Welcome to The Mundane Adventures of a Fangirl

I consider myself a Fangirl. What does that mean, you ask? A "fanboy" in the most common understanding is a hardcore fan of 'genre' based entertainment in particular. In my case - science-fiction and comic book based movies and television. Because I'm a chick - it's fangirl, not fanboy. There you have it! I am a big movie fan, however, not necessarily a 'film' fan. And now - I have the forum to present my opinions to the public! These will mainly be movie reviews -that will always be my opinion - repeat OPINION. Just what I think, and in no way do I present my opinion as fact. I hope you enjoy and maybe it will help you decide what to see at the movie theater this weekend!

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Movie Review: Black Panther (PG13 – 134 minutes)

In Marvel comics, Black Panther first appeared in Fantastic Four #52 in July of 1966 (predating the creation of the Black Panther political party by about three months).  He was the first black superhero leading his own line of comics.

In the MCU (the Marvel Cinematic Universe), Black Panther first appeared two years ago in Captain America: Civil War on team Iron Man, not because he was all that supportive of Iron Man’s point of view, but because he believed the Winter Soldier killed his father, and the Winter Soldier was on Team Captain America.  Eventually he learned the truth (that Helmut Zemo killed his father) and ended up taking Bucky back to Wakanda at the end of that movie for mental reconditioning, healing, and recovery, because let’s face it – Bucky was a mess. 
This movie begins with a pre-credit sequence detailing the history of Wakanda in a story told from father to son illustrated by what I would call Vibranium smart-sand, which pops up again and again in the movie.  Wakanda was founded by five tribes over and around a Vibranium meteorite crash site.  Originally the tribes were at war, but a member of the Golden Tribe had a vision visit from the Panther goddess Bast, who told him to eat the heart-shaped herb and be infused with panther powers – he became the first king of Wakanda and unified the tribes, all except a sixth tribe called the Jabari, who moved out to the mountains, uninterested in being ruled. 

The story then picks up almost immediately after the end of Civil War as T’Challa is heading back home for his own coronation, and stops along the way to pick up his ex, Nakia.  Nakia is a Wakandan “war-dog”, one of the spies they send out into the world.  She is mid-mission, infiltrating a group that seems to be kidnapping young girls.  T’Challa interrupts, and asks her to come home with him, much to the amusement of Okoye, the general of the Dora Milaje (the all-female warriors that protect the king and family.  They head back home, and we get our first glorious look at all of Wakanda.
After meeting with his mother, Queen Ramonda, and his sister, Shuri - T’Challa goes through the ritual of being stripped of his powers by his advisor Zuri to welcome any challenges from any of the other tribes (River, Merchant, Mining, or Border – he’s from the Golden Tribe).  None of them want to challenge, but the Jabari tribe comes down out of the mountains, and their leader, M’Baku challenges.

Okay – from here on – spoiler alert, I will not ruin anything major, but just be forewarned.

After forcing M’Baku to yield, T’Challa gets to ingest more of the heart-shaped herb to get back his panther powers and visit the ancestral plane to have a chat with his dead father about how best to be king.  The conversation isn’t all that helpful, but the plane is beautiful.  T’Challa also gets to walk around Wakanda, trying to talk Nakia into staying with him and potentially being his queen (she’s not interested - she loves him, but knows that she can do more to help people outside the very closed borders of Wakanda), as well as visit with his best friend W’Kabi, who is leading the Border Tribe warriors and helping raise their war rhinos.  Yes – war rhinos.  Okoye gives everyone the heads-up that Ulysses Klaue has resurfaced to sell some Vibranium he pulled out of a British museum with the help of mercenary Erik Stevens.  After picking up some awesome new tech from Shuri (who on top of being the princess is also a genius inventor) T’Challa, Nakia, and Okoye head to Bosun in South Korea to interrupt the sale of the Vibranium from Klaue to Everett Ross, undercover CIA guy.  Recognizing each other, T’Challa and Ross first try to convince each other to back down, then help each other out. After an incredible action sequence, Klaue is rescued by Stevens, and T’Challa has to make some decisions as to what step to take next and what kind of king to be, whether to continue to keep Wakanda isolated and alone as they have been in the past, or to reach out and assist those struggling in other parts of the world.

From this point forward, I’m not going to say anything else about the plot – you need to see it. Director Ryan Coogler has assembled a powerhouse of a movie that is absolutely a Marvel comic movie, but is also something else.  The story is compelling, the characters are interesting, and I was surprised at how great the action was! Coogler helmed Fruitvale Station and Creed prior to this, both of which are excellent dramas with tremendous performances, but neither has what I would call typical action sequences.  Black Panther has an incredible small battle in the beginning, an amazing fight sequence followed by a car chase in South Korea, multiple wonderful hand to hand combat pieces, and a giant final action set piece that is astounding, even if it has a touch too much CGI.  I really enjoyed all of the characters, and Coogler outdid himself by assembling one of the greatest casts ever.

  • Chadwick Boseman plays T’Challa, and really does provide the calm, stoic, heart to this movie.  His performance is understated when compared to some others, but that fits with the character as T’Challa struggles with his new role.  The one scene he really gets to let go and show some emotion is in his second visit to the ancestral plane, when he confronts his father about a lie, and error he made.  T’Challa realizes that his father is not flawless, and simply following that lead as king is perhaps not the best path.  At that point he truly decides to be his own type of king, and really shines from that moment on.  Boseman is exceptional, and has signed a five-movie deal with Marvel, so I cannot wait to see him in Infinity War, and the next Black Panther movie.

  • Michael B. Jordan plays Erik Killmonger (Stevens), and by now you’ve heard that he is one of the most compelling Marvel villains to date.  He’s compelling because while he seems fueled by rage and hate, the cause of that rage and hate is completely understandable.  His goal to arm oppressed people of color everywhere with Wakandan Vibranium weapons makes sense when you consider where he came from, and what he has had to overcome.  Encountering his anger allows T’Challa to revisit his father’s policy of isolation, and formulate a path that incorporates some compromise between the two viewpoints.

  • Lupita Nyong’o plays Nakia, who is very clear on the fact that she believes Wakanda should be doing more to help people all over the world.  She is refusing to stay and be T’Challa’s queen because she knows how useful she can be in other places.  It will be interesting to see what happens with her character as she does become a bit of a villain in the comics.

  • Danai Gurira plays Okoye, and she stole every scene she was in.  Those who watch The Walking Dead know she is completely badass as Michonne, even when stuck under a terrible wig.  Here, unburdened by terrible wigs except in one scene (which is brilliant), she is phenomenal.  She absolutely is the greatest warrior in Wakanda, something that is never in question, and her devotion to the throne is stunning, even when she herself wants to question it.  Her non-verbals are the best part of her performance, not just in the hand to hand action sequences, but in the side-eye and glances she gives to other characters.  She’s exceptional.

  • Daniel Kaluuya plays W’Kabi, and he does a great job, but he’s just a little too understated for his character’s (spoiler alert) loyalty flip.  Klaue killed his parents, and he’s been after him for thirty years, and when T’Challa fails to bring Klaue back, W’Kabi seems disappointed – and I think a little more anger would have helped to make his sudden association with Killmonger later on feel less sudden. 

  • Angela Basset plays Ramonda and is every bit the Queen you expect her to be.  Proud of her son, then terrified when Killmonger drags her husband’s past errors back home with him. 

  • Letitia Wright plays Shuri, and every scene that Gurira has not already stolen, she steals.  She is absolutely one of, if not the, best parts of the movie.  She is completely natural and believable as the younger sister of the king, who is absolutely the smartest person in the kingdom, responsible for all the tech, weapons, transportation, and all other devices used by everyone.  She is very much the “Q” of Wakanda, but so much more in that she also will not hesitate to join a battle when necessary.  She is absolutely the star of this movie, and that becomes even more important when considering all the little girls who will see this movie and want to be like her.  In the comics, she eventually becomes Black Panther for a while – I really hope she gets to do that in the movies as well.

  • Florence Kasumba plays Ayo, and she’s the one Dora Milaje who was featured in Civil War (“Move. Or you will be moved.”).  Here, she’s number two to Okoye, and is striking and proficient in battle.  She also has some interesting story lines in the comics that they may bring into later movies.

  • Winston Duke plays M’Baku, and at no point is he called Man-Ape, as he is in the comics – which was a good choice on their part. He’s large, imposing, and after losing his challenge in the beginning, comes back to help save T’Challa after his loss to Killmonger. At no point was I ready for M’Baku to be hilarious, helpful, and one of the most enjoyable parts of the movie!

  • Forest Whitaker plays Zuri, royal advisor, and heart-shaped-herb grower.  Eventually he has to tell T’Challa about his role in the whole N’Joba/Killmonger backstory, which he really regrets. 

  • Martin Freeman plays Everett Ross, and provides just the right amount of comic relief in some tense sequences.  I found him completely believable as a quiet company man who is used to being the smartest man in the room, but can also adjust when he learns he is not. 

  • Sterling K. Brown plays N’Jobu, King T’Chaka’s brother who in the early 90s was stationed as a war dog in America when they were both younger.  He becomes angry and sad at race relations in Oakland, where he is located, and he first comes up with the plan to give Wakandan weapons to oppressed people.  However, he makes the mistake of partnering up with Klaue to steal the vibranium from Wakanda – trusting Klaue was a mistake, as he blew up a bomb at the border, killing many people.
  • Andy Serkis plays Ulysses Klaue, and (spoiler alert) he doesn’t make it through this movie, which is really too bad, because he is really entertaining.  He gets to be huge and over-the-top with his performance because those around him have to be more stoic. He’s an out and out moustache-twirling bad guy, but the performance elevates would could have been simply cookie cutter.

  • John Kani plays T’Chaka, and while he plays him only on the ancestral plane, that’s important, because that’s where he gives T’Challa advice, or just tries to defend his choices.  And the reason the younger version of him in the flashback sequences looks so much like him is that is John’s son. 

It is also worth mentioning the costumes, music, and look of this movie.  Kendrick Lamar created some really great songs that punctuate different points of the story, and the drums and African-style beats to the score help to round out the feel of the film.  The costumes in particular are incredible.  Costume Designer Ruth E. Carter ensured that each tribe is given their own trademark color and look, based on traditional African tribal characteristics.  My favorite of those was the Lesotho style blankets that the border tribe wear.  They are beautiful, but their true purpose is demonstrated once they step into battle – they are actually shield projectors!  Every detail of this movie is striking like that and in a really smart play, the movie basically requires multiple viewings so that you can take it all in! 

And yes, let’s mention the cultural significance.  Similar to Wonder Woman’s significance last year, this movie has the incredible fortune and burden of being ‘just another comic book movie’ - but also the incredibly important first depiction of a black superhero in his own mainstream movie.  I love Blade, and those movies were awesome, but I wouldn’t necessarily refer to them as mainstream – and besides, all rated R, so definitely not for kids.  Blade curses a lot.  Representation matters, and now little kids of all races get to see a non-white hero – and in particular little kids who are black get to see a hero that looks like them in the Cinematic Universe they love.  Not only Black Panther himself, but there is a wealth of incredible female roles in this movie for little girls to look up to and admire.  They span aspirational aspects from Queen, to Warrior, to Scientist, each more well-rounded and defined than the next.  These characters and this movie are incredibly important and overwhelming when you think about it in that light.  In fact, the one moment of the move that really made me tear up was the very end, when a little boy walks up to T’Challa, looks at him in amazement, and says, “Who are you?!?”  It’s a simple moment, but it’s also incredibly powerful.

10 out of 10 – go see it. If you’re already seen it, go see it again.  No, it’s not flawless (there’s a little too much CGI in the end battle, and a couple of beats that don’t flow as smoothly as others), but the few flaws are easily overpowered by the parts that are just incredible.

Bonus – the behind the scenes featurettes that were released did an amazing job of really pulling in an audience before the movie was released, check them out. 

Monday, February 12, 2018

Movie Review: I, Tonya (R – 120 minutes)

Tonya Harding was well known as a champion figure skater, and as someone who would often come up against the “establishment” in figure skating – she was more rough around the edges, unlike the classically trained women in the sport prior to her arrival. An ‘incident’ prior to the 1994 Winter Olympics where her rival, Nancy Kerrigan, was bashed in the knee by an assailant became the defining moment of Tonya’s career, for better or worse.  The degree to which Tonya was involved in the incident has been widely disputed.  This movie takes the story, and tells it in a ‘documentary’ style using interviews with the actors in character, as well as some fourth-wall breaking by characters during the scenes. 

The story starts in 1970s Portland, Oregon where four year old ‘white trash’ Tonya is living with her abusive mother, LaVona, when her father leaves them.  The only thing she is good at is figure skating, so her mother pulls her out of school and she begins to train with coach Diane Rawlinson. Tonya has incredible natural skill, and rises quickly through the ranks, but never quite reaches the top.  Her homemade costumes, exceptionally difficult attitude, and questionable choice in performance music holds her back. 

At 15, Tonya meets and starts dating 18 year old Jeff Gillooly.  Despite LaVona being against the relationship – they eventually get married so that she can get away from her mother.  In Tonya’s interviews, she states that Jeff started beating her right away, in his interviews, he denies that.  Eventually, Tonya becomes the first female skater to complete a triple axel jump in competition.  She has a falling out with her coach, who she fires, and moves on to coach Dody Teachman to prepare for the 1992 Winter Olympics. At the Olympics, rattled after attempting to leave Jeff, she misses most of her jumps and finishes fourth. 

Distraught, Tonya heads home and becomes a waitress.  Diane shows up to tell her that the Winter Olympics are shifting so that the Winter and Summer games will no longer be in the same year, so the next games are in 1994, instead of 1996, and she wants to train her.  Tonya, reinvigorated, starts training.  During a training session, she receives a death threat.  Jeff, and his moronic friend Shawn Eckhardt, consire to hire two complete idiots to attack Nancy Kerrigan, thinking that will throw her off her game, and Tonya will have a better chance.  Tonya seems to agree with the plan when she thinks it is just sending Kerrigan a ‘death threat’ in a letter format.  Jeff also seems to think it is just letters – but the two idiots go after her with a metal baton, bashing her knee.

Eckhardt brags about the event, swiftly getting busted by the FBI – he blames Jeff, who claims he knew nothing about it, but is also questioned by the FBI.  Tonya finally leaves Jeff for good – claiming she knew nothing about it, and having qualified for the Olympic team.
Tonya comes in 8th at the 1994 Olympics after some issues with her skate laces.  Kerrigan wins the silver medal.  Jeff, Eckhardt and the henchmen all get jail sentences, and Tonya gets booted from figure skating for life.  Tonya becomes a professional boxer for a while, eventually remarrying and settling down with her son and husband.

The story is insane, even more so because it is true.  I absolutely remember all of the ‘incident’ when it first happened and the incredible scandal it caused in the community.  This movie manages to be funny and creepy at the same time.  It does have a strange problem in that all of the characters are horrible, so there’s no “hero” to the story. The movie tries to get Tonya some redemption, but it fails because she is complicit with the attack plan on Nancy – even if she claims she only knew about letters, and refuses to acknowledge any blame.  I enjoyed the fake documentary style – and I was grateful that they included some of the real interviews over the end credits.

  • Margot Robbie plays Tonya Harding, and did train for four months to do as much of the skating as she could. However, the skating scenes are a little off, because you can tell when it’s not her, but overall, she does an amazing job of giving some humanity to this person who everyone has written off as a media creation.

  • Sebastian Stan plays Jeff Gillooly, who in the interview portions presents himself as calm, collected, and misrepresented.  In the scenes based on Tonya’s interviews, he’s a violent and angry loose cannon who blames her for everything and beats her for no reason.  It’s a difficult role, and he plays both sides in a creepily good fashion.

  • Paul Walter Hauser plays Shawn Eckhardt, and he is irritatingly hilarious. He has somehow convinced himself that he is an internationally-trained special operative and bodyguard. He’s the “brains” behind the plan, and by brains, I definitely mean lack-thereof.
  • Allison Janney plays LaVona Fay Golden, and she is exceptionally horrible.  She treats Tonya terribly, all the way through to the very end. Even the one moment of niceness she has turns out to be trying to take advantage of Tonya for a story. It’s a great role for Janney, and she does an amazing job.

  • Julianne Nicholson plays Diane Rawlinson, and does an amazing job of trying to simply be a calm trainer at the center of Tonya’s storm.  She is really interesting as someone who does believe in Tonya’s skating skill and wanting to help that come to the forefront.

  • Caitlin Carver plays Nancy Kerrigan – she has very little to do as this story is not really about her, just about events that happen around her.

  • Bojana Novakovic plays Dody Teachman, Tonya’s second coach, the movie spends very little time with her, and she disappears when Diane comes back into Tonya’s life.
  • Bobby Cannavale plays martin Maddox – a Hard Copy producer – who seems to have all the details that the characters cannot provide.  His hair cracked me up – I’m sure it is true to the character, but it’s hilarious.

Overall, the movie was entertaining, and perplexing – in a good way, if that makes sense.  Every character is completely despicable, but I really enjoyed the interview style, as it allowed each character to have a difference viewpoint of the situation.  

6 out of 10 – interesting, and well done with some great performances, but left me with the same creeped-out feeling I get when I watch anything in which I hate every character.

Bonus – Cast Interviews:

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

2017 Year in Review

Oscar nominations were released on January 23rd, and that’s always the perfect time for me to use my love of Excel Pivot Tables to tell you which movies the Academy thinks you should see, based on number of nominations. And then counter that list with the movies I think you should see, based solely on my opinions.  I felt like the nominations for Best Picture this year was one of the more tolerable lists in recent years.  Usually there are several that I will just flat out refuse to see, this year, there seems to be only one (I don’t care what you tell me about Phantom Thread, I’m not interested).

In any case, enjoy the below lists – because everybody loves lists – I hope it helps you decide what to stream (I used to say ‘rent’ – we’re in the future!).  As always, I’ve added Honest Trailers by Screen Junkies and Sins videos from Cinema Sins whenever possible, be sure to ‘like and subscribe’ for both of those, because they do some great work. Also – the descriptions in italics are from IMDB, because they can often summarize faster than I can.

The Academy’s List:
1.       The Shape of Water (13 nominations): At a top secret research facility in the 1950s, a lonely janitor forms a unique relationship with an amphibious creature that is being held in captivity. Tying the Return of the King record for most nominations, The Shape of Water has really solidified itself as the leading contender.  It’s another beautifully weird and haunting Guillermo del Toro adult fairy tale.  Stunningly acted, and extremely well crafted, all the pieces of the production come together to create a beautiful film.  I definitely enjoyed it, perhaps not as much as some other del Toro movies, but it was lovely (and weird, really weird).

2.       Dunkirk (8 nominations) Allied soldiers from Belgium, the British Empire and France are surround by the German Army, and evacuated during a fierce battle in World War II.  A Christopher Nolan movie telling a tale from 1940 in World War II, this movie should win some technical awards – including the sound editing and mixing.
3.       Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (7 nominations) A mother personally challenges the local authorities to solve her daughter’s murder when they fail to catch the culprit.  This movie is not based on a true story, instead it uses some reality-based tinges to tell a story about middle-America prejudices and maternal determination.
4.       Darkest Hour (6 nominations) During the early days of World War II, the fate of Western Europe hangs on the newly-appointed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who must decide whether to negotiate with Hitler or fight on against incredible odds.  This covers some of the same time as Dunkirk, and you have to set aside what you know about some of the horrible things Churchill did in other places at other times to see him as the hero of this story.  Gary Oldman is probably a lock for the best actor award.
5.       Phantom Thread (6 nominations) Set in 1950s London, Reynolds Woodcock is a renowned dressmaker whose fastidious life is disrupted by a young, strong-willed woman, Alma, who becomes his muse and lover.  This is what I would call a typical Oscar-type movie, and sounds horrifically boring on almost every level.  Daniel Day Lewis has stated he is now retired from acting, so this might be the last time you see him, so if you love Daniel Day Lewis - or sewing - see this!

6.       Blade Runner 2049 (5 nominations) A young blade runner’s discovery of a long-buried secret leads him to track down former blade runner Rick Deckard, who’s been missing for thirty years.  A beautiful looking movie that stays true to the original while extending the story in an interesting way. It’s too long, and drags a bit, but visually is amazing and does have some great action.
7.       Lady Bird (5 nominations) In 2002, an artistically inclined seventeen-year-old girl comes of age in Sacramento, California.  No Oscar season would be complete without a pretentious coming of age story, and here’s the one for this year.  This is an unpopular opinion, but I personally did not care for it.  Now, that is not to say that it is not exceptionally well crafted. Greata Gerwig wrote a semi-autobiographical story, and directed it herself. This allows it to stay very true to its origins.  It has a great performance by Saorise Ronan, and an even better performance by Laurie Metcalf.  It’s just not in my wheelhouse, and I found all the characters annoying.

8.       Call Me By Your Name (4 nominations). In Northern Italy in 1983, seventeen year-old Elio begins a relationship with visiting Oliver, his father’s research assistant, with whom he bonds over his emerging sexuality, their Jewish heritage, and the beguiling Italian landscape.  Here’s another very typical Oscar-y movie. Stunningly shot, and beautifully acted, it’s the second punch in the Timothee Chalamet combo this year (he’s also in Lady Bird).
9.       Get Out (4 nominations) It’s time for a young African-American to meet with his white girlfriend’s parents for a weekend at their secluded estate in the woods, but before long, the friendly and polite ambience will give way to a nightmare.  By now, you really should have seen this movie. It’s a fantastic social thriller by Jordan Peele, and has some classic horror elements, with some additional social awkwardness.  The performances are all exceptional, and the story is fantastic. 

10.   Mudbound (4 nominations) Two men return home from World War II to work on a farm in rural Mississippi, where they struggle to deal with racism and adjusting to life after war.  This is a Netflix movie that has been recognized with the bigger studio pictures, so it is absolutely another step in redefining where you can get your movies.  With amazing performances from Mary J. Blige and Jason Mitchell, it’s a tough story, but wonderfully done.
11.   Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (4 nominations) Rey develops her newly discovered abilities with the guidance of Luke Skywalker, who is unsettled by the strength of her powers. Meanwhile, the Resistance prepares for battle with the first order.  Since I enjoyed the Force Awakens, and loved Rogue One, I wasn’t really sure what to expect with this movie – but it really blew me away.  The performances are amazing, including Mark Hamill taking my breath away as a Luke who goes from hopeless to a source of hope for others.  Carrie Fisher’s final performance as Leia is quietly powerful, and the new crew of Resistance fighters led by John Boyega and Daisey Ridley makes me excited for whatever is coming next. Wide, sweeping shots of several new planets also take the look of this movie a step above.

12.   Baby Driver (3 nominations) After being coerced into working for a crime boss, a young getaway driver finds himself taking part in a heist doomed to fail.  Here is another one that I can agree was expertly crafted, but that I did not particularly care for. The way the music Baby is obsessed with lines up with the action is amazing, and the car chases are exceptional, I wasn’t blown away by the performances, plus it does have the extra burden of Kevin Spacey, and this one did not choose to replace him with Christopher Plummer – although thinking about that now, it would have been interesting for this movie!

13.   I, Tonya (3 nominations) Competitive figure skater Tonya Harding rises amoungst the ranks at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, but her future in the activity is thrown into doubt when her ex-husband intervenes.  A really interesting take on the “incident” focusing on Tonya’s rise in the figure skating community and battle with the status quo. The movie is shot documentary style, with each of the characters in interview settings with the scenes played out in between – with several characters stating that what was just shown was not true. It’s an interesting take on this story of a bunch of idiots.

14.   Coco (2 nominations) Aspiring musician Miguel, confronted with his family’s ancestral ban on music, enters the Land of the Dead to find his great-great-grandfather, a legendary singer.  I didn’t see this because it felt like it was almost exactly the same as The Book Of Life (which I loved) which was released a few years ago.  I’ve been told it’s a bit different and worth a look, so who knows, maybe I’ll get around to it.
15.   The Post (2 nominations) A cover-up that spanned four U.S. Presidents pushed the country’s first female newspaper publisher and a hard-driving editor to join an unprecedented battle between the press and the government.  With a timely story and an incredible pedigree (Spielberg directed with Hanks and Streep!), you would have thought this would have way more nominations. 
16.   Victoria & Abdul (2 nominations) Queen Victoria strikes up an unlikely friendship with a young Indian clerk named Abdul Karim.  Judi Dench plays Queen Victoria for the umpteenth time in this story about one of her friendships.

17.   Dear Basketball (1 nomination) An animated telling of Kobe Bryant’s poem, “Dear Basketball”.  From this point down, we’re into the single nominations, and there are many more, but I wanted to keep this to a top 20, so the rest are ones I saw, enjoyed, and will recommend. This one I’m including because it means that Kobe Bryant is now an Oscar nominee, and because the poem is lovely, and the animation beautiful.  If he wins, he’ll have exactly the same amount of Oscars as Suicide Squad

18.   Molly’s Game (1 nomination) The true story of Molly Bloom, an Olympic-class skier who ran the world’s most exclusive high-stakes poker game and became an FBI target.  I really enjoyed this movie.  It’s written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, which means there is a lot of standing around and talking, but it’s really fast-paced and interesting.  The story is really surprising as Molly accidentally falls into a position of running these crazy high stakes games.  I also felt like Kevin Costner deserved a nomination for his supporting role as her father. He is shockingly good with very little screen time.

19.   Kong: Skull Island (1 nomination) A team of scientists explore an uncharted island in the Pacific, venturing into the domain of the mighty Kong, and must fight to escape a primal Eden. Another one I really enjoyed – a group of soldiers on the way home from the end of the Vietnam war has to escort these scientists to a place no one should go.  With the biggest screen Kong to date, this movie really sets up what should be an epic Godzilla/Kong fight. Plus, Samuel L. Jackson.

20.   Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 (1 nomination) The Guardians must fight to keep their newfound family together as they unravel the mystery of Peter Quill’s true parentage.  Easily one of the best of the year, this movie manages to be simultaneously hilarious, charming, touching, action-packed, and downright entertaining.  The performances are lovely, especially the team as they grow closer together.

My List – out of 44 seen and reviewed this year, here is what I thought was best.  And of course, by best – I mean what I found the most enjoyable, not at all speaking to quality or execution here:

1.       Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi – One and Two on this list are super close for me, but The Last Jedi really closed out the year on a high note for me.  I loved the transition of Luke’s character from grumpy and hopeless former Jedi on self-imposed exile (what is with Jedis and self-imposed exiles?) to the cocky Jedi Master we saw challenge Jabba the Hutt is fantastic. I loved the development of Rey’s character – and the idea of her coming from nothing, and having developing power without owing anything to a bloodline or someone else really won me over.

2.       Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 – Again, just pure cinematic joy. I know some felt it was too long, the villain was weak, and the final battle was the same as the previous movie.  Yes, it was long, but I actually liked Kurt Russel’s version of Ego, and while the final battle was similar, that last scene between Yondo and Peter was fantastic.  Plus, let’s not even get started about Baby Groot, and how wonderful he was – especially the scene where he explains why he doesn’t like hats!  I can’t wait for the next go-round with the Guardians.

3.       Thor Ragnarok: Imprisoned, the mighty Thor finds himself in a lethal gladiatorial contest against the Hulk, his former ally.  Thor must fight for survival and race against time to prevent the all-powerful Hela from destroying his home and the Asgardian civilization.  I loved this movie. Taika Watiti managed to completely revitalize Thor and give him what was almost a complete action-comedy.  Including several new characters, and some interesting previous characters – with the best bits of Dr. Strange so far – I really enjoyed this immensely.

4.       The Big Sick: Pakistan-born comedian Kumail Nanjiani and grad student Emily Gardner fall in love but struggle as their cultures clash. When Emily contracts a mysterious illness, Kumail finds himself forced to face her feisty parents, his family’s expectations, and his true feelings.  I have no idea why this wasn’t nominated for Oscars all over the place.  It got nominated for writing, but both Ray Romano and Holly Hunter could have been nominated, as well as Kumail himself. The story is simple and straightforward, but elevated by the performances of everyone in it.

5.       Spiderman Homecoming: Peter Parker balances his life as an ordinary high school student in Queens with his superhero alter-ego Spider-Man, and finds himself on the trail of a new menace prowling the skies of New York City. This movie caught me by surprise – Tom Holland is easily the best SpiderMan we’ve had, and he has such charm and genuine-ness.  The John Hughes-ness of the high school bits of this story make sense, and Michael Keaton is fantastic as the Vulture, a character I for sure thought would never make it to a movie screen. 

6.       Girls Trip: When four lifelong friends travel to New Orleans for the annual Essence Festival, sisterhoods are rekindled, wild sides are rediscovered, and there’s enough dancing, drinking, brawling, and romancing to make the Big Easy blush.  This movie made me laugh so hard!  Yes, it’s predictable, and yes, all the drama could have been solved by better communication, but it’s the performances from the four leads that take the standard fare and elevate it into something truly special.

7.       Get Out: Again, see this movie. But, if you have the chance (they are re-releasing it to the theaters for Oscar hype) go see it in the theater. It really does make a difference to see this movie with an audience.  It really heightens the experience as everyone begins to share the lead’s discoveries that the house he is staying in is not quite what he thought it was!
8.       Kong: Skull Island: Every once in a while, you need a big, loud, creature-feature, and this one is better than most.  Kong is absolutely the king of his domain, and it was refreshing to see him just kick ass on his own island instead of being bullied, captured, and forced into a city. 

9.       The Shape of Water: This is another one on which you can believe the hype.  It’s weirdly elegant and hauntingly beautiful. Check it out, it’s really unlike anything else this past year – and who would have thought something that outside-the-box would get the most nominations? Spoiler alert - a mute lady has sex with a fish guy! And it was nominated more than any other movie! 
10.   Wonder Woman:  When a pilot crashes and tells of conflict in the outside world, Diana, an Amazonian warrior in training, leaves home to fight a war, discovering her full powers and true destiny.  How did this get zero nominations? If not for Patty Jenkins’s direction (which was fantastic), then at least costuming, sound editing, effects, or any other technical award that they begrudgingly give to the big blockbusters?  The movie is good – it is not flawless, it for sure has too much Zack Snyder on it, but it was entertaining, and Gal Gadot was a shining light as Diana.

11.   Molly’s Game: There is a surprising amount of crossover between my selections and the Academy’s selections this year, that may be unprecedented.  I really enjoyed this one. With exceptional performances from Idris Elba and Jessica Chastain, it was fascinating to see this woman of constant drive shift that drive from Olympic Moguls skiing to high-stakes poker. I also enjoyed doing a little digging to see who the players she didn’t mention might be, and let me tell you – if I didn’t like Toby Macguire before (I didn’t), I really don’t now.
12.   Fate of the Furious: When a mysterious woman seduces Dom inot the world of terrorism and a betrayal of those closest to him, the crew face trials that will test them as never before.  Yes, indeed – what happens when Dom is forced to betray his family and their Coronas? Well, huge car chases and spectacular action sequences while Tyrese wise-cracks, obviously.  This one is not nearly as good as some of the previous installments, but it is entertaining enough – I enjoyed Charlize Theron chewing the scenery as a whispering cyber-terrorist, and Helen Mirren as Jason Statham and Luke Evans’s mom, and man oh man, the chemistry between Statham and the Rock?  I really want that spin-off, whether or not Vin Diesel wants to allow it!

13.   The Foreigner: A humble businessman with a buried past seeks justice when his daughter is killed in an act of Terrorism. A cat-and-mouse conflict ensues with a government official, whose past may hold clues to the killers’ identities.  This was a bit of a surprise to me, It was a little uneven, but I really enjoyed Jackie Chan’s step into a more serious role as a father who will go to great lengths for justice for his daughter and Pierce Brosnan as a shady official with a shadier past who seems to be running a shady organization, thinking he’s doing good by controlling bad.  But, as you know, you can’t control bad.

14.   The Disaster Artist: When Greg Sestero, an aspiring film actor, meets the weird and mysterious Tommy Wiseau in an acting class, they form a unique friendship and travel to Hollywood to make their dreams come true.  James Franco’s ongoing skeeziness notwithstanding, this movie manages to be a surprisingly genuine tale about following through on your dreams and the inspiration of true friendship.  It’s hilarious and charming, and worth a watch.
15.   John Wick Chapter 2: After returning to the criminal underworld to repay a debt, John Wick discovers that a large bounty has been put on his life.  Man, I really wanted to see John Wick get to go back to his quiet retirement with his new dog.  But after a former contact demands he deliver on a favor, he breaks a rule and everyone is after him.  Keanu is again amazing as John Wick, and while this one is not as good as the first, it’s still non-stop action all the way through, with the fascinating Continental playing a little less of a role.  The new dog makes it through this one.

And of course, just for fun – my personal list of the worst movies of last year.  Or, more accurately, the movies I enjoyed the least, again, not commenting on quality here.

1.       The Circle: A woman lands a dream job at a powerful tech company called The Circle, only to uncover an agenda that will affect the lives of all humanity.  Okay – this was easily the worst movie of the year for me, and I saw Resident Evil 5, or was it 6?  The extremely over-rated Emma Watson is flat and unrelatable in this story where she takes a job with a company that is pioneering the ability to watch everyone all the time, and as opposed to how you think the story is going to go (she realizes this is a terrible blow to personal freedom and takes them down from within), instead she takes down the two in charge, but works with the company to expand their surveillance even more.  Tom Hanks has almost nothing to do, Patton Oswalt tries, but has little screen time, Karen Gillan is good, but wasted, John Boyega is interesting but disappears quickly.  The story makes no sense, the acting is not great, and the movie is shot weird too.  All-around, not great.   

2.       Justice League: Fueled by his restored faith in humanity and inspired by Superman’s selfless act, Bruce Wayne enlists the help of his newfound ally, Diana Prince, to face an even greater enemy.  Sloppy and uneven, this is just not my Justice League, and that would be fine if the movie was better.  Batman would never assemble the league, Superman just needs to be left out in the yellow sun if injured that badly, and Wonder Woman should have more to do.  As opposed to Man of Steel and BvS, there were parts of this I liked: I am intrigued by this Aquaman, and am looking forward to his stand-alone. I enjoyed some of the humor they tried to incorporate. I enjoyed the more action-packed Alfred, and the introduction of Cyborg.  And Superman, near the end of this (in the Joss Whedon portions) finally gets closer to being the Superman I am familiar with.  The rest of it is sluggish, confusing, bleak, and why is the villain all CG, why not cast a big dude in a suit?  The Snyder-verse continues to make one bad decision after another. 

3.       The Great Wall: European mercenaries searching for black powder become embroiled in the defense of the Great Wall of China against a horde of monstrous creatures.  I will say that I did enjoy a lot of this movie – it needed to do away with the “European mercenaries” entirely and just be a Chinese epic historical fantasy movie set in medieval China. I liked the creature design, and the way the soldiers were designated by color and role, but every time Matt Damon was on screen, it just pulled me right out of the story.

4.       Geostorm: When the network of satellites designed to control the global climate starts to attack Earth, it’s a race against the clock for its creator to uncover the real threat before a worldwide Geostorm wipes out everything and everyone.  Sometimes movies like this are so bad they are good – this one is just so bad.  Gerard Butler tries his best, but honestly, there’s no way I buy him as a brilliant scientist responsible for weather controlling satellites.  The movie is rough, but it’s almost worth sitting through it for the final confrontation between Ed Harris and Andy Garcia. 

5.       Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets: A dark force threatens Alpha, a vast metropolis and home to species from a thousand different planets. Special operatives Valerian and Laureline must race to identify the marauding menace and safeguard not just Alpha, but the future of the universe.  I really loved The Fifth Element, and was looking forward to a return to Luc Besson’s weird view of future-space.  This is just a beautiful mess.  Some of it looks great, but the story makes no sense, and the two leads are incredibly unlikeable.  I do wonder what it could have been with some tighter editing and different leads – I suppose we’ll never know!

There were others last year that I also did not enjoy (King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, Kingsman 2, The Mummy, etc.), but we’ll keep it to five.  Overall, a pretty great year movie-wise, and like I said – I don’t know that I have ever had so many in my top list cross over with the academy’s list. Hopefully that’s a trend that continues, if the academy can continue to broaden its definitions of what is Oscar-worthy!

2018 Oscars Production Design Category Breakdown

Last year for the special LAMB Devours the Oscars series (where members dive into each of the Oscar categories) I chose the Production Design category.  Since I found it so interesting last year – and it really gave me another reason to look at the nominated movies – I chose the same category for this year!  So welcome to your Production Design/Set Decoration breakdown.  

The Academy Award for Production Design recognizes achievement for art direction in film and combines both production design and set decoration, which are two different jobs that work hand in hand on any film or TV set.  A production designer is responsible for the assembled sets and overall visual look of a production.  The set decorator is responsible for furnishing interior and exterior sets.  If a movie has a scene set in a bedroom, the production designer comes up with the plan for the bedroom setup and layout, and works with the set decorator to fill it with the necessary items to enhance the story.  Those items can assist with character exposition, or can distract from the scene set inside the room if the job is done poorly. It is a very fine skill that is developed over many years, and that is why a director will often work with the same production designer and set decorator over many movies.  Which is also why all but one of the pairs of nominees this year have multiple nominations already.  The five nominated movies are Beauty and the Beast, Blade Runner 2049, Darkest Hour, Dunkirk, and The Shape of Water.

Beauty and the Beast:
Sarah Greenwood (Production Design) and Katie Spencer (Set Decoration) are a formidable team with this being their sixth nominations (Anna Karenina, Sherlock Holmes, Atonement, Pride & Prejudice), not to mention, they are also the team behind Darkest Hour – another nominee this year!   In this movie, Belle takes her wrongfully imprisoned father’s place in the castle where he is being held. She stands up to the castle's lord, the Beast, but as they spend time together, the Beast reveals his inner prince, inspiring Belle to return his love.  It certainly is a daunting task to take something so familiar as an animated Disney classic and transform it to live action sets. 

While Greenwood and Spencer did an incredible job recreating the look of the cartoon and making the sets lush and vivid, they lose just a few points in my book, as they had the animated film as a reference.
Darkest Hour:
Greenwood and Spencer are also nominated for Darkest Hour, which tells the story of Winston Churchill during the early days of World War II faced with the choice of continuing to fight or try to settle with Hitler.  This one should easily win the makeup category as it takes the very Gary Oldman-y looking Gary Oldman and transforms him into Winston Churchill, but what about the production design?  Once again Spencer and Greenwood do an amazingly detailed job of recreating Churchill’s office and surroundings from the time. 

But again, since nothing needed to be invented or created originally, it seems that the true skill here is in the team recreating sets from research on hand. 
Blade Runner 2049
The production design on Blade Runner 2049 is by Dennis Gassner, and this is his sixth nomination (Into the Woods, The Golden Compass, Road to Perdition, Barton Fink, Bugsy).  The set decoration is by Alessandra Querzola, and this is her first nomination.  This is a movie set three decades after the original Blade Runner Deckard went missing.  LAPD replicant officer K is tasked with eliminating older, rogue replicants that have a tendency to be less controllable.  In the process, he learns something shocking, and needs Deckard to uncover the truth about the history and future of replicants.  Here we have a movie with stunning, incredible, original visuals that absolutely assist in telling the story. 

Yes, the team had the original movie as a reference point, but the stunning sets and landscapes of this desolate future are beautiful and heartbreaking.  I loved the huge statues as K walks into Deckard’s Vegas lair.  The farm in the beginning as K is carrying out his job essentially conveys the backstory of Dave Bautista’s character living there.  K’s apartment and office help to convey his own inner turmoil while Jared Leto’s office conveys his isolation and elitism.  The look of this movie is incredible, even if I wasn’t completely drawn in by the story.
Nathan Crawley is the production designer on Dunkirk, and this is his fourth nomination (Interstellar, The Dark Knight, The Prestige).  This is also set decorator Gary Fettis’s fourth nomination, but for different movies (Interstellar, Changeling, The Godfather Part III).  This movie tells a story from the spring of 1940, when hundreds of thousands of British and Allied troops are trapped by German forces on the beaches of Dunkirk in northern France. Christopher Nolan movies have a distinct look and this one is no exception. Again, the design is done to expertly mimic the look of the actual time, and has the added puzzle of having a lot of scenes outside. 

The movie looks good, but again, as a faithful recreation, even the stylized sets are reflections of what was.  The bleak coloration and stark realism add to both the hopefulness and helplessness of various characters.
The Shape of Water
Paul Denham Austerberry is the production designer for the Shape of Water, and he worked with two set decorators, Shane Vieau and Jeff Melvin.  Where the desolation and hopelessness of Blade Runner is conveyed in its set design, this movie really uses the additional aspect of color and creativity to help tell the story of the 1962 government scientific lab in Baltimore that houses a fish-man and the mute janitor who falls in love with him. Director Guillermo del Toro himself clarified the use of color via his twitter feed: Elisa's world: Cyan and Blue (underwater), everyone else's homes (Giles, Zelda, Strickland) in goldens, ambers and warm colors (Day/air), red for cinema, life and love. Green is everything about the future (pies, car, lab, uniforms in lab, gelatine, etc.) Using these guidelines from the director, the team translated it into amazing sets.

Like other del Toro movies, the sets are incredibly designed and almost hyper-real, very much in line with his “adult fairy-tale” aesthetic. The lab is filled with interesting shapes and lines, and bits of things on shelves and carts that you almost want to stop the movie to look at more closely.  Elisa’s apartment is above an old movie theater, and is filled with items that help to tell the audience about her. Every part of the movie is carefully crafted to appear not real, but almost surreal, in perfect alignment with the story.

According to my meager research, Blade Runner 2049 is the predicted winner, and that makes sense, because that movie looked amazing. I loved the look of Shape of Water, but honestly, for me, there were a few movies that didn’t make the list.  There’s this prejudice against giving big-budget superhero movies Academy love, but the look of Thor Ragnarok and Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 were both mind-blowing.  Think about the throne room on Sakar where Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster holds court, or the Hulk’s quarters in Ragnarok.  Even more so – the sets on GOTG2 are phenomenal.  Ego’s room of storytelling orbs, the Sovereign’s throne room, even the Ravagers’ ship were all visual masterpieces. 

I also feel that Star Wars Episode VIII, the Last Jedi, deserves a mention.  The look of the bridge on the rebel cruiser, the casino on Canto Bight, Snoke’s throne room with his incredible red curtain which is very not-fireproof, and Luke’s quiet place of isolation on Ach-To are all incredible sets that enhanced the story through color and design. 

While Star Wars might be my pick for a winner, that does not help your office Oscar pool choice.  Go with either Blade Runner or Shape of Water – they are the safest bets!