Tuesday, May 23, 2017

"Star Wars" at 40



Five years ago, the collective critical (and audience) raspberry that greeted John Carter led me to think about what kind of reaction the original Star Wars might have faced if it had been released today.  Somehow, this essay became the single-most read item I've posted on my blog to date -- so as Star Wars turns 40, it seemed appropriate to run it again.  

Bear in mind, the below is fully imaginary and in no way reflects my own view of Star Wars.

By the way, for anyone not well-versed in Star Wars lore, that little factoid at the end of the first paragraph is actually true.  Star Wars opened in just 32 theaters on May 25, 1977, not because it was a brilliant stroke of marketing genius, but because that's how many theaters were willing to play it.
____________________________________________________________________

STAR WARS
** of *****

If robots who talk with fussy British accents, men in gorilla suits and endless laser-gun fights are your thing, then by all means give Star Wars a try, but don’t say you weren’t properly warned.  It’s a movie with such lousy buzz that even exhibitors who got advance screenings wouldn’t book it into their theaters.

To help defray undoubted losses on the reported $10 million budget – that’s twice the cost of an average movie these days – Fox finally managed to dump this bloated Saturday-matinee kiddie feature into a measly 32 screens on Memorial Day, a holiday better known for quick vacations than spending time in the dark.  At this rate, Fox will take whatever it can get, though its executives were smart enough to sell the rights away to writer-director George Lucas, who showed so much promise with the vastly superior, smarter American Graffiti.

In Star Wars, no-name actors (the biggest marquee name is Debbie Reynolds’ daughter) do their best to recite the kind of dialogue that might have already seemed dated when Buster Crabbe used it in the ‘30s.  They’re joined by some pained-looking, senior-citizen British names like Alec Guinness and, briefly, Peter Cushing, who ostensibly lend an air of credibility to the otherwise brainless goings-on, which have all been done before in Western and war movies -- for a fraction of the cost.

It’s a shame, really, because there are some nice touches, including truly groundbreaking special-effects work and a rousing score by John Williams that cribs more than a bit from Holst’s The Planets, but otherwise enlivens the ridiculously and unnecessarily convoluted plot.

See if you can keep up with me here: In another galaxy “a long time ago” (how’s that for originality?), an Imperialist government is waging a “civil war,” though exactly who is fighting who and why is never even addressed.  Note to the young director: If you’re going to use the word “war” in your title, you might do the audience the courtesy of explaining what the war is all about.

All we know for sure is the bad guys are so bad that the chief villain, the awkwardly named Darth Vader (yes, it’s that kind of a B-movie – and the hero’s last name is Skywalker), traipses around wearing black … with a cloak, no less.  He’s built a death ray that can blow up entire planets, so take that, Mr. Khruschev.  Someone has stolen the plans for the space station and hidden them inside a robot with instructions to deliver them to an old man on a planet that’s entirely made out of desert.

Meanwhile, a young boy finds the robot and gets hunted down by the bad guys while he learns about an ancient religion from an old neighbor, and together off the two go to hire a solider of fortune to help them get the robot back to where it belongs – and, of course, wouldn’t you know it, they stumble right into the path of the war, where they become unlikely heroes and save the day.  

If you’re exhausted reading that, just wait until you see Star Wars – though, given the utter lack of faith theater owners and Fox seem to have in it, it will be quite a feat if you do see it, outside of a 10 a.m. show some Saturday.  Star Wars may be just fine for the kids, but they’re not the audience that matters to Hollywood, and really Star Wars is just a small pit stop on the way to the summer’s most eagerly awaited films for grown-ups, like A Bridge Too FarThe Deep and Fox’s lavish The Other Side of Midnight.

But Star Wars is worthy of attention not only because of its exorbitant budget and what it says about the gambles involved with selecting and making films – but also because there are a few gems buried in this breathlessly paced nonsense, like the aforementioned score and the uncanny ability of Alec Guinness to speak lines like, “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine” with a straight face.

Particularly uncritical children may enjoy it; for adults, it’s a loud, crashing bore, an ill-advised attempt to transfer the undeniable charms of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon into a big-screen, mega-budgeted spectacle.

Perhaps the low point of a film rife with them is the big cross between a bear and a dog, played by a man in a fur suit.  Just how unsophisticated did Lucas think his audience would be?

Star Wars will come and go quickly, so if you really want to try to make sense of its byzantine plot (communicated at the start by a visually impressive, endlessly wordy “introduction” that scrolls up the screen), you’d better check it out while you can; with such few theaters in the entire country playing it, it will have closed and moved on to smaller markets within the next couple of weeks.  Just don't say I didn't try to warn you.

Without doubt, Star Wars isn’t entirely unworthy – any movie that features American Graffiti’s Harrison Ford  shouting “yahoo!” can’t be all bad – but for those who prefer even a sprinkling of substance to their movie entertainment, this is one surround-sound "spectacle" you can skip.

Almost everything in this barely released, barely marketed mess of a movie has been done before, more cheaply and with infinitely greater charm and memorability.  For some, Star Wars may prove a decent momentary diversion (best to check your brain at the theater door) before we get on to the meat of the summer.

Lucas has said he created Star Wars as a throwback and homage to the kinds of movies he grew up with.  Sorry, Mr. Lucas, everything you’ve put up on screen has been done before – using 99.5% less money – and been done better. I liked Star Wars a lot more the first time they did it, back when it was called Buck Rogers.   

Monday, May 15, 2017

"Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2"

                                                                       

When the first Guardians of the Galaxy was released three years ago, the experience seemed to me something like eating at McDonald's, albeit without the cinematic equivalent of food shaming that someone who eats at McDonald's (yeah, guilty as charged) frequently experiences.

Now here's the second Guardians of the Galaxy, which does nothing at all, for better or worse, to change my first impression.  A Big Mac you eat tomorrow will taste exactly like the one you had a few months ago and exactly like the one you'll eat again at some point -- and in the same fashion Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is pretty much a replay of the first.  In the same way each hamburger comes with maybe a little bit more or less Secret Sauce, and the bun might be toasted just a little differently, there are some variations between this film and the last, but the point of both is to give you precisely the experience you paid to have.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 has same pros and cons, the same good points and bad points, the same laughs and groans, the same basic overall thrust as the first.  If you're one of the Marvel faithful, you'll have a fantastic time and might find many reasons that Vol 2 is better than the first.  For those of us who are generally less than entranced by Marvel Studios films will find, rather surprisingly, that Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 to be more entertaining, more enjoyable, less reliant knowing the "canon" than other Marvel movies.

That doesn't mean, though, that it's an entirely standalone film.  Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, like so many sequels, dispenses with any need to explain itself, its characters or its story -- you either know what you're getting into or you don't, and if you don't, the movie's not going to be of any help.  Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is mostly made for the legion of fans who have seen the first film over and over and over, which means that its first 20 minutes or so are just about incomprehensible to casual viewers.

And while those first moments end up being critical to following along as the story progresses, it turns out the story is much less important to enjoying the show as you might expect.  Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is something like the equivalent of a TV sitcom from before the days of Netflix-style "propulsive serialization," when you could turn on the show and grab a few chuckles even if you didn't entirely understand the story or the characters.

All you need to know is that this ragtag bunch of heroes argue and bicker and make a lot of pop-culture in-jokes, and that Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) kind of have a thing for each other, that big hulking Drax (Dave Bautista) and Rocket the Racoon (Bradley Cooper) are the wisecrackers, and that little Baby Groot (credited to Vin Diesel, which seems kind of strange) is adorable and vaguely dumb.

They run into a variety of people, some good, some bad, and some of dubious intention, and just like you don't ask what the story is when you stumble on to Season 4, Episode 16 of Three's Company, you don't ask it here, either.  Just go with it or don't.  Even if you try to resist, you'll find -- sorry to mix sci-fi franchses -- that it's futile.  Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a merry time filler, a total lark that cost a bewildering amount of money to create but that will be pleasing to those with an inclination.

Throughout, though, I wondered at what point the "Marvel Cinematic Universe" will become boring to audiences.  So far, it's shown very little sign of waning, but like the Star Wars movies is there a point at which such a tightly constructed "universe" will become repetitive and dull?  How awful it would be if every single story we were told on film -- from a black-and-white independent film to a drama with Meryl Streep to a musical extravaganza -- were required to stick within the same constraints of storytelling.  The point of filmmaking, is used to seem to me, is to be able to envision any sort of story, to find a connection with an audience by introducing them to a life or a world they didn't know existed.

That's most certainly not the case with Marvel films or with most studio "franchises" these days.  Reflexivity and self-adulation seems to be the point, the narrower and more condensed a film's point of view can be, the better -- audiences seem mostly to want what they've seen before, rather than what they haven't.

That dark and dismal thought kept entering my mind even as I was giggling at many of the jokes in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, which is exactly the movie audiences wanted to see, not more and not less.




Viewed May 14, 2017 -- AMC Burbank 16

1610

Saturday, May 13, 2017

"The Lovers"

                                  ½                                  

Their house looks like all the others, and so, Mary and Michael have come to realize, do their lives.  Not that they would ever go to a party, but if they did and they were asked how they met, they might look at each other quizzically and wonder why they can't remember that detail.

But their tidy, beige home with its tidy earth-toned furniture isn't where we first meet either of them, because they try to spend as little time there as they can.  Mary is having an affair with a vaguely handsome writer, and she gets a little giddy because it's forbidden.  Michael is having an affair with a vaguely pretty ballet teacher, and he gets a little giddy because it's forbidden.

During the day, each of them escapes a drab, cubicle-bound existence to spend time with a lover. It's quite likely Mary has figured out Michael's affair, and vice-versa, but neither one of them has an inclination to say anything because of that beige house and earth-toned life.  Both of them are sure of one thing: As soon as their son comes home from college to visit, they are going to reveal their secret lives to the family and start anew.

But as they head toward this fixed-date destiny, something happens.  Affairs, it turns out, work both ways, and Mary and Michael start to realize that they can cheat on their secret lovers with ... each other.  And they can like it.  Their own marriage becomes something vaguely dangerous, something mildly passionate.

The Lovers is a small movie about small lives, but treats the predicament of a frumpy, sedate middle-aged couple with respect, humor and a rather stunning amount of style.  Director Azael Jacobs has that sharp-edged independent spirit, but brings a dark, shimmering hue to the film, both visually and audibly, through a lush and striking score by Mandy Hoffman, which provides a rich, flowing counterpart to the stillness of the movie and its characters -- they may be stuck in their lives, but the film's grand music takes them soaring in a way their own hearts can't express.

It's an odd film, not for all tastes, with a strange pace that is as morose as Mary and Michael to begin with, but builds and builds into a third act that brings an unexpected emotional suspense along with an ending that proves to be a clever surprise.

As Mary, Debra Winger makes a welcome return to the big screen in a rare kind of role -- not at all glamorous but hinting at a secret aspiration to passion, a return to the kind of life she hoped for but never got.  Winger finds a delicate middle-ground for Mary that's somewhere between exhaustion and optimism.

Tracy Letts, best known as the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright of August: Osage County, is Michael, Mary's fair-haired, big-bellied and droopy husband who is as surprised as she is that he's still stuck in the cubicle, still paying the mortgage, still coasting along.  He seems more drab as a character until a third-act revelation that thoroughly reframes his character -- and hers, too.

He drops the minor bombshell on the girlfriend of his visiting son, who imagines, rightly, that his father is a philanderer but has never considered his mother as anything but the put-upon spouse.   Tyler Ross is angst-ridden and angry as the son, and he's fine, as is Jessica Sula as his curious girlfriend.  The only real trouble spot among the actors is Melora Walters as Michael's fidgety, anxious, emotionally frail girlfriend.  If it's easy to see why Mary might have fallen for her more soulful writer (Aiden Gillen), it's downright impossible to know what Michael sees in a woman who comes across as emotionally needy and vindictive.

Yet maybe that's the point.  Maybe we can't possibly know what they could see in other people, much less in each other -- because, The Lovers discovers, they don't really know themselves.  The Lovers is a clever reminder that Tolstoy was only half right: Yes, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, but Mary and Michael make you wonder: Is any family, or any couple, really ever completely happy?  Isn't marriage mostly a struggle to make it through the difficult moments and find a way toward a kind of self-centered form of happiness?

The path toward that sort of happiness twists and turns in unusual ways. The lovers in The Lovers do their best to navigate it, difficult and hazardous as it may be.




Viewed May 13, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks

1910

Saturday, April 22, 2017

"Beauty and the Beast"

                                    ☆☆½                                    

Any commentary that I -- or anyone -- could offer up about Disney Beauty and the Beast, as the poster calls it, is rendered entirely irrelevant by the film's $1 billion box-office take, $463 million of which (so far) has come from the United States.

In less than six weeks, Disney Beauty and the Beast has become the 10th highest-grossing film of all time at the U.S. box office, which is precisely the result Disney, the company and the brand, had in mind.  Disney Beauty and the Beast is a marvelous wonder of brand management.

Whether it's any good is completely beside the point, but, in fact, it's neither as awful as it might have been nor anywhere near as good as it could have been.  Back in the late 1970s, there was a musical act called "Beatlemania," which billed itself with the phrase: "Not the Beatles, but an incredible simulation."  That about sums up Disney Beauty and the Beast, particularly for anyone with fond memories of Disney's animated 1991 original, which is just about anyone who will see this version.

Watching it is akin to watching a very expensive cover band: It's amusing and reminds you of what you loved about the real thing, but it's impossible to say if it's good or bad.  That's not the reason it exists.

The biggest difference between Disney Beauty and the Beast and Disney's first Beauty and the Beast is that the animated version version runs about 45 minutes shorter, and is frankly all the better for it.  The original's screenplay by Linda Woolverton is a miracle of economical storytelling, wasting not a single minute even when it pauses for songs.

The live-action version pads the core story with an elaborate history for the Beast, an even more elaborate and detailed backstory for Belle, and a lot of digressions, plus several new songs that bring the movie to a screeching halt.  They miss the wittiness, melancholy and insight of the original songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken, and one of them a song Belle sings about her mother's death from the Black Plague is barely more than a few lines of sung dialogue.  It's not entirely clear why the filmmakers felt that a side story about the Black Plague would be a good addition to Beauty and the Beast, but there it is.

Nor does it make a lot of sense, except from the standpoint of campaigning for an Oscar at the end of the year, that the additional songs aren't the weak-but-better additions from the Broadway show, though underscore music from those numbers plays frequently.

The production design is overstuffed with rococo frills and gilding, a little of which goes a very long way, especially when it comes to the look of the enchanted creatures like Cogsworth the Clock and Lumiere the Candlestick, whose facial features are hard to recognize and even harder to love.  Veteran actors like Ewan McGregor (Lumiere), Emma Thompson (Mrs. Potts), Ian McKellen (Cogsworth) and even, fleetingly, Stanley Tucci as a piano-player-turned-piano make precious little impression.

So, that's the bad stuff, along with the Disney versions' ever-problematic timeline (at one point in this version, it appears the Beast's castle is about a two-minute horse ride from Belle's village.)  The middling stuff mostly revolves around Emma Watson as Belle, who seems too modern and self-aware as a character and too stiff and self-conscious as an actress.  Despite her years growing up on the set of Harry Potter movies, she doesn't seem to have quite mastered the fine art of looking at things that aren't there, so her gaze is mostly fixed in the middle distance, never focused on any one thing in particular.

The movie overuses digital effects to the point of distraction, making the same mistake that so many science-fiction and action films make: It does things because it can, not because it should.  Far too many characters, moments and scenes look entirely artificial.  On top of that, much of the movie is set at night, with a climactic battle bereft of color and more dimly lit than comfortable.

But then there's the good stuff, and there's more of it than I expected, beginning with two strong male performances -- no small irony in a movie primarily produced for young girls.  Luke Evans makes a great Gaston, and if he's mostly, like the rest of the cast, emulating the original animation, he does it with great flair and humor, playing down the physical and playing up the vain.  Likewise, Stevens is convincing and touching as the Beast.  Even though much of the Beast's physical presence seems digitally enhanced or even created, Stevens imbues the Beast a genuine warmth and depth.

But finally, and just when everything seemed hopeless, the film blooms to life for its final moments, and can't be dulled even by the dark-to-the-point-of-squinting battle-scene climax and the weirdly unfunny physical humor with the enchanted objects.  Disney Beauty and the Beast nails its final moments with pitch-perfect charm in a ballroom sequence that is one of the rare moments when the live-action version outdoes the animated one.  It's a great scene, one that sends the audience out on a sugar-and-magic-induced high.

Despite its admittedly wonderful final moments, Disney Beauty and the Beast isn't Disney's Beauty and the Beast, but it is quite a simulation.  "Incredible" is an entirely subjective word.




Viewed April 22, 2017 -- AMC Burbank

1540

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Catching Up: "The Invitation"

                                 ☆☆☆                              


You won't see the end of The Invitation coming, but the beauty of the film is that within its tight narrative confines, the final few shots make perfect sense.  And when you think back on how the film begins, and all of the odd and puzzling moments it contains, the movie delivers a rare sort of satisfaction.

It opens with a slightly clunky and hipster-low-budget kind of feel, and its opening scene tries a little too hard to build both foreboding and foreshadowing as grungy-handsome Will (Logan Marshall-Green) and his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) drive to a dinner party that's being held in the expensive, mid-century-chic home of his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard) and her husband David (Michiel Huisman).

Will hasn't been in the house since he and Eden divorced following the accidental death of their son, a loss he is still grieving.  The dinner party seems intended to wash away that sadness.  Eden has invited a handful of their oldest friends to the party -- and if that setup sounds a little like an Agatha Christie mystery, it is.

Nothing at all seems right about this party, especially not the hosts.  Her guests are all dressed casually, as befits a group of longtime friends, but Eden appears wearing a flowing white gown, and her plump-lipped smile seems to be hiding some unsettled emotions.  David, meanwhile, keeps trying to lock the doors, and thinks the best way to break the ice with everyone is to show them some deeply disturbing videos.

Plus, there are those decorative security bars all over the windows.

Yet Will seems to be the only person who thinks there's something amiss.  Is it just his mind working overtime?  He and Eden are the only ones for whom the house is haunted by its tragic past; perhaps he's just dealing with some difficult emotions.

But then there's the matter of the two strangers who show up at the party, an anxiety-inducing raw nerve named Sadie (Lindsay Burge) and the burly, quiet Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch -- watch him loom in his early scenes), who clearly don't belong.

The Invitation is marketed as a horror-thriller because there's really no easy category for it, but at its warped and twisty heart is a mystery -- what, exactly, is going on?  It's the most effective sort of mystery, too, because it has an answer, though you'll be excused if you find that the answer just begs more questions, some of which I expect would be answered upon viewing it a second or third time.  If it were a novel, you'd finish the last page and immediately start thumbing through the early chapters and smack your head for not noticing the clues.

For some, I imagine The Invitation will feel a little too slow and measured, a bit overly relaxed about its pacing.  But as its characters -- some of which, like the gay couple, are simple tropes, while others hint at more complexity -- are effective at building a sense of off-kilter dread.  Blanchard is a standout as the emotionally wounded Eden, who seems to have a newfound calm, though one of a chilling sort.

Tightly wound, carefully constructed upon a foundation that turns out to go deeper and be more solid than it might appear, The Invitation shares a fiendish kind of forethought with Jordan Peele's Get Out, and director Karyn Kusama is willing to take her time getting where she's going.  It all leads up to those final few shots, which are about as fulfilling and as intriguing as they come.

A shaky start leads to a brilliant finish, and this turns out to be an Invitation you don't want to decline.




Viewed April 1, 2017 -- Netflix

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

"Ghost in the Shell"

                                    ☆☆½                                    

Has no one in the future seen Young Frankenstein?  Do they not realize how risky it is to put a human brain into another body, whether one fresh from a grave or manufactured by machine?  Have they not heard of Abby Normal?

Sure, at one point in Ghost in the Shell, the calm, quiet, not-at-all-mad scientist played by Juliette Binoche tells her creation, played by Scarlett Johansson, that there were 98 attempts to create a hybrid human-robot before her.

Ninety-eight?  I've heard of PowerPoint presentations with fewer drafts.  Yet, on the 99th try, the sinister ultra-mega-industrial conglomerate Hanka has successfully taken a human brain and put it into a cyborg body.  But why would this be a good idea?  What if, instead of the skillful brain of The Major, as Johansson's character is know, they had gotten the brain of, say, Woody Allen or Meryl Streep, and rather than shoot weapons and fight The Major had just wanted to make a doctor's appointment to see about the rash on her arm, or to become a high-quality actress?

Somehow, though, the doctor and Hanka -- a shadowy criminal enterprise, because no other kind of big company exists in action movies -- luck out, and they get a brain that can be trained to think and act like a precision machine, one that is manufactured through a process that is almost exactly like the one in the TV version of Westworld.  There are other similarities to Westworld, as well as to Paul Verhoeven's Robocop, like the "glitches" that The Major experiences -- flashes of her life before her brain was taken from her body and put in a Scarlett Johansson robot.

After a year of training to be an assassin-slash-vigilante, The Major gets her first assignment, which is to track down a mysterious man named Kuze, who has been engaging in cyber-attacks against Hanka.  Aided by a vicious guy with a tender heart (Pilou Asbaek), who ends up with the movie's best cyborg parts, she tracks down Kuze and begins to realize that she might not be as clear on her own history as she thought she was.

The Major's search for her sense of self is the best thing about Ghost in the Shell, even though it recalls so many other robots-with-human-feelings stories, including the compelling British TV series Humans, not to mention A.I. and Blade Runner, which is this film's biggest and most obvious visual influence -- to the point of distraction, actually.  It's to Johansson's credit that the middle portion of Ghost in the Shell is more compelling than it should be.  This isn't at all new territory, and Ghost in the Shell really has nothing new to say about the fine line between humanity and technology, a line that seems to be getting finer and finer every day.

As someone with absolutely no familiarity with the original manga comic or the 1995 animated film that came before this one, Ghost in the Shell intrigued me with its observations on the meaning of personal memory and kept me interested with its visuals -- at times, they look too much like Blade Runner for comfort, down to the always-rainy, overly grungy underworld of its near-future, hyper-techno urban cityscapes.  But its over-reliance on guns, gangsters and generic action scenes, especially a ridiculously bombastic and frenetic climax, had my eyes glazing over at times.

There are too many ghosts in the shell of this film, the cinematic ghosts of robots and dystopian futures we've seen so many times before.  Johansson and Binoche do particularly fine jobs at keeping the ghosts at bay, but they're always there, lurking on the sides. They haunt the film a bit too deeply, leaving Ghost in the Shell not without its merits but incapable of overcoming the same sensation that The Major has throughout much of the movie: We've seen this before.




Viewed March 28, 2017 -- Paramount Theater

1930

Friday, March 24, 2017

"Life"

                                     ☆☆                                     

Put a handful of people in an enclosed space and throw in an indestructible monster and you've got a can't-miss movie, right?  It must have seemed that easy to the filmmakers behind Life.  After all, it's been nearly 40 years since Ridley Scott made Alien, and Life follows the same basic premise.

There are a half-dozen astronauts (all right, so that's one less than Alien had) who discover a strange organism that comes aboard their spaceship, which in this case is the International Space Station.  It grows, as did the Alien, into a ravaging, bloodthirsty creature that won't stop until it kills them all.

Life hews so closely to the Alien structure that it's never surprising or particularly exciting, neither hardcore enough to work as science-fiction or suspenseful enough to work as a horror film.  Most disappointing is the creature at the heart of the story, a gelatinous, squid-like blob that jiggles and bounces across the screen without a sense of menace.

The creature begins as a hibernating single-cell organism found in soil samples from Mars, which, as the movie begins, are blown terribly off course and might be lost forever except that the space station crew is on hand to retrieve them.  The resident biologist (Ariyon Bakare) pokes and prods at the tiny, sleeping microbe, lo and behold, it stirs.  Word gets around fast that the ISS has found proof of life beyond Earth, and a little girl in Times Square announces that the thing shall henceforth be known as Calvin.

What the giddy folks down on terra firma don't realize is that Calvin quickly morphs into an angry little thing, one that the astronauts theorize might have once lived in abundance on the red planet, though the movie never really builds on that theory at all.  Instead, it focuses on Calvin's only obsession: killing everyone it meets.

As Calvin grows, it becomes intent on survival, and the movie becomes merely a cat-and-mouse chase in a claustrophobic environment.  That's all well and good, except that Life doesn't clearly establish the rules of engagement, so Calvin takes on any survival ability that will push the plot forward.  He can survive in the vacuum of space, he can shove his tentacles down the throats of unsuspecting astronauts, he can wriggle his way into tiny spaces, he can even think and reason -- he can do pretty much anything, which means that Life bluffs its way along.

That would be fine if Life were really suspenseful, but too often it's just a visual and narrative jumble, even as it narrows down the crew to just two -- a scientist from the Centers for Disease Control (Rebecca Ferguson), who has shockingly little awareness of how to contain a deadly organism, and a  pilot (Jake Gyllenhaal) who has been on the ISS for more than a year.

Neither they nor the movie has a clear idea of how to proceed.  Their final inspiration comes from, of all places, the children's book "Goodnight Moon," and leads to a climactic plot twist that is not only easy to predict, but that feels as contrived as the rest of the movie.  It's a last-ditch effort to inject some life into Life, which is by no means a terrible film just a lackluster one, especially because it mostly -- and unintentionally -- serves as a reminder of a better, more exciting, more fulfilling and stylish movie about a spaceship and a really mean alien.



Viewed March 24, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks

1945

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Catching Up: "Moana"

                                    ☆☆☆                                 

It's quite a strange fault for a movie to have, but Moana just has too much going on.  You can't fault the filmmakers for having too many ideas -- except that, well, yes, you can.

It begins with a trickster demi-god who steals the heart of an island, then shifts its focus to a young woman whose heart yearns to see more than her small, provincial home.  Somehow, the ocean, or rather The Ocean, since its water has a personality of its own in Moana, chooses the girl to find the heart of that island, which is a small stone that must be restored to its rightful home, because -- and this is where I started getting a little lost -- the life force of the island from which it has been removed is depleting surrounding islands.

This isn't a simple story, even though for long, long stretches of this nearly two-hour film there are just two people on a small boat in the middle of a large ocean, which is generally not a compelling dramatic setup, Life of Pi notwithstanding.  And it requires a lot of manipulating in order to put Moana in just the right place in the vast, vast ocean.  Machinas ex from the deus quite frequently in Moana, complicating and frustrating efforts to really love it.

The biggest shame of all of that is that Moana has so very much to recommend it.  When you strip away the long, unnecessary sequence of weird (and adorable) coconut-shelled pirates that doesn't take the story anywhere, or the even longer and more unnecessary sequence involving a fluorescent, glam-rocker crab who sings a long and forgettable song, Moana is sometimes beautiful and sometimes wonderful.

It's the third time Disney has used the Pacific islands for inspiration, and as a whole, Moana doesn't compare entirely favorably with Lilo and Stitch or the all-too-brief but entirely splendid short film Lava.  Yet its rich and beautiful visuals, its strong characters and its warm spirit make it a nice effort, in spite of heaping plot point upon plot point.

The notion of a Polynesian girl who sets sail to search for a way to save her own island and its people is one with great inherent appeal -- by its very nature, it sets up a story of someone who needs to prove physical strength, personal courage and emotional upheaval, and there's something so innately beautiful about Polynesian culture that Moana has everything going for it.

So how does the film end up bogged down with so many extraneous characters and elaborate plot complexities?  It searches mightily, and rather unsuccessfully, to find a villain to counter the strength of Moana (voiced by Auli'i Cravalho), and while the demigod Maui (Dwayne Johnson) is a fun and funny guy, he ends up largely being along for the ride -- there because the story demands she find him, and once she does, they search for interesting things to do together.

As it stretches and stretches its thin story even further, it's easy to long for the days when a Disney animated film was considered lengthy at 80 minutes, when extraneous plot was anathema to the Disney way of storytelling.  A Young Woman and the Sea kind of approach, with Moana guided by the spirit of her recently deceased grandmother, could have made a terrifically lean and focused movie, because Moana seems overwhelmed by its story excesses.

Strip it all away, and you're left with a few truly splendid songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Opetaia Foa'i and Mark Mancina and a wonderful story about the journeys people take to figure out how they fit into the world.  Moana's journey of self-discovery and growth wisely does not require a love interest in Moana -- but it would have been even wiser for it not to have digressed quite so frequently.  Its meanderings lose the focus of what's really important: the way that a perilous journey can define the soul.

In that, Moana finally does deliver on its emotional promises, and does so with genuine satisfaction, but it takes the long way round the ocean to get there.  The very long way round.



Viewed March 23, 2017 -- Blu-ray

Sunday, March 19, 2017

"Kong: Skull Island"

                                      ½                                     

Every generation gets the big-budget movies it deserves, and Kong: Skull Island is the final proof that this generation is in a lot of trouble.

The Sixties had its widescreen, increasingly bloated and out-of-touch movie musicals.  The Seventies combined auteur-influenced with the blockbuster mentality.  The Eighties added massive star power (and lots of synthesized music).  In the Nineties, the writers ruled with original stories.

And since the dawn of the Third Millennium, what?  Well, think of it this way: Since 2000, the charts of the top 20 films of each year have been ruled by sequels and remakes.  Hollywood has no interest in telling original stories that will inspire filmmakers and audiences for many years to come; they want to make money, and the best way to do that is to give people something they've already seen.

Kong: Skull Island is a sort of apotheosis of that mentality, a movie that gives us plenty we have already seen, almost nothing we haven't, and then goes even further by reducing it story to the most meager possible outline of a plot.  Though I've admittedly become more cynical and curmudgeonly as time wears on, Kong: Skull Island made me feel even more world-weary and exasperated with the state of modern filmmaking.  It made me sad.

It also, frankly, made me bored.  Now, as every 11th-grade English teacher in America has said at least once, only boring people are boring, and Kong: Skull Island left me thinking that perhaps that is true.  Maybe I have become boring in my hope and expectation that a movie will make at least the barest of effort to keep me entertained by showing me something other than computer-generated sets and art-directed creatures.  If Kong: Skull Island is less than exhaustingly boring, then I apologize for my infinite boredom as a human being -- but this movie is a crushing bore.  It could have been silly, I would have settled for silly.  It could have been excessive, I would have settled for excessive.  But it's boring, and that's just something I can't settle for.

Kong: Skull Island takes place in 1973, after a short World War II prologue, and the story is this: a satellite has discovered a previously unknown island, perpetually surrounded by a hurricane-force storm, to which a joint scientific-military exploration is sent.  Once there, the expedition meets the massive gorilla known as Kong, and finds out that the island is filled with all sorts of other gigantic creatures.  Then they rescue the guy from the World War II prologue, who has been living on the island for 26 years.  Then they go home.

Nothing else of consequence happens in the movie.  Not one of the characters is interesting enough to become the center of attention, not even Kong himself, who isn't even in half of the movie.  Let me say this again so you understand: The makers of Kong: Skull Island did not think enough of their title character to give him the starring role in the film.  He has a great introduction, in which he is angry that the U.S. military has invaded his island and that they've started dropping bombs all over it.  For about 15 or 20 minutes, he takes down all of their helicopters.  It is a good, well-crafted sequence, but it means nothing to the film.

There are some minor discussions of whether maybe Kong was right to be mad about people coming in and tearing up his home, but those scenes don't go anywhere.  Some of the people who go the island are scientists, but they don't seem at all interested in what they find.  The military people like Samuel L. Jackson's character just want to shoot everything.  There's also a guy played by Tom Hiddleston whose function I didn't quite understand, and and a photographer played by Brie Larson who rarely snaps the shutter while taking photos and hasn't brought along any other lenses, or even much film.  There are some other military people who get eaten and attacked and eviscerated.  And there's John C. Reilly as that World War II veteran who is slightly crazy.

For long periods of Kong: Skull Island I thought about things I shouldn't have been thinking about, like whether Brie Larson will regret following up her Oscar-winning performance in Room with this or if the paycheck more than justified it, and I thought about all of the people sitting in front of computers around the world who made these creatures come to life, and I thought about the meetings at Warner Bros. and Legendary Entertainment where they talked about franchises and global marketing stunts.

At no time does Kong: Skull Island impart the sense that a group of storytellers sat down and thought, "Wow, we could really sink our teeth into rethinking the whole King Kong thing -- we could make this an exciting, relevant thriller, because this story needs to be retold."  Mostly, it imparts the sense that Kong: Skull Island will soon be followed by Kong: New York and Kong: Escape.  At that point, the lean and mean original movie will have been carved into three two-hour features, at which point Kong will meet Godzilla, another Warner Bros. monster.  That's when the destruction will be so big and massive that only Batman or Superman or the Justice League will be able to save the world in what could be the ultimate franchise extension.

That would be, I fear, the movie we deserve.



Viewed March 19, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks

1315

Saturday, March 11, 2017

"Get Out"

                                ☆☆☆½                              

There's a big, rambling house in the countryside, away from the eyesight of prying neighbors.  The residents of the surrounding hamlet are, at best, eccentric.  Strange things seem to happen at night.  And there are far, far too many smiles.

These are the familiar elements of Jordan Peele's gleefully inventive Get Out, a movie that I've heard described as a "horror satire," but that's wrong in a couple of important ways: it's not a horror film, it's a tremendously crafted suspense-thriller; and it's less a satire than a sharp, observant view of the state of post-Obama race relations in the United States -- that country where some pretty prominent people still try to justify slavery and a movie that glorifies a time "of Master and of slave" is still considered one of the greats.

But, ho hum, who would want to see that kind of a movie?  We've moved beyond race.  We don't see color.  But writer-director-producer Jordan Peele knows better than that -- and he also knows his movies, and he's taken careful notes of the ways in which really classic thrillers work, and the ways in which "horror" films have become cheap and lazy.  Get Out is neither cheap nor lazy (except economically -- the movie cost less than $5 million to make, and you'd never know it), it's a fiendishly clever assimilation of cinematic devices and pointed, salient commentary.

The most extraordinary thing about Get Out is that it goes right up to the wall of propriety -- and smashes through it.  This is a film that works on multiple levels, and the kind of film that twists and turns in on itself so enthusiastically that the very best thing you can say for it is that it only hints at its depths in the first viewing.

To describe the plot beyond the most basic setup would be going too far: Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) is a black man dating Rose (Allison Williams), a white woman who takes him home to her folks in upstate New York.  His best friend Rod (Lil Rey Howery) tells him not to go, and on the way in to the country one of those scary-movie things that always happens to couples on their way to the country happens to Chris and Rose.

And there are weirder things once they get there, not the least of which are the groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson) and his wife Georgina (Betty Gabriel, in one of the most eerie and aware performances you're going to see on screen this year).  And then things get really weird.

So, let's recap: House in the country, strange servants, creepy things afoot.  These are the elements we've seen in movies since the silent era, and Peele doesn't even try to make them feel new.  He wants them to feel familiar and disturbing, even funny -- and Get Out is frequently very funny, and finds its anchor in the fantastic work by Kaluuya, Williams and, mesmerizingly, Catherine Keener as Rose's mother.

There's also the disquieting sense that Chris is both way ahead of and way too far behind the plot to figure it all out, and in that respect, Get Out reminded me of Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby.  (That one of its less visible but more pivotal characters shares a name with one of the key characters in that film can't be a mere coincidence.)

Perhaps most satisfying and surprising about Get Out is that the first drop of non-animal blood doesn't appear on screen for nearly 90 minutes.  Peele knows what so few filmmakers seem to understand today -- that it takes more than torture-porn scenes and loud noises to drive an audience into a state of suspense, and that what keeps a great thriller going is a sense of unraveling mystery.

If he couldn't deliver on making a terrific thriller, he couldn't add in the underlying commentary, which at times is wonderfully subtle  One disturbingly weird scene in particular might be a head-scratcher ... until you realize what exactly is happening.  If it doesn't hit you for a while, don't be ashamed, it does seem like a head-scratcher -- but, go ahead, Google exactly you saw and at that point, if you hadn't figured it out already, the whole movie will lock into place and have you spinning, like its main character does himself at one point, into an entirely different dimension.



Viewed March 11, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks

1830

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

"Hacksaw Ridge"

                                   ☆☆☆                                   


A cross accompanies the title of Hacksaw Ridge, both on its poster and on screen, signaling fair warning: This is not a subtle film, nor is its director, Mel Gibson, interested at all in leaving its symbolism open for interpretation.  Hacksaw Ridge seems appropriately named, offering all the gentleness of having your legs cut off with one.

For that matter, the image of men with dangling sinew and tendons where their legs once were is an one Gibson returns to over and over in the movie.  So is a majestic reverence and awe with which his fellow soldiers gaze, in the end, upon Pvt. Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield).   But it's not the reverence that pervades Hacksaw Ridge, it's the violence, and it's easy to mistake much of the brutal, cruel, torturous imagery in Hacksaw Ridge for Gibson's earlier film, The Passion of the Christ, which does not at all seem unintended.

Hacksaw Ridge is as much a story of the resolution of faith through violent torture as Passion was, and if Doss is not represented here as the son of God, he is not terribly far off.  He is mocked and ridiculed by all because of his fervent religious beliefs until finally, through agonizing tribulations that no human being could possibly suffer, he is redeemed in the eyes of those who doubted him.

Did I mention this is not a subtle film?

The big question is whether Hacksaw Ridge is a good film, a film worthy of seeing, and in the end it's hard to give it anything but a strongly qualified recommendation; though it has a meaningful, even stirring, message and a compelling story, it is not a movie that most people would be able to sit through without flinching -- and Gibson, as he did with the blood-soaked Passion and Apocalypto seems to think that the best way to depict violence is to show every stomach-churning moment of it.

But to what end?  Hacksaw Ridge is not just a difficult film, it surpasses being a harrowing experience; in the end it is merely exhausting, a grueling and often laborious mixture of heartfelt story and near-pornographic violence.  Gibson revels in the visceral experience of bringing his audience to its knees, which would serve him well as a director of thrillers or horror films but does not mesh with what he must believe is an unassailable right to express himself as he sees fit.

He has that right, and it is a right worth defending, but it does not serve the film well.  Nor is Hacksaw Ridge entirely convincing in everything that comes before its hourlong descent into unrelenting violence.  Garfield plays a Virginia simpleton whose upbringing cannot be described without resorting to the use of the word "hillbilly."  He's a thickly accented local yokel who enlists in the Army despite his deep, heartfelt adherence to the strictures of the Seventh Day Adventists.  He interprets the Sixth Commandment not just as a prohibition against killing a human being but against even touching a weapon.  (Or, at least, that's the official version; the film itself gets a little confused when it shows, in flashback, the one time Doss fired a gun -- his belief seems to be more a personal guideline than a religious one.)

But before he goes, he needs to marry the local beauty (Teresa Palmer), who pledges to stand by her man, no matter what.  And he needs to defy his hard-nosed father (Hugo Weaving) before being carted off to training camp where his barracks are filled with the kinds of characters that used to be referred to as "straight from Central Casting."  There's the muscle-head, the bully, the goon, the Italian, the All-American boy ... and the tough-as-nails sergeant (Vince Vaughn) who insists his men call him "Sarge" and who has it out for Doss.

The lengths to which Doss goes to uphold his faith are impressive, and are the most interesting and rewarding sections of Hacksaw Ridge, and when it gets to the titular cliffside in Japan, the movie takes on a palpable tension.  The first moments of the battle are suitably nightmarish and intense.

After that, the movie doesn't know when to stop.  It keeps pummeling us over the head with insane levels of violence that certainly demonstrate the horrors of war -- but why?  This isn't an anti-war film, nor is it a story that focuses much on religious faith outside of a brief (and compelling) court-martial hearing.

The main action is about how Doss, through what appears to be pure luck and good fortune, survives the largely lethal battle for control of the summit, then stays behind to rescue wounded men.  What he does is incredible, but the thematic question of whether it was motivated -- maybe even, if the movie were braver, aided -- by religious faith is never really addressed.  Gibson and screenwriters Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan are more intent on the machinations of the fighting and on getting as gory as possible.

Amid all of it, the lanky, awkward, boyish Garfield finds and holds onto a strong character, even when the motivation is lost.  All of the cast is uniformly excellent, with the soldiers managing to differentiate themselves just enough.  Even more effective is a post-action coda with the real people who inspired the characters; their few moments on camera provide the most human element to the film.

All the while, Gibson seems never to have met a CGI effect he didn't want to try.  He's like a sadistic, violence-loving, blood-and-guts version of George Lucas or Peter Jackson. Warfare aside, the film's over-reliance on digital effects can be overwhelming.

While there's a lot to admire in Hacksaw Ridge, there's even more to turn away from.  War is hell.  We know that.  Movies about it don't need to be hellish or quite this stressful.




Viewed on DVD -- Feb. 28, 2017


Sunday, February 26, 2017

"Lion"

                                ☆☆☆½                               

How easy it is to recall the past.  It's less a sign of growing old than of being human that we can recall the way around, say, our third-grade classroom, or the route we took to get to a high-school job, even more readily than we can remember what we had for dinner yesterday.

And then there are those even more fleeting images we never imagined would get stuck in our heads but are permanently lodged there -- the view from a restaurant, a scene we saw on vacation.  We could find our way down a street we traveled once many decades ago.  The mind lives in the past as mysteriously as the heart.

The intersection of the two is where Lion takes place, in the conflicted thoughts and emotions of Saroo Brierly, who has spent most of his life safe, happy -- and lost.  In an extraordinary true story, Saroo left his tiny, poverty-ridden Indian village with his brother, Guddu, one evening in 1986, and fell asleep on a bench in a train station.  When he awoke, tiny Saroo, who was at most five years old, couldn't find his brother, and started searching a nearby train.  Unable to find Guddu, Saroo wound up 1,600 miles away from home in the overcrowded, overwhelming central station of Calcutta.

It was the beginning of an odyssey that would lead to a Dickensian orphanage and, circuitously, an affluent suburban home in Hobart, Tasmania, where an Australian couple who knew nothing of Saroo's history adopted him and raised him and another Indian boy with love and compassion.

Saroo is played as an adult by Dev Patel and as a child by the magical, captivating Sunny Pawar, who carries the weight of the film's entire first half on his tiny shoulders.  Lion gives Pawar a remarkable screen debut; how he could have been overlooked at the Oscars is a head-scratcher, especially since the film, quite rightly, is among the nominees for Best Picture and Patel has been nominated for the role he builds off of the foundation established by the little boy.

Though he is initially perplexed about how he got where he ended up, the grown Saroo spends little time contemplating his past until a conversation with friends triggers the involuntary recollection of the images he has never really forgotten.  Almost as a dare, his friends suggest he try Google Earth and some basic math to see if he can figure out where he came from.

The idea seems outlandish and even distracting at first, but soon enough Saroo can think of little else, including his parents, played by Nicole Kidman and David Wenham, or his brother Mantosh (Divian Ladwa), who has never been able to completely recover from the horrors of his own stolen childhood.

Driven by his memories, he becomes obsessed with finding his home -- and it's in these sections of the story that Lion loses just a tiny bit of its momentum as it struggles to find some conflict in his quest.  He hides his search from his adoptive parents, who otherwise seem rather astonishingly capable of providing Saroo and Mantosh exactly the sort of support and encouragement they need.  At times, Lion presents Saroo as just a bit too noble, though Patel is noteworthy for his portrayal of the haunted, lonely little boy inside the seemingly well-adjusted man.

There's also a very worthy performance by Kidman as his adopted mother, who carefully but completely destroys every theory Saroo has ever devised about why they chose to adopt the two boys.  Kidman's role may initially come across as too saintly, but she has quiet and powerful scene with Patel that helps ground the movie in an honest and non-manipulative emotion, which propels it into its final act.

As good as its latter half is, Lion is really distinguished by its bleak, painful opening hour, in which Saroo manages to survive despite breathtaking obstacles.  Director Garth Davis offers a portrayal of India is both shocking and emotionally charged; when Saroo finally gets to Tasmania, it's a relief -- and yet his Indian life is so vividly presented that Lion makes it clear what it is he misses so desperately, despite the comforts and love he finds in his adopted home.

The tug-of-war the past constantly plays with the present is what makes Lion so deeply moving, and if its ultimate destination isn't exactly surprising, it's no less affecting, particularly in the ways it finds to answer the questions that have persisted in Saroo's mind for such a long time.

Adapted by Luke Davies from Saroo's own book, A Long Way Home, Lion sustains its emotional power all the way through to its final frames and even afterward, saving a heart-wrenching revelation for the very, very end.  Lion is a beautiful movie, and though we're already almost three months into 2017 its potent enough to me want to rethink my 2016 top 10 list.  But, then, I've no idea how to choose a movie to bump -- it was a strong year for movies, and Lion is among the strongest.





Viewed February 27, 2017 -- ArcLight Sherman Oaks

1215

Saturday, February 25, 2017

It's 'La La Land' for Sure ... Probably


La La Land is going to sweep the Oscars this year.

Unless it doesn't.

Which could happen.  Since the last time the Academy Awards were handed out, there have been weirder balloting results.  So, could La La Land get trumped?

Doubtful.  But the Academy's got to be happy this year, because at long last the Best Picture nominee list has movies on it people have actually seen.  The average box-office take of the nine Best Picture nominees is $71.5 million, which is a hit by any standards.  Movies like Hidden Figures and La La Land have passionate fans -- and, especially in the case of the latter, more than a few detractors.

But much like last year's presidential race, while emotions run high for some people, there's more than a little apathy out there, which seems to have seeped into Oscar campaigns, too -- so while La La Land's sweep is almost a certainty, there's still a little suspense; if voters do more than just tick the boxes along straight "party lines," things could get interesting, though truth be told I'd be in the La La Land camp almost all the way ... and I'm guessing Academy voters will feel the same way, with just a few exceptions:

  BEST PICTURE  
 WILL WIN : La La Land Moonlight (great movie, I'm not complaining, but what the hell happened?)
 SHOULD WIN La La Land
 WHY?  Go ahead, carp all you want.  You can cite all the times Oscar got it wrong (yes, we all remember Crash and Around the World in 80 Days), and you would be totally justified doing so -- but La La Land is no Crash, and even if you aren't a fan of the film it would be almost impossible to deny the pure cinematic artistry of the film, and let's not forget that this is the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, not the Academy of Movies You'll Like.  To me, La La Land is the cinematic equivalent of London -- if you tire of it, you tire of life.  If there's real competition this year, it comes from Moonlight, a movie of exquisite beauty and craft, which would be the winner in a year without La La Land.  And while Hidden Figures has seen deserved popular success, look for La La Land to walk away with the big prize ... and not because Hollywood loves to honor itself, but because it's a terrific, deeply felt, beautifully made movie.

 BEST DIRECTOR 
 WILL WIN : Damien Chazelle for La La Land
 SHOULD WIN : Chazelle
 WHY?  He's made an extraordinary movie.  You think the lead characters are narcissistic?  You think the movie just steals from other musicals?  Boy, you're a tough critic.  Chazelle's commitment, passion, vision and sheer technical ability may still be relatively young (he'll be the youngest Best Director winner, beating a record held for 85 years by Norman Taurog), but why does age matter?  Talent does, and the one-two punch of Whiplash and La La Land is a knockout the Academy can't ignore.

 BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR  
 WILL WIN Mahershala Ali for Moonlight
 SHOULD WIN : Lucas Hedges for Manchester by the Sea
 WHY?  The way Ali's presence in Moonlight transcends his actual screen time is a testament to what an extraordinary performance he delivers, and he'll be a deserving winner.  But in Manchester by the Sea, Hedges provides both humanity and humor to a difficult, depressing story.  Casey Affleck is getting the attention, but Hedges is largely why the movie works -- he's both fragile and strong, confused yet assured, and his work is what ensures that while Manchester by the Sea is tough stuff it's always revelatory.

 BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS  
 WILL WIN Viola Davis for Fences
 SHOULD WIN : Octavia Spencer for Hidden Figures
 WHY?  Davis remains largely quiet and stoic throughout Fences, a film I found too noble and steady to be really affecting, but when Davis finally lets loose and vents years of pent-up frustration, she gets the kind of show-stopping moment that Oscar voters love.  Her work on stage won the Tony for Best Actress, and since Spencer is a previous Oscar winner, the Academy's strange unwritten rules make Davis the likely winner.  But Spencer delivers even more engaging, more satisfying work in Hidden Figures.  Of the five nominees, Spencer's work is the most crowd-pleasing -- and the most memorable.

 BEST ACTOR  
 WILL WIN : Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea
 SHOULD WIN : Ryan Gosling for La La Land
 WHY?  Affleck delivers an undeniably great performance in a standout film.  His depiction of grief and loss is -- and this is no criticism -- almost scientifically calculated to nab the Oscar.  But Gosling does everything Affleck does ... and makes it look effortless and charming.  Those are qualities the Academy rarely finds attractive in male leads: Other than Jean Dujardin in The Artist, you'd need to go back to Lee Marvin in 1965 to find a Best Actor who received the award for a comedy.  Both of these are challenging, sometimes unlikeable characters made fascinating by the work of the actors who inhabit them.

 BEST ACTRESS 
 WILL WIN : Emma Stone for La La Land
 SHOULD WIN : Natalie Portman for Jackie
 WHY?  It may sound sexist -- and there's probably a lot of truth to that -- but singing, dancing and laughing are apparently just a lot more deserving of awards by a woman than by a man.  Which isn't to say Stone shouldn't get the Oscar for exactly the same reasons Gosling should.  She is beyond wonderful in La La Land.  But this is a tough category, and my vote would go to Portman, whose performance is not nearly as appealing but succeeds in the near-impossible task of getting us to consider a historical figure in a way we never have before.  Portman's Jacqueline Kennedy is a tragic heroine, a woman who had to put aside her own grief, pain and disbelief for the sake of the greater good, and Portman creates a complex, haunting figure.

 BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY  
 WILL WIN : Moonlight
 SHOULD WIN Moonlight
 WHY?  The Academy isn't known for rewarding risk takers, so this is a satisfying choice.  Moonlight bends the rules of standard story structure and character development to deliver an unexpected result, a visually beautiful and thematically lyrical exploration of growing up and letting go that examines a character not normally even acknowledged by Hollywod -- a poor, black, gay man -- and finds something in his life that almost anyone can identify with.  Moonlight is a stunner, a movie that the Academy rightfully wants to recognize, and will with this award.  All five nominees are deserving, but Moonlight stands out for its innovation ... and for its soul.

 BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY  
 WILL WIN  Manchester by the Sea
 SHOULD WIN La La Land
 WHY?  In addition to Casey Affleck's fine central performance, the Academy will honor Manchester by the Sea's considerable impact by acknowledging its screenplay, which is not a bad way to do things.  La La Land is a more complex blend of story, dialogue, lyrics and visuals, but it's going to get enough awards this year -- Manchester by the Sea is a more conventional choice.

 BEST ANIMATED FILM  
 WILL WIN : Zootopia
 SHOULD WIN Kubo and the Two Strings
 WHY?  Zootopia has been sweeping most of the animation awards for a reason: It's adorable and it's got a surprisingly sophisticated storyline with some pointed observations about racism and sexism.  Plus it's adorable.  In an average year, it would be a slam-dunk, but this hasn't been an average year.  Kubo and the Two Strings is a grand and glorious adventure, one that sets a new standard for visual inventiveness, engaging both the heart and the mind with an exploration of memory and grief that is as complex and rewarding as just about any film this year.

 ADDITIONAL CATEGORIES  

Best Foreign Language FilmThe Salesman

Best Documentary Feature13th O.J. Made in America

Best Documentary Short Subject Extremis The White Helmets

Best Costume DesignLa La Land Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Best Film EditingLa La Land Hacksaw Ridge

Best Cinematography La La Land

Best Makeup/Hair Styling A Man Called Ove Suicide Squad

Best Original Score: Justin Hurwitz, La La Land

Best Original Song"City of Stars," La La Land

Best Sound Editing Hacksaw Ridge Arrival

Best Sound Mixing: La La Land Hacksaw Ridge

Best Visual EffectsThe Jungle Book

Best Production Design La La Land

Best Animated Short Film Pearl Piper

Best Live Action Short FilmEnnemis Intérieurs Sing