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2016 AFI DOCS Documentary Film Festival

 
Fourteen years and counting as the prestigious AFI Docs keeps merrily rolling along. What began in 2003 as AFI Silverdocs based solely at the AFI Silver Theater in Silver Spring Maryland outside of DC, continued its expanse into the nation's capitol for the fourth consecutive year.
As the President and CEO of the American Film Institute Bob Gazzale pointed out in this year's program, the decision to expand into DC was made, “to bring together leading storytellers with world leaders – filmmakers with policymakers – those wishing to effect change with those who have the power to do so.” To that end, I am certain that bringing the festival into the political heart and soul of our country is one of the best ways to effectuate change by presenting the various issues expounded by the documentarians.
The always fluid D.C. venue locales changed once again from those in 2015. Gone were screenings at the National Archives, National Portrait Gallery and the Naval Heritage Center - all replaced with an extra auditorium utilized in the Landmark complex.
The festival presented 94 films from 30 countries and included three world premieres, seven North American premieres, three U.S. premieres, twelve East Coast premieres and one international premiere. Most notable were the outstanding opening and closing night films: Alex Gibney's “Zero Days” and Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's “Norman Lear: Just Another Version Of You”, respectively - both scheduled for theatrical release in July. (Each made my Top Five list and are reviewed below.)
Included in the impressive programming: an ESPN produced baseball biopic on Darryl Strawberry and Dwight “Doc” Gooden by Hollywood directors Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfigli entitled “”Doc & Darryl”; the first film by Ben Lear (Norman's son) - a hard-hitting juvenile justice doc entitled “They Call Us Monsters”; “Sonita” about a teenage Afghan refugee and aspiring rap artist living in Iran – which won this years Sundance Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for Best World Cinema Documentary.


And the annual Guggenheim Symposium honored one of cinema's most iconic filmmaker: the great Werner Herzog. The discussion, led admirably by director Ramin Bahrani (“Chop Shop”), lasted over 90 minutes, which, thankfully, extended past its allotted time as the affable director shared entertaining anecdotes and experiences spanning his nearly 65 years of distinguished fiction and nonfiction movie-making. At one point, the prolific filmmaker mentioned that he was currently completing three films that were already “in the can”. Sprinkled throughout the interview were several clips from his abundant catalog. The evening concluded with a screening of his excellent “Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World” which is due to be released theatrically in August.
Finally, despite the overall excellence of this years festival, two significant changes had many of the patrons grumbling. For the first-time since 2003, only two of the three AFI Silver Theaters were utilized. This absence of programming in the largest Silver venue meant fewer film choices and ticket availability for the paying public. I heard many folks lamenting whether this portended a total move to DC in the future - leaving a wonderful venue where the festival was born and consistently flourished, and whose location was a total convenience for the Silver Spring locales and those not wanting to venture inside the Beltway. Also, for the first-time, no screenings of the Audience Awards or Best Of Festival films were shown at the AFI Silver on the day after the festival concluded - leaving an empty void for those not able to attend a screening during the five days. Here's hoping the AFI Silver will continue to be a viable festival location and that additional presentations return post-festival.
NOTE:  The Audience Award for Best Feature went to “Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise”, which was directed by U.S. directors Bob Hercules and Rita Coburn Whack. The Audience Award for Best Short went to “Snails” directed by Grzegorz Szczepaniak (Poland) which told of two friends whose dreams of becoming millionaires lead them to snail farming. (Neither film was screened by this reviewer).


MY TOP 5 AT THE 2016 AFI DOCS


(1-Tie)  Norman Lear: Just Another Version of You  (**** out of 4 - 91 minutes)
Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady were nominated for an Academy Award in 2006 for Jesus Camp. Their latest has an excellent chance to make the Academy’s short list as well. Their documentary on the life of the television icon, whose ground-breaking comedy series in the 70's (including All in the Family, Good Times and The Jeffersons) were landmarks in the industry, is nothing short of superb. The creator, writer and producer at one point had six shows in the Nielsen top 10 rating. His All in the Family (1971-1979), which started it all, was so influential in the American consciousness that it's lead character's chair has been placed in the Smithsonian Institute. Using a somewhat unconventional approach, the directors utilize a child actor (Keaton Nigel Cooke) to recreate Lear's “child's-eye view” as an analogy throughout the biopic- a device that is quite effective as the images jump back and forth covering his life and career. Lear, who is now approaching 94 years of age, as a youth growing up in Connecticut, was strongly influenced by his environment consisting of a detached mom and a bigoted father (an inspiration for All in The Family's “Archie Bunker”?). He eventually was raised, beginning at age nine, by uncles and grandparents and later abandoned education for the military. Ewing and Grady cover Lear's early Hollywood years including his start with early TV variety show writing credits that lead to screen-writing (The Night They Raided Minsky's and an Oscar nominated script for Divorce American Style) and directing (Cold Turkey). When his partner, Bud Yorkin, viewed the British Comedy series Till Death Us Do Part about a married working-class conservative and his clashes with a son-in-law, Lear had an inspiration. The revelation became the landmark CBS show that raised this country's social consciousness by satirizing issues never before addressed on a weekly basis on television. Ewing and Grady included some classic comedic bits from Lear's series, but also unearthed a fascinating interview with Good Times lead Ester Rolle who was continuously bothered by Lear's portrayal of J.J., played by Jimmy Walker, yearning for “comedy without buffoonery”. Other clashes are revealed indicating that not all were beds of roses behind-the-scenes. Also covered were Lear's two marriages (he left television after he and his first wife separated), his geriatric turn at fatherhood and his founding of the political left-wing People For the American Way in response to the Moral Majority movement of the 1980s. Of particular note is the professional editing work of J.D. Marlow & Enit Sidi along with a well rendered jazz score by Kris Bowers. The film, which Lear stated during the symposium that he was given no artistic control, had its North American premiere at the festival and was given a limited theatrical release on July 8. It will eventually be presented on PBS' American Masters series sometime this fall. Not to be missed.


(1-Tie)  How To Build A Time Machine  (**** out of 4 - 82 minutes)

Rob Niosi viewed George Pal's 1960 adaption of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine as a youth and from that experience his fascination with time travel led to an obsession on building a full-scale replica of the time machine prop used in the classic sci-fi film. Trying to recapture the nostalgia of his viewing experience, Niosi, a stop motion animator on Pee Wee's Playhouse, spent over nine years and thousands of dollars on his compulsion to complete his project at his wooded upper-state New York home. (When asked during the Q&A how much he spent, he sheepishly declined to reveal the actual cost.) Ron Mallett, a PhD physicist at the University of Connecticut, also took in the film as a child with his dad and brother. When his beloved father passed away unexpectedly when Ron was 10 years old, devastated by his passing, Ron began a life-long quest to calculate the feasibility of time-travel in order to reunite with his father and warn him of his impending heart attack-and also to tell him how much he loved him. Cheel juxtaposes each story beautifully. You'll observe the overly meticulous Niosi and the extreme, at times comical, measures he takes to recreate, in the minutest detail, the symbol of time travel embedded in a memory from his youth. The director was obviously influenced by the great documentarian, Erroll Morris. He effectively utilizes Morris' Interrotron (a variation of a teleprompter) to interview Mallett as he relates his educational journey exploring the possibility of time travel using Einsteins' theories and the science of black holes. Most interesting are the questions that time-travel raises such as the grandfather paradox, as well as social and ethical issues of traveling to the past or future and making changes. The movie also confirms the notion of the power of cinema and how it can shape the life journeys of its audience. Would Mallett have ever devoted his life to physics and a determination to prove the possibility of time-travel if he didn't attend that screening early in his youth? Director Jay Cheel shot his film over nearly five years and includes a wonderful soundtrack by composers Ohad Benchetrit & Justin Small. Cheel whimsically develops both of the story lines in such an entertaining and informative way that the documentary will have you emotionally involved in each character's quest. Coming in at a crisp 82 minutes, I actually wished the film lasted much longer.


(2)  Following Seas  (*** 1/2 out of 4 – 94 minutes)


Following Seas is both an adventure story and a love story on many levels. Nancy's first love was life on the high seas. Bob Griffith gave up his successful veterinarian practice after a heart attack to devote his life to sailing. When he pulled into a Hawaiian harbor in 1960, Nancy first fell in love with his 53-foot cutter, and then ultimately with Bob. Over the course of their relationship they embarked on 13 major voyages including circumnavigating the world three times. And their shared love of exploring the world on the open seas is well documented with over 28 hours of Bolex 16mm film footage and a multitude of 35mm slides. With a wonderfully fluid narration provided by Nancy in her 70s, and skillful editing by co-director Araby Williams, their perilous voyages without radio, radar, and modern navigational aides, will have you in total awe. Their circumnavigation of the Antarctic (a first) in a small boat encompasses a good portion of the film. This exploit took them 111 days and earned them an entry in the Guinness Book of Records. Included is a spectacular segment when their boat, the Awahnee, crashed on a nearly deserted Pacific Island of Vahanga where, with the help of a couple of Tahitian prisoners, it took them nearly two months to rebuild. Also included was an incident involving Nancy falling overboard without a life preserver in shark infested waters. Directors Tyler J. Kelley and Araby Williams complemented the amazing visuals with recent footage and the use of a terrific soundtrack provided by All Them Witches, Woodsplitter, Teho Teardo, Luke Tromiczak and Christopher Lancaster. The doc serves as a fitting tribute for two of this country's finest sailors. As Nancy lamented, the English honor outstanding sailors with knighthood while the French bestow ribbons of honor. Unfortunately, America largely ignores them. This film provides a long overdue acknowledgment of two of the most courageous adventurers that you will not easily forget.


(3)  Obit (*** 1/2 out of 4 – 93 minutes)
Who would have thought that a documentary about obituaries would be interesting, or, for that matter, fun. However, director Vanessa Gould accomplishes both in spades. Gould became interested in the subject when she was contacted by a member of the NY Times obit staff for information on the late French sculptor Eric Joisel, her friend and the subject of her 2008 Peabody Award winning documentary Between the Folds. Making a doc involves hard work and a lot of luck. Once filming begins, a film's success or failure often depends on being in the right place at the right time. Here, success was achieved at the time director Vanessa Gould was given full access to the New York Times obituary staff writers which consists of obit editor William McDonald as well as past and present writers Bruce Weber, Margalit Fox, William Grimes, Douglas Martin and Paul Vitello. It turns out there are only a few editorial obit writers in the world. Of course the demise of celebrities, politicians, or anyone who made news in their life would be worthy candidates. However, as McDonald pointed out, “We look for people who changed the way we live.” And about 70 percent of obituaries cover the lives of folks no one has ever heard of. The director offers many examples including the inventor of the Slinky, the pilot of the Enola Gay, an exotic dancer with ties to Jack Ruby and the last surviving plaintiff from Brown v Board of Education. Besides including interviews and archival material, most of the film covers the anatomy of a single day. When Goald arrives for filming, Bruce is in the process of constructing an obit for William P. Wilson. His subsequent research, done over the course of several hours reveals that he was the first television consultant whose decision in 1960 to apply makeup to a youthful John F. Kennedy before his milestone debate with Richard Nixon could have possibly led to JFK's election. Also, time is given to ad exec Dick Rich who was responsible for several landmark commercials in the 60s including Alka-Seltzer and Benson & Hedges. But it is the time the filmmaker spends with Jeff Roth, the quirky eccentric sole caretaker of “the morgue” (which consists of thousands of file drawers containing old photographs, weathered clippings, and advance obits) that elicits the most joy. The overseer of the newspaper's history was so memorable that the audience clapped when his visage appeared over the closing credits. In the end, you'll realize that Obit is more about the celebration of life than the morbidity of its subject matter.


(4)  Tower (*** 1/2 out of 4 – 96 minutes)

The country has become somewhat numb to the seemingly constant barrage of mass shootings whether at a mall, workplace, campus, etc. Long before the words “active shooter”, “SWAT teams” or “grief counseling” were a usual part of the vernacular, there was the shooting 50 years ago by Charles Whitman on August 1, 1966 at the University of Texas at Austin. That day, the 27-year-old Whitman mounted the campus clock tower and, after 96 minutes, the shooter lay dead but not before randomly murdering 16 and wounding 32 innocent victims. Director Keith Maitland spent 10 years creating an extraordinary document. Its genius is in the film's presentation and the techniques he used to convey the horror of that day. Using brilliant rotoscoped animation by Minnow Mountain (think Richard Linklater's 2001Waking Life), actors using scripted words over the action, archival footage and live action, Maitland creates a disturbing emotional suspenseful experience one will not soon forget. Shifting back and forth from these narrative styles, and concentrating almost totally on the memory of the surviving victims instead of the shooter's motive(s), Maitland recreates in the first hour a minute-by-minute account of the events on that fateful August day from their viewpoint. And the constant barrage of gunfire heard over the soundtrack creates an unnerving milieu that, despite the animation, will ultimately have viewers feeling as if they were there. As in all of these situations, several examples of individual heroism are illustrated as well as one “survivor remorse” and one of cowardice. The stories are riveting and beautifully rendered throughout. The compelling standout is the first person shot. Claire Wilson was pregnant and forced to lay on cement in the hot sun next to her deceased boyfriend for an hour while onlookers, including news cameras, looked on. Her heartbreaking story and how she survived is nothing short of amazing. The last half hour is less stirring as it concentrates on the present day appearance of the actual survivors portrayed earlier, relating the aftermath up to the present and the inclusion of reunions. The film also ties in more recent mass shootings as it tries to put in historical perspective this event which quite possibly started mass shootings on college campuses. And most disturbing, depending on one's point of view, is the final pronouncement that, coincidentally, on the 50th anniversary, Texas law will permit open-carry of firearms on the Texas campuses, which is vehemently opposed by the shooting victims. Tower, a PBS Independent Len production, will have a limited theatrical release beginning October 12.


(5)  Zero Days (*** 1/2 out of 4 – 114 minutes)

The latest from prolific Academy Award winner Alex Gibney is perhaps one of his most chilling. Computer hacking, as with mass murder (see above), is becoming an almost daily frightening reality of our modern times. However, this activity is not confined to individuals or groups of individuals intent on stealing information as governments are using the capability to conduct cyberwarfare. After a brief history, Gibney concentrates on the 2008 joint action of the U.S. and Israel (although neither will confirm it) to introduce a computer malware into the Iranian nuclear facility computers at Natanz intent on destroying centrifuges in order to shut down their nuclear capability and growth. What follows was its initial discovery of the “worm” (self-replicating malware meant to spread from computer to computer) which was named “Stuxnet” based on 2 syllables uncovered in the code. How it was uncovered by antivirus experts Eric Chien and Liam O’Murchu of the cyber-security company Symantec Research Labs, is one of the more fascinating aspects of the doc. The unfortunate consequence was that the initial damage was merely temporary as Iran's nuclear program came back stronger than ever. Worse yet, the worm opened a Pandora's Box by ultimately spreading around the globe. After we are presented with a long series of on-camera denials of the covert operation from a multitude of government officials (at one point Gibney frustratingly proclaims “This is really beginning to piss me off!”), the director begins presenting testimony from a number of anonymous whistle-blowers. To protect their identity he combines their information into a script and utilizes an actress (Joanne Tucker) to read it showing her onscreen by using an eerie digital filter effect. What clearly comes into horrifying focus is that cyberwarfare is now readily available to all the powers. Each has the capability of controlling nuclear power plants, disabling power grids, and creating total chaos to such a degree that the end result would make the damage done by an atom bomb seem like a pipe bomb in comparison. Gibney deploys effective graphics throughout to illustrate the technicalities involved as well as employing a terrific soundtrack. Zero days (the term refers to the time between a computer's vulnerability is discovered and the first cyber attack) is part investigative journalism, part spy thriller and part science fiction, and will have you hoping that its implications will be addressed by the candidates in the upcoming election instead of our government's continued secrecy and silence. The film, which had its North American premiere at AFI Docs, opened in limited released on July 8.


HONORABLE MENTIONS

Lo And Behold, Reveries Of The Connected World-The East Coast premiere of Werner Herzog's frightening essay on the increasing technology and its past, present and future affect on humankind.
The Islands And The Whales-The East Coast premiere about the people from the North Sea's remote Faroe Islands and how their centuries-old subsistence for food from native birds and whales is being threaten by changes in their environment, mercury in the whales and anti-whaling activists.

OPENING NIGHT SNAPSHOTS

Opening Night at The Newseum

On the Red Carpet (l to r):  AFI DOCS Director Michael
 Lumpkin,  New York Times' David Sanger, filmmaker
 Alex Gibney, film subjects Eric Chien and Liam O'Murchu,
executive producer Sarah Dowland and AFI President and
CEO Bob Gazzale
AFI President and CEO, Bob Gazzale,
welcomes the Opening night audience to
AFI DOCS and the screening of Zero Days"

"Zero Days" post-screening panel discussion and Q and A
 with (l to r) moderator Washington Post film critic
 Ann Hornaday, director Alex Gibney, anti-virus experts
 Liam O'Murchu and Eric Chien, and New York Times
journalist David Sanger

The Opening Night after-party in the Newseum lobby


GUGGENHEIM SYMPOSIUM SNAPSHOTS

On The Red Carpet (l to r):  AFI DOCS
Director Michael Lumpkin, symposium
moderator director Ramin Bahrani,
Guggenheim honoree director Werner Herzog
and AFI President and CEO Bob Gazzale




CLOSING NIGHT SNAPSHOTS

On The Red Carpet (l to r):  Director
Rachel Grady, Norman Lear and director
Heidi Ewing


Director Ben Lear and dad Norman


AFI DOCS Director Michael
Lumpkin addresses the closing
night audience






The post-screening discussion with (l to r) moderator
PBS News Hour's Jeffrey Brown, Norman Lear, Rachel
Grady and Heidi Ewing



(l to r) Michael Lumpkin, Norman Lear and Bob Gazzale
at the after party




"EYE IN THE SKY" - ***1/2 (102 minutes)

 
Sunday March 13, 2016

At last years' AFI Documentary Film Festival and also the inaugural Investigative Film Festival, I screened a somewhat unbalanced documentary entitled Drone.  The Swedish-made film began by outlining the history of drone warfare by the US and CIA, then disturbingly recounted its current affects on innocent civilians as well as those unfortunate enough to hold the trigger thousands of miles away.  Much more effective is this engrossing nail-biter and the latest by actor/director Gavin Hood, who garnered an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2005 for Tsotsi.

British Army Colonel Katherine Powell (the great Helen Mirren in yet another memorable performance) is based in Surrey while overseeing a drone surveillance mission in East Africa focusing on an operation to capture a radicalized English woman meeting with Shabab terrorists at a house in Nairobi.  Powell is particularly obsessed since she has been pursuing the terrorist for years.  When her target is located, a surveillance cyborg beetle (welcome to the future!) reveals suicide bombers strapping on bomb vests inside the residence.  At that point the mission objective turns from capture to kill via a drone Hellfire missile as the military fights against the clock to stop the terrorists before they leave the house.  When a little girl sets up a table to sell bread next to the house, political and military higher-ups must decide the human cost and estimate the collateral damage in the increasingly dire scenario.

Gavin directs a wonderful cast including the late great Alan Rickman, in his final onscreen appearance as weathered Lt. General Frank Benson who is Powell's superior and who must give the final OK to bomb the house.  Also, Aaron Paul ("Breaking Bad") gives a competent turn as an increasingly nervous Steve Watts whose finger is on the trigger.  A special mention goes to Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips) who is a Somali undercover agent who desperately tries to save the girl's life before the bombs hit.  Also, composers Mark Kilian and Paul Hepker, as they did for Gavin's Tsotsi and 2007's Rendition, provide an excellent background score that perfectly complements the tense thriller unfolding on the screen.

A film that raises multiple strategic, legal, political and moral issues, Eye in the Sky depicts a new kind of modern warfare that is sure to linger in your psyche.  As will a line that Lt. General Benson chillingly voices at the end, “Never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.”

The suspenseful thriller opened nationwide on April 1. 


    Lt. Col. Powell (Helen Mirren) surveys her tracking board
         for the terrorist she has been doggedly pursuing
Lt General Frank Benson contemplating his options 
 Jama Farah (Barkhad Abdi) planning to remove a little girl
from the line of fire from a drone 
 Steve Watts (Aaron Paul) manning the Hellfire trigger
 

2016 POST-AA RAMBLINGS

 
Friday March 4,  2016 
 
THE SHOW (***)
Finally!  As predicted, Chris Rock nailed it from the start.  After welcoming everyone to the "2016 White Peoples' Choice Awards" he proceeded to hit the ground running. Despite the thanklessness of hosting The Oscars, Rock, playing before a mostly-white audience, took the lack of diversity issue by the neck and, hopefully, put it forever out its misery by devoting nearly 15 minutes of his opening to the subject.  The only criticism (and it is a small one), that instead of just including this subject in the opening monologue, he proceeded to beat this dead horse into submission throughout the 3 hour 21 minutes (a minute shorter than last year, but a whooping 40 minutes shorter than the 2002 telecast record-holder).  Just when you thought it was over, Rock resurrected the controversy over and over again.  Personally, my eyes rolled and I  wanted to yell out "Enough already!"  Despite that, Rock did a very admirable job appearing relaxed, confident, and, for the majority of the time, hilarious.
 
Gone this year were the usual overwrought production numbers while only three of the five nominated songs received performances-which seemed odd to this reviewer.  And, two of the three performed tunes were unimpressive at best (more on that below).  The most entertaining segments were a couple of pre-recorded bits which generally hit the mark.
 
Despite the presence of a first-rate comedian leading the way, and several changes to streamline the show, The Oscars brought in only 34.4 million viewers (36.6 million watched in 2015) and ended up being the lowest rated show since 2008 when Jon Stewart hosted.  Too bad more people didn't watch, because, overall, it was the finest telecast in years for the usually clunky extravaganza.
 
Once again, my annual apologies to Sergio Leone, as this breakdown will pretty much sum up the event through this reviewer's eyes:
 
THE GOOD
- Chris Rock.  The Academy finally got it right. 
 
- The "thank you" crawl.  At least it helped cut down on the interminable ramblings of most acceptors. 
 
- The elimination of time-consuming production numbers.
 
- The early announcement of the screenwriting awards.  Nice to shake-up the usual order - even if it was only a minor shake-up.  The reason given was to present the order in keeping with the chronology of the movie-making process (starts with a script-get it?).  That thinking kind of fell apart as the broadcast went long but kudos for changing things up just the same.
 
- The majority of the speeches were swift and quickly ended after just a couple of notes from the orchestra, which returned to The Dolby Theater after spending the past three years a mile away at the Capitol Records building.
 
- Mad Max: Fury Road being recognized with the most Oscars-albeit all minors.  An amazing film that deserved to be recognized even if it didn't win a major
 
- 75% of the acting awards went to first-time nominees
 
- Dave Grohl (of The Foo Fighters) with a beautiful rendition of The Beatles "Blackbird" accompanying the In Memoriam segment. 
 
- Lady Ga Ga performing the song from the Documentary The Hunting Ground.  (More on that below.)
 
- Leonardo DiCaprio finally winning a well-deserved Best Actor award on his sixth try (four acting and one producing failed nominations).
 
- We finally had unpredictable upsets in a couple of major categories (more on that below) after years of predictability and non-surprises. 
  
THE BAD
The "thank you" crawl.  Although good that it helped to cut down program length, it took away the unexpected when past winners grappled to remember who to thank, or resulted in the absence of spontaneity and true emotion when before they had to rush everything they had to say on the podium.  The result: quick but bland acceptances for the most part.
 
- The show went 21 minutes over their three hour time slot.  Still way too long.
 
- Presenter Patricia Arquette who introduced the Best Supporting Actor.  Patricia seemed a tad out of sync, to say the least having observers wonder if she was sedated, drunk, tired, or all three.  Maybe she thought she was at the Independent Spirit Awards with its obvious presence of free-flowing liquor.
 
- The bit with Clueless actor/Fox correspondent Stacey Dash (more or that below).
 
- Singer Sam Smith while accepting the Best Original Song award proclaiming he was the first openly Gay man to win an Oscar.  Elton John, Dustin Lance Black and Stephen Sondheim, among others, would beg to differ.
 
-  Sarah Silverman, on hand to deliver the Best Original Song, is normally one of the most hilarious comediennes on the planet.  Unfortunately, she delivered a totally flat soliloquy rambling on and on about having unsuccessful sex with James Bond.  Painful.
 
-The yearly omission from the In Memoriam excluded, among others, beloved Hollywood character actor Abe Vigoda.  The irony:  in 1982 People Magazine incorrectly reported the demise of Vigoda.  Ironic that now that he has finally passed, he's left off the list.  Maybe the writers thought he left the planet 34 years ago.  
 
- The addition of minions, Toy Story characters, and Star War droids (R2-D2, 3-CPO, BB-8) presenting for Best Animation did nothing to cut into the broadcast length and added an extra layer of boring.  The only one who was excited was Jacob Tremblay. BTW, the droids appearance on stage was the only recognition of the night for the Star Wars franchise which went home empty-handed.
 
THE UGLY
- Three Asian children presented as accountants (here was that diversity issue being addressed for the umpteenth time) with Rock "joking" that they were like other Asian children responsible for making iPhones in slave-like conditions.  One of Rock's few missteps.
 
- The orchestra determined to end winning director Alejandro G. Iñárritu 's acceptance speech and tried to usher him off the stage.  This was the only time the orchestra lost as Alejandro G. Iñárritu made a beautiful impassioned political diversity speech on behalf of his fellow Mexicans.  The orchestra should have one ear on the speeches to know when the cutoff rules should be bended to avoid the embarrassment.
 
- Best Costume Design Winner Jenny Beavan (Mad Max-Fury Road) was outfitted as if she was on her way to a biker bar.  I'll bet that was the first time a rhinestone skull ever appeared on a fashion garment at an Oscar show.
 
- Rock's lynching reference when he proclaimed that back in the 60's, "There were real things to worry about … We were too busy being raped and lynched to worry about who won for Best Cinematography. When your grandmother’s swinging from a tree, it’s really hard to care about Best Documentary Foreign Short.”
 
- Rock's comment that “This year, things are going to be a little different. This year, in the In Memoriam package, it’s just going to be black people that were shot by the cops on their way to the movies …" 
 
- Rock completely skewered boycotting Jada Pickett in the opening monologue stating, “Isn't she on a TV show?  Jada turning down the Oscars is like me turning down Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited.”
 
NOW . . . THE ANNUAL JAY B CINEMA DIARY OSCAR SHOW AWARDS.  THE ENVELOPE, PLEASE . . .
 
THE BIGGEST SURPRISE WINNER
Longtime stage actor Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies) besting Sylvester Stallone, the overwhelming favorite to win the Best Supporting Oscar.  No one, least of all Rylance or Stallone, saw that one coming. 
 
THE 2ND BIGGEST SURPRISE WINNER
Spotlight winning Best Picture.  After winning multiple BP awards including a Golden Globe, and then hauling down Oscars for Best Cinematographer, Best Actor and Best Director, The Revenant seemed poised to receive the big one.  However, it is assumed Hollywood went for the more universal user-friendly film that tackled the controversial issue head-on. Don't get me wrong:  Spotlight is a fine film (I gave it 4 stars in my review); however The Revenant was infinitely more powerful and memorable.  And, as I have stated in this blog previously, I find it outrageous that the Best Picture's director isn't named Best Director.  I'll never get it. 
 
THE 3RD BIGGEST SURPRISE WINNER
The totally forgettable “Writing's on the Wall" from Spectre performed by Sam Smith was awarded after Lady Ga Ga's rousing emotional performance of Diane Warren's song "Til It Happens To You" from The Hunting Ground.  All money was on Warren finally winning an Oscar.  Oh well.  Maybe Sylvester can offer her a shoulder to cry on. 
 
THE 4TH BIGGEST SURPRISE WINNER
Ex Machina winning the Best Visual Effects award.  Up against powerhouse effects film such as Mad Max:  Fury Road, The Martian and Star Wars:  The Force Awakens, this small ($15 million dollar budget) brilliant indie sci-fi film was the little engine that could.  One of my favorite films of 2015 received one more award than the mega-hit Star Wars.
 
THE LEAST SURPRISE WINNER
Tie:  Leonardo DiCaprio, Brie Lawson and Inside Out
 
MOST OSCARS WON
Mad Max:  Fury Road (6)
 
MOST AWARDS EVER WON BY AN AUSTRALIAN FILM
Six (Mad Max:  Fury Road)
 
THE FEWIST AWARDS WON BY A BEST PICTURE WINNER SINCE 1953's THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH
Two (Spotlight-which also won Best Original Screenplay) 
 
BEST PRE-RECORDED DIVERSITY BIT
The montage that spliced black actors Whoopi Goldberg, Leslie Jones, Tracy Morgan, and Rock himself into Joy, The Revenant, The Danish Girl and The Martian, respectively.  Hilarious.
 
2ND BEST PRE-RECORDED DIVERSITY BIT
Rock reviving his 2005 man-on-the-street bit quizzing movie patrons on white-dominated Oscar film nominees outside a Compton movie theater. 
 
BEST WTF MOMENT
Stacey Dash, who previously called for the end of Black History Month calling it reverse racism, suddenly, and without explanation, appearing on stage and wishing everyone a "Happy Black History Month".  The ironic "joke" was completely lost on the audience and the viewers, most of whom didn't even know who she was.
 
2ND BEST WTF MOMENT
Singer/actor Jared Leto's "merkin" reference while presenting for Best Make-up.  He advised everyone who didn't know the term to "Google" it.  If you haven't already, I'll save you the trouble.  Here's his tweet. 
 
3RD BEST WTF MOMENT
If you were still awake at the end, you may have noticed that the closing song, after over three hours of diversity jokes and references, was Public Enemy's 1990 groundbreaking song "Fight The Power".  An extremely odd choice considering the glitzy white-dominated audience it was playing to.  More irony:  it was featured in Oscar boycotter Spike Lee's 1989 Do The Right Thing. 
 
BEST FLIP-OFF TO THE ACADEMY
Sacha Baron Cohen's ignorant white rapper character Ali-G who introduced clips from Brooklyn and Room (“Now check out the movie that only has white people in it!”) who later related that he was told not to appear in character by The Academy.  He later revealed that he had his wife sneak in the outfit which he slipped into during a bathroom break.   
 
BEST POLITICIAN AT THE OSCARS
Joe Biden introducing Lady Ga Ga. 
 
MOST EMOTIONAL MOMENT
Lady Ga Ga's performance of Dianne Warren's ballad.   An admitted rape victim herself, she was joined onstage by campus rape survivors with inspirational slogans on their arm-holding hands at the conclusion. 
 
BEST SONG WRITER NEVER TO WIN AN OSCAR
Dianne Warren.  Seven noms and counting.
 
WORST SONG TO EVER WIN AN OSCAR
Bond song "Writing’s On The Wall".
 
BEST AUDIENCE CUT-AWAY
The Revenant bear clapping to its Best Picture clip.
 
2ND BEST AUDIENCE CUT-AWAY
Straight Outta Compton was represented in the audience by record producer and music executive "Suge Knight" appearing in a straitjacket and orange jumpsuit and flanked by two uniformed police officers.  (The real Knight is currently in jail awaiting trial on murder charges.)
 
3RD BEST AUDIENCE CUT-AWAY
Young Jacob Tremblay jumping out of his seat in utter awe when the Star Wars droids appeared. 
 
4TH BEST AUDIENCE CUT-AWAY
Audience members in stunned disbelief after Stacey Dash appeared.   
 
BEST PRESENTER
Comedian Louis C.K. presenting for Best Documentary Short.  His remarks, such as  "These people will never be rich as long as they live" and taking home their award in a Honda Civic, makes him a possible candidate to host in the future.   
 
2ND BEST PRESENTER(S)
Ryan Gosling and Russell Crowe delightfully bantering about the number of Oscars between them before announcing the Best Adapted Screenplay award.
 
3RD BEST PRESENTER(S)
Sacha Baron Cohen as Ali G (paired with Olivia Wilde).  It was all Ali G who carried on the diversity theme as only he could.   
 
WORST PRESENTER
Sarah Silverman
 
2ND WORST PRESENTERS
C-3PO, R2-D2 and BB-8
 
MOST INCOHERENT PRESENTER
Patricia Arquette 
 
WORST DRESSED WINNER WHO PLANNED TO ATTEND A HARLEY-DAVIDSON AFTER-PARTY
Jenny Beavan.
 
BEST TIRED REVISITING OF AN ELLEN DEGENERES AUDIENCE INTERACTION BIT
Chris Rock hawking girl scout cookies on behalf of his daughter.  He claimed at the end they had sold 13,000 boxes totaling $65,235; however, post-show reports had the actual total as $2,500 for 800.  In either case, that was a lot of cookies. 
 
BEST AUDIENCE HEARTFELT OVATION
Best Original Score winner 87-year-old composer Ennio Morricone who only previously "won" an honorary Oscar.  The frail composer, who had to be assisted to the podium, was a sentimental favorite and received a well-deserved extended standing ovation.  
 
WORST AUDIENCE RECEPTION
Jenny Beavan.  Even the orchestra cut short her acceptance speech.
 
BEST ACCEPTANCE SPEECH
Leonardo DiCaprio focused on something bigger than himself  by giving an impassioned sincere speech on climate change.
 
2ND BEST ACCEPTANCE SPEECH
Alejandro G. Iñárritu who repeated as Best Director.
 
3RD BEST ACCEPTANCE SPEECH
Inside Out director Pete Docter focused on the trials and tribulations of being an adolescent and ended by informing his two kids that, because he won, they were to be rewarded with a dog.   
 
UPCOMING REVIEW:  The taut modern wartime political thriller "Eye in the Sky"
 
BEST: Lady Gaga performance
 Lady Ga Ga joined onstage with campus rape survivors
BEST: Leonardo DiCaprio speech
Leonardo DiCaprio accepting his Oscar for Best Actor In A
leading role 
BEST: Balcony bear
"The Revenant" bear claps his approval after a clip of his
                                       appearance 
BEST: Louis C.K. Intros Best Documentary Short
 Louie C.K. introducing the Best Documentary Short Oscar
Fashion designer Jenny Beavan showing off her Best Costume
                                   Design statuette 
Producer, Director and cast celebrate"The Revenant" winning
                                       for Best Picture

2016 PRE-AA RAMBLING THOUGHTS/PREDICTIONS















Saturday February 27, 2016

THOUGHTS:

- In my Pre-AA Rambling Thoughts/Predictions column last year, I mentioned the outcry due to the lack of African-American nominees.  Hollywood obviously didn't listen and only compounded the controversy this year by not including any African-Americans in the 20 acting categories.  Maybe the powers that be thought they could avoid the uproar by pre-selecting the brilliant Chris Rock as host last fall - months before the nominations were announced.  The irony isn't lost on this reviewer, who almost expected Rock to initially back out of the thankless job when the noms were released in January.  Instead, we all can expect him to rip to smithereens the outrageous diversity snub which has resulted in a planned boycott of several of Hollywood's distinguished.  And Rock, in his second stint since his debut in 2005, was reported to be the second choice when Ellen DeGeneres declined to repeat her 2013 hosting gig.  Personally, I'm ecstatic Rock will be on hand and should be a huge upgrade over last year's annoying Neil Patrick Harris who underwhelmed throughout, which made the already overlong extravaganza seem interminably longer. 

- Well deserved:  The Revenant gathering up 12 nominations followed by 10 for Mad Max:  Fury Road.  (More on this below.)

- Not well-deserved:  The Martian nominated as Best Picture.  (Also, more on this below.)

- The two biggest nomination snubs:
(1) Lack of diversity-especially African-Americans (see above)
(2) Not only was the performance by Jacob Tremblay in Room the greatest supporting acting this year, it may be the greatest acting performance by a child actor ever!  Here's hoping his career doesn't goes the way of Macaulay Culkin (Home Alone). 

- Two nominations that were nice to see:  The acknowledgment of Sylvester Stallone recreating his Rocky Balboa character in Creed 40 years after he lost to Peter Finch (awarded posthumously for Network) in 1977 despite Rocky winning Best Picture; and the great Tom Hardy for his bad-ass supporting role in The Revenant.  Although he was ignored by the SAG and Golden globe awards, Hardy is unlikely to win (see below)

- The trend continues:  The most lucrative film of the year (and, likely, of all time), Star Wars:  The Force Awakes, which also was critically praised, fails to be nominated in the top categories (it was included in the lists for five technical awards and minor awards).  Director J. J. Abrams should have been considered as Best Director, if only for taking on and successfully continuing the greatest franchise in filmic history.

- The Hollywood love affair continues:  Yet another nom for Jennifer Lawrence (Joy) who was outstanding in a so-so film.   In that vein, Will Smith (Concussion) was also worthy of a nomination in an equally mediocre film.  However, Hollywood obviously doesn't extend its romance to this African-American actor (see above).  Lawrence, age 25, has already been nominated 4 times - the most by any actor that young.  By comparison, Meryl Streep, who has been nominated an astounding 33 times, didn't receive her 4th (for Sophie's Choice) until age 33.

- The biggest shocker:  No film backed by film producer/studio mogul Harvey Weinstein was represented in the top categories.  That hasn't happened since 2008.

- First time isn't a charm:  Netflix' inaugural Beasts of No Nations, despite glowing reviews and a SAG ensemble nomination, is a no-show on the nom lists.  (However, Netflix did garner two documentary nominations.)

- No respect for Michael Keaton:  He should have won Best Actor last year for Birdman, losing out to Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything).  This year he was equally outstanding again in a lead supporting role as part of the excellent ensemble group in Spotlight.  Yet he was the only one not nominated for Best Supporting.  Go figure.

-No love for the best sci-fi film of the year:  In recent year, indies have been represented well.  The independent movie Ex Machina was clearly the best representative of the sci-fi genre this year (comedies and sci-fi flicks are usually a major award afterthought by The Academy).  There clearly was a spot in the Best Picture list as again this year, only eight of the ten slots available were filled.  A nomination nod should have been granted in the film as well for Swedish actress Alicia Vikander, whose physicality as an A.I. with a mind of its own was nothing short of amazing.  Instead, she was acknowledged in the Best Supporting list for The Danish Girl.

The envelope, please . . . 

PREDICTIONS:

BEST PICTURE
What will winThe Revenant
What should winThe Revenant
Upset possibility:  Spotlight
(Extreme) Upset possibility:   The Big Short
A masterpiece of filmmaking and story telling, director Alejandro G. Iñárritu's 19th century tale of uncompromising revenge is far superior than any of the eight on the list on so many levels.  Already gathering in most of the 2015 major awards on the planet, this raw portrayal of human will and determination against all odds will be listed among the all-time classics and is a sure slam-dunk to win the big one Sunday night.  A special mention to George Miller's Mad Max:  Fury Road.  Although it has no chance of winning, George Miller's latest in the post-apocalyptic series would be heading my list if not for the eventual winner.  And it is too bad there are not separate categories (think Golden Globes) for the brilliant dramas Brooklyn and Room.   Separate classifications should exist for small quiet effective dramas that would include movies such as these outstanding 2 films.  I The latest buzz gives Spotlight and even The Big Short a shot at the big one.   However, my money is on The Revenant.

FOR THE RECORD:  here are the eight nominated films I rated from best to least: 
(1)  The Revenant
(2)  Mad Max:  Fury Road
(3)  Brooklyn
(4)  Room
(5)  The Big Short
(6)  Spotlight
(7)  Bridge of Spies
(8)  The Martian
        THE BEST FILM NOT NOMINATED FOR A BEST PICTURE
        Ex Machina (I would have placed this sixth on this list and removed The Martian.)       

BEST DIRECTOR
Who will win:  Alejandro G. Iñárritu (The Revenant)
Who should win:  Alejandro G. Iñárritu (The Revenant)
Upset possibility:  (None)
Another lock as the world will observe the Mexican director revisiting Hollywood's Dolby Theater stage for the second consecutive year - and it couldn't be more deserving.  If he receives the Oscar, it will be the first time in 65 years for back-to-back wins for a director; and if his film is honored as well, it would be the first time ever a two-peat director had his film win Best Picture.

BEST LEADING ACTOR
Who will win:  Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)
Who should win:  Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant)
Upset possibility:  (None)
Finally!   Another shoo-in as Leonardo wins his first Oscar.  Hollywood's pretty boy is nearly unrecognizable under a scruffy beard and persona that is, hands-down, his greatest acting achievement in a career repeatedly marked with high praise after bursting onto the scene with much promise as a teenager in What's Eating Gilbert Grape in the early 90's.  He throws his heart, body and soul into his characterization of Hugh Glass, a man left for dead who embarks on a merciless quest for revenge.  The actor, who speaks minimum dialogue, is otherwise so richly expressive that his portrayal should be held as a be standard for future actors.

BEST LEADING ACTRESS
Who will win:  Brie Larson (Room)
Who should win:  Brie Larson (Room)
Upset possibility:  Saorise Ronan (Brooklyn)
(Extreme) Upset possibility:  Charlotte Rampling (45 Years)
Almost a sure lock is Brie Larson whose unremarkable career until now has consisted mainly in supporting roles.  In Room she breaks out in a big way as a fiercely protective mother who raises her child under devastating, unimaginable circumstances.  She, like Leonardo, has been walking away with most of this years acting awards and should do so here as well.  However, Ronan shows remarkable range and maturity as a young Irish immigrant who begins a new life in America. Another consideration is that because Hollywood likes to reward longevity, Rampling's distinguished 50 years in the business might be finally acknowledged with an Oscar, which would be one of the few possible upsets during the ceremony.       

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Who will win:  Sylvester Stallone (Creed)
Who should win:  Tom Hardy (The Revenant)
Upset possibility:  Tom Hardy (The Revenant)
Hollywood loves to wrong a right.  Ignored as Best Actor in 1976's Rocky, Stallone will be the overwhelming sentimental choice to receive the golden statuette.  However, for me, Hardy's take as the evil tapper John Fitzgerald, DeCaprio's nemesis, will go down as one of cinema's most memorable villains.  Hardy has slowly accumulated a memorable catalogue as one of the great character actors of his generation, and has been quite busy this year appearing also in Mad Max:  Fury Road and Legend.  Christian Bale was wonderful and totally against type in The Big Short;  however, his competition in this category is too much to overcome this year. 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Who will win:  Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl)
Who should win: Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs)
Upset possibility:  (None)
The only real tossup among the acting categories.  An argument could be made for any the nominated actresses here.  I'll predict Alicia if only because she produced two outstanding performances and could have easily have been chosen for her uncanny robotic role in Ex Machina.  Winslet gives another credible rendition in the biopic.  However, her previous multiple nominations and win could work against her, with the voters being swayed by excellent acting from the newcomers.  So this award selection should provide the only real drama in the telecast.

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
What will win:  Inside Out
What should win: Inside Out
Upset possibility:  (None)
The return of Pixar!  After a two year hiatus, the computer animators return to their winning ways with this brilliant full-length addition to their incredibly successful catalogue that began with 1995's Toy Story.  Seven of Pixar's films have won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature Film (Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, WALL-E, Up, Toy Story 3, and Brave), and two of the films were even nominated for Best Picture(Up and Toy Story 3). This year, Inside Out is even competing for Best Original Screenplay - an outstanding coup and honor for this sure winner in the animated feature film category.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
What will winSpotlight
What should winSpotlight
Upset possibility:  Straight Outta Compton
The true story of how the Boston Globe Spotlight reporting team uncovered the sexual abuse by Boston clergy, will more than likely win in this category.  The important film, co-written by Josh Singer and director Tom McCarthy, is sure to recognized the literate words acted beautifully by the talented ensemble cast.  However, there is that diversity brouhaha, and the Academy might just consider the movie about the rise and fall of the rappers N.W.A. and award it to co-writers Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff - despite the fact they are white.  If Straight Outta Compton wins, the follow-up remarks by Rock should be priceless!

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
What will winThe Big Short
What should winThe Big Short
Upset possibility:  Room
Adam McKay and Charles Randolph's entertaining quick-witted script, deftly adapted from Michael Lewis' non-fiction book about the 2008 financial collapse, is the clear odds-on favorite.  Best-seller Emma Donoghue (Room) adapted her own best-selling novel and has an outside chance of upsetting.  If so, it would be a first for a female doing a screen adaptation of her own source material.

BEST DOCUMENTARY
What will winAmy
What should winAmy
Upset possibility:  What Happened, Miss Simone?
Director Asif Kapadia's doc on the tragic life of British singer extraordinaire Amy Winehouse has been a box office and critical success and should easily win the prize amongst this years extremely strong field. 

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
What will winThe Revenant
What should winThe Revenant
Upset possibility:  Mad Max:  Fury Road/Carol
Poor Roger Deakins.  The extremely talented cinematographer for the mob drama Sicerio is about to be 0 for 12.  Although Deakins is the all-time nominee in this category, Emanuel Lubezki will be three-peating, winning the previous two years for Gravity and Birdman.  Beautifully shot and exquisitely realizing the 19th century western wilderness, expect Lubezki to continue his amazing streak after missing out for years.  All Deakins needs now is an agent that finds him the right film.  Oh well.  Look for a lifetime achievement Oscar down the road for this incredibly gifted artist.

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
What will winSon of Saul (Hungary)
What should winSon of Saul
Upset possibility:  Mustang (France)
The Holocaust has always been a topic that gets Hollywood's attention - as it should.  No exception will be Hungary's haunting entry this year by director László Nemes which won the grand prize at Cannes.  Since this category has been notoriously unpredictable in the past, I'll throw out Mustang here as a possible upset.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
What will winThe Hateful Eight
What should winThe Hateful Eight
Upset possibility:  Carol
Look for sentimental Hollywood to honor 87-seven-year-old composer Ennio Morricone .  Although he was bestowed an Honorary Oscar in 2007, he finally wins one outright and the right way after six previous tries.  I can't see long-time winner 83-year-old John Williams, nominated for a whooping 45 scores and 5 songs in the past, accepting for yet another Star Wars composition.  So, if you want to wager on a possible upset, the Oscar could go to Cater Burwell for his beautiful score for Carol.

BEST SHORT (LIVE ACTION)
What will winDay One
What should winDay One
Upset possibility:  Ave Maria
Day One, which follows an army translator's harrowing first day on the job in war-torn Afghanistan, was the best of the shorts with a wonderful story that was beautifully acted.  The only comedy, Ave Maria, about an observant Israeli family's dilemma when their car breaks down in front of a silent nun's convent, might garner enough votes to upset.  My personal second favorite short was the heartfelt Stutterer.  I recommend seeking out all of the fabulous nominees online which are available for screening for free.

BEST SHORT (ANIMATED)
What will winBear Story
What should winBear Story
Upset possibility:  World of Tomorrow
A multiple festival award winner around the world is this amazing animated fantastical short about a melancholy bear who takes a diorama to a street corner.  For a coin, a little boy observes from a peephole an incredibly realized story of a circus bear trying to escape his captors and return to his family.  However, the talented second time nominee (2000's Rejected) Don Hertzfeldt could win for his story about a visitor from the distant future who instructs a little girl about the fate of humanity. One  can never rule out Pixar and their entry Sanjay's Super Team, a semi-autobiographical short by animators Sanjay Patel and Nicole Grindle.  However, the voters will have already bestowed their Best Animation feature to Pixar and I predict this award to go to first-timers Gabriel Osorio and Pato Escala for Bear Story.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
What will win:  "Til It Happens To You"  from The Hunting Ground
What should win:  "Til It Happens To You"  from The Hunting Ground
Upset possibility:  "Writing's On The Wall" from Spectre
Diane Warren will finally mount the Dolby Theaters stage after seven failed nominations with her song from the documentary The Hunting Ground.  It certainly won't hurt that she corroborated with Lady Ga Ga who is currently on a roll.  By the way, this song, along with Sam Smith's Spectre theme and The Weekend’s "Earned It" from 50 Shades of Gray are the only three being performed tomorrow - which bodes curtains for the remaining two nominees. 

Stop back next week for my post-AA report