Sunday, February 26, 2017

Academy Awards 2017 Nominations

For the first time since the best picture category was expanded to over five films, I have seen all the films nominated for best picture. For my nominations post, I'll choose the movie that I think will win and the movie that I would like to win. I'll write a little bit about each movie and also include links to my reviews of those films. 

Best Picture
La La Land should take home a lot of awards this year but the top prize could elude it if some of the tough competition comes in for a surprise. The movie with the best chance of an upset is Moonlight. My favorite film of the year is definitely Arrival but I'm not sure it has a chance to win even if votes are split. I was a huge fan of all the nominees including LionHacksaw Ridge, Manchester by the Sea, Fences, and Hell or High Water

Best Actor
Casey Affleck could take away this award for his powerful performance as a grieving father in Manchester by the Sea though he will face tough competition from Denzel Washington in Fences. Affleck has had some bad press and Washington is an acting legend but I'm not sure I can count out Affleck just yet. Andrew Garfield, Viggo Mortensen, and Ryan Gosling all gave great performances but I don't think any of them will win. 

Best Actress
Probably the most interesting award category and the one that I am most ignorant about. I have not seen three of the five performances that are nominated: Natalie Portman in Jackie, Isabelle Huppert in Elle, and Ruth Negga in Loving. Huppert in Elle looks like the one with the greatest chance after her win of the Golden Globe.
Emma Stone in La La Land is Huppert's greatest challenger for the award. It felt like Meryl Streep's nomination for Florence Foster Jenkins was more about the prestige of the actress than the actual performance. 

Best Supporting Actor
Mahershala Ali looks like a strong frontrunner for his role as Juan in Moonlight. Lucas Hedges was powerful in Manchester as the grieving son of Kyle Chandler's character. Michael Shannon's costar won the Golden Globe but I haven't seen Nocturnal Animals yet to make a judgment. Dev Patel was mostly a main character but shared the screen with a young version of his character to put him in this section, deserving of the recognition. My favorite performance was probably Jeff Bridges in Hell or High Water as the crotchety sheriff hunting the bank robbers. 

Best Supporting Actress
Viola Davis has this award pretty much locked down for her role in Fences. Michelle Williams has this one immensely powerful scene in Manchester by the Sea that got her nominated. Hidden Figures has been left out of the awards but it was an amazing film and Octavia Spencer deserves the nomination along with all of her costars. Naomie Harris also had a small but powerful role as a mother coping with addiction. Nicole Kidman made this list as an adoptive mother of two Indian boys, an interesting performance but not likely to win. 

Best Director
I think this award goes to the trend of the awards show, which will be Damien Chazelle for La La Land. Barry Jenkins will also compete for his powerful work on Moonlight. 
The surprise nomination with no chance of winning is Mel Gibson for Hacksaw Ridge. I enjoyed the war drama and thought the battle scenes were very intense but Gibson is still atoning for prejudice rants he's made in the past. Kenneth Lonergan received a nod for his work on making Manchester by the Sea so heartbreaking and the beauty of Arrival gave Denis Villeneuve a nomination.  

Best Original Screenplay
La La Land was written by Damien Chazelle as well who will take this one. Taylor Sheridan has been writing some incredible scripts including Hell or High Water. Mike Mills did not receive much recognition for his film 20th Century Women but it did get the screenplay nod.
Kenneth Lonergan could upset in this category for his dark story of a grieving father that so subtly played into the emotions. The Lobster was absurd and Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou deserve the credit for writing that outrageous story. 

Best Adapted Screenplay
I hope Arrival wins in this category. I loved this movie so much and the screenplay by Eric Heisserer really helped what was so powerful about the twisty story. August Wilson brought his play from the stage to the screen to allow Denzel Washington to direct. Barry Jenkins adapted the play by Tarell Alvin McCraney for the powerful story of Moonlight. Luke Davies wrote the powerful true story of Lion into a compelling piece of cinema. Theodore Melfi and Alison Schroeder deserve a lot of credit for making Hidden Figure such a powerful film. 

I look forward to watching the awards show to see the winners and their speeches. I hold out hope for a few surprises and know that my picks are usually off base enough that I'll get a few wrong. I look forward to another year of amazing films in 2017. 

Saturday, February 25, 2017

TV Show Review: Sneaky Pete

The life of a con artist is not easy and Marius Josipovic (Giovanni Ribisi) has it harder than most. Sentenced to three years in prison after being caught in a con by Vince (Bryan Cranston), he finally gets out to assume the identity of his cellmate Pete. He falls in with Pete's family including the two grandparents Audrey (Margo Martindale) and Otto (Peter Gerety) Bernhardt. Pete hadn't seen them in over twenty years so they can't tell the difference between Marius and the actual Pete. The other relatives do suspect something especially Carly (Libe Barer), the youngest of the Bernhardts.

The family runs a bail bond company with the help of Pete's cousin Julia (Marin Ireland) mother of two, one with her estrange lawyer husband Lance (Jacob Pitts). Pete's other cousin Taylor (Shane McRae) is a local police officer who used to bully Pete and continues to pull pranks on Marius. Vince is under pressure to save his brother Eddie (Michael Drayer) who has been captured by Vince and threatened to lose his fingers and toes if Marius does not return Vince's one hundred thousand dollars. 

Marius comes up with a plot to steal collateral from the Bernhardts' bail company and use that to pay off Vince. The plot becomes much more complicated as Vince has to get into a safe to find money that isn't even there. Everyone is keeping secrets or running a con but no one is as good as Marius. Still, he has to rely on tons of lucky breaks to not have his real identity discovered or get caught by the crooked detective who is after him for revenge. Another issue is that Marius's old girlfriend and con artist partner Karolina (Karolina Wydra) has been forced into a relationship with Vince. 

Ribisi is great in the lead role, telling lies and endearing himself to marks as he dodges one close call after another. Cranston brings a new angle to his great acting performances as a cop who turned into a mastermind criminal who always seems to be on top of Marius's next move. The supporting cast does a good job of making me like them almost immediately especially the incredibly talent Margo Martindale. The show is full of talent.

I have been playing catch up with Amazon shows but was pleased to find this one so full of cliffhangers that I could easily watch episode after episode. The show sets up for a second season so I look forward to getting it renewed. Amazon has a whole group of shows that I'm behind on that I hope to prioritize in the upcoming months as I've caught up on other prestige streaming sites. 

Friday, February 24, 2017

Movie Review: A Cure for Wellness

Strange circumstances surround a hydrotherapy medical center in Switzerland and when Lockhart (Dane DeHaan), an ambitious young salesman, travels up there to bring back a company CEO, he discovers these dark secrets. The film is beautifully shot under the direction of Gore Verbinski and has a great horror atmosphere, though does not deliver on the spookiness. The researcher Dr. Volmer (Jason Isaacs) discourages Lockhart from leaving after he breaks his leg in a car accident coming down the mountain. Lockhart continues to discover the odd history of the castle where the center is located and other issues about the patients.

He encounters the odd residents including Hannah (Mia Goth) a girl that was committed at a very young age and waits for her father to return once she is well, Victoria Watkins (Cella Imrie) an older woman who hopes to solve the mystery of the castle's past, and Pembroke (Harry Groener) the man that Lockhart is supposed to bring back. There are levels to the treatment and Lockhart slowly graduates to more extreme forms of hydrotherapy. Eels keep showing up in the water though the workers assure him that these are only hallucinations.

What is real and simply a trick of the mind isn't clear as Lockhart feels as if he is losing his sanity. The first half or so of this film is very interesting as not much of the mystery is revealed and I had a fun time trying to guess what exactly was going on. The strange images are certainly haunting and there are some gross out factors that made me cringe in my seat. The payoff, however, really lacks and the big reveal feels silly and predictable.

Dehaan's performance was enjoyable as he shows some range to the creepy characters he's played before and it somewhat likable despite playing an unlikable character. Isaacs is always fun to watch and brings a certain element of creepiness that benefits the horror of the facility. I really liked the imagery and the cinematography but all of this is undermined by the silliness of the story and the disappointment of the solution to the mystery.

February is always a rough month for movies but I have been pretty pleased with what has premiered this month. Cure For Wellness is simply a moderate horror but there are enjoyable elements and it isn't totally an uncomfortable watch. The runtime felt a little long and it would have benefited from a shorter script that left more clues and solved the mystery sooner. I am a fan of horror so I feel somewhat pleased with the first part of this film making up for a lackluster ending. 

Movie Review: The Great Wall

Cultures collide as a big budget film from China caters to American audiences as well. Matt Damon stars as the soldier, adventurer, and mercenary trader William who seeks the mysterious black powder of the Chinese. He partners with Tovar (Pedro Pascal) to elude the dangerous warriors but both are captured by the powerful army that mans the Great Wall. The army, led by General Shao (Hanyu Zhang), prepares for battle against monstrous beings reportedly from another planet. 

The beings looked pretty cool and the battle sequences were awe-inspiring but the plot is a little clumsy and rushed and the acting and dialogue leave something to be desired. The magnificence of the Great Wall was captured in a few shots but most of the action scenes are confined to small areas and it never felt like the beasts attacked from more than one place, a single valley. Still seeing Commander Lin Mae (Tian Jing) jump from the wall with her fellow blue female soldiers to spear the creatures was a sight to behold on the big screen. Rounding out the plot is a captured trader from the West, Ballard (Willem Dafoe) also interested in the gunpowder and ways to steal it, though he had given up on ever leaving this battle. 

I also appreciated that they gave a slight explanation for the language use and didn't just have characters inexplicable speaking English instead of Chinese. I enjoy subtitles when it helps create the world and deliver me to a foreign country and time. The time setting of the film is never clear though there were hints from Damon's William soldier claims to have fought in wars for the pope and other armies. 

The director Yimou Zhang is known for his extraordinary work with special effects and cool slow motion action from other movies like Hero and House of Flying Daggers. The jumping and slicing of the heroes is similar super-powered though these are just elite warriors not magical. There are plenty of gorgeous shots of the battle that aspire to other fantasy films but the budget doesn't quite allow for equality.

The Great Wall was enjoyable film going in with low expectations. I got the enjoyable action and adventure scenes though the first one was probably the most exciting and the final battle didn't live up to what was set up at the beginning. A trend in alien battles is to kill a queen and all the soldiers simply die. This plot device seems an overly easy solution for what looks like insurmountable odds. I do hope they continue to have cross country films as I enjoy being exposed to foreign lands at the cinema. 

Monday, February 20, 2017

Sports: College Basketball (February)

A month before March Madness and college basketball is getting more exciting. For this month's post ahead of the tournament, I'm going to look at the conference leaders and explore the standings to see what teams are at the top. I'll look at each conference through the top 25 as well and determine which conference is the most powerful this month.

West Coast
The only remaining undefeated team is Gonzaga and they are at the top of the West Coast. The next team in this conference is St. Mary's ranked twentieth. The remaining teams in this conference are not ranked so it could be the easy schedule that allows Gonzaga to skate by without a loss. They have beaten some tough teams from other conference like the Florida, Iowa State, and Arizona.

Big East
Second-ranked Villanova is another team in a weaker division that has managed to make it this far in the season with only two losses. The toughest conference opponent is the Creighton Bluejays. Villanova is the defending champs so they are not to underestimated as we approach the tournament. 

Big 12
The Kansas Jayhawks are one of the toughest team in college basketball. Their only two losses have come from the opponents in their conference, ninth-ranked West Virginia and unranked Iowa State. Close behind Kansas are the fourth place Baylor Bears who faced Kansas this Saturday. The Jayhawks came out on top. West Virginia is another top team in this conference able to put up a fight. 

This West Coast conference is often overlooked because their games come later at night. Arizona is ranked fifth and will be the first team in the second place of a tournament bracket section. Oregon is close behind in 7th place. 

The North Carolina Tar Heels are at the top of their conference in the standings but are ranked behind Louisville. They'll face off on the 22nd of this month. This conference always has been tough since I can remember and remains so now. The Duke Blue Devils are on the rise with some impressive wins. Virginia and Florida State also look like tough opponents. 

With Kentucky on the decline, the Florida Gators have risen to the top spot in the SEC. The Wildcats remain higher ranked for now but they'll meet again in Kentucky on the 25th after a blowout for Florida earlier this season. The other two teams that might make waves are South Carolina and Alabama.  

The next time I check in on this sport, it'll be the conference tournaments. I'm excited for basketball to really heat up and make some wild predictions for the tournament. 

Sports: NBA (All-Star Game)

The midpoint of the season is when the best players gather to compete for the All-Star game. Hosted in New Orleans, the All-Star game is not a defensive battle. There were plenty of dunks and balls flying off the rim from attempted dunks as players broke records for points in any All-Star game. This competition is not a match of the best players at their peak performance but a battle for style and a toss up for an incredibly high scoring game. The Western Conference came out on top.
With the football season at its end, I've had more time to catch up on basketball and assess which teams are going to be playoff contenders. 

The Cleveland Cavaliers are still at the top spot with Lebron James leading the charge. They did lose Kevin Love for a major portion of the season and have shown some signed of weakness that could be exploited by other top teams in the conference.

The Boston Celtics are the Cavs greatest competition with Isaiah Thomas as their top player. Only three games back from first place, they could easily swoop in a take home field advantage for the whole playoffs. Other teams that looked to be competitive in the playoffs but probably won't prove much of a challenge are the Washington Wizard, Toronto Raptors, and my favorite Atlanta Hawks. Rounding out the eight teams in the playoffs are the Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls, and Detroit Pistons.

The trade for Kevin Durant has taken over all of the headlines as the Golden State Warriors seem unstoppable. Their matchups against the Oklahoma City Thunder have been highlighted because of the Durant drama with Russell Westbrook but Steph Curry and the Warriors have put them away easily as the Thunder are in seventh place.They've also met their playoff nemesis, Cleveland twice this year and split the games.
The Spurs led by Kawhi Leonard, an All-Star starter, are putting up an impressive performance this season. Their four games back from the Warriors and will not be an easy opponent to put aside. The top four are filled out by the Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers. The remaining four teams that are in the playoffs at this halfway point are the Utah Jazz, Memphis Grizzlies, Oklahoma City Thunder, and Denver Nuggets. Looking forward to an exciting second half of the NBA season. 

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Movie Review: Fifty Shades Darker

The sequel to the successful sex romance tells a little more of the mind-numbingly boring story of Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson). The first film left off with them breaking up but Grey continues to his relentless pursuit of Anastasia that is not borderline creepy but way past it. He buys up enlarge pictures of her that are being sold at a friend's photography gallery display and continues to send her gifts. Anastasia has started working at a small publishing company under her jealous boss Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson). 

Anastasia agrees to have dinner with Christian and they reignite their passionate romance though she still has reservations despite his insistence to give her money. Christian is still in touch with his old lover and the one who taught him about BDSM, Elena Lincoln (Kim Basinger). Anastasia is also being stalked by one of Grey's old submissives Kate Kavanaugh (Eloise Mumford). These strange occurrences never amount to much and the drama is alway overshadowed by the need to show another sex scene.

The plot continues the trend of the first one with a plodding boredom that never sparks any excitement or interest. They even throw in a random helicopter crash to add to the romance but it competes for the dullest helicopter crash in movie history. The consequences are negated quickly and there is no pressure. They constantly try to push stories that would have been better in a horror or action thriller. The movie fails on the romance as the actors continue to lack any chemistry.

Eventually, the romance leads to a sloppy marriage proposal that only works because Grey is a billionaire who can afford rooms in a skyscraper and a workout room. The details of Grey's wealth always remain vague with random words like "multinational" thrown around to make it seem legit. 

Nevermind the awful performance of the actors, the silly writing, and dull plot, Fifty Shades Darker still managed to perform decently at the box office. It only made just over half what the first film made and I think it will continue its downward trend for the final film of the trilogy. This series is pretty ridiculous and ends up being a spoof of itself. Somehow it has garnered popularity and made enough money to make the creators millionaires.