Drummer’s Ear

Sound of Metal is a drummer’s worst nightmare. Similar to Whiplash, Sound of Metal is an angry drumming movie that deserved Best Picture (but unsurprisingly didn’t win). I’m not a heavy metal fan, but I knew I’d like Sound of Metal as soon as I learned about it on Amazon Prime. The very simple premise follows the struggle of a heavy metal drummer who begins to lose his hearing. I didn’t think much of Riz Ahmed beforehand, but his performance is captivating. Ruben Stone feels like a genuine hard rocker and former addict with an underground band.

Olivia Cooke is similarly dedicated to playing the band’s singer/guitar player and Ruben’s emotional rock Lou. Ahmed earns his Best Actor nomination by exploring the five stages of grief. Denial comes when Ruben first starts to lose his hearing. There’s no way Sound of Metal wasn’t going to win Oscars for Best Film Editing and Best Sound. Hearing loss is effectively captured with scenes of complete silence, entire conversations with no sound, and subtitles only coming in when Ruben learns sign language. Ruben experiences anger multiple times throughout, but Lou helps him by finding a community for the deaf.

Bargaining is mostly seen as Ruben looks for ways to keep drumming. His primary goal is trying to get a cochlear implant procedure. Paul Raci centers the movie as the head of his shelter’s Christian organization for the deaf. Raci earns his Best Supporting Actor nomination as a real life coda with deaf parents. They clash over opposing viewpoints, but Joe does everything he can to help Ruben. Depression comes near the end when Ruben doesn’t get exactly what he wants. Finally ending with a beautiful moment of acceptance. Sound of Metal speaks from the heart.

Sound of Metal

Ruben drums

The Turing Machine

The Imitation Game highlights an often overlooked part of history. The 2015 Academy Awards is the first show where I watched every film nominated for Best Picture. The Imitation Game was last on my list, because I thought it would be boring. Little did I know how fascinating cryptography would be. Alan Turing was an English mathematician turned cryptanalyst who asked the important question “Can machines think?” His theory led to the invention of one of the earliest computers. Though Turing faced great difficulty as a homosexual in the middle of World War II.

The Imitation Game is a suitably thrilling war movie fought behind the scenes. Some complain that Turing’s sexuality is underplayed, but that’s not the key focus of the story. Any romantic feelings are hinted at during Turing’s school boy days. Benedict Cumberbatch proved himself as a serious Oscar contender. Although the film may not be 100% factual, Cumberbatch captures Turing as a socially awkward loner. He and other cryptographers are hired to break the Nazi Enigma machine. Which sends coded messages that could be vital in winning the war. So Turing built a machine capable of outthinking Enigma.

Equally important is Turing’s non-romantic relationship with Joan Clarke. Frequent historical actress Kiera Knightly was also nominated for her effort. Clarke faces her own share of adversity as the sole female cryptanalyst, but she forms a bound with Turing that helps complete his work. Of course the truth comes out and it is distressing to see Turing endure chemical castration. Although it cost him a great deal, Turing’s machine was a major victory for all involved. Making The Imitation Game a story worth telling.

The Imitation Game

Alan Turing and his machine

Fluorescent Beige

Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire turns a heavy situation into an artistic inspiration. As the unnecessary subtitle suggests, Precious is based on the deeply personal 1996 novel Push by Sapphire. Director Lee Daniels saw its potential and so did its producers Tyler Perry and Oprah Winfrey. In 2009, Precious became a rare predominantly black film that received significant Academy Awards attention. I’ve wanted to see Precious for years, but I thought its heavy subject matter would make it a difficult watch. So I waited until I was more ready. Precious is tough to watch at times, but it’s a lot more uplifting than I was expecting.

Claireece “Precious” Jones is an obese teenager with dark black skin. Such an uncommon character led to the casting of first time actress Gabourey Sidibe. Her raw Oscar nominated performance was perfect for a brutally honest movie. Precious can’t read or write, has image issues, lives in an abusive household, and is pregnant with her own father’s second child. More uncomfortable moments of violence or incest are filtered through Precious’ hopeful inner fantasies. Harlem is a rough neighborhood given an almost sepia color palette. The most complex character is Precious’ horrible mother who abuses her and makes her collect welfare checks.

Comedian Mo’Nique goes against type with an unpredictable Best Supporting Actress winning performance. She goes from seemingly caring to violent in an instant. Other unexpected performances include Lenny Kravitz as a genuinely kind nurse and Mariah Carey as no-nonsense social worker Ms. Weiss. A far cry from her Glitter days. Precious finds hope for a better life when she’s sent to an alternative school. Paula Patton is her teacher Ms. Rain who actually cares enough to help. Her class is another special support system, but reality sets in when she returns to her mother. We learn so many conflicting things about her near the end, but the ultimate triumph is Precious leaving forever with her children. Precious brings hope to the hopeless.

Precious

Precious rides the train

Say Hello to My Little Friend!

Scarface (1983) exemplifies the American dream. Nothing has received a bigger critical reevaluation than Scarface. At first it was hated for its excessive violence, profanity, and drug use. Scarface wasn’t even nominated for a single Academy Award. Acclaimed director Brian De Palma was actually nominated for a Razzie Award. So how did Scarface become one of the greatest gangster films of all time? I’m also turned off by its excess, but I understand why it resonates with so many people. Leading to countless pop culture references, a video game, and hip hop influence. Scarface is a remake that learns a lot from what came before. Gangster mainstay Al Pacino was drawn to the original, but writer Oliver Stone didn’t want an Italian mob picture.

The renamed Tony Montana became a Cuban refugee in 1980’s Miami. Alcohol prohibition became drug trafficking, but the American dream remained very much intact. Tony lives by “The World is Yours” as he goes from poor dishwasher without a green card to powerful drug lord. First he needs the money, then he’ll get the power, and then he’ll get the women. Pacino isn’t Cuban, but his exaggerated volatility makes Tony iconic. 2 hours & 50 minutes is more than enough time to take in the scope of his journey. Steven Bauer is the only Cuban to play Tony’s loyal friend Manny. The respectable Robert Loggia and F. Murray Abraham play their mentor Frank Lopez and his right-hand Omar. A relatively unknown Michelle Pfeiffer makes her presence known as Frank’s beautiful blonde trophy wife Elvira.

Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio similarly makes an impression with her film debut as Tony’s sister Gina. Their overprotective relationship is more screwed up, but not explicitly incestious. Scarface still pushes the boundaries even 5 decades after the original. There are several bloody shootouts, a torture scene involving a chainsaw, a record 207 F bombs, and mountains of cocaine. Tony becomes the bad guy when he seizes Frank’s position, marries Elvira, and offs anyone in his way. The more villainous drug dealer Alejandro Sosa turns on Tony after he fails to do a job for him. Tony gets high on his own supply and becomes increasingly paranoid. The explosive climax is a big part of cinematic history. As the coke fueled Tony Montana says the iconic phrase “Say hello to my little friend,” he lives long enough to hold off Sosa’s men. Scarface is a cautionary tale that takes an excessive lifestyle to its furthest extreme.

Scarface 1983

“Say hello to my little friend!”

Remake of: Scarface (1932)

King for a Night

The King of Comedy is no laughing matter. Although Martin Scorsese is best known for hard-hitting drama, Robert De Niro wanted to make a PG rated comedy. Especially after Raging Bull. The King of Comedy feels very underrated considering I hadn’t heard of it until Joker came out. Everyone knows Taxi Driver, but The King of Comedy received a renewed interest. Despite watching the film a year after Joker, I’m shocked by how well its themes were translated. De Niro plays aspiring stand-up comedian Rupert Pupkin.

Pupkin is obsessed with late-night New York talk show host Jerry Langford. Although delusional to the point of imagining a friendship with Jerry, Pupkin never feels too threatening. De Niro makes him surprisingly sympathetic. When Jerry tells him to start at the bottom, he practices his act with an elaborate set in his unseen mother’s basement. Pupkin only goes a step too far when he invites his lady friend to Jerry’s house uninvited. The King of Comedy isn’t violent like Taxi Driver, but it is a realistic depiction of stalking and celebrity worship.

The legendary Jerry Lewis is perfect for the aptly named role of Jerry. I’ve never seen the comedian so serious. When Pupkin is continually turned away, he resorts to kidnapping Jerry with an even crazier fan. Sandra Bernhard is just as well cast as the romantically obsessed Masha. Calling himself “The King of Comedy,” Rupert Pupkin literally breaks into show business when Jerry is all tied up. The final stand-up routine is both funny and tragic as Pupkin lives his dream before going to jail. The ambiguous ending was the right call, since The King of Comedy is so good at blurring the line.

The King of Comedy

Rupert Pupkin on The Jerry Langford Show

One More Game

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? changed the very course of Hollywood itself. The film is based on the 1962 play from Edward Albee that caused quite a stir with its lewd and vulgar content. The dialogue being kept intact meant the original Production Code left Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? unrated. Although PG-13 by today’s standards, audiences weren’t used to hearing profanity in pictures. Even I was a little shocked, but I knew to expect 2 hours of non-stop fighting. It feels all the more authentic with the often turbulent Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton as the leads. Despite its controversy, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is one of only 2 movies nominated in every eligible category.

Best Picture for producer Ernest Lehman’s persistence and first time director Mike Nichols for his ability to translate the stage to the screen. Having only 4 actors meant the entire cast was nominated for acting. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? follows the failing marriage of George and Martha. Burton plays the passive history professor of a university and Taylor plays the aggressive daughter of the university’s president. The title refers to an in-joke that they sing to each other. They unwillingly entertain the young, good looking, and well built biology professor Nick and his hip wife Honey. George Segal and Sandy Dennis fill the remaining roles. Over the course of only one night of heavy drinking, arguments begin to escalate very quickly. It’s a unique character study that’ll make you laugh as well as wince.

George goes from timid to ruthless with his casual insults and “games” that he plays with his guests. Nick goes from non-confrontational to pushed around by almost everybody. Despite the men receiving a bit more attention, it’s the women who both won an Academy Award. Honey wants to leave at first, but Dennis becomes a very convincing silly drunk who can’t hold her liquor. Really most of the attention understandably went to Taylor playing against type. Martha is very overbearing as she puts down her husband, but she can also be flirtatious towards Nick and vulnerable when certain topics are brought up. Just about everything is discussed, but it’s George and Martha’s son that feels the most poignant. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a black & white classic with a modern sense of storytelling.

Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf

George prepares to shoot Martha

You Have to Promise You Won’t Fall in Love with Me

A Walk to Remember is sadder than The Notebook, but not as remembered by the general public. The Notebook was of course the first Nicholas Sparks adaptation that I saw. A Walk to Remember seemed like a good follow up due to its similarities. Both books take place in the past and have sad endings. A Walk to Remember keeps the sad ending, but the setting is modernized. Most of the North Carolina set was even borrowed from Dawson’s Creek. Most critics wrote it off, but I knew there was a loyal fanbase.

I was genuinely moved by A Walk to Remember no matter how cliché it might be. Landon Carter is your typical bad boy who acts out. Jamie Sullivan is your typical reverend’s daughter with her own interests. Though they’ve known each other a long time, they’re brought together when Landon is forced to do a school play. Jamie only helps him under the condition that he doesn’t fall in love with her. Of course that’s a promise he won’t be able to keep for long. Jamie’s disapproving father and Landon’s mostly lousy friends can’t get in the way of them falling in love.

Their romance is sweet with Landon helping Jamie accomplish everything on her list. Shane West has a fine emotional transformation and Mandy Moore proves herself as an actress. Though she does sing on two separate occasions. The sadness comes in when Jamie reveals she has leukemia. Sparks wrote the story for his own sister battling cancer. Jamie actually looks sick, but her faith is refreshingly shown in a positive light. I cried from the reveal to Jamie’s final wish to be married. Love Story may have done it first, but I prefer A Walk to Remember.

A Walk to Remember

Landon sits with Jamie

Mad Wealthy Orientals

Crazy Rich Asians is something I may never truly understand. Since I’m not crazy, rich, or Asian. I don’t have to relate to something to enjoy it, but I feel like Crazy Rich Asians would’ve been overlooked if not for its cast. Based on the book by Kevin Kwan, Crazy Rich Asians is the first Chinese American movie released by a major studio in decades. Although executives were nervous, the movie was a box-office success with Awards attention. The more hype it got, the more likely I was to be disappointed. Director Jon M. Chu wasn’t exactly that beloved beforehand. I love rom-coms, but I don’t see them in theaters no matter who stars in them. Even the 91% Rotten Tomatoes consensus called it formulaic without truly criticizing the movie.

I do think Crazy Rich Asians has merit outside of its all-Asian cast, but that still doesn’t make it less cliché. The cinematography is beautiful with epic Singapore landscapes and a magical wedding. The cast is impressive, but I can only follow so many extended family members. Fresh Off the Boat star Constance Wu plays likeable leading lady/college professor Rachel Chu from a working class family. She somehow never knows that her handsome British-Chinese boyfriend Nick Young played by newcomer Henry Golding is crazy rich after 1 year of dating. They do get romantic, but the focus is really the status struggle between Rachel and Nick’s family.

They attend his friend’s wedding in Singapore where she comes in direct conflict with his old fashioned Christian mother Eleanor. Michelle Yeoh elevates the material past the disapproving mother cliché. Other family members receive attention, but I was most interested in Gemma Chan’s subplot as Nick’s cousin Astrid. She feels genuinely classy and her problems are sympathetic. I have nothing against rich people, but they do feel obnoxiously wealthy at times. As for the comedy, I’ll never understand the appeal of Awkwafina. Ken Jeong was funnier in one scene than she was in the entire movie. The use of Mahjong in the climax feels appropriately unique, but there’s still a last minute grand romantic gesture on an airplane. Crazy Rich Asians just barely elevates its familiar story for me to commend it.

Crazy Rich Asians

Rachel Chu and Nick Young look lovingly

Imaginary Rabbit

Harvey has to be seen to be appreciated. I’ve seen many James Stewart classics, but nothing is as unique as Harvey. Based on the 1944 play, Harvey tells the peculiar tale of a man who sees an invisible over 6ft. tall white rabbit. My only knowledge of the imaginary rabbit was from references in either Who Framed Roger Rabbit or The Simpsons. I wondered how an entire movie could be centered on an unseen character, but Harvey was far more delightful than I was expecting.

Stewart is effortlessly likeable as the charming Elwood P. Dowd. Aside from frequent drinking, his only problem is how crazy he seems walking and talking with Harvey. Harvey remains unseen throughout, but we do get a quick glimpse in a portrait. Stewart was nominated for his performance, although it’s Josephine Hull who most deserved her Oscar win for playing Dowd’s sister Veta. She’s high-strung and humorous, but Veta is first to suggest committing her brother to a sanitarium. Even though she claims to have seen Harvey as well.

Much like the play it’s based on, each character plays an important role no matter how small. There’s Veta’s neutral daughter Myrtle Mae, a judge caught in the middle, a rough around the edges orderly, will they or won’t they sanitarium workers, and their boss Dr. Chumley who begins to see Harvey himself. Although Harvey is described as a somewhat sinister sounding pooka, you can’t help but root for Dowd’s friendship as he spreads kindness wherever he goes. Harvey is a classic with an invisible friend we all could use.

Harvey

Elwood P. Dowd with a portrait of Harvey

Always Protect Yourself

Million Dollar Baby packs a serious punch. I haven’t seen much of Hilary Swank, but she’s an actress who always makes her performances count. She’s far from a typical 2 time Best Actress winner. It only took 5 years after Swank won for Boys Don’t Cry. Both films feature an intense transformation that the Academy Awards couldn’t ignore. Million Dollar Baby is the first movie to win Best Picture after the Lord of the Rings trilogy ended. It’s not the greatest boxing movie ever made, but it does go deeper than most. All thanks to the personal Oscar winning direction of the legendary Clint Eastwood. He also produced, starred, and provided the subtle guitar score.

Eastwood is the gruff but good hearted boxing trainer Frankie Dunn. He has his own personal problems ranging from faith to family. Although initially refusing to train a girl, Maggie Fitzgerald is exactly the aspiring young underdog he needs in his life. Together they train and eventually bound over their shared struggles. Similar to her previous award winning role, Maggie is from a trailer park with a scumbag family and has her life cut tragically short. Million Dollar Baby also gave Morgan Freeman the opportunity to finally win an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor.

Former boxer Scrap has great interplay with Frankie, a lovable mentor role with Maggie, and Freeman narrates as well. The role is practically redemption for not winning for Shawshank Redemption. Several before they were famous actors include Jay Baruchel as a more dimwitted aspiring boxer. Plus many future Marvel actors like Anthony Mackie, Michael Peña, and a very skinny Mike Colter. Swank still steals the show with her impressive muscle tone, heartfelt sincerity, and brutal boxing matches against real life female boxers. The ending is heart-wrenching, but the message of Million Dollar Baby is clear to always protect yourself and fight for your dream.

Million Dollar Baby

Frankie and Scrap help Maggie in the ring