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Oscar Predictions 2015

“The Oscars: the white BET awards.”

                                           – Chris Rock

I think we can unanimously agree that the single biggest snub the Academy made in this year’s nominations was not with a motion picture, but with entire communities. 20 white actors were nominated for their performances this year. All eight best picture nominees featured white protagonists. All the screenplay nominees are white. The only major category to have slight diversity in its nominations is best director, where it has four white directors and one Mexican. To have 42 out of those 43 nominees belonging to a single diversity is just plain sad, and shows that in its own way, we still live in a segregated society.

A strong statement, I know, but the situation warrants it. How many wonderful stories were told this year by actors, filmmakers, and storytellers of color that the Academy chose to skip over? There was no best picture nomination for Straight Outta Compton. No acting nominations for Idris Elba or Jason Mitchell in Beasts of No Nation and Straight Outta Compton. No best screenplay nomination for Ryan Coogler for Creed. No acting, directing, or writing nominations for Sicario. No best picture nomination for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

The worst part about these snubs is that it isn’t just entire communities that were disregarded: it’s that the year’s best films and performances weren’t recognized at all, period. And it’s not like the Academy’s hands were tied either: they literally had two open slots to include two more nominees for best picture, and they chose not to use them. Tell me, would it have really hurt to include Creed or Straight Outta Compton in there just to ease people’s nerves? It’s not like those pictures are undeserving, and I think people would be more excited for their nominations rather than they were for Brooklyn or Bridge of Spies.

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first stupid mistake the Academy has made, and it won’t be their last either. We can only hope that with time and initiative, the Academy will be more fair and considerate of their nominations in the future. From my experience, though, they probably won’t be for quite some time.

In either case, the Oscars are still a few days away, and I still have to predict which movies are going to take home the gold. These are my predictions:

Best Picture: I’ll be honest here: I’m stumped. I’m absolutely stumped. Normally, this is one of the easiest categories to predict from the ceremony, but this year, I’m faced with three strong candidates in the running for best picture. What can I say? It’s been a close race this awards season. The Revenant won the Golden Globe and the DGA award. The Big Short won the PGA award for best feature film. Spotlight won best overall cast at the SAG awards. These accolades place each of them on equal footing in their reach for the night’s top honor. Who’s going to get it?

Considering the other accolades that it’s expected to get that night, my best guess is going to be The Revenant. Read on to find my reasoning.

Best Director: So nine times out of 10, the winner of the DGA award also wins the best directing Oscar at the Academy Awards. Call it movie science. There was only one time this decade where the DGA winner wasn’t even nominated for best director, and that was Ben Affleck for Argo in 2012. Every other winner this decade matches up with the Academy Award winner. Since this year’s DGA winner was Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu for The Revenant, he’s the most likely to win this year’s Oscar.

If he does win both best picture and best director, that will not only make him a five-time Academy Award-winner, but also the first director in film history to win best picture and directing Oscars in consecutive years. It’s an honor Inarritu deserves. The Revenant was not the most action-packed film of the year, but it is easily the most contemplative, compelling, and impactful. It would have been the best film of 2015, if it wasn’t released in January.

Best Actor: It’s already sickening enough that Johnny Depp wasn’t nominated for his mesmerizingly evil performance in Black Mass. If Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t win his long overdue Oscar for The Revenant, then all it truly lost for this prestigious category.

Best Actress: Ever since Room premiered in Telluride, Brie Larson has been racking it in for her portrayal as a traumatized mother seeking peace and understanding in a new world her and her son are only beginning to adjust to. To take the honor from her now would just seem ludicrous, as she seems locked for the award after winning the Golden Globe, the Critics Choice award, and the SAG award. Brie Larson is primed and ready to receive her Oscar. Root for her come Oscar night.

Best Supporting Actor: Did you know Rocky Balboa himself never won an Academy Award? It’s true that his movie did, with the first Rocky picture taking home best picture, best director, and best film editing at the 1976 Academy Awards. But Sly Stallone himself never won an Oscar as an actor or screenwriter, despite his career taking off due to the Italian Stallion. His time has finally come. Not only was Creed one of the best pictures out of the franchise, but Stallone himself gives one of the most pure and honest performances out of any other actor from the year. Give Sly his Oscar, guys. You could argue he’s just as overdue for it as Leo is.

Best Supporting Actress: I’ve flipped-flopped a ridiculous amount of times on this category, as there are once again three deserving candidates who have good chances at taking home the award. Kate Winslet was concerned and caring as an almost sisterly figure in Steve Jobs, while Rooney Mara was equally compelling in Carol as this star-crossed 1950’s teenager who was hopelessly lost and heartbroken by her love. There’s no denying, however, the outstanding year Alicia Vikander had, who besides starring in The Danish Girl had breakout roles in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. and Ex Machina. To make a decision between these three actresses is nearly impossible, but since the SAG award is on Vikander’s side, I’m going with her.

Best Animated Feature: Inside Out. It’s not only the best animated film of the year, but also arguably one of the best films of the year, period. Don’t bet against it.

Best Documentary Feature: I think it’s safe to say that Amy is going to take home the award for best documentary feature. Not only has its acclaim on the late British singer Amy Winehouse’s life been top-notch, but it was also a massive financial success, grossing over $22 million at the box office, a rarity for documentary films. Now even though box office numbers have never been a good indicator on how the Academy will vote, it does accurately show the public’s reaction to a film. Since it has fared so well with American audiences, it’s doubtful that Academy voters will vote against their preferences. It’s wise to go with Amy.

Best Foreign-language Feature: Son of Saul won this year’s Golden Globe for best foreign-language feature. Since the Golden Globe winners for best foreign-language films have been mostly consistent with the Academy Award for the past five years, it would be best to bet on that one too.

Best Original Screenplay: If we’re being really picky, I think we can all agree that the best screenplay out of all of the nominees here is Pixar’s Inside Out. However, since we’ve already decided that it’s going to win best animated feature, I don’t think that would be fair to the other nominees if it won in this category too, now would it?

My bet, then, goes to Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, which is not only the best live-action nominee out of the list, but also the most relevant. Sexual assault is a big problem in today’s country, and one that often gets overlooked. But McCarthy handles the subject with respect and urgency in Spotlight, ushering a call to action to end sexual violence wherever we may find it, whether it be in a neighborhood or a church pew. It is one of the most important films you could see in 2015. To not recognize it for its credibility would be an absolute sham.

Best Adapted Screenplay: Here’s the best thing I can say about The Big Short: it knows exactly what it is. It is an irreverent, funny, obscene, smirking, yet tragic adaptation of one of America’s biggest financial crises. It knows it’s based off of real events and people, and it uses that to its advantage in moments of self-awareness and quirky comedy. While it is debatable whether it is the “best” adapted screenplay of the year, it is without a doubt the most clever. For that reason, I’m going with The Big Short.

Best Film Editing: In order to correctly predict this category, you need to replace “best” with “most.” The movie with the “most” editing is The Big Short, as editor Hank Corwin cuts in between multiple perspectives, cameos, explainers, and B-roll footage that will make your head spin. Does that make his work the best out of the year, though? I would contest that it doesn’t, and I would put Spotlight in its place as the superior. While it had a steady pace and took time to build up big ideas, Spotlight followed through its story with precision and clarity. There was no wasted space in this movie, as we understood everything we needed to know at the exact moment we needed to know it. Such editing is difficult to do skillfully, and Tom McArdle balances pace excellently with this complex, sensitive story.

But I don’t think McArdle is going to get it. Corwin will for his spasm editing on The Big Short, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It’s not much of a good thing either though.

Best Cinematography: Poor Roger Deakins. He’s been nominated for the Academy Award for best cinematography 13 times now, ever since he was nominated for The Shawshank Redemption in 1994 (Which was the year he should have won, by the way). He’s going to have to wait even longer. Sicario looked great, but the best-looking film of the year by far is The Revenant, and that’s due to the pure ambition of Emanuel Lubeski’s scope of filming, with the adding challenge of shooting completely in natural light. If he wins the Oscar this year (which he will), it will be very well-earned. Sorry Roger. You know I’ll be rooting for you next year.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling: I don’t see how shaving Charlize Theron’s head and by throwing white powder on a bunch of set extras constitutes a best makeup and hairstyling nomination for Mad Max: Fury Road. Yet, that movie is so far the most popular choice for this award. Why? Because a bunch of desert maniacs spray their faces with silver paint? Yeah, that’s award-worthy.

The Revenant, in comparison, had thrusted extensive effort to make Hugh Glass look like a battered, bruised, bloodied, and stitched-up mess after he barely survived an encounter against a grizzly bear. I would like to say The Revenant is going to take home this award, but considering the legwork Mad Max already has behind it, I doubt that will be the case. Mad Max is going to win best makeup, although I hope I am wrong.

Best Costume Design: Sandy Powell has been nominated too many times for best costume design at the Academy Awards. Yes, I know her work is amazing; that doesn’t change the fact that she has become the Meryl Streep for costume design at the Oscars. This year she has not one, but two nominations: one for Carol, and another for Cinderella. It’s safe to assume that the Shakespeare In Love, The Avaitor, and The Young Victoria designer is going to win her fourth Academy Award from this ceremony. The question is for which movie? I flipped a coin, and I’m going with Cinderella. Don’t make me flip again.

Best Production Design: There’s a difference between the best production design and the most obvious production design. The best from this year was The Revenant, as its set design was not only authentic and gritty, but it was also (and this is the important part) invisible. It blended with its environment. You didn’t notice it as much as the other elements in the film, and that’s the point. It’s supposed to provide the illusion that we are in a different place without making it too obvious that that’s the case. Everything in The Revenant breathed of realism and practicality. That is why it’s the best of the year.

The most obvious is… well, duh. It’s Mad Max: Fury Road. And while I applaud the design of its cars and its scenery, it is not the most skilled art direction from the year. Mad Max made great production work and blew it up. The Revenant made great production work and sat on it, reflected on it, and let it breathe in its own space. One such work should obviously be more celebrated than the other, but since the Academy has a history of naming the most obvious production design over the quote-unquote “best”, I’m going with Mad Max: Fury Road. 

On a side note, Academy members should be frustrated at themselves for not nominating Rick Carter and Darren Gilford’s amazing work on Star Wars: The Force Awakens. A film hasn’t had such an effect on me since the original Star Wars. To not recognize their work with even a nomination is just plain stupid.

Best Original Song: Well, let’s start with the obvious: the fact that The Weeknd’s “Earned It” got an Oscar nomination over Wiz Khalifa and Charlie Puth’s “See You Again” is just plain B.S. Now that I got that out of the way, let’s focus the discussion towards music that’s actually good, shall we? Lady Gaga is undeniably a powerhouse in the music world, but what gives her song “Til It Happens To You” an edge over the competition is how engrained it is in the tragedy of sexual assault on college campuses. It’s combined beauty and sadness creates an urgency of how much of a problem it is we need to fix, and Gaga’s musical influence only doubles its chances of winning. There is a slight chance that Sam Smith can sneak in a win there for Spectre’s “Writing’s On The Wall,” but with only a Golden Globe behind it, that isn’t likely. Go for Gaga.

Best Musical Score: I’m a die-hard John Williams fan. His music is not only the greatest film scores you can listen to, but some of the greatest music, period. He won his first original score Oscar 40 years ago with Jaws, and he’s nominated again for updating his own music in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Nostalgic and beautiful as his music is, however, he won’t win this time, and he shouldn’t either. The most likely and the most deserving winner is Ennio Morricone for his unsettlingly sinister soundtrack for The Hateful Eight. His career has spanned over 60 years, writing scores for The Dollars trilogy, being first nominated for Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, and finally winning an honorary Oscar in 2006. It’s his year to shine. The Hateful Eight’s hauntingly ominous soundtrack still plays in my mind, just as much as Williams’ own wonderful music does.

Best Sound Editing: How do you predict the winner for the Academy Award for best sound editing? By picking the loudest, most obnoxious action picture out of the nominees, that’s how. What nominee is more loud, obnoxious, and action-packed than Mad Max: Fury Road? The answer is none of them. So that’s the one I’m going with.

Best Sound Mixing: Mad Max: Fury Road, for the same reasons as above. 

Best Visual Effects: Before I make my prediction, can I take a second to applaud all of the nominees? Year after year, the best visual effects goes to the movie with the best CGI. With this year, however, all of the nominees had a greater emphasis on practical effects as opposed to computer generated ones. Rotoscoping was used in the place of green screen for Ex Machina. Ridley Scott grew real plants to illustrate photosynthesis during The Martian. Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu filmed The Revenant in natural lighting. 90% of the stunts and visual effects of Mad Max: Fury Road were practical. J.J. Abrams built a real BB-8 droid for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. This was a great year for visual effects in film, and that is because of the pioneers in the industry opting for real special effects as opposed to digitally artificial ones. A big salute to all of the nominees, as all of them have pushed the boundaries for what we could achieve visually for films this year.

Now then, predictions. I’m biased towards Star Wars: The Force Awakens for its innovation and invention, but since a Star Wars film hasn’t won an Oscar in over 30 years, I don’t expect the Academy to break the chain now. No, the award will go to Mad Max: Fury Road for its incredible stunt work and ambitious scope of destruction. I guess it pays to be a little mad after all, huh?

And finally, the dreaded short categories. I never have the opportunity to see the shorts, so I’m always completely in the dark on these nominations. I’m just going to throw out the first three titles that I see: Sanjay’s Super Team for animation, Body Team 12 for documentary, and Shok for live action. Good luck to anyone on getting these right.

And those are my predictions. I’ll see you on Oscar night when Chris Rock rips the Academy a new one. If that does happen, at least there’s one good thing that came out of #OscarsSoWhite.

– David Dunn

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“FROZEN” Review (✫✫1/2)

The Snow Queen: The Musical

Good news first: Frozen will please its core audience. It’s a cute, cuddly little fairy tale movie with a lot of music and a lot of misplaced optimism. Kids will enjoy it, and there’s a solid chance that the parents might enjoy it too. The bad news: It’s the same Disney Princess movie you’ve seen for the past 50 times now.

Based loosely on the Danish fairy tale “The Snow Queen”, Frozen follows the story of two princess sisters, Anna (Kirsten Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel). Being enclosed in a castle all of her life, Anna is a cheery, energetic, happy and overly-optimistic princess who would marry a man after getting to know him for just one day.

Elsa, however, does not have the luxury of being optimistic. Cursed with the ability to create snow and ice at a young age, Elsa has soon realized that she cannot control her powers and decides to escape before she does her kingdom, and her sister, any harm. Now determined to find her sister and mend the relationships that were shattered long ago, Anna sets out with a ice picker named Kristoff (Johnathon Groff), his reindeer Sven and an animate snowman named Olaf (Josh Gad) to find Elsa and save the kingdom.

Written by Jennifer Lee (Wreck-It Ralph) and co-directed by Chris Buck (Tarzan), Frozen is by definition, a family movie. It’s driven by a childish energy, a lively and undiminished spirit that fills children with joy through its wonderful music and its bright, colorful animation.

The characters are enthusiastic (at times, annoyingly so), with the most likable character being a midget snowman called Olaf. Olaf is just funny. He’s the kind of oblivious, clumsy snowman that bumbles around like a lego stick figure, losing his body parts every five minutes, stumbling to get them all back together, and put it on straight before the snow monster eats him. “Go! I’ll distract him!” his head said in one scene as everyone ran away, including his body. “No! Wait! Not you! I was talking to them!”

He also has a ironic fascination to the sun, fire and heat, not realizing what effect they have on snow.

All in all, Frozen is a fun movie. But if you’ve seen Tangled, then you’ve already seen Frozen before. The two movies are so similar, so mirrored in appearance, character, story and animation that the only real difference in between both is that Frozen takes place in a winter wonderland.

See, the problem doesn’t exist in the movie itself: the problem exists in what earlier Disney movies did first and better. Tangled is not the only movie where we’ve seen this story about self-discovery and relationship building. Look at virtually any other Diseny Princess movie on their filmography, including Brave, Mulan, Pocahantus, Princess and the Frog, etc etc. No, none of those movies deals with the theme of sisterhood, but does it need to? Those movies are still so similar in personalities, humor and musical numbers that the story becomes a copy-and-paste convenience rather than an original pleasure.

However, understand that this is not a critical observation of the movie, but rather a neutral one. I stress this point again: this movie will please its core audience, which is little children, the parents of those children and the hardcore Disney lovers. By all means, if you want to see the movie, go ahead and see it. Chances are you’ll enjoy it more than this Scrooge going “Bah humbug” in the corner of the newsroom.

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“MONSTERS UNIVERSITY” Review (✫✫✫)

Class is now in session.  Please open your fright books to page 237. 

Boy, will this bring back memories for you when you’re seventy.  Monsters University does a rare thing with its premise that Pixar does with all of their movies: it incorporates real-world ideas and principles and relates them to the simplistic joys of a kids movie.  Pixar isn’t alien to this concept: with WALL-E, you witness the effects of industrialism, with Up and Toy Story 3, the truth of loss and growing up.  With Monsters University, we are given yet another truth, a truth about changing dreams and the pursuit of a higher education.  It’s not as potent as Monsters Inc., but that’s another issue.

Taking place years before the events of Monsters Inc.Monsters University opens on a young Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal), a punky little eyeball who dreams of growing up to be a scarer for Monsters Incorporated.  His gateway into that dream lies in Monsters University, a college mostly known for its Scaring Program.  This college is intimidating, a buidling filled with dark curtains, creaky floors, and echoed hallways, the perfect place for Scare students.  I’d hate to see what the Art Department looks like on this campus.

So Mike Wazoswki immerses himself in his studies and in his bookwork, determined to be the best scarer at the University.  There’s only one obstacle in his way: James P. Sullivan (John Goodman), a cocky, overly-confident jock who thinks getting through college is about a big name and a big roar, which is about the only two things he’s got.  In their first semester at Monsters University, Sully is showing Mike up in every single scare opportunity, and Mike shows Sully up on every test and oral exam.  Monsters University chronicles their adventures together, from their chance introduction, to their rivalrous exchanges between each other, and finally, the unlikely friendship that forms in between them.

Here is a movie that features the typical staples of a Pixar film: a good concept with a well-written plot, all forming together with fluid animation and wonderful voice-acting.  Directed and co-written by Dan Scalon (The other two writers being Robert Baird and original Monsters Inc. writer Daniel Geirson), Monsters University is a story that combines clever, witty humor with that of a conventional, enjoyable story, even if it is at times a tad predictable.  It’s easy to appreciate the humor in the film: even the names of Monster fraternities are enough to utter a chuckle.  Admit it: how can you not smile when hearing the names “Roar-Omega-Roar”, or “Oozma Kappa”?

This is the kind of cleverness in Monsters University: the kind that takes real-world truths and facts and parodies them in a children’s cartoon.  I’ve always appreciated this about Pixar: they’ve always made their work smarter and more profound than other animated films, therefore allowing adults to enjoy their films just as much as the kiddies do.  Whenever you see a slug-like monster rushing at slug-like speed trying to get to class, or seeing a brush0like monster put paint in his hair and go “Ker-Splat!” on a canvas, the cleverness and the humor cannot help but shine through the brightly-colored and textured animation in this film.  Here, the monsters come in all shape, sizes, and breeds in University, and they plop, bang, clang, sneak, slither, and scare in all forms chaos and hilarity on the screen.  Crystal and Goodman, of course, need no comment about the liveliness of their roles.  You only need to see the first Monsters movie to understand how perfect they are in their voice acting.

The important thing to remember here is that Monsters University is not Monsters Inc., and I mean that sincerely as a compliment.  There is no doubt bits and pieces of Inc. that we can piece together in University; it’s charisma is intact, its wit and cleverness in-diminishable, and it cares just as much for its characters as Inc. does.

What its missing, then, is not intelligence or technical efficiency: what its missing is heart.  Or at least, as much as Monsters Inc. has.  To illustrate my point, I bring up a pivotal scene from the original Monsters movie: remember the scene where Sully had to say goodbye to Boo?  Do you remember the scene where he frightened her?  Do you remember Sully playing with her in her room, telling her in his deep baritone voice “Kitty has to go”?  Do you remember that when her door was torn to shreds, he kept one little piece as his reminder of Boo?  And do you remember Mike piecing the door back together, turning it on, and letting Sully open it to find a little girl whispering “Kitty” on the other side?  Do you remember the emotion?  The heartbreak? The happiness?

That “Aww” moment in Monsters Inc. is nowhere to be found in University.  I’m not saying there isn’t emotion in there: there are plenty of deep and convincing moments of well-made drama between characters, and they are done well enough for us to be compelled to care for them.  I’m saying the emotion isn’t done as well, or as effectively, as it was in Inc. to the point where I felt a deeper connection to the characters, almost as if I was in the room saying goodbye to my best imaginary friend.  Someone might think I’m being unfair by comparing this prequel to the original, but that’s the game Pixar is playing here.  Didn’t they know people would automatically look to the original when trying to decide which one is their favorite?

But I digress.  Monsters University is fun, intelligent, and dare I say it, relevant entertainment.  The animation is as stellar as always, it makes its characters compelling, it sets them up properly in line for their inevitable trip to Inc., and it makes a funny connection in between the audience and their own college years.  I strongly recommend you sign up to join the student body at Monsters University.  Just make sure you stay away from the Art Department.

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