Trailer-Based Predictions for the 86th Oscars

It’s Oscar time once again, and what would that time be without a little speculation on who will take home the coveted little gold guys?

It seems like I say this every year, but once again, I’ve seen so few of the candidates, that I would be woefully ill-equipped to make a decision based on seeing the films in their entirety. So with that in mind, I take hold of the only format that affords me enough time to make an even minutely-informed opinion – the trailers. Below you will see my predictions for who will win, as well as my personal preferences of who should win. Let’s speculate together, shall we?

UPDATE: The actual winners have been added. Still haven’t gotten the 100% correct, but not bad this year! 22 out of 24 is my best score to date! Haven’t graded all the student predictions, but odds are, I held my title for another year. Until next year, everyone!

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12years

BEST PICTURE
Who Will Probably Win: 12 Years a Slave
Actual Winner: 12 Years a Slave

This is going to be a close category this year, with several strong contenders to take the trophy. But, in trying to weigh in the politics and historical tendencies of the Academy, it seems like 12 Years a Slave will hang onto the win. It’s already a close race, but the Academy tends to lean toward films it feels have significance, specifically if they’re connected to a weighty issue – and this film fits the bill. Not to mention the Academy does not favor Science Fiction films for Best Picture. (Still bitter at Annie Hall over Star Wars.) Don’t get me wrong, 12 Years a Slave is deserving on all levels, but in a close race, you have to look for the potential distinguishers. That said, I won’t be  surprised if Gravity pulls out the win.

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cuaron

Cuaron previously won the “Best Harry Potter Director” award at the nonexistent Fanboy Awards.

BEST DIRECTOR
Who Will Probably Win: Alfonso Cuaron - Gravity
Actual Winner: Alfonso Cuaron

It’s rare to see a Best Picture / Best Director split, but this year looks to be one of those years. (Unless Gravity pulls the rug out from under 12 Years a Slave.) I give a shout out to my hometown director, Alexander Payne, but even he has to acknowledge that this just isn’t his year. Cuaron has some seriously quality films under his belt, including Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Y Tu Mamâ Tambiên, and Children of Eden. But in this case, it comes down to the fact that Cuaron’s latest film just left people sitting in the theatre in awe saying “how the heck did they do that?” (Even at the shots in the trailer.) Way back when I first heard he was making a picture called Gravity with very few details being released, people were eagerly awaiting the end product. It looks like Cuaron should now eagerly be awaiting hearing his name called on Oscar night.

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The costumer deserves an Oscar just for managing to keep a shirt on McConaughey for the majority of the film.

The costumer deserves an Oscar just for managing to keep a shirt on McConaughey for the majority of the film.

BEST ACTOR
Who Will Probably Win: Matthew McConaughey - Dallas Buyer’s Club
Actual Winner: Matthew McConaughey

Alright, alright, alright. The man has already swept up most of the performance awards this season, and it doesn’t look like the Academy Awards will be any different. He followed the stock formula – notable physical transformation, edgy subject matter, and departure from your usual performance. Bale also pulled the physical transformation card, but he won his Oscar a few years back. I really enjoy Chiwetel Ejiofor’s work, but I don’t think it’s enough to take the trophy. Hopefully McConaughey has another loopy speech planned for us this time around.

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blanchett

Look to see this face if Adams pulls the upset.

BEST ACTRESS
Who Will Probably Win: Cate Blanchett - Blue Jasmine
Who I Want to Win: Amy Adams
Actual Winner: Cate Blanchett

Here’s the category I most want to be wrong about.  No offense to Cate Blanchett, I’m sure she gave an inspired performance in Woody Allen’s latest “my life’s a hot mess” movie, but Amy Adams is due.  The woman has been in more Oscar-nominated films and roles in the past few years than anyone else I can think of, but still doesn’t have an Oscar of her own.  Blanchett has one. In fact, so does every other nominee in this category.  So although the trends seem to be pointing toward Blanchett…. I really want to be wrong here and see Adams tearfully overwhelmed that finally after years of being the bridesmaid, she gets to be Oscar’s bride.

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Biggest debate over this in my film class - "Let-Oh" or "Lee-Toe"?

Biggest debate over this in my film class – “Let-Oh” or “Lee-Toe”?

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Who Will Probably Win: Jared Leto - Dallas Buyer’s Club
Actual Winner: Jared Leto

Talk about a role that gets the attention of the voting community.  When people have to second guess who it is that’s actually playing a role, you know you’ve got a winner. Leto said something in an interview to the effect that he knew he had to play this role, like it was calling to him.  My guess is it was simply repeating the word “Oscar” over and over.

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Lupita will win a double-Oscar in my book if she hauls June Squibb up onto the stage with her and gives her a hug.

Lupita will win a double-Oscar in my book if she hauls June Squibb up onto the stage with her and gives her a hug.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Who Will Probably Win: Lupita Nyong’o - 12 Years a Slave
Actual Winner: Lupita Nyong’o

Okay, this is another close category, with a lot of debate going between Nyong’o and Jennifer Lawrence.  They’ve relatively split the acting awards this season, but I want to believe that with J-La having won her award just last year, the Academy will be looking to spread their favor to more people. The sentimentalist in me would like to see June Squibb win simply to see a sweet little old lady being thankful to win an award in her 80s, but as lovable as Squibb’s performance was, Nyong’o’s had the intensity of an Oscar winner.

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Insert numerous puns about freezing out the competition or how it melted the hearts of its audience... etc. etc. etc.

Insert numerous puns about freezing out the competition or how it melted the hearts of its audience… etc. etc. etc.

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
Who Will Probably Win: Frozen
Actual Winner: Frozen

Yep. Not much to say about why. Despicable Me 2 was great, better even than the first, Ernest & Celestine has a really unique animation style, and has had some buzz worthiness, The Wind Rises was banking on the “Miyazaki’s final film” aspect carrying it to the finish line, and The Croods was…. well, it was. But Disney unleashed the full fury of its musical-making, animation powerhouse, and without a serious Pixar film (i.e. not a sequel) to compete against, it stands to take home another well-earned statue.

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Soundtrack to this picture: "Free Falling" by Tom Petty (Admit it, you're singing it in your head and it's perfect.)

Soundtrack to this picture: “Free Falling” by Tom Petty (Admit it, you’re singing it in your head and it’s perfect.)

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY & VISUAL EFFECTS
Who Will Probably Win: Gravity
Actual Winner: Gravity

Looking to ease the pain of not winning Best Picture, Gravity is going to sweep up in a lot of other areas.  Not that it isn’t completely deserving in this regard. Those sweeping vistas of space, the use of contrast in the emptiness of space with a single astronaut drifting about, it’s a very deserving category to win in.  In terms of the other nominees, The Grandmaster brings back that Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon meets The Matrix visual style that’s been done so many times before, Inside Llewyn Davis looks to fit in nicely with the Coen’s other films at being visually elegant, but not wow-worthy, Nebraska is unconventionally shot in black and white, but The Artist already did that for a more content-relevant reason, and Prisoners…. well, not having seen it I can only assume it does things no one has even thought of doing because otherwise it kind of showed up out of the blue in this category. Gravity should, and will float away with this category. And for Visual Effects – ditto. The others have been done before (in fact, most are sequels), this is spectacle based in realism, that leaves the audience questioning what’s real and what isn’t. And that’s the equation for Oscar gold.

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*hushed whisper* Leo!

*hushed whisper* Leo!

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN & BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Who Will Probably Win: The Great Gatsby
Actual Winner: The Great Gatsby

What can I say, I love the work that Baz Luhrmann and company do. It’s such a vibrant, hyper-realism look and feel to everything that no matter what the content, you can’t help but just soak in the ambiance.  I even found myself forgetting the film was based on a book because it all just seemed so outlandishly bold that it had to be original. Normally the way to pick the winner in Costume Design is to choose the period piece. The problem this go round is that they’re ALL period pieces. So in that case, the tie-breaker goes to the one with the boldest period, and a Baz Luhrmann 20s beats an authentic 70s any day.

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This is the cover artwork for McConaughey's first country album: "My Baby Even Took My Shirt, But I'm Alright, Alright, Alright"

This is the cover artwork for McConaughey’s first country album: “My Baby Even Took My Shirt, But I’m Alright, Alright, Alright”

BEST MAKEUP
Who Will Probably Win: Dallas Buyer’s Club
Actual Winner: Dallas Buyer’s Club
This category threw me last year, so I’m trying to learn from that trend.  Last year I figured an army of dwarves with prosthetics and wigs galore would topple the simplistic realism of Les Miserables, but I was oh so wrong. So this year, I opted to steer clear of the heavy latex applications of Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, and the blockbuster eye candy of The Lone Ranger, and stick with the more reality-based Dallas Buyer’s  Club. Not to mention, I’m going to guess a good portion of the Academy will side with me on having a sick feeling in their stomach for even thinking about voting for a Jackass movie to win an Oscar.  I still think in about 10 more years, when the television broadcast signal for Jackass reaches the nearest star system (thank-you, Contact), that’s going to be the cue for alien invaders to deem us conquer-worthy and wipe us off the face of the planet. On that day we’ll hopefully at least have the comfort of knowing we didn’t give those guys an Oscar for hitting society as a whole in the junk. Mark my words!

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This movie has got to be bad for NASA's recruitment efforts.

This movie has got to be bad for NASA’s recruitment efforts.

BEST SOUND MIXING & EDITING
Who Will Probably Win: Gravity
Actual Winner: Gravity

In space, no one can hear…. well anything, really. It’s a vacuum. But if Joss Whedon’s backing down from the choice of “silence in space” on his show Firefly when making the movie Serenity taught us anything, it’s that audiences don’t want authentic, they want immersive. Therefore the team on Gravity was faced with the task of creating it all, and in many cases, using sound to ground an otherwise intentionally-adrift bit of storytelling.

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I'm sure Muybridge didn't take into account a horse pausing to wave during the course of its stride. (A little film-nerd humor for my students.)

I’m not sure Muybridge took into account a horse pausing to wave during the course of its stride. (A little film-nerd humor for my students.)

BEST SHORT FILM (ANIMATED)
Who Will Probably Win: Get a Horse!
Actual Winner: Mr. Hublot

Disney looks to take back-to-back Oscars for the Short Film (Animated) category following Paperman‘s win last year. Get a Horse! is a throwback to Mickey Mouse cartoons of yore, and apparently fully embraces the benefits of 3D movie-watching. Add to that the fact that it was placed in front of the obvious front-runner for best feature-length animated film, and you’ve got a recipe for a lot people knowing the film.  Based on the trailers, Feral had a more interesting animation style, and Mr. Hublot had a very cool 3D-animated look to it, but I’m not sure they can take down the popularity of the Mouse House on this one.

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I was planning to record my own cover of this song to embed here, but I decided to be the only person on the planet who didn't.

I was planning to record my own cover of this song to embed here, but I decided to be the only person on the planet who didn’t.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
Who Will Probably Win: “Let it Go” - Frozen
Actual Winner: “Let it Go”

Frankly I’ve been humming Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” for weeks now, and his site 24hoursofhappy.com is an awesome experiment in making the world’s’ first 24-hour music video.  But we all know how this is going to play out, so don’t act surprised.

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They should have just called this movie Castaway in in Space.

They should have just called this movie Castaway in in Space and had Bullock befriend a basketball named Spalding.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Who Will Probably Win: Steven Price – Gravity
Actual Winner: Steven Price - Gravity

I love movie scores.  A good score can carry a film way further emotionally than so many of the other elements. If you ever get a chance to watch a scene from a movie without the music behind it, you’ll see what I’m talking about. Now, I love John Williams, but it seems like the man is just automatically guaranteed a nomination, with little chance of securing the win. Desplat won last year with The Artist, so it’s too soon for him, Butler & Palett’s music for Her fit perfectly with the quirky nature of the film, but probably won’t garner enough support, and as much as I also love Newman’s work, I would be amazed to see him take it for Saving Mr. Banks. Steven Price is an Oscar newcomer, but his music editing history is pretty notable. He worked on editing music for films such as Batman Begins, The Lord of the Rings movies, and a personal favorite, Scott Pilgrim vs the World. Although I find the score a little repetitive to listen to on its own, it sets the mood perfectly for the film, and should bring Price a little Oscar love.

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CATEGORIES I DON’T HAVE A STRONG OPINION ON:

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BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY - Her
Actual Winner: Her

Spike Jonze is a great storyteller – make no bones about it. Whatever else the film is, whatever other categories it falls short on, this one might be where it ekes out a win.

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BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY - 12 Years a Slave
Actual Winner: 12 Years a Slave

It’s rare for a film to take Best Picture and not win in any other categories. I’m going to throw this one in their camp to help prop up a potential Best Picture win.

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BEST FOREIGN FILM - The Great Beauty
Actual Winner: The Great Beauty

Shot in the dark here. Had some of the better looking camera work in the trailer, and that super-artsy feel that gives a certain allure to foreign films.

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BEST DOCUMENTARY – 20 Feet from Stardom
Actual Winner: 20 Feet from Stardom

Frankly the only upbeat nominee in the bunch. I’m voting for it simply because it’s the only one that doesn’t make me hate the crappy state of the world. Could go to The Act of Killing, but, again, that one is depressing.

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BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT - The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life
Actual Winner: The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life

Take one super-old lady, add an overtly-charming sense of optimism, mix in a little piano-playing, add the fact that she’s a Holocaust survivor, and multiply the fact that she recently passed away, and you can just lock my personal vote in for the win.  I could be wrong, but at this point, if there’s any justice in the universe, I won’t be.

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BEST SHORT FILM (LIVE ACTION) – Helium
Actual Winner: Helium

It’s a film about a sick kid in the hospital. Add some cool visual effects to the heartwarmingness, and I’m willing to say it might beat out the competition.

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BEST FILM EDITING - Captain Phillips
Actual Winner: Gravity

I really don’t have any idea on this one. All are valid options. But this might be one category that the Academy gives some love to a film not nominated anywhere else, and I still have a soft spot in my heart for Tom Hanks who was sadly not nominated.

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And that, as they say, is that! Let’s see how we do. Last two years I scored 19 out of 24 categories correct. Can I beat my previous scores? Can I beat my students’ scores? We’ll find out tonight!

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The 5 Most Overrated Movies of All Time

Since you’re on this site, you probably enjoy discussing movies. And like me, you’ve probably been frustrated by seeing a movie you couldn’t stand, only to find out everyone else loves it. Of course, since I’m taking down overrated movies here, you probably also love at least some of the movies in this article. So it’s important to remember that even a great movie is simply that — a movie. I don’t necessarily expect you to agree with me, as long as you consider my thoughts and enjoy the read, and perhaps leave a response. But if I can release a few people from their servitude to one of these movies, my work will not be in vain.

Without further ado, the most overrated movies of all time:

Glory poster#5 Glory (1989 Dir. Edward Zwick)

Okay, before I get a contract out on my life, I’m not saying Glory  is a bad  movie. I’m just saying it doesn’t deserve its five Oscar nominations, slough of other awards or the endless adulation it’s received. I know in our political and cultural climate, hardly anyone dares criticize such a movie, so for the first time ever, let’s take an honest look at Glory.

Colonel Robert Shaw (Matthew Broderick) is commissioned to lead the first Regiment of black soldiers in the U.S. Army. The sequences of training the regiment are far more Hollywood than history. For instance, there is a scene in which soldier Silas Trip (Denzel Washington) is caught deserting, and is to be flogged before the regiment. We are supposed to be shocked when Drill Sergant Mulcahy (John Finn) yanks Trip’s shirt down to reveal years’ worth of whip scares. Shaw actually starts crying when he sees this. Trip then stares unflinchingly at Shaw while he is flogged, as Shaw whimpers like a little girl.

This brings us to my indictment of Glory, and of those who praise it. It’s less about its quality than about the fact that people seem to think the film is making some kind of bold statement about the country’s history. But if a film wants to make a bold statement about history, it needs to get history right. Modern audiences are moved by the scene above. But Shaw would not have been. The thing people forget is that we are looking at the U.S. Army of the 1860s. White men in the army where routinely flogged for deserting, falling asleep on duty, or having an unkempt uniform. They were also accustomed to sleeping on the ground, eating maggoty bread and (get this) being shot. Shaw most likely had scars on his own back, and had certainly been grazed by a bullet at the Battle of Winchester.

The movie tries to deal with a lot of arguments and issues that would find no place in a military environment, especially if you want to tell a story of honor and glory. We hear a lot of infantile whining about military discipline, not only by new recruits, but by white officers we’re supposed to sympathize with. Then there’s the scene where Shaw informs the regiment that the Confederate Congress has issued a proclamation that any negro captured while fighting for the North will be executed. After he delivers the shocking news that if they go to war they might die, we’re supposed to be inspired when they are all still there the next day.

To be fair, Glory  certainly has some things going for it. It’s interesting and refreshing to see a full cast of black actors playing very different characters fighting together. Both black and white bring passion to their roles and there are some really powerful moments, especially the campfire the night before the climactic battle. Also, as race movies go, this one is a lot deeper than most. But for every great moment there’s another one that’s ruined by awkward acting or cheap cinematography, including, sadly, the crowning moment of an otherwise good climax.

The climax is the 54th’s doomed assault on Ft. Wagner on July 18, 1863. We see Shaw and Trip fatally shot at the foot of the fort’s walls. The remaining major characters, and a lot of extras, then storm the fort. The crescendo comes when Sgt. John Rawlins (Morgan Freeman), Major Cabot Forbes (Cary Elwes), Thomas Searl and Jupiter Sharts run up onto a ledge before they are killed by cannon fire. It’s all supposed to happen in a moment, because they died fighting. However, the camera focuses on them for well over a second, as they stand there awkwardly, posing for the camera. You can almost see Freeman thinking “Aw, yeah, I’m gonna get another great close up!” while you can see Elwes looking for Zwick, thinking “Do I tilt my gun up a little? Down a little?” And finally, even though we saw Washington shot through the chest at the bottom of the hill, we then see him running up behind everyone, craning his neck as if to say “I want to be in the picture, too!” Not only that, but the camera actually cuts away from this awkward pose to the cannons, and then back to the awkward pose for another second or so, before our heroes disappear in cannon smoke, making it truly laughable.

It makes a great still, but the moving version is pretty painful

It makes a great still, but the moving version is pretty painful

For better or worse, Glory  has had a huge impact on movies since. The black Union soldier has become to civil war movies what the explosion is to Michael Bay movies, even though, in reality, there were black men fighting for the South before there were black men fighting for the North (yeah, that’s right) and the role played by black Union soldiers in the war was actually very small. Glory  is a solid movie over all, and I own a copy that I enjoy watching from time to time. But come on. Five Oscars? Really?

Society’s rating (according to Rotten Tomatoes):

My rating:

 

Cars poster#4 Cars (2006 Dir. John Lasseter)

There isn’t much that can be said about this one, except that if it hadn’t been riding the coattails of Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, it wouldn’t have had nearly the success that it did. As Doug Walker put it, it seems more like a satire of a Pixar film than an actual Pixar film. Cars spawned an endless flood of toys, lunchboxes and kiddie toilet seats, as well as a handful of sequels, all to the tune of $10 billion in the first five years after it came out. And does anyone even remember what it was about? Don’t feel bad, I had to look it up myself.

The first reason this movie doesn’t work is the world it tries to create. Consider A Bug’s Life, which is similar in that it has an entirely non-human cast, in this case ants and other bugs. This works well, because bugs actually have their own existence, independent of humans, so it’s interesting to hear a story about what hopes, fears and conflicts bugs might have in their own world. Cars‘ world is populated with anthropomorphic machines, with no trace of human existence. But if there are no humans, where did all these machines come from? Did a submarine crawl out of the sea millions of years ago and magically grow wheels? Or was there some divine mechanic that took a side panel from the first daddy car and made the first mommy car, and told them to bump uglies and fill the earth? And if so, from whence did the babies come, mommy’s tail pipe? See the problem here?

Anthropomorphic vehicles have worked better in other movies, usually as a foil to a more serious plot, or as wisecracking sidekicks, such as the taxi in Roger Rabbit. It can be interesting to see a show where sentient vehicles interact with their owners, e.g. Nightrider, or interact with each other, talking about the jobs they do for  their owners. But machines exist only to serve a purpose. With no humans in Cars, the writers have to stretch their characters into emotional and organic roles that don’t make sense. For instance, near the beginning, Lightning McQueen is pursued by a police car. The police car’s motor back fires a few times. McQueen exclaims “he’s shooting at me! Why is he shooting at me?” A better question would be “how is he shooting at me?”

But let’s say we get past all this, and generously grant the film its ill-conceived premise, and just judge it by its own standards. It’s still not a a good movie. It’s not terrible, but it’s just a handful of overused cliches with nothing original. We start out with a self-absorbed, ambitious protagonist, McQueen, that we know is going to learn a lesson in the end. We then learn that he doesn’t have any friends. Through a misadventure, he finds himself a fish out of water in a small, forgotten town out of the interstate limelight. Some of the characters of this town are Rockwellian stereotypes, such as Doc, who is both the town judge and the town doctor. The rest are more recent stereotypes, like a hippie, a big city lawyer and a fairly racist Hispanic stereotype.

cars sugar

This movie is sugary enough to give a man diabetes.

We hear a lot of rhetoric about how small town poverty is better than big city wealth, which is always amusing coming from Hollywood producers. McQueen, who has learned the value of hard work during his trial, ultimately gets everything he wanted in the beginning anyway, but turns down millions of dollars to be “happy.” The story pushes the familiar idea that friendship and family are better than worldly success, but never believes in its own message enough to sell it. Significantly, none of the characters in this movie have any meaningful family connections. How could they, after all?

Even if Cars isn’t good, it is kind of cute, and I suppose that’s what sold so many products. If you like this movie, it doesn’t mean you’re an idiot. It just means you’re easily entertained.

Society’s rating:

My rating:

 

Avengers poster#3 The Avengers (2012 Dir. Joss Whedon)

The success of The Avengers is a powerful testament to the superiority of aggressive marketing over quality product. For some reason, American moviegoers made this film the highest-grossing film of 2012, probably the second most embarrassing choice by the American public in that year.

There is a video game series called Marvel Ultimate Alliance. The story of the game is an afterthought as an excuse to cram every single Marvel character in to the same game and have them go around beating up polygons. I’ve never found it that interesting, but it works okay as a game. The problem with Avengers is that it’s exactly the same thing, except we, the audience, don’t get to play.

Anytime you cram several superheroes into the same story you’re playing with fire. You’re mixing mythologies and there’s usually not enough time to develop all of them and create enough suspension of belief. For instance, why in the name of Odin can a hammer forged by the gods and imbued with the power of lightning and thunder not break (or even dent) Captain America’s shield? I don’t care if it was designed by Howard Stark. And even if we grant that the shield is indestructible, why is Cap’s arm not broken behind it? This might seem like a minor detail, but Avengers is full of questions like this, because the mythologies don’t gel. And because they don’t, we have to settle for a movie that is about like watching a video game. The B-movie “story” concerns a race of computer-generated aliens that invade New York City. Who are these guys? We don’t really know. Where do they come from? Who cares? What were the events that provoked their hostility with the Earth? If they can rip open a portal to NYC, what prevents them from attacking several points of Earth at once? And if they have such technology, why do they still need live mounts? None of these questions are ever bothered with, as these aliens are just cannon fodder for the heroes to show off their powers. The aliens are led by Loki, who has transitioned from being a poorly written prodigal son in Thor (first he hates Odin, then he loves Odin, then he throws himself down to the earth because Odin simply tells him “no”) to now being a flat-out cartoon villain, consumed with a drive to (what else?) take over the world.

Now, which one of these pictures is from Avengers ...

Now, which one of these pictures is from Avengers …

Marvel Studios also needs to learn that stone walls do not a prison make, nor rampant destruction an action sequence. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent rendering huge battle sequences for Avengers in which skyscrapers and aircraft carriers are laid waste, and the audience never breaks a sweat. In fact, the one action sequence in the movie that’s actually engaging is the one-on-one fight between Hawkeye and Black Widow, which involves no CGI, but only great choreography.

... and which one is from Man of Steel?

… and which one is from Man of Steel?

This summer, movie goers were treated to a similar movie, The Man of Steele, which was panned by critics and audiences alike. And not without reason. But the people who lapped up Avengers  never seemed to realize that Man of Steele  was the same movie (In fact, Google either one, and you’ll get lots of images from both). Avengers  throws constant superhuman fighting in your face with no rules of reality. Man of Steele  does the same thing. Avengers  spends most of its two hours blowing up trains and tearing skyscrapers to bits. Man of Steele  does the same thing. Avengers wastes precious little time on story or character development. Man of Steele  does the same thing. In fact, Man of Steele comes out the stronger, because

Is that gravel spray being raised by Clark or the Hulk? Who knows?

Is that gravel spray being raised by Clark or the Hulk? Who knows?

the director isn’t mediating between six stars and dividing up the face time. We at least get an interesting and moving expose of Clark’s relationship with his parents, and Michael Shannon is actually able to develop a compelling (if over-the-top) villain in General Zod. The only thing Avengers  brings to the table that Man of Steele  doesn’t is some great shots of Gwyneth Paltrow from behind and Scarlet Johansson from above. In fact, Amy Adams as Lois Lane spends most of her movie in a parka. But really, which of those two options is the mark of the superior film?

Society’s rating:

My rating:

 

Princess B poster#2 The Princess Bride (1987 Rob Reiner)

We now reach the hard-core portion of this list. Strong of heart, read on. I apologize if I shatter your childhood, but it’s high time that you knew 1) there is no Santa Clause, and 2) this movie sucks. The faithful reader may remember my review of The Grey, in which I commented that, at the end, I felt like an 18-year-old groupie who had been picked up by Director Joe Carnahan, only to find out in bed that Carnahan had this … “little problem.” My experience watching The Princess Bride was similar, except that I felt more like a chronically cheated-on wife, who has spent years going to counseling and forgiven her husband over and over and over again, because he has promised to take her on some romantic vacation to some exotic location, and then, when the time comes, he leaves her at the airport and goes off with his secretary.

From the start, we see a cheap movie. Cheap sets, cheap camera work, cheap actors. But it still shows signs of being a fun, campy fairy tale. After enduring the griping of a young, ailing Fred Savage about the story being read to him, we see the story of a girl named Buttercup (Robin Wright) falling in love with a farm boy named Wesley (Cary Elwes). Buttercup later hears that a ship carrying Wesley was taken by the Dread Pirate Roberts, who never takes prisoners, so she figures he’s dead. Five years later, she is betrothed to Prince Humperdinck (Chris Sarandon). However, she is kidnapped by three brigands and taken on a ship. At one point, she tries to escape by jumping overboard, and hears a strange noise. And here we have a good example of the crystalline dialogue we get to hear over and over in this film. The leader, Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) shouts out “You hear that, highness? Those are the shrieking eels! They always grow louder when they’re about to feast on human flesh!” Did they have a five-year-old write this? Vizzini also spends much of this part of the movie repeatedly shouting “inconceivable!” It gets old real fast. He also shouts lines like “Move the thing! And that other thing!

I’ll admit this part does a good job of creating mystery and suspense, as they find themselves being followed by a stranger who gains on them no matter what they do. After they scale the Cliffs of Insanity, Vizzini cuts the rope at the top, leaving the stranger clinging to the cliff side. He instructs his swordsman, Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin), to dispatch him once he reaches the top, while he and Fezzik (Andre the Giant) escape with Buttercup.

The stranger ascends, and we get the single awesome scene of the movie. And awesome it is! I have PB fightpersonally studied under Ted Katzoff, the Fencing Maestro who choreographed this scene. The man is a swordplay genius (not to mention one of precious few non-European Maestros). He has worked on films such as Hook and Outrageous Fortune, and I would expect nothing less than what he delivers in this scene. The swordsmanship displayed by both combatants is truly remarkable, being both technically proficient and exciting to watch. Each man starts out fencing with his left hand, and just when we think one of them is going to lose, he switches to his right! We get flips, dives, stair fencing, the whole nine yards. The whole movie should be like this. Alas …

The stranger bests Inigo, but knocks him out rather than killing him. He then goes on to somehow defeat Andre the Giant in a wrestling match that still somehow manages to be boring. Finally, he bests Vizzini in what is called a “battle of wits,” but is really just a contest to see whose ears start bleeding last from listening to Wallace Shawn’s incessant, nasal rambling. Thankfully, Shawn dies. Buttercup is now the stranger’s prisoner, and in a following scene, she learns that he is the pirate who killed her love. Eventually she pushes him down a hill. The camp meter shoots up here, from merit-badge-camp-out to Mt. Everest-base-camp. As he rolls down the hill, he shouts out a catch phrase that Wesley used to say to Buttercup. This is supposed to immediately clue Buttercup in that the stranger is actually Wesley. Upon realizing this, she throws herself down the hill for … some reason, and we have this long, stupid scene of them rolling down a hill, at the bottom of which they kiss.

About this time, we join Humperdinck and his right hand man, Count Rugen (Christopher Guest), at the head of a search party, examining the footprints from Inigo’s fight with Wesley. Two things take shape in this scene. First, we see that Humperdinck is able to analyse the fencing technique of both fighters from their tracks, implying that he is a skilled fighter and tracker himself. Second we learn that Humperdinck hired the brigands to kidnap and kill Buttercup, in order to frame a neighboring kingdom for it, to generate public support for a war. Humperdinck is beginning to show himself as a stereotypical fairy tale villain. And that’s a good thing because, as we all know, when people go to a fairy tale movie, they’re going to see sword fights. Yes, there’s also that “true love” thing, but there’s no point in having a true love if there’s no danger to save her from. That’s why good movies of this genre, such as Errol Flynn movies or Zorro movies, are packed with sword fights, each one more spectacular than the last, leading up to the climactic battle between the hero and the villain, which should blow us all away. Yes, it’s a formula, but there’s a reason it’s a formula. And hey! Reiner has already got Maestro Katzoff right there on set, and he has two sympathetic swordsmen, Wesley and Inigo, still alive after their fight. What’s more, we’ve learned of Inigo’s vendetta against Count Rugen for killing his father, so we also have two villainous swordsmen, with henchmen at their command. Perfect!

Make no mistake, while there have been some clever moments, up to this point, this has been by no means a good movie. We’ve seen ham-fisted acting, painful one-liners, and gaping plot holes. There’s been no explanation of why Humperdinck wants to go to war, or who with. For that matter, why was he trying to catch the brigands if he hired them? I’ve been overlooking all of this because there has got to be some more of that swashbuckling action before too long. I mean, it’s not like Reiner would actually put his one good fight scene in the first 20 minutes of the movie! Would he?

The boneheaded moments are coming faster now. As they walk through the Fire Swamp, Wesley tells  Buttercup the story of how he was, in fact, captured by Roberts, but Roberts took him on as a valet. Three years later, Roberts decided to retire, and so appointed Wesley to plunder in his place.

Wait a minute! Did I miss something here? This is our hero in this fairy tale? And he’s spent the last two years as a pirate, killing people by his own admission? Was he under some kind of coercion? Was he using his position to undermine Humperdinck’s oppression of the masses? Was he at least using his ill-gotten gains to provide for the less fortunate? If any of these things are true, we’re never given any indication. We’re just left to assume that Wesley has been raping and pillaging his way around Florin for two years because … his old boss said to. Worse yet, at the end of the movie, Wesley actually suggests to Inigo that Inigo take over raping and pillaging from him!

At least our primal couple are walking through a dark and dangerous swamp from which none have returned. What thrilling dangers and battles lay ahead? Will Wesley have to fight dragons? Trolls? Orcs? Will the adversity finally force Buttercup to find her inner strength so she can be of help? The tension is palpable as they push their way through vines and trees. Suddenly, out of nowhere, Wesley is pounced upon by a … rat? A freaking RAT! Granted it’s an unusually big rat; one might even say a rodent of unusual size, but it’s a freaking rat! In addition, it doesn’t look real at all. So we spend three minutes watching Buttercup cower in a corner while Wesley rolls around with a stuffed animal.

But that’s okay, because the climax is going to be awesome.

Miracle Max. Amusing, but too little, too late.

Miracle Max. Amusing, but too little, too late.

To make a long story short, they get out of the swamp and Humperdinck captures Wesley and sends him to the torture chamber, leading Buttercup to believe he has been released. Humperdinck eventually kills Wesley by sucking his life away. On the day that Humperdinck and Buttercup are to be married, Fezzik and Inigo break into the torture chamber and steal Wesley’s body. They obtain a pill which brings him back to life, but with temporary paralysis. The three break into the castle. Inigo has to fight four guards, but it’s over in about three seconds. He then confronts Rugen, who flees. Inigo gives chase, but Rugen is able to trick him by throwing a dagger into his gut. He recovers, however. This fight isn’t terrible, but it’s nothing compared to the first one. Inigo basically backs Rugen into a corner and skewers him after some dialogue.

But that’s okay, because we’re almost to the big fight between Wesley and Humperdinck!

Buttercup enters the bridal chamber, sick with grief after the wedding, and is about to kill herself, when she hears Wesley’s voice! She turns to see him lying on the bed. They kiss and he tells her she’s not married, because she didn’t say “I do,” and didn’t do “it.”

“A technicality that will shortly be remedied.” Ooh, boy! Our contrived, two dimensional villain stands in the doorway, sword in hand. Chills run up my spine. This is it! “But first, to the death!” Sounds good to me. “No!” Wesley says. “To the pain!” Um, okay. That sounds fine, as long as you guys fight.

Well, not just yet. First we have to listen to a long explanation of what “to the pain” means. Finally (finally!), Wesley rises to his feet and the fight is on! He raises his sword. Humperdinck counters by … dropping his sword?? Then sitting down and letting Buttercup tie him up? No!

No, dammit, no! Don’t do this to me!

I forgave the whiny, prepubescent Fred Savage, the shrieking eel nonsense and Wallace Shawn’s inconceivably annoying rants. I forgave our “hero” spending years as a murderous pirate for no discernible reason.  I forgave the stupid and unscary “battle” with a stuffed animal in the Fire Swamp.  I forgave the torturously boring torture scene and the physiologically ridiculous fight between Inigo and Rugen, but I forgave those things because this movie promised a thrilling climax. A dazzling duel between hero and villain. I mean, they had a world-class fencing maestro right there on set. He had already done a great job with one fight scene — the one at the end should have been even better! Fencing on rafters! Falling chandeliers! Backflips! But the best Reiner could come up with was to have the villain wimp out and sit down and get tied up. Haven’t you ever seen a campy sword movie, Reiner? You couldn’t possibly have thought this movie was good enough to be different.

When I first saw this movie, I had a headache for the next day or so, thinking of the two hours I’d never get back. Even after I saw it, I really wanted to like it, but I’m just not that dumb.

Society’s rating:

My rating:

 

And now, the most overrated movie of all time:

 

 

Nightmare poster#1 Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993 Dir. Henry Selick)

This is it, the creme de la crap. How this mess of a movie achieved critical acclaim and won a loyal cult following of tens of millions, I will never understand. Everything about it is just plain warped, right up to the way it was marketed. It was sold to the public as a Christmas family film, and given mild-sounding PG rating. Then, as soon as the theatre doors were shut, a door that looked like a pumpkin swung open and families with young children were sucked into a world full of vampires, werewolves and ghouls in a celebration of the macabre. And I have to admit that this opening number is pretty cool — that is it would be if this were a horror movie. But it’s a Christmas movie, dammit. At least that’s what it said on the poster. Don’t get me wrong, the horror genre has its place, but this is not it. We have to wait until 20% of the movie has gone by to see the first glimmers of holiday cheer. And even once it arrives, there’s not much too it. I know we’ve all seen plenty of cheesy holiday specials with titles like So-and-so saves Christmas, and most of us were tired of them by age 10. But to those specials’ credit, they at least make an effort to capture the true feelings of Christmas that bring people together during the holidays; the joy of giving and forgiving. The only “Christmas” this movie has to offer is the most two-dimensional, cellophane-wrapped, commercialized version imaginable, and even that only shows up for about 5% of the movie.

This movie doesn’t have any good versus evil narrative, which wouldn’t be fatal if it had another narrative that went somewhere — but it doesn’t. It seems to try to tell a story of how a misguided hero’s plans go wrong, but it never gets off the ground. After a whiny solo about being tired of his job, Jack Skellington, the “pumpkin king” of Halloween, wanders into Christmas  Town, and is taken aback by the feelings of warmth and joy that replace the fear of Halloween. Having “grown so tired of the sound of screams,” he becomes convinced that getting involved in Christmas is the way to escape the rut he is in.

So, like any reasonable businessman fancying a career change, Jack seeks out the owner of this … franchise he’s discovered, and buys him a beer and says “I would like to learn more about what you do here, maybe even try working with you for awhile,” right? No of course not. He dispatches three of his minions, Lock, Shock and Barrel, to kidnap Santa, and announces that he is forcibly taking over Christmas. What the hell? It’s really hard to buy Jack as the well-meaning but misguided tragic hero, because if his intentions are truly non-malevolent, he has to be the biggest bone-head the world has ever seen. I mean, how could anyone not out of his skull ever think this was a good idea? When Lock, Shock and Barrel have accomplished their task, they haul in Santa, bound at the hands and feet and tied in a sack (a freaking sack!), and throw him at Jack’s feet. Jack simply tells Santa “You can consider this a vacation — a reward! I’ll be taking it from here.” He then allows Santa to be dragged away by the trio, absentmindedly dismissing them with the comment “See to it he’s comfortable!” Are you kidding me? these kids have shown themselves in previous scenes to be anything but responsible, careful or empathetic, and Jack can see they’re dragging Santa off into a world full of open sewers and torture devices. What does he think the three little psychopaths are going to do, put Santa up in a Hilton and serve him coffee and a croissant every four hours??

Sure enough, Santa soon finds himself stuffed down a pipe and tied to a torture rack in the lair of the

Merry Christmas, suckas!

Merry Christmas, suckas!

Boogieman, Oogie Boogie. Meanwhile, Jack carries on with his insane plan, placing gifts under trees that attack children all over the western world. He never seems to feel the least bit bad about it, his narcissism even prompting him to insist that humanity is “thanking us for doing such a good job,” when the national guard is firing at his sleigh. There’s nothing to root for in this movie. We’re supposed to identify with Jack as his “good intentions” blow up in his face, but he has more in common with a maniacal comic book villain than anything else, sicking killer toys on children a la the Joker, or being driven to remake the world in his image a la the Lizard. The female lead, Sally, at least has her head on straight (if only thanks to stitches), but she never accomplishes anything. We can’t root for Santa to save the day either, because we never see anything he does.

Fans of this movie will probably argue that it wasn’t made for the story, but rather for the animation and the music. To be sure, the stop-motion animation is done with tremendous care and skill, but the most that animation can do is make your movie look real. It can’t make your movie good. Without at least a decent story to carry the movie, no amount of technical skill will save it. And to be honest, as fluid as the animation looks, there’s nothing revolutionary about it. The same techniques have been used hundreds of times before. The music, frankly, is overrated. There are two numbers in the movie that I found impressive; the opening and Oogie’s song. The rest range from annoying to decent, but cliche.

Anyway, Jack finally gets it through his skull that this was a horrible idea, and races back to Halloween Town. We get the single scene in the movie where good faces off against evil, and he saves Santa and Sally from Oogie. Santa races off to magically save the day off camera, and finally causes snow to fall on Halloween Town, presumably for the first time ever. We then get the culmination of a romance that was assumed, rather than developed; a kiss between Jack and Sally, even though they only have about 1.5 lips between them. So did this story actually go anywhere? Is there going to be some cultural exchange or cooperation now between Christmas and Halloween Towns, which might vindicate all this foolishness? Or did Jack actually learn anything from this debacle? Probably not, because Jack wasn’t trying to do something good that went wrong. He was doing exactly what writer/producer Tim Burton did when he wrote this story, along with most of his other stories: taking something that everyone loves, something that was fine as it was, and putting his own twisted stamp on it, expecting us all to care. Look, I’m sorry Burton had an unhappy childhood. That’s no reason to subject all of us to it. The stuff in his movies should be shared with a psychologist, not with families who’ve come to see a warm holiday film. I bet Burton deliberately neglects to flush public toilets, too, because he’s convinced the next person to come along would love to dissect Tim Burton’s leavings to learn what kind of food Tim Burton eats. And that’s what this movie is: the poo from Burton’s narcissistic ass, spread across the silver screen for the world to marvel at and analyze!

Society’s rating:

My rating:

It’s fun to talk about why a movie is good or bad. But just as interesting is the question of what makes people love some bad movies. Some movies achieve acclaim by touching on subjects that make people afraid to criticize them. Glory exploits an inspiring part of history. No one wants to say anything negative about it, partly for fear of being considered racist or otherwise uncaring, and partly because they really want the film to be as meaningful as the event. Some films rely on shear marketing “firepower,” spending huge numbers of dollars. The world was smothered in merchandise related to Cars and The Nightmare Before Christmas both before and after their releases. Everyone talks about how much they love them, but few actually remember the movies themselves. Still other films manage to get a commitment from people early, so that they refuse to believe they have been cheated. The Princess Bride actually starts out pretty promisingly. That was why I endured the last two thirds of it and really tried to like it. It seems many people actually managed to make themselves like it. Marvel Studios actually spent four movies advertising Avengers. People were so excited, they were giving Avengers five-star ratings before they’d even seen it.

I hope you got a kick out of this article. Perhaps you have an overrated movie you’d like us at Walking Taco to take down a peg. (Already, I’m beginning to think of movies that probably should have been on this list.) If you do, post a comment and ask us to review it! Until then, good night.

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Trailer-Based Predictions for the 85th Oscars

oscarGet ready for some Oscar love!

The internet is positively brimming with predictions and opinions on who will/should win the coveted Oscar statuettes, so why should we at Walking Taco be any different? Although I’ve seen more of this year’s contenders than last year, I am still woefully behind. However, to keep the trend rolling, I shall once again attempt to predict this year’s winners based on their trailers. (A * denotes my vote for the competition with my film students.)

Want to go head to head with me? Copy and paste the ballot at the end into the comments to throw down with your own predictions!

UPDATE: I have added the Actual Winners as they are announced, and if different than my predictions, my response. Final tally – 19 out of 24, same as last year! Now to get to actually seeing all these films beyond what their trailers have to offer! Also, congratulations to Kaylee in 2nd Hour and Sam in 3rd Hour for scoring the highest number correct in the student competitions.

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Affleck checked and rechecked the nominees list to make sure there wasn't some sort of mistake that he wasn't nominated for Best Director.

Affleck checked and rechecked the nominees list to make sure there wasn’t some sort of mistake that he wasn’t nominated for Best Director. At the very least, his beard should have gotten an acting nom.

BEST PICTURE
Who Will Probably Win: Argo *
Actual Winner: Argo

It would take a veritable act of God to stop the wheels of award glory that Argo is riding on.  It’s won pretty much every best picture award from WGA to DGA to SAG to WTF. (That last one isn’t real, BTW.) Odds are the Academy, which is made up of many of the same members as these other organizations, will follow suit.

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Who knew a movie about math would be so popular? I figured people would stop watching after 3.14159.

Who knew a movie about math would be so popular? I figured people would stop watching after 3.14159.

BEST DIRECTOR
Who Will Probably Win: Ang Lee – Life of Pi *
Who I Think Should Win: Ben Affleck – Argo
Actual Winner: Ang Lee – Life of Pi

Traditionally it’s rare for the Best Picture and Best Director awards to not go hand in hand. This year, that isn’t even an option for Affleck with Argo. Some are calling it a “snub”, I’m calling it a simple issue of math – with 9 nominees for Best Picture (all deserving in some regard) and only 5 nominees in Best Director, someone had to be left off the list. However, after seeing the veritable torrent of trophies raining down on Affleck this year, this looks to be a situation where the Academy has egg on its face for not even nominating him. So with Affleck out of the picture, it’s kind of anyone’s game. I really think this comes down to Spielberg for Lincoln and Lee for Life of Pi. As much as I love Sir Stevie, I’m going to predict Lee will take the prize, and be equally pleased if Spielberg takes home a third win.

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I had the strangest dream that suddenly my money started speaking to me. Then I realized it wasn't a dream, it was an Oscar-worthy performance.

I had the strangest dream that suddenly my money started speaking to me. Then I realized it wasn’t a dream, it was an Oscar-worthy performance.

BEST ACTOR
Who Will Probably Win: Daniel Day-Lewis – Lincoln *
Actual Winner: Daniel Day-Lewis

Really, watching this movie was like seeing a $5 bill come to life. (Oddly the film did not receive a nod for makeup and hair, despite so many of the actors being made up to resemble their real-life counterparts.) It’s nice to see Bradley Cooper recognized for something outside of the Hangover series, and great to acknowledge Hugh Jackman’s talented singing performance, but Denzel already has two Oscars, and Joaquin Phoenix alienated so much of the community with his “I’m retired to pursue my music career – psych! It was all part of a crazy mockumentary art film that none of you saw!” act that I can’t imagine he’ll be re-emerging as an award winner any time soon.

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J-La is confident in her win, while Cooper seems to be in disbelief over his inevitable loss.

J-La is confident in her win, while Cooper seems to be in disbelief over his inevitable loss.

BEST ACTRESS
Who Will Probably Win: Jennifer Lawrence – Silver Linings Playbook *
Actual Winner: Jennifer Lawrence

Chastain is definitely deserving, Amour seems too obscure for the 86 year old Riva, and Watts’ chances of winning for The Impossible seem to be just that. Although it’s cute to see Quvenzhané Wallis nominated, and she did give a lovely performance for an 8 year old, Keisha Castle-Hughes couldn’t do it for Whale Rider, and neither will she. Lawrence seems to be all the buzz, and she came close but missed with Winter’s Bone, so this might be the year the Academy seeks to make that up to her. I’m going to go with the flow and predict Lawrence to take it, although it would really tap into my soft spot for the elderly to see Riva up there accepting.

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Whether DeNiro or Jones takes it, it looks to be the year of the sour-faced old timer.

Whether De Niro or Jones takes it, it looks to be the year of the sour-faced old timer. (With all due respect Mr.(s) De Niro and Jones – since I’m pretty sure both of them could still kill me with their bare hands.)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Who Will Probably Win: Robert De Niro – Silver Linings Playbook *
Who I Think Should Win: Tommy Lee Jones – Lincoln
Actual Winner: Christopher Waltz

To be honest, I probably had the toughest time calling this category – especially since they’ve all won before. Although Waltz had a substantial role (based on screen time in the trailer that is), Arkin is kind of a crowd favorite since Little Miss Sunshine, but Tommy Lee Jones won the SAG, and was probably one of the more outstanding performances in Lincoln. (Even if it was just the usual sad, grizzled Tommy Lee Jones.) There’s also a decent amount of buzz around De Niro. About the only one that would surprise me is Hoffman, although I’m sure his performance was worthy of the nom. Between Jones and De Niro, I’ll flip the coin and go with De Niro.

My Response to the Winner: Fair enough. This category was a toss-up all around, with all five being previous winners. I don’t think anyone could have called it with extreme confidence. So, congrats Mr. Waltz!

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Don't look so sad Anne! You're about to win an Oscar!

Don’t look so sad Anne! You’re about to win an Oscar!

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Who Will Probably Win: Anne Hathaway - Les Miserables *
Actual Winner: Anne Hathaway

Even in the trailer Hathaway steals the category with her performance, and she’s really only in the first portion of the film. Sally Field has had her day (yes we still like you), Helen Hunt too, and although Jacki Weaver completed the 4-acting category quadfecta (is that a word?) for Silver Linings Playbook none of them have much of a chance at this one. Amy Adams is definitely due after multiple noms with no wins, but I don’t think this is the one. It would be a terrible slight to Hathaway if the Academy did use this as a pity win for Adams. Look for Catwoman to take to the stage… and probably cry.

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Will Ralph wreck Pixar's chances at taking the Oscar?

Will Ralph wreck Pixar’s chances at taking the Oscar?

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE FILM
Who Will Probably Win: Wreck-It Ralph *
Actual Winner: Brave

Although Brave could prove a strong showing in this category, and it’s a much better entry than Cars 2 for Pixar, I think Wreck-It Ralph has more promise this go round. The others are all worthy of mention, but Aardman’s work on Wallace and Gromit has already earned them a win, and Burton’s work is nothing all that different from his previous work, same with Selick.

My Response to the Winner: Well, as much as I like Pixar, it seems like Wreck-It Ralph was a solid entry from Disney that wasn’t connected to Pixar directly. On the other hand, I believe this was the first woman to win for direction of an animated feature, so… history!

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Little known fact, the art department based the visuals for this movie on source material by Bill Watterson. #untruefacts

Little known fact, the art department based the visuals for this movie on source material by Bill Watterson. #untruefacts

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Who Will Probably Win: Life of Pi *
Actual Winner: Life of Pi

Let’s not lie, the trailer has some stunning visuals of the story of a boy on his boat. For all of the other categories Pi will come up short, its visual appeal has to win it something, and this category is one way to make up that ground.

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Hopefully that train station has a sandwich shop, cause Keira needs to eat one.

Hopefully that train station has a sandwich shop, cause Keira needs to eat one.

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Who Will Probably Win: Anna Karenina *
Actual Winner: Lincoln

Karenina really has some cool choices made in how scenes flow from one to the next, and the visual style of the sets is captivating. Again, having only seen the trailers, I’d say this film deserves some recognition for the visual choices made by the production staff, and this is the best place to do that figuring cinematography will go to Life of Pi.

My Response to the Winner: All the nominees had some very nicely done styles, I just think Karenina had a much bolder visual style than the others. Not sure I would have ever picked Lincoln out of that group, but there you have it.

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If nothing else, Karenina should win for Knightley's spot-on bear costume.

If nothing else, Karenina should win for Knightley’s spot-on bear costume.

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Who Will Probably Win: Anna Karenina *
Actual Winner: Anna Karenina

Almost always goes to a period piece, problem is they’re pretty much all period pieces. Mirror, Mirror and Snow White cancel each other out, Lincoln doesn’t seem bold enough, and Les Mis has more gritty realism, but the lavishness of Karenina will probably give it the edge.

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Now, where's Waldo?

Now, where’s Waldo?

BEST MAKEUP
Who Will Probably Win: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey *
Who I Think Should Win: Lincoln
Actual Winner: Les Miserables

Although Hitchcock did a remarkable job making Anthony Hopkins resemble the late filmmaker, Hobbit did their makeup work 13 times over. But really, I can’t get over how Lincoln and its spot-on likenesses is strangely MIA in this category. I mean, seriously, you can have five nominees, why stop at three? If Hitchcock can get the nod for making a handful of actors resemble people in history, Lincoln did that five times over. But, with Lincoln out of the running odds are in favor of Bilbo and company.

My Response to the Winner: Uh… well…. sure. Not gonna lie, that would have been my last selection. Maybe the Academy was wanting to throw some more love its way since most of the big awards will be going elsewhere – and there’s the fact that the LOTR stuff has been acknowledged in the past.

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Wait, wait, wait. Singing AND acting? At the same time?!? You're a madman, Hooper!

Wait, wait, wait. Singing AND acting? At the same time?!? You’re a madman, Hooper!

BEST SOUND MIXING
Who Will Probably Win: Les Miserables *
Actual Winner: Les Miserables

It’s a freaking musical. It requires a balance of the orchestra, the singing, the sound effects, the dialogue – it’s a mixer’s nightmare, but also potentially their golden ticket. Plus, with the bold move to do on-set recordings instead of the standard pre-recorded lipsyncing, this should win over the minds and ears of the Academy members.

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When asked if this whale of a tale was all true, Lee replied "I swear by my tattoo." (Name that movie reference!)

When asked if this whale of a tale was all true, Lee replied “I swear by my tattoo.” (Name that movie reference!)

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Who Will Probably Win: Life of Pi *
Who I Think Should Win: Marvel’s The Avengers
Actual Winner: Life of Pi

This is a tough one. There are plenty of examples of good Visual Effects work this year, and some are far more subtle than others. Last year I thought the motion capture work on Caesar would lock the category for Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and the Hulk from Avengers is in that exact same boat, but (speaking of boats) Life of Pi was such an artsy-fartsy use of Visual Effects that it may sweep the Academy’s eyes off their feet. Although I’m predicting Life of Pi, this is one category I’d be okay with being wrong about.

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Sure, this whole story concept could have been simplified with the ol' Yawn-and-Stretch technique, but their version was so much better.

Sure, this whole story concept could have been simplified with the ol’ Yawn-and-Stretch technique, but their version was so much better.

BEST SHORT FILM (ANIMATED)
Who Will Probably Win: Paperman *
Actual Winner: Paperman

I actually made it out to see all of the animated short films this year, and all five really were deserving of the nod. Even the Simpsons crew represented well with their Maggie Simpson short. Interestingly, all of the animated shorts, including several of the runners up, contained no dialogue, which I thought was a nice demonstration of visual storytelling. As much as I want to root for the underdog (pun intended?) indie project like Adam and Dog, or the potential dark horse contender in the very clever Fresh Guacamole, Paperman was the most solid of the five. The classic Disney animation style is back, but with a unique charcoal-edged, black and white look to it, an emotionally investing yet concise visual story, and a musical score I couldn’t get out of my head. I probably watched it 10 times between all my classes and still loved it as much the 10th time as the first. Unless the Academy was in an anti-Disney mood, expect to see Paperman take the prize. (But all are definitely worth a view if you get the chance, and many are available online.)

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If nothing else, this song should win an Oscar for most uses of its own title in the lyrics... oh wait, "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" already won in that category.

If nothing else, this song should win an Oscar for most uses of its own title in the lyrics… oh wait, “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” already won in that category.

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
Who Will Probably Win: “Skyfall” by Adele *
Actual Winner: “Skyfall” by Adele

Three things “Skyfall” has going for it – 1) It’s by far the most well-known of the songs, having a very public run on most pop radio stations, 2) The huge popularity of Adele these days, 3) It ties back into the roots of the Bond theme songs of yore, giving it an artsy connection to tie up the other spectrum of voters. That combination should prove to secure Adele an Oscar  to keep her Grammys company. Although “Chasing Ice” allowed Scarlett Johansson a chance to show off her singing chops, and Norah Jones’ “Everybody Needs a Best Friend” plays into the Academy’s love of friendship-themed songs with on-the-nose lyrics (I’m looking at you Randy Newman) neither hold the clout of “Skyfall”. “Pi’s Lullaby” doesn’t really stand out in this crowd, serving almost as more of a score contender. “Suddenly” seems more like a desperate attempt to win a music-related Oscar for a musical film with otherwise completely unoriginal (simply in that it already existed as a stage musical) music. Yes, they may have some explanation about how this ties in a long lost element of the original book, but this has Oscar grab written all over it. Sadly the song doesn’t hold up to the quality of the original Les Mis music, and in a film where the acting takes precedence over the singing, the auditory experience alone just doesn’t cut it.

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When I need to find calm, I go to my happy place, drifting serenely on an endless ocean with no one around but a... oh, dear lord it's a man-eating tiger!!!

When I need to find calm, I go to my happy place, drifting serenely on an endless ocean with no one around but a… oh, dear lord it’s a man-eating tiger!!!

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Who Will Probably Win: Life of Pi *
Who I Think Should Win: Lincoln
Actual Winner: Life of Pi

What can I say? I love me some John Williams. Sadly, I think he will be turned away again. Life of Pi was by far the most soothing soundtrack of the bunch, with both Skyfall and Argo having more edgy sounds to them, and Karenina is mostly ballroom music. Pi will take it, although I wouldn’t be disappointed if Williams whisked another trophy home to his massive collection.

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CATEGORIES I DON’T HAVE A STRONG OPINION ON:

BEST SOUND EDITING – Life of Pi *
Actual Winner: Zero Dark Thirty AND Skyfall
I don’t even know, I was way off last year, and trailers aren’t much help in this category. It could be anyone’s game, but I’m going to say this is another one where Life of Pi gets some love because it’s the same people who did Hugo, and they took it last year. Maybe they’ll get the back-to-back wins.
My Response to the Winner: Well… one of the random times where I was not only wrong once, but twice in the same category. Didn’t have a strong feeling on this one, again, it’s hard to tell from the trailers, and I’m sure both were deserving.

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAYDjango Unchained *
Actual Winner: Django Unchained
Tarantino may be over-the-top in his use of language and violence, but let no one say his stuff isn’t original. I’m just not sure the others have what it takes to overshadow Tarantino’s style.

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY - Argo *
Actual Winner: Argo
What can I say? People love them some Argo. Although Beasts of the Southern Wild or Life of Pi could get a surprise nod here.

BEST FOREIGN FILM – Amour *
Actual Winner: Amour
By far the most well-known of the nominees this year, although based on the trailers, most look interesting enough to watch.

BEST DOCUMENTARY – Searching for Sugar Man *
Actual Winner: Searching for Sugar Man
Although these all looked pretty powerful, Searching for Sugar Man seemed to be the only upbeat one in the pack, and that breath of fresh air may be enough to make the Academy thankful. Plus it’s been doing well on the other award circuits.

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORTInocente *
Actual Winner: Inocente
A film about a homeless kid who wants to be an artist, could have that heartwarming cheer-for-the-protagonist edge to win out the category, although the others really do tug at the heartstrings. Monday’s at Racine and Open Heart will make it a tough call. It’ll be close, but Inocente is my shot in the dark. King’s Point, despite my usual soft spot for the elderly in films, seems to portray mean, crotchety old people, so no vote in their favor.

BEST SHORT FILM (LIVE ACTION) – Curfew *
Actual Winner: Curfew
Let’s not lie, shot in the dark here. But the trailer was by far the most entertaining of the group. The shot of the little girl dancing down the bowling lane is pretty awesome. I could also see it going to Buzkashi Boys, but I’m going with the one that made me laugh, Curfew.

BEST FILM EDITING - Argo *
Actual Winner: Argo
Another hard one to gauge based on the trailer, but based on its momentum, this will probably be another pickup for Affleck and Co.

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And that, as they say, is that! Last year I went 19 correct out of 24 – can I best my previous score? Can you beat my previous score? Feel free to make your own predictions in the comments section.

Don’t forget to tune in on Sunday to find out the actual winners!

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Star Wars: Why the Next Trilogy Matters

This article is technically the third in our own little Walking Taco trilogy regarding the works of George Lucas. You can read the others to help you get back story, although this one does stand on its own.
Episode 1: Star Wars: Why the Originals Matter
Episode 2: In Defense of George Lucas: Why the New Trilogy Matters
Also, check out Simon’s article - 5 Reasons the Disney Acquisition is Good for Star Wars

If you don’t follow breaking movie news, Oct 30th it was announced that Disney was acquiring Lucasfilm Ltd for a sum a little over $4 billion in cash and stock. This merger of companies brings all of Lucasfilm’s properties and subsidiary companies into the fold of the Disney entertainment juggernaut. Details of the deal are slowly coming to light, and what we know, among other things, is that Disney will acquire Industrial Light and Magic (the premiere visual effects company in the world) and Skywalker Sound (which does the sound recording/editing/mixing on many Hollywood films), both of which will continue to be able to provide services for films outside of the Disney corporation, as well as LucasArts (the video game branch of Lucas’ empire). The deal includes all of the Star Wars properties, as well as the Indiana Jones series (although those distribution rights are currently shared with Paramount, so will require some negotiation). Along with this major announcement, Kathleen Kennedy, the new Co-Chair/President of LucasFilm has announced that Star Wars Episode VII is already in the works, and under the new Disney banner will arrive in theatres in 2015, with Episodes VIII and IX to arrive shortly thereafter, and Star Wars films every 2-3 years after into the foreseeable future.

It is, needless to say, a very big development in the world of film and Star Wars. Everyone is weighing in on their thoughts as details and questions continue to emerge. I’m still sorting out all of my thoughts, but figured I would gather them in writing.

So, what do I think about all this?

What some people probably imagined the cast of Episode VII would look like under the new Disney banner.

Five years ago I would have been extremely leery of it all. I would have thought “Oh no, Jar Jar has gotten to George. He’s going all super-kiddy and soon Mickey will be appearing in a live-action Star Wars film that will rival the ill-conceived Holiday Special.” But two words put all those fears at ease – The Avengers. If Disney’s purchase of Marvel has shown us one thing, it’s that Disney can handle a well-established source material and allow it to flourish within it’s own individualized existence. We shouldn’t have to worry about them suddenly trying to water down the Star Wars films to appeal to even younger audiences because the Marvel movies are some of the most enjoyable films I’ve experienced as an adult. So in that regard, I welcome the merger. If Lucasfilm can flourish as much as Marvel has under the Disney banner, we should see some amazing things down the line.

Let’s also look at the new creative structure on the upcoming Star Wars films. Lucas has already created a treatment (which is basically a rough outline of the story for those who don’t know film-speak). But Lucas has also entered semi-retirement, meaning he will only be serving as a creative consultant on these films. Kathleen Kennedy, who has worked with both Lucas and Spielberg on many of the amazing films they created over the past 3.5 decades, is executive producing the films, and they’ll be bringing on new writers and someone else to direct. In essence, you have almost the same formula as The Empire Strikes Back, which is arguably the best film in the series. It allows George to offer his input and keep the universe cohesive, but doesn’t require him to write out all the dialogue (which even I’ve acknowledged he’s not always the best at) and gives other people with fresh eyes a chance to make the material more accessible to a mass audience. So, depending on who they can get to direct, and fans are speculating from names like the Wachowskis to Spielberg to Nolan (although odds are it will be someone less-known), it could produce some really intriguing results.

New directors means the potential for some new style elements to the Star Wars universe. Just imagine the possibilities!

Lucas has always known that Star Wars would continue long beyond his time on this earth. It is a legacy. It is a universe that has amassed fans of all ages, from all generations, and continues to grow, even without (or in spite of) additional movies. He couldn’t keep hold of it forever, and as he stated in a video interview you can watch on StarWars.com, he knew that Disney was a safe, stable company to house that property within. It’s a company he’s worked with on various projects in their parks, so he was comfortable with them, and I’m sure after seeing how they handled Marvel, he’s really got some peace of mind that they’ll handle that responsibility well. But more than that, even though George has been hesitant to relinquish control of making Star Wars movies to someone else because, in his words – “they’re my thing”, he acknowledges that in order for the property to stay relevant with future generations, there will need to be more films, and they will need to be done well without him feeling like he has to do it all himself.

However, this decision has bigger ramifications than simply excited fans getting to see more Star Wars movies. It’s bigger than a potential “Star Wars Land” at Disney parks, or the $4 billion George Lucas made, it once again opens the door for some serious advances in film. Many of the advances in all areas of film production – effects, cameras, editing, sound, etc. – all came in tandem with Star Wars movies. Lucasfilm, ILM, and Skywalker Sound have all continued pioneering new technology, but the times they seem to be at their best are when they are pushing the envelope on a new Star Wars film. So with an endless future of the sci-fi series in the works, it would reason for us to believe that we will continue to see bold new advances to film technology.

My daughter playing with her astromech. Who knows, with the future of Star Wars being so bright, maybe she’ll grow up to direct her own Star Wars movie someday. A dad can dream…

But even more than that, this decision will open the door for a new generation of film makers. Keep in mind, Lucas was a member of the group affectionately known as “The Movie Brats”, the first real crop of students formally trained in the art of film making. He and his classmates (Spielberg, Scorcese, Ford Coppola, Cameron, etc.) have literally defined quality cinema of the past few decades. We’re now at a point in the history of film where people who were children when the original, or even the new, trilogy hit theatres are now adults. Some of these people went into a career in film as a result of these movies – inspired to become filmmakers themselves. Who better to take over the helm of Star Wars films than the very people they so passionately inspired? I can’t think of a more fitting circle-of-life-esque tribute to George Lucas’ love of education and fostering creativity.

So once again, I sign off with a note to George Lucas. (Although I’m pretty sure he will never read these posts.) I want to thank you, sir. You have inspired me on many levels. As a lover of film, of storytelling, of imagination, as an educator, as a parent, as a human being – you have added so much to my life through your work, and although I can only imagine how many mixed emotions are involved with such a decision, rest assured that it will continue that impact far into the future. Thank you for all that you have done, and continue to do, and may your “retirement”, whatever that entails, reward you with as much enjoyment as you’ve provided us for all these years, and the peace of knowing that your legacy will make a difference for a long, long time into the future.

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5 Reasons the Disney Acquisition is Good for Star Wars


I remember the moment I got the news with a crystal clarity usually reserved for momentous events like the birth of a child or the arrival of a long-lost loved one.  I remember, like it was yesterday (because it was), when I read the first tweet informing me of the news I never expected: Disney had bought Star Wars.  Disney, the biggest of media companies, was now the owner of one of the most fiercely independent film studios.  Disney, whose decades of cheerful cartoons had brought joy to millions of children and adults around the world, was now custodian of such iconic figures as Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Yoda, and Darth Vader.  My initial reaction was shock and disappointment, and I immediate posted the following reaction on Facebook:

Oh no…Episode 7? C’mon George Lucas, just let it rest already.

I read a lot of other opinions and news stories, and watched the video in which Bob Iger and George Lucas talk about the decision.  And now that I’ve had time to digest this news and really give it the consideration it deserves (because, let’s face it, 24 hours is an eternity in internet time), I think this is actually a good thing.  In fact, it might be the best thing that has happened to Star Wars and all of Lucasfilm since Return of the Jedi.  Here are five reasons why:

1. Disney knows how to make good movies.

Disney’s track record is kind of like the stock market in that it goes up and down, often unpredictably.  The studio has put out some stinkers like Mars Needs Moms and Old Dogs, but on the whole Disney can deliver the goods when it needs to.  They’re not afraid to spend big money on good talent, and let’s not forget that this is the studio that somehow they turned a 50-year-old theme park ride into one of the most successful franchises of the past decade. The icing on the cake?  The movies were actually pretty good.  Disney is also not afraid to take chances on giant projects that don’t turn out so well.   John Carter and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time didn’t turn out to be the gravy trains they were made to be, the quality of the movies wasn’t half bad.  The main problem with these big-budget letdowns was partially due to their lack of recognition in the mainstream zeitgeist:  nobody cares about Barsoomians or ancient Persians when heading to the summer megaplex, but it’s a safe bet that ten out of ten filmgoers could pick Yoda out of a lineup with no problems at all. Give Disney some established characters and storylines, and stand back with your blast shield down lest the shockwave knock you over. They will do everything humanly possible to capture lightning in a bottle, which also means they will make certain Michael Bay will never, never be involved.  While the Star Wars prequels and the most recent Indiana Jones movie were commercial blockbusters, they were critical goose eggs.  Put these characters in the hands of the Disney corporation, and it’s a safe bet they will hire screenwriters and directors who can inject a new lifeblood into these franchises who will make sure the movies are golden eggs for the studio while also being quality films.

2. Lucasfilm was Disney already.

A giant company has massive film franchises that are beloved around the world.  It leverages the characters and stories in these franchises to sell merchandise of every conceivable kind, from action figures to lunch boxes to bedsheets to candy to clothing to video games, comic books, and spinoff novels.  This company also keeps milking cash from its franchises directly in the form of spinoffs, sequels, prequels, and 3-D re-releases ad infinitum.  Is this company Disney or is it Lucasfilm?  It’s both.  And anyone who thinks Disney could do any further damage to the beloved Star Wars franchise by whoring it out to product vendors of every conceivable kind has obviously not been paying attention.

(it was Lucasfilm who allowed this Star Wars Kinect game to happen, not Disney. There is literally no possible way things could get any worse.)

3. Iron Man/The Avengers

This kind of piggybacks on Reason #1, but I think it deserves its own entry.  Let’s rewind things a bit to the 1990′s, when comic book movies were kind of a joke.  While Tim Burton injected a much-needed shot in the arm to this corny celluloid stepchild with his dark and gritty Batman, his counterparts were busy churning out schlock like Tank Girl, Timecop, and The Phantom, not to mention a string of subsequently stupider Batman films culminating in one of the worse offenders in modern cinema: Batman and Robin. It wasn’t until Bryan Singer brought the X-Men to the silver screen, followed soon after by Sam Raimi (Spider-Man) and Christopher Nolan (Batman Begins) that comic book films really launched into the stratosphere.  These were deep, thought-provoking movies with multi-dimensional characters and solid acting–a far cry from the cornball movies of yore like Howard the Duck (a Lucasfilm production, no less).  Comic books, in the hands of talented directors and writers, became a gold mine of characters and storylines that shows no signs of running dry.  Marvel leveraged its own deep roster and financial clout to form its own movie studio, which was bought by Disney in 2009.  Sure enough, fans cried foul, grabbed their pitchforks and torches, and took to the internet in fits of collective rage decrying the inevitable befouling of their beloved franchises at the hands of Mickey Mouse.

So what happened?

Iron Man.  Iron Man 2.  Thor.  Captain America: The First Avenger.  And of course, towering over all modern comic book movies, The Avengers.

Some might dispute the faithfulness of these movies with respect to the source material. Others might quibble about costumes or supporting characters.  But few would argue that these are not quality films.  Disney knows how to turn franchises into commercial and critical hits, and there is no reason to suspect anything else from future Star Wars or Indiana Jones films.  They spent too much money to mess these up, and while audiences might have forgiven the awful dialog and painful characters of the Prequels because they sprouted from the same mind that brought them Star Wars in the first place, this same leniency will not be extended to Disney. Any new films are going to have to work hard to earn their place in the fans’ hearts, and if Disney’s track record since acquiring Marvel is any indication, Luke Skywalker and Indiana Jones are in good hands.

4. We might get the original trilogy back.

For fanboys like me who have been crying foul over George Lucas’ treatment of his original trilogy by releasing endless special editions with gratuitous CGI effects might finally get their wish granted.  Disney knows how to get every last dime out of a sense of public nostalgia, but few could argue that they do a great job paying tribute to their original works.  Take Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, for example.  By all accounts this film is hopelessly outdated with what would now be seen as shoddy animation, poor quality sound, and unflattering character stereotypes.  But when Disney released it as the Diamond Edition Blu-Ray, they left the original untouched in all its lo-fi glory. The colors have been restored, not edited, and the release strives to be as close to the original version as possible as opposed to George Lucas’ endless tinkering with the classic trilogy in order to suit his ever-changing “original vision.”  But after years of repeatedly denying fans the opportunity to see the classic Star Wars trilogy without all the CGI muck, Disney might finally leverage its considerable power and financial werewithal to give the original trilogy the Blu Ray release it deserves.

It might be wishful thinking, but it’s the best shot we have had in years.

5. It’s better than the alternatives.

Think what would happen in five years if George Lucas were left in charge of Star Wars.  At best, we would likely get sequels with the same terrible dialog and wooden acting (but gosh darn it if those CGI effects aren’t pretty) as Episodes I-III.  But at worst, they might never happen at all.

George Lucas is in his 70′s, and to be honest the man deserves a break.  Say what you want about the licensing, the prequels, and the endless spinoffs, you gotta respect the man for bringing all this to us in the first place.  And like my buddy Dave pointed out, it was George Lucas who single-handedly changed the face of modern filmmaking while also bringing us Industrial Light and Magic, Pixar, and THX not to mention countless innovations in how films are produced and edited.  The man deserves our respect, our thanks, and more than anything, a break.  I applaud him for letting Kathleen Kennedy take charge of Lucasfilm back in June of this year, and selling the company to Disney is the next logical step.  I honestly don’t believe George’s heart is in it anymore, which is why he wants to get back to basics and work on smaller, more personal projects.  More power to him, and I hope he does well.  If Lucasfilm was left in charge of Star Wars the franchise would likely sink into mediocrity, and while it would still make boatloads of money it would probably not innovate.  The Disney buyout is a breath of fresh air for our beloved galaxy far, far away, and probably the best thing that has happened to it in years.

As we look forward to Episodes 7-9 (hopefully based on the outstanding Timothy Zahn novels), a possible TV show, and no doubt a tidal wave of products and merchandise along with them, I feel a disturbance in the force I have not felt in a long time: hope.

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Obama’s Amercia 2016

Remember those pictures that were so popular back in the 1990s called Hollusions? The first time you walked up to one, all you saw was a field of dots sprayed on a piece of paper, like snow on a TV screen. You had to learn to focus (or rather not focus) your eyes in the proper way. It took patience. The first time, it could take an hour of looking, but suddenly, you would see the dots arrange themselves into a holographic image. Some of them were beautiful, some were a little bit scary, but once you learned to see them, it was hard to imagine how you ever missed them, and hard to be patient with those who still couldn’t see the picture.

That’s what it was like for me to observe Barack Obama’s candidacy, then his presidency, asking the tough questions, and finally to see this excellent film made by Dinesh D’Souza. Obama was a phenomenon in 2008. Watching one of his rallies was like watching a Michael Jackson performance. You saw male and female, young and old, black, white and all others. A huge crowd of people from many walks of life, all united in, not the support, but the worship of one man. A man who, like Jackson, was “black” but … not really; his skin not very dark, his features resembling those of his white mother, and not one drop of slave blood in him. Rather, he reflected his international background, projecting a mix of ethnic groups. His platform was equally nondescript, one of “hope” and “change,” with no concrete positions expressed until after he was in power. He was a blank canvas, upon which the naïve projected whatever they desired.

Can you see it?

However, many have been puzzled by Obama since 2008, as there doesn’t seem to be a pattern to his actions. His actions cannot be explained by the usual differences between Republicans and Democrats. You might recall that, when the congressional vote was nearing on Obama’s universal health care plan, Democratic voters were calling their Congressmen in large numbers, begging them not to pass the bill. Obama had enough close allies to push it through, however. Around the same time, Obama was in the middle east, apologizing to America’s enemies. He had no problem using force in Libya to depose a dictator who was no threat to America, yet he does nothing to keep Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. When his actions in Libya led to the murder of an ambassador and several other Americans, he again apologized to radical Islamists for the First Amendment. He blocks efforts to drill for America’s life blood on American soil, yet encourages such drilling in South America. Seeing all this, millions of us can’t help but ask “Does he want  America to fail?”

D’Souza covers the way in which Obama was lauded by millions, not as a good candidate for a job, but as a messiah. Millions stamped themselves with

A drawing from obamamessiah.blogspot.com. The post gives no indication of being satirical or facetious.

his “O” icon. Paintings were done of him resembling the traditional Jesus. Classrooms full of children were required to sing songs in his honor. Crowds of people were on TV, literally weeping for joy when he was elected. I want to be clear about something: D’Souza does not spend this film bashing Obama. He simply covers some truly embarrassing behavior of real Americans from the past several years.

I’m thankful for D’Souza. He grew up in India, and, just as it took a child to point out that the emperor was naked in the famous tale, it seems to take a newcomer to America to say the things that some of us just can’t, however true they may be. D’Souza points out the fact that Barak Obama is the first President in American history to be elected primarily because of the color of his skin, and is brave enough to say that no white (or Indian) man would ever have been ushered into the White House after just four unremarkable years in the Senate.

But what’s really impressive about Obama’s America 2016 is the depth of the journalism. D’Souza has put enormous effort into digging up Obama’s past, traveling around the world and interviewing everyone from his extended family in Kenya, to those he knew in Indonesia,  to people who worked with him on the campaign trail. Using Obama’s two autobiographies as a guide, D’Souza pries his way into Obama’s head to see what makes him tick.

Does Obama want America to fail? D’Souza unearths a straightforward answer to this question; one that, after the care and thoroughness of his search of Obama’s past, is very hard to argue with. Most of the way through, I suspected that this was actually a pro-Obama film. D’Souza remains objective in his explanation of the emotional journey of Obama, and you really do start to feel with Obama. And with all the adorable footage of Kenyan children in Obama shirts, you can see how people fell so madly in love with Obama. But the last 15 minutes of this film give you the mental equivalent of finally seeing those dots arrange themselves into a picture. It becomes clear why Obama does the things he does, and it is genuinely scary.

Obama’s America 2016 is available to rent at Redboxes across the nation, and you need to see it before you vote.

Can you see the picture yet?

 

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Red Tails

Producer George Lucas took on an ambitious project when he set out to make Red Tails. He had to finance it mostly himself because, as he later said in an interview, studios didn’t want to make the picture because there weren’t enough rolls for white people. (Check out this link at 5:00.) Interesting that liberal Hollywood tried to stop a film with an all-black cast. Political commentator Alfonzo Rachel would later say that Hollywood did so because they don’t want young blacks to start wanting to learn about the Tuskegee Airmen (our protagonists, the first black squadron to see combat in WWII), because if they do, they’ll learn that most of them, like most blacks of the time, were Republicans. While there might be something to this theory, I tend to think Hollywood’s reluctance has less to do with the racial politics of the ‘40s than with those of today. Certain stigmas on the portrayal of blacks in film can make it really hard to make a good movie with too many black characters. Red Tails bears the marks of these stigmas – not as deeply as some movies, but they’re there nonetheless. Consequently, a movie that could have been another Memphis Belle had to settle for being just another Flyboys. It has some good action and a few good lines along the way. It also contains one of the funniest performances I’ve seen in awhile, as Cuba Gooding Jr. trying to play the grizzled, old Major Stance. He spends the whole movie sucking on a pipe, doing his best General MacArthur impression. Hilarious. Terrence Howard does considerably better as Colonel Bullard. Red Tails works fine as a popcorn flick, but gets annoying at times because it thinks it’s in the same league as Saving Private Ryan. It isn’t.

The first reason for this is its total lack of intensity. For all the action, the squadron suffers two dead, one wounded and one captured through the whole movie. The text at the end says that the historical Tuskegee Airmen lost 66 men with more wounded, but you sure wouldn’t know it from the film. This is because, even as Red Tails seeks to tell a story disproving racist claims of the past, as I said above, it bears the marks of the racism of today. Hollywood continues to be afraid to portray black characters as having any flaws, needing to learn anything, or failing at anything they do. Consequently, we see ridiculous things in this movie. In addition to the lack of casualties, we actually see Lightning (David Oyelowo), the squadron hot shot, blow up a destroyer with machine gun fire. This is slightly more realistic than the destruction of the destroyer in Mega Piranha. Slightly.

You can see from Red Tails why it’s so hard to make good movies about black people. This movie never breaks a sweat. We know the Red Tails can’t lose, and can hardly suffer a setback, so there’s never any suspense or sense of danger. The movie tries to build up some tension with ominous talk of the new jet fighters the Germans are developing, but when it comes down to it at the climactic battle, even the most cutting-edge technology is no match for the coolness of Hollywood-packaged black guys.

When I saw The Memphis Belle, I was on the edge of my seat the whole way through. I desperately wanted the bomber crew to make it home, and I wasn’t sure that they would. With Red Tails, I never worried.

What’s more, the film suffers from a drive to inflate the contribution its heroes made to the war. The film opens with a scene of white fighter pilots abandoning the bombers they are supposed to escort, and the line by a man on a bomber, “Damn those glory-grabbing bastards, again!” The bomber squadron is then cut to ribbons by the Germans. Later, a general tells Bullard that “We need to change the way we fight,” and he is giving the Red Tails a chance because he needs fighters that will stay with the bombers. The first time the Red Tails rendezvous with a bomb squadron, the pilots of the lead bomber are disappointed when they see that their escort is black. (Humorously, the black pilot they are looking at is several hundred feet away, and obscured by two canopies, and his whole body is covered, except for his eyes. How can they even tell?) Then, when the Red Tails refuse to chase a German “decoy squadron,” the bombers are shocked. “They’re giving up glory to save our asses!” Toward the end of the movie, a white squadron who is supposed to relieve the Red Tails fails to even show up. All this is, frankly, a loogie to the face of every non-black man who risked or sacrificed his life to save the world from Hitler and Tojo. Throughout the war, every flier on all sides knew that the job of the fighters was to protect the bombers, and non-black fighter pilots consistently did so. What is portrayed in Red Tails is nothing more than fiction concocted to make the Tuskegee Airmen seem revolutionary. The historical Red Tails fought with courage and dedication, but they did not turn the war around.

Can you tell which of these pilots is black? Here’s a better question: can you tell which of them is a brave American defending his home?

A lot of commentators have complained about a lack of interest in movies that focus on black people, and have blamed racism for it. But what racism is actually doing is taking the life out of such movies as they get made. Great war movies put us in the reality of the moment, to get some sense of the fear and the pain of war (if only through a glass, darkly). They have us wrestle with the questions the men wrestled with and make us understand the moral uncertainties that come even when you believe in what you’re fighting for. There is a moment in The Memphis Belle I will never forget, during the protagonists’ final mission. The copilot of the Belle is angry that he has spent the whole war in the cockpit, and doesn’t want to go home without being able to say he shot some Nazis. Before the last mission, he slips the tail gunner a pack of cigarettes to let him take over shooting for part of the mission. When the moment comes, he slips into the turret and begins blasting away. Before long, he knocks out a high-flying German fighter. He whoops with delight as the fighter plummets … Straight into an American Bomber. The bomber is cut in half, and the copilot listens, over the radio, to the pitiful wails of the men aboard as they plummet to their deaths. Obviously, words fail me. But I remember The Memphis Belle because the characters were real, not supermen. I jumped every time a bullet came through the wall of the plane. I felt with the plane medic as he struggled to save a wounded crew member, then wrestled with the urge to drop him out of the plane with a chute, hoping the Germans would take him to a hospital.

Something that’s interesting to note about Saving Private Ryan: Steven Spielberg, a Jew, included a Jewish character in the story, named Mellish. For some reason, he made Mellish one of the least likable characters in the movie, and ultimately had him lose to (of all people) a Nazi in face to face combat. I have no idea why Spielberg chose to do this, but, whatever his reason, it shows a certain contemplative humility that either white guilt or black narcissism just won’t allow into films like Red Tails. If the makers of black cinema want to see a wider interest in their films, they need to start putting their characters in a realistic light.

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The Truth Behind Ron Swanson

office-space-parks-recOne of the best shows to come out recently is NBC’s Parks and Recreation.  It tells the story of Leslie Knope, a heartbreakingly dedicated public servant who works in the Parks Department in the small town of Pawnee, Indiana (“First in Friendship, Fourth in Obesity”).  Knope’s eternal optimism and extraordinary work ethic often put her at odds with her fellow government workers, most of whom couldn’t care less about their job and simply show up to do the minimum amount of work required and collect a paycheck.  And while I enjoy the show’s take on the faux-documentary style of sitcom (think “The Office” and you’re mostly there), it’s the characters that really have me hooked.  Andy Dwyer, who embodies the phrase “Ignorance is Bliss” with everything he does; April Ludgate, the twentysomething emo girl with a heart of…well, maybe not gold, but possibly silver or at least copper; Tom Haveford, a thoroughly straight male obsessed with fashion and cologne.  But the most standout character of all is Leslie’s boss, Ron Swanson.

In fact, there has recently been something strangely familiar about Swanson.  The mustachioed alpha male has always been one of the high points of the show, but recently I have noticed that his character is eerily similar to another office-dwelling character famous for his slacker-like ambitions but doing his job just well enough to not get in trouble.  The resemblance is so striking that I believe it cannot be coincidental, and might be just one of the best gags pulled on audiences in recent memory.  And after much contemplation, research, and Tapatio-flavored Doritos, I believe I have uncovered the truth behind Mr. Swanson:  he is Peter Gibbons.

Peter-Gibbons-MotivationIf that name doesn’t ring a bell, you might not have been in the narrow demographic who spent their college years watching Office Space while guzzling Live Wire Mountain Dew and playing Halo on the original Xbox.  Office Space, directed by Beavis and Butt-Head creator Mike Judge, bombed at the box office but struck a chord with college students when it was released on video.  Its central character Peter Gibbons hates his job but does in anyway, dutifully putting in his time as a computer programmer while listening to eight different bosses drone on about mission statement.  He eventually gets so frustrated with his job that he and some co-workers (whose positions are on the chopping block) devise a plan to subtly rip off the company such that they never have to work again.  The movie comes to a close with Gibbons working his dream job shoveling dirt for a construction company while his friends drive off to their new jobs at another computer company, while their thorougly inept coworker Milton reaps the rewards of Gibbons’ grand scheme, sipping unsalted mai tais at a beachside resort.

But what happened to Peter Gibbons in the subsequent years?  And what does this have to do with Ron Swanson?  In truth, the two are one and the same.  Though more investigation is needed, my basic theory goes like this: Following the events of Office Space, Peter Gibbons quickly becomes dissilusioned with his construction worker job.  He likes the outdoor work and doesn’t mind the early mornings, but eventually the physical nature of the job becomes too much for him to handle.  After a year or so he parts ways with his fellow worker and neighbor Lawrence and realizes he needs to make a serious change in his life.  But since his only friends are his fellow workers (at this point he has long since stopped hanging out with Michael and Samir, despite Michael’s plea at the end of Office Space for the three of them to “keep in touch.”), he realizes that the best option is to essentially start over.  He moves to the small town of Pawnee, Indiana, changes his name to Ron Swanson, and gets a job doing the only thing he really knows how to do well: mid-level office work.  But in Pawnee, with its less-than-stellar business climate, the best option is government work, and sooner or later he lands a position at the Parks Department–an inconsequential segment of the local government where he can quietly exist as a paper-pusher who collects his checks and doesn’t get in the way.  But soon, his value as an employee is realized by his superiors simply because he isn’t a terrible employee.  Just as The Bobs realized that Gibbons had upper management written all over him, Swanson’s supervisors in the Pawnee government soon promote him to the level of manager.  Initially fearful of the new position, Swanson soon realizes that this job is tailor-made for someone like him, and spends the rest of his days quietly serving his time as the manager of the Pawnee Parks Department, working just hard enough to not get fired.

Allow me to explain further using the following bits of evidence.

1. Physical Appearance.

Peter Gibbons Ron Swanson

This is the most obvious, but also the least convincing, bit of evidence.  Still, it bears pointing out that both have strikingly similar features.  Along with changing his name, Gibbons also grew a mustache and started parting his hair on the other side–not much of a disguise, but then, it’s unlikely that anyone in Pawnee would recognize an inconsequential computer programmer from the Big City.  Eye color is a bit of a mystery, but I have a hypothesis that Gibbons actually wore brown contact lenses while working at Initech because he thought it would make him more attractive to the ladies (my guess is that Michael convinced him to do it). Both prefer muted earth tones and have a penchant for office-casual attire, though Gibbons clearly takes that a few steps too far when he shows up for work clad in jeans and sandals. However, this sense of rebellion is still present in Swanson, but it manifests itself in a more inward political fashion and is ultimately what leads Gibbons to adopt such extreme libertarian views as he ages.

2. Work Ethic

Peter Gibbons isn’t a bad employee, and he famously told The Bobs “it’s not that I’m lazy, it’s that I just don’t care.”  He might show up a little late, but he’s always at work even if he’s barely doing any work at all.  He even informed The Bobs that “I just stare at my desk; but it looks like I’m working….I’d say in a given week I probably only do about fifteen minutes of real, actual, work.”  Keep in mind that this kind of work ethic might be possible in an office environment (at least for a while) it would not be sustainable in a construction job.  This is why, according to my theory, Peter just doesn’t last very long on the job site with Lawrence.  But this type of do-the-bare-minimum approach is exactly how Ron Swanson goes about his daily duties, working, as Peter once said, “just hard enough to not get fired.”  And now that Gibbons (aka Swanson) is the manager, it would seem that he really has found a comfortable way to live out his days without ever really worrying about getting fired.  He hires April to be his assistant specifically so he has to do the least amount of work possible, and gives her accolades on several occasions merely because she keeps people away from him and out of his office.  Swanson has also been known to spend time at work whittling things out of wood, while his younger counterpart would simply waste time at work by playing Tetris and munching Cheetos.

ron-swanson-fishing3. Friendships

Before coming to live in Pawnee, Peter Gibbons never had much success with any type of relationship.  His closest friends Samir and Michael weren’t really his friends, but coworkers with whom he could comfortably share a table at a restaurant.  His neighbor Lawrence blatantly disrespects him, taking Peter’s beverages and using his coffee table as a footstool for his dirt-encrusted boots, much in the same way a schoolyard bully might pretend to be friends with a smart kid in order to trick him into doing his homework.  The real tragedy of Peter’s life, aside from his general lack of goals or direction, is that he really is alone.  And after moving to Pawnee, this sense of isolation only manifests itself further as Peter-turned-Ron continues to live a life devoid of any real personal connections save the superficial platonic relationships he maintains with his subordinates at the office.  Peter isn’t exactly the life of the party, and a decade later his new self Ron is equally awkward and uncomfortable in large groups of people.  Ron is most at ease when he is fishing, whittling, or in his woodshop crafting boats.  Peter is never really happy, and it’s too bad that even after starting over in Pawnee, Ron is equally unhappy–though he seems to have at least eked out a comfortable existence doing things that don’t actively make him angry.

4. Relationships

If there’s one thing Ron Swanson is not good at, it’s maintaining healthy personal relationships with women.  Married and divorced three times (twice to the same woman), his alpha-male tendencies often get in the way of the daily give-and-take of a relationship.  And even though we are not privy to many details of Peter Gibbons’ love life, we are given some important clues through his relationship with Joanna, the waitress from Tchotchke’s.  The only thing the two of them have in common is a dislike for their jobs and an affinity for kung fu movies–clearly not the foundation of a solid, healthy relationship.  And soon enough Peter’s inner demons rear their ugly heads and he ends up breaking up with Joanna due to an unfounded suspicion that she had a prior relationship with his boss Bill Lumbergh. It’s clear that Gibbons is more comfortable in front of a TV or computer than in the company of women, and this trait is clearly visible with Ron Swanson as well. Though in the years since Gibbons left his construction job he has clearly gravitated towards more outdoor activities like woodworking and fishing (instead of watching Kung Fu), his new Swanson self is just as awkward with women as his younger counterpart.  It should also be noted that Gibbons enjoys fishing, and continues to later in life after changing his name to Swanson.  Gibbons even takes Joanna out for a day on the lake during which they make several good catches, and he then returns to the office and cleans the fish right on his desk–a move that is right up Swanson’s alley.

Of course all this evidence is merely speculation and a somewhat loose connecting-of-the-dots, and there is certainly evidence to suggest that Ron Swanson is not, in fact, a grown-up Peter Gibbons.  For example, Swanson’s alter ego Duke Silver, who entertains elderly women at nightclubs with his jazz band, is clearly out of alignment with anything we learn about Peter Gibbons in Office Space.  Of course one could always suggest that Gibbons learned the saxophone in his years of soul-searching, but it’s unlikely given his lack of motivation and discipline. And the lengthy time span between Office Space and Parks and Recreation could allow for almost any possibilities, which makes this kind of speculation somewhat moot to begin with. However, I believe that with careful viewing enough parallels between the two characters emerge that certainly seem to suggest an intentional connection.

So is Ron Swanson really Peter Gibbons, all grown up but, in many ways, just as immature as ever? To answer that I will simply pose another question: is Charles Mulligan’s the best steakhouse in Indiana?

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