The 2014 Oscar Winner Predictions Spectacular!

Birdman Oscar Predix
Last year, I broke my record by getting 20 out of 24 categories correctly. If I’m being completely honest, I doubt I’ll do that well again. There is potential for some terrible winners this year. Here’s hoping the Academy shows some good taste… Anyway…

best picture

American Sniper
Birdman
Boyhood
The Grand Budapest Hotel
The Imitation Game
Selma
The Theory of Everything
Whiplash 

“Be careful what you wish for”. A couple weeks ago, after it won the Golden Globe, we were starting to think that all this Boyhood love was getting kind of repetitive. Hollywood took notice, and as a way of teaching us a lesson, it started showering Birdman with awards. It’s time to say “Ok, Hollywood, we get it”, and admit that we still look forward to watching award shows no matter how much fun we make of them. Let’s apologize to Hollywood so that we can have a worthy Best Picture winner. Otherwise, as Peter Labuza put it on Twitter, this will be “like the end of Tropic Thunder but not a joke”.

Will Win: Boyhood
My Vote:The Grand Budapest Hotel

UPDATE: Birdman won. I can’t say I’m surprised, but I’m a little disappointed. At the end of the day it, of course, doesn’t really matter. Great movies like Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Selma will have a long live in the heart of loving cinephiles.

Best Director

Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu (Birdman)
Richard Linklater (Boyhood)
Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher)
Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game)

Despite Birdman having won key awards from the Producers, Directors and Screen Actors Guilds, and despite all the money Harvey’s Weinstein Company can put into The Imitation Game‘s campaign, It just seems wrong that Richard Linklater could not win this award. Even people who don’t love Boyhood will admit that it was an impressive and adventurous feat, and he is clearly the best choice since Wes Anderson probably has no chance of winning.

Will Win: Richard Linklater
My Vote: Wes Anderson

UPDATE: At the end of the day, the visual feat of Birdman‘s Alejandro G. Iñárritu ended up being more impressive to Academy members than the conceptual feat of Richard Linklater.

best lead actor

Steve Carell (Foxcatcher)
Bradley Cooper (American Sniper)
Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game)
Michael Keaton (Birdman)
Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)

This list of nominees makes me want to vomit. Remember when Ralph Fiennes, Jake Gyllenhaal, David Oyelowo, and Timothy Spall all seemed like legit possibilities? How did we end up with such a crappy list?… Anyway, this also happens to be the one acting category that still holds a little suspense as far as “who’s going to win” is concerned. Yes, Eddie Redmayne has been racking up awards left and right this season, but Michael Keaton has the surging love for Birdman on his side. I wouldn’t be surprised by a Bradley Cooper win either, considering this is his third nomination in a row, and the fact that American Sniper has turned into a moneymaking machine.

Will Win: Eddie Redmayne
My Vote: Fuck this category.

UPDATE: Eddie Redmayne won, and good for him. He was amusingly overwhelmed to have become an Oscar winner.

Best lead actress

Marion Cotillard (Two Days, One Night)
Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything)
Julianne Moore (Still Alice)
Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl)
Reese Witherspoon (Wild)

It’s weird how one surprise nomination can change an entire category in terms of quality. Once Marion Cotillard got nominated for a Dardenne brothers movie, this turned into this year’s best acting line-up (the fact that the other acting categories turned out such bland nominees also helped). I have some quibbles with Jones and Pike, but they are eclipsed by how much I admire the work done by Cotillard, Witherspoon, and especially Moore, who will, after years of turning out outstanding work, finally be an Academy Award winning actress.

Will Win: Julianne Moore
My Vote: Julianne Moore

UPDATE: Julianne Moore is an Oscar winner. I got up and did a little dance when it happened. Enough said.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Robert Duvall (The Judge)
Ethan Hawke (Boyhood)
Edward Norton (Birdman)
Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher)
J.K. Simmons (Whiplash)

Pretty boring list of nominees, huh? Not that they’re bad performances, but if you had asked me five months ago who would be nominated for Best Supporting Actor, I would’ve answered with exactly these five names. Seems like people just accepted that this was going to be J.K. Simmons’s yearand didn’t even bother suggesting alternatives. I’m not a huge fan of Simmons’s work in Whiplash, but that has more to do with the way the character is written than with the actor himself, who has ben putting out solid supporting work for over a decade.

Will Win: J.K. Simmons
My Vote: Ethan Hawke

UPDATE: J.K. Simmons won, of course.

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)
Laura Dern (Wild)
Keira Knightley (The Imitation Game)
Emma Stone (Birdman)
Meryl Streep (Into the Woods)

Patricia Arquette is the favorite to win, and rightfully so. I wouldn’t call any of the other performances great, but it’s a pretty solid category. Laura Dern’s surprise nomination is more than welcome, and Keira Knightley is the only good thing about The Imitation Game. Emma Stone is fine in Birdman, but so good everywhere else that I’m happy she’s an Oscar nominee, and Meryl isn’t the best thing about Into the Woods, but some things never change.

Will Win: Patricia Arquette
My Vote: Patricia Arquette

UPDATE: Patricia Arquette won, and gave a pretty awesome acceptance speech. I see a couple of people complaining she intentionally shut off the struggle of women of color in her message for equal pay, but I personally disagree. Her wording might not have been ideal, but her heart was in the right place.

best original screenplay

Birdman (Alejandro G Iñarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Armando Bo)
Boyhood (Richard Linklater)
Foxcatcher (E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)
Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy)

Boyhood and Birdman are the front-runners to win Best Picture, which would usually mean  they’re the most likely nominees to take home this award. Birdman especially, since it won the Golden Globe for Best Screenplay. However, and this might be my love for the movie blinding me, I think this is when and where Wes Anderson finally wins an Oscar. He strikes me as very similar to last year’s win for Spike Jonze, a beloved indie director with a beloved movie (Her) who managed to win against a bigger contender (American Hustle).

Will Win: The Grand Budapest Hotel
My Vote: The Grand Budapest Hotel

UPDATE: This is the travesty of the night, because of an awesome career award for Wes Anderson (for his best movie!), the Academy decided to award one of the most flawed, conceptually iffy, and smug scripts of the year. I’m talking, of course, about Birdman. 

best adapted screenplay

American Sniper (Jason Hall)
The Imitation Game (Graham Moore)
Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson)
The Theory of Everything (Anthony McCarten)
Whiplash (Damien Chazelle)

If it weren’t for Best Lead Actor, this would be the worst category of the year. Aside from Paul Thomas Anderson’s adaptation of Inherent Vice, which by the way has no chance of winning, there is not a single nominee I don’t have major problems with. So, who wins? I would assume The Imitation Game, since it was nominated across the board and has Harvey Weinstein backing it up. Then again, the British voting block seems to be backing up The Theory of Everything (which just won the BAFTA in this category), and the americans could well rally behind their money-making Sniper. But at the end of the day, there is nothing more appropriate than a screenplay with a line as shitty as “Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine” winning an Oscar.

Will Win: The Imitation Game
My Vote: Inherent Vice 

UPDATE: Graham Moore won for The Imitation Game and gave a very heartfelt speech about acceptance, which makes it all the more frustrating that none of the passion she showed last night is to be found in The Imitation Game‘s script. 

best cinematography 

Birdman (Emmanuel Lubezki)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Robert Yeoman)
Ida (Ryszard Lenczewski, Lukasz Zal)
Mr. Turner (Dick Pope)
Unbroken (Roger Deakins)

Just three years ago, when Emmanuel Lubezki’s magnificent work in The Tree of Life was losing the Oscar to the nauseating teal-and-orange photography of Hugowe wondered if one of the best living cinematographers would ever be recognized by the Academy. It took the computer magic, and gigantic box office, of Gravity to get him a much deserved statue, and just one year later, he is about to win another one. Funny how history works, and funny how everyone would be much happier if he had won for Tree of Life and Children of Men instead. And talking about the best living cinematographers, after twelve nominations, I’m most certain Unbroken won’t break Roger Deakins’s losing streak.

Will Win: Birdman
My Vote: Ida 

UPDATE: Emmanuel Lubezki wins his second Oscar in a row. Not his greatest work, in my opinion,  but a worthy recognition of one of the best working DPs.

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Adam Stockhausen)
The Imitation Game (Maria Djurkovic)
Interstellar (Nathan Crowley)
Into the Woods 
(Dennis Gassner)
Mr. Turner (Suzie Davis)

Of course the woman who came up with the exquisite design of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy gets her first nomination for inferior work in the insipid The Imitation Game. But that’s neither here nor there, and I shouldn’t be complaining, really. Not when it seems like a Wes Anderson movie is finally going to win an Oscar for Production Design. It might sound ridiculous to you, but Anderson’s work hasn’t even been nominated in this category before. Time to end this madness.

Will Win: The Grand Budapest Hotel
My Vote: The Grand Budapest Hotel 

UPDATE: This deservedly went to The Grand Budapest. And the graphic design for the presentation of the award was particularly beautiful. Well done, Oscars.

best costume design

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Milena Canonero)
Inherent Vice (Mark Bridges)
Into the Woods (Colleen Atwood)
Maleficent (Anna B. Sheppard)
Mr. Turner (Jacqueline Durran)

Anna Karenina, The Great Gatsby, The Duchess, Marie Antoinette… This category likes to reward lavish costumes, which makes it usually not the hardest to predict. The problem is this year doesn’t feature a nominee that towers over the others in terms of lavishness. I looked back to the last year in which this was the case. Best Picture front-runner The Artist took the trophy, which makes me predict the only Best Picture contender out of these year’s nominees.

Will Win: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should Win: The Grand Budapest Hotel 

UPDATE: Again, deservedly Grand Budapest. 

BEST FILM EDITING

American Sniper (Joel Cox)
Boyhood (Sandra Adair)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Barney Pilling)
The Imitation Game (William Goldenberg)
Whiplash (Tom Cross)

This category loves action movies, which would usually be a sign of strength for American Sniper. Meanwhile, Whiplash isn’t an action movie, but moves like one. These seem like the traditionally likely winners in this category, which makes it so weird that I find myself voting for a movie with such an unassuming editing job as Boyhood. The logic here is that that “twelve years in the making” gimmick, will pay off with a win in this category.

Will Win: Boyhood
My Vote: The Grand Budapest Hotel

UPDATE: Whiplash won, and with a total of three awards last night, Oscar voters liked it more than I anticipated. It is especially weird, on the other hand, that Boyhood, once the front-runner, only won a single award.

best makeup and hair

Foxcatcher
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Guardians of the Galaxy 

Being the only one of these films nominated for Best Picture, it’d be rather dumb not to put your money on The Grand Budapest Hotel. And yet, the prosthetics of Foxcatcher make me remember a recent winner (The Iron Lady), as do the alien design of Guardians (Star Trek). This might be a more competitive category than we’re expecting is all I’m saying.

Will Win: The Grand Budapest Hotel
My Vote: The Grand Budapest Hotel

UPDATE: Grand Budapest won.

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE

The Grand Budapest Hotel (Alexandre Desplat)
The Imitation Game (Alexandre Desplat)
Interstellar (Hans Zimmer)
Mr. Turner(Gary Yershon)
The Theory of Everything 
(Johann Johannsson)

The unfortunately named Johann Johannsson won the Golden Globe for his traditionally sweeping score for The Theory of Everything, which would usually mean he’s on a good path to win the Oscar, except for the fact that after eight nominations, Alexandre Desplat has to win a golden statue lest he becomes the Roger Deakins of this category. With The Grand Budapest Hotel poised to dominate the technical categories, it seems like the right time for a Desplat win (as long as his Imitation Game nominations does’t take too many votes away from himself).

Will Win: The Grand Budapest Hotel 
My Vote: The Grand Budapest Hotel 

UPDATE: Alexandre Desplat breaks his losing streak and takes it for Grand Budapest. 

best original song

“Everything is Awesome” (The LEGO Movie)
“Gory” (Selma)
“Grateful” (Beyond the Lights)
“I’m Not Gonna Miss You” (Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me)
“Lost Stars” (Begin Again)

At this point the Academy must have received so much flack that Selma not winning this category has to be out of the question. It’s going to be irritating when one of the best movies of the year wins its only Oscar for one of its weakest elements. That song does nothing for me. And how funny is it that I think the best song in this category is “Lost Stars”, which is featured in the worst of the movies nominated here (although I haven’t seen that Glen Campbell documentary)?

Will Win: “Glory”
My Vote: “Lost Stars”

UPDATE: “Glory” won in a very emotionally satisfying moment, as exemplified by David Oyelowo’s uncontrollable tears.

best sound mixing

American Sniper
Birdman
Interstellar
Unbroken
Whiplash 

Musicals tend to do good in this category. Whiplash is not a musical in the traditional sense, but it’s full of music. But how much jazz-drumming is too much? Could the fact that Birdman‘s score is also drumming away in this category result in a split vote? If yes, then I’m assuming box-office giant American Sniper takes the trophy, because it’s still a bit of a head-scratcher that Interstellar, a movie specifically criticized for its poor sound mixing, managed a nomination here, and Unbroken is a movie that everyone’s forgotten about.

Will Win: Whiplash 
My Vote: Whiplash 

UPDATE: Whiplash won.

best sound editing

American Sniper
Birdman
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies
Interstellar
Unbroken

Sound Mixing and Editing usually go to the same movie, but since Whiplash isn’t nominated here, I’ll just apply the logic that says the most action in the most well liked movie wins, and assume this will go to American Sniper. 

Will Win: American Sniper
My Vote: I haven’t seen either The Hobbit or Unbroken, so I’ll abstain.

UPDATE: American Sniper takes it.

best visual effects

Captain America: The Winter Soldier
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Guardians of the Galaxy
Interstellar
X-Men: Days of Future Past 

The past few years have offered little competition in this category, as effects-driven juggernauts like Life of Pi and Gravity steamrolled the competition. This year, some people went crazy for the motion capture work in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and most people went crazy for the… I don’t really know why, but they loved Guardians of the Galaxy. Still, I think those “pop corn” movies won’t be able to take this award from the more “respectable” Interstellar, which might’ve lacked support to make it into the Best Picture race, but is the one movie in this category that was once regarded as a legitimate contender.

Will Win: Interstellar
My Vote: Interstellar

UPDATE: Interstellar it is.

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE

Big Hero 6
The Boxtrolls
How to Train Your Dragon 2
Song of the Sea
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya

If The LEGO Movie snub is the reason we got both Song of the Sea and The Tale of the Princess Kaguya nominated, then I’ll take it. There is more artistry in a single frame of Kaguya than in the entirety of Big Hero 6 and How to Train Your Dragon 2. The latter of these two has emerged as the front-runner, despite killing the originality of the first Dragon movie and succumbing to Hollywood franchise sameness. Maybe it’s my dislike for the movie talking, but I feel like Dragon 2 isn’t as strong a front-runner as we usually have in this category. It’s probably just me imagining how happy I’d be if Boxtrolls, Song of the Sea, or even better, Princess Kaguya win instead.

Will Win: How to Train Your Dragon 2 
My Vote: The Tale of the Princess Kaguya 

UPDATE: Big Hero 6 won this in a little bit of a surprise. I bet the guys over at Dreamworks, which put up a HUGE campaign for Dragon are really sad about it.

best Foreign Language Film

Ida (Poland)
Leviathan (Russia)
Tangerines (Estonia)
Timbuktu (Mauritania)
Wild Tales (Argentina)

It used to be that you had to watch all five nominees at an Academy-sponsored screening in order to vote for this category, which would have benefitted crowd pleasers like Wild Tales and Tangerines. If the past few years are any indication, the most popular film will win, which this year, thanks to a surprise cinematography nomination, is Ida. 

Will Win: Ida
My Vote: I have only seen one of the nominees.

UPDATE: Ida won, and in the best moment of the night, director Pawel Pwalikowski managed to win the unbeatable fight when he kept talking and managed to not be played off the stage. Well done, sir!

best documentary

Citizenfour
Finding Vivian Mayer
Last Days in Vietnam
The Salt of the Earth
Virunga 

In order to vote in this category, it used to be required to attend screenings in order to make sure voters had seen all five nominees. Ever since that rule was changed, the Oscar has gone to the most popular of the nominees, which just happened to be light, music-oriented, and frankly, not that remarkable documentaries (Searching for Sugarman, 20 Feet from Stardom). However, there is no musically oriented nominee this year, and the most popular movie seems to be Citizenfour, which will make one hell of a deserving winner.

Will Win: Citizenfour
My Vote: I have only seen one of the nominees

UPDATE: Citizenfour won.

the short categories

I have only seen one of the shorts nominated for Best Animated Short and that’s it. But I’m familiar enough with what has won this categories before as to at least attempt to predict them.

Animated Short: The Dam Keeper
Documentary Short: Crisis Hotline: Veteran’s Press 1
Live Action Short: The Phone Call 

UPDATE: I got Documentary and Live Action right, but Animated Short went to the ridiculously adorable Feast (which played with Oscar winner Big Hero 6).

There you have it! I know I’m predicting stupidly little wins for Birdman, but what can I do? This year, I’ve preferred to remain optimistic. That is, until the Academy crushes all my dreams, which is often what it does best.

POST-CEREMONY COMMENTARY: I got 18 out of 24 predictions correct, which is not as good as the 21 I got right last year, but it’s still pretty solid. As for the ceremony, it got off to a good start, but Neil Patrick Harris disappointed as the show went on. Surprising given how great a job he did hosting the Emmys and the Tonys in the past.

Whip Smart : A Review of Sam Taylor-Johnson’s ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’

Fifty Shades of Grey

Call me crazy, but Fifty Shades of Grey is better than five of this year’s Best Picture nominees. Or at the very least, much more interesting. From what I understand, the massively popular books -written by E.L. James- on which the movie is based are little more than literary garbage. Based on the very little I have read of them, and the hints I get from the worst parts of this movie, I have all reason to believe this statement to be correct. However, the fact that this movie is based on trash, doesn’t mean that it is trash too. I mean, it might be trashy, but it’s not trash. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson has inadvertently turned a pornographic best-seller into a deconstruction of Hollywood romance. It’s one of the most impressive post-modern adaptation jobs I have ever seen, one that turns Fifty Shades of Grey into a parody of itself.

In the days before the release of the movie, some of my Facebook friend started sharing articles that criticized James’s books for glorifying sexual abuse in its portrayal of the relationship between virginal Anastasia Steele and mysterious billionaire Christian Grey. Like I wrote above, I am not the right person to answer whether or not this statement is correct when referring to the Fifty Shades books, but I will be more than willing to get on my soap box and declare that Fifty Shades of Grey, the movie, is anything but that. It engages directly with the notion that real life is not like romance novels or Hollywood movies. It is, ultimately, a story about two people with different ideas about what sex should be like trying to make a relationship work. It is a movie that revolves around a character signing a sex contract. It’s a game of power. It is the closest thing mainstream American cinema has created to a classic screwball comedy in at least the past decade.

Along with Taylor-Johnson, we should praise screenwriter Kelly Marcel, who has the decency to get rid of most of James’s disastrous prose, as well as some of the book’s most questionable decisions (especially regarding the ending). Also worthy of as much praise as can be given to a single person is actress Dakota Johnson, who is absolutely fantastic as Anastasia Steele. I can’t say I’m surprised, since I was familiar with Johnson’s comic talents from watching the quickly cancelled sitcom Ben and KateStill, the genius of Johnson’s performance relies on how much personality she can inject into a character that started as a copy of Bella Swan from the Twilight books, which is to say a bland copy of an already bland character. Not only does she turn every line into comedic gold, but she plays Anastasia as one of us. A regular person from the twenty-first century who acknowledges the fact that a man like Christian Grey does not belong anywhere but in the pages of a romance novel.

Jamie Dornan plays Grey, and there is very little the man can do to not suck. Sadly, he can’t be as self-reflective a character as Anastasia. He is the fantastical creature, and must act like such. Still, his bad acting, in a way, becomes part of the movie’s meta-text. The movie’s big conflict arises when we discover that this perfect bachelor has a dark secret. He is really into BDSM, but only when he is the one inflicting the pain. Anastasia is a virgin, because of course she is, and is not really into this kind of kink. That’s when the negotiation starts. Grey is a savvy businessman, so he knows he shouldn’t start whipping Anastasia around if she doesn’t sign a contract first. He does the kind of things that are only romantic in fiction but would seem creepy in real life to get Anastasia to sign herself into submission, but he seems to have met his match in this dorky girl.

Anastasia is initially seduced by how hot and rich Christian is, and later, by how awesome he makes her feel while having sex. The best of the movie’s sex scenes takes place in Christian’s red-room (which is the leather-covered Batcave in which he keeps his sex toys). It features Christian gently whipping Anastasia’s body, and it is set to a remixed version of Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love”. Anastasia is having a blast. Her enjoyment of the sex is essential to the movie’s success, and something that we rarely see in mainstream movies, in which women are rarely allowed to crack a joke, much less have an orgasm. It’s important because it’s in the last part of the movie, when Anastasia doesn’t enjoy the sex anymore, and shit starts to go down, that we get the movie’s biggest triumph: an ending that many have discarded as sequel build-up, but I regard as the movie’s stroke of genius.

This is when I must admit that there is one big flaw about Fifty Shades of Grey, and it’s the build-up into the last sex sequence, which makes very little sense as far as character is concerned. The reason why Anastasia would do what she does is beyond me. Neither does it help that this part of the movie relies quite a bit on Christian Grey’s character backstory, which includes childhood abuse and a crack-head mother. It’s deeply stupid, as evidenced by the fact that the movie doesn’t manage to deliver the line “I’m fifty shades of fucked up!” with the winking cleverness that it does so many other corny moments. It’s a particularly rough patch of movie, but considering the weakness of the source material, it’s kind of miraculous that this is the only part of the movie that I found to be truly bad. It’s also helpful that the movie’s final moments more than make up for it.

Light spoilers for Fifty Shades of Grey, but at the end of the movie, the tables are turned, and despite being a billionaire with the ability to stalk her twenty-four seven, Christian Grey has been -pardon the pun- pussy whipped by bland Anastasia Steele. The movie ends, and she’s the one in charge. If all of this makes the movie sound like The Duke of Burgundys little cousin, it’s because it is. I mean, Burgundy is a much deeper exploration of the power dynamics of a relationship, but Fifty Shades is a more than worthy mainstream alternative. I do understand that the thing I like the most about the movie will more than surely be shred to pieces by the inevitable sequels, but taken in a vacuum as just one movie, Fifty Shades of Grey makes for a rather fascinating exploration of modern relationships in relation to the fantasies in our heads.

For the most part, Fifty Shades of Grey has been torn apart by critics. I feel like most people have been blinded by the horrible reputation of the material, or maybe by their own knowledge of where James’s book lead after this first chapter. Might we also have been blinded by the fact that this is a franchise made out of middlebrow porn and designed to appeal to women? It’s a pity, because this movie is much more fun and clever than you’d expect. It deserves far more than it’s gotten so far.

Grade: 8 out of 10

Band of Outsiders: A Review of Celine Sciamma’s ‘Girlhood’

Girlhood

The original French title of Celine Sciamma’s latest feature is Bande de filles. It translates into English as “Band of Girls”. The reason for which the title was changed in translation is unknown to me, and truth be told, I don’t really much about the reasons. The interesting part about the change is that it inadvertently puts the film in comparison to one of the most talked about movies of the past year. Just on a surface level it’s easy to see how Girlhood couldn’t be a more different film from BoyhoodNot only was it not filmed over twelve years, but their protagonists couldn’t be more different. One is a middle class white boy from Texas, the other a black teenage girl living in the projects outside of Paris. Girlhood curiously deals with the type of people that were absent from Boyhood, but analyzing it only in comparison to Linklater’s film would be doing a pretty terrific movie a disservice.

At the same time, it would be foolish to deny that part of Girlhood‘s appeal is the fact that it tells the story of a character who is seldom put on film, and even more seldom portrayed this meticulously. Marieme (Karidja Touré) is a teenage girl struggling to take agency in her life. She lives in an enormous housing complex where she takes her of her two sisters and is often mistreated by her older brother. Her mother works as some sort of janitor in a big building, and is not around the house most of the time. Marieme wants to go to high school, but her low grades and the French education system won’t allow her. That’s when she meets her “band of girls”.

They are Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh), Fily (Marietou Toure), and Lady (Assa Sylla). None of them go to school, they just spend their days hanging out and bullying middle schoolers into giving them money so they can buy booze and pizza. I guess you could describe them as fuck-ups, but what would you do if you were in their place? Life is rigged against these girls. Going to high school is not a possibility, getting a job would mean cleaning toilets. They are young and they want something out of life that they will likely never get. At one point the girls get enough money together to rent out a room and have a slumber party. Once there, the four girls dress up in clothes they’ve stolen from fancy stores and dance to Rihanna. “We’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky”. They are happy, and yet, this is one of the most heartbreaking sequences in the whole movie.

It’s from scenes like that one that the movie develops its power. When the movie was over, my girlfriend turned to me and said she liked how so many things remained unsaid. If ever there was a filmmaker that adhered to the “show, don’t tell” rule, it’s Sciamma. Her symbolism isn’t always subtle, but it’s always effective. She knows she’s working in an inherently visual medium, and she will take advantage of it. Visual motifs recur, and when they do, they come back with power. This type of visual storytelling can sometimes feel too pre-calculated, but in this case, Sciamma has the advantage of working with such a lively and naturalistic group of actresses. For every preciously framed and designed moment, we get something rougher around the edges, like a rather hilarious rant at a mini-golf course that reminds us that these are people that we’re dealing with.

Also, some of Sciamma’s visual choices are rather subtle. Gong back to the “Diamonds” sequence, we realize that hanging out with these girls provides an outlet for Marieme, but nothing more. The happiness they feel is real, but are the circumstances? Sciamma puts her lead character in front of had-edged angles. Tiles on walls, stairs, or the vertical lines of the housing complex. We constantly see Marieme trapped in a metaphorical box. Whenever it feels like she’s finding her way to herself, the background reminds us that change is harder than we would want it to be. That is ultimately why Girlhood is such a powerful movie. It is as generous and respectful of its lead characters as it is crude and realistic when it comes to the world around them.

Don’t be fooled, though. I wouldn’t have done a good job if I made Girlhood sound like a dour experience. There is no denying that it is, in essence, an infuriating film. An urgent movie that wants to scream at the face of the system that refuses to change. It is, at the same time, full of humanity, and confident in the belief that there is value in keeping up the fight. This movie, like it’s lead character, will march forward. The fight is only lost if one side stops fighting, and Marieme certainly won’t. She won’t rest until she proves that she is, in fact, a diamond in the sky.

Grade: 9 out of 10

Less is More when it comes to “The Spongebob Movie: Sponge out of Water”

Sponge out of Water

For some reason I can’t fully comprehend, I really, really wanted The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water to be good. And not in the regular way I want every movie that I see to be good, but in a particularly strong way. It’s almost as if I had some personal investment in the creative success of this movie. I have a few theories as to why that might’ve been the case, but before I go into them, I have to lead this review by letting you know that the movie was not what I was hoping for. It is by no means a disaster, but it’s also nowhere near the quality of the best episodes of the television show it’s based on.

That might actually be the perfect point to start. Because not only did I feel like this movie had to be good in order to justify its existence, but also in order to justify the fact that I like Spongebob Squarepants as a character, a television show, and a franchise. It’s weird to call Spongebob an underdog, since it remains one of the most popular cartoons in the world despite being fifteen years old. It makes billions of dollars for Nickelodeon every year, and if the opening weekend numbers for The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water are any indication, it will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Still, I feel like there’s a certain stigma against Spongebob, especially coming from cinephiles. I think part of it is that Spongebob is a relatively young show as far as nostalgia is concerned. The people that grew up with Spongebob are younger millennials, who are probably twenty or younger. Most film critics are older than that. The second thing is the show’s unapologetically campy sense of humor. I might be wrong, but I feel like adults who don’t like Spongebob regard the main character as cheesy, and the show’s jokes as corny, and miss the “camp” of it all. I won’t be the kind of idiot that quotes Susan Sontag the minute he starts talking about camp, so I’ll just say that I think Spongebob does a pretty good job of fitting her description.

In any case, let us put the value of Spongebob Squarepants, the television show, aside for a second, and focus on what goes wrong in The Spongebob Movie: Sponge Out of Water. One can simply start by analyzing the title, which I’m pretty sure was changed for marketing purposes. You see, the promotional campaign for Sponge Out of Water has strongly advertised the fact that, in this movie, Spongebob and the gang step out of the ocean and into the real world. I assume this has to do with the fact that similar movies about cartoon characters stepping into the real world (see The Smurfs) have been very successful. The truth is that the “Sponge Out of Water” part makes up less than a third of this movie. It’s basically a final act twist not too different from what happens near the end of The Spongebob Squarepants Movieonly this time, it has been thoroughly spoiled by the marketing.

Maybe if they hadn’t advertised the Spongebob stepping into the real world nobody would’ve gone to see this movie. I, for one, was looking forward to seeing how the Spongebob writers would handle mixing our world to the sense of humor of the Spongebob universe, but what I got was something far less unique. The movie turns out to be an extended Spongebob adventure focusing on the well-known rivalry between Spongebob and Plankton, the evil creature that wants to steal the “secret formula” necessary to cook the delicious krabby patties Spongebob makes a living off of cooking, and how it is put to test when a mysterious pirate (played by Antonio Banderas) enters the picture.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this premise, that’s for sure. Sponge Out of Water is the type of movie that fires a thousand jokes per minute at you, and like most movies of that ilk, some of the jokes are funnier than others. The laugh ratio of this movie is not great, but it’s also not too shabby. The problem with it is a little bit more fundamental. You see, when cartoons turn to the big screen, they tend to come up with a “big adventure” that will justify the over-sizing of what would usually be a 20-minute episode. Some shows translate to this template better than others. Spongebob did it pretty well for its first movie back in 2004. This time, however, it becomes apparent that “big adventures” are not Spongebob‘s forte.

I think of the best episodes of Spongebob and they have a similar thing in common: they are relatively low-stakes and often very small in scale. My two favorite episodes of all-time are the one where Spongebob and Squidward have to deliver a pizza and get lost on the way, and the one in which Spongebob has to work the night shift at the Krusty Krab despite being terrified by Squidward’s ghost stories. Spongebob’s brand of camp works better in mundane situations where the spectacle comes from the character’s quirk and not from any action sequence. After all, one of the most memorable set pieces in Spongebob‘s history is a scene of him cookingSponge Out of Water is not a terrible movie, but is bigger, louder, and shoutier than it needed to be.

Grade: 6 out of 10

75 Years Ago: ‘Puss Gets the Boot’ and the Legacy of Tom and Jerry

Screen shot 2015-02-01 at 11.53.59 p.m.Today sees the 75th Anniversary of the release of Puss Gets the Boot, an animated short most notable for being the first appearance of the famous cat-and-mouse duo Tom and Jerry. Chances are you have seen a Tom and Jerry cartoon at some point in your life, or at the very least, that you’ve heard about the characters’ existence. However, despite being remembered by the public, Tom and Jerry cartoons are not discussed on the same vein as some of their contemporaries. There are a few names that always pop up when you ask an animation buff like myself about classic theatrical shorts: Tex Avery, Looney Tunes, Chuck Jones, and, of course, Walt Disney. Tom and Jerry rarely, if ever, come up in such discussions.

The last time Tom and Jerry made the news wasn’t long ago, when their original shorts produced by MGM during the 1940s made their way onto Amazon, and the streaming service so it fit to stick a disclaimer before the cartoons, warning about the offensive racial depictions features in some of them. Most specifically, they were talking about Mamie Two-Shoes, a mammy-type character that appears in the early shorts as Tom’s caretaker and is very clearly an offensive black stereotype. However, such insensitive racial depictions are not exclusive to Tom and Jerry. Basically all major cartoon studios indulged in such offensiveness back in the forties, from some Looney Tunes shorts to Walt Disney’s Fantasia

Beyond that minor news item, I don’t I’ve seen any film critic or animation enthusiast ever write an analysis of Tom and Jerry. This was, of course, not always the case. In fact, the Tom and Jerry cartoons were not only the most popular animated series of the forties, but the characters responsible for launching the careers of two men whose names will ring the ears of those familiar with animation history: William Hanna and Joseph Barbera.

Hanna and Barbera were both animators at MGM when they were teamed up to come up with new cartoon ideas. Barbera pitched the story of a mouse called Jinx, who discovers a way to turn the tables on Jasper, the cat that is trying to catch him. That pitch became Puss Gets the Boot, which was released on February 10, 1940, and nobody really seemed to care. The MGM animators weren’t surprised, after all, the idea of a cat-and-mouse cartoon wasn’t very original. But while Hanna and Barbera were working on other projects, Puss Gets the Boot was becoming somewhat of a sleeper hit, culminating in it being nominated for the Academy Award for Animated Short in early 1941. Once Oscar took notice, producer Fred Quimby didn’t bat an eye before ordering Hanna and Barbera to turn this cat-and-mouse thing into a series.

114 shorts were produced and released by MGM between 1940 and 1958. Thirteen of them were nominated for Best Animated Short, and seven of them won. This means that half of the Animated Short winners of the 1940s were Tom and Jerry cartoons. Why then, do we not talk about these cartoons the way we do about Daffy Duck, or even Mickey Mouse cartoons? The easy answer is that history doesn’t always favor the things that were once popular, but this most likely has to do with the legacy Hanna and Barbera built for themselves once they stopped working on Tom and Jerry. 

In 1957, MGM, like most studios at the time, decided to close down their animation department. Suddenly, the animators behind Tom and Jerry were out of work, and there were no movie studios interested in producing short-form cartoons anymore. The next step was clear: Hanna and Barbera became pioneers in producing original animated material for television, which up until that point had been broadcasting old theatrical cartoons. Now, television budgets were considerably lower than what Hanna and Babera were used to work with at MGM, and so, they indulged in a technique known as “limited animation”.

The name “limited animation” is pretty self-explanatory. It’s not as much a technique as an economic necessity when you don’t have big budgets. In order for animated characters to move, you need animators to draw hundreds of drawings, which means hours of work, which means paying them for all those hours. What Hanna and Barbera did was have their cartoons move as little as possible, so that they could keep a low budget. The result were shows where characters spend more time talking than they do “doing” things. These are the shows in which you see characters running and the moving background behind them shows the same drawings over and over again. Some of the shows that Hanna-Barbera produced during this time include The Huckleberry Hound Show and The Flintstones.

The critique leveled against this type of animation is a very obvious one. The less movement and the more dialogue you have in your animation, the less cinematic it feels. Now, limited animation doesn’t necessarily mean a lesser product. The best example of this is the 1950 short Gerald McBoing Boingwhich actually uses limited movement to its advantage, creating a modern pop-artsy look, and deriving comedy out of its static drawings.

Sadly, the same can’t be said about Hanna and Barbera’s usage of limited animation. You’ve probably seen some of their cartoons at the time. Most of them were produced for very cheap, and under a very rushed schedule, which made them repetitive and relatively uncreative. The producers’ motto at the time seems to have quantity over quality. Hanna-Barbera basically kept a monopoly on television animation for more than twenty years, and although some of their programs were pretty good, most of them weren’t very exciting or challenging.

It makes sense that animation fans hold the television career of Hanna-Barbera at relatively low esteem, but why ignore their theatrical career, too? Well, I think the answer to that is Tex Avery. You see, Avery was working at MGM at the same time Hanna and Barbera were producing the Tom and Jerry shorts, and every animation buff will agree that Avery was a much stronger creative voice. He is, after all, responsible for some of the most iconic moments in animation history. He is also responsible for adding an element of surreal violence to our mainstream cartoons. Tom and Jerry shorts were violent for the start, but as the series goes on, they become more and more influenced by Avery’s surreal style of violence. Avery is an auteur, and in comparison, Hanna and Barbera are a couple of hacks favored by the Academy while the real genius was ignored.

But are Hanna and Barbera really hacks? Some of the Tom and Jerry shorts are definitely better than others. My favorite is The Cat Concerto, in which Jerry tries to sabotage Tom’s performance of Franz Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2”, but that is a rather unusual setting for a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Most of them feature Tom chasing Jerry around the house and trying to catch him. While there are some variations on the formula, watching many Tom and Jerry shorts in a row can become very repetitive, and I think the key is in the substance. Screen shot 2015-02-05 at 10.31.48 p.m.

I will explain that last sentence with a comparison that you probably saw coming. I mean, there is no talking about repetitive cartoons without talking about Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner. The setup in these shorts is clear: the Coyote wants to eat the Road Runner, and so, he chases after him. All Road Runner shorts are very similar to each other, but they have a philosophical undercurrent to them that is perfectly summed up in this Weird Al Yankovic quote: “It’s a sad, depressing story about a pathetic coyote who spends every waking moment of his life in the futile pursuit of a sadistic road runner who mocks him and laughs at him as he’s repeatedly crushed and maimed! Hope you enjoy it!”

It’s incredibly depressing to think of the Coyote that way, but his is a quest that speaks to our deepest human urges. Suddenly, the fact that the shorts are similar to each other, and that the same shit happens over and over again to this poor unfortunate soul becomes part of the comedy, and part of the appeal. Repetitiveness becomes genius. That is the essential thing lacking from Tom and Jerry. Some of their cartoons might be really good, but the reason why we’re not talking about them is because there really isn’t all that much to talk about.

And still, even if we don’t really talk explicitly about Tom and Jerry, the impact of these cartoons is immeasurable. More than any other animated short series, it has shaped how we look and understand animated comedy. When The Simpsons had to come up with a cartoon for Bart and Lisa to watch, they came up with a Tom and Jerry parody. When Robert Zemeckis wanted to open Who Framed Roger Rabbit with a typical cartoon of the time, he shaped it in the image of Tom and Jerry. These might not be the best cartoons ever made, but they’ve won their own kind of reward, and it’s that when we think of the quintessential classic cartoon… it looks like Tom and Jerry. 

Jupiter Ascending: This is Why We Don’t Have Original Movies Anymore

Jupiter Ascending

Reviews are not a place where I like to give advice, but I feel like it’s essential, before talking about Jupiter Ascending, Andy and Lana Wachowski’s latest big-budget visual effects extravaganza, to let you know that there will be a group of people who will try to sell on you on the idea that this is a worthy movie. That it’s incompetence is intentional, and that its cheap thrills something fun to behold. There is going to be a group of people that try to make this something of a camp classic, one of those “so bad it’s good” movies. Those people are wrong.

There is no denying that almost any description of Jupiter Ascending‘s plot will make it sound like a bat-shit crazy movie. You see, Mila Kunis plays Jupiter Jones, a young woman who makes a living cleaning houses and lives with her extensive Russian-American family. That is, until an elven-looking Channing Tatum comes crashing into her life. He plays Caine Wise, a half-wolf albino bounty hunter warrior from outer space. Soon Mila Kunis learns that she is actually an intergalactic princess, and that the fate of earth is in jeopardy because evil Eddie Redmayne is threatening to chew up all the scenery in the galaxy.

I apologize if I’m being too tongue-in-cheek, but I will excuse myself by arguing that this movie plot cannot possibly be described while keeping a straight face. I mean, that sounds kind of ridiculously awesome, right? Jupiter Ascending seems almost designed to be the kind of futile enterprise that inspires movie folklore. Think about it this way: the Wachowskis, some of the most idiosyncratic and unrestrained filmmakers currently working in Hollywood somehow manage to con Warner Brothers into giving them more than 200 million dollars to make a bizarre space opera where Channing Tatum plays a half-wolf albino warrior from outer space. It’s a backstory that will excite any cinephile who is thirsty for something more than the tasteless flavor of the yearly Marvel movie. But in an almost tragic turn of events, Jupiter Ascending doesn’t taste any better.

At this point, it’s interesting to think of the Wachowskis’ career as cinematic auteurs. There are fervent fans that will praise the sheer ambition of the filmmaking the siblings displayed in Speed Racer and Cloud Atlas. But if we talk about plot and themes, it’s worth remembering that both those movies were adaptations of pre-existing properties. The last original story the Wachowskis came up with -if you don’t regard sequels as wholly “original”- was The Matrixand now that they’ve come back to their own imaginations for inspiration, Jupiter Ascending reveals them to be fascinated with certain recurring motifs, trying to rekindle the magic of that original Matrix, or both.

Much like Neo, Jupiter Jones didn’t even know she was the “chosen one”, and she too must wake up to a reality where the human race is treated more as a commodity than, well, humans. The big difference is that she’s a girl, and thus, she doesn’t really take any kind of action, leaving pointy-eared Channing Tatum to do the fighting for her. InThe Matrix, the Tatum role was performed by Trinity, a badass female fighter who becomes considerably less interesting once Neo enters the picture. In Jupiter Ascending, the man keeps being the badass, while the girl is just the girl. And if you try to tell me that Jupiter doesn’t fight because she’s a simple human and doesn’t know how to, then let me remind you that the Wachowskis used magic pills and crash-courses in kung fu to give Neo his superpowers.

Almost as disappointing as the sexism in this movie is the casual racism that goes into the depiction of Jupiter’s Russian family. They’re all dumb, and say cooky, ethnic things. Her Russian mother is barely a character, while her father was the intelligent one who loved to look at the stars through his telescope. I guess this is as good a place as any to point out how much of a cypher Jupiter’s character is. Mila Kunis is nothing short of laughably atrocious in the role, but to be fair, she had absolutely nothing to work with. I don’t think I have ever encountered a more thankless role, is as if part of the Wachowski’s agenda was making her give a bad performance. There is not a single adjective that I could use to describe Jupiter, and nothing she does in the movie seems to be motivated by any form of human psychology.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as the screenplay is concerned. As most science fiction fiascos, there are too many characters, too many royal plots, and too many intentions and allegiances to keep track of. For example, Eddie Redmayne is only one of four or five villains. I had very little of what was going during any given moment of the movie, which is to say I mostly knew what was happening on screen, I just didn’t have any idea of its significance towards the bigger picture. I think of the people who thought Inherent Vice was hard to follow and wish them luck trying to figure out what the hell is going on in this movie.

It’s not a pretty screenplay either. Most of the lines are garbage. And I know garbage is, to a certain extent, in the eye of the beholder, but that extent ends here. I think the real reason behind Jupiter Ascending‘s existence is the Wachowskis tried to make George Lucas a solid and make a movie that made his Star Wars prequels look like masterpieces of screenwriting. The biggest sin of Jupiter Ascending‘s script, and one of the signs that the people involved in making this movie gave zero consideration to my enjoyment of their product, is that we are introduced to the notion that Channing Tatum’s character kills people by biting off their throats, and said notion is not payed off later in the film. If you wanted me to enjoy this movie as a camp classic, you had to at least give me some throat-ripping bites.

The script is a mess, and so are the visuals. Despite its crazy premise, the movie looks like every movie you’ve seen before, which is to say that every frame is either teal, orange, or a combination of the two. There is one creative moment of action, when Tatum’s character uses a teleportation device to “decapitate” a henchman. The rest of the action sequences are not as much sequences as a cacophony of sights and sounds that are too exhausting to even try to follow, especially if you, like me, watch this movie in hideous 3D.

My friend Abie, who I think is a very smart person, tried to convince that this is not as much a “good movie” as it is a “great representation of Sanskrit philosophy on screen”. I guess he is onto something -the movie does, after all, feature a half-elephant-half-man character named Ganesh. What to me seemed like a rehash of the plot points of The Matrix seemed to him like a fascinating representation of the Sanskrit view of capitalism. I won’t try to contradict him here, I just want point out that there will be smart people that get something out of this movie. I just would strongly advice you to consider the implications of watching a movie as soulless as this one.

The Wachowskis’s bizarre taste comes through in Jupiter Ascending. Considering all the thematic connection to their previous work, and the garish mix of operatic and comedic tones, one could only conclude that this is a Wachowskis movie through and through. Auteur Theory, at least in the way I’ve decided to put it into practice, says that idiosyncratic directors will always put something interesting about their personalities in their movies, and thus, they will never be completely worthless. Let’s just say Jupiter Ascending puts the Auteur Theory to the test.

Grade: 3 out of 10.