2017 Academy Awards Nominations Thoughts

I feel like this happens every year – the Academy Awards nominations come out and I realize the full extent of the films that I haven’t seen. I live in Minnesota, so not every Oscar-worthy film gets here before the nominations. Oscar season is also cold, so there’s always something that does get here but I don’t want to brave the cold for it.

That said, I think that there’s a lot of interesting things about the Oscars and about the film industry as a whole, or at least the film industry as promoted by the Academy. So here are some assorted thoughts about what was nominated and what wasn’t.

La La Land sweeps with 14 nominations

I think anyone following Oscar buzz could have seen La La Land doing well coming. However, with 14 nominations La La Land, it has notably tied the record number of Oscar nominations held by both Titanic and All About Eve. La La Land is doing well, but perhaps better than we would have thought. It’s started to receive some relatively minor backlash, but even La La Land’s most fervent critics tend to admit it’s a well put together film. It’s not a Crash, is what I’m saying.

One thing I’ve been wondering is if, with all the critical acclaim and box office success (as of the writing of this post La La Land has grossed over $174 million worldwide on a budget of $30 million, so it’s a hit), more original musicals could be on the way. Original movie musicals have been the domain of Disney movies and not much else for quite some time now – even critical darling Moulin Rouge! didn’t focus on original music. Yet La La Land comes out and has been a massive success.

Not every film that gets major Oscar recognition and does well financially gets imitators – The Artist was very successful and I haven’t seen a slew of silent, black and white films getting made. Yet musicals have had some successes before and not all that long ago, and I think audiences responded to the positivity and brightness of La La Land. It doesn’t seem out there that we may be seeing more musicals in the coming years.

Not #OscarsSoWhite This Year

One of the more notable Academy Awards controversies of recent years has been #OscarsSoWhite, where there have been years of the acting categories being completely dominated by white actors, ignoring diverse performances. While it’s hard to say that years like that won’t be happening again, it is heartening to see that there is diversity among the acting nominees. One thing of note is that out of the five supporting actress nominees that three are black women – Viola Davis for Fences, Naomie Harris for Moonlight, and Octavia Spencer for Hidden Figures, which is the first time that black people have been the majority nominated in any Oscar category.

I’m not sure if any of the efforts the Academy has had in changing its membership have had any effect or if films like Hidden Figures and Moonlight are too good and too well liked to ignore, but it’s a good sign.

Amy Adams not nominated

From what I’ve seen so far the most widely acknowledged snub is Amy Adams not being nominated for Arrival. Which, as someone who saw and loved Arrival, is probably a pretty big snub. Arrival has gotten some awards recognition – it’s nominated for several major awards including Best Picture. But despite the direction, the production design and the effects, which all contribute to the success of Arrival, Adams’ performance carries the film. Given how much the Academy clearly liked Arrival, it’s a surprise and disappointment that Adams didn’t get recognition as well.

 

No Love and Friendship?

I know I shouldn’t have expected Love and Friendship to receive any nominations – I really didn’t think it would. Yet it’s a shame to see it not at least get an Adapted Screenplay nod, considering it took a short epistolary novel by Jane Austen and made it a very successful and very funny film. The Adapted Screenplay category is pretty stacked, with all of the nominations in that category also nominated for Best Picture. Still,  it’s a bit disappointing that it didn’t get a nod there.

The Lobster Gets One Nod

Another small note, but I’m happy that the Academy remembered The Lobster with its Original Screenplay nod. I really enjoyed The Lobster, and this is totally deserved.

Production Design Gets Some Unexpected Nominations

It’s always interesting to see which films get nominated for the technical awards, because often they are more unexpected or just not normal Oscar picks. While La La Land and Arrival got Production Design nods, so did Passengers (despite how little critical love it had), Hail Caesar! and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Hail Caesar and Fantastic Beasts are both solid nominations for this category – both are historical pieces that have a lot of style to them, so I could see both of them doing well. My bet would be on either La La Land or Hail Caesar, but it’s always nice to see these interesting nominations.

La La Land vs EGOT?

As a fan of musicals and musical theater, I’m of course familiar with and a fan of Hamilton. So, one area of note has been when Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda will receive his Oscar to complete his set of Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony. However, while many fans have been hoping that his work on Moana could set him up, La La Land’s push is a bit too strong. While having two songs from La La Land could split the vote some, at this point I can’t imagine anything but City of Stars winning.

 

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Film Follies: #25 – Moulin Rouge!

Credit for the title of this blog series goes to my Dad!

I’ve been wanting to do a blog series about movie musicals for months. The only reason I haven’t done this for all of those is about the giant elephant in the room, which is Moulin Rouge! My blog posts are going to go through all of the AFI Top 25 Movie Musicals and do a bit of a retrospective review of each. I’d also like to go from #25 to #1, because I think that’s more interesting. Moulin Rouge! is #25 on the list. It is also the movie that, if pressed, I would name as my least favorite movie for a good number of years.

Before you immediately dismiss these blog posts and name me a fraud, I only saw Moulin Rouge! once when I was about 16-17. Here were my major issues with the movie.

  1. Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman didn’t have enough chemistry for me to believably want them to be in love.
  2. I didn’t dig the modern soundtrack / jukebox musical over the historical backdrop. I wanted the old-fashioned music.
  3. It was all style and zero substance.
  4. (perhaps the most important thing) I thought it was far too overhyped and it didn’t live up to other movies I had seen in the past.

However, in my interest of making this a fair list, I’m revisiting this movie. Perhaps I will like it. Perhaps not. I do think, before watching it again, that it is an interesting movie at the very least, so I’m hoping for the best.

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Photo from when I was at the Moulin Rouge in Paris, hey.

The film centers around Christian (Ewan McGregor), a writer, who  gets caught up with a troupe of performers seeking to put on a play at the Moulin Rouge nightclub. Along the way he falls in love with Satine (Nicole Kidman), a courtesan and star, who is also desired by a wealthy Duke who seeks her for himself. Melodrama ensues.

Having watched this again, I can safely say that this is an incredibly frustrating experience, purely because I feel like it is chock full of things I enjoy in films. I love visually stunning movies, and there’s no denying that Moulin Rouge is a very stylish film. I love a good romantic movie, and I also love musicals (hence this blog series). I like movies that are a bit strange and offbeat. By all accounts I should love Moulin Rouge.

By rewatch I can safely say that it’s a missed opportunity. There’s a lot to like, but specifically the visuals are very strong. Like him or not, Baz Luhrmann is a very striking visual director, so for the most part this is a visual treat. However, none of it seems to reinforce the story or the characters. An early example is how the film opens as a black and white silent film. Since this film is nothing if not pastiche, I’m expecting a Wizard of Oz treatment – breaking into color when he enters the Moulin Rouge. It’s a bit on the nose, but what about this film isn’t on the nose? However, it’s immediately undercut by wild zooms, color being brought in early, etc. What may have worked is if, when the troupe of performers who burst into his apartment, the black and white aesthetic slowly fades, as they bring color and sound into the film. It would make the black and white filming feel  meaningful rather than just something that Baz Luhrmann did just because.

I still don’t think that Christian and Satine’s chemistry is anything special. It’s not bad, but I certainly don’t feel  like rooting for them to get together. Which is another missed opportunity – while this film is hyper-stylized and over the top, having a real relationship to ground it would be welcome.  I’ve seen this excused as “Christian is in love with being in love, so it doesn’t matter if they have chemistry” but I’m not sure I buy that the core of the melodrama is intentionally false. I certainly believe that Christian is enamored with the idea of falling in love, but I don’t think the film criticizes that much. It often feels like it’s simultaneously serious about its story and satirizing it – both melodrama and postmodernism. Sometimes this works. I don’t think this necessarily works here.

As for the music, again sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I think modern music can work well in a historical setting – I wouldn’t be one of the multitude of people who loves Hamilton if I didn’t think that worked. However, again, I think it needs to have purpose. Hamilton is a perfect example because hip hop as a form works perfectly to tell the story of Alexander Hamilton. Each of the characters raps a bit differently and it works to tell you things about each character unconsciously. It feels meaningful, and the music is so baked into Hamilton’s DNA that separating Hamilton from hip hop would be impossible. However, too often the music in Moulin Rouge feels like an exercise in recognizing music rather than actually being purposed meaningfully. I think it could have been done well, but I’m not sure how much  I actually believe any of it was put in with any thought.

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I think that’s maybe my biggest complaint. I don’t know if I would argue that it’s style over substance anymore, and I’m not sure that’s a complaint I’d like to make – visual style is as important as any dialogue or writing. However, I would say that the style and substance doesn’t match up, and that the style isn’t done in service of the substance. Visually striking films should ideally be created to serve the plot or characters. One of my favorite films of all time, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, is visually striking but the visuals reflect the story. That’s not exactly the case with Moulin Rouge.

That said, while I don’t think it’s necessarily a successful movie, I admire it’s ambition, I admire how different it is, and I admire it’s visual direction. Which is the most frustrating thing – I want to love this movie but I just can’t. It’s a movie that has so much opportunity to be interesting, to do interesting things, and is ultimately not successful at it. It’s not my least favorite movie, but it’s one of the biggest missed opportunities I believe I have ever seen.

Musical Number Highlights:

Lady Marmalade/Zidler’s Rap (Can Can)/Smells Like Teen Spirit – While this number outstays its welcome (like most of this movie – it’s a good 20-30 minutes too long), it’s the most visually striking and has a great energy to it. It works well.

The Pitch (Spectacular Spectacular)” – It’s the Infernal Galop in Orpheus in the Underworld (Can-Can) but this segment is a lot of fun.

Elephant Love Medley – Again, outstays its welcome, but I love the initial interplay of Christian’s romanticism and Satine being practical. I wish that tension (love vs ‘I need to make a living’) would last further in the film.

El Tango de Roxanne – It’s a very transformative use of The Police’s Roxanne but it’s rightfully very memorable.

Worth Watching? Yes. I’d say that you should give it a viewing if you haven’t already. While Moulin Rouge is enormously flawed,  it is still ambitious and interesting.

Does it deserve its place on the AFI Movie Musicals list? A tentative yes? I think giving it #25 is a pretty solid spot. It’s recognizing Moulin Rouge’s ambition and striking visuals without putting it higher against stiff competition. I do wonder, had this list been made later, if Moulin Rouge would get any recognition, but I appreciate that this list kept in a relatively recent film and recognized its innovation.

 

201 Days of X-Files – Season 1 Episode 2 – Deep Throat

As difficult as making a workable pilot that’s actually good and entertaining, making a second episode isn’t necessarily a walk in the park (though this could be said about all TV episodes and pretty much all television in general). While the pilot introduced us to the idea of the show and set up what it’s going to be about, this episode needs to keep people watching (again, this could be said about any episode of TV, but especially a second one). And Deep Throat does a great job of continuing this.

deepthroat

Since the Pilot didn’t use the opening credits and theme song, this is the first time we get to see them in all their early 90s glory. Really I’d say that, aside from the cell phones and computers that Mulder and Scully use, this is the aspect of the show that has aged the poorest. If you produced a TV show with the writing or the cinematography of The X-Files today, it would hold up. If you produced a TV show with these opening credits, people would not take it seriously.

Yet, I say that with a ton of affection, because these opening credits (specifically the theme tune) are some of the most iconic and classic parts of The X-Files, and is one of the biggest influences on pop culture. All somebody has to do is whistle a tune similar to the iconic theme, and you immediately picture aliens and conspiracies. It’s a little cheesy, yes, but it’s really memorable and has lasted as a part of pop culture over the years. It’s cheesy, but it’s rightfully beloved.

deepthroat2Another tangent, but this year I was lucky enough to be able to go to a convention with Gillian Anderson as a guest and go to the Q&A panel. The entire panel, the audience and Gillian had a running joke about shoulder pads. And oh god, are there ever shoulder pads. Add fashion to the things that aged poorly from these early episodes.

The thing that I’m mostly getting from this episode, though, is less the paranormal angle and more of the government conspiracy. Both of those things walk hand in hand throughout The X-Files’ run, but the real intrigue in this episode isn’t what paranormal thing happened to Col. Budahas, a military test pilot, but instead the further exploration of the government conspiracy, in particular with the introduction of the character Deep Throat (obviously borrowed from the famous Watergate scandal informant using the same pseudonym).

This is even the case back in the pilot – the discovery of the metal implant is secondary to the shot of the Cigarette Smoking Man filing it away at the Pentagon. When I was a teenager, the paranormal aspects of the show intrigued me, but now, as an adult, I am finding the conspiracy angle much more compelling.

That’s not to say that this episode’s main plot isn’t compelling; it certainly is. I’m just drawn much more to the idea that the government is covering up what’s happening to these test pilots than to the potential UFO connection. This is a testament to the writing of the show – it utilizes the paranormal aspect, but the biggest strengths are in the writing and the characters. But while UFO technology is a core aspect of the episode, government cover-ups are the real core of this episode. Even though Mulder and Scully work for the government, they still have to fight against the government, a very compelling fight.

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For being a fairly episodic show, I enjoy how Mulder and Scully are slowly getting to know one another, starting to get close with one another but still not completely being on the same page. Their relationship is developing nicely, and these two characters are the heart of the show. They’ve gotten to the point where they can joke around and Scully can start using her patented “I can’t believe you’re actually saying this” look. This is also the first time where Mulder abandons Scully to go investigating on his own, despite the consequences – something that happens more than once on this show.

deepthroat4

With these two characters, this episode is a bit of a shift – while Scully is arguably the protagonist of the pilot, Mulder gets a lot more screen time in this episode. Since this is an episodic show it does work that both characters can be protagonists in their own right, but I generally prefer Scully as a protagonist. Still, this is hardly a complaint, but merely an observation that this episode made a shift to be in both Mulder and Scully’s perspectives, but especially Mulder’s. Scully’s part in this is honestly a lot cooler than Mulder’s, though, as she gets Mulder back by holding military personnel at gunpoint.

Ultimately this is a great follow-up to the great pilot, and does a lot to set up Mulder and Scully as characters as well as the overall conspiracy storyline as a whole. 8/10

201 Days of X-Files – Season 1 Episode 1 – Pilot

As the new mini season of The X-Files is fast approaching, I’ve been wanting to do a rewatch but I’ve also been wondering how to do it. Luckily, Fox has done the timing for me, and is having an unofficial rewatch. They aren’t airing these episodes (they want you to buy the DVDs or do Netflix), but it is a nice idea to get fans back into the thing.

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been wanting to do a rewatch and possible review series for a good long while now, but now seems as good a time as any to do so.

Reviewing a pilot is an interesting thing. There are so many considerations that go into making a pilot that it’s hard to treat it as a normal episode of television. It’s made to entice TV executives to order more episodes, but it’s also made to get TV watchers to keep watching the show. It’s supposed to be the start of the story but also is supposed to show what a typical episode might look like. Pilots are also notoriously shaky – some of my favorite TV shows have pilots that I would flat out tell people to skip, or insist “no it gets better, believe me.

With all that being said, The X-Files actually has a fairly remarkably good pilot. While it’s not a perfect episode (I think the “this is based off of true events” angle is a bit hokey), and there are certainly much better episodes throughout the series run, it does a pretty fantastic job of introducing the basic premise of the show and getting across the general feel of the show. The firs meeting of Mulder and Scully, for example, has dialogue where he’s explaining why he’s a believer and why she’s a skeptic, and it perfectly conveys what their interactions are going to be.

Pilot1

The scenes featuring just Mulder and Scully, in particular their first meeting and when they bond in his hotel room, are the strongest scenes of the episodes. The chemistry between the two of them is already there in full force, which makes their partnership relationship wonderful to watch. Honestly, their relationship works almost TOO well right away; it feels like they are already trusting each other from the getgo, which doesn’t quite work with the narrative.

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The rest of the plot is pretty typical X-Files, but again goes a long way in establishing the tone of the show. Possible abductions! Lost time! Possible conspiracy! While the merit of the entire mythology arc has been debated a lot (I personally like them but I understand that there are serious flaws with the mytharc), this episode does a fantastic job of getting to the core of the mytharc and Mulder’s journey.

It’s also almost remarkable how the visual tone of the series is established. This show still looks great, and in part that’s because the cinematography (in particular the lighting) still looks wonderful. When I took a film production class in college, The X-Files was used as an example of effective lighting, and that’s not wrong. The use of shadows and chiaroscuro lighting gives The X-Files some unique visuals, and it looks great.

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The acting is pretty solid for the most part. Gillian Anderson is the always wonderful and David Duchovny manages to hold his own with her. Some of the guest actors aren’t too great (Theresa Nemman’s actress is a little shaky) but, for being a TV show in the early 90s (before film actors and production started to migrate to TV) the acting is solid.

Ultimately this episode (and most of The X-Files) holds up remarkably well for being over 20 years old. The strong writing, characters and cinematography make it work really well. There are a few elements that feel dated (certainly the technology they use is quite dated), but as a show this holds up. I first became an X-Files fan in late 2005 – early 2006, and the show worked well on first watch then, but it still works now.

While there are definitely better, more ambitious episode of The X-Files, this is just about a perfect pilot episode and a great introduction to a great series. 8/10.

Review: Stick it to the Man

Stick It To The Man_PC (6)

Going through my Steam games that I hadn’t played, seeing a game that had been previously recommended by the Extra Credits folks was intriguing. After looking and seeing that this game has clear Double Fine / Psychonauts influence, I was even more intrigued.

Stick it to the Man is a puzzle platformer with strong adventure game roots. You play as Ray, an average Joe who wakes up after an accident to find himself with powers – he has a giant arm coming out of his head that allows him to read minds and grab objects. This leads to a lot of great narrative and gameplay value – for example, if you are stuck on a puzzle, you might want to read someone’s mind and grab something from that to solve your problem in the real world. It’s a fairly simple mechanic that’s used well to solve puzzles and aid in your platforming.

The art and narrative are where Stick it to the Man shines. This game is genuinely unique visually and has a lot of humor, something more games should take a lesson from. Both of these are remarkably well done and serve to make this a very memorable game.

Since the game is very narrative driven, those looking for replayability won’t find much in Stick it to the Man. It’s a relatively short game, depending on your puzzle prowess and dexterity in some of the platforming sections, and unless you want to experience the game again or get some missed achievements, you probably won’t need to go back into this world.

That said, Stick it to the Man is an entertaining, fun game with a lot of charm, creating a very memorable and worthwhile experience.

Mechanics and Story in Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons

NOTE: THIS CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR BROTHERS: A TALE OF TWO SONS
I’m not the type of person who normally thinks a lot about game mechanics. I know when there are mechanics that are particularly interesting (like in Papers Please), but other than that it’s not something that makes me think. I focus a lot more on storytelling and the visual aesthetics, things that come from my media degree background. However, it has been something I’ve been thinking about since I finished playing Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons yesterday.
In the game, you simultaneously control two brothers. The controls are relatively simple and intuitive; you control the older brother with the left thumb and trigger, and you control the younger brother with the right thumb and trigger. Both are fairly similar to control, except you learn that the older brother is generally stronger and more capable at doing things than the younger brother. He can lift heavier things,  he can swim (whereas the younger brother hangs on) and he can pull heavier levers.
I liked this game a lot throughout the whole thing. It’s really beautiful and the gameplay was enjoyable. There are certain sequences (one where the brothers are connected by a rope comes to mind) I’d like to replay. However, I had the bias of seeing the game on multiple year end lists of 2013 (part of the reason I got the game) and I wondered what made it so remarkable to some. It was beautiful and well-made, but what made it stand out?
At a pivotal moment in the game, the older brother dies. I was shocked; how was I to play a game where suddenly half of it was gone? I knew that the game was near the end, but it seemingly made me keep on going as the younger brother. I got to a point where the younger brother had to swim. I was puzzled; how was I supposed to get this one to swim? I kept trying to go towards the water, wondering if I just hadn’t triggered a cut scene or something.
I’m not sure when the correct answer dawned on me, but that moment of realization is when I realized the brilliance of this death. I used the controls for the older brother, and suddenly the younger brother was able to swim. He was able to jump higher and use the heavier levers with the left trigger. He had grown up, not only in the game but with the mechanics.
This could have been told just narratively if the younger brother was now able to do these stronger things. It would have still resonated, knowing that now he could do things that he was unable to do before. However, this choice of playing with the game’s core mechanics made it all the more surprising and all the more moving. The older brother’s death not only turned the narrative upside down, but it played with the core experience of playing Brothers, which I imagine would make anyone playing take notice.
Looking back at 2013, I’d still put Papers, Please, among others, above Brothers. However, this one moment made the game more memorable, and showed what playing with game mechanics can really do to reinforce the narrative.

My Steam Summer Sale Haul

Steam Sales, man. The twice year game buying binge.

All in all, it was a fun year. My friend and I played a game with the sales, I managed to get a badge (and gave trading cards to others), and bought more games than a (then) unemployed person should. Ah, well, I have a lot to keep me occupied! Here’s the rundown of what I got this sale, and my thoughts.

Assassin’s Creed: Revelations

I still haven’t finished Brotherhood, whoops. Still, I love the series, and I’m fairly confident that I’ll be pleased with Revelations. Even if it’s only half as good as ACII, I should be happy. Assassin’s Creed III is on the top of my list of games to get at the next sale. It was still a bit too pricey for my tastes this sale, but I know I want to give it a shot, despite it supposedly not being as good as its predecessors.

Chivalry: Medieval Warfare

My friend and I had a game; every time a game we voted for won a vote, we had to buy it. I cheated once by not buying a game, but then I had to buy another. Really, this was just so we bought more games. I actually enjoy Chivalry, for what it’s worth. I’m not a big multiplayer gamer, myself; I like story. However, Chivalry’s a fun take on the first person multiplayer action game, and occasionally I’m not half bad at it. I’m mostly bad, though, so we’ll see how much more I play of it.

Civilization 5

See last What I’m Blanking entry. But this is a seriously fun game. I didn’t know what I was expecting when I started it, but I’ve gotten into strategy games now, I guess. This is completely addicting, and I’m very glad I bought this.

Deus Ex: Human Revolution

People told me to wait until the new edition came out. However, this game was $3! I still haven’t gotten around to playing that much of it, but I’m really trying for maximum stealth and minimum kill. As someone who’s terrible at stealth games, this is making my game a LOT longer!

Dust: An Elysian Tale

I’ve wanted this game ever since it was an XBox exclusive; I’m SO glad it got ported, and now I got it! The art style’s really nice looking,  the action is fluid and fun, and it’s a really nice game.

Fallout: New Vegas

This is one of those games that I really wanted to pick up during this sale! I really like the post-apocalyptic setting and the gameplay, and it’s a really fun game. To be honest, I find the Fallout games a bit difficult to marathon play, but I know I’ll be coming back to this one.

Final Fantasy VII

This was my punishment for not buying a game. I haven’t tried it yet, but this is one of those classic games I’ve never played. So I’m pretty excited.

Organ Trail

It’s Oregon Trail. But with zombies! Basically, that’s the best description for it. My friend and I both bought it and named characters after each other. The only thing I dislike is the shooting mechanic, but it’s ultimately a fun game that I got for pretty cheap!

Skyrim

Seriously, it’s Skyrim. But I’ve had a lot of fun with this one, as well; see one of my previous What I’m Blanking posts.

Surgeon Simulator

I bought this again because of that bet my friend made. This is frustration: the game. Basically, look up any gameplay vid of it, and you see why. Not sure how much of this I’ll play, but I got it anyways.