The Oscars Strike Back

WritingAnother year, another awards season. It’s that time to make the Oscar picks. This year’s awards have been dogged by controversy, most notably about the lack of diversity. I have my opinions on the #OscarSoWhite issue (yes, I think there is a problem with diversity in the awards, but I think the real issue goes a little deeper and is more complicated than that), but that won’t affect my picks for the awards. Unlike in previous years, I have actually managed to see EVERY…SINGLE…FILM, including the shorts, so I feel informed and won’t be leaving anything out of my consideration. Go me! Interestingly, this year the picks are not as clear as they’ve been the last couple of years, with no obvious frontrunners in the various categories with a couple of exceptions, which made this analysis much more challenging than usual. But challenging is good.

As usual, I will be live tweeting the 2016 Oscars, so be sure to follow me and we’ll see how I accurate my predictions are together.

Best Picture
My pick: “Room”
What will probably win: “The Big Short”
Why: Despite what you may have heard, “The Revenant” is probably not going to win this one. It’s a film that has left people very divided between it being a really good film and being an egofest. When it comes down to it, “Room” is easily the best of the bunch. It’s moving, it’s heartbreaking, raw, visceral, and all-in-all a really heavy film. But if a movie can feel that heavy, you know they did something very right. It can be difficult and uncomfortable at times, but it is sooo good. However, “The Big Short” is the likely winner. Personally, I was a bit underwhelmed by it, but it taps into a lot of the anger circulating through society right now at Wall Street, making it very timely. But I don’t see this as the kind of film that will stand the test of time, and will remain a popular product of its own time only.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role
My pick: Matt Damon (“The Martian”)
Who will probably win: Leonardo DiCaprio (“The Revenant”)
Why: DiCaprio probably has the best chance of winning this Oscar, but for the wrong reasons. A win for this one would be more for his overall body of work and to make up for being snubbed in the past. While he was good in “The Revenant,” it wasn’t a standout performance and I thought he’s done much better work in the past. Ultimately, among the nominees, Matt Damon is the most deserving. He manages to play a character that is incredibly smart and resourceful and supremely likable. You can’t help but root for him throughout the movie. Even if the end of the movie turned into “Darkstar,” he turns in a great, lovable performance.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role
My pick: Brie Larson (“Room”)
Who will probably win: Brie Larson (“Room”)
Why: I found a lot of the picks for this category surprisingly underwhelming this year. But the standout by far is Brie Larson. A relative newcomer to the movie game, she not only plays her role so well, but shows an incredible range within the single movie, moving from being strong to having a breakdown. This is Larson’s award to lose.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role
My pick: Tom Hardy (“The Revenant”)
Who will probably win: Sylvester Stallone (“Creed”)
Why: Tom Hardy has been turning in some great performances lately. A lot of them. And he seems to be showing up in everything. But he is almost unrecognizable in “The Revenant,” not only for the make-up but also the way he acts and speaks. At first, I wasn’t sure if that was him. However, again, this is Stallone’s award to lose. Not only is this more for a lifetime of work (and the symbolic passing of the Rocky torch to Michael B. Jordan), but there’s likely some guilt going through the academy over the #OscarSoWhite controversy, and this is one way that some voters may feel they are making this better for the lack of minority actors or black films nominated. Kind of misses the point, guys.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role
My pick: Jennifer Jason Leigh (“The Hateful Eight”)
Who will probably win: Alicia Vikander (“The Danish Girl”)
Why: Jennifer Jason Leigh is awesome in “The Hateful Eight.” I’ve heard it said that some actors like the role of the bad guy because it can be fun to play, and Leigh was clearly having a ton of fun with it. Being a small woman trapped in a cabin with eight men, and she is the one you’re afraid of, partly because you’re not sure what her game is, and it’s a great achievement and immensely enjoyable to watch. However, the award will likely go to Alicia Vikander, who has only recently come to the forefront of films, but done it so fast that she’s getting starring roles in everything. She was okay in “The Danish Girl,” a film that, like “The Big Short,” I found a bit underwhelming, but she was also great in “Ex Machina.” As a matter of fact, she probably should have been nominated for “Ex Machina” instead, as that was, in my opinion, a much stronger and more interesting performance.

Best Achievement in Directing
My pick: Lenny Abrahamson (“Room”)
Who will probably win: Lenny Abrahamson (“Room”)
Why: Abrahamson has, without a doubt, the strongest film nominated this year. I’m not saying the actors were hard to work with, but there is a thing among directors that the most difficult subjects to work with are children and animals. “Room” is told from the point of view of a five-year-old boy, who also puts in a Hell of a performance. Come to think of it, why didn’t Jacob Tremblay get an Oscar nod?

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen
My pick: “Ex Machina”
Who will probably win: “Straight Outta Compton”
Why: “Ex Machina” is one of those movies that are just fascinating to watch. Told with a minimal cast and mostly dialogue (some eavesdropped), the movie goes into romance and philosophy, particularly what does it mean to be human. It’s very intelligent film. The award will probably go to “Straight Outta Compton,” a movie that, while good, also follows a very rigid and traditional plot structure with few risks and probably has an edge simply because of the guilty vote regarding the #OscarSoWhite controversy. Again, Academy, you’re missing the point.

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published
My pick: “Room”
Who will probably win: “The Big Short”
Why: Put simply, “Room” is a brilliant piece of film-making. The screenplay is incredibly solid, which isn’t surprising given that it was written by Emma Donoghue, the author of the book on which the movie is based. When you have the original author adapting their own book, you’ll usually get something that thoroughly captures the source material. However, “The Big Short” strikes more of a nerve with society as it stands now and addresses a topic that is at the forefront of everyone’s minds, which gives it an edge in this category.

Best Animated Feature Film of the Year
My pick: O Menino e o Mundo (Boy and the World)
Who will probably win: Inside Out
Why: As usual, the Academy will remain baffled about what to actually do with animated films. “Boy and the World” is one of those films that is absolutely beautiful, not only with a fascinating art style, but characters that convey and make the audience feel strong emotions without ever saying a word. Yes, this film has no dialogue (what little you hear is actually nonsense; it’s similar to how the adults in Peanuts cartoon all sound like they swallowed oboes). However, Disney has usually bought…er, I mean makes solid movies. Actually, the dead giveaway here is that “Inside Out” has been nominated for Best Original Screenplay. When a “specialty” film like an animated feature or a foreign language film is also nominated in another category as well, it’s usually a shoe-in.

Best Foreign Language Film of the Year
My pick: Saul fia (Son of Saul)
Who will probably win: Saul fia (Son of Saul)
Why: Of the films nominated in this category, “Son of Saul” is undoubtedly the most powerful. Following a member of the Sonderkommando (Jews who worked in the crematoriums, destroying the bodies of other Jews sent to the gas chamber during the Holocaust), this film is shot in one of the most uncomfortable and at the same time brilliant styles I’ve seen in recent memory. The entire movie is shot following Saul in close-up and with few edits (think of “Birdman”). The whole movie! Not only is it an extraordinarily intimate view of the central character, but it also becomes extremely claustrophobic, putting the audience ill at ease. It’s an extremely risky choice for the filmmakers, but one that pays off and makes the film incredibly effective.

Best Achievement in Cinematography
My pick: Mad Max: Fury Road
Who will probably win: Mad Max: Fury Road
Why: Cinematography usually awards films shot in black and white (not an easy feat, despite what you might think) or interesting choices with camera angle and sweeping camera work. But with “Mad Max: Fury Road,” you get a film that had to be an absolute nightmare for the cinematographers with the numerous car chases and action sequences. It was a challenge that the cinematographers took on and managed to accomplish brilliantly, shooting an incredibly fun and energetic movie.

Best Achievement in Editing
My pick: Mad Max: Fury Road
Who will probably win: The Big Short
Why: Putting together shots that had to have been so difficult to film and editing them together so as to maintain the energy and pace had to be equally difficult, but was done fantastically. However, the award will likely go to “The Big Short” due to the quirkiness and humor involved with the editing process.

Best Achievement in Production Design
My pick: “The Martian
Who will probably win: “The Martian
Why: Most of the other nominees in this category portray locations that would exist in the today’s world (possible exception to “Mad Max: Fury Road”). But “The Martian” had to create a believable planet, a harsh unforgiving environment, as well as habitats and interplanetary ships. That makes “The Martian” stand out from all the other nominees in this category.

Best Achievement in Costume Design
My pick: “The Revenant
Who will probably win: “The Danish Girl
Why: This one is often unpredictable, not to mention kind of weird (think of the American Express Gold Card dress from several years ago). “The Revenant” uses costumes that actually add to the idea that this is taking place in a harsh and savage environment and adds to the atmosphere greatly. However, “The Danish Girl” likely has the edge for the selection of period costumes, which seem to have an edge in most years.

Best Achievement in Makeup and Hairstyling
My pick: Hundraåringen som klev ut genom fönstret och försvann (The Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared)
Who will probably win: “The Revenant
Why: Again, a difficult category to predict, and this one is kind of a toss up. “The Hundred-Year Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared” does a great and very convincing job of aging Robert Gustafsson back and forth as we explore his life. Plus, I’m kind of a sucker for Swedish films. However, I’m not sure how many people actually saw this movie, an important factor in a lot of these awards. So, “The Revenant” has an edge in this category, if nothing else than for Tom Hardy’s makeup (to be honest, I didn’t realize that was Tom Hardy at first, which is a combination of the makeup and his acting ability).

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score
My pick: “The Hateful Eight
Who will probably win: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Why: The score for “The Hateful Eight” is just plain fun, and adds greatly to the atmosphere, fun, and energy of each scene. However, John Williams “Star Wars” score is so iconic that I can’t count out the Academy resorting to nostalgia in selecting “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” for this award.

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song
My pick: Til It Happens to You from “The Hunting Ground
Who will probably win: Earned It from Fifty Shades of Grey
Why: The universe hates me. I have no faith in humanity. Whatever the reason, somehow Earned It is going to win so we will be forced to say, “The Academy Award-winning ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’” despite the fact that Til It Happen to You is just straight-up a far superior song. People suck…

Best Achievement in Sound Mixing
My pick: The Martian
Who will probably win: The Martian
Why: This one got weird this year. Usually, some kind of military or war movie gets nominated for the sound awards and is guaranteed to win. This did not happen this year, which forced me to really think about where this award would go. Editing together the sounds for “The Martian” was crucial to adding to the harsh atmosphere (or lack thereof, as the case may be). Without that sound, “The Martian” would not have been anywhere near as effective as it was.

Best Achievement in Sound Editing
My pick: The Martian
Who will probably win: The Martian
Why: See above. While “Sicario” is nominated in this category and is close to being a war movie, the sound seemed a little too overdone, which gives “The Martian” the edge.

Best Achievement in Visual Effects
My pick: Ex Machina
Who will probably win: Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Why: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is all about the big, grand, in-your-face special effects, so you can’t miss them. However, “Ex Machina” goes for subtlety. While the visual effects are quite obvious, they are so good that they manage to blend into the background and feel normal, which is far more effective when contributing to the art of film-making.

Best Documentary, Feature
My pick: The Look of Silence
Who will probably win: Amy
Why: The Act of Killing” was undeservedly snubbed when the Oscar went to “Twenty Feet from Stardom” a couple of years ago. In Joshua Oppenheimer’s followup “The Look of Silence,” he creates an incredibly powerful film following a man as he confronts the men who killed his brother during the Indonesian genocide. It’s the Academy’s opportunity to correct a wrong. However, the award will likely go to “Amy,” primarily because Amy Winehouse was far more well known and the Academy tends to vote for documentaries about show business most of the time.

Best Documentary, Short Subject
My pick: Last Day of Freedom
Who will probably win: Claude Lanzmann: Spectres of the Shoah
Why: It’s kind of ironic when you think about it: A short subject documentary about the making of a nearly 10-hour film, and it’s probably going to win because, like “Amy,” it is about a filmmaker and film-making. However, “Last Day of Freedom” was a far superior and important documentary. A rotoscope animation (think “A Scanner Darkly”) but with pencil drawings, giving it a much more stylized look, the film is the story told by Bill Babbitt of his brother’s war experience, crime, and eventual execution. A far more artistic film with an actual message relevant to today’s society.

Best Short Film, Animated
My pick: Mi ne mozhem zhit bez kosmosa (We Can’t Live Without Cosmos)
Who will probably win: Sanjay’s Super Team
Why: “We Can’t Live Without Cosmos” is beautiful and heartbreaking. While it has a simple art style and no dialogue, the film shows the friendship of two cosmonauts in training, until tragedy strikes. It is funny and moving at the same time. However, “Sanjay’s Super Team” is a Disney/Pixar film, so it’s never a good idea to bet against them.

Best Short Film, Live Action
My pick: Shok
Who will probably win: Stutterer
Why: Set during the Kosovo war, “Shok” tells the story of two young boys’ friendship as it is tested. This is not a happy tale, but it is as effective as a solid punch to the gut. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When a film can make you feel something that strongly, you know you’ve found something really good. The problem is that the inferior “Stutterer” has gotten more publicity. I was a stutterer growing up, and this film does not accurately portray my experience (admittedly, by the time I reached the main character’s age, I had mostly grown out of it, but even now I have the occasional stutter). This made the movie far less identifiable for me, but it is still probably going to win.

There you have it. If you’re actually reading this and made it through the whole post, you’re a better man than I. Even I couldn’t get through it in one sitting.

Book Review: Deep Blue

Deep BlueDeep Blue by Brian Auspice
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Tuesday has been postponed until next Tuesday, but Wednesday is still on for this Thursday.”

This, in a nutshell, is Deep Blue by Brian Auspice, a surrealist entry in the New Bizarro Authors Series, a special group of books that publishes untested authors to see how they do on the market. Deep Blue is one of those gems that, without the NBAS, may never have seen the light of day because it is so surreal that it may go over a lot of readers’ heads.

You have a devil that lives in the fridge, a machine that must be “fed” every night, characters that change dimensions to 2D, men-in-cans, and faceless taxi drivers just to name a few elements in this book, and, yes, it all does tie together. This book is like a fever dream after smoking an incredibly exotic herb, and I loved every page of it. Admittedly, this review may not be entirely objective because I’m a total sucker for surrealist works, but it really is that good.

It reminds me a great deal of a NBAS book from a couple years ago called Kitten by G. Arthur Brown, which actually makes sense because Kevin L. Donihe accepted both of them for the NBAS. I’m detecting a pattern here. It’s difficult to really say much about what the book is about without giving anything away because things are tied so closely together that to describe one element out of context would make no sense at all. There are even “puzzles” of sorts to solve, like the machine that speaks only in binary, and it is actually saying something if you take the time to translate it.

Suffice to say that the book does have a point. While very short, I recommend that the reader not rush through it. Deep Blue is a steak that must be eaten slowly to enjoy the intricate flavors of each bite, not a McDonald’s hamburger that must be wolfed down before you can taste anything for fear that if it touches your tongue it will trigger a gag reflex so powerful that it would make Linda Blair jealous.

I can’t find much fault with this book personally. Even from a technical perspective, it’s sublimely produced. So this book is highly recommended but with a warning: This book will challenge you. It is not a brain candy type book nor is it the easiest of reads, but it is rewarding for the time and effort that you put into it.

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Book Review: SuperGhost

SuperGhostSuperGhost by Scott Cole
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Have you ever had the experience where you feel sensation or pain in a limb that you no longer have, a phenomenon known as phantom limb? Me neither, primarily because I’ve never lost a limb, but that’s beside the point.

SuperGhost by Scott Cole is based on this phenomenon, putting forth the idea that a phantom limb is really just that: A phantom. The ghost of a severed limb lives on connected to the rest of the body. But what if a mad scientist devised a way to remove the phantom limb? A spiritual amputation, as it were. Then, what if said mad scientist decided to use the phantom limbs to create a ghostly Frankenstein’s monster to destroy the world? MUAHAHAHA!… Oops, got a little carried away there. Sorry.

SuperGhost is part of the New Bizarro Authors Series, where new authors who haven’t had a book published get a chance to prove that they have the chops. And Cole has the chops. First, Cole takes a somewhat unusual approach to his bizarro book, setting it in the “real” world, or a close facsimile. The world is identifiable and entirely believable and could very well be our own world. That is, until a giant ghost made of severed phantom limbs goes rampaging through the city. The characters are well developed, especially give the small space Cole has to work with. It was surprising how the characters could feel so fleshed out in such a short book. And the characters are likable. Heck, even the mad scientist villain is likable. It would have been interesting to see how much more developed he could be in a longer book. As they say, audiences will hate a good villain but love a great one.

It’s both accurate and unfair to compare this book to “Ghostbusters.” The comparisons are obvious, especially given the overall humorous tone of the book. But Cole adds more to it than just a “Ghostbusters” vibe. Comparisons could be made to lots of other sources, such as “Frankenstein,” but they are mashed and stitched together in Cole’s own unique way, creating his own Frankenstein’s monster of literary tones. But it’s all fun. In fact, if I was to describe SuperGhost in one word, it would be “fun.”

Unfortunately, while Cole does an admirable job with the short space he has, I would have liked to have seen this story written in a longer form. It’s a story that feels like it was meant for something bigger, and that it had to be trimmed down to make it fit with the maximum word allowance for a NBAS book. Still, SuperGhost is definitely a lot of fun and worth the short time it takes to read.

SuperGhost by Scott Cole earns earns 4 severed limbs out of five.

Book Review: Pax Titanus

Pax TitanusPax Titanus by Tom Lucas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Titanus is a Veritassian, an alien that is ten feet tall, has four arms, can only speak the truth, and can grow and shrink any part of his body at will. ANY part (being that this is a bizarro book, I’ll leave that bit up to your imagination). When his son is “kidnapped,” the kidnappers force him to enter a galactic gladiatorial contest featuring lots of weird aliens that could only spring from the mind of a deranged lunatic.

Tom Lucas’ Pax Titanus tells this story and tells it well. Then again, this book isn’t for those looking for a terribly in-depth story. The real feature of this book is the increasing amounts of alien carnage and detailed fight scenes to sate the reader’s inner blood lust. The story is more there to move the action along.

The characters are quirky, from Titanus’ inability to tell a lie to his wife (who’s a squid) communicating by secreting emotional ooze based on what she’s feeling. Right? Right. The book is the usual short length for an entry in the New Bizarro Authors Series. In this case, that works well. Lucas is forced to economize and doesn’t waste any time on extraneous details. He focuses on what’s important and gets to the point, which prevents the reader from screaming, “Get to the point!”

Graphic, violent, and simple, Pax Titanus still holds charm and does have a surprise ending. While this type of book isn’t always my cup of tea, it was still a fun read that kept my attention and does make the inner child squeal with joy at the copious amounts of mindless violence. Or is that just me? My inner child might be a little disturbed.

If I have a main complaint, it’s that this book could have used another pass the editor. Basic mechanical mistakes bug me enormously and are a pet peeve, and I have to knock the book down a little for that.

An enjoyable and short read that reminds one of a summer action flick, Pax Titanus definitely scratches a certain itch, although admittedly it may not be an itch that everyone has. If you like excessive amounts of literary violence not counting those brutal writers’ conferences, then Pax Titanusis definitely worth your time.

Pax Titanus by Tom Lucas earns 4 out of 5 bludgeoned skulls.

Book Review: The End of Protest

The End of Protest: How Free-Market Capitalism Learned to Control DissentThe End of Protest: How Free-Market Capitalism Learned to Control Dissent by Alasdair Roberts
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In years past, severe economic downturns and unfair political practices led to protests and riots. In The End of Protest, author Alasdair Roberts asks why there aren’t more protests now, particularly after the economic crash of 2008. This is a question I have asked as well. Where was the outrage? Sure, we saw people talking on television, saw posts on the internet, but why hadn’t people taken to the streets with pitchforks and torches the way they had in the past? Roberts attempts to answer this question.

Now, full disclosure: I read this book a little a while ago with the intent to review it then, but due to unforeseen circumstances, it has taken me quite a while to get around to writing this review. It turns out that this time has changed my initial perspective on the book and has provided much more valuable insight into Roberts’ message, and ultimately I feel that I can provide a much better review now than I initially could have.

Roberts’ prose is a little confusing at first. While he seems very direct and straight to the point, there are times when it feels more like he’s stalking the point and takes forever to actually get there. Still, it is clean with few errors and easy to read, making it easy for the layman to pick up and understand.

In this book, Roberts details the rise of protests, particularly with the Industrial Revolution, saying that at that time, protests had practically become an expected part of life, but had become disruptive to the establishment. This led to the creation of a standing police force. That’s right. Roberts proposes that the original purpose of the police was not to serve and protect the people from crimes. The police were actually created to quell protests and keep the established order running without disruption and maintain free market principles. This was something that I met with skepticism. I did not consider it outside the realm of possibility, but also didn’t feel that Roberts really provided enough evidence for this claim.

That is, until the happenings in Ferguson, Missouri last year. Observing not only the initial attack by the police, but the police response to the growing protests, not only there but in other places as more and more police-involved shootings occurred, immediately made me think of this book. Indeed, the police seemed to primarily be acting as an anti-protest unit with little or no concern for public safety. Life actually added weight to Roberts’ argument.

Roberts continues, following other protests and responses to them, up to the Occupy Wall Street movement. He argues that Occupy Wall Street tried be different to avoid past protesting problems, and while it was the result of a seething and legitimate anger, failed primarily due to this lack of centralized leadership intended to combat the monitoring and intimidation tactics now used to quell protest and prevent organizing before they even get going. When no one could be on the same page, they couldn’t even agree on a date for when the protest should take place until the Canadian firm Adbusters finally stepped up and said it would start on September 17, 2011. After the media refused to cover it initially and only did after the voices grew too loud, then began to sweep it under the rug and add more distractions to take people’s attention away. Bread and circuses.

While a good study on the history protest and the responses to it, the book is ultimately lukewarm in its tone and rather myopic in the scope of protests it studies. Roberts focuses primarily on economic-based protests of the United States and Great Britain, and does not cover protests that started for other reasons or in other areas (like France; now the French are people that know how to riot!). In addition, this book is preaching to the choir. It’s likely going to be read by people that already agree with the premise, and will probably be avoided by those who don’t already agree with it.

It’s an okay study, and Roberts makes and backs up his point well, but is ultimately a letdown and won’t reach those that really should be reading it.

The End of Protest by Alasdair Roberts get 3 picket signs out of 5.

Note: A free copy of this book was provided to this reviewer by the publisher through NetGalley. This did not in any way affect the content of this review.