89th Academy Awards Predictions

For the nomination phase of predicting this year I didn't do so bad.  I went 37 for 44 in the main categories (good for 84.1%) and 90 for 122 for all the nominations (73.1%).  I also correctly predicted the Lead Actor, Supporting Actress, Adapted Screenplay and Cinematography categories entirely.  So now onto my predictions for the winners:

Best Picture=La La Land
Best Director=Damien Chazelle, La La Land
Best Lead Actor=Denzel Washington, Fences
Best Lead Actress=Emma Stone, La La Land
Best Supporting Actor=Mahershala Ali, Moonlight
Best Supporting Actress=Viola Davis, Fences
Best Adapted Screenplay=Moonlight
Best Original Screenplay=Manchester by the Sea
Best Animated Feature=Zootopia
Best Documentary Feature=I Am Not Your Negro
Best Foreign Language Film=The Salesman
Best Animated Short=Piper
Best Documentary Short=Joe’s Violin
Best Live-Action Short=Ennemis Interieurs
Best Cinematography=La La Land
Best Costume Design=La La Land
Best Film Editing=La La Land
Best Makeup and Hairstyling=Star Trek Beyond
Best Original Score=La La Land
Best Original Song=La La Land
Best Production Design=La La Land
Best Sound Editing=La La Land
Best Sound Mixing=La La Land

Best Visual Effects=The Jungle Book

Passengers Review

            From the very instant that Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence signed onto Passengers, the film was going to be all about the star power of these two individuals working together.  The film itself succeeds mostly because of that star power and the legitimately good performances that they bring to the table.  Passengers has problems (a morally disturbing ending and some lackluster world building), but thanks to the pair of Pratt and Lawrence it’s an enjoyable experience at the theater.

            Passengers takes place in a future in which humanity has learned how to colonize far off Earth-like planets.  On one of these colonization expeditions, the spaceship goes through an asteroid field, which causes Jim (Chris Pratt) to be woken up from his hibernation chamber.  As he begins to suffer as the only one awake on a spaceship that won’t reach its destination for almost another century, Jim begins to contemplate waking up a fellow traveler (Jennifer Lawrence).  Obviously, the morally ambiguous nature of a scenario in which someone subjects another person to a life that they weren’t intended (and probably wouldn’t want) to have just so you don’t get to be lonely is a tricky issue that this film struggles to contend with.  The resolution to this plot thread will certainly raise eyebrows and mostly for the wrong reasons (even if it does follow the conventional blockbuster plot threads).

            However, this film ends up being quite enjoyable.  Chris Pratt gives a tremendous performance that has been ultimately lost behind the controversy of the plot.  He gets to play a dramatic side that we haven’t really seen from him yet here and he delivers big time in the opening act of the film where he is asked to carry the entire film almost by himself.  For a film that’s billed as a Jennifer Lawrence starrer, she doesn’t actually show up until about thirty minutes in.  Although once she does her natural charm allows her to add another dimension to the film.

            If it weren’t for these two performances we would be talking about a different cinematic experience entirely.  Behind the troublesome ethical issues that this film bungles and a sci-fi world that offers nothing new and relies way too heavily on CGI that needed another round or two of polishing it is a shock that Passengersworks at all.  Star power still apparently matters.


Fences Review

            There are some films out there that exist only to display craft.  Whether it’s a visual effects tent pole or a performance in search of a plot, these films tend to come off as incomplete.  They put so much attention into their craft that other elements of the film suffer.  Yet these films are so powerful in at least one aspect that they can be quite interesting even in their failures.  Fences, Denzel Washington’s adaptation of the August Wilson play, is one of those films.  As an exercise in acting and dialogue it is quite powerful even if the story loses its way in the cinematic transition.

            Fences mainly serves as a vehicle for Denzel Washington who not only directs the film but stars as Troy, a former Negro Baseball League star that enters a midlife crisis after he encounters a new woman and has an incident at work.  The film mostly takes place at Troy’s house where he interacts with his wife (Viola Davis), co-worker (Stephen Henderson), brother (Mykelti Williamson) and two sons (Jovan Adepo and Russell Hornsby).  This allows Washington not only a host of great actors to play off of but a limited visual palette that challenges Washington’s direction (a challenge that he takes on quite well until the final act).

            The play-like nature of the film will turn some people away, but it’s hard not to enjoy Washington and Viola Davis relish in multiple monologues that allow them to take full command of the screen.  Despite this, there is still a lot of room for an actor like Stephen Henderson to really ace a much more subtle performance where he mostly acts as the voice of reason within the story.  Adepo, Williamson and Hornsby also are given enough time in the spotlight to create one of the most well rounded casts in recent memory.

            The film does get into troublesome ground in the final act as the film takes on a much more darker nature (although a nature that is definitely forewarned in the rest of the film).  The character of Troy just becomes so much more complex as the film nears its end, and while Washington is able to handle that with his acting, it becomes too much of a challenge for him with his direction.  The themes of the film become jumbled, and the unorthodox storytelling style of the final scenes comes across as jarring rather than new and exciting.

            As a display of acting it’s hard to get better than Fences, but some creative stumbles in the final act leave this as a film that doesn’t quite reach its potential.


Lion Review

            There is a reason why fiction films tend to stay in the cinematic zeitgeist much longer than non-fiction films do.  Stories based in reality force the filmmakers to stick to certain guidelines, and that allows their fictional counterparts to play with a much more expansive palate of choices.  Even worse are the non-fiction films that don’t try to take risks with their narrative.  Lion, the tale of an Indian boy who becomes separated from his family and sets out to look for them two decades later, is one of those films.  Yet Lionis able to survive on an odd use of time and a phenomenal cast that allows the film to overcome a very derivative plot.

            Lion is the cinematic version of the real life story of Saroo Brierley (played by Sunny Pawar as a child and by Dev Patel as an adult).  Saroo became separated from his family on a journey with his brother and was forced to survive as an orphan until he was adopted by an Australian couple (Nicole Kidman and the underrated David Wenham).  A couple of decades later, Saroo’s obsession with finding his family again is beginning to take control of his life.  He must now either make a breakthrough in his search or let his once successful life fall apart.

            This is director Garth Davis’ first feature film.  He cut his teeth with a few episodes on the critically acclaimed Australian series, Top of the Lake, but his lack of experience does reveal itself at times during this film.  Yet, the man clearly has some talent.  Davis goes out of his way (and not always for the best) to make this a beautiful looking film, and while he is certainly constrained by the straight forward plot of this film, Davis plays with the way time works in this film in a very interesting way.  You never know just how much time has passed between any given scene in this film until Davis gives you a subtle hint here or there.  That ultimately gives the film a dream-like feeling that adds a lot to a very derivative narrative.

            It also helps that this film has a dynamite cast to play with.  This film features Dev Patel’s best work to date.  He captures the sometime tricky Australian accent perfectly and still has enough energy left to display a great amount of range in his performance.  Patel clearly has the potential to be a star, and a good actor to boot.  Meanwhile, Nicole Kidman does some subtle work in a role that normally demands loudness.  It makes the film even better.  David Wenham also makes the most of a role that doesn’t really get to be at the center of attention.  The one weak link may be Sunny Pawar, who almost survives by his charm but is unfairly asked to carry the entire film on his shoulders for almost an hour.

            Lion rises above the typical based on real life film thanks to a strong cast and interesting directorial choice.


Split Review

            Despite not being culturally relevant in a positive way since the mid-aughts, M. Night Shyamalan still remains one of the most recognizable filmmakers in the world.  As such a comeback has been overdue for the man for quite some time.  Some may say the “Shyamalan-aissance” began with The Visit (a box office success that has otherwise not taken any sort of hold in the cultural zeitgeist whatsoever), but Shyamalan’s latest effort, Split, is the first true signal of a comeback from the man who once brought us The Sixth Sense, Unbreakableand Signs.  Splitis all of the better tendencies of Shyamalan (impeccable atmosphere building, an eerie use of tension, memorable sequences, and plot twists that leave everyone talking) wrapped into a mostly effective bundle.

            Split follows a high schooler (Anya Taylor-Joy, who made an incredible debut in last year’s The Witch) as she is kidnapped alongside two classmates that she never got along with.  As she wakes up in an isolated room, she tries to find out the mystery behind her captor (James McAvoy), a man suffering from some sort of multiple personality disorder.  As the captor’s disorder seems to worsen, the girl most find out who this “beast” is that all of the captor’s personalities seem to fear.

            Split starts off as a moody and suspenseful thriller that mostly survives on the talents of its cast.  The film asks a lot of James McAvoy as he is tasked with playing multiple characters that vary wildly in range but must still feel of a piece.  This is McAvoy’s best work as he revels in the opportunity that he is given here.  Everything about his performance feels realistic despite being such a showy one.  The only strain on this realism comes in the form of Hedwig, his childlike personality, which will have some audiences laughing during sequences that don’t really deserve them.  Meanwhile, Anya Taylor-Joy proves herself to be one of the best young talents working.  She never feels overmatched despite having 90% of her screen time with James McAvoy.  Her quietness is a perfect counterbalance to what McAvoy is doing.

            As the story unfolds, however, the intensity of the atmosphere and the plot both increase exponentially.  Shyamalan does a great job of handling this transition.  There may be some faults in the plot and character motivation (one character’s personality being due to a past filled with sexual assault comes across as misguided), but Shyamalan never takes his finger off the fun button and that results in a film that would have been quite good without its ending.

            That ending, though, where (MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT) it is revealed we have been watching a sequel to Unbreakable is one of the best theater experiences I have ever been able to sit through.  It comes so out of left field (although there are certainly crumbs left throughout the film that makes the ending hold up) and yet seems so pertinent to what is going on in the film industry right now.  It’s a nice call back to a slow burn superhero film before superhero films took over the world.


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