Tuesday, January 24, 2017

THE FIVE BIGGEST TAKEAWAYS FROM THE 2017 OSCAR NOMINATIONS THIS MORNING

Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in LA LA LAND.

This morning’s Academy Award nominations were the most admirable in some time, as they squashed any fears of another #OscarsSoWhite controversy by honoring a great deal of diversity in the Best Picture category with the inclusion of MOONLIGHT, LION, FENCES and HIDDEN FIGURES. Of the 20 nominees in the acting categories, seven people of color were called this AM - Denzel Washington,  Ruth Negga, Mahershala Ali, Dev Patel, Viola Davis, Naomie Harris, and Octavia Spencer. 

The Academy also saw fit to honor the often-forgotten genre of science fiction with eight big nominations for ARRIVAL, including its talented helmer Denis Villeneuve. It’s unfortunate that star Amy Adams was passed over in the Best Actress category, but we'll get to that more later in this piece. Another impressive stat this day is that three of the eight nominees for Best Picture were films with female leads - ARRIVAL, HIDDEN FIGURES and LA LA LAND.  

Speaking of LA LA LAND, it tied the record for most nominations ever with 14 and now stands in rarified company along with ALL ABOUT EVE (1950) and TITANIC (1997) because of it. Clearly, despite some scattered backlash, the Academy adores Damian Chazelle’s modern day musical across the board. It even received two song nominations, and could’ve easily filled out all five in that category. But the Academy's applause for LA LA LAND isn’t surprising. And in this critic's opinion, there are five bigger and much more surprising takeaways that can be chronicled from this year's slate of nominations

THE ACADEMY LOVES TO NAVAL GAZE

In five of the last eight years, the Best Picture winner has gone to a film that was ostensibly all about show biz. Starting in 2009 with SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, the Best Picture has gone to a film with such a backdrop, suggesting that the Academy has entered a phase of extreme naval gazing. You'll remember that Danny Boyle’s quirky winner was about a young Indian man’s appearance on "Who Wants to Be A Millionaire", the television game show, and how it helped pull him out of poverty and attain the girl of his dreams. 

In 2010, THE KING’S SPEECH showcased the British monarch overcoming his speech impediment with the coaching of a failed actor. His directed diction helped persuade England to enter WWII and save the world from fascism.  Bravo, show biz, once again!

In 2012, THE ARTIST became a worldwide phenomenon as the French arthouse hit about a silent movie star struggling to accept talking pictures took Oscar's top prize. The next year, Hollywood chutzpah ruled again as the Best Picture winner was ARGO, based on the true story about how the CIA worked with a Hollywood producer to save the Iranian hostages back in 1979. Two years later, BIRDMAN, the eccentric tale of an over-the-hill movie star attempting a late career comeback on Broadway, prevailed.

Which brings us to this year and LA LA LAND. It, like THE ARTIST and BIRDMAN, is all about show biz, top to bottom. Nothing against any of the past winners, or the likelihood of LA LA LAND sweeping, but Hollywood really is in love with itself. Perhaps in our modern age of selfies, customer names scrawled on Starbucks cups, and music listened to individually on cellphones, such self regard at the Oscars was inevitable. I’d vote for LA LA LAND myself this year, since I picked it for 2016's best film (
http://bit.ly/2iFZXuY), as did the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle, which I'm a member of as well. But with this as the sixth  choice for Best Picture with a Hollywood backdrop in the last decade, it signifies a slightly disturbing trend on behalf of Academy voting. 

Amy Adams in ARRIVAL.
THE ACADEMY LIKES SCI-FI...THEY REALLY, REALLY LIKE IT!

This once overlooked genre is now becoming a regular fixture in the Academy voting. It started in 2009, when the Best Picture category was opened to allow more than five films to be nominated, and the quirky sci-fi thriller DISTRICT 9 snuck in. GRAVITY was not only the biggest moneymaker at the box office in 2013, but it cleaned up in the Oscar balloting that go-round too, earning 10 nominations, and going on to win a whopping seven statues including Best Director Alfonso Cuaron. 

Now this year, ARRIVAL lands big with eight big nominations, including Best Picture and Best Director Villeneuve. If only leading lady Amy Adams had been called,  but suffice it to say, science fiction is wholly respectable now. If only the Oscars could see fit to treat the horror genre as generously. THE WITCH should’ve received some Academy love this year, perhaps for its stellar production design or haunting score, but alas, the little gold man is not quite willing to embrace things that go bump in the night. 

Ryan Reynolds in DEADPOOL.
COMEDY IS STILL OSCAR'S RED-HEADED STEPCHILD

What does a comedy have to do to get some Academy Award love? DEADPOOL grossed $363 million domestically and its total worldwide gross was a staggering $783, 112, 979. It was recognized at the Golden Globes with a nomination for Best Comedy or Musical Film as well as one for its leading man Ryan Reynolds. The film has been recognized by the Directors Guild (first-time director Tim Miller snagged a nod), as well as nominations from the Producers Guild and the Writers Guild. But alas, still no Academy love. I was genuinely thinking it might sneak onto the Best Picture list because of all its success, but it was not to be. 

There were also no nominations for other acclaimed comedies such as FINDING DORY, THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN, PATERSON, EVERYBODY WANTS SOME!, SING STREET, and LOVE & FRIENDSHIP. (How did that last one not score at least a nomination for Best Costume Design?) Sure, ZOOTOPIA was remembered, as was HAIL, CAESAR!, but comedies once again didn't rate as well as they should have. 

Oh, and there was one other unfortunate comedy miss this morning. Hugh Grant was snubbed for his wonderfully droll and complex comedic portrait of the enabling husband in FLORENCE FOSTER JENKINS. This is not the first time the Academy has ignored him. They bypassed his extraordinary comic performance in 1994 for FOUR WEDDINGS AND A FUNERAL, despite the fact that he won the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Comedy or Musical that year for it. Oscar overlooked him again in 2002 for his superb turn in ABOUT A BOY, perhaps his best-ever screen work. 

Grant was thought to be a sure-thing this year. Was he passed over  because he was promoted in the Supporting Actor category instead of lead where he belonged? Perhaps. His character has the biggest arc in the story and he’s onscreen more than Meryl Streep. But then again, Viola Davis has a lead role in FENCES, and the Academy placed her in the supporting category nonetheless.

Mel Gibson, director of HACKSAW RIDGE.
HOLLYWOOD’S MALE MEMBERS ARE VERY FORGIVING OF BAD MEN

I have no quibbles with four of the five nominees named Best Director this morning. Damian Chazelle (LA LA LAND), Barry Jenkins (MOONLIGHT), Kenneth Lonergan (MANCHESTER BY THE SEA) and Denis Villeneuve (ARRIVAL) did incredible work. Mel Gibson took the fifth nomination and while there was much to admire in HACKSAW RIDGE, I think his nomination should have gone to Pablo Lorrain (JACKIE), Tom Ford (NOCTURNAL ANIMALS), Jeff Nichol (LOVING), Martin Scorsese (SILENCE) or Tim Miller (DEADPOOL).

It's fascinating to me that someone with as long and checkered a history as Mel Gibson, what with his drunken rants on his ex-wife's answering machine, his multiple run-in's with the law, his bigoted quotes about Jewish people in Hollywood, and his reputation as a skirt chaser, would somehow find himself not only back in the town's good graces, but as one of its shortlisted directors of 2017 when there were so many better, uncontroversial choices. But then again, the macho, old school wing of the Academy can be ridiculously forgiving of certain brethren's horrendous sins. Remember that Roman Polanski won Best Director for THE PIANIST in 2002, and he left the country to escape punishment for his crimes.
Tom Hanks in SULLY.
OSCAR TAKES CERTAIN TALENTS FOR GRANTED

What does Tom Hanks have to do to be nominated again for Best Actor? He has received five Best Actor nominations, true, and won twice, but lately he’s been doing some incredible screen work and getting bupkis from the Oscars. The Academy snubbed him for  CAPTAIN PHILLIPS in 2013, and again two years later for his subtle excellence in BRIDGE OF SPIES. Both of those films were nominated for Best Picture, so why not him? Is it that Hanks is just too successful? Does the Academy assume he’ll always be good so they don’t think of his work as amazing anymore? Perhaps, but that hasn't stopped Meryl Streep from reaping nomination after nomination. I don't know what Hanks must do to land another nod, but it's shocking to me that he wasn't considered to be in the race for his sublime work in SULLY.

And I’m starting to worry that Amy Adams is becoming the female equivalent of Hanks. She was nominated for the Oscar five times in eight years, but then she found herself overlooked for her Golden Globe winning role in 2014’s BIG EYES. And now the Academy has snubbed her once again, this time for ARRIVAL. Maybe the Academy is jealous. Adams can do drama and comedy with equal aplomb. She has incredible range, acing the innocence of JUNEBUG, DOUBT, and ENCHANTED, while relishing the sinner in THE FIGHTER, THE MASTER, and AMERICAN HUSTLE. Some considered her a possible spoiler this year, the underdog long overdue who just might steal the Best Actress Oscar from Emma Stone or Natalie Portman. Instead, it was her morning today that was somewhat spoiled when her name was not called.  


Finally, why didn't Pixar get a nomination for Best Animated Feature? FINDING DORY was the year’s biggest moneymaker and it received a 94% fresh rating at RottenTomatoes.com. Pixar has been nominated in the category 10 times since it started in 2001, but this year its monster hit was overlooked. Is Pixar too successful  as well? Does the Academy take them for granted now too? Hard to say, but what isn’t a hard call is to realize that Pixar was clearly snubbed too.  

The fact is that most of the nominations this morning were expected, and yes, truly worthy. Still, there is always room for improvement in balloting and the Academy can still make us wince at their selections. (SUICIDE SQUAD got a Hair & Makeup nod but not LOVE & FRIENDSHIP?) Year in and year out, the Oscar nominations prove how far the Academy has come, and how far they still need to go. But at least they avoided trending on Twitter this morning for all the wrong reasons. 

Friday, January 13, 2017

"UP IN THE CHEAP SEATS" IS THE MUST-READ MEMOIR OF 2017 (AND IT'S ONLY JANUARY!)


In October of last year, I was commissioned by author Ron Fassler to illustrate his historical memoir of Broadway entitled UP IN THE CHEAP SEATS. It's a fantastic read: sharp, witty, and a wonderfully warm personal account of Ron's 40 plus years of attending Broadway productions. It's so engrossing, that I read it twice. 

I'm proud to tell you that I have drawn eight original caricatures to accompany his stirring prose, and the book is now available for pre-order here. You should also read Ron's blog at ronfassler.org daily too as he writes about his observations of Broadways happenings each and every day. 

This is the first book I've ever illustrated and I couldn't be prouder to be part of Ron's singular, sensational story. Here are just three of the illustrations I did for him. One is of the Broadway musical 1776 which starred William Daniels, Howard Da Silva and Ken Howard. 

Original caricature by Jeff York of the Broadway play "1776." (copyright 2017)
The second is of Julie Harris in the stage comedy FORTY CARATS. 

Original caricature by Jeff York of Julie Harris in the play "Forty Carats." (copyright 2017)
And the third is of THE MUSIC MAN himself, Robert Preston. Preston happens to be Ron's all-time favorite actor. (He's one of mine too!)

Original caricature by Jeff York of Robert Preston in "The Music Man" on Broadway. (copyright 2017)
 To see the five others I drew that accompany Ron's prose, you will have to buy the book. But you'd want to even if my caricatures weren't included. Ron's tales, anecdotes and knowledge of Broadway are truly enthralling.

So if you're a fan of the arts, and you are obviously if you're reading and following my blog The Establishing Shot, then you owe it to yourself to pre-order this must-read book today. It provides a truly one-of-a-kind glance into what went into dozens and dozens of stage productions that Ron saw from his youth on, during five decades of intrepid theatergoing. 

Bravo, Ron! And thank you for the privilege to be a part of this exciting adventure of yours. 

Monday, January 9, 2017

THE CHICAGO INDEPENDENT FILM CRITICS CIRCLE MAKES ITS CHOICES FOR 2016'S BEST FILMS


Hi friends and followers, did you enjoy the Golden Globes? The show was pretty inspiring, starting with Jimmy Fallon's hilarious filmed opener that poked fun at the awards through an inspired parody of the opening of LA LA LAND: http://bit.ly/2j9wFlr 

Speaking of, Damian Chazelle's wondrous film broke the previous Golden Globe record for the most wins (6) with its impressive sweep of all seven categories it was nominated for: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Original Score and Best Song. Bravo to all the winners last night, but especially those associated with this history-making musical. You can read all about the winners and the show last night: http://bit.ly/2ivuk3x

I'd be remiss too if I didn't mention Meryl Streep's amazing speech as she accepted the Globes' Cecil B. DeMille Life Achievement Award. It was moving, eloquent and tough on the crass president-elect, and her plea to honor and respect diversity, artists and the press was not only necessary but heroic. Watch it and be inspired: http://bit.ly/2juvccM

But the big point of this blog post is to tell you about the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle. Speaking of diversity, they are a wonderful mix of independent-minded film critics from the Chicagoland area, and I am deeply honored to be one of their members. And last night we announced our picks for the Best in Film 2016. Many of our choices echo the Globes, particularly when it came to honoring the many aspects of LA LA LAND, but we also honored a number of films you may not have heard of. I strongly recommend that you seek out these eclectic works. You will not be disappointed.

You can read more about our selections here: http://bit.ly/2ivhrXc And you can read more about our terrific Circle and our members here:  https://chicagoindiecritics.org