFFECTS: MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, The Revanant, Ex Machina, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, The Martian 

MAKEUP: MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, The Revanant, Carol