The Upfronts 2017: NBC

There is simply no way it can be time for the upfronts yet again! I’ll stick with tradition and run a commentary, but I’m so far behind with my watching that I’ve barely seen any of this years shows before they’ve all been cancelled. First up, NBC a channel where I watch absolutely zero of the shows they air.

What’s cancelled or not returning
It looks like a pretty good year for NBC, only three shows are cancelled, three of them one-and-dones. Grimm managed a very respectable 6 season. I did watch the pilot way back in 2011 and found the whole thing utterly unremarkable, maybe it went somewhere more interesting. Powerless looked like it could have been a fun superhero/office based comedy and had some good names attached, but clearly didn’t grab the ratings. The spin-off of The Blacklist: Redemption only lasted a handful of episodes. I only watched a couple of seasons of The Blacklist, but it didn’t take a genius to see that the only thing that made the show even vaguely watchable was James Spader and the annoying husband wasn’t going to cut it. Emerald City was another attempt at a Wizard of Oz related series and I know nothing about it except it lasted just 10 episodes.

What’s coming back
NBC’s bank of Chicago based dramas continue in all their ridiculous glory – fireman for a sixth, police for a fifth, and doctors for a third; but it doesn’t seem to have been announced if the lawyers will return for a second. James Spader carries the otherwise unremarkable Blacklist into its 5th season, while Blindspot gets a third. Law & Order Special Victims Unit gets a 19th season making it “the current longest running scripted non-animated U.S. primetime TV series… and is the fourth-longest running scripted U.S. primetime TV series on a major broadcast network.” according to wikipedia. I don’t think I’ve seen a single episode. Neither have I felt any desire to watch an episode of Jennifer Lopez’s Shades of Blue, but it’s gonna be back for a third season, as is comedy Superstore.
On the freshman front, the big success has been This Is Us, which was rewarded with a second AND a third season. I haven’t seen because if I want to watch somethign to make me cry this year I’ll just watch the news. Given that the rubbish film managed so many follow ups, I guess it’s not surprising that Taken the TV series somehow found an audience and comes back for a second season. And freshman series Timeless managed the unusual trick of getting cancelled and then renewed 3 days later. Prompting numerous naff time travel jokes. Comedies Great News and The Good Place were both renewed.

What’s new
Will & Grace returns after 10 years. I thought I was kind of looking forward to this, and then the laughter track on the trailer kicked in and I hated myself.

The Brave: fairly generic looking military action drama, with a hefty dose of patriotism. Meh.

Law & Order True Crime: The Mernendez Murders. The clumsy title is a bad start, why bodge the true crime story into the Law & Order brand? Particularly when it looks like it’s only an 8 episode mini-series. The sanctimonious, overly dramatic voiceover killed this one for me.

Rise – about a school theatre department. The blurb isn’t encouraging but… it’s by Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights!) and stars Josh Radnor (How I Met Your Mother) and I’m a sucker for this kind of thing, so I’m bordering on excited!

Good Girls: struggling suburban mums rob a super market. For laughs I guess. Oh, no wait it’s a drama. Um, ok.

Reverie: a hostage negotiator is brought in to help bring people out of a virtual reality they’ve got trapped in. It could be a little Quantum Leap-ey, I was not enthused by a hook that the negotiator has suffered “an unimaginable personal tragedy” which is hopefully not an indication of the quality of the writing on the show.

Champions: “Vince, a charismatic gym owner with no ambition, lives with his younger brother Michael, a gorgeous idiot.” That’s genuinely how the press release sells this pair of morons. Then there’s something about unexpectedly having to look after a teenage son. Hilarious parenting will ensue no doubt.

A.P. Bio: A smug sounding academic finds himself teaching biology to high school kids. It’s a comedy so I’m guessing it’ll mostly be about screwing things up rather than heartwarming growth.

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The Walking Dead: Season 7

I think the first episode of season 7 of The Walking Dead is a key turning point for the series. For a show that has already defied boundaries of violence and brutality, the introduction of Negan and Lucille marks a new extreme. Characters are pushed further than before and it’s very clear that none of them will ever be the same as they were before. For me, sadly, it marked the point that I fell out of love with the series.

I read spoilers of The Walking Dead, it’s not about a lack of patience for the few hours I’d have to wait to watch the episode, but it’s more about making the tension bearable. I find that if I’m stressed and uncertain about what’s going to happen in a show I care so much about, I just can’t concentrate on the nuances of the acting, writing and directing that make The Walking Dead what it is. So, I knew not only who met Lucille, but how and how the rest of the episode was drawn out. When it came to sitting to watch the episode that evening, I realised I didn’t want to see it. So I didn’t. After a couple of weeks, I still didn’t want to watch it, so I figured I’d wait until the whole half season backed up and I could box-set my way through it. But I still didn’t want to. Eventually the whole seventh season was waiting for me, and I still couldn’t face watching the first episode. So I didn’t. I skipped it. I watched the rest of the season and just missed the brutality of the first episode.

With or without the first episode, binge watching the season in a few days worked well, because if I had tried watching it an episode each week I’d probably have died of boredom. The entire synopsis of events can be written in a not terribly long paragraph (I checked), and thanks to the fact that most episodes follow just one plot line, only a few characters, all the stories are stop start, and you might get stuck for an hour with someone you just don’t care about. Slow and subtle character and plot development is one thing, but this is just glacial. We know most of the characters well enough that we know exactly what they’re thinking and watching them go very slowly through the motions is mind-numbingly dull. The majority of the stories were predictable, only the shock violence and the specifics of who died, when, were surprising.

Half of me wants to go back and watch another season to see if it’s the series or me that’s changed, the other half doesn’t want to risk that I’ll realise I was wrong all along. The writing this season felt ham-fisted and clumsy at times. Too many of the new characters felt cliche or over-the-top, and I was bothered by the logistics and realism in a way that I hadn’t been before – how far apart are these groups, how have they never tripped over each other, is that a realistic number of guns, how inept are they to not just shoot Negan, where is the petrol coming from? I’m struggling to engage with the newer characters and too many of the old characters are getting bogged down (not unreasonably I guess) in their traumas. When characters or groups reunite, the emotional impact was intense, but it felt more obviously manipulative than I remember it being in the past.

I think the problem is that Negan just feels like a hyped up version of The Governor, who was already close to a pantomime villain at times. Now that the walking dead themselves are not so much of a threat, human villains are having to get more extreme to make it comparable, but I think that’s the wrong direction to go. I was more interested in the politics between the different factions, the different styles of governance and how they interacted. The super-villain just felt unnecessary and stupid for a show that I always thought was more intelligent than that. I’m not angry. I’m just incredibly disappointed.

Luke Cage: Season 1

One of the strengths of the Marvel Universe is that each sub-franchise, be it film or TV, has entirely its own style. Even when characters cross between things (as Luke Cage does from Jessica Jones) they somehow manage to bring their own tone. It means you can like one thing but not another, or you can like them for very different reasons. You could probably put together a pretty complete map of genres just within the Marvel Universe which is impressive really.

As its central theme, Jessica Jones was about individual control – what it does to the people involved when one person takes someone else’s control away. Luke Cage is still about individuals, but individuals as the components of a community – how each person contributes towards that community, and how individual actions impact that community. The community of Harlem is an important character, but one that has no voice of its own for much of the series. Everyone thinks they know what ‘the community’ needs and wants and the best way to realise that vision; they seek to control it and mould it to their vision, not allow it to evolve and change organically. Luke Cage is almost the apathetic hero, he isn’t really part of the community, he’s just hiding within it and is brought into the struggles against his will.

You could talk about all of this without really talking about superpowers. As with most superhero stuff, it’s not about the superpowers themselves, it about what it lets people do. For Luke Cage, the fact that he is nearly invulnerable means that he can take actions that others couldn’t. If you take away the fear of death, what does that mean? As with Superman of course, it means that your weakness is now other people, the people you care about, so those relationships become even more powerful. And the ‘victims’ you need to protect are those that have less power than you. “With great power comes great responsibility” is a cliché, but it’s also true.

The characters and casting is (mostly) all you’d expect from the Marvel universe, with a lot of familiar names and faces playing to their strengths. All the characters are rich and interesting, imbued with their own history and credible reasons for their actions. There’s an unfortunate weak link in the second half with Claire Temple’s character who is always in the right place, at the right time, and magically able to solve all problems which is really unfortunate as the character (nothing to do with the performance) dragged the series down rather.

I must admit, in writing this review I’ve put more thought into the series than I did while I was watching it. I enjoyed watching it, and the 13 episodes rattled along always leaving me wanting to just let the auto-play carry me onto the next. But it didn’t have the impact that Jessica Jones did, it’s only when I thought about it afterwards that I started seeing the complexity and themes that you could find. Sometimes analysing shows to death kills them stone dead, other times though it really elevates them into something greater.

Bates Motel: Season 1-3

I’d been meaning to watch this for a while and finally spotted it while rummaging on Netflix. It’s just going into the fifth and final season so I’m pretty late for the party, but at least I’m now making up for lost time, powering through all the episodes that Netflix had available in just a couple of weeks.

When I first heard the idea of telling the backstory of the infamous Norman Bates from Psycho, I rolled my eyes a bit. There are enough remakes/prequels/sequels about, does the world really need a high-school age prequel of a horror film? Surprisingly, the world does. There’s something absolutely riveting about knowing how the story ends, but not really knowing anything about how they get there. You find yourself sympathising for them, or rooting for them, crossing your fingers that things will work out for them and constantly remembering that it’s not going to happen. It means the writers and actors can play, taking a step in one direction and raising hopes before lurching back again, in the early seasons they can be incredibly subtle and immediate red flags go up anyway.

The ongoing structure of the series is very well designed though. The story of the series is how Norman Bates becomes the character in Psycho, and his story is completely intertwined with his mother’s story. They arrive in a new town with already some troubling events in their past, but the location of their ‘fresh start’ rather dooms them, given that the town is far from a quiet seaside town. Each season is then a discrete-ish story of their connection with a particularly group of people, or local events. Each season is only 10 episodes long, which is just enough to build and resolve that story, and move along all the characters, generally with a bit of a cliffhanger to highlight the step changes. It starts feeling a little formulaic if you watch three seasons back-to-back like I did, but that’s rather a first world problem of my own cause and the fact that I wanted to go straight on to each season shows how good it is.

It quickly becomes clear that even though the audience thinks it knows the end of the story, there is a huge amount of uncertainty still to understand. This is as much the story of Norma as it is Norman and there’s a lot of questions about her past and her responsibility. There is also a vibrant ensemble of supporting characters who become increasingly important to the audience, they’re the writers’ innocent victims in the inevitable. Each character has a role to play in stabilising and destabilising particular situations, it’s an interconnected network that is fascinating to watch and all the people around Norma and Norman bring a normal context to them. Norma and Norman are big and over-blown characters and they’re not really much for subtlety, so the supporting characters deliver a necessary counterpoint in their more appropriate responses.

The tone of the series takes a little while to get settled, and the first season requires a little bit of faith. There are immediately some violent and traumatic events that feel as if they don’t land with the characters as intensely as they did with me. Given how little that key moment is then reflected back on over the subsequent dozens of episodes it felt a little like the writers bottled out of it after using it as a dramatic starting point. The series is still gripping and interesting from the get-go, but thinking back on it, it just didn’t seem as balanced and considered as later seasons. The level of violence, bloodshed and chaos in this supposed small town continues through later seasons, but it does feel like it hits the characters a little more appropriately. It’s still Jessica Fletcher level of improbability, but it sort of makes sense. This isn’t a subtle show,

I’m not sure whether it was always intended to be five seasons, long, but it’s a good length. The third season, the mid point of the five season arc really turned up the psychological elements, and there’s a lot more going on in looks and glances, but also a fair number of emotional explosions that really show how unstable everyone is becoming. We’re cresting the top of the roller-coaster and the only way is down. I heartily recommend this series, the only hesitation I would have is that it’s probably a good idea to be at least passingly familiar with the story of Psycho so that you can appreciate the references and the sense of inevitable destination. I think the series would still work without that, and probably even add something sometimes, but I would think the writers meant you to know the ending.

The Halcyon: Season 1

I’m going to do what every other reviewer out there has done and connect this series with Downton Abbey. I wanted to find an original approach, but I guess I’m just not that creative. The only reason I don’t feel too bad about it, is that comparing The Halcyon to Downton Abbey is I think going to end well for The Halcyon. Drawing attention to the way a series surpasses something that was a huge success doesn’t feel like quite such a cheap reviewing strategy.

The similarities between The Halcyon and Downton Abbey are quite clear. Both period dramas from ITV, both the kind of thing that is very safe to watch with your Gran. The plots are notionally based around issues of the time (in this case World War 2 and the blitz) but are really about the range of people sharing the same physical space but being worlds apart in background and social location. The tones of the series are similar, both towards the easy watching end of the drama spectrum, but it’s in the nuances of the tone that the series actually differ.

Downton seemed to try to hover on the very edge between drama and melodrama, generally drifting towards the farcical end of the spectrum with the occasional swerve back towards thoughtful drama when it felt it had got a bit too silly. Some characters were played mostly straight, while others were played as mostly caricatures. Plot lines were more likely to make you laugh, although there were a few that would make you cry as well, and a non-negligible number that made you do both at the same times. It was a guilty pleasure, a silly series for a Sunday evening to watch with a biscuit before the proper drama of the week got started (both televisual and in real life) .

The Halcyon is a Monday night drama, not a Sunday night one. It’s played straighter, it’s not without moments of levity and happiness, there’s plenty of romantic threads running through to make it still entertaining to watch, rather than the occasional slog that ‘proper’ dramas can become. But it’s a just a little less silly than Downton – people die, people suffer and some problems just aren’t solvable. I think part of that comes from the fact that time seems to pass more slowly, people remember what happened last week without awkwardly pointing it out.

The characters also feel a bit richer, no one is just one thing, they’re not just their job or their title even if that is the pretense they put on. On Downton the characters rarely felt fleshed out or complex, just very simplistic descriptions of “this is the X, they believe Y”. Not all of the characters on The Halcyon progress beyond that, but most of them get at least a few different aspects – changing their minds, presenting different fronts to different people. The interactions are more interesting.

There are still some dafter, and more cliche plots that I could have lived without. The cheesy “he has a secret past” stuff I could happily have lived without, and some of the ‘issues’ are dealt with in a slightly off-hand way, possibly rushing through too many ideas in the first season. But I found myself looking forward to it each episode. Downton always felt disposable, very enjoyable while you’re watching it, but rarely lingering in your thoughts once Monday comes around. There’s a place for that (Sunday evening) and I do miss having that sort of easy watch, but The Halcyon filled a very specific niche too, and I’ll miss that too.

89th Academy Awards

I think there are 48 films nominated for at least one Oscar, and a total of 106 nominations for the full length films. I’ve managed to see 25 of the films (52%) covering 75 nominations (70%). I’ve linked to reviews on my other website where I’ve seen things. I only managed to see a couple of the shorts unfortunately. I wish they were more easily available. Here are my preferences and predictions for the winners across all the categories, even the ones I have absolutely no knowledge of.

Film (see my previous post for detailed reviews)
Academy_Award_trophy

  • Arrival – I wasn’t a fan, but I don’t think I viewed it fairly
  • Fences – I haven’t seen it, but from what I hear it’s a bit too theatrical to be the best film, the stage play was already heavily rewarded and I don’t think ‘just’ translating the cast and the words to a different medium is necessarily worthy of award
  • La La Land – I thought it didn’t successfully blend gritty modern relationship drama with old school musical fantasy, leaving me disappointed
  • Hacksaw Ridge – not seen, but broad opinion doesn’t seem to have been positive
  • Hell or High Water – I enjoyed this film a lot, and was impressed at how solidly put together it was, but I don’t think it was ‘outstanding’
  • Hidden Figures – wonderfully entertaining, but it takes slightly too light-hearted an approach to be a worthy Oscar winner, it is however likely to be one of my favourite films of the year
  • Lion – a good film, but not a great film. I wasn’t a fan of the structure (either much too long an ‘introduction’ or a film of two halves that struggle to stick together) and there wasn’t much subtlety on offer.
  • Manchester by the Sea – I thought this was a very powerful film, mostly thanks to the performances but certainly supported by a great script and interesting direction to make this a very strong contender for best film
  • Moonlight – I may be one of the only people that didn’t like this film. I respect it a lot, but I was bored.

What’s missing – outstanding films from last year were a little thin on the ground I thought. My top film was Eye in the Sky, but as ‘just’ a thriller it didn’t get a look in, even if it was a superb one. Money Monster was a similarly tightly put together piece. I’m ok with not seeing Jackie there as I thought was a better performance than film (flawed in the decision to only show a short period of time, giving no context for the character’s emotions). I didn’t like Nocturnal Animals either, I thought it confusing and unnecessarily arty (what was that opening?!). I haven’t seen 20th Century Women; I, Daniel Blake; or Loving, but all got a lot of praise and are under-represented in the awards (or not at all for I, Daniel Blake). Deadpool would have been a hilarious addition (it got a golden globe nod), and maybe it deserved it for originality and balls alone.
What should win: I’m really not that blown away by the selection, my pick would probably be Manchester by the Sea.
What will win: La a Land

Director
lalaland

  • Denis Villeneuve (Arrival) – I was frustrated by the disjointed and unbalancing direction of Arrival but in hindsight it makes a lot of sense.
  • Mel Gibson (Hacksaw Ridge) – I haven’t heard anything particularly positive about it
  • Damien Chazelle (La La Land) – I don’t think any of the things I didn’t like La La Land were due to the director, and it’s no easy achievement directing musicals
  • Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea) – I would have actually preferred a less arty and fussy directorial style, the writing and acting didn’t need it and it might have improved the runtime and pacing.
  • Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) – I didn’t like the direction, but I can respect it

What should win: I don’t really care
What will win: La La Land

Actress
jackie

  • Isabelle Huppert (Elle) – Not seen
  • Ruth Negga (Loving) – Not seen, but I’ve loved her on Preacher and other TV work
  • Natalie Portman (Jackie) – a great performance, although I thought it came a little close to impression with the strange voice for my tastes, but I think the writing actually limited the scope of her performance.
  • Emma Stone (La La Land) – I thought the character was badly written, but Emma Stone still delivered.
  • Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins) – can’t help but think that this is more a political nomination than anything else, which isn’t to say that Streep wasn’t good in a delicate balancing act of comedy and tragedy. Actually, the more I think about it the better her performance seems.

Who’s missing – poor Amy Adams, did she split the vote with Nocturnal Animals and Arrival or did she just get pushed out by Trump’s hatred of Streep? I’m not sure either performance would have won the award, but she should be here. Taraji P. Henson in Hidden Figures was also wonderful. Annette Benning seemed to have a lot of buzz for 20th Century Women.
Who should win – Natalie Portman
Who will win – Emma Stone

Actor
manchester

  • Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea) – superb.
  • Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge) – not seen
  • Ryan Gosling (La La Land) – I’ve never enjoyed Gosling’s performances and between him, and his character, I wasn’t a fan here either.
  • Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic) – not seen
  • Denzel Washington (Fences) – not seen, he’s impressive in the trailers, but then if he’s ‘just’ re-creating the exact same performance that he won a Tony for is that really fair? Getting multiple bites of the pie surely?

Who’s missing – I thought Tom Hanks was a shoe-in for Sully, he’s always incredibly good and a popular nominee, although I’ve no idea if it’s deserved. Colin Farrell for The Lobster? Michael Caine for Youth?
Who should win and will win – Casey Affleck

Supporting Actress
lion

  • Viola Davis (Fences) – as for Washington above. With the added souring that she should almost certainly be in the best actress category, not supporting, she won the Tony for *lead* actress.
  • Naomie Harris (Moonlight) – impressive
  • Nicole Kidman (Lion) – I was instinctively going to say that she wasn’t in it enough to warrant the nomination, but then I thought about the half dozen or so scenes she does have and the level of emotion and power and started thinking differently. The film in general is a bit heavy handed, but Kidman delivers it in spades.
  • Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures) – she was good, but outstanding? I’m afraid not, she just didn’t have the material
  • Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea) – I wanted to see more of the character, her story was never really told, only in how it related to the other characters (oh crap, is this film a Bechdel test failure?), which is a shame because given what she did with what little time she had, she would have been incredible.

Who should win – I think it’s Kidman for me, but Williams would have been triumphant if only she had an extra scene or two
Who will win – Viola Davis

Supporting Actor:
moonlight

  • Mahershala Ali (Moonlight) – he was wonderful, but I think actually the three actors playing Chiron were just as good.
  • Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water) – I really liked this film, and Bridges was great as usual, but I don’t think Bridges’ role was anything outstanding – curmudgeonly and rude isn’t a stretch
  • Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea)- yes. The range that this young actor showed was incredible, carrying the weight of the humour in the film while never leaving any doubt he was also struggling and suffering.
  • Dev Patel (Lion) – supporting? Hmm, I guess he didn’t appear for the first third of the film. It’s a powerful performance, and I love watching him, but it’s something of a “what you see is what you get” role, without the nuance of some of the others.
  • Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals) – to me this is an odd choice, it was Aaron Taylor-Johnson as the ‘bad guy’ that was by far the more powerful performance, I’ve utterly forgotten Shannon’s character.

Who’s missing – if Meryl gets a nom for Florence Foster Jenkins it’s a shame Hugh Grant doesn’t also, his performance walked an even narrower line between tragedy and humour. Ralph Fiennes was startling (and irritating) in the otherwise mediocre A Bigger Splash.
Who should win – Lucas Hedges
Who will win – Mahershala Ali

Original Screenplay
hellorhighwater

  • Hell or High Water – An interesting idea and very solidly delivered, the mix of drama and humour is well handled and I was gripped throughout
  • La La Land – nope, the writing was what I mostly took issue with La La Land, the characters, the dialogue, and mostly the ending I thought were errors
  • The Lobster – I liked both halves of this film, but thought they didn’t work well together. I am glad to see it here though as something a bit unusual
  • Manchester by the Sea – the structuring of this was superb and the way the past and present intertwine is delicately done
  • 20th Century Women – haven’t seen

What should and will win – Manchester by the Sea

Adapted Screenplay
hiddenfigures

  • Arrival – I’ve no idea how much of this came from the original, so it’s a bit hard to know. The story and idea are certainly great and cleverly gradually revealed through a tricky narrative, but that might all have already been there.
  • Fences – from what I hear, there wasn’t a great deal of adaptation involved in taking this from stage to screen, with the film feeling much like a play.
  • Hidden Figures – I loved this film, so I loved the writing. Taking a non-fiction book and making an entertaining and engaging narrative seems a greater achievement, but then it seems a number of liberties may have been taken
  • Lion – I think it’s the true story that’s amazing here, the adaptation was fairly by the numbers and unremarkable. It would probably have benefited from some creativity in interweaving the stories or filling in gaps.
  • Moonlight – I think it’s an achievement to write a film that says a lot without saying a lot, it’s about more than the words and the structure and depth of this film is impressive.

Am I supposed to be looking for a good final result or a good adaptation? Surely the bigger achievement is the one that requires the most rewriting, or taking something rubbish and making it good without losing sight of the original?
What should win – Hidden Figures
What will win – Moonlight

Animated Feature Film
kubo

  • Kubo and the Two Strings – gorgeous, original and lovely
  • Moana – great story, completely 3 dimensional characters, beautiful design, powerful emotion and laugh out loud humour – it had everything
  • My Life as a Zucchini/Courgette – I’d never even heard of this and couldn’t find it anyone
  • The Red Turtle – ditto
  • Zootopia/Zootropolis – I enjoyed it a lot while I watched it, but it wasn’t one that I’ve thought back on

What’s missing – nothing for Pixar! I didn’t think Finding Dory was anything like as special as things like Inside Out, but I’m surprised it didn’t appear here. Similarly surprised that neither Jungle Book nor The BFG came in. The literally and figuratively beautiful Ethel and Ernest should both be nominated and winning this category. Another great year for animation.
What should win – Moana edges it slightly for me. Or Kubo. I wouldn’t actually mind
What will win – Zootopia – it’s got a rather powerful message on immigration that I don’t think the “Hollywood Liberal Elite” will ignore. Good for them.

Foreign Language Film

  • Land of Mine (Denmark), A Man Called Ove (Sweden), The Salesman (Iran), Tanna (Australia) , Toni Erdmann (Germany)

I’ve not seen any of them, I’m a bit ashamed of that
What will win – Salesman has got the political oomph given the director was effected by the travel ban, but I think Toni Erdmann has been more popular.

Documentary – Feature
lifeanimated

  • Fire at Sea – I thought this was terrible. Pretentious arty nonsense which, with the exception of one sequence and one interview, failed to really add any understanding to either the crisis as a whole, or the impact on the island.
  • I Am Not Your Negro – not seen
  • Life, Animated – An fascinating look into one family’s life, thanks to frank interviews and family videos you see their history and how they reached where they are. It’s not really making any sweeping statements or education on what autism means, but as a “case study” it’s wonderful.
  • O.J.: Made in America – not seen, not least because with last year’s dramatization there’s already a lot of OJ around. Also it’s incredibly long, at 467 minutes, really this is a mini-series!
  • 13th – A fairly traditional documentary looking at race and imprisonment in the US via a lot of academic and expert talking heads and a small amount of archive footage. If going this traditional route, I thought there was a bit more scope for better graphics and usage of data, particularly to strengthen the opposing side of the argument to make it more balanced. I don’t think that would have changed the overall point, but actually made it stronger.

What’s missing – I really enjoyed 8 Days a Week, I like the Beatles, but this actually made me understand what it was like to be a Beatles fan, and also some insight into what it was like to be just a group of lads from Liverpool and suddenly the most popular people in the world. I learnt something about the band and the people. I think this would probably be my pick for winner.
What should win -of the three I’ve seen I thought Life, Animated was the least flawed, but 13th was the more important.
What will win – 13th

Documentary Short

  • Extremis – available on Netflix, very powerful and incredibly moving, I wish it had been longer
  • The White Helmets – available on Netflix and well worth watching. Some of the footage is incredible and the situation and people are amazing (in opposite ways).
  • 4.1 Miles, Joe’s Violin, Watani: My Homeland – not seen

The documentary short is an incredibly powerful category, I wish it were easier to see more of them. It’s hard to pick which of the two I’ve seen is better, particularly given that I suspect the other three are just as good.
What will win – Extremis

Live Action Short

  • Ennemis intérieurs, La Femme et le TGV, Silent Nights, Sing, Timecode

What will win: Ennemis intérieurs

Animated Short Film

  • Blind Vaysha, Borrowed Time, Pear Cider and Cigarettes , Pearl , Piper

What will and should win: Piper is the only one I’ve seen (on the front of Finding Dory and it was absolutely gorgeous, so I’ll vote for it here

Original Score
passengers

  • Jackie – I actually throught the score was obtrusive and too heavy
  • La La Land – lovely. The songs are catchy, and the themes are well developed and entwined through the film.
  • Lion – Blended elements from lots of different styles together, reflecting both Indian and Australian culture and the overlaps between them
  • Moonlight – an interesting mix of music was played, was that original music or soundtrack?
  • Passengers – I’ve no memory of the score

What should win and what will win – La La Land

Best Original Song
moana

What’s missing – I loved the music from Sing Street (review), it came from the characters so much, so it’s a shame that didn’t get a look in
What should win – I really love the Moana song, and it might stand a chance if the La La Land songs split the vote and the love for Lin
What will win – City of Stars I should think, unless the La La Songs split the vote and/or Lin Manuel Miranda’s current success and fame carries him through.

Sound Editing: Arrival, Deepwater Horizon, Hacksaw Ridge, La La Land, Sully
Sound Mixing: Arrival, Hacksaw Ridge, La La Land, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
I’m hazy on the distinction, but to me it seems that outstanding sound is about taking complex, multi-layered ‘noises’ and blending them into a coherent whole. So something like La La Land doesn’t really seem complicated enough to warrant awards.The sci-fi ones have much more complicated work to be done, blending real sounds, generated ones and balancing them all so the audience can make sense of them. Anything like Hacksaw Ridge or 13 Hours, the sounds are so important for making battle feel real, but not so real the audience can’t see or understand what’s happening.
What will win: Hacksaw Ridge for editing and Arrival for mixing
Production Design
fantastic-beasts

  • Arrival – the design work was interesting but it was hard to get excited about given the over use of grey and dingy lighting.
  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – the blend of fantasy and art deco New York was beautifully done and very evocative
  • Hail, Caesar! – replicating the design of the period is well done, but it’s working from a known starting point
  • La La Land – there’s a subtle and clever blending of modern LA and old school musical.
  • Passengers – I’m not sure that any of it is particularly ‘realistic’ but the design is all suitably sci-fi, particularly things like the robot bartender

What should win: Fantastic Beasts
What will win: La La Land

Cinematography
sillence

  • Arrival – one of my least favourite pieces of cinematography, I thought the lighting and the colourisation were dull and killed the energy of the film.
  • La La Land – yup, fine. Nice.
  • Lion – The different styles for India and Australia, and the different periods the film covered were all interetingly done, with the cinematography reflecting the culture
  • Moonlight – I was not a fan, it made me feel a bit dizzy, but I can recognise that it was very good.
  • Silence – haven’t seen, but from the trailer it did look impressively epic

What should win: Lion
What will win: La La Land

Makeup and Hairstyling

What will win: Star Trek? No criticism to the make up and hairstyling on Suicide Squad, but it cannot be “Oscar winning Suicide Squad”

Costume Design
florencefoster

  • Allied – not seen, but the costumes looked fairly standard period stuff from the trailer
  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – the fantasy elements of the costuming is very subtly done
  • Florence Foster Jenkins – Just like everything else in this film, the costumes walk a very fine line between ridiculous and period, which is very cleverly done
  • Jackie – should you really get an award for perfectly recreating costumes and outfits? What was the ‘design’?
  • La La Land – there’s some nice costuming here, a main contributor to the old-school musical vibe of the film to counteract some of the modernity.

What should win: Florence Foster Jenkins
What will win: La La Land

Film Editing
arrival

  • Arrival – I’m not sure how much of the interweaving of the jumping time line was done in the script and how much in the editing, but I would assume the little flashes were editing and they were certainly very cleverly done, keeping you inside the characters head.
  • Hacksaw Ridge – not seen
  • Hell or High Water – I don’t really remember anything clever or outstanding with the editing, but then that may be the magic of good editing
  • La La Land – the musical sequences were well put together, supported the old-school feel of the film
  • Moonlight – Does the editor decide how long to make the pauses? If so, I wasn’t a fan

What should win – I’m not really sure what I’m looking for, so I’ll say “I don’t mind”
What will win – La La Land

Visual Effects
rogueone

  • Deepwater Horizon – not seen, but the effects in the trailer were impressive
  • Doctor Strange – the effects were impressive, but I actually found them overwhelming at times. Some of the smaller stuff was subtly done though (eg the cloak)
  • The Jungle Book – it’s interesting that Jungle Book ended up in this category, rather than as an animated film, if everything other than one boy was cgi, even the backgrounds I believe, then isn’t this an animated film and not a visual effect?
  • Kubo and the Two Strings – a stunning achievement, but mostly this is old school ‘effects’, ie models and manipulation, so it’s not as diverse as some of these.
  • Rogue One: A Star Wars Story – lots and lots of different types of effects

What should win: I think that Jungle Book and Kubo, although superb, just didn’t have as many different types of effects to show off. So… Star Wars for me.
What will win: Jungle Book

Nominees for Best Picture

I’ve seen 7 out of the 9 nominees for best film, missing out on Fences (slightly disappointingly) and Hacksaw Ridge (less disappointingly). Below are my reviews of the 7 films I have seen, and on Saturday I’ll post my preferences and predictions for what will win both this category, and all the rest too.

Arrival
arrivalI had high hopes for this film and I’ve heard almost nothing but praise for the film, but I had a very different reaction to it and I’m wondering if I was just in a terrible mood or something. For the first 20 minutes or so of the film I was just plain bored. It was so slow to get started, I came for a film about aliens and I started with a moody character study of a woman losing her child. Also it was just dull to look at, I am SO fed up of science fiction films (or anything dramatic really) having a thick blue/grey filter applied over it! To top it off, either the sound mixing was off or my cinema had speaker issues because I struggled to hear crucial lines of dialogue.
After that initial disappointment, the film did get better. I found the focus on linguistics as a science fascinating and I definitely appreciated the gender balance with the man being the sidekick for once (although why the theoretical physicist became the linguistics assistant I’m not entirely sure). And it built to a very interesting and satisfying conclusion, which actually addresses some of the very issues that I’d thought were holes or flaws as I was watching.
I think my frustrations probably came from a lack of fore-knowledge about what the film was. I was expecting a sciency film and even some action, but in fact it was much more of an emotional story, just in a science fiction framework. I’m not sure the balance of those elements really worked out as well as it could, and certainly the trailer set different expectations. I should have got round to watching it a second time so that I could judge it more fairly, I suspect I will think better of it then.

Hell of High Water
hellorhighwaterThis film seemed to come a little out of nowhere and slightly defies description, everything I try to write just makes it sound rather dull. So I won’t describe the story, instead I’ll say that it’s enough to keep your brain hooked, the acting is enough to keep your heart gripped and the style is enough to keep your eyes transfixed; all while seemingly completely effortless. I thought it managed to be both old school and original. Hard to describe, but very easy to recommend. 

Hidden Figures
hiddenfiguresThis is one of my favourite films I’ve seen recently, it blends a great number of different elements together very well – it’s a drama and a comedy, a feel good story of people coming together to achieve something while also having the depth of the racial segregation of the time. It maybe could have gone firmer on the issues, maybe it could be seen as going too light and making change seem as if it was an easy win at NASA. I think the film choses to be a film that people will enjoy, with plenty of laughs and heart, and presenting the segregation and for me, it worked as a celebration of these women’s achievements, and made a very watchable, approachable and enjoyable film while also reminding us of the issues they had to overcome.

La La Land
lalalandI had been stunningly underwhelmed by the first trailer for this, which was entirely without words and made up only of two pretty people looking at each other, looking into the camera, and looking into the distance; all accompanied by plinky plunky music. Oh and occasional dancing. And some flying. The second trailer was marginally better as it implied there was some actual plot. The final film managed a little more plot, but not a massive amount more. I remain, fairly underwhelmed.
It actually got off to a good start, I really liked the opening musical number – proper traditional musical stuff with everyone bursting into a coordinated song and dance number. I liked the old style combined with the modern setting of a traffic jam and some modern dance (parkour and skateboards and the like). Then we meet our ‘heroes’ and my hackles immediately go up because I didn’t particularly sympathise with either of them. He’s a sanctimonious jazz fanatic who’s more interested in telling people why they’re wrong then he is in paying the bills. She was sort of better as the wannabe actress reaching the end of her patience with awful auditions… until the writers decided to take a break from reality and give her a shiny new prius. The film itself lost a lot of my sympathy when they opted for a flashy musical number in Wannabe’s immense house with her trio of beautiful housemates. Maybe that sort of thing really does happen in LA, but it felt like a fantasy to me, and not in a good way. A slightly sleazy fantasy. They didn’t start a pillow fight, but I wouldn’t have been surprised if they had.
The rest of the film swung wildly between two distinct tones and I’m not sure either held up. The old-school fantasy musical/screwball romance, would have made a nice change from the usual Hollywood stuff, but the two leads were no Debbie Reynolds or Gene Kelly, their singing and dancing was acceptable but far from outstanding. The more gritty reality of their relationship was more within their talents but felt disjointed. To add insult to injury, as per usual it was too long, and the fantasy ending tacked on felt like a cop out from the writers who still couldn’t make their mind up whether it should be fantasy or reality.
I know a lot of people have really loved this film, but I just don’t see it. I *wanted* to love it, because heaven knows some escapism is much needed, but I just didn’t think it was very good.

Lion
lionI thought this film was entirely “fine”. I mean, it was just… fine. I’m not sure how much more I can say about it (although obviously I’ll try). The choice to tell it linearly was an interesting one, I knew enough about the film to make the opening third feel like an overly-extended introduction, with little sense of tension, just more curiosity about how it would connect through. There was nothing wrong with it, but it just felt like it was dragging the opening out until what I thought was the main story – the search. Maybe it would have worked better to intertwine the two stories, making it clear that it was more about the journeys (metaphorical and literal) than about the destinations. The end of the film and the emotional release felt rather manipulative, and I thought downplayed a second element that I would have liked to have been explored a bit more. When compared to other films, like Manchester by the Sea for example, the writing and acting all felt a lot more obvious and less nuanced, there wasn’t much subtext left for the audience to follow. I sound overly critical, it was still an interesting and entertaining film, it just wasn’t outstanding.

Manchester by the Sea
manchesterThis is a pure character study film. There’s not a huge amount of narrative, there are really only two plot elements – one in the past and one in the present; one that drove the characters into their current positions, and then the one that pushed them out of it. The film is centred around Casey Affleck’s character for which he is rightly getting extensive praise; but the characters around him are just as complex and well portrayed, even those that get very little screen time. It’s a film of silences, looks and the things that people are really saying when they’re talking about something else. It’s all well done, but what makes this film stand out is about 10 minutes in the middle which I will not spoil, but literally took my breath away with the emotional impact. I was in a sold out showing and the impact just rippled through the audience as people realised what was happening and gasped and responded in a way I’ve rarely heard. In contrast to that moment, the rest of the film feels comparatively low key, and frankly a little too drawn out at times (as usual, losing 20 minutes would have greatly improved it) but that is mitigated by the fact that for all the heartache, it’s also a very funny film, in a naturalistic way that completely supports the sense that these are just absolutely normal people.

Moonlight
moonlightI really wanted to love this film, and I am so disappointed that I didn’t. For me, it committed the cardinal sin of being boring. I can recognise that a lot of it is incredibly good. The story of this character and the way it is told is interesting – three acts, each focusing on a relative small time period, spread across a couple of decades of his life showing how things change as you grow up, and how they do not. I can certainly recognise the superb acting, not least the achievement of three individuals (two of them very young) playing the same person. I can acknowledge the art in the direction style, even though for me the hand held footage, and frequent swirling camera moves and narrow depth of focus left me having to close my eyes at times (possibly the film would benefit from being on a smaller, more intimate screen). But I can’t change the fact that I was bored. I know *why* the character said so little, why there were so many silences and long pauses, and that I’m *meant* to feel uncomfortable and fill those silences, but that doesn’t change the fact that I moved through understanding the point and started thinking about other things. Like that I didn’t like the blurred background. Or that the sound effects were sometimes overly intrusive. I can respect this film, but I just didn’t like it.