Awards Circle: Belated Oscars 2016 Round-up (Part 1)

I return from my (academic) hiatus with a look back at the Best Picture nominees of the 88th Academy Awards. While my top pick didn’t win the plum (if you follow me online, you know how furiously passionate I am about it), I’m still delighted at the results. I can’t promise there will be no display of bad blood here (sorry in advance The Revenant, but you deserved your Oscars anyway. Sort of.). So here’s my take, counting down from the good to the best of 2015’s so-called best, and may the ceremonies to come prove to be more worthy and inclusive!

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8. The Martian

 Acclaimed director Ridley Scott returns to sci-fi fare and probably helmed one of the genre’s rare, ‘feel-good’ films, whose rousing thoughtfulness transcends from its extra-terrestrial setting. THE MARTIAN is more than a just a survival story of the titular character (which is also the same reason why Matt Damon would feel overshadowed). It is a celebration of genius that instills admiration to the men and women dedicated to pursuing the mystery of the vast truth beyond them. Familiar sci-fi elements run in its DNA but if there’s one thing THE MARTIAN successfully achieves (as compared to let’s say, Jurassic World), it invokes the natural sense of wonder and dread in space, and hope in humanity. Film-wise, THE MARTIAN is easily accessible thanks to the buoyant tone of Mark Watney’s (Damon) predicament. While his deadpan demeanour in lowering oxygen and supply levels makes him affable, it is his resilience that would make viewers root for him as he uproot himself from the red planet. Supporting characters orbiting Watney’s rescue mission seemed underutilized, but it was refreshing to see a strong female perspective in Jessica Chastain’s commander-at-large. In the end, my praises for the movie would be directed to the real astronauts and scientists, which I used to want to become when I was a child. (And I must admit on having fleeting memories of the superb Moon while watching). But the whole of THE MARTIAN does feel it serves a greater purpose – inspiring (not just promising young intellectuals) to believe in the impossible.

Rating: 3.0/5.0

 

7. The Big Short

The eventual Best Adapted Screenplay winner could be described as a testosterone-filled tableau about the ‘winners’ of the 2008 global financial crisis. Comedy-drama THE BIG SHORT boasts of Hollywood’s A-listers who re-enact the gamble of their Wall Street-counterparts as they hedge against the impending credit crunch. Among the eight Best Picture nominees, it is the most informative and factual (with respect to Spotlight), made attuned for mainstream viewing through Adam McKay‘s crisp direction and rapid interplay that webs the ensemble’s storylines. Smooth-talking Ryan Gosling as a Deutsche Bank dealer is convincing while Brad Pitt keeps the movie interesting by playing a retired trader aiding two green capitalists. The financial implosion would not feel cathartic if not for Christian Bale’s manic spiritual animal as the brilliant hedge fund manager who first recognized the collapse of mortgage-backed securities. Guest stars keep the viewers abreast of the concepts popping out and their appearances are amusing, if not a diversion from the real-life occurrence of such global disaster. Personally, I associate myself with Steve Carell’s grouchiness towards his profession. Turns out that in the end, we have something in common: we are both out from the market.

Rating: 3.0/5.0

 

6. The Revenant

I wasn’t surprised when THE REVENANT received its fair share of acclaim and criticism. The film that finally earned Leonardo DiCaprio his first Best Actor trophy had admirably immersed viewers in the breath-taking yet perilous wilderness whose natural beauty is impeccably captured by three-peat cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Director Alejandro Inarritu indulges on another masterful attempt towards perfection, this time through a man’s undying strength and unbreakable spirit (a virtuous subject as compared to the relentless ego of Birdman). As the titular character, DiCaprio’s commitment to the role was Herculean in his undaunted quest for survival and revenge. THE REVENANT delivered one of cinema’s rawest adventures but amidst the grit and gloss, I am left underwhelmed by the meat of the story. The film relies heavily on flashbacks to unearth Hugo Glass’ motivations that felt more of a forced intermission than an organic backstory. The running time is as laborious as the trek of Glass’ party back to the fort. But if there’s one thing that I’d call out for, is the lack of emotional potency from ogling the viciousness of man, animal and nature which impedes whatever thematic relevance remains in the story. THE REVENANT is no doubt, a tour de force of its three important elements and it would be unfair to pertain to it as a gloating project with Oscar ambitions (which it has achieved). But to say the least, I prefer the parts than the whole itself.

Rating: 3.5/5.0

 

5. Bridge of Spies

The prolific partnership of Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg reliably brought to life the good old glamor of period spyware in BRIDGE OF SPIES, remarkably understated and grounded despite being helmed by Hollywood’s heavyweights. That isn’t to say that the thriller, about an American lawyer (Hanks) who arranges a tense prisoner exchange, is slow-burner that fizzles until the climactic scene foreboded by the title. Written by Joel and Ethan Cohen, BRIDGE OF SPIES unravels the unique humanity of the situation channeled through James Donovan whose compassion, perceptiveness and professionalism were his weapons in thorny geopolitical negotiations and public persecution. Hanks finely embodied an ‘everyday’ man who committed himself to an extraordinary cause – a nuanced portrayal not quite resonated by Matt Damon in The Martian (just my opinion). But the film’s MVP (featuring one of 2015’s best performances) is Mark Rylance who won Best Supporting Actor as the wry and translucent Soviet spy. Rylance radiates a beguiling charm in Abel’s pensiveness and resignation that serves as the ying to Donovan’s determined yang. BRIDGE OF SPIES does not lose sight of its grim reality nor underplays the bitter aftertaste of war, but Donovan lulling back to his abode is a peaceful close that will usher the small victories (that he will be known for) to come.

Rating: 3.5/5.0

 

Up next: The better half puts women on the spotlight.

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Capsule Review: Safety Not Guaranteed, Ex Machina, Jurassic World

Recently, I began observing a self-imposed rule on my viewing docket: designate one film genre per month. My previous post did have common denominator but I officially started last month by settling into the contemporary contributions to the pulpy world of science fiction. While it’s true that most of this genre’s concepts such as time-travelling, artificial intelligence (AI) and genetic modifications are explored to either progressive or regressive effect, some tend to hurdle what is expected (which is besides stirring one’s imagination). In concrete examples, the personal experience is the center of gravity in SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED which sidelined its sci-fi component by pulling its characters into an emotional orbit that revolves around disillusionment and dreams. Meanwhile, shivers ran down the robotic spine as an AI’s agency is tested and fought for control in EX MACHINA’s dangerous allegory about the future machinations of men who treat themselves as gods and saviors, only to be eliminated in the end. As for the hyped reopening of JURASSIC WORLD, it does invite nostalgia but the pure wonderment is extinct (am I the only one exasperated by the CGI combustion?). My unpopular opinion could be preceded by the name of its main attraction-turned-destruction, but leaving the iconic theme park behind has strengthened my belief that the unmatchable delight and beloved memories of the original film is definitely worth preserving.

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SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED (2012)

With her works in Parks and Recreation and The To Do List, Aubrey Plaza is the unofficial ambassador of the modern-day skeptical yet pragmatic youth who (in this case) kindles the humble adventures of director Colin Trevorrow’s debut comedy. Darius (Plaza), her boss-writer Jeff (Jake Johnson) and a fellow intern pursue an odd classified ad for their magazine article, only to find themselves in an eye-opening expedition that evokes the feelings of the past and abandons the existing pretentions for a dogged trip to the future. SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED’s attention-grabbing premise is subversive of its overall payoff. Stowing its sci-fi element during the rest of the film for an astonishing finale, this indie comedy finds its charm on the earnestness of its characters who are caught up with the disillusionment on their present conditions. Darius, Jeff and the bizarre ad author Kenneth (Mark Duplass) are, in varying degrees, suffering from nostalgia who find ways to relive the past and resolve to carry on with their lives. The disenchantment Darius particularly experiences is recognizable that she is easily empathized as her conviction grows in finding something (or someone) she could believe into. Jeff may or may not end up publishing the piece about a man looking for company in his time-travelling mission but SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED is itself a satisfying human interest story, both candid and contemplative, with the right amount of incredulity, inquisitiveness and individuality that builds for a refreshing sci-fi cause.

Rating: 3.5/5.0

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EX MACHINA (2015)

Fashioning itself as a foreboding sci-fi parable (ex. Under the Skin), EX MACHINA is a gripping and though-provoking thriller that envisions the fight for control over machines, both by men and themselves by means of AI. First-time director Alex Garland creates an arresting atmosphere on the external and in-house shots that diffuses the film’s intellectual moodiness. As a rare minimalist (per the genre’s convention), the focus is heavier in establishing its ambitious ideas to the setting (the confined areas of technological invincibility/downfall with the brewing tension among its characters) than the computer-generated effects, which is more compelling to the astute viewer. The audience adapts in the film’s futuristic world through Caleb (Domnhall Gleeson), a young programmer premeditatedly chosen by the eccentric and capricious company CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac) to perform the Turing test to his latest humanoid robot, Ava (Alicia Vikander). With the programming sourced from billions of accessible and hacked personal information, the questionable ethicality of Nathan’s research and development dawns in Caleb, which is further heightened by his burgeoning mutual understanding (and unsolicited warnings of) with Ava. Unraveling to its startling climax, EX MACHINA becomes more than the exploration of the authoritative relationship between man and machine. Ava is an ingenious metaphor for a female creation grasping her agency and utilizing it for survival, that turns out to be both humanizing and terrifying. It’s a threatening reality that Garland convincingly suggests, along particularly with Vikander on her sharp sensibilities as the robot in observation. Ava may have outmaneuvered her creator and savior but the real danger is weighed between man’s abusive and controlling genius and a machine’s unpredictable recognition of its potentials. EX MACHINA is the latest speculative fiction that proves to be more fascinating than it looks, and at the same time, is a subtle cautionary tale on the recipients of trust. Knowledge is power but betrayal, as Caleb and Nathan fatally learn, could render that power useless.

Rating: 3.5/5.0

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JURASSIC WORLD (2015)

The Jurassic Park franchise gets a new lease of life in the hands of Trevorrow (Safety Not Guaranteed!) on the passably entertaining yet thematically deficient fourth motion picture (with creator Steven Spielberg’s blessing). After the unmemorable second and third installments, JURASSIC WORLD, to its credit, is a welcome rebirth that relishes the glory of the first film with its new cast led by the always likable Chris Pratt. The extinct species’ return to the big screen is inevitable given the advancement on filmmaking’s technology and the latest Jurassic film follows the same principle by creating genetically-modified dinosaurs of the comparative degree. But what is bigger is not always better and while the visuals are a definite enhancement, JURASSIC WORLD doesn’t capture the genuine curiosity, wonderment and exhilaration of the series’ alpha. As Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) says in her businesslike tone, kids nowadays are not impressed by dinosaurs anymore. On the contrary, the film doesn’t impart a satisfying postscript apart from the fleeting adventurous thrills and comedic timings. Despite the cast’s representative roles and the establishment of corporate greed and responsibility, JURASSIC WORLD is hollow on character development and moral emphasis which is a criminal undoing of a monster movie (i.e. the metaphoric superiority of Garett Edward’s Godzilla over the human populace). Pratt earns a few moments in brokering the interesting bond between man and dinosaur but such relationship is only exploited for narrative functionality and not on the meaningful acknowledgement of respect in the laws of nature. Trevorrow sneaks in little pleasures but he tumbles in translating the more relevant themes in a bigger and more technical scale. JURASSIC WORLD, nevertheless, is still a pleasurable adventure blockbuster but this time, it’s better to compare it with its league of big-budgeted flicks than the unparalleled original.

Rating: 2.5/5.0

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Next Sci-fi attraction: Sam Rockwell and the marvelous rock that is MOON