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Watching 75% (6 out of 8) of the Best Picture nominees before the ceremony is a personal record.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
A Visually Captivating Roller-coaster
'Mad Max: Fury Road' is a very entertaining action movie that has a lot of style to make up for its lack of substance.
This is mainly due to its visuals and action. The film is one of the most visually captivating I have seen in a while. A combination of great cinematography, fast pace editing and creative uses of colour kept my eyes fixed to the screen. For example, I liked how George Miller tried to sneak monochrome into this action blockbuster with the black and white bursts during lightning strikes and the blue-tinted monochrome during the nighttime scenes.
The first car chase in particular was extremely engaging. It is edited at such a fast pace that it accentuates the calmness of the moment after it. The fast paced action is accompanied by Junkie XL's score, which sets the mood and makes the film feel "epic."
I also liked that, despite this being given $150 million, Miller was still able to create a unique film. On top of the costumes and vehicles, idiosyncratic details like the morbidly obese man with the weird foot, the blindfolded guitarist and a scene involving a doctor (saying anything more about it would reveal an important plot point) help make this film feel like a creation instead of a product.
Although I like this film a lot, what's stopping me from loving it are the characters. They aren't as much of a problem for me as they were in 'Carol' or 'The Revenant' since those films were more character-driven while this film is more focused on action. However, the action does need to stop for the story and the moments in which the film takes a break would be more enjoyable if the characters were more fleshed out. Plus, the chase scenes would have been emotional and intense instead of just visually captivating.
The only other problems I have are that the acting could have been better and some of the dialogue felt dubbed. These are quite small in comparison to how impressive the visuals are and how entertaining the film is as a whole. Even if you are not a big action fan, you should see this film.
Interesting But Not Engaging
'Spotlight' is a good film but it doesn't go beyond just "good" because it is interesting but not very engaging.
The film adopts a straight-to-the-point approach to telling the story of The Boston Globe's investigation into the cover-up of multiple incidents of child abuse within the Catholic Church. This is a good way of recounting real life events but not the best way to make a film that engages and resonates with an audience.
The biggest problem I have with this approach is that it neglects the development of the characters. And I don't just mean character development, in which characters change or learn something over the course of a story. I mean characters that are well rounded and engaging in some way. None of the characters stood out to me. I missed most of their names so I just referred to them in my head by their actors' names. My lack of investment in the film made the ending feel anti-climatic. From a logical point of view, it isn't, but there was nothing really substantial to hook me in and feel the arc of the story.
The actors all do a fine job by their way. My favourite scenes were the ones in which the members of the Spotlight team interact with survivors of these abuse cases. The actors who played the two survivors (Neal Huff and Michael Cyril Creighton) were believable and made me invested in their scenes. It's possible that my lack of familiarity with them helped sell those scenes but they were well suited and made an impression either way.
In at least one review, the visual style has been compared to that of a TV drama, and I can understand why this comparison was made. Tom McCarthy's directorial decisions seem to be based mostly on capturing the actors instead of making the film more engrossing. The directing is still good, but it doesn't do anything to balance out the flat characters. The generic music that felt too bland for a theatrical feature also didn't help matters.
Overall, 'Spotlight' is a good film that stands out mostly due to its cast and subject matter. I wouldn't really recommend it unless you find the topic interesting or you already want to see this film.
You can read more of my reviews at: http://letterboxd.com/lloyd_morgan/films/reviews/
The Revenant (2015)
A Technical Wonder With A Lacking Script
I'm not really sure what to make of 'The Revenant'. It has been a week since I saw the film but it sort of feels like a distant memory.
I definitely have respect for the film. You've heard this before but I have to say that the cinematography is pretty fantastic. I was never in awe at its beauty but it pretty much captured the perfect look for the film. I can't help but feel that it looks "correct". The long takes and hand-held shots are also pretty impressive. The acting is great all round. Pretty much every actor does an impressive job in the roles that they are well suited for.
However, I wasn't really that engaged. I wasn't bored out of my mind either, but the great craftsmanship can only go so far. The characters aren't very interesting or relatable. This is especially a problem for Hugh Glass. He didn't feel like much of a person, which meant I couldn't feel his desperation or the brutality of the more violent or gory parts of the film. I will admit that there were a couple of moments where I looked away from the screen to see who in the cinema was talking. I'm pretty sure I missed one of the dream/flashback montages earlier on in the film because of this, which could have resulted in me not caring much about the character, but I still feel that we didn't learn much about the character throughout the rest of the film.
Overall, 'The Revenant' is a bit of a disappointment. It is a technical wonder but there was too much focus on making it look real and not enough focus on laying down the foundations that would make it actually feel real.
(In case you're wondering what happened to the people in the cinema talking, it got the point where I had to shush them. One of them glanced over at me as if I was being rude and they left a few minutes later.)
Emotional and Intense with Strong Characters
'Room' tackles a very dark and complex subject matter. It is centred on a fictional incident of a man abducting, imprisoning and raping a young woman for several years. There are many ways a writer or a filmmaker could approach this topic. Some may choose to play up the abuse to invoke a visceral reaction from the audience while others may focus on the resulting media blitz.
'Room' does depict both the abuse and the media reaction but it does not dwell on them. Instead, its main focus is the relationship between the woman, Joy, and the son she birthed in captivity, Jack. This is a great way to approach the premise as it allows the audience to get to know them, which makes us care for them. In some moments, I found myself rooting for the characters and hoping that they would succeed. In others, I felt bad for them when they irrationally acted out in anger instead of feeling annoyed. These well-developed characters are brought to life further by two very strong performances. Brie Larson (Joy) and Jacob Tremblay (Jack) bring out the emotional depth to their characters that makes us empathise with them.
Although Larson has been touted as the lead of the film, Joy shares the position of protagonist with Jack. Many shots were filmed at low angles including those from Jack's point of view, allowing us to see the world from his perspective. This directing choice also makes Room, the name Joy and Jack gave to the garden shed that acts as their prison, seem a lot bigger than it actually is, reflecting how it makes up the entirety of Jack's world.
To top it off, there are montages that feature voice-over narration by Jack, which reflects the images on screen. Unfortunately, I found myself focusing on the visuals and missing the narration. I don't know for sure why I did this. Maybe I wasn't in the mood to listen to prose read aloud. I'll have to wait for my second viewing to get a definite answer.
The one complaint I have that does feel definite – although minor – is the music that accompanied the start of an important sequence. The piece of music was designed to be emotional and intense in a way that would be more appropriate for the climax of such a sequence. Fortunately, the sequence did become emotional and intense as it progressed. I admittedly find it difficult to connect with characters on an emotional level but the time spent developing the characters made me feel the impact of this scene.
I will need to watch this film again before saying I loved it but I definitely liked it a lot. If you are looking for an emotional film with strongly written and acted characters, seek 'Room' out when you can.
A Fine Film That Needs More Character
'Carol' is a fine film. The juxtaposition of the lavish costumes and production design with the grainy look of 16mm film sells the film's old-fashioned aesthetic. It is a well-shot film that is pleasant to look at. All of the individual performances are pretty good.
The best part of the film is the opening sequence. The credits play over a continuing shot of fifties New York accompanied by Carter Burwell's fantastic piece 'Opening'. This shot brings us to a scene in a restaurant. This is a flash-forward that we revisit later on in the film. Our first sight of the main couple occurs when a man at the bar looks around the restaurant and spots them at a table. In this shot, Therese (Rooney Mara) and Carol (Cate Blanchett) are sitting at a table. Therese is sat facing away from the camera and towards Carol, who we can see clearly. My immediate reaction to this sight was "Wow, Cate Blanchett genuinely looks like she's in love." It felt real.
Unfortunately, I didn't get this feeling from the rest of the film. I couldn't feel any chemistry between Therese and Carol. Mara and Blanchett do their best with what they are given, but they aren't given enough. Their characters don't feel fleshed out. I didn't feel like I knew them as people by the end. The film's technical achievements can only lift a film so high. If you love this film then I'm glad, but I can't love it when I couldn't grow attached to the characters. This is especially a problem as this feels like a film driven more by character than by story.
Despite what I have said, this film didn't bore me. Mara and Blanchett are both engaging actresses who command your attention even if they aren't given enough to work with. The film is on the slow side but it goes at the right pace for what director Todd Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagy were going for. Overall, it was an interesting experience that felt a bit empty.
You can see more reviews at http://letterboxd.com/lloyd_morgan/films/reviews/
Great World Undermined By Underdeveloped Characters
'Brazil' suffers from a problem that I encounter a lot more than I would like to. It is a very well made film that falls flat in the character department.
The best thing about the film is the dystopian setting. The production design creates a zeerust (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Zeerust) version of what appears to be Britain that is visually compelling. It reminded me of how the inventions looked in the 'Wallace and Gromit' series. Like the setting and technology in 'Brazil', the inventions are designed to make our lives easier but do the exact opposite instead.
That is the film's main theme. Our protagonist, Sam Lowry, works for the Ministry of Information. A totalitarian bureaucracy that runs society, the MOI is founded upon an over-reliance on paperwork. Every action must be carried out through a form or a receipt. The drive to make life easier and more efficient is causing society to become needlessly complicated.
When it comes to the score of the film, I tend to notice it at the beginning but become more focused on the characters and the story later on. This applies to 'Brazil' as well. Some pieces of music did stand out to me, however. I don't remember them exactly but I do remember them feeling epic and intense. Unfortunately, they would have had more of an impact if it weren't for an important element that I will get to in a bit.
Another great aspect of the film is the ending. I won't say much about it expect that it is fitting and engaging. The film as a whole is well directed but the ending stands out the most to me in this regard. It is probably my favourite part of the film.
Unfortunately, the great aspects of the film lose some of their impact due to the main character. Sam isn't a blank slate. He is an average if slightly nervous guy who is pretty comfortable in his relatively low position at the MOI. However, I felt that his character needed more depth to him. There isn't much about him that is interesting. He isn't very likable or relatable either. The story is driven by his pursuit of a woman named Jill who he appears in his dreams before he notices her in real life. It is difficult to like or care for him when he's making himself look idiotic chasing a woman who doesn't know him or have any interest in him. It doesn't help that she doesn't have much to her character. She cares about the wellbeing of her downstairs neighbour and finds the bureaucratic government frustrating but there's nothing to her that makes Sam's attraction to her believable outside of simple lust. Granted, she probably symbolises the happier and freer life beyond the world Sam is trapped in but that doesn't work well when he seems to be simply inconvenienced by the world rather than trapped in it.
The performances are perfectly fine. Jonathan Pryce, who plays Sam, is particularly well suited to his character. The problems with his character would have been exacerbated by less suitable actor.
Both the design and the ideas that form the dystopia are great but the uninteresting inhabitants undermine them. If they were more engaging, I would have had more interest in the film as a whole. I seem to be in the minority since there are plenty of people who love this film. There isn't as much here for me as I wanted but the stuff that works is pretty good. I would recommend checking this one out even if it's just to say you have seen it.
It Happened One Night (1934)
Charming and Engaging
'It Happened One Night' is a charming film. This is in large part due to its two lead actors. Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert have great on-screen chemistry and do a fine job of making their characters and their relationship believable and engaging.
Gable and Colbert are helped by the film's screenplay. The story is simple but it provides a great opportunity for these characters to be fleshed out and their relationship to be explored. The film established several tropes common in romcoms today but the characters and dialogue are well written enough to prevent the film from feeling clichéd or dated. It did take me a little while to get into the rhythm of the film and feel invested but by the end I was rooting and cheering for the lead duo.
The film is also well shot. This shot - http://pre-code.com/wp- content/uploads/2013/02/ItHappenedOneNight2.png - from the beginning of the film took me by surprise. It was a pleasant surprise. It feels rather modern for a film from the '30s. Most shots from the 30's tend to be wide shots that capture a good chunk of a scene. This applies to 'It Happened One Night' as well and it is not a complaint. They give scenes or conversations a kind of flow that makes it seem more natural. It is a nice change of pace from what we're used to today.
Overall, this is a pleasant and engaging film with two well-developed characters played by two well cast and charismatic actors. I wasn't amazed but I would happily revisit it in the future.
Mind Game (2004)
Nothing But Crazy And Experimental Visuals
I have to say that I find it quite odd that I've watched two films in a row that both made me feel, for the most part, neutral. What makes it more odd is that the films are pretty much polar opposites. 'The Martian' is a conventional sci-fi blockbuster by a famous director. 'Mind Game' is a zany and surreal anime film that you can't even get on DVD in most countries (I had to watch it on Netflix).
The plot revolves around a pathetic loser named Nishi who gains a thirst for life after being killed by a Yakuza hit-man, meeting God and returning to Earth to exact revenge. After killing the gang member, he runs off with a car full of drugs, accompanied by the girl he is fixated with and her sister, and gets into a car chase with the rest of the Yakuza. This chase culminates with the trio driving off a bridge and being swallowed by a whale. Inside the whale, they meet an old man who has been living there for thirty years. The film then shows them becoming accustomed to life inside the whale before trying to escape, which serves as the big climax.
The main thing that stands out about 'Mind Game' is its animation and visuals. The film is crammed full with colourful and experimental imagery. It frequently shifts art styles and animation techniques. This is a primarily 2D hand-drawn animated film but often uses CGI for 3D tracking shots impossible in 2D animation, highlighting certain fantasy sequences, or just looking weird and different. There are even certain shots that replace 2D characters' faces with stop motion animation using live actors. I would suggest looking up a trailer to gain a proper look at the film's style.
The animation is very well done and the visuals have had a good amount of thought put into them, but there isn't much else to the film. I would like to apologise in advance for all my future reviews in which I go into great length about how empty or how rich the characters felt. The characters are an important part in whether or not I am engaged with a film. The characters in this film are unremarkable. Besides from what I've already mentioned, the only thing about Nishi is his urge and determination to escape the whale. The three other main characters – the crush, her sister and the old man – are not that interesting either. The fact that I can't remember their names illustrates my point rather well.
The problem of forgettable characters is not helped by the fact that the surreal imagery feels meaningless. It doesn't do much for the film besides making it weird and different. Surrealism isn't necessarily bad. 'Eraserhead' had bizarre and twisted imagery but that, along with its slower pace, helped established an eerie and dreamlike atmosphere that helped draw me into the film. On top of that, the main plot of trying to escape is rooted in the "you can do anything if you put your mind to it" cliché common in anime. These two sensibilities clash and cause a very peculiar mix. A scene in which Nishi gives a pep talk about living life to the fullest and not giving up feels life out of a more generic anime.
There are two montages in the film that give information about the characters and their back stories. The shots in these sequences are only screen for a very short time, which means you need to be attentive. This is all well and good if you're interested in what's going on. Since I wasn't, however, I found myself losing focus and finding them (particularly the one at the end of the film) to drag on for too long.
This isn't a bad film. I didn't hate watching it. I just found it to be unremarkable. The visuals are definitely unique and memorable, the animation is impressive, and the story moves along at a quick enough pace to make up for my lack of engagement. It's just that there are a few failures that cause said lack of engagement. I would only recommended this film if you like crazy and experimental visuals. There isn't much more beyond that.
The Martian (2015)
Competently Made But Felt Empty
This film made me feel neutral. I found the using-science-to-solve-problems aspect interesting but that isn't what makes a film resonate with me. It's the characters. The characters in this film do not feel like people. They feel empty. Sure, Mark Watney, the lead played by Matt Damon, has a personality I guess. We learn early on that he is an easy-going guy who can remain calm in most stressful situations. However, there isn't much else to him. I had no reason to connect to him. No one bothered to give him any sort of arc or background. He doesn't change or grow as a person at all. I know not every protagonist has to go through some sort of change but this character could have with at least a little bit of internal conflict.
This applies to the rest of the cast as well. Only four characters in the film stood out to me in anyway: Watney, Rich Purnell (Donald Glover), Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Michael Peña's character. Watney because he is, I suppose, more well rounded than the rest of the cast; Purnell because an archetypal quirky genius character is better than no character at all; Kapoor because his skills in communication and persuasion make him stand out which is a required quality for his job (Mars mission director, I had to look it up on Wikipedia); and Peña's character because of the two tiny moments of banter between him and Watney. Everyone else is defined by their jobs (which I've forgotten for the most part anyway) and what actions they need to do for their job.
When it comes to technical aspects, nothing was really done badly but nothing was done exceptionally either. The direction served its purpose but didn't impress. The cast did a pretty good job in their roles but no one made up for their lacklustre* characters. The visual effects are good. Granted, nothing stood out but that wasn't the purpose. They're supposed to make the spectacle look convincing, and they accomplish that.
Lastly, I would like to mention the score. Throughout most of the film, I didn't really pay attention to it but in the first few scenes when Watney is stranded on Mars, I felt that the music was too overdramatic. This probably isn't that much of a problem as I forgot about it quickly but it's distracting when the score is too intense or emotional for the scene it's accompanying.
Overall, this film neither impressed nor annoyed me. It's competently well made but it feels empty. If either the premise or the problem solving aspect interests you, you might like it. Otherwise, you can skip it.
*That's the British spelling of "lackluster" apparently.
I Hyped Myself Up A Bit Too Much
Emotions are the main reason why I fell in love with cinema. Art in general has the power to affect us on an emotional level but there's something about the way film does it that I find captivating. The reason I watch films is because I want to get absorbed in a story and feel for the characters.
Unfortunately, I spend a lot more time thinking and reading about films (especially films I haven't seen yet) than I do watching them (I am very picky about whether or not it is the right time to watch a film). As a result, I have the tendency to idolise films I haven't seen yet and conjure this fantasy that they will be a mind-blowing ten out of ten movie that I will cherish forever. 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind' has become one of these films. Highly regarded as one of the best films of the 21st century, 'Eternal Sunshine' is known for being an incredibly intelligent and emotional film that examines a relationship that turned sour once that initial spark had faded.
This film is definitely intelligent. It has a very interesting premise that it presents through unique and eye-catching visuals. This, as well as the well-written characters and the themes of love and nostalgia, make the film very engaging. Unfortunately, the film did not have the emotional punch that I had hyped myself up for. This is most likely due to the high expectations I had placed on it. As I watched the film, I spent a lot of time waiting for it to hit me emotionally, which may have, ironically, distracted me from getting absorbed into the film and getting that punch.
However, the film still has a lot to offer. Even after a week since I saw the film, I am still thinking about it. In particular, I keep thinking about some of the details that writer Charlie Kaufman put in this world to make it more believable. Also, the performances are great. Pretty much everyone did a good job bringing these characters to life. Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, in particular, each give one of the best performances of their careers. The film depends on them as much as it does on director Michel Gondry's visuals. Gondry's surreal portrayal of Joel's mind as his memories of Clementine are being erased not only gives the film a unique feel, but also shows us how much Joel connected with Clementine during their relationship.
These aspects are topped off with Jon Brion's score. Although I didn't really take notice of the music as I was watching the film, some of the tracks that I decided to revisit feel like they helped establish Gondry and Kaufman's world and characters. "Drive In" has been stuck in my head for the last few days, and I love the part of "Theme" that appears to be music being played in reverse.
Upon reflection, 'Eternal Sunshine' seems like it might be my Clementine. I expected my time with it to be one of the greatest experiences of my life but these expectations did nothing but damage the experience. Maybe this is some intentional meta genius on Kaufman's part. I wouldn't put it past him.
Granted, it is also possible that the lack of emotional punch could be because a good portion of the film is spent with the characters in Joel's apartment during the memory erasure process. This may have stopped me from getting emotionally absorbed into the Joel and Clementine's relationship, which is the heart of the film. It could also be that the surreal twists and turns need some time and a second viewing to get fully accustomed to.
But still, this is very well made and thought out film that had me engaged and thinking. Even if the film never lives up to my initial expectations, I feel that this film is still good enough to warrant to second viewing sometime in the future.
Big Hero 6 (2014)
A pretty fun Disney film
'Big Hero 6' isn't my favourite animated film of 2014 (that distinction belongs to 'The Lego Movie'). However, it is enjoyable and entertaining.
What makes this films work is its characters and their interactions with one another. Hiro, the main character, isn't wholly original. He's your typical genius kid protagonist that you see in a good amount of family films. However, he is fairly well rounded enough to root for and be an enjoyable presence. I particularly liked a brief moment in the film in which his character took a slightly dark turn, which something that I don't normally expect from a hero (or should I say Hiro lol) in a Disney film. Baymax is also a fun character. His voice actor, Scott Adsit, does a great job of bringing him to life and giving him the right balance of robotic monotone and human personality. The relationship between the pair, which acts as the film's emotional centre, is definitely one of the film's strongest elements.
The other members of the "Big Hero 6" are also enjoyable characters. They never overshadow the two main characters and don't really go beyond the stereotypes of their characterisations but they serve their purpose. The highlight of this group is Fred, a superhero and giant monster enthusiast who is probably the film's best source of humour.
The film is also very pleasing to look at. Like any film from Disney's main animation studio, the animation is top notch. The film takes place in San Fransokyo, a wonderful amalgamation of Japanese and American culture.
However, this film is not without flaws most of which come from the script. It has a very clichéd and predictable story. The reveal of the villain's identity isn't surprising at all. Even when the villain has been revealed, he isn't really interesting or well written. For the most part, the dialogue is pretty good. However, there are a handful of lines that aren't. In particular, one line of exposition feels very forced and unnatural. There was also a plot hole that momentarily took me out of the film (which I won't reveal in case you want to figure it out for yourself).
The film contains two scenes in where our main characters construct their inventions over a period of time. The first one was told through time lapse, a decision that I quite liked. The second one, however, was your standard montage. The montage isn't bad but the use of 'Immortals' by Fall Out Boy in it felt out of the place and didn't really convey the emotion of the scene.
'Big Hero 6' is not the best animation has to offer but it is still a light-hearted and enjoyable film with some well-executed emotional scenes. If you're a fan of Disney animation, you should check it out.
The Best Film of 2014
'Whiplash' is probably my favourite film from 2014 (it was a 2015 release here in the UK but that's because of the way the award season works). No other film from last year drew me in and put me on the edge of my seat the way this film did. It is extremely well written, directed and edited. Damien Chazelle did a terrific job at making me feel the tension and anxiety that Andrew felt. The way Chazelle angled and moved the camera around was a bit unusual, but it made it feel like that there was someone with a unique and clear voice behind this film and directing it with passion, which drew me in even closer. Chazelle is clearly a writer/director to watch out for in the future.
But when talking about this film, you cannot forget the performances. Miles Teller is a great as Andrew. He brings to the character the necessary drive and sociopathy (but not too much) need to make him interesting and watchable. The side characters are also great. In particular, Andrew's dad and Nicole, Andrew's girlfriend, were characters we do not spend a lot of time with, but are well written and well acted enough that they feel like real people who we like spending time with.
However, the real star of the film is J.K. Simmons, who gives a standout performance as Terence Fletcher, who looms over Andrew throughout the film. Simmons does a magnificent job at bringing the character to life and making him monstrous, intimidating and surprisingly funny all at once. He is going to win the Oscar.
And, of course, there's the finale. The climax is probably one of the best scenes in a film that I have seen in a long time. This is where Damien Chazelle excels as both a writer and a director. It is a non-stop thrill ride that it is incredibly nerve-racking. It is also brilliantly shot and edited. I don't think I have ever been more entranced by a film than this ending
If you have not already seen 'Whiplash', I highly recommend that you seek it out no matter how far the nearest cinema showing it is. Believe me, it is worth the hype.