Hollywood to Broadway – Anastasia

Your old pal The MN Movie Man took some time away from dark movie theaters in May for a long overdue visit to The Big Apple and caught up with what Broadway has to offer. Theaters in NYC and London’s West End are continually being filled with stage adaptations of movie properties and out of the 10 shows I saw, half of them either began as a film or are revivals of shows that generated a movie version of their own. In this short series, I’ll go through these five musicals from the Great White Way and see how they compare to their Silver Screen counterparts.

The Movie: Anastasia (1997)
The Broadway Show: Anastasia, opened on April 24, 2017

Yes, yes, I know that there was a version of Anastasia from 1956 that netted star Ingrid Bergman a Best Actress Oscar but since the Broadway version was inspired/adapted from the 1997 animated movie let’s focus on that one instead.

Of all the non-Disney animated films that started popping up in the mid to late ‘90s, there was something about 20th Century Fox’s Anastasia that hit the right chord. Hard to believe that a pretty grim plotline involving the family of a Russian Czar being murdered and a mystery girl that could be the lone surviving heir became the basis for a fancifcul musical romp, former Disney animator Don Bluth was riding a nice wave of second banana popularity and managed to massage this one into a family affair. Digging into the supernatural for its villain Rasputin, it wasn’t to be taken very seriously but it surely seemed to remain a fond favorite of a lot of little girls over the years.

Honestly, it’s never been a particular favorite of mine, though full disclosure I’m writing this review from memory instead of recent exposure, but I do remember the handful of songs from Broadway composers Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty being a definite highlight. Nabbing two Oscar nominations for their work, Ahrens and Flaherty would get their chance at a full blown musical version of Anastasia twenty years later but would the adults that were pre-teens in 1997 shell out Broadway prices to bring their children to see Anastasia live again live onstage?

From the screaming crowds and squeals of delight emanating from the Broadhurst Theatre in NYC, the answer is a resounding ‘Yes’. I have to say, though, that the entire affair was completely lost on me and I’m debating whether it was just fatigue from doing standing room for my 7th show in five days or if I simply didn’t care for the piece in general. Make no mistake, it’s got a lovely cast led by the beautiful and genuine Christy Altomare and two swoon-ready leads in Derek Klena and Ramin Karimloo (the only actor to receive rapturous entrance applause) but there’s something fairly vacant about it all. Director Darko Tresnjak, scenic designer Alexander Dodge, and projection designer Aaron Rhyne work wonders with making sense out of swiftly changing scenes by nimbly moving the action around St. Petersburg and Paris and Linda Cho’s costumes are downright stunning.

Yet for all the gloss and glam the material feels kind of ham-fisted and the new music from Ahrens and Flaherty, while orchestrated grandly, never actually soars. The best music is still the two most popular songs from the movie, ‘Once Upon a December’ and ‘A Rumor in St. Petersburg’. Aside from a more than capable set of leads, there’s dynamite supporting work by theater grande dame Mary Beth Peil (Tony nominated here) and a riotous Caroline O’Connor as her mischievous lady in waiting. Whenever those two are onstage the musical snaps to life but with too many ballads and songs that sound the same it’s enough to lull even the most alert tourist into a gentle slumber…I actually dozed off a few times and I was standing up!

Already doing great box office numbers and with productions announced around the world, Anastasia will be coming to your neck of the words eventually and I think the design elements would travel quite well. Here’s hoping the tour gets tweaked a bit to take the air out of some of the scenes and one or two songs get the heave ho to keep the mystery at the heart of Anastasia something we actually want to get to the bottom of.

Hollywood to Broadway – Groundhog Day

Your old pal The MN Movie Man took some time away from dark movie theaters in May for a long overdue visit to The Big Apple and caught up with what Broadway has to offer. Theaters in NYC and London’s West End are continually being filled with stage adaptations of movie properties and out of the 10 shows I saw, half of them either began as a film or are revivals of shows that generated a movie version of their own. In this short series, I’ll go through these five musicals from the Great White Way and see how they compare to their Silver Screen counterparts.

The Movie: Groundhog Day (1993)
The Broadway Show:
Groundhog Day, opened on April 17, 2017

As usual, I find myself confessing some deep dark movie sins on this blog and here’s another one to add to the list. Ok…here we go. Promise you’ll still like me after? No turning back now… Until recently, I wasn’t a fan of Groundhog Day.

Are you still there?

Good…thank you for sticking around.

Y’see, I think Groundhog Day was originally sold to 13 year old me as the kind of comedy that would have me rolling in the aisles at Bill Murray’s crazy antics as a cranky weatherman that falls into a vortex of having to repeat the same day in an endless loop. The trouble was, the comedy ran deeper than surface gags and one-liners and there was a sadness to it all that I just didn’t understand at that time. Coming back to it as an adult, I found the film to be a real delight with a dynamic craftsmanship most modern conceptual comedies could only dream of.

As Phil Connors, Murray is in top form as the over-it-all newscaster seemingly slumming it reporting from Philadelphia on whether good ‘ole Punxsutawney Phil will see his shadow and foretell six more weeks of winter. Waking up the next day with an eerie sense of déjà vu, Phil eventually realizes he’s stuck re-living the same day over and over and over and over and over again with no way to break the cycle. Along the way he becomes an expert piano player and learns French. Eventually he tests the limits of his “power” and experiments with what life would be like as a jerk or as a nice guy, finally overcoming his mythological torture when he gets things right. Murray had good support from Andie MacDowell who feels like a good straight man to Murray’s particular type of comedy…and who can forget Stephen Tobolowsky’s nebbish Ned? Directed by Murray’s frequent collaborator, the late Harold Ramis, Groundhog Day is one of those near perfect comedic treats that works across multiple age-groups, even if the humor was lost on me as a teen.

 

Unbelievable as it sounds, the one and only Stephen Sondheim was the first composer who showed an interest in bringing Groundhog Day to the stage but by the time the musical premiered at The Old Vic in London last year, the composer was Tim Minchin. Minchin is a well-known Australian comedian that found success back in 2010 with his adaptation of Matilda. Having recently seen Matilda, I knew that Minchin favored tricky lyrics and music that wasn’t always hummable…but that Down Under style of comedy seemed like a great fit with Groundhog Day’s structure and it turns out I was right.

While I literally couldn’t relay a bar of music I heard in Groundhog Day if you paid me $10K, the show was constructed so well and performed so effortlessly that I have to give great credit to the creative time that saw this one through to the finish line. It’s fascinating to me that a show so American would have its successful world premiere in London (it won the Olivier Award for Best Musical) but perhaps producers thought if they could be a hit in the UK then a US run would be a slam dunk. Nominated for 7 Tony Awards, Groundhog Day started performances at the tail end of a solid year of new musicals so it faces an uphill battle on Tony night for most of the categories it’s nominated in. One category up for grabs , though, is Best Actor and while I haven’t seen star Andy Karl’s biggest competition (Ben Platt in Dear Evan Hanson), Karl is downright beloved in the Broadway community and would surely deserve the honor. Coming back from a potentially sidelining injury during previews is sure to garner more goodwill (if not an outright sympathy vote) but what Karl’s doing onstage is pretty exemplary work. Phil is one of those classic musical characters we shouldn’t be rooting for but wind up cheering on and that’s thanks almost entirely to Karl’s genuine performance as a man that turns a corner after reaching multiple dead ends.

Minchin’s music and lyrics blend nicely with Danny Rubin’s faithful adaptation of his screenplay, only making minor adjustments that translate better to the stage. Karl’s co-stars are all solid, though a song for a local babe that opens Act 2 feels extraneous. Kudos also to the director and choreographer for making some enjoyable sleight of hand stage magic to get Karl back to the beginning of his day in increasingly creative ways.

Though it’s housed in the beautiful August Wilson Theater with its quaint (read: too small!) seats, this feels like a show that might work better on tour in Middle America. I’m not sure the entire production with its multiple turntables and high tech LED displays would easily transition to a bus and truck road show and it does need a star performance to anchor the evening…but if it comes to your neck of the woods give it a shot.

Check out my look at Sunset Boulevard!
Check out my look at Charlie and the Chocolate Factory!

 

Hollywood to Broadway – Sunset Boulevard

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Your old pal The MN Movie Man took some time away from dark movie theaters in May for a long overdue visit to The Big Apple and caught up with what Broadway has to offer. Theaters in NYC and London’s West End are continually being filled with stage adaptations of movie properties and out of the 10 shows I saw, half of them either began as a film or are revivals of shows that generated a movie version of their own. In this short series, I’ll go through these five musicals from the Great White Way and see how they compare to their Silver Screen counterparts.

The Movie: Sunset Boulevard (1950)
The Broadway Show:
Sunset Boulevard, opened on February 9, 2017

You don’t get more Hollywood than Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Released in 1950, the movie was a scathing bite at the Tinsel Town hand that fed the majority of the people involved. Nowadays there’s nothing Hollywood loves more than patting itself on the back and showering movies about the film industry with plaudits (hello, La La Land!) but back when Sunset Boulevard arrived not many industry people were immediately lining up to sing its praises as an insider’s look into the studio system. Nominated for 11 Oscars including Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Supporting Actor, and Supporting Actress, the movie was up against some stiff competition (All About Eve, Born Yesterday, Father of the Bride) and wound up winning just three: Art Direction, Screenplay, and Franz Waxman justly took home gold for his haunting score.

Even if over the years Gloria Swanson’s unhinged fading silent film star would be fodder for parody from the likes of Carol Burnett, the picture remains oddly timely and still a strikingly beautiful film. Filled with unforgettable moments such as Swanson’s creepy crawl toward the screen as it fades to black, it’s an unqualified classic that earns its place as one of Hollywood’s crown jewels of filmmaking. It’s also a pleasure to see legends such as Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper, and Buster Keaton play themselves, further blurring the line between reality and fiction.

I was barely a teenager in 1993 when Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical adaptation of Sunset Boulevard premiered in London. I’m not even going to go into its troubled path behind the scenes involving lawsuits from two divas (Patti LuPone & Faye Dunaway) who were both hired and fired before the show even premiered stateside. When the musical arrived in NYC in 1994 it easily won a host of Tony Awards including, among others, Best Musical, Best Actress for Glenn Close, and another for its gargantuan set designed by John Napier. The sheer size of the production was legendary but made it difficult to recoup its investment so it didn’t wind up being the true smash it could have been. Even a touring production folded quickly due to the constraints of such a behemoth making the move from theater to theater on a weekly basis. Subsequent productions scaled back the proceedings (one even had its actors playing their own instruments…shudder!) but it wasn’t until 2016 when a semi-stage run in London with Close reprising her role that there was talk Broadway might get another trip down Sunset Boulevard.

I’ll admit the chief reason I planned my trip to NYC was for the chance to see Close in the role she will forever be identified with (at least onstage). Seeing Close, um, up close was too good of an opportunity to pass up and add to that a 40 piece orchestra in Broadway’s famed Palace Theatre and the writing was on the wall…I had to see it.

There’s no way to accurately describe the experience of seeing Sunset Boulevard the way I think it was meant to be seen, with its original leading lady and a grand orchestra in a scaled back production smartly restaged by director Lonny Price that may have been smaller set-wise but felt grandly operatic all the same. Removing the lavish set dressings allowed the music (some of it borrowed from Waxman’s original score) and the performances to be the justified stars of the show.

Handsome Brit Michael Xavier sports a spot-on American accent and handily takes on doomed screenwriter Joe Gillis while Swede Fred Johanson is imposing but loyal as Max, Norma’s chauffer – both men sing wonderfully. Price has assembled a well-oiled ensemble including one that plays a ghostly visage of a young Norma Desmond that haunts her elder self throughout the evening.

The show is all about Close, though, and she’s unforgettable. She already made for a thrilling Norma in 1994 (at least on CD) but seeing her take on the same role over 20 years later was revelatory. The voice isn’t always rock solid but these moments of grated fragility only add to the overall sadness of the character. From her first entrance to the goosebump-inducing finale, it’s impossible to look at anyone but Close because she’s always completely ‘in’ the scene even during the very few times where she’s not the focus.

Gloria Swanson and Glenn Close will both be remembered for their interpretations of Norma Desmond, and while Close’s original reading was just adjacent to Swanson’s screen performance in this revival she goes deeper and recreates the role from the ground up. It was everything I wanted and more – well worth the trip!

Hollywood to Broadway – Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Your old pal The MN Movie Man took some time away from dark movie theaters in May for a long overdue visit to The Big Apple and caught up with what Broadway has to offer. Theaters in NYC and London’s West End are continually being filled with stage adaptations of movie properties and out of the 10 shows I saw, half of them either began as a film or are revivals of shows that generated a movie version of their own. In this short series, I’ll go through these five musicals from the Great White Way and see how they compare to their Silver Screen counterparts.

The Book:
  ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’, by Roald Dahl. Published in 1964
The Movies: Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971), Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005)
The Broadway Show:
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, opened on April 23, 2017

Mention Charlie and the Chocolate Factory to anyone of a certain age and it’s highly likely the first image that pops into their brain is Gene Wilder’s master of chocolate from the film adaptation in 1971. Titled Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory to highlight Wilder’s star presence, there’s a valid reason why people have a certain fondness for it. With a script from Dahl himself that was wacky with whimsy while maintaining his overly sinister edge, the film chugs along nicely although it always has felt longer to me than its 100 minutes. This is largely in part to several dud songs from Leslie Bricusse & Anthony Newley (‘Cheer Up Charlie’ is such a morose cocktail it should be followed with an anti-depressant chaser) and a gross belching scene with Charlie (Peter Ostrum) and his grandfather (Jack Albertson) that I’ve found less tolerable as each year passes. And how about that terrifying journey on Wonka’s boat with images of slimy insects and a chicken getting its head chopped off? Don’t remember it? You’ve probably been watching an edited version toned down for the kiddies coming at it fresh.

Still, though it takes a while to get there with a whole heap of exposition that’s admittedly mostly necessary, there’s nothing quite like that first glimpse of Wonka’s fabulously designed factory centerpiece with its edible plants and chocolate river. It becomes less appetizing as it goes on but for a while there is truly is scrumdidilyumptious.

What wasn’t so tasty was Tim Burton’s 2005 re-imagining that put Charlie back in the title but became an even more tripped-out version than it’s ‘70s predecessor. Typically Burton-esque with oversized CGI set-pieces and oversaturated candy-coated colors, I still don’t see any real reason to spend much time digesting this one. Featuring another creepy performance by Burton muse Johnny Depp and a forgettable supporting cast of oddballs, the Bricusse/Newley songs were ousted in favor of new compositions from Danny Elfman and are pale comparisons with even the most throw-away tunes from the original. It’s a dark and threatening film and while it’s been some time since I’ve seen it all the way through, I remember wanting it to be over before Charlie and his fellow Golden Ticket winners even set foot inside the fabled factory.  The less said about this one, the better.

Flash forward to 2013 when London’s West End featured the premiere of a Charlie and the Chocolate Factory stage musical. Maintaining several of the Bricusse/Newley songs and padded with music from Hairspray composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman the show was directed by Sam Mendes to be bigger than life. From the clips I’ve seen online, this show was huge from beginning to end and was a popular title during it’s nearly four year run in the UK. Bringing it to Broadway was inevitable but by the time it jumped the pond Mendes was out as director and it seems like he took most of the set with him. What opened in April at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre has been drastically reworked, ditching the overwhelming enormity of its Brit big brother and replacing them with production values seemingly designed to make the show easier to tour (it’ll be coming to a theater near you in 2018) and that just didn’t sit well with me.

While Christian Borle sounded great and played the sarcastic side of Wonka to a T, the actor is just one of many in the show that looks like they are dying a slow death while children in the audience scream and beg their parents for more candy at intermission. In a way, I felt sorry for them because these are talented performers who likely signed up to participate in a spectacle but learned too late they’d be Our Town-ing it for much of the show. Just wait until Act 2 when the big reveal of the edible room appears on a rolling platform the size of a department store window. The ‘children’ (strangely played by adults in NYC, save for Charlie himself) don’t even all fit on it at the same time! The one bright spot of the show were the Oompa-Loompas, brought hilariously to life via some overly simplistic theater magic that nonetheless had me howling with laughter along with the rest of the audience.  Parents be warned, some of the children go out in increasingly perverse fashion…with one unfortunate being ripped apart and another exploding in a cascade of purple glitter.

The last show I saw during my eight days in NYC, I couldn’t help but be a bummed out by this small scale bon-bon that often looked appetizing but wasn’t filling in the least.

The Oscars – Final Predictions

oscars-2017

Well here we are…it’s the day of the show y’all and I’ve done by best to get a look at the nominees. Out of 62 movies nominated this year, I managed to see 61 (My Life as a Zucchini, I’ll be haunted by you for the next 365 days).  If you’re looking for help filling out your Oscar ballot, take heart to my final predictions below.  This was a good year for movies and many decisions are tough choices and/or close calls…but let’s hope there are more than a few surprises tonight and voters didn’t just vote for La La Land across the board.

BEST PICTURE
Arrival
Fences
Hacksaw Ridge
Hell or High Water
Hidden Figures – Should Win
La La Land – Will Win
Lion
Manchester By the Sea
Moonlight

BEST DIRECTOR
Damien Chazelle – La La Land – Will Win
Mel Gibson – Hacksaw Ridge – Should Win
Barry Jenkins – Moonlight
Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester By the Sea
Dennis Villenueve – Arrival

BEST ACTOR
Casey Affleck – Manchester By the Sea
Andrew Garfield – Hacksaw Ridge
Ryan Gosling – La La Land
Viggo Mortensen – Captain Fantastic
Denzel Washington – Fences – Will Win/Should Win

BEST ACTRESS
Isabelle Huppert – Elle
Ruth Negga – Loving
Natalie Portman – Jackie – Should Win
Emma Stone – La La Land – Will Win
Meryl Streep – Florence Foster Jenkins

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
Mahershala Ali – Moonlight – Will Win/Should Win
Jeff Bridges – Hell or High Water
Lucas Hedges – Manchester By the Sea
Dev Patel – Lion
Michael Shannon – Nocturnal Animals

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Viola Davis – Fences – Will Win/Should Win
Naomie Harris – Moonlight
Nicole Kidman – Lion
Octavia Spencer – Hidden Figures
Michelle Williams – Manchester By the Sea

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY
Eric Heisserer – Arrival
August Wilson – Fences
Allison Schroeder, Theodore Melfi – Hidden Figures
Luke Davies – Lion
Barry Jenkins – Moonlight – Will Win/Should Win

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY
Mike Mills – 20th Century Women
Taylor Sheridan – Hell or High Water
Damien Chazelle – La La Land
Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthymis Filippou – The Lobster
Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester By the Sea – Will Win/Should Win

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM
A Man Called Ove – Sweden – Should Win
Toni Erdmann – Germany
The Salesman – Iran – Will Win
Land of Mine – Denmark
Tanna – Australia

BEST EDITING
Arrival
Hacksaw Ridge – Should Win
La La Land – Will Win
Hell or High Water
Moonlight

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY
Arrival – Should Win
Lion
La La Land – Will Win
Moonlight
Silence

BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN
Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them
Hail, Caesar – Should Win
La La Land – Will Win
Arrival
Passsengers

BEST SOUND MIXING
Arrival
Hacksaw Ridge – Should Win
13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi
La La Land – Will Win
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

BEST SOUND EDITING
Arrival
Hacksaw Ridge – Will Win/Should Win
La La Land
Deepwater Horizon
Sully

BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT
Extremis
4.1 Miles
Joe’s Violin – Should Win
Watani: My Homeland
The White Helmets – Will Win

BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT
Ennemis Intérieurs – Will Win
La Femme et le TGV
Silent Nights
Sing
Timecode – Should Win

BEST ANIMATED SHORT
Blind Vaysha
Borrowed Time
Pear Cider and Cigarettes
Pearl – Should Win
Piper – Will Win

BEST COSTUME DESIGN
Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them
Florence Foster Jenkins
Jackie – Will Win/Should Win
La La Land
Allied

BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Mica Levi – Jackie – Should Win
Justin Hurwitz – La La Land – Will Win
Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka – Lion
Nicholas Britell – Moonlight
Thomas Newman – Passengers

BEST DOCUMENTARY FEATURE
13th
I am Not Your Negro
OJ: Made in America – Will Win/Should Win
Fire at Sea
Life, Animated

BEST ANIMATED FEATURE
My Life as a Zucchini
Kubo and the Two Strings
Moana
The Red Turtle
Zootopia – Will Win/Should Win

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS
Deepwater Horizon
Doctor Strange
Kubo and the Two Strings
The Jungle Book – Will Win/Should Win
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

BEST MAKEUP & HAIRSTYLING
Star Trek Beyond – Will Win/Should Win
Suicide Squad
A Man Called Ove

BEST ORIGINAL SONG
Audition (The Fools Who Dream) – La La Land
City of Stars – La La Land – Will Win (I don’t love any of these songs so I’m not picking a “Should”)
How Far I’ll Go – Moana
Can’t Stop the Feeling – Trolls
The Empty Chair – Jim: The James Foley Story

Oscar Nominees: Best Makeup & Hairstyling

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Every day from now until the Oscars on Sunday, February 26 I’m going to deconstruct the nominees in each category. I’ll give you their history with the Academy, some extra thoughts on each nominee/film, who was snubbed, and what you might consider before choosing them in your office pool.

make-up

Nominee: Eva Von Bahr, Love Larson
Film
: A Man Called Ove
Oscar History: Both have one previous nomination under their belts, for last year’s surprise nominee The 100 Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared
Thoughts: Old age make-up can go very wrong (hello Jersey Boys) or very right, as it did with A Man Called Ove.  This sleeper hit from Sweden also is in the running for Best Foreign Film and it justly earned both of its nominations.  The graceful aging of key characters by Von Bahr and Larson added to the film’s heart and soul as we looked back on the titular character’s life.  Whereas the other two nominees are flashy, the work here is subtle but no less memorable.

Nominee: Joel Harlow, Richard Alonzo
Film
: Star Trek Beyond
Oscar History: Harlow has been nominated twice before, winning for Star Trek.  This is Alonzo’s first nomination.
Thoughts: I missed this one in theaters but watching it at home recently I was impressed not only with the rich visuals of the third entry in the rebooted Star Trek franchise but how unique each and every character was in makeup and hairstyle.  No two beings looked alike and even if some looked like well painted sponges, there was a seemingly never ending buffet of colorfully intricate designs that passed by onscreen.  It helps that one of the nominees already won for the original reboot of the series…but then again maybe once was enough for some voters.

Nominee: Alessandro Bertolazzi, Giorgio Gregorini, Christopher Allen Nelson
Film
: Suicide Squad
Oscar History: All are first time nominees
Thoughts: Boy, I really hated this movie  Hated. Hated. Hated.  It’s on my worst of the year list and for good reason – it’s an ugly, rotten film with ugly, rotten characters.  That being said, these first time nominees sure went full throttle into comic book land with new designs for the Joker, Harley Quinn, and Killer Croc.  It’s the Killer Croc design that could push this crew into the winners circle…but I personally can’t stomach the thought of Suicide Squad being forever referred to as “Oscar Winning”.

Missed Opportunity:

Should Been Nominated: Here’s another category where I think the Academy nominated the right artists.  The only other one that could have fit in here would have been Deadpool and it could have taken Suicide Squad’s place.

Any one of these could be named the winner but I’m going to throw my endorsement to Star Trek Beyond for its out of the box/world designs, though I’d be just as happy if A Man Called Ove snuck in there and snagged this one away from two loud Hollywood blockbusters. Just please…not Suicide Squad.

Oscar Nominees: Best Production Design

coollogo_com-77021458
Every day from now until the Oscars on Sunday, February 26 I’m going to deconstruct the nominees in each category. I’ll give you their history with the Academy, some extra thoughts on each nominee/film, who was snubbed, and what you might consider before choosing them in your office pool.

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Nominee: Patrice Vermette, Paul Hotte
FilmArrival
Oscar History: Vermette was nominated once before, for The Young Victoria. This is Hotte’s first nomination.
Thoughts: Making a futuristic world look not so futuristic is not small feat and Vermette and Hotte aided Arrival‘s director in creating a unified vision of a not too distant future.  From the structured plain-ness of Amy Adams lakefront home to the various tents and pop up war rooms where government officials and scientists work together to figure out what some unexpected visitors want, the production design is organized and focused.  It’s actually a bit too subtle to truly contend with its fellow nominees, but overall the design is crisp.

Nominee: Stuart Craig, Anna Pinnock
FilmFanastic Beasts and Where to Find Them
Oscar History: Craig has been nominated 10 times before, winning for The English Patient, Dangerous Liaisons, and Gandhi.  Pinnock has been nominated five times before (twice in one year!), winning for The Grand Budapest Hotel.
Thoughts: For me, I always associate production design with the physically present sets and props the actors interact with.  While that does fall under the banner, the job of the production designer is to make cohesive all elements of the film production, including visual effects.  There’s a lot of imagination on display here and the period setting definitely helps one understand how these designers were nominated…but too much of the film feels created not crafted.

Nominee: Jess Gonchor, Nancy Haigh
FilmHail, Caesar!
Oscar History: Gonchor was nominated once before, for True Grit. Haigh has been nominated six times before, winning for Bugsy.
Thoughts: Period pieces always tend to fare better because in the eyes of the Academy, there’s a greater degree of difficulty in the full recreation of the past.  The designers involved with Hail, Caesar! certainly got the feel and look of early Hollywood, creating not only several jaw dropping sound stages but a fully realized backlot and several glamorous beach front mansions.  Remember what I say (because I’ll be saying it often throughout the next few weeks), nothing pleases Hollywood more than to reward films about Hollywood.  

Nominee: David Wasco, Sandy Reynolds-Wasco
FilmLa La Land
Oscar History: First time nominees.
Thoughts: Following along in the footsteps of Hail Caesar!, La La Land also takes place on the back lot of a movie studio and makes its own dreamy trip through a soundstage featuring several genres of classic Hollywood.  There’s a more modern realism afoot and the nominees here were admirably able to clean-up Los Angeles without scrubbing it of all its underbelly touches too much.  I actually started to notice the production design more in the second half of the movie when we visit more intimate venues and glide through a fantasy sequence where the attention to the details makes all the difference.

Nominee: Guy Hendrix Dyas, Gene Serdena
FilmPassengers
Oscar History: Hendrix Dyas has been nominated once before, for Inception.  Serdena has been nominated previously for Her.
Thoughts: This one is just completely odd to me.  Watching Passengers I remember specifically feeling how artificial everything looked.  The inner workings of the spaceship transporting human cargo to another galaxy is certainly grand in scope and doesn’t go the traditional route but the added visual effects tended to overwhelm the simple design elements..  Where most movies set in space have dark passageways and cold edges, the designers for Passengers balanced a brighter palate, lending some warmth to an overall chilly movie.

Missed Opportunity:

Should Been Nominated: Jean Rabasse for Jackie
Why?: I’m shocked Rabasse didn’t land a nomination for his striking recreations of historical locations in Jackie.  Perfectly blending with the work of the costume designer, the art direction was immaculate and not just the same old artist interpretation of the White House.  Rabasse had his work cut out since so many others have had a chance to put their own stamp on the Kennedy’s and their compounds…but this movie felt like it truly lept from the pages of history.  Passengers should have been swapped out for Jackie.

While I would love Hail! Caesar to nab the statue, it’s looking likely that La La Land, with its more contemporary take at Hollywood will continue its consumption of Oscars with a win here as well.

Oscar Nominees: Best Original Song

coollogo_com-77021458
Every day from now until the Oscars on Sunday, February 26 I’m going to deconstruct the nominees in each category. I’ll give you their history with the Academy, some extra thoughts on each nominee/film, who was snubbed, and what you might consider before choosing them in your office pool.

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Nominee: Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul
Song: ‘Audition (The Fools Who Dream)’ from La La Land
Oscar History: First time nominees, Hurwitz is also nominated for Best Original Score
Thoughts: Right off the bat, let me say that I wish there was a rule that there could only be one nominee per film…but that’s sour grapes on my part because, well, read on.  The first of two songs nominated from La La Land is arguably the better of the pair, though it’s also the one that does more to solidify Emma Stone’s hopes of winning an Oscar than its own.  The 11 o’clock number for Stone’s struggling actress character, it’s got a good bridge but not much of a hook.  Truth be told, it’s largely due to Stone’s earnestly honest performance of it that makes it memorable.  Taken out of context on the live broadcast (and maybe sung by someone other than Stone), I’m wondering how strong it will feel.

Nominee: Justin Hurwitz, Benj Pasek, Justin Paul
Song: ‘City of Stars’ from La La Land
Oscar History: First time nominees, Hurwitz is also nominated for Best Original Score
Thoughts: La La Land‘s second nomination is for the song featured heavy in the trailers and promo clips.  It’s an ear-worm of an anthem, but not a terribly tuneful or great one.  Score composer Justin Hurwitz wisely interspersed the song generously throughout the film and Ryan Gosling’s laid back jazz musician actually made me think he was coming up with the words right there on the spot.  Don’t forget that Hollywood LOVES to reward material that involves them in some way and a song called ‘City of Stars’ in a movie title La La Land hits the double target for voters that can’t get enough of their own back-patting. If neither film from La La Land takes the trophy, don’t feel too bad for composers/lyricists Pasek and Paul, they have Dear Evan Hansen, a sizable hit on Broadway looking likely to win them a Tony.

Nominee: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Song: ‘How Far I’ll Go’ from Moana
Oscar History: First time nominee
Thoughts: I’m just going to say it and I don’t care if you hate it.  Lin-Manuel Miranda is possibly the most overexposed celebrity alive today and if his song from Moana wins it will be largely due to the Hamilton fever that has taken over both coasts over the last two years.  There’s no doubt that Miranda is musically gifted and winning an Oscar here would make him the youngest EGOT winner ever (winning an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony) but the man has already won everything under the sun (even a Pulitzer!) for Hamilton…voters are either going to want to make it a clean sweep or they’ll think Miranda has filled enough shelf space this year with other statuettes.  That being said, while Moana and this song aren’t my favorite in the Disney canon, it surely makes for a positive message for young girls in that it teaches them they don’t need to pine for a prince to achieve the impossible.

Nominee: Justin Timberlake, Max Martin, Shellback
Song: ‘Can’t Stop The Feeling’ from Trolls
Oscar History: First time nominees
Thoughts: Like Pharrel’s ‘Happy’ from a few years back, this song from Trolls is the kind of get up and shake your groove thing song that will make its performance one to look forward to.  If La La Land‘s two songs split the vote and Miranda Mania doesn’t bring Moana to the winner circle, this could (and, really, should) walk away the winner. The only caveat I can see is that this one has gotten the most radio air time and if listeners/voters are sick of hearing it every day in their gym it might make it harder for them to cast a vote for it to win.  It’s a fun song with good lyrics and a great hook…a definite party song.

Nominee: J. Ralph & Sting
Song: ‘The Empty Chair’ from Jim: The James Foley Story
Oscar History: Ralph has been nominated twice before, last year for Racing Extinction and in 2013 for Chasing Ice.  Sting has been nominated three times before, for Cold Mountain, Kate & Leopold, and The Emperor’s New Groove.
Thoughts: When the nominations for Best Original Song rolled out, I can imagine many people having to blink a few times when they saw this nomination appear on screen.  Looking over all the nominees, this is still the biggest WTF moment but digging deeper maybe it was wrong to count this one out in the first place.  Both Sting and J. Ralph have been nominated multiple times in this category and Sting especially has a lot of good friends within the Academy.  Trouble is, the song is a bit of a downer as is the documentary it’s pulled from so we could be in for a bathroom break once Sting takes the stage to perform it.  The movie didn’t get much traction…in fact, I didn’t even remember that I had SEEN this movie already, having caught it when it was broadcast on HBO earlier this year.

Missed Opportunity:

Should Been Nominated: ‘Drive It Like You Stole It’ from Sing Street
Why?: Oh my goodness I was SO hoping this song (or any song, for that matter) from Sing Street would make it into the nominations.  The movie has the best songs of the year in my book and any one of them could be placed in the list of nominees and outshone its competition.  Director John Carney’s previous two wide released films (Once and Begin Again) snagged nominations and Once actually won.  I think the music here is better than both of them so it’s a damn shame a song like the favored ‘Drive It Like You Stole It’ couldn’t rustle enough votes to see its name announced on Oscar night.  

In my book, the Best Song of the year wasn’t even nominated.  Instead we’re left with two languid songs from the first original musical produced in Hollywood in decades, a pretty good song from a hotter than hot composer, a party anthem destined to be played in roller rinks for eternity, and a Sting track that feels like a B-Side.  So…while I’d give it to the Trolls song I’m going to go with ‘City of Stars’ from La La Land for the win.  (By the way, all five nominees were better than Sam Smith’s dreadful winning song from last year!)

Oscar Nominees: Best Visual Effects

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Every day from now until the Oscars on Sunday, February 26 I’m going to deconstruct the nominees in each category. I’ll give you their history with the Academy and some extra thoughts on each nominee/film and what you might consider before choosing them in your office pool.

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Nominees: Craig Hammack, Jason H. Snell, Jason Billington, Burt Dalton
Film
: Deepwater Horizon
Oscar History: All first time nominees, aside from Burt Dalton who has been nominated three times before, winning for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
Thoughts: All of the other nominees had a bit of an advantage over Deepwater Horizon because they largely took place in worlds of fantasy or other dimensions where rules didn’t quite apply.  The visual effects artists for this one, though, had to live not only in the real world but tell a true tale of survival at sea.  An explosion on a drilling rig sets a whole host of awfulness down on its crew and provides an unrelenting two hours of nail-biting.  A move with lots of fire and rain could easily become a mish mash when seen on the smaller screen but the texture and contrast designed here gives the film an immediacy that works as well on your home screen as it did on your local IMAX.

Nominees: Stephane Ceretti, Richard Bluff, Vincent Cirelli, Paul Corbould
Film
: Doctor Strange
Oscar History: Bluff and Cirelli are first time nominees, Ceretti and Corbould were nominated before for Guardians of the Galaxy.
Thoughts: I don’t usually feel my stomach lurch much in movies but the 3D kaleidoscopic effects that featured prominently in Doctor Strange almost made me use my popcorn bag for something far less appetizing.  Though I didn’t much care for the film (I’m in the minority, I know) I have to agree with critics and audiences alike that praised this Marvel Universe entry as the most sophisticated looking.  Hopping through worlds, wormholes, and far off dimensions, this one may make you weak in the knees and stomach.

Nominees: Steve Emerson, Oliver Jones, Brian McLean, Brad Schiff
Film
: Kubo and the Two Strings
Oscar History: First time nominees
Thoughts: Laika, the studio that relased Kubo and the Two Strings has been a frequent nominee in the Best Animated Feature category (Coraline, ParaNorman, & The Boxtrolls all netted noms) but this is the first time they’ve turned up in the visual effects discussion as well.  Blending stop-motion animation with cutting edge technology, the crew of first time nominees made this tender fable come to life in suprising ways.  All Lakia films are dark and this one had some fairly heavy messages swimming about, but the storytelling was aided by the way the figures moved and reacted.

Nominees:
Robert Legato, Adam Valdez, Andrew R. Jones, Dan Lemmon
Film
: The Jungle Book
Oscar History: Legato has been nominated three times before, winning for Hugo and Titanic. Valdez is a first time nominee, Jones has been nominated twice before, winning for Avatar. Lemmon has been nominated twice before.
Thoughts: As the final credits were wrapping up for this live-action update of the Disney animated classic, it might have been easy to miss the phrase ‘Filmed entirely on a lot in Los Angeles’.  Wha??  Not that I actually thought the movie was completely made up of location shooting, I guess I never stopped to think that a film with landscapes and animals created entirely by visual effects wouldn’t need to leave the US to do its work.  I saw the movie twice in theaters and both times was struck by how seamlessly the live action boy was blended with the computer generated world.  Incredible work.

Nominees:
John Knoll, Mohen Leo, Hal T. Hickel, Neil Corbould
Film
: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Oscar History: Knoll has been nominated five times before, winning for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Leo is a first time nominee. Hickel has been nominated three times before, winning for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Corbould has been nominated four times before, winning for Gravity and Gladiator.
Thoughts: I’m going to be honest and say that I was pretty tired and more than a little grumpy when I finally saw Rogue One: A Star Wars story so I’m recalling it through an ornery filter.  Look, this may not have been my favorite Star Wars film (how people could say this is the best one since The Empire Strikes Back is just…mystifying) but as in most of the films in this series, the visuals were top notch.  Crafting solar climates that living actors worked in quite well, these nominees have the most previous wins and nominations under the belt and you can see why.  It’s the work of pros…even if I felt the overall movie was a teeny bit of a letdown after The Force Awakens which I felt had more striking visuals that I responded to on a totally different level.

Missed Opportunity:

Should Been Nominated: Actually…I think the Oscars got the nominees right.  There was a shortlist of 10 and the five that made it in felt like the most deserving.  The other contenders were Arrival, The BFG, Captain America: Civil War, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Themand Passengers.

I think it’s safe to say that The Jungle Book has this one wrapped up.  Signaling a true step forward for visual effects creating 98% of what you see on screen and doing it seamlessly, it easily earns this award.  If I had to put a spoiler in, I’d say the stop-motion work in Kubo and the Two Strings was fairly awesome as well.  It could easily be dismissed as just an animated film…but the technical effects that went into making it smooth were amazingly well executed.