2017 Oscars So Predictable?

Let me be clear about one thing before I begin this piece. Concerning the upcoming Oscars, I am not, in any way, shape or form, an “expert critic.” I don’t know what makes one, but when it comes to predicting Academy Award winners, I am sometimes right and sometimes wrong. Over the years, I’ve had both the experience of picking the underdog who winds up defeating the more established competitors, and also been completely off in my guesstimates. (“The Artist“? If you called that one, I am impressed.) So if you’re looking for some surefire tips for winning an Oscar betting pool, you’ll probably want to go with an expert instead.

The nine movies up for Best Picture consideration are: Arrival, Fences, Hacksaw Ridge, Hell or High Water, Hidden Figures, La La Land, Lion, Manchester by the Sea and Moonlight. Quite a prestigious group, which I hope to eventually all view. Whichever wins will give those involved the satisfaction of knowing they beat out a tough field.

Since I don’t own a crystal ball, I’ve developed my own (unscientific) criteria which I use to narrow down the field. Even then, surprises happen – as the final guideline will discuss. They may go by different names with different people, but they’re probably similar.

They are:

1. The Summer Book List Reading Rule – Even if you enjoy reading in general, having to complete a certain number of novels by the first day of school can be a chore. You may start off vowing to get them all finished early, but that might not actually wind up occurring because other more pleasurable stuff gets in the way. I suspect that this might also happen with the Oscar judges; occasionally one or two films wind up getting a cursory viewing. Not that you don’t eventually finish the assignment, just that it might involve less time and effort than it should.

2. The Chocolate Box Sampler Rule – Some films will have more naturally appealing subject matter, and you’ll be tempted to give those a viewing first. Others will strike you as palatable, and you won’t have a problem consuming them. However, there may be one or two that just doesn’t sound like anything you’d want to watch and still be able to sleep peacefully the night after. This is more a matter of personal prejudice than simply having to do your homework. It might even be easier to rationalize why you want to watch one of the movies again – for ostensibly good reasons, but really because you prefer a caramel cream over a cherry bomb.

3. The Snob Factor – The winner is not going to be the summer blockbuster that made you laugh so hard you choked on your popcorn, but usually there are several candidates that manage to combine the goals of giving the viewer an enjoyable time and teaching them something new. Also foreign films may, for whatever reasons, be automatically considered classier than movies set in the US. If the film is sufficiently prestigious and manages to sneak in some fun and heartwarming in the process, it may be a top contender.

4. The “Good Person” Voter Test – Even anonymously, people may shade the truth when completing surveys or voting. We may pick the answers or candidates that we feel we should rather than the ones we would prefer. If the movie makes a nominee feel virtuous or politically correct when electing it, it might get a boost. I don’t know if there’s a section of the brain that changes when we do what we feel is the “right thing,” and gives us a small reward, but I’m willing to bet on it.

5. The Character Personal Accountability Scale – All movie protagonists have issues that they must grapple and come to terms with by the end of the film. Generally, characters who take responsibility for the ones they can alter by the first half of the film and do so with some degree of maturity are easier to root for. If the character has a less than likeable personality, if it’s due to uncontrollable factors (such as childhood trauma), sympathy may develop anyway.

6. The Character Likeability Scale – Characters with whom the viewer wouldn’t mind hanging out are a plus. Even if they’re not the life of the party, but clearly care for their family and friends, this can help boost a film’s chances of winning.

7. The Wild Card – Sometimes people revolt and do the unexpected. After such an upset occurs, experts immediately begin assembling a list of “whys,” which make the win seem obvious in retrospect, but the truth is, they really had no idea. Predictions are made by observing patterns, but even experts can miss what’s right in front of them at times. I would bet that in such cases, many voters feel that they are in the minority but go ahead and choose the film they feel is the most deserving anyway.

So which movie would I pick to win? “Hidden Figures,” because it’s enjoyable, profound, politically correct and as a bonus, is a film you can watch while your young children are in the room. The main characters grapple with serious issues, but you don’t come away from the film feeling as depleted as a wet dishrag. As Mary Poppins put it in song, a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.

(But I would consider most of the others worthy winners, too.)

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2016-2017 Winter Movie Lessons

Girl on a Train

1. Other people’s lives may look so much more exciting when viewed from a train, but they actually might be bad for your mental health.

2. Therapists are amazingly easy to seduce and draw into your web of intrigue – just sit across from them in a flirtatious manner.

3. Getting involved in a murder investigation is a great way for the unpleasant truth to come out – such as that you no longer have a job and haven’t for awhile.

Manchester by the Sea

4. Having an argument about funeral plans with your recently reunited nephew while trying to figure out where you parked your car is counterproductive.

5. If your uncle is habitually morose, has issues with alcohol and is bereft of small talk, it’s not a good idea to use him as your wingman.

6. If you’re a teen whose recently reunited uncle starts off permissive (like letting your girlfriend sleep over), it may not last as he finds his footing.

Office Christmas Party

7. Fake Christmas trees in public venues can be awfully unsteady, so it’s a good idea to refrain from brushing up against them.

8. It’s not a good idea to mix cocaine and mainlining using Christmas lights, especially when there’s a horde of drunk partygoers below.

9. Playing favorites with your kids while you are alive is a surefire way to ensure nonstop friction after you pass on, and they grow up.

Collateral Beauty

10. Convincing your boss that he is insane while currently mourning the loss of his child can be justified if you really try.

11. It’s amazingly easy to convince three people to pretend to be abstract concepts, such as Death, in fact, some will be eager to if they enjoy acting.

12. When you’re grieving, dominoes are a lot less complex than people and moreover, won’t play mean tricks on you for the sake of their jobs.

La La Land

13. If you live in LA, getting out of your car en masse to dance during a traffic jam does not get you any strange looks or court orders.

14. It helps to turn off your cell before performing a dance number in public if you want to make it through to the very end.

15. If someone at an acting audition asks you to “just tell a story,” feel free to launch into a lengthy musical number – you’ll still get the job.

Hidden Figures

16. If you’re not going to provide your female employee with an accessible restroom, you really shouldn’t force her to wear heels to trek forty minutes to the loo.

17. When trying to impress a woman who works at NASA, never assume she was hired just to type, file and fetch coffee.

18. If you’re a famous astronaut, it’s okay for you to hold up the launch at the last minute in order to get a specific employee’s input.

Fist Fight

19. Teachers at failing high schools whose job is in jeopardy can manage to pony up the money for not one, but two, MacBook Pros in a single day.

20. There apparently exist high schools which are in such disarray that no one even notices a horse on meth galloping through the halls.

21. There apparently exist elementary schools where none of the teachers leaps up to throttle the DJ playing an obscene rap song before the child performing it gets halfway through.

Movie Review: Fist Fight

“Fist Fight,” starring Ice Cube and Charlie Day as rival teachers at failing Roosevelt High School, resembles plot-wise a movie called “Joe Somebody,” in which Tim Allen played a milquetoast middle manager who winds up challenging his bullying colleague Patrick Warburton to a rematch after being humiliated in front of his daughter in the parking lot on Take Your Child to Work Day. When Charlie attempts to pull into his assigned parking spot at school only to be thwarted by a smart alecky guy, I thought, “Hmm, they’re not even trying to be original.” However, that’s just one in a series of incidents that add fuel to the simmering fire, and have the expected cumulative effect on Charlie over the course of the day. The movie also echoes “Big Bully,” in which Rick Moranis (playing a creative writing teacher) faces off against childhood nemesis Tom Arnold and tries to excuse his regressive behavior by complaining that Tom shot peas at him in the cafeteria. “Fist Fight,” is a raunchier version of both movies, but unlike the others, all the juvenile behavior displayed by the adult cast has to be squeezed within the time span of a school day. And there is a lot of it. Plus a talent show and a character (Charlie’s wife, JoAnna Garcia Swisher) who is about to give birth any minute, so you can rest assured there will be high jinks galore.

The fun begins when Charlie arrives in the teachers’ lounge, only to discover that his colleagues are dreading the upcoming interviews as their jobs are rumored to be on the chopping block. These include guidance counselor, Jillian Bell (who does meth before school and longs to sleep with a jock in a letterman jacket), and gym teacher, Tracy Morgan (who has brought long pants for the occasion). When history teacher Ice Cube stalks in, the trio trembles in fear, but nothing serious happens – that comes later when Charlie attempts to help Ice Cube with the archaic VCR he must use to show a film in class, and a student attempts to prank them. This leads to Charlie squealing to save his job at Ice Cube’s expense, and Ice Cube not being too happy, as he tells Charlie he’ll be waiting for him after school because “snitches get stitches.” As Ice Cube has a formidable reputation (he helped take down the Hussein brothers), Charlie tries everything he can to get out of this predicament, which, of course, only makes things worse. Eventually, of course, we discover that Ice Cube has an ulterior motive for challenging Charlie – he wants to show the students that actions have consequences, and also, hopefully, put pressure on the school board to start addressing its problems. Before the day ends, the two will end up at the police station, their fight will go viral, Charlie’s daughter will increase her self-esteem, and Charlie will become a new dad.

This movie got three stars at Roger Ebert’s site, one more than “A Cure for Wellness,” which I considered seeing instead, so I went with this. It wasn’t quite as funny as I expected, but the cast does a great job, although seriously, how can there exist a school today that would condone Ice Cube’s disciplinary measures? But if you don’t mind raw language (including from Charlie’s preteen daughter), lots of sitcom-esque misunderstandings and over-the-top pranking, it’s not bad. Ice Cube gets in a pop culture reference when he spits, “(Expletive) the police,” but my favorite secondary character line is Jillian Bell when, upon witnessing a rocky stretch of the title fight snarks, “First one to die, haunts the school!”

A Look Back: Moonrise Kingdom

If you’re a troubled young adult in a Wes Anderson movie and live on an idyllic island in the sixties in what appears to be some kind of lighthouse, to where would you run if you felt misunderstood and under-appreciated in your family? Well, if you’re watching “Moonrise Kingdom” and grew up, like me, in a regular house in New England suburbia, you might consider this question beside the point. What 12-year-old would really be upset if they were told that they could live on an island with plenty of boating, swimming, fishing and wilderness, as long as they had access to certain decade specific comforts? But if you were trapped with three younger brothers who enjoy the music of Benjamin Britten, your mom (Frances McDormand) was having an affair, and your father was none other than Bill Murray wearing plaid pants and equally clueless, this might seem a good idea. Such is the plight of Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward), who longs to be reunited with her pen pal (Jared Gilman), an orphan she met during a play performance the preceding summer. As they have kept in passionate touch via the US Postal Service, and he’s not that popular with the other Scouts, Jared is equally eager to see her, and so an escape plan is hatched.

The movie is chock full of symbolism starting with Kara’s binoculars and continuing with a myriad of symbols that should thrill any English teacher. Jared, who is a member of the Khaki Scouts (I guess they didn’t want a lawsuit from the actual Boy Scouts) and staying at a camp, brings the survival camping stuff, while Kara totes along her cat, enough food for it, her brothers’ (battery operated) record player, novels about orphans and yes, the binoculars. Kara, though she has issues with her family, does have a very different perspective on the concept of orphanhood than Jared, whose mother is deceased and whose foster family wishes to return him to Social Services (as embodied by Tilda Swinton). But the two are clearly soul mates, so it’s easy to root for them when they take off, leaving a host of clueless adults behind including Bill and Frances, Jared’s scoutmaster Edward Norton, and police chief Bruce Willis. Tilda wants to return Jared to a juvenile care facility which will give him electroshock (perhaps the fact that he starts fires while sleepwalking might have something to do with it), and is the most adult of the group (which isn’t saying a great deal), so the stakes are high. As Bill and Frances seem only vaguely aware they have a daughter, one might think that putting Kara in the care of Social Services might be a good thing too, but that would be another movie altogether.

Edward’s Khaki Scouts (referred to by Bill as “the beige lunatics” with good reason) attempt to track down Jared and retrieve him, a standoff involving lefty scissors and a dog which does not meet a happy end. However, after Jared is taken into custody by Bruce, and Kara is retrieved by her family (it’s possible her brothers are happier to see the record player than her), the Scouts have a change of heart and decide to help the two reunite. This involves Jason Schwartzman who runs another scout camp and has the power to marry the two teens, although not in a binding legal sense. After explaining that he was in a movie called “Rushmore” when they were toddlers so that explains the chuckles of recognition from the viewers, he does the deed. Then it’s back to more symbolism when the two take refuge in a steeple, and Jared gets Mother Nature’s version of electroshock treatment. But it all ends well, with Bruce given (I think) permanent custody of Jared, and the two allowed to see each other when they want. The characters spend a lot of time drifting around like patterns on a screensaver, occasionally interacting, but it works if you like those sorts of quirky films.

A Look Back: The Social Network

Hey, remember Friendster? Or MySpace? Me either, but Facebook, the subject of “The Social Network,” is still very much alive and kicking. It might be a never-ending debate whether social media does more harm to society than good, or perhaps not, depending on your generation, but it appears to be here for the long haul. Which means, as humor columnist Dave Barry once put it, that it’s possible for someone in this era to waste more time in an hour than their parent did in an entire day. It means trying to drag one’s attention away from fascinating news (“Does Donald Trump Know How to Shake Hands?”), in order to do far duller stuff like say, write one’s blog. Difficult, but not (yet) impossible.

Originally, I thought Aaron Sorkin’s “The Social Network,” which came out in 2011, was based on the book “The Accidental Billionaires” by Ben Mezrich, which it sort of is, except both projects, the book and the script, were written simultaneously. But they both tell the real-life story of how Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, rose from a humble Harvard student (albeit one already known as a programming prodigy) to become the youngest billionaire (currently the fifth richest) in history. Like Sorkin’s “Steve Jobs,” (the one with Michael Fassbender, not Ashton Kutcher), this is a tale of how the smartest person in the room, with help from a few other smart and savvy people, achieved success, but betrayed a friend and ended successful but not satisfied as a human being. In the opening scene that reportedly required 99 takes, Mark (Jesse Eisenberg) presents a tutorial of how not to treat one’s girlfriend (Rooney Mara). He then, after being offensive, proceeds to compound the problem by a) blogging about his discontent and b) setting up a feature on the college site which allows users to rank two pictures of either male or female students on attractiveness. Surprisingly, this does not go over well with the Harvard administration, but as it turns out, the story’s just getting started.

After Rooney dumps him with the warning, “The Internet is written in ink,” Jesse is approached by preppy crew-team twin brothers (both played by Armie Hammer) who want his help with a social networking site. They also bring in Max Minghella, and in an attempt to improve on the idea of a site for Ivy Leaguers, Jesse develops what becomes Facebook, getting Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield) to fund it. Later, Napster co-founder (Justin Timberlake in a Mephistopheles role) Sean Parker comes on board, as its success grows. Because this is interwoven with “present day” depositions of Armie and Andrew, we already know that there has been conflict. While Armie attempts to recruit the college president to aid him in an “intellectual property theft” scandal, the president pretty much laughs him (or both hims) out of the room. Andrew’s problem is that he loses shares in the company, thanks to not reading the fine print on his contract. Ultimately, the lawsuits are settled, providing a valuable lesson for me, at least, who previous to watching “The Social Network,” skimmed the fine print on documents.

When the movie came out, I made two predictions that turned out to be wrong. One, that “The Social Network,” would beat out “The King’s Speech” for Best Picture, which did not happen, perhaps because viewers of the first were apparently divided on whether Jesse’s character was a hero or a sociopath. The second was that by this time in history, Facebook would have evolved into something completely different and not even be called Facebook any more. So much for foresight, but it’s just as well.

A Look Back: This Boy’s Life

Two years ago, moviegoers had a prime opportunity to see Leonardo DiCaprio play a brave frontiersman who gets dramatically mauled by a bear. It was a masterful performance which earned him an Oscar. Roughly twenty years earlier, when Leo was at the beginning of his film career, moviegoers also had a great opportunity to see Leo get beaten up – repeatedly – in “This Boy’s Life.” His nemesis was none other than Robert DeNiro, playing an abusive stepfather, against who young Leo held his own. The movie was a film adaption of the memoir of Tobias Wolff. The movie also features a young Tobey Maguire as one of Tobias’s high school friends, not a big role but still showing a glimpse of the promise to come.

The saga begins in 1957 with Ellen Barkin as the mom fleeing her abusive boyfriend with Leo, her son in tow, but the mood is upbeat because they’re out for adventure and ready to strike it rich in Utah via a uranium detector. Ellen is divorced from Leo’s real dad, who retains custody of the other son (who also becomes a published writer as an adult), an arrangement that works better with non-identical twin children, as the chance of them meeting at summer camp and switching places in hopes of reuniting their folks is nil. In their new locale, they don’t find much in the way of uranium, but Ellen does attract a suitor (Robert) who in the guise of an amiable dork manages to insinuate himself into their lives. Though Leo pegs him as harmless and mocks him behind his back mercilessly, there are signs that Robert is not quite what he appears – such as when they go to a turkey shoot, and he sulks when out-performed by Ellen. But after he pulls out of his funk, things snap back to normal and because Leo may be heading for juvenile hall, it’s agreed that he’ll go stay with Robert and his three children, prior to Ellen marrying and joining them.

It’s on the ride back to his new home – named Concrete, really – that Leo realizes that he’s misjudged Robert, who is on his home turf, an insecure bully and that he is “in for a whole other ball game.” Though he shows his true colors with Ellen on their wedding night no less, Ellen no longer has the gumption to do anything but try and make the best of things where she and Leo are. That means negotiating the rapids of Robert’s moods on a daily basis, which is a rather rough ride. But Leo does make a friend in Jonah Bleechman who in a small role, manages to make many girls watching jealous after he gets to kiss Leo (on the cheek). As time goes on, however, life under Robert’s reign becomes unbearable, so Leo hatches a plan to attend boarding school. With help from his older brother, Leo manages to land a scholarship, and eventually, thanks to a jar of mustard (really) both Ellen and Leo escape. The school itself is not going to turn out to be a panacea, but what matters is that they are finally free. It’s too bad that the movie has to end, as all the cast is excellent, but it’s just as well given Robert’s level of maturity.

Movie Review: Patriots Day

(Note: I know I said a week ago that I couldn’t watch “Patriots Day” yet, but it was glowingly recommended with the caveat that it wasn’t at all “politically correct.” Not sure how a film would manage that and stay true to the reality of the tragedy, but it didn’t, so I’m glad I went after all.)

It’s a sunny day in mid-April New England, and in the Boston that means there are three options, as one character in “Patriots Day” puts it: watching the Boston Marathon, running the Boston Marathon, or cheering on the Red Sox at Fenway Park. In the movie’s opening morning scenes, we move between scenes of ordinary people working out, eating breakfast before the TV, playing video games with friends, and taking photos of a new car. The central character, a police officer played by Mark Wahlberg, grumbles to his wife that he’s stuck with supervising things at the Marathon finish line, plus his knee is acting up from having too zealously kicked in a door the day before. But like a sinister version of “One of These Things Is Not Like the Other One,” one of these groups will be responsible for untold pain and suffering just a few hours later. That would be the brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Alec Wolff and Therno Melikidze), who plan on executing the bombing – and then moving on to New York. Luckily, they are foiled, but it takes a 100 plus traumatic hour time period to accomplish this. No one will emerge unscathed.

As I expected, Mark does a good job in the early part of the movie, managing to maintain an air of good-naturedness (even with his bum knee), whether it’s shooing the guy in the lobster costume away from the finish line or advising a lone Yankees fan he might want to lose the hat, but he gets even better as things progress, and he’s forced into action when the bombs detonate, throwing the previously upbeat gathering into dark chaos. Several people will lose their lives before it ends, others will lose limbs, and one man (Jimmy O. Yang) will be taken hostage and forced to drive the two terrorists on an escape route, but he manages to escape and provide the police with valuable information. Meanwhile pretty much everybody who’s anybody in government and law enforcement gather to track down data on the suspects and recreate the crime scene.

Everyone in this movie is a badass, from Kevin Bacon, an FBI head who responds to learning that Fox News is minutes away from releasing photos by sneering that he’s not going to let those snot-nosed punks leave his cheese in the wind – to Michael Beach, who plays Gov. Deval Patrick fiercely determined to protect his state. There’s also Alex’s wife (Melissa Benoist) who refuses to cooperate with the authorities, and the Framingham police officer who refuses to retreat during the shootout with the remaining brother, Therno, despite backup by the Watertown cops. Heck, this is her turf. John Goodman, playing Commissioner Ed Davis, also does a great job, but then so does all the cast. On top of that, the end, which features the characters’ real-life counterparts, is a surefire occasion for the lump in your throat and the dampness in your eyes to return (if they have indeed gone away). Let’s hope that the early release date doesn’t keep “Patriots Day” from being seriously considered for at least one Oscar nomination for it deserves it.