Thursday, February 16, 2017

Academy Awards, Choices and Predictions - Part II

In less than two weeks, we will celebrate the most important non-religious holiday of the year: Oscar Sunday! Here’s what I would vote for if I was a member of the Academy:

Best Picture – La La Land
Best Director - Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Best Actor – Denzel Washington, Fences
Best Actress – Emma Stone, La La Land
Best Supporting Actor – Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Best Supporting Actress – Viola Davis, Fences
Best Adapted Screenplay – Hidden Figures
Best Original Screenplay – Manchester by the Sea
Best Animated Feature – Moana
Best Documentary Feature – OJ: Made in America
Best Foreign Language Feature – Land of Mine
Best Cinematography – La La Land
Best Costume Design – La La Land 
Best Art Direction – Hail, Caesar!
Best Makeup – Star Trek Beyond
Best Visual Effects – Doctor Strange
Best Film Editing – La La Land
Best Score – La La Land
Best Song – How Far I God,” Moana
Best Sound Editing – Sully
Best Sound Mixing – La La Land
Best Animated Short Film – "Piper"
Best Live Action Short Film – "Timecode"
Best Documentary Short Subject – "The White Helmets"

However, things don’t always pan out like planned. Here are my actual predictions of who will win:

Best Picture – La La Land
Best Director - Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Best Actor - Denzel Washington, Fences
Best Actress - Emma Stone, La La Land
Best Supporting Actor - Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Best Supporting Actress – Viola Davis, Fences
Best Adapted Screenplay - Moonlight
Best Original Screenplay – Manchester by the Sea
Best Animated Feature – Zootopia
Best Documentary Feature – OJ: Made in America
Best Foreign Language Feature – Toni Erdeman
Best Cinematography – La La Land
Best Costume Design – Jackie
Best Art Direction – Arrival
Best Makeup – Star Trek Beyond
Best Visual Effects – The Jungle Book
Best Film Editing – La La Land
Best Score – La La Land
Best Song – “City of Stars,” La La Land
Best Sound Editing – Hacksaw Ridge
Best Sound Mixing – La La Land
Best Animated Short Film – "Piper"
Best Live Action Short Film – "Ennemis Interieurs"
Best Documentary Short Subject – "The White Helmets"


Usually, I live tweet the Oscars, but now that I have two children, it's not possible. Maybe sometime in the future.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

2016 Oscar Nominations: A Few Thoughts

2016 Oscar Nominations: A Few Thoughts

I always love hearing the Oscar nominations more than the Oscar themselves because their is far greater chance that something spectacular can happen. Anyone or any film could potentially be nominated. Here a few brief impressions:

1. Love for La La Land - La La Land has tied All About Eve (1950) and Titanic (1997) for the most nominations ever at 14. Both those films won Best Picture, so it's a reasonable bet. There's a sizable minority of Land bashers, but most - including me - love it.

2. The Return of Mel Gibson - Mel Gibson has been returned to the good graces of Hollywood. Not only did he get a surprise nom for director, but Hacksaw Ridge got nominated for Picture, Best Actor, and several other awards.

3. Lots of Little Joys - I love it when when unusual or unexpected films get nominated. Allied, 13 Hours, and Star Trek Beyond each got a nomination. Fantastic Beasts, Deepwater Horizon, and even Passengers got two.

4. Meryl Streep *ugh* Again - Meryl Streep has given some fantastic performances, Julie & Julia being my personal favorite. Yet she has also gotten plenty of nominations for sub-par roles, including this year for Florence Foster Jenkins. Her golden globe speech was arrogant and disrespectful, and I hoped it would hurt her chances this year. I didn't, and she booted out the much better Amy Adams on top. Turns out I actually agree with Trump on something.

5. Pixar Gets Shut Out - Finding Dory wasn't the best Pixar film, but it was easily better than Moana, Zootopia, or Kubo. This is only the third time a Pixar film has not been nominated for Best Animated Feature. Oddly, enough the other two, Cars 2 and Monsters University, were also not originals.

6. Predictions - Right now, three films have the four important nominations (Picture, Director, Screenplay, Editing): Arrival, Moonlight, and La La Land. Arrival has no acting nods, Moonlight is meh, so La La Land looks like its in a good position to win.

Good Surprises: Passengers for Production Design, Fantastic Beasts for Production Design, 13 Hours for Sound, Mel Gibson for Hacksaw Ridge

Terrible Snubs: Silence for Picture and Director, Hillsong for Documentary Feature, Sully for Picture, Director, and Editing, Monae - Hidden Figures for Best Supporting Actress, Goodman - 10 Cloverfield Lane for Best Supporting Actor, Rogue One for Editing, Deadpool for Adapted Screenplay, Heal Caesar! for Cinematography

Friday, January 20, 2017

2016 Academy Awards Choices and Predictions, Part I

It’s been a great year for movies, and the Academy will announce the 2016 Oscar nominations on Tuesday, January 24th at 5:18am. Here’s what I would vote for if I was a member of the Academy:

Best Picture
Arrival
Elvis & Nixon
La La Land
Hail, Ceasar!
Hidden Figures
Hillsong: Let Hope Rise 
I’m Not Ashamed
Into the Inferno
Risen
Sully

Best Director
Hail, Ceasar!
Hillsong: Let Hope Rise
I’m Not Ashamed
La La Land
Sully

Best Actor
Josh Brolin, Hail, Ceasar!
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Tom Hanks, Sully
Michael Shannon, Elvis & Nixon
Kevin Spacey, Elvis & Nixon

Best Actress
Amy Adams, Arrival
Taraji P. Henson, Hidden Figures
Masey McLain, I’m Not Ashamed
Aubrey Plaza, Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates
Emma Stone, La La Land

Best Supporting Actor
Aaron Eckhart, Sully
Alden Ehrenreich, Hail Ceasar!
Martin Freeman, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
John Goodman, 10 Cloverfield Lane
Donnie Yen, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Best Supporting Actress
Sofia Boutella, Star Trek Beyond
Janelle Monae, Hidden Figures
Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures
Bianca Santos, Priceless
Alison Sudol, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Best Adapted Screenplay
10 Cloverfield Lane
Hidden Figures
I’m Not Ashamed
Sully
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Best Original Screenplay
Elvis & Nixon
Hail, Ceasar!
Hillsong: Let Hope Rise 
La La Land
Zootopia

Best Cinematography
Arrival
Hillsong: Let Hope Rise
Into the Inferno
La La Land
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Best Editing
13th
Hillsong: Let Hope Rise
La La Land 
Rogue One
Sully

However, things don’t always go according to plan, especially since some of my favorite movies (I’m Not Ashamed) weren’t even eligible. Here are my actual predictions of who will be nominated:

Best Picture
Arrival 
Fences
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures
La La Land
Lion
Manchester by the Sea
Moonlight

Best Director
Arrival
Hacksaw Ridge
La La Land
Moonlight
Manchester by the Sea

Best Actor
Casey Affleck, Manchester by the Sea
Andrew Garfield, Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling, La La Land
Viggo Mortensen, Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington, Fences

Best Actress
Amy Adams, Arrival
Isabelle Huppert, Elle
Ruth Negga, Loving
Natalie Portman, Jackie
Emma Stone, La La Land

Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges, Manchester by the Sea
Dev Patel, Lion
Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Nocturnal Animals

Best Supporting Actress
Viola Davis, Fences
Naomie Harris, Moonlight
Nicole Kidman, Lion
Octavia Spencer, Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams, Manchester by the Sea

Best Adapted Screenplay
Arrival
Deadpool
Fences
Hidden Figures
Moonlight

Best Original Screenplay
Captain Fantastic
Manchester by the Sea
La La Land
The Lobster
Hell or High Water

Best Cinematography
Arrival
La La Land
Lion
Moonlight
Silence

Best Editing
La La Land
Arrival
Moonlight
Hacksaw Ridge
Manchester by the Sea

Best Animated Film
Finding Dory
Kubo and the Two Strings
Moana
Red Turtle
Zootopia


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Space Castaway

Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt in Passengers
Space Castaway
A Review of Passengers by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG-13           
USCCB Rating, A-III
Reel Rating, Three Reels            

            Passengers is a high budget sci-fi drama starring Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence; these three elements in the same sentence is more than enough to deserve a viewing. In addition to its intriguing premise, it brings up a number of classic questions of the genre like the vastness of space, the importance of human relationships, and the role of artificial humans. Yet the material is too thin for 3D glasses and would probably have fared better as an episode of Star Trek or The Twilight Zone. It’s the kind of movie that didn’t need to happen, but I’m glad it exists.
            The Avalon is a giant starship carrying over 5,000 people in hibernation to a colony world called the Homestead II. Suddenly and mysteriously, mechanic and everyday guy Jim (Chris Pratt) wakes up only to discover he’s ninety years too early and totally alone. He spends a year trying desperately to figure out a way to solve his dilemma, from bashing open the captain’s quarters, to refiguring the hibernation pods, to getting drunk with Arthur (Michael Sheen), the android bartender. At the end of his rope and contemplating suicide, he decides to create an Eve to Adam and purposely awakens another passenger. He takes a little time to consider the moral ramifications of his dilemma, but the thought won’t go away. After a thorough screening, he chooses Aurora (Jennifer Lawrence), a beautiful journalist. She is equally distraught at first but soon settles on accepting her fate and writing a book about her experience. Things go swimmingly as their friendship soon turns into romance, but inevitably she finds out. Now they are doomed to spend the rest of their lives with grief and guilt, either hating or pitying the other.
            For most middle class Americans reading this review, moral decisions are easy to discern if hard to enact. Yet there have been many situations throughout history, due to limited knowledge or odd circumstances, that demand far more rigorous scrutiny. Jim’s story represents the classic stranded island scenario. If you were alone on an island, how could you fulfill your Sunday obligation or confess a mortal sin? At one point, Jim contemplates asking Aurora to marry him. Since the minister of marriage is the couple themselves, would their marriage be valid if it was impossible for a clergy member to officiate? Jim’s choice to wake Aurora from hypersleep is a grave sin. Yet once made, how does he make amends? Is he supposed to ignore her forever? Jim finds his redemption when given an opportunity to give his own life for hers, not once but twice.
            Her moral path is far more difficult. From her perspective, his sin was akin to rape or murder. He took her life away in an irreversible and nonconsensual manner. Yet once found out, should she shun the one other human in her life? It’s an unfortunate situation that catches many families. What responsibility does a wife have to a husband who has abused her and seeks to mend the marriage? What response does a parent give a repentant child who has stolen thousands of dollars for drugs and landed in jail? Aurora stands her ground and refuses to mend the relationship until it is proven that Jim has shown true contrition. It is impossible to unwind the past, but certain selfless acts can pave the way of the future. Best of all – in a society where some sins seem unforgiveable – Passengers argues that even the worst deed can be absolved.
            Even if their relationship can be mended, the same cannot be said for their impending fate. Faced with decades ahead alone, is it possible to carve out a meaningful life? Many people live like Jim and Aurora – trapped by their social and financial circumstance, lost to the annals of history. Yet the quality of one’s life does not depend on fame, fortunate, or even the temporal contribution a man makes to society. Life is meaningful because a person is loved by God and in return loves God and others. Thus, a man with unlimited options can live a poor life, and a man with few options can live a great one. As Kermit the Frog once said, “you don’t need to have the whole world love you. All you need is just one person.” Without revealing too much, let’s just say that Jim an Aurora choose a very full life.
            All of these philosophical musings are lightly touched but not explored in great detail. Most of the film plays out as a survival narrative, like Castaway in space. One by one, problems arise and are solved, allowing the characters to live another day. Yet, in the end, it is not about surviving but truly living that matters. The difference is whether one lives for oneself or others, and this choice is made every day, whether in outer space or your living room couch.

            

The Great Space Escape

The caste of Rogue One
“The Great Space Escape”
A Review of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG-13
USCCB Rating, A-II
Reel Rating, Four Reels             

            When the Star Wars anthology series was first announced, most fans – including myself – greeted the news with great enthusiasm. After all, how could more Star Wars be bad? However, after seeing the experiencing the burnout from constant additions to other franchises like DC, Harry Potter, and the three-film-a-year MCU, I had a bad feeling about this. Fortunately, Disney executive Kathleen Kennedy avoided this problem by creating a separate franchise that expanded the universe without interfering with the main story. Even as a standalone alone film, Rogue One holds up well on its own, albeit with a little bumps in the beginning. It’s an entirely different kind of addition, and that’s a good thing.
            Rogue One answers one main question: “How did the rebels steal the Death Star plans?” Like many inventions constructed by dictatorships, it turns out that the battle station’s chief engineer Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) was involuntarily conscripted, so he secretly built a fatal flaw into its architectural makeup. The rebel alliance enlists his daughter Jyn (Oscar nominee Felicity Jones) and a rag tag group of volunteers to locate the plans to exploit this weakness before it is too late. This motley cue harkens back to great WWII classics like The Longest Day, The Great Escape, and Kelly’s Heroes where a small band of resourceful characters could win the day against insurmountable odds, helped by conflicting personalities and witty banter.
            The most important thing to announce right from the start is that every internet theorist can relax. Rogue One adds or subtracts nothing essential from the narrative of the established series. Darth Sidious is nowhere to be found, Rey’s parents don’t show up, and the Sarlacc pit isn’t a veiled symbol of US foreign policy. It’s an entirely self-contained story that plays with familiar concepts and characters but never approaches sacred material. Like the Gospel of James, the Acts of Paul and Thecla, or other early apocrypha, it elaborates on details left out of scripture. Unlike later heretic works that sought to change teaching, these authors were only interested in imagining things based on historical tradition. The Bible itself encourages this kind of meditation, remarking that “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.” While not dogma, these early ideas were most likely accurate. Which unfortunately for Paul means he probably was bald.
            While Rogue One avoids narrative problems, it does experiment significantly with tone. The section is a dramatic character study, mostly focusing on the relationship between Jyn and her Rebel escort Cassian (Diego Luna). Although helpful in finding her father, he has also shown that he is more than willing to kill foe and friend alike to complete his mission and may be hiding something. Occasionally, the film ventures into questions that are asked by gritty war films. If both sides are willing to kill, how does one know who is right? Is any action permissible if it helps “the cause”? This section, while not terrible, is rather slow and a little sappy.
            The final act, however, takes off at lightning speed and never lets up. Jyn and Cassian drop their philosophical musings and focus on the task at hand, leading to some of the most spectacular space fights that have ever been filmed. It reminds the audience why Star Wars seemed so fresh in the first place. In the late 70s, when everything felt so cloudy, George Lucas gave us a moral universe of literal light and dark. The good guys were brave and true, the bad guys totally evil, and right always won the day. This is story that feeds on universal truths and archetypal patterns: spiritual warfare not physical combat.
            Rogue One is a promising beginning to an anthology that has endless potential; the next installment, featuring a young Han Solo, begins filming in February. Yet to the true fans, this extended Universe had always existed not only in countless unofficial books, comics, and parodies but in cardboard cut-out costumes in our backyard. As a parent of a three year old son, I am incredibly grateful that we will be able to go to the theater together and see a new Star Wars movie, just as I did with my father. Best of all, it will not be a rare occurrence but an annual tradition.

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on December 23rd, 2016.


Fantastic Beasts and Not Much Else

American wizards in Fantastic Beasts
“Fantastic Beasts and Not Much Else”
A Review of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG-13
USCCB Rating, A-II
Reel Rating, Three Reels             

            “What works well as a spice often does not work well as a main course.”
 – Omar Ebbs

            Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is an absolute mess. A gorgeous, thoroughly entertaining mess but a mess nonetheless. It has a vivid imagination with some of the best costumes, sets, and visual effects of any film this year, but its story is confusing and often contrived with the added weight of several even more muddled subplots. Many spinoffs simply don’t have enough weight to stand on their own two feet, and this is no exception.
            The movie is based on a textbook of the same name in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter universe and the exploits of its author, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne). It is the first in an over bloated five film series. This is made even more crazy by the fact the book is mere 128 page – a feat even the producers of The Hobbit couldn’t pull off. Newt has come from Britain to America in the 1920s with a suitcase full of strange creatures to release a thunderbird back into the wilds of Arizona. Of course, many of these animals get loose in New York City. Newt, along with several companions, must round them up before they do too much damage. Additionally, there are not one but two villains on the loose, an evil wizard and a weird ball of grey goo called an Obscurus. Additionally, there is a subplot about a romance between a witch and a nomaj (American muggle) – which is, of course, prohibited in backwards pre 60s United States. Additionally, there is a group of witch hunters trying to convince a newspaper magnate that a magical world exists and needs to be destroyed. If this all sounds terribly confusing, it’s because it is. The story goes in many directions at once and leaves plenty unexplained.
            Yet despite these problems, director David Yates manages to get one thing right – the fantastical creatures that fill the pages of the source materials and the imaginations of elementary school children. Some of these animals are quite clever, like kleptomaniac platypus whose pouch seems to be able to hold more than Mary Poppins’ carpet bag. Others are pretty stupid, like the rhinoceros, whose horn is glowing because she’s in heat. These delights have no connection to reality and help dissolve any lingering problems wary parents have about Harry Potter’s supposed pagan connections, even despite a passing but strange reference to the pentagram. This is pure fantasy with no real religious connotations in mind. There aren’t even any dragons, so even Michael O’Brian should be happy.
            Yet when Newt isn’t chasing invisible sloths, there is real trouble brewing between magical and non-magical worlds. Similar to Rowling’s previous works, the idea of being ostracized or “different” takes center stage. Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) leads the New Salem Philanthropic Society, a Westboro Baptist type organization devoted to killing witches yet harbors several within its ranks. They get orphans to hand out leaflets in exchange for small amounts of food. The Magical Congress works hard to keep the magical world hidden from prying eyes. Yet when wizards suppress their magical abilities, it creates a powerful black entity – the Obscurus – that can destroy whole buildings and seems impervious to spells. It’s not made clear whether the Obscurus is a person or just a force, but in either case is clearly meant to be a metaphor for the “dangers” of suppressing the passions and true identity. Such a message, while not completely inaccurate, is easily manipulated to give credibility to homosexuality or transgenderism. A much better illustration of the same theme is the forbidden relationship between Kowalski, a nomaj baker, and Queenie, a cute flapper with a slightly disturbing ability. Played by Dan Fogler and Alison Sudol, they are adorable and far more interesting than any of the other characters.

            Ultimately, Fantastic Beasts works because it’s just so darn entertaining. Rich and vivid, every scene is filled with remarkable sights and sounds. The problem is the humans, magic and non alike, who occupy this world and bring darkness wherever they go. Newt seems to have figured this out a long time ago, preferring the company of his creatures and even refusing to look people in the face when speaking to them. Hopefully, through people like Queenie and Kowalski, he will learn to see the goodness in humanity. I bet he will. He has another four movies after all. 

This article first appeared in Catholic World Report on November 25th, 2016.

Amy Adams’ Excellent Adventure

Amy Adams in Arrival
“Amy Adams’ Excellent Adventure”
A Review of Arrival by Nick Olszyk

MPAA Rating, PG-13
USCCB Rating, A-III
Reel Rating, Three Reels            

            Most films in sci-fi/fantasy genre currently, even if of high quality, are overblown action films with huge budgets, fast paced narratives, and witty one-liners. Arrival is a sigh of relief and a throwback to slower, more cerebral pictures like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Contact – sharing more than a few similarities with the latter. These films all began with the thrill of first contact, only to become thoughtful mediations on the greater questions of life. In Arrival, these questions include the purpose of language, the nature of time, the importance of choice, and the inherent goodness of life. It’s pretty impressive, though not nearly as cool as imagining how these aliens argue about politics.
            Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a lonely yet successful linguist professor haunted by memories of the pre-mature death of her daughter. Without warning, twelve enormous, cone shaped spacecraft land throughout the world, and she is asked by the military to assist in contacting the aliens inside the one that landed in Montana. The aliens – called heptopods after their seven tentacles – are able to produce ink based symbols on a glass pane that are soon interpreted as sentences. It takes quite a while to make any sense out of their language, and the leaders of the world are getting anxious. Their fears are confirmed when they respond “offer weapon” to a question about their purpose. Soon, there is a communication blackout between world leaders and China seems posed to destroy the craft in their country. Yet, Louise is convinced that their message is misunderstood and desperate tries to find their true meaning before it is too late.
            Arrival is at its best when it focuses on the puzzle of unlocking the Heptopilian language. The pacing is slow but never boring, with each piece building on the next. It turns out that the language is not based on sounds but concepts, like pictograpms. Each sentence is a circle with small splotches and deviations that represent ideas. While this progression is more than enough to carry the film it is hampered by a distracting and unnecessary sub-plot involving a team of soldiers. Fed by right-wing pundits who encourage a “show of force,” they attempt to blow up the ship. It is completely out of character with the rest of the film and does nothing to move along the plot. At least when this same narrative device was used in Contact, it worked within the story rather than apart. It almost as if the screenwriters had to add it to prove their Hollywood liberal credentials. The film never considers that it was the military who asked for Louise’s help in the first place and whose primary purpose is protection and order, not war.
            When the big reveal about the secret purpose of the alien is discovered, it is unexpected but a bit contrived. I’ll this up to the viewer to experience, only to say it shares more than a little with another classic sci-fi flick from the 80s. What is more important than the reveal is the affect it has on Louise and her choices. It allows her to perceive her future actions more clearly and possible alter a devastating event.

            Yet even if the future involves suffering, should it be altered? Here I will divulge one important piece of information: Louise’s memories of her now dead daughter are actually flashes of her future life. Despite knowing her daughter’s inevitable fate, she chooses to conceive and bring her into the world – knowledge that she also selfishly hides from her husband-to-be. It’s a strong affirmation of the pro-life message, of children, of human endeavor, and of the possibility of other worlds. Like the alien encounter it illustrates, Arrival is unsteady but ultimately rewarding.