Oscars 2016: How’d I do? So-so …

la-et-mn-oscars-2016-nominations-winners-list (1)

This was not one of my better years predicting the Oscars. While I had most of the biggies correct (Director, Adapted and Original Screenplay, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actress), I was off on two biggies: Picture and Supporting Actor. I have to say, Sly losing is the bummer of the night for me … Mainly because I could not envision a scenario in which George Miller would win Director and “Fury Road” would take Best Picture.

In any event, I’m glad I went to bed after “Mad Max”’s early run. It was fun to turn off the TV and ponder whether Furiosa and company could go all the way …

One interesting note. While I finished 14 of 24 in what I felt would win, I was 12 of 24 in what I actually wanted to win. Honestly, 50 percent of my favorites winning is pretty darn good.

Oscars 2016: What will win, and what SHOULD win


It’s Oscar time again, so here are my picks for what will win and what should win at the 88th Academy Awards.

Best Picture
“The Big Short”
“Bridge of Spies”
“Mad Max: Fury Road”
“The Martian”
“The Revenant”
Will Win: “The Revenant”
Should Win: “Spotlight”

Best Director
Adam McKay, “The Big Short”
George Miller, “Mad Max: Fury Road”
Alejandro González Iñárritu, “The Revenant”
Lenny Abrahamson, “Room”
Tom McCarthy, “Spotlight”
Will Win: Alejandro González Iñárritu, “The Revenant”
Should Win: George Miller, “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Best Actor
Bryan Cranston, “Trumbo”
Matt Damon, “The Martian”
Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Revenant”
Michael Fassbender, “Steve Jobs”
Eddie Redmayne, “The Danish Girl”
Will Win: Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Revenant”
Should Win: Leonardo DiCaprio, “The Revenant”

Best Actress
Cate Blanchett, “Carol”
Brie Larson, “Room”
Jennifer Lawrence, “Joy”
Charlotte Rampling, “45 Years”
Saoirse Ronan, “Brooklyn”
Will Win: Brie Larson, “Room”
Should Win: Brie Larson, “Room”

Best Supporting Actor
Christian Bale, “The Big Short”
Tom Hardy, “The Revenant”
Mark Ruffalo, “Spotlight”
Mark Rylance, “Bridge of Spies”
Sylvester Stallone, “Creed”
Will Win: Sylvester Stallone, “Creed”
Should Win: Sylvester Stallone, “Creed”

Best Supporting Actress
Jennifer Jason Leigh, “The Hateful Eight”
Rooney Mara, “Carol”
Rachel McAdams, “Spotlight”
Alicia Vikander, “The Danish Girl”
Kate Winslet, “Steve Jobs”
Will Win: Alicia Vikander, “The Danish Girl”
Should Win: Rooney Mara, “Carol”*
*(Since Kristen Stewart is not nominated for “Clouds of Sils Maria”)

Best Original Screenplay
“Bridge of Spies”
“Ex Machina”
“Inside Out”
“Straight Outta Compton”
Will Win: “Spotlight”
Should Win: “Ex Machina”

Best Adapted Screenplay
“The Big Short”
“The Martian”
Will Win: “The Big Short”
Should Win: “Carol”

Best Foreign Film
“Embrace of the Serpent”
“Son of Saul”
“A War”
Will Win: “Son of Saul”
Should Win: “Son of Saul”

Best Documentary Feature
“Cartel Land”
“The Look of Silence”
“What Happened, Miss Simone?”
“Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom”
Will Win: “Amy”
Should Win: “The Look of Silence”

Best Animated Feature
“Boy and the World”
“Inside Out”
“Shaun the Sheep Movie”
“When Marnie Was There”
Will Win: “Inside Out”
Should Win: “Anomalisa”

Best Film Editing
“The Big Short”
“Mad Max: Fury Road”
“The Revenant”
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”
Will Win: “The Revenant
Should Win: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Best Song
“Fifty Shades of Grey”
“Racing Extinction”
“The Hunting Ground”
Will Win: “The Hunting Ground”
Should Win: “Fifty Shades of Grey”

Best Original Score
“Bridge of Spies”
“The Hateful Eight”
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”
Will Win: “The Hateful Eight”
Should Win: “The Hateful Eight”

Best Digital Effects
“Ex Machina”
“The Martian”
“The Revenant”
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”
Will Win: “The Revenant”
Should Win: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

Best Cinematography
“The Hateful Eight”
“Mad Max: Fury Road”
“The Revenant”
Will Win: “The Revenant”
Should Win: “The Revenant”

Best Costume Design
“The Danish Girl”
“Mad Max: Fury Road”
“The Revenant”
Will Win: “The Danish Girl”
Should Win: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Best Makeup and Hairstyling
“Mad Max: Fury Road”
“The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared”
“The Revenant”
Will Win: “Mad Max: Fury Road”
Should Win: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Best Production Design
“Bridge of Spies”
“The Danish Girl”
“Mad Max: Fury Road”
“The Martian”
“The Revenant”
Will Win: “The Revenant”
Should Win: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Best Sound Editing
“Mad Max: Fury Road”
“The Martian”
“The Revenant”
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”
Will Win: “The Revenant”
Should Win: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Best Sound Mixing
“Bridge of Spies”
“Mad Max: Fury Road”
“The Martian”
“The Revenant”
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens”
Will Win: “The Revenant
Should Win: “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Best Short Film, Live Action
“Ave Maria”
“Day One”
“Everything Will Be Okay”
Will Win: “Stutterer”
Should Win: ?

Best Short Film, Animated
“Bear Story”
“Sanjay’s Super Team”
“We Can’t Live Without Cosmos”
“World of Tomorrow”
Will Win: “Bear Story”
Should Win: “World of Tomorrow”

Best Documentary Short Subject
“Body Team 12”
“Chau, Beyond the Lines”
“Claude Lanzmann”
“A Girl in the River”
“Last Day of Freedom”
Will Win: “Claude Lanzmann”
Should Win: ?

Review: A boy’s will to survive is the heart of ‘Theeb’


I don’t think “Theeb” stands a chance of winning this year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, but it’s a deserving nominee. Here is my three-star review from the Buffalo News.

“Theeb” is a somber, suspenseful survival film from director Naji Abu Nowar, one that stands out for a key reason: The drama set in the Hejaz Province of Arabia in 1916 is centered on a young boy, one who speaks little but sees much.

That boy is Theeb, nicely underplayed by Jacir Eid Al-Hwietat. The young Bedouin lives with his brother, Hussein (Hussein Salameh Al-Sweilhiyeen), and as we see in the film’s first few minutes, theirs is a very warm, loving relationship. The orphans clearly maintain a close bond.

Their lives take an unexpected turn when a young British soldier (Jack Fox) appears out of the darkness. He and his escort are seeking a guide, and Hussein volunteers. Theeb cannot help but follow, and the journey soon takes a grim turn.

This is all a tad confusing, and director Abu Nowar offers little in the way of explanation. However, the disorientation adds to the film, and cements our bond with Theeb. We don’t learn a great deal about the boy, but that is likely due to the fact that he is still in the process of discovering who he is.

What’s most striking about him is his will for survival, and in that sense “Theeb” brings to mind a number of very good films centered on young protagonists caught up in extraordinary circumstances, including Nicolas Roeg’s “Walkabout” and Steven Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun.” It does not quite reach the highs of those two classics, but it shares the same spirit.

Jordan provides the visually stunning backdrop, one that occasionally calls to mind the Western genre. Interestingly, the bare bones of the tale could fit any number of genres: A young boy and his brother attempt to lead a stranger to safety, before violence descends upon them.

By taking that shell and setting it in early 1900s Arabia, British-born director Abu Nowar keeps things feeling fresh and unexpected. We watch in wonder at what visual surprises Theeb will find during his journey, even if the thematic surprises are few and far between.

That would be the main criticism of “Theeb,” that at a certain point the story seems to come to a halt. It is never less than compelling, but the last 30 minutes, especially, lack the drama of the first hour.

Part of the issue – without giving too much away – is that the initial group of characters leaves the picture rather quickly. The remainder of the film misses the warmth of Hussein and the mystery of the British soldier.

However, these plot decisions do amp up the emotional impact. Abu Nowar stages one of the saddest scenes of sibling heartbreak in film, and also creates a masterful, horrifying sequence in a deep, dark well that ranks as the film’s most memorable moment.

The filmmaker also wrote the screenplay, and while the movie’s dialogue is sparse, several lines resonate – among them, “Brotherhood is more important than your railway” and “God sent me so that the beasts don’t eat you.”

The latter line is delivered by an injured mercenary (Hassan Mutlag Al-Maraiyeh) who becomes Theeb’s unwanted companion for the film’s final stretch. The two have a tense relationship and this leads to a finale in which the boy must make a decision no child should have to ponder.

“Theeb” is a film of sudden emotional shifts, and some strong violence, but it’s one some adolescents may find riveting. This tale of a boy facing life-altering events is the kind of unique story that could form the basis of a great novel. And by bringing it to the big screen, Abu Nowar has opened our eyes to a time and place rarely experienced in cinemas.

From The Film Stage — Books on Filmmaking: ‘The Force Awakens,’ Spike Lee, Pixar, and More


My latest books piece for The Film Stage is heavy on The Force Awakens, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Take a look. (Amazon links to all books can be found at the link.)

Force Awakens fever is still gripping the film industry two months after the release of the seventh Star Wars entry, and the world of cinema-centric books is just as Snoke-obsessed. But there’s plenty more worth snagging, including in-depth analyses of Pixar and Spike Lee’s Bamboozled, a lavish study of musicals, and a graphic stunner called Filmish.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Visual Dictionary by Pablo Hidalgo (DK Publishing)

Star Wars The Force Awakens Visual Dictionary















DK’s Star Wars visual  dictionaries are, quite simply, must-owns. (Even the three prequel editions are fascinating.) And the Force Awakens Visual Dictionary might be the best yet. Author Pablo Hidalgo goes deep, providing everything you wanted to know about Jakku (but were afraid to ask), offering insight on briefly seen characters like Max Von Sydow’s Lor San Tekka, and breaking down exactly why the “crossguard blades” of Kylo Ren’s lightsaber are a necessity. Plus, the film stills and close-up images are a Star Wars geek’s dream come true. Been coveting a good look at Han Solo’s insulated boots and Rey’s pilot doll? You got it.

Filmish: A Graphic Journey Through Film by Edward Ross (Abrams Books)


While technically a 2015 release, I feel confident in saying the winner of Cinephile’s Most Beloved Book of 2016 has arrived. Edward Ross’s Filmishis, as its subtitle puts it, “a graphic journey through film,” one that touches on more than 300 films, Centered on concepts like “the eye,” “the body,” “voice and language,” and “power and ideology,” Filmish is a joy to page through. Part of the fun is identifying the films referenced, and happily, Ross does include a filmography. How eclectic is the mix? Everything from They Live to Hiroshima, Mon Amour makes an appearance. Filmish would be an especially perfect read for a budding young film fanatic; I wish I’d had it as a teen obsessively taping old films on Turner Classic Movies.

Richard Pryor: American Id by Jason Bailey (The Critical Press)

Richard Pryor

Writer Jason Bailey’s books on Pulp Fiction and Woody Allen are two of the most enjoyable filmmaking reads in recent years. He shifts gears with the essay collection Richard Pryor: American Id, but the results are no less impressive. Bailey opens with an analysis of “the most riveting footage ever captured of Richard Pryor,” a trainwreck of a morning-show interview shot on the Arizona set of Stir Crazy. “You cannot take your eyes off it,” Bailey writes, sending the reader racing to YouTube for a viewing of the coke-crazed, deliriously profane comic. The interview provides a unique intro to a text exploring Pryor’s work, his life, and racial identity. You’re unlikely to find a more fascinating 80-page read.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Official Novelization by Alan Dean Foster (Del Rey/LucasBooks)

Star Wars The Force Awakens novelization

It is certainly fitting that Alan Dean Foster, author of the novelization of A New Hope and famous spin-off novel Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, was chosen to write the novelization of The Force Awakens. The differences between the film and the text have been well-documented — Unkar Plutt follows Rey to Maz Kanata’s place and loses a limb in the process, Finn and Rey steal a snowspeeder — and certainly add to one’s enjoyment of the film itself. While some of the added dialogue is rather silly (“We’ll have a party later,” Han tells the reunited Finn and Rey. “I’ll bring the cake.”), Foster’s Force Awakens is a brisk, entertaining read that stands nicely on its own.

Woody: The Biography by David Evanier (St. Martin’s Press)


Yes, David Evanier’s Woody: The Biography is yet another tome about the films and personal controversies surrounding Woody Allen. What makes this one stand out is its analysis of Allen’s recent cinematic output a well as the details surrounding the recently resurfaced accusations of Dylan Farrow. In addition, Evanier’s book concludes with a chat — although not an interview — with the man himself. “[Our] conversation encompassed the moral realities of the world we live in: discussion of the Holocaust, discussion of art and the idea of a masterpiece versus frivolity,” the author writes. While we’re left wishing for even more highlights of the one-on-one chat, what’s here is enough to bring the biography to a grand close.

Musicals: The Definitive Illustrated Story (DK Publishing)


Musicals: The Definitive Illustrated Story is a coffee-table stunner for any lover of Broadway, or the film adaptations that often follow stage success. The sheer scope of this visual extravaganza makes it a major achievement. Starting in 17th century France and stretching all the way to Hamilton (a very appropriate ending), the text is as entertaining as it is educational. And while a Sondheim timeline and breakdown of Julie Taymor’s approach toThe Lion King might not be groundbreaking, in the context of Musicals such elements seem remarkably fresh.

The Art of Star Wars: The Force Awakens by Phil Szostak (Abrams Books)

Star Wars The Force Awakens Art

Of all the new Force Awakens-themed literary releases, the one that offers the finest sense of how the film came together is surely The Art of The Force Awakens. In this remarkable text, we witness how young heroes “Kira and Sam” developed into Rey and Finn, how the concept of a “Jedi killer” morphed into Kylo Ren, and what a film featuring more direct involvement from Luke Skywalker may have looked like. The Art also makes clear that the much-debated parallels with A New Hope from a visual and storytelling perspective were always intentional. Did the Starkiller Base design remind you of the Death Star? Of course it did. As art director Kevin Jenkins puts it, “It’s a massive homage.”

Facing Blackness: Media and Minstrelsy in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled by Ashley Clark (The Critical Press)

Facing Blackness

Fifteen years after its release, Spike Lee’s Bamboozled remains one of the most complex films of its director’s career. All too often it has been disregarded, so it is high time for a contemplative book like Ashley Clark’sFacing Blackness. Yes, Bamboozled is “hardly fan favorite material,” Clark writes, but also a radical effort that harnesses “blackface imagery in complex and provocative ways.” While she finds the satire “occasionally muddy,” Clark also rightly finds Bamboozled to be a “horror film” that “streaks the screen with unhealed psychic scars.” This is brilliant, essential writing about an unforgettable film.



Yesterday Is Forever: Nostalgia and Pixar Animation Studios by Josh Spiegel (The Critical Press)

Yesterday is Forever

Movie Mezzanine’s Josh Spiegel shines new light on the Pixar oeuvre inYesterday Is Forever: Nostalgia and Pixar Animation Studios. Spiegel adroitly makes the case for nostalgia, “the renewable fuel of modern popular culture,” as central to the successes of John Lasseter and company. Perhaps most insightful is his comparison of Disney’s Frozen with Pixar’s underrated Brave. The latter, he writes, is “fully committed to depicting a mother-daughter relationship without any make intrusion,” whereas Frozen is “more concerned with the nebulous concept of romantic, not sisterly, love.”



Star Wars: The Force Awakens Incredible Cross-Sections written by Jason Fry, illustrated by Kemp Remillard (DK Publishing)

Star Wars The Force Awakens Crosssections

DK’s Force Awakens Incredible Cross-Sections is the least-essential TFAbook of the bunch, but that doesn’t mean it’s not wildly intriguing. The level of detail here — the auxiliary generator in Poe Dameron’s X-wing, the fuel tank in Rey’s speeder, the “relief pilot bunk” in the Millennium Falcon — is staggering. Plus, the artistry of illustrator Kemp Remillard makes every page frame-worthy.

Alien Next Door by Joey Spiotto (Titan Books)


And now for something completely different. The premise of artist Joey Spiotto’s Alien Next Door is simple, smart, and very, very funny: What would our favorite Ripley-battling sci-fi monster look like when going to the beach, bowling, or taking a selfie? Filled with numerous in-jokes any fan of theAlien films will appreciate, Alien Next Door is a face-hugging treat.

Bonus: Novel Round-Up

The Girl in the Spiders Web

Those looking for two gripping novels with links to the world of cinema should check out David Lagercrantz’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web (Alfred A. Knopf) and Jo Nesbo’s Midnight Sun (Alfred A. Knopf). The former is the continuation of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series and the story of its heroine, Lisbeth Salander. While fans of Larsson’s original trilogy may have been concerned with the idea of another author carrying on the series, it quickly becomes clear that Lagercrantz’s book is respectful and appropriately thrilling. Let’s hope we someday have the chance to see Rooney Mara in a big-screen adaptation of this story involving hacking the N.S.A. And Jo Nesbo, author of The Snowman (finally filming with Michael Fassbender as iconic detective Harry Hole), returns with another chilly crime drama called Midnight Sun. This tale of the former fixer for a Norwegian crime lord is a short (less than 300 pages), fast-moving blast of a novel.

Review: ‘Yosemite’ is a fine adaptation of two James Franco short stories


“Yosemite” is a fine film playing for one week only at the Screening Room in Amherst. I gave it three stars in my Buffalo News review.

Say what you will about the ludicrously overextended James Franco, but never deny his ambition. What other young male actor would star in a re-creation of the sexually explicit deleted scenes from 1980’s “Cruising,” play himself in the “Veronica Mars” feature, and direct a movie about the creation of Tommy Wiseau’s epicly awful cult hit “The Room”?

Yes, only Franco has the chutzpah, for better or worse, to tackle such a head-spinningly diverse selection of projects. If his starring role in Hulu’s soon-to-debut Stephen King adaptation “11.22.63” is a shout, Gabrielle Demeestere’s intimate drama “Yosemite” must be termed a whisper.

Showing from Feb. 5 to 11 in the Screening Room Cinema Cafe (3131 Sheridan Drive, Amherst), “Yosemite” is based on two short stories written by Franco and features the actor in a small role.

While not as emotionally resonant as 2014’s “Palo Alto,” the teen drama based on a collection of Franco’s short stories, “Yosemite” shares that film’s appreciation of the somber minutiae of adolescent life.

Set in 1985 Palo Alto, Calif., “Yosemite” is centered around a trio of fifth-graders, all in the same class, all deeply rooted in a fractured suburban existence. Hovering over the film is the hunt for a mountain lion that is on the prowl, and giving pause to every child and adult in the area.

We are introduced to Chris (Everett Meckler) on an overnight trip with his recovering alcoholic father (Franco) and younger brother. The relationship between child and adult feels suitably forced; clearly, there is a distance between Chris and his old man.

Joe (Alec Mansky) is a quiet, sullen comic book fan whose parents are no longer together after a family tragedy. He was once close with classmate Ted (Calum John), but now the two are at odds.

All three of the young leads are natural, convincing actors. Perhaps the most involving character of the bunch is Alec Mansky’s Joe, a boy clearly in search of guidance and friendship.

He finds it, to some degree, from Henry (Henry Hopper, son of Dennis and the talented lead of Gus Van Sant’s offbeat 2011 film “Restless”). This loner with a stack of comics encourages Joe to read the superhero tales aloud, and seems curiously concerned with his safety.

But like most relationships in the film, there is an undercurrent of danger. There is a definite lack of follow-through on several fronts, specifically the relationship between Henry and Joe. Is he a predator? Is his interest in Joe unhealthy? Demeestere never answers these questions, and that’s clearly intentional.

In fact, the interactions between the three fifth-graders and the adults are all fraught with tension. Even the seemingly normal relationship of Ted and his insomniac father, an early user of the Internet, is, to say the least, strange. (Pay close attention to the text on the computer screen.)

The minefields of youth are clearly of interest to Franco, and Demeestere does a fine job of showing just how difficult life is for all three kids. Even Ted, the most nondescript of the bunch, suffers the loss of a pet (possibly to the mountain lion).

For all its modest successes, “Yosemite” cannot help but feel sleight. Just 80 minutes long, the film always is intriguing, but does not lead anywhere profound. There is a spiritual undercurrent that is especially pronounced in its closing scenes, but like the Joe-Henry relationship, never quite pays off.

Still, Demeestere’s work here is impressive. This small-scale drama is visually arresting and worthy of contemplation, and shows her to be a filmmaker on the rise.

Just her first feature, “Yosemite” is a strange, involving, very quiet film, and whatever it lacks in theatrics it makes up for with mood. It is another unexpected foray for Franco, and while it may garner less press than something like the high-profile “11.22.63,” it deserves an audience.