Welcome to The Mundane Adventures of a Fangirl

I consider myself a Fangirl. What does that mean, you ask? A "fanboy" in the most common understanding is a hardcore fan of 'genre' based entertainment in particular. In my case - science-fiction and comic book based movies and television. Because I'm a chick - it's fangirl, not fanboy. There you have it! I am a big movie fan, however, not necessarily a 'film' fan. And now - I have the forum to present my opinions to the public! These will mainly be movie reviews -that will always be my opinion - repeat OPINION. Just what I think, and in no way do I present my opinion as fact. I hope you enjoy and maybe it will help you decide what to see at the movie theater this weekend!

Monday, February 12, 2018

Movie Review: I, Tonya (R – 120 minutes)

Tonya Harding was well known as a champion figure skater, and as someone who would often come up against the “establishment” in figure skating – she was more rough around the edges, unlike the classically trained women in the sport prior to her arrival. An ‘incident’ prior to the 1994 Winter Olympics where her rival, Nancy Kerrigan, was bashed in the knee by an assailant became the defining moment of Tonya’s career, for better or worse.  The degree to which Tonya was involved in the incident has been widely disputed.  This movie takes the story, and tells it in a ‘documentary’ style using interviews with the actors in character, as well as some fourth-wall breaking by characters during the scenes. 

The story starts in 1970s Portland, Oregon where four year old ‘white trash’ Tonya is living with her abusive mother, LaVona, when her father leaves them.  The only thing she is good at is figure skating, so her mother pulls her out of school and she begins to train with coach Diane Rawlinson. Tonya has incredible natural skill, and rises quickly through the ranks, but never quite reaches the top.  Her homemade costumes, exceptionally difficult attitude, and questionable choice in performance music holds her back. 

At 15, Tonya meets and starts dating 18 year old Jeff Gillooly.  Despite LaVona being against the relationship – they eventually get married so that she can get away from her mother.  In Tonya’s interviews, she states that Jeff started beating her right away, in his interviews, he denies that.  Eventually, Tonya becomes the first female skater to complete a triple axel jump in competition.  She has a falling out with her coach, who she fires, and moves on to coach Dody Teachman to prepare for the 1992 Winter Olympics. At the Olympics, rattled after attempting to leave Jeff, she misses most of her jumps and finishes fourth. 

Distraught, Tonya heads home and becomes a waitress.  Diane shows up to tell her that the Winter Olympics are shifting so that the Winter and Summer games will no longer be in the same year, so the next games are in 1994, instead of 1996, and she wants to train her.  Tonya, reinvigorated, starts training.  During a training session, she receives a death threat.  Jeff, and his moronic friend Shawn Eckhardt, consire to hire two complete idiots to attack Nancy Kerrigan, thinking that will throw her off her game, and Tonya will have a better chance.  Tonya seems to agree with the plan when she thinks it is just sending Kerrigan a ‘death threat’ in a letter format.  Jeff also seems to think it is just letters – but the two idiots go after her with a metal baton, bashing her knee.

Eckhardt brags about the event, swiftly getting busted by the FBI – he blames Jeff, who claims he knew nothing about it, but is also questioned by the FBI.  Tonya finally leaves Jeff for good – claiming she knew nothing about it, and having qualified for the Olympic team.
Tonya comes in 8th at the 1994 Olympics after some issues with her skate laces.  Kerrigan wins the silver medal.  Jeff, Eckhardt and the henchmen all get jail sentences, and Tonya gets booted from figure skating for life.  Tonya becomes a professional boxer for a while, eventually remarrying and settling down with her son and husband.

The story is insane, even more so because it is true.  I absolutely remember all of the ‘incident’ when it first happened and the incredible scandal it caused in the community.  This movie manages to be funny and creepy at the same time.  It does have a strange problem in that all of the characters are horrible, so there’s no “hero” to the story. The movie tries to get Tonya some redemption, but it fails because she is complicit with the attack plan on Nancy – even if she claims she only knew about letters, and refuses to acknowledge any blame.  I enjoyed the fake documentary style – and I was grateful that they included some of the real interviews over the end credits.

  • Margot Robbie plays Tonya Harding, and did train for four months to do as much of the skating as she could. However, the skating scenes are a little off, because you can tell when it’s not her, but overall, she does an amazing job of giving some humanity to this person who everyone has written off as a media creation.

  • Sebastian Stan plays Jeff Gillooly, who in the interview portions presents himself as calm, collected, and misrepresented.  In the scenes based on Tonya’s interviews, he’s a violent and angry loose cannon who blames her for everything and beats her for no reason.  It’s a difficult role, and he plays both sides in a creepily good fashion.

  • Paul Walter Hauser plays Shawn Eckhardt, and he is irritatingly hilarious. He has somehow convinced himself that he is an internationally-trained special operative and bodyguard. He’s the “brains” behind the plan, and by brains, I definitely mean lack-thereof.
  • Allison Janney plays LaVona Fay Golden, and she is exceptionally horrible.  She treats Tonya terribly, all the way through to the very end. Even the one moment of niceness she has turns out to be trying to take advantage of Tonya for a story. It’s a great role for Janney, and she does an amazing job.

  • Julianne Nicholson plays Diane Rawlinson, and does an amazing job of trying to simply be a calm trainer at the center of Tonya’s storm.  She is really interesting as someone who does believe in Tonya’s skating skill and wanting to help that come to the forefront.

  • Caitlin Carver plays Nancy Kerrigan – she has very little to do as this story is not really about her, just about events that happen around her.

  • Bojana Novakovic plays Dody Teachman, Tonya’s second coach, the movie spends very little time with her, and she disappears when Diane comes back into Tonya’s life.
  • Bobby Cannavale plays martin Maddox – a Hard Copy producer – who seems to have all the details that the characters cannot provide.  His hair cracked me up – I’m sure it is true to the character, but it’s hilarious.

Overall, the movie was entertaining, and perplexing – in a good way, if that makes sense.  Every character is completely despicable, but I really enjoyed the interview style, as it allowed each character to have a difference viewpoint of the situation.  

6 out of 10 – interesting, and well done with some great performances, but left me with the same creeped-out feeling I get when I watch anything in which I hate every character.

Bonus – Cast Interviews:

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

2017 Year in Review

Oscar nominations were released on January 23rd, and that’s always the perfect time for me to use my love of Excel Pivot Tables to tell you which movies the Academy thinks you should see, based on number of nominations. And then counter that list with the movies I think you should see, based solely on my opinions.  I felt like the nominations for Best Picture this year was one of the more tolerable lists in recent years.  Usually there are several that I will just flat out refuse to see, this year, there seems to be only one (I don’t care what you tell me about Phantom Thread, I’m not interested).

In any case, enjoy the below lists – because everybody loves lists – I hope it helps you decide what to stream (I used to say ‘rent’ – we’re in the future!).  As always, I’ve added Honest Trailers by Screen Junkies and Sins videos from Cinema Sins whenever possible, be sure to ‘like and subscribe’ for both of those, because they do some great work. Also – the descriptions in italics are from IMDB, because they can often summarize faster than I can.

The Academy’s List:
1.       The Shape of Water (13 nominations): At a top secret research facility in the 1950s, a lonely janitor forms a unique relationship with an amphibious creature that is being held in captivity. Tying the Return of the King record for most nominations, The Shape of Water has really solidified itself as the leading contender.  It’s another beautifully weird and haunting Guillermo del Toro adult fairy tale.  Stunningly acted, and extremely well crafted, all the pieces of the production come together to create a beautiful film.  I definitely enjoyed it, perhaps not as much as some other del Toro movies, but it was lovely (and weird, really weird).

2.       Dunkirk (8 nominations) Allied soldiers from Belgium, the British Empire and France are surround by the German Army, and evacuated during a fierce battle in World War II.  A Christopher Nolan movie telling a tale from 1940 in World War II, this movie should win some technical awards – including the sound editing and mixing.
3.       Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (7 nominations) A mother personally challenges the local authorities to solve her daughter’s murder when they fail to catch the culprit.  This movie is not based on a true story, instead it uses some reality-based tinges to tell a story about middle-America prejudices and maternal determination.
4.       Darkest Hour (6 nominations) During the early days of World War II, the fate of Western Europe hangs on the newly-appointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who must decide whether to negotiate with Hitler or fight on against incredible odds.  This covers some of the same time as Dunkirk, and you have to set aside what you know about some of the horrible things Churchill did in other places at other times to see him as the hero of this story.  Gary Oldman is probably a lock for the best actor award.
5.       Phantom Thread (6 nominations) Set in 1950s London, Reynolds Woodcock is a renowned dressmaker whose fastidious life is disrupted by a young, strong-willed woman, Alma, who becomes his muse and lover.  This is what I would call a typical Oscar-type movie, and sounds horrifically boring on almost every level.  Daniel Day Lewis has stated he is now retired from acting, so this might be the last time you see him, so if you love Daniel Day Lewis - or sewing - see this!

6.       Blade Runner 2049 (5 nominations) A young blade runner’s discovery of a long-buried secret leads him to track down former blade runner Rick Deckard, who’s been missing for thirty years.  A beautiful looking movie that stays true to the original while extending the story in an interesting way. It’s too long, and drags a bit, but visually is amazing and does have some great action.
7.       Lady Bird (5 nominations) In 2002, an artistically inclined seventeen-year-old girl comes of age in Sacramento, California.  No Oscar season would be complete without a pretentious coming of age story, and here’s the one for this year.  This is an unpopular opinion, but I personally did not care for it.  Now, that is not to say that it is not exceptionally well crafted. Greata Gerwig wrote a semi-autobiographical story, and directed it herself. This allows it to stay very true to its origins.  It has a great performance by Saorise Ronan, and an even better performance by Laurie Metcalf.  It’s just not in my wheelhouse, and I found all the characters annoying.

8.       Call Me By Your Name (4 nominations). In Northern Italy in 1983, seventeen year-old Elio begins a relationship with visiting Oliver, his father’s research assistant, with whom he bonds over his emerging sexuality, their Jewish heritage, and the beguiling Italian landscape.  Here’s another very typical Oscar-y movie. Stunningly shot, and beautifully acted, it’s the second punch in the Timothee Chalamet combo this year (he’s also in Lady Bird).
9.       Get Out (4 nominations) It’s time for a young African-American to meet with his white girlfriend’s parents for a weekend at their secluded estate in the woods, but before long, the friendly and polite ambience will give way to a nightmare.  By now, you really should have seen this movie. It’s a fantastic social thriller by Jordan Peele, and has some classic horror elements, with some additional social awkwardness.  The performances are all exceptional, and the story is fantastic. 

10.   Mudbound (4 nominations) Two men return home from World War II to work on a farm in rural Mississippi, where they struggle to deal with racism and adjusting to life after war.  This is a Netflix movie that has been recognized with the bigger studio pictures, so it is absolutely another step in redefining where you can get your movies.  With amazing performances from Mary J. Blige and Jason Mitchell, it’s a tough story, but wonderfully done.
11.   Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (4 nominations) Rey develops her newly discovered abilities with the guidance of Luke Skywalker, who is unsettled by the strength of her powers. Meanwhile, the Resistance prepares for battle with the first order.  Since I enjoyed the Force Awakens, and loved Rogue One, I wasn’t really sure what to expect with this movie – but it really blew me away.  The performances are amazing, including Mark Hamill taking my breath away as a Luke who goes from hopeless to a source of hope for others.  Carrie Fisher’s final performance as Leia is quietly powerful, and the new crew of Resistance fighters led by John Boyega and Daisey Ridley makes me excited for whatever is coming next. Wide, sweeping shots of several new planets also take the look of this movie a step above.

12.   Baby Driver (3 nominations) After being coerced into working for a crime boss, a young getaway driver finds himself taking part in a heist doomed to fail.  Here is another one that I can agree was expertly crafted, but that I did not particularly care for. The way the music Baby is obsessed with lines up with the action is amazing, and the car chases are exceptional, I wasn’t blown away by the performances, plus it does have the extra burden of Kevin Spacey, and this one did not choose to replace him with Christopher Plummer – although thinking about that now, it would have been interesting for this movie!

13.   I, Tonya (3 nominations) Competitive figure skater Tonya Harding rises amoungst the ranks at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, but her future in the activity is thrown into doubt when her ex-husband intervenes.  A really interesting take on the “incident” focusing on Tonya’s rise in the figure skating community and battle with the status quo. The movie is shot documentary style, with each of the characters in interview settings with the scenes played out in between – with several characters stating that what was just shown was not true. It’s an interesting take on this story of a bunch of idiots.

14.   Coco (2 nominations) Aspiring musician Miguel, confronted with his family’s ancestral ban on music, enters the Land of the Dead to find his great-great-grandfather, a legendary singer.  I didn’t see this because it felt like it was almost exactly the same as The Book Of Life (which I loved) which was released a few years ago.  I’ve been told it’s a bit different and worth a look, so who knows, maybe I’ll get around to it.
15.   The Post (2 nominations) A cover-up that spanned four U.S. Presidents pushed the country’s first female newspaper publisher and a hard-driving editor to join an unprecedented battle between the press and the government.  With a timely story and an incredible pedigree (Spielberg directed with Hanks and Streep!), you would have thought this would have way more nominations. 
16.   Victoria & Abdul (2 nominations) Queen Victoria strikes up an unlikely friendship with a young Indian clerk named Abdul Karim.  Judi Dench plays Queen Victoria for the umpteenth time in this story about one of her friendships.

17.   Dear Basketball (1 nomination) An animated telling of Kobe Bryant’s poem, “Dear Basketball”.  From this point down, we’re into the single nominations, and there are many more, but I wanted to keep this to a top 20, so the rest are ones I saw, enjoyed, and will recommend. This one I’m including because it means that Kobe Bryant is now an Oscar nominee, and because the poem is lovely, and the animation beautiful.  If he wins, he’ll have exactly the same amount of Oscars as Suicide Squad

18.   Molly’s Game (1 nomination) The true story of Molly Bloom, an Olympic-class skier who ran the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game and became an FBI target.  I really enjoyed this movie.  It’s written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, which means there is a lot of standing around and talking, but it’s really fast-paced and interesting.  The story is really surprising as Molly accidentally falls into a position of running these crazy high stakes games.  I also felt like Kevin Costner deserved a nomination for his supporting role as her father. He is shockingly good with very little screen time.

19.   Kong: Skull Island (1 nomination) A team of scientists explore an uncharted island in the Pacific, venturing into the domain of the mighty Kong, and must fight to escape a primal Eden. Another one I really enjoyed – a group of soldiers on the way home from the end of the Vietnam war has to escort these scientists to a place no one should go.  With the biggest screen Kong to date, this movie really sets up what should be an epic Godzilla/Kong fight. Plus, Samuel L. Jackson.

20.   Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 (1 nomination) The Guardians must fight to keep their newfound family together as they unravel the mystery of Peter Quill’s true parentage.  Easily one of the best of the year, this movie manages to be simultaneously hilarious, charming, touching, action-packed, and downright entertaining.  The performances are lovely, especially the team as they grow closer together.

My List – out of 44 seen and reviewed this year, here is what I thought was best.  And of course, by best – I mean what I found the most enjoyable, not at all speaking to quality or execution here:

1.       Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi – One and Two on this list are super close for me, but The Last Jedi really closed out the year on a high note for me.  I loved the transition of Luke’s character from grumpy and hopeless former Jedi on self-imposed exile (what is with Jedis and self-imposed exiles?) to the cocky Jedi Master we saw challenge Jabba the Hutt is fantastic. I loved the development of Rey’s character – and the idea of her coming from nothing, and having developing power without owing anything to a bloodline or someone else really won me over.

2.       Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 – Again, just pure cinematic joy. I know some felt it was too long, the villain was weak, and the final battle was the same as the previous movie.  Yes, it was long, but I actually liked Kurt Russel’s version of Ego, and while the final battle was similar, that last scene between Yondo and Peter was fantastic.  Plus, let’s not even get started about Baby Groot, and how wonderful he was – especially the scene where he explains why he doesn’t like hats!  I can’t wait for the next go-round with the Guardians.

3.       Thor Ragnarok: Imprisoned, the mighty Thor finds himself in a lethal gladiatorial contest against the Hulk, his former ally.  Thor must fight for survival and race against time to prevent the all-powerful Hela from destroying his home and the Asgardian civilization.  I loved this movie. Taika Watiti managed to completely revitalize Thor and give him what was almost a complete action-comedy.  Including several new characters, and some interesting previous characters – with the best bits of Dr. Strange so far – I really enjoyed this immensely.

4.       The Big Sick: Pakistan-born comedian Kumail Nanjiani and grad student Emily Gardner fall in love but struggle as their cultures clash. When Emily contracts a mysterious illness, Kumail finds himself forced to face her feisty parents, his family’s expectations, and his true feelings.  I have no idea why this wasn’t nominated for Oscars all over the place.  It got nominated for writing, but both Ray Romano and Holly Hunter could have been nominated, as well as Kumail himself. The story is simple and straightforward, but elevated by the performances of everyone in it.

5.       Spiderman Homecoming: Peter Parker balances his life as an ordinary high school student in Queens with his superhero alter-ego Spider-Man, and finds himself on the trail of a new menace prowling the skies of New York City. This movie caught me by surprise – Tom Holland is easily the best SpiderMan we’ve had, and he has such charm and genuine-ness.  The John Hughes-ness of the high school bits of this story make sense, and Michael Keaton is fantastic as the Vulture, a character I for sure thought would never make it to a movie screen. 

6.       Girls Trip: When four lifelong friends travel to New Orleans for the annual Essence Festival, sisterhoods are rekindled, wild sides are rediscovered, and there’s enough dancing, drinking, brawling, and romancing to make the Big Easy blush.  This movie made me laugh so hard!  Yes, it’s predictable, and yes, all the drama could have been solved by better communication, but it’s the performances from the four leads that take the standard fare and elevate it into something truly special.

7.       Get Out: Again, see this movie. But, if you have the chance (they are re-releasing it to the theaters for Oscar hype) go see it in the theater. It really does make a difference to see this movie with an audience.  It really heightens the experience as everyone begins to share the lead’s discoveries that the house he is staying in is not quite what he thought it was!
8.       Kong: Skull Island: Every once in a while, you need a big, loud, creature-feature, and this one is better than most.  Kong is absolutely the king of his domain, and it was refreshing to see him just kick ass on his own island instead of being bullied, captured, and forced into a city. 

9.       The Shape of Water: This is another one on which you can believe the hype.  It’s weirdly elegant and hauntingly beautiful. Check it out, it’s really unlike anything else this past year – and who would have thought something that outside-the-box would get the most nominations? Spoiler alert - a mute lady has sex with a fish guy! And it was nominated more than any other movie! 
10.   Wonder Woman:  When a pilot crashes and tells of conflict in the outside world, Diana, an Amazonian warrior in training, leaves home to fight a war, discovering her full powers and true destiny.  How did this get zero nominations? If not for Patty Jenkins’s direction (which was fantastic), then at least costuming, sound editing, effects, or any other technical award that they begrudgingly give to the big blockbusters?  The movie is good – it is not flawless, it for sure has too much Zack Snyder on it, but it was entertaining, and Gal Gadot was a shining light as Diana.

11.   Molly’s Game: There is a surprising amount of crossover between my selections and the Academy’s selections this year, that may be unprecedented.  I really enjoyed this one. With exceptional performances from Idris Elba and Jessica Chastain, it was fascinating to see this woman of constant drive shift that drive from Olympic Moguls skiing to high-stakes poker. I also enjoyed doing a little digging to see who the players she didn’t mention might be, and let me tell you – if I didn’t like Toby Macguire before (I didn’t), I really don’t now.
12.   Fate of the Furious: When a mysterious woman seduces Dom inot the world of terrorism and a betrayal of those closest to him, the crew face trials that will test them as never before.  Yes, indeed – what happens when Dom is forced to betray his family and their Coronas? Well, huge car chases and spectacular action sequences while Tyrese wise-cracks, obviously.  This one is not nearly as good as some of the previous installments, but it is entertaining enough – I enjoyed Charlize Theron chewing the scenery as a whispering cyber-terrorist, and Helen Mirren as Jason Statham and Luke Evans’s mom, and man oh man, the chemistry between Statham and the Rock?  I really want that spin-off, whether or not Vin Diesel wants to allow it!

13.   The Foreigner: A humble businessman with a buried past seeks justice when his daughter is killed in an act of Terrorism. A cat-and-mouse conflict ensues with a government official, whose past may hold clues to the killers’ identities.  This was a bit of a surprise to me, It was a little uneven, but I really enjoyed Jackie Chan’s step into a more serious role as a father who will go to great lengths for justice for his daughter and Pierce Brosnan as a shady official with a shadier past who seems to be running a shady organization, thinking he’s doing good by controlling bad.  But, as you know, you can’t control bad.

14.   The Disaster Artist: When Greg Sestero, an aspiring film actor, meets the weird and mysterious Tommy Wiseau in an acting class, they form a unique friendship and travel to Hollywood to make their dreams come true.  James Franco’s ongoing skeeziness notwithstanding, this movie manages to be a surprisingly genuine tale about following through on your dreams and the inspiration of true friendship.  It’s hilarious and charming, and worth a watch.
15.   John Wick Chapter 2: After returning to the criminal underworld to repay a debt, John Wick discovers that a large bounty has been put on his life.  Man, I really wanted to see John Wick get to go back to his quiet retirement with his new dog.  But after a former contact demands he deliver on a favor, he breaks a rule and everyone is after him.  Keanu is again amazing as John Wick, and while this one is not as good as the first, it’s still non-stop action all the way through, with the fascinating Continental playing a little less of a role.  The new dog makes it through this one.

And of course, just for fun – my personal list of the worst movies of last year.  Or, more accurately, the movies I enjoyed the least, again, not commenting on quality here.

1.       The Circle: A woman lands a dream job at a powerful tech company called The Circle, only to uncover an agenda that will affect the lives of all humanity.  Okay – this was easily the worst movie of the year for me, and I saw Resident Evil 5, or was it 6?  The extremely over-rated Emma Watson is flat and unrelatable in this story where she takes a job with a company that is pioneering the ability to watch everyone all the time, and as opposed to how you think the story is going to go (she realizes this is a terrible blow to personal freedom and takes them down from within), instead she takes down the two in charge, but works with the company to expand their surveillance even more.  Tom Hanks has almost nothing to do, Patton Oswalt tries, but has little screen time, Karen Gillan is good, but wasted, John Boyega is interesting but disappears quickly.  The story makes no sense, the acting is not great, and the movie is shot weird too.  All-around, not great.   

2.       Justice League: Fueled by his restored faith in humanity and inspired by Superman’s selfless act, Bruce Wayne enlists the help of his newfound ally, Diana Prince, to face an even greater enemy.  Sloppy and uneven, this is just not my Justice League, and that would be fine if the movie was better.  Batman would never assemble the league, Superman just needs to be left out in the yellow sun if injured that badly, and Wonder Woman should have more to do.  As opposed to Man of Steel and BvS, there were parts of this I liked: I am intrigued by this Aquaman, and am looking forward to his stand-alone. I enjoyed some of the humor they tried to incorporate. I enjoyed the more action-packed Alfred, and the introduction of Cyborg.  And Superman, near the end of this (in the Joss Whedon portions) finally gets closer to being the Superman I am familiar with.  The rest of it is sluggish, confusing, bleak, and why is the villain all CG, why not cast a big dude in a suit?  The Snyder-verse continues to make one bad decision after another. 

3.       The Great Wall: European mercenaries searching for black powder become embroiled in the defense of the Great Wall of China against a horde of monstrous creatures.  I will say that I did enjoy a lot of this movie – it needed to do away with the “European mercenaries” entirely and just be a Chinese epic historical fantasy movie set in medieval China. I liked the creature design, and the way the soldiers were designated by color and role, but every time Matt Damon was on screen, it just pulled me right out of the story.

4.       Geostorm: When the network of satellites designed to control the global climate starts to attack Earth, it’s a race against the clock for its creator to uncover the real threat before a worldwide Geostorm wipes out everything and everyone.  Sometimes movies like this are so bad they are good – this one is just so bad.  Gerard Butler tries his best, but honestly, there’s no way I buy him as a brilliant scientist responsible for weather controlling satellites.  The movie is rough, but it’s almost worth sitting through it for the final confrontation between Ed Harris and Andy Garcia. 

5.       Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: A dark force threatens Alpha, a vast metropolis and home to species from a thousand different planets. Special operatives Valerian and Laureline must race to identify the marauding menace and safeguard not just Alpha, but the future of the universe.  I really loved The Fifth Element, and was looking forward to a return to Luc Besson’s weird view of future-space.  This is just a beautiful mess.  Some of it looks great, but the story makes no sense, and the two leads are incredibly unlikeable.  I do wonder what it could have been with some tighter editing and different leads – I suppose we’ll never know!

There were others last year that I also did not enjoy (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Kingsman 2, The Mummy, etc.), but we’ll keep it to five.  Overall, a pretty great year movie-wise, and like I said – I don’t know that I have ever had so many in my top list cross over with the academy’s list. Hopefully that’s a trend that continues, if the academy can continue to broaden its definitions of what is Oscar-worthy!

2018 Oscars Production Design Category Breakdown

Last year for the special LAMB Devours the Oscars series (where members dive into each of the Oscar categories) I chose the Production Design category.  Since I found it so interesting last year – and it really gave me another reason to look at the nominated movies – I chose the same category for this year!  So welcome to your Production Design/Set Decoration breakdown.  

The Academy Award for Production Design recognizes achievement for art direction in film and combines both production design and set decoration, which are two different jobs that work hand in hand on any film or TV set.  A production designer is responsible for the assembled sets and overall visual look of a production.  The set decorator is responsible for furnishing interior and exterior sets.  If a movie has a scene set in a bedroom, the production designer comes up with the plan for the bedroom setup and layout, and works with the set decorator to fill it with the necessary items to enhance the story.  Those items can assist with character exposition, or can distract from the scene set inside the room if the job is done poorly. It is a very fine skill that is developed over many years, and that is why a director will often work with the same production designer and set decorator over many movies.  Which is also why all but one of the pairs of nominees this year have multiple nominations already.  The five nominated movies are Beauty and the Beast, Blade Runner 2049, Darkest Hour, Dunkirk, and The Shape of Water.

Beauty and the Beast:
Sarah Greenwood (Production Design) and Katie Spencer (Set Decoration) are a formidable team with this being their sixth nominations (Anna Karenina, Sherlock Holmes, Atonement, Pride & Prejudice), not to mention, they are also the team behind Darkest Hour – another nominee this year!   In this movie, Belle takes her wrongfully imprisoned father’s place in the castle where he is being held. She stands up to the castle's lord, the Beast, but as they spend time together, the Beast reveals his inner prince, inspiring Belle to return his love.  It certainly is a daunting task to take something so familiar as an animated Disney classic and transform it to live action sets. 

While Greenwood and Spencer did an incredible job recreating the look of the cartoon and making the sets lush and vivid, they lose just a few points in my book, as they had the animated film as a reference.
Darkest Hour:
Greenwood and Spencer are also nominated for Darkest Hour, which tells the story of Winston Churchill during the early days of World War II faced with the choice of continuing to fight or try to settle with Hitler.  This one should easily win the makeup category as it takes the very Gary Oldman-y looking Gary Oldman and transforms him into Winston Churchill, but what about the production design?  Once again Spencer and Greenwood do an amazingly detailed job of recreating Churchill’s office and surroundings from the time. 

But again, since nothing needed to be invented or created originally, it seems that the true skill here is in the team recreating sets from research on hand. 
Blade Runner 2049
The production design on Blade Runner 2049 is by Dennis Gassner, and this is his sixth nomination (Into the Woods, The Golden Compass, Road to Perdition, Barton Fink, Bugsy).  The set decoration is by Alessandra Querzola, and this is her first nomination.  This is a movie set three decades after the original Blade Runner Deckard went missing.  LAPD replicant officer K is tasked with eliminating older, rogue replicants that have a tendency to be less controllable.  In the process, he learns something shocking, and needs Deckard to uncover the truth about the history and future of replicants.  Here we have a movie with stunning, incredible, original visuals that absolutely assist in telling the story. 

Yes, the team had the original movie as a reference point, but the stunning sets and landscapes of this desolate future are beautiful and heartbreaking.  I loved the huge statues as K walks into Deckard’s Vegas lair.  The farm in the beginning as K is carrying out his job essentially conveys the backstory of Dave Bautista’s character living there.  K’s apartment and office help to convey his own inner turmoil while Jared Leto’s office conveys his isolation and elitism.  The look of this movie is incredible, even if I wasn’t completely drawn in by the story.
Nathan Crawley is the production designer on Dunkirk, and this is his fourth nomination (Interstellar, The Dark Knight, The Prestige).  This is also set decorator Gary Fettis’s fourth nomination, but for different movies (Interstellar, Changeling, The Godfather Part III).  This movie tells a story from the spring of 1940, when hundreds of thousands of British and Allied troops are trapped by German forces on the beaches of Dunkirk in northern France. Christopher Nolan movies have a distinct look and this one is no exception. Again, the design is done to expertly mimic the look of the actual time, and has the added puzzle of having a lot of scenes outside. 

The movie looks good, but again, as a faithful recreation, even the stylized sets are reflections of what was.  The bleak coloration and stark realism add to both the hopefulness and helplessness of various characters.
The Shape of Water
Paul Denham Austerberry is the production designer for the Shape of Water, and he worked with two set decorators, Shane Vieau and Jeff Melvin.  Where the desolation and hopelessness of Blade Runner is conveyed in its set design, this movie really uses the additional aspect of color and creativity to help tell the story of the 1962 government scientific lab in Baltimore that houses a fish-man and the mute janitor who falls in love with him. Director Guillermo del Toro himself clarified the use of color via his twitter feed: Elisa's world: Cyan and Blue (underwater), everyone else's homes (Giles, Zelda, Strickland) in goldens, ambers and warm colors (Day/air), red for cinema, life and love. Green is everything about the future (pies, car, lab, uniforms in lab, gelatine, etc.) Using these guidelines from the director, the team translated it into amazing sets.

Like other del Toro movies, the sets are incredibly designed and almost hyper-real, very much in line with his “adult fairy-tale” aesthetic. The lab is filled with interesting shapes and lines, and bits of things on shelves and carts that you almost want to stop the movie to look at more closely.  Elisa’s apartment is above an old movie theater, and is filled with items that help to tell the audience about her. Every part of the movie is carefully crafted to appear not real, but almost surreal, in perfect alignment with the story.

According to my meager research, Blade Runner 2049 is the predicted winner, and that makes sense, because that movie looked amazing. I loved the look of Shape of Water, but honestly, for me, there were a few movies that didn’t make the list.  There’s this prejudice against giving big-budget superhero movies Academy love, but the look of Thor Ragnarok and Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 were both mind-blowing.  Think about the throne room on Sakar where Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster holds court, or the Hulk’s quarters in Ragnarok.  Even more so – the sets on GOTG2 are phenomenal.  Ego’s room of storytelling orbs, the Sovereign’s throne room, even the Ravagers’ ship were all visual masterpieces. 

I also feel that Star Wars Episode VIII, the Last Jedi, deserves a mention.  The look of the bridge on the rebel cruiser, the casino on Canto Bight, Snoke’s throne room with his incredible red curtain which is very not-fireproof, and Luke’s quiet place of isolation on Ach-To are all incredible sets that enhanced the story through color and design. 

While Star Wars might be my pick for a winner, that does not help your office Oscar pool choice.  Go with either Blade Runner or Shape of Water – they are the safest bets!

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Movie Review: Pitch Perfect 3 (PG13 – 93 minutes)

The original Pitch Perfect was released in 2012 directed by Jason Moore, and was about college freshman Beca joining her school acapella group (the Barden Bellas) – and joining them in various hijinks as they attempted to win the college acapella competition.  Pitch Perfect 2 was directed by Elizabeth Banks and saw the Bellas struggling to pull together some of the new Bellas as each of the older members tried to consider the next step after graduating.

That brings us up to Pitch Perfect 3 directed by Trish Sie and the majority of the original Bellas have moved on to their adult lives, trying to start their careers and move forward.  Beca is working with music executives, and producing songs for up and coming stars, but feeling creatively stifled.  Invited by the current Bellas to a Bella reunion, the graduated class realizes how much they have missed each other and how badly they want to sing together again.

Aubrey’s father is in the military, and a bit of a big wig, so she gets the Bellas invited to a USO tour, that – of course – is also a competition between musical groups to see who will open for DJ Khaled and get a recording contract.  

This puts the Bellas up against country group Saddle Up (confusingly played by country group Whiskey Shivers), Young Sparrow and DJ Dragon Nutz (a rapper/DJ combo), and the band Evermoist, and yes, while that name might make you cringe, even more cringe-worthy is the way the Evermoist band members say it when introducing themselves.  “Hello – we’re (pause, whimper) Evermoist”. The Bellas do quite well in most of the concerts, and after one evening, get up to DJ Khaled’s very fancy hotel suite after-party.  

Here, hijinks ensue as Amy realizes her criminal father Fergus has found her, Beca impresses Kahled’s producer Theo with some of her mixing/producing skills, Chole flirts with military man Chicago, and the Bellas accidentally set the suite on fire. Impressed with her skills – Khaled asks Beca to open for him as a solo act, which she declines, being part of the Bellas – but the Bellas get kidnapped by Amy’s father, who is after the 18 million dollars that Amy suddenly has in a trust in the Caribbean. 

Amy and Beca stage a complicated acapella-distraction rescue, and save the Bellas just in time for Beca to get back and open for DJ Khaled, where she starts alone, but then definitely calls the Bellas onstage with her to have one last swan song together.

Overall, the movie is fun, but not as fun as some of the previous outings.  It is definitely the friendship between the cast that makes the movie so watchable, as well as the great music.  There’s less acapella in this movie than in the previous installments, which is a bit of a shame.  Also – the introduction of Amy’s criminal father is bizarre, but hey – just go with it.

  • Anna Kendrick continues to shine as Beca Mitchell, a sarcastic and witty skilled musician.  What I really appreciated is that while showing her flirtation with Theo, they don’t end up lip-locked – just working together.

  • Rebel Wilson plays Patricia “Fat Amy” Hobart, charming, fun, unreliable, and destructive.  She’s hilarious in these movies and always fun to watch.  I really enjoyed the fight scenes while she and Beca were breaking onto her father’s yacht.

  • Brittany Snow plays Chloe Beale, who is working on getting into veterinary school just before they head back on tour.

  • Anna Camp plays Aubrey Posen, who is just as tightly-wound as she has ever been, even more so now that she doesn’t have the Bellas to sing with regularly.  The sudden add-on of her father issues were a little forced, but that is how they ended up on the USO tour, so that works, I guess.

  • Hailee Steinfeld plays Emily Junk – now a senior at Barden University who goes on tour with the Bellas since Stacie is having a baby.  She’s basically there as the butt of Amy’s jokes.

  • Hana Mae Lee plays Lilly Onakuramara, the suspiciously quiet Bella who is still making crazy comments. 

  • Ester Dean plays Cynthia-Rose Adams who is failing flight school when the USO tour comes around.

  • Chrissie Fit plays Florencia Fuentes, the one Bella who seems to have her life together post-graduating, owning her own juice-food truck.

  • Kelley Jakle and Shelley Regner plays Jessica and Ashley who are “the other Bellas”.  So much so that there is a joke in this movie when Amy says, “I don’t even know why Jessica and Ashley are here.”  Jessica asks if they are talking about them, and Ashley responds that would be ridiculous.  Their fringe participation is played for a joke and is really hilarious.
  • John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks are back as John and Gail, the acapella commentating duo who are currently creating a documentary about the Bellas, so follow them around with cameras and demeaning narration.

  • John Lithgow plays Amy’s dad Fergus, and I have to say, I was completely perplexed by that. His Australian accent is just awful, and at no point does he seem in any way like a man capable of being an international criminal.  I’m sure there are multiple older Australian actors who could have done this, hell, I’m almost positive Hugh Jackman would have done it if they asked, and he would have been awesome in this role!
  • Matt Lanter plays Chicago – who is there for exposition and for Chloe to drool over.

  • Guy Burnett plays Theo – who is there to remind us how talented Beca is.

  • Ruby Rose, Andy Allo, Venzella Joy Williams, and Hannah Fairlight play Evermoist – named Calamity, Serenity, Charity, and Veracity.

Overall, the movie is perfectly pleasant, and definitely has some fun moments. It really would have benefitted from outtakes over the end credits, as the best part of the movie is the obvious fun the cast has together.

6 out of 10.  Lost points for the odd casting of John Lithgow.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Movie Review: The Shape Of Water (R – 123 minutes)

If you are a fan of Guillermo del Toro’s work, many parts of this film will feel familiar.  He has several trademarks, and they are all evident in this movie.  Chronos, the Devil’s Backbone, Mimic, Hellboy 1 and 2, Pan’s Labyrinth, Crimson Peak, and even Pacific Rim all have similar touches here and there – but always a haunting beauty that is very present in The Shape of Water.

The story focuses on Elisa Esposito – a mute janitor working in a government lab in 1960’s cold-war era Baltimore. She spends her days cleaning the lab and chatting (well, signing) with her co-worker and friend Zelda, and her evenings hanging out with her neighbor, Giles, in the apartments they have over a movie theater.

One day, a government special agent brings a creature they captured in a South American river to the lab for study.  This agent, Colonel Richard Strickland, is obsessed with getting whatever secrets possible from the creature before the Russians do.  Now, I’m not sure why that’s key, or what secrets an amphibian man could possess, or why the Russians would be interested – but hey – that’s the story.  

Strickland is cold and cruel, trying his best to swiftly ascend through the ranks of his organization by brutalizing the creature during their sessions.  One of the scientists working on the project, Dr. Hoffstetler, advises trying to be more gentle and learning from the creature, but Strickland is more concerned with cutting it open.

While cleaning the lab, Elisa forms a bond with the creature – teaching it a few signs, and finding the gentleness of him soothing and attractive.  When Strickland gets a deadline to kill the creature, Elisa masterminds an escape with the assistance of Giles, Zelda, and Dr. Hoffstetler.  Once she has him in her apartment, their bond grows even stronger (spoiler alert – yes, they have sex), and she eventually plans to release him back into the water and his freedom.

The movie is again, like del Toro’s other works – hauntingly beautiful and weirdly elegant.  It’s an odd niche that del Toro has carved out for himself, but the craftsmanship is excellent.  The color in the movie is expertly used to enhance the story.  The sets are lovely, from the lab to the apartments, everything is perfectly crafted. The music by Alexandre Desplat is also just weird enough to be beautiful and pair well with the visuals and story.  Overall, it is another stunning adult fairy tale from del Toro that will stay with you long after you see it.  The cast is carefully picked to perfectly bring each role to life.

  • Sally Hawkins is not someone I was familiar with prior to seeing this movie (and now suddenly it seems she’s everywhere, or maybe that’s just the plethora of Paddington 2 marketing?). She is so tiny and delicate, but does an amazing job of conveying Elisa’s strength and compassion. 

  • Octavia Spencer plays Zelda, and yes, the role feels like one you have seen her in before – somewhere between the Help and Hidden Figures, but since del Toro wrote this role with her in mind, that makes perfect sense.  She is brilliant as a no-nonsense woman who eventually falls into helping with Elisa’s romantic nonsense adventure.

  • Richard Jenkins plays Giles in such a lovely way that you really feel his lonely sadness, but also his exuberance at helping Elisa when she sets her mind to freeing the amphibian man. His scenes with the ‘pie man’ that he is quietly flirting with are just heartbreaking.

  • Michael Shannon is horrific as Strickland.  I’ve seen him interviewed and I know he’s a nice guy, just a little strange, but man, no one plays terrible guys better than he does. You really cannot wait for Strickland to get his and yes – spoiler alert – he does, but it takes way too long!

  • Micahel Stuhlbarg plays Dr. Robert Hoffstetler, a scientist who is doing his best to be true to his own nature, but also his various employers. He does such an amazing job that he really stole most of the scenes he was in for me.

  • The clear star of this movie is Doug Jones as the amphibian man.  Doug has been multiple creatures for del Toro over the years – the most memorable being the Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth and Abe Sapien in the Hellboy Series.  He’s a phenomenal actor, and it’s wonderful to see him finally getting some major recognition for this role. He manages to give the creature a beautiful heart and soul that is obvious despite the species barrier.

Overall, the movie is magical and you need to see it – I will warn you, because someone was kind enough to warn me, that yes – the amphibian man does eat one of Giles’s cats! But don’t worry, it’s handled pretty well, and wasn’t as upsetting as I was expecting.  Major spoiler alert here – but I just read a theory I found really interesting – Elisa has three perfectly lined scars on either side of her neck.  We are told in the course of the movie that she was found by a river, and the scars are the result of the injury that caused her to be a mute.  The theory I just read speculated that in fact they were just undeveloped gills, and she was the offspring of a creature similar to the amphibian man.  This would make sense with the ending, since he’s got some healing re-growing touch ability.  Whether or not that’s the case, it’s still a lovely thought, and puts a beautiful end on the movie.

9 out of 10 – I’m taking off a point for the cat.  See it, it’s adult fairy-tale movie-making at its finest.

Bonus – cast interviews!
Behind the scenes: