Critique

The Ever-Changing Rules of the Academy

Apparently unable to keep a homeostasis for very long, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has yet again changed its rules of eligibility, effective for the 90th Academy Awards next February.

Numerous categories were affected as the changes were announced on Friday, yet most notably changed was the Best Documentary Feature category. Despite O.J.: Made in America winning Best Documentary in February as a film and also serving as a TV documentary mini-series, the Academy has now ruled that documentary series are now longer eligible for the award. Although O.J. was not mentioned in the press release announcing the rule change, this alteration feels, to me, like a direct response to a film which met Academy qualifications last year by premiering in theaters before it aired on television. This rule seems to make it unnecessarily difficult for worthy films to be nominated for Oscars, and the Academy seems to be limiting their own goal of finding the year’s best films (O.J. topped my best-of film list for 2016, as well as numerous critics). Traditional, theatrically released docs are not the only way to make an exceptional film, although the Academy seems to be preserving some sense of superiority by limited the category in such a way. ESPN’s latest documentary We the Fans, which premieres on April 11th as the first part of an eight-part series is now no longer eligible for the Academy Awards, yet may be eligible for the Primetime Emmy Awards comes September.

Of course the Academy is not shy about changing its rules in one way, sometimes directly after changing them in another way. The best example of this in my lifetime is the recent rule changes for the Best Picture category. In 2009, before the 82nd Awards, the Best Picture category was expanded from five nominated films to ten, although it only stayed that way for two years. A response to populous films like The Dark Knight (Nolan, 2008) not being nominated, many now think the rule change was a failure mainly due to films such as The Blind Side (Hancock, 2009) and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (Daldry, 2010) receiving nominations. The category now hovers between five and ten, and very few films with mass appeal, like Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Abrams, 2015) make the cut despite original intentions from the Academy.

I’m on the fence about the rules myself. I thoroughly believe the Oscars should do their best to honor the best films possible, yet their near-constant dismissal of films that received critical and commercial acclaim is baffling to me. Yes, some films that meet both qualifications have received nominations–Toy Story 3 (Unkrich, 2010), Inception (Nolan, 2010), Django Unchained (Tarantino, 2012), and others. Still, the middle ground is irritating. There are far more than ten films released every year that deserve Best Picture nominations, and I see no harm in giving the Academy a minimum/maximum of ten to nominate. I do see the dilemma when films like The Blind Side and Extremely Loud get nominated, though. For the record I enjoy those films, yet calling them Best Picture-worthy feels odd to me. Perhaps the Academy is better being exclusive, live it was for decades upon decades, and only nominated five, often incredibly-worthy, films.

Spider-Man Thoughts

Spider-Man is easily my favorite superhero and I am an unashamed defender of nearly all of his feature films so far, save for one example: I absolutely loved The Amazing Spider-Man 2, but I did not enjoy Spider-Man 3, and the latter gets worse with each viewing. After the new trailer for the latest iteration Spider-Man: Homecoming dropped yesterday I had to reevaluate my overall thoughts about the franchise–after watching the trailer multiple times, of course.

First and foremost I do think this movie has some potential, and I’ll absolutely be waiting in line to see it on opening night. I was a huge fan of Tom Holland’s portrayal of the character in Captain America: Civil War, and I think the addition of actors such as Marisa Tomei, Zendaya, Tony Revelori, Bookem Woodbine, and, particularly, Michael Keaton, give this movie a fresh, diverse group of talent. Although I am weary that the film has six credited screenwriters, I am quite excited for this film, apart from its awful title. Still, I don’t think this film needs to exist.

From a financial standpoint I do understand why this film has been made. Sony was desperate to move on from the lukewarm reception of Amazing Spider-Man 2 and their 2014 hack, while Marvel was itching to bring one of Marvel’s most popular heroes into their Cinematic Universe. Mutually, they agreed to co-produce the film pleasing fans almost universally, save maybe for people like me who loved Andrew Garfield’s take on the character. Despite this film’s good intentions, though, it feels like a cash grab to me. As Civil War shot to the top of the box office and the juggernaut of Star Wars continues to be the highest grossing film of the year even when it’s a mostly unrelated spinoff film like Rogue One, Disney and Marvel have proven that they are in it for the money, and we continue to give them ours.

I don’t want to sound cynical. I am monstrously excited for not only Homecoming but for Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 and I’ll buy my tickets for Star Wars: The Last Jedi months in advance, yet I wish we, America, gave a bit more attention to smaller independent films as well. (On a related note, I’ve bought tickets to see both Raw (Ducournau, 2016) and Dark Night (Sutton, 2016) this week so expect to see a mini-review of both of them in the coming days.)

You can check out the (very good) second trailer for Spider-Man: Homecoming here.

Review: Big Little Lies, Episode One – “Somebody’s Dead”

Quickly emerging as one of spring 2017’s freshest and sharpest series, HBO’s Big Little Lies manages to exceed the expectations set in front of it to present a show that is often funny, often mysterious, and consistently excellent in front of, and behind, the camera.

Adapted from Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same nameBig Little Lies is, from a creative standpoint, stacked with talent. Written by The Practice and Ally McBeal creator David E. Kelly, the show is most sculpted by its director Jean-Marc Vallée, helmer of recent Oscar-winning and nominated films such as Dallas Buyers Club and Wild. Reunited with his Wild stars Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, Vallée feels right at home with the Monterey, California-set series, and anyone familiar with Vallée’s work will also feel comfortable as his visual style is well-used here.

Witherspoon is devilishly delightful as Madeline Martha MacKenzie–a television series name if I’ve ever heard one– a theatre producer and mother who takes a new mother, Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) under her wing at the beginning of the school year for their children, where the series starts. Witherspoon is not new to a role like this: peppy, sure-footed and independent, Madeline is a stone’s throw from a character like Elle Woods from Legally Blonde or Tracey Flick from Election. Although familiar, this character feels like a bit of a further evolution for Witherspoon, who masterfully portrayed real-life hiker/author Cheryl Strayed in Wild. Madeline has more to her than meets the eye–spurned by her ex-husband, she is quickly painted in the show as someone who gets what they want due to hard work, without the risk of losing her morals and her responsibilities. This responsibility manifests in her teenage daughter, who is leaving for college. A key scene towards the end of the episode shows how important motherhood is to Madeline, which is perhaps why Jane Chapman is so important to her.

Woodley is also quite good as Jane, a mother of a six-year-old with an evidently checkered past if we are to believe the (outstanding) editing in the pilot. Feeling very much like Wild and Dallas Buyers Club, “Somebody’s Dead” intercuts scenes in the present, as Jane, Madeline, Celeste (Nicole Kidman), Renata (Dern), and Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) are dropping their kids off at school, to an event an unforeseen amount of time in the future where detectives are investigating the murder of an unknown person that occurred at a fundraising event for the school. Vallée keeps the identity of this person a secret through his skillful editing, creating a mystery that the seven-episode limited series will make room to answer.

Aside from Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman has the ability to steal the show. Although not given as much screen-time as her counterparts, Kidman’s character is presented as a successful one as well, with a wealthy life, nice children, and a handsome younger husband played by Alexander Skarsgård. Her side of the story, too, sets itself up as the one containing the most mystery with Skarsgård’s character, Perry, potentially being abusive towards Kidman’s Celeste, as well as their two twin boys. Celeste is surrounded by a wave of toxic masculinity, and her soft-spoken yet confident demeanor is a perfect one for the character, which I hope we see a lot more of as the series progresses.

With a strong pilot from an outstandingly capable cast and crew, Big Little Lies is setting itself up for greatness, and I only hope that it continues to build on the momentum it has created with its first episode. Mystery and intrigue can keep an audience for so long, but as shows like How To Get Away With Murder testify too, keeping that audience along for the ride can be a more difficult struggle.

For further reviews about Big Little Lies, read here and here.

Hollywood is Ga-Ga for “La La Land”

This past Tuesday, Damien Chazelle’s musical La La Land tied the record for most Oscar nominations ever received by one film–14, a record now shared with All About Eve and Titanic. Yet again the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has chosen to honor a film by Hollywood and for Hollywood, effectively ignoring other worthy films to glorify themselves. As has been the case before–and will likely be the case again–this is not a good thing.

As they’ve done in the past, Hollywood is expressing a tendency to overlook a film’s flaws to honor what they believe will make themselves look the best in the future. A similar case of this happened during the 2012 award season when The Artist (Hazanavicius, 2011) received ten Academy Awards nominations and eventually won five of them, including Best Picture and Best Director. A movie with (evidently) very little staying power, The Artist was a similarly trendy choice at the time of its release. Silent films were a thing of the past, yet The Artist revived the genre in a way that hadn’t been done since the Academy Awards’ inception–The Artist became the first silent film since the very first Oscars to win Best Picture. Instead of focusing solely on merit and deservedness, the Academy went with the trendy and unique option, so perhaps it was merely a coincidence that the film also painted Hollywood in a very, very good light.

I’m reminded of the 2012 Academy Awards this year. The Artist had won three Golden Globes by the time the Oscar nominations were announced, and few were surprised at its ascent to become an award-season darlingLa La Land did this and more at the Golden Globes in 2017, winning all seven of the awards it had been nominated for, and quickly becoming the front runner for the Best Picture Oscar. This shouldn’t have been a surprise to me, yet I’m always amazed at just how quickly films become the talk of the town, La La Land not being an exception. When this year’s Oscars roll around on February 26th, I would be shocked if the film did not win a double-digit amount of Oscars with the rocket-propelled trajectory it is currently riding. (Still, anything can happen in a month, so we’ll see.) So, my unpopular opinion is this: La La Land‘s success is not a good thing for the reputation of the Academy, and is not a good thing for film as a whole.

This is not to say La La Land is not a deserving film, or not a good film. Despite its flaws, I’d be remiss to forget its wonderful qualities: the score conducted by Justin Hurwitz, as well as the songs written by Benj Pasek & Justin Paul, are extraordinary and some of the best original songs I’ve ever seen on the screen. Linus Sandgren’s cinematography is astonishingly beautiful, as well as the production and costume design, and Damien Chazelle continues to prove that he is one of the bright directors of our present and future. Emma Stone is terrific and Ryan Gosling is good as well, in spite of the biggest issue that I have with the film: its script. The motivations of Stone’s Mia and Gosling’s Sebastian are so hollow and so cookie-cutter that their actions, the path the film takes, and the conclusion the film reaches never feel justified to me, or are, at the very least, fantastical, melodramatic, and above all else, easy. My girlfriend frequently tells me that my negative comments about the script can be explained by the fact that the film is a musical, and musicals aren’t meant to be realistic, which is more than fair–I mean, they break into the Griffith Observatory for godssakes, so of course the film doesn’t have to be realistic. Still, these characters do not feel like real people, and I can never fully attach to them as a result. Their issues, their concerns, and their actions are never complex or difficult. From the introduction of both of their characters, I never had a doubt in my mind that Sebastian would be able to open his jazz club, or that Mia would become a famous actress–these destines already feel predetermined. For me, the script pulls down the rest of the film, and the immense acclaim that the film has received in spite of this sours me on the film as a whole.

La La Land is the trendy pick for best film of the year. Maybe America needs this film in this odd time of our lives, and perhaps we cannot be bothered with the much deeper (and much better) films that were released in 2016 like Moonlight (Jenkins) or Manchester by the Sea (Lonergan). La La Land will likely be the Best Picture winner that America wants right now, but it will not be the one it deserves a decade down the line. The intense and all-encompassing love that the film has received will likely not fade as we reach this year’s Oscars, yet, in a perfect world, it would. Other films deserve a chance to shine in the big categories, but I’ll concede and admit that I’m cheering on La La Land in at least one category–if “City of Stars” loses Best Original Song, I’ll be the lead torch-holder at the riot.