mad-max-fury-road-hardy-theronThe Florida Film Critics Circle, a critics group we have representation in, has announced the winners of this year’s contest for the best of 2015, and it’s a wild list. Mad Max: Fury Road, a film we loved (Overturning Patriarchy in the Post-apocalyptic World: Mad Max: Fury Road – A Film Review), took the several of the top prizes including Best Picture, Director, Cinematography and Effects. Carol, another excellent movie we were rooting for (Love in times of heterosexism — Carol, a film review) had led the nominations with eight to Max‘s seven, but it ended up winning only one category, that of art direction/production design. Though it’s sad to see Carol come up short in so many categories, it did get runner up for esteemed categories like director, adapted screenplay, cinematography and score.

Speaking of score, I was delighted to see Love & Mercy win for that category. It was also a winner in Best Actor for Paul Dano. The Brian Wilson biopic really came out of nowhere to win this writer over this year, as I initially approached it with skepticism. I watched it twice in theaters before reviewing it (Love & Mercy harnesses the music & madness of Brian Wilson), and had a chance to talk with the film’s director (Director of Beach Boys pic Love & Mercy talks about externalizing Brian Wilson’s musical madness and how to deal with the character of Mike Love). As the months went on, it stuck with me, and I don’t think I played Pet Sounds, Smile and “Surf’s Up” in my life much as I ever had these past few months. I really gained a new appreciation for The Beach Boys due to this movie and its performances. So kudos for that.

Dano’s win was the tip of the iceberg for the acting categories. The winners were amazing in how much they went against predicted/marketed contenders. First of all, we went against the Hollywood Foreign Press’s decision to consider his role a supporting role. Plus, there was no sign at all, during the nomination phase, of the Will Smith or Jennifer Lawrence vehicles, and though it was close, the sentimentality of Sly Stallone did not deter critics from voting for Oscar Isaac for Best Supporting Actor not for his high profile appearance in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Star Wars: The Force Awakens hits nearly all the right notes with breezy, rich flair — a film review) but for his performance in Ex Machina (Ex Machina looks past AI to examine artificial sexuality — a film review). Then there was Kristen Stewart who won Best Supporting Actress for her work in Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria (Clouds of Sils Maria examines the layers of celebrity identity with powerful performances — a film review), a movie most have undeservedly forgotten — but not us.

This is probably the year where the most films and people I voted for to win actually won. Below you will find the nominees our group voted on. The winner is noted “WINNER” and my choices have an asterisk* by them. And below that you will find my ballot and nominees, which may hint at some of my favorite films of the year, but, as usual take it with a grain of salt. This is a political thing after all, and when participating in these things one should nominate and lobby for films that have a chance for recognition. My choices at least define a certain aesthetic that I feel no shame in celebrating.

Check out this link to see all the winners. In previous years that I have been a member (2012 and 2013) we ranked three choices in each category. Last year we tried something different. There are two rounds of voting. Each of the 30 voting members offers three choices in each category without ranking. Once all ballots were turned in, our chairman and vice chair tabulate the results return a new ballot of five choices (up from three last year) in each category. Everyone would pick one name or film in each category, and then the ones with the majority votes were declared winners. But if it was tight race, we would have a run off, and we had four this year. Plus we had five choices on the original ballot for each category because there were so many tight races to begin with.

OK, congrats to all the winners and here is the list:

BEST PICTURE

Carol*
WINNER: Mad Max: Fury Road
Spotlight
T
he Big Short
The Martian

BEST ACTOR

Bryan Cranston – Trumbo
WINNER: Paul Dano – Love and Mercy*
Leonardo DiCaprio – The Revenant
Michael Fassbender – Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne – The Danish Girl

BEST ACTRESS

Cate Blanchett – Carol*
WINNER: Brie Larson – Room
Charlotte Rampling – 45 Years
Saoirse Ronan – Brooklyn
Charlize Theron – Mad Max: Fury Road

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

WINNER: Oscar Isaac – Ex Machina*
Mark Ruffalo – Spotlight
Mark Rylance – Bridge of Spies
Michael Shannon – 99 Homes
Sylvester Stallone – Creed

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Elizabeth Banks – Love and Mercy
Jennifer Jason Leigh – The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara – Carol
WINNER: Kristen Stewart – Clouds of Sils Maria*
Alicia Vikander – Ex Machina

BEST DIRECTOR

Todd Haynes – Carol
Alejandro G. Iñárritu – The Revenant
WINNER: George Miller – Mad Max: Fury Road
Tom McCarthy – Spotlight*
Ridley Scott – The Martian

BEST ENSEMBLE

The Big Short
Mistress America
WINNER: Spotlight*
Straight Outta Compton
Tangerine

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Ex Machina
The Hateful Eight
Inside Out
Mistress America
WINNER: Spotlight*

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

WINNER: The Big Short
Brooklyn*
Carol
Room
Steve Jobs

BEST CINEMATOGRAPHY

Carol*
WINNER: Mad Max: Fury Road
The Revenant
Sicario
Youth

BEST VISUAL EFFECTS

Ex Machina
WINNER: Mad Max: Fury Road
The Martian
Star Wars: The Force Awakens*
The Walk

BEST ART DIRECTION/ PRODUCTION DESIGN

Brooklyn
WINNER: Carol
Crimson Peak
Love & Mercy*
Mad Max: Fury Road

BEST SCORE

Carol
The Hateful Eight
WINNER: Love & Mercy*
Mad Max: Fury Road
Star Wars: The Force Awakens

BEST DOCUMENTARY

WINNER: Amy
Best of Enemies
Cartel Land
Heart of a Dog*
The Look of Silence

BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM

WINNER: The Assassin*
Mommy
Mustang
Phoenix
Son of Saul

BEST ANIMATED FILM

Anomalisa
WINNER: Inside Out*
The Good Dinosaur
The Peanuts Movie
Shaun the Sheep Movie

FFCC BREAKOUT AWARD

Bel Powley – Diary of a Teenage Girl*
WINNER: Daisy Ridley – Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Kitana Kiki Rodriguez – Tangerine
Jacob Tremblay – Room
Alicia Vikander – Ex Machina and The Danish Girl

My initial ballot of nominees is below. We had to nominate three were unranked choices. The ones that got the most mentions out of the group became a list of five choices that we had to pick from. All my choices are listed in no particular order and the picture corresponds with the film that got the most nominations:

Paul Dano in Love & Mercy

BEST PICTURE

  • Spotlight
  • Clouds of Sils Maria
  • Love & Mercy

BEST ACTOR

  • Paul Dano – Love & Mercy
  • Jason Segel – End of the Tour
  • Peter Sarsgaard – Experimenter

BEST ACTRESS

  • Charlotte Rampling – 45 Years
  • Kristen Stewart – Clouds of Sils Maria
  • Cate Blanchett – Carol

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

  • Oscar Isaac – Ex Machina
  • Mark Ruffalo – Spotlight
  • Stanley Tucci – Spotlight

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

  • Rooney Mara – Carol
  • Deanna Dunagan – The Visit
  • Kristen Wiig – Diary of a Teenage Girl

BEST ENSEMBLE

  • Spotlight
  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  • Mad Max Fury Road

BEST DIRECTOR

  • Olivier Assayas – Clouds of Sils Maria
  • Tom McCarthy – Spotlight
  • Bill Pohlad – Love & Mercy

BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

  • Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner – Love & Mercy
  • Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy – Spotlight
  • Olivier Assayas – Clouds of Sils Maria

BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

  • Phyllis Nagy – Carol
  • Marielle Heller – Diary of a Teenage Girl
  • Nick Hornby – Brooklyn

CINEMATOGRAPHY

  • Brooklyn
  • Mad Max Fury Road
  • It Follows

VISUAL EFFECTS

  • Star Wars: The Force Awakens
  • Ex-Machina
  • Mad Max: Fury Road

ART DIRECTION/PRODUCTION DESIGN

  • Carol
  • Love & Mercy
  • Brooklyn

BEST SCORE

  • Atticus Ross – Love & Mercy
  • Cat’s Eyes – The Duke of Burgundy
  • Laurie Anderson – Heart of a Dog

BEST DOCUMENTARY

  • Heart of a Dog
  • The Look of Silence
  • Tales of the Grim Sleeper

BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE FILM

  • Theeb
  • The Assassin
  • Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem

ANIMATED FEATURE

  • Inside Out
  • Shaun of the Sheep
  • Anomalisa

BREAKOUT AWARD

  • Bel Powley – The Diary of a Teenage Girl
  • Lola Kirke – Mistress America
  • Daisy Ridley – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Hans Morgenstern

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

ex-machina-ExMachina_Payoff_hires2_rgbAs that other sci-fi movie featuring Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac looms (ahem, Star Wars VII), there’s a small sci-fi suspense film pitting the two actors together over a robotic femme fatal (Alicia Vikander) coming out in wide release this Friday. Ex Machina, the first film directed by Alex Garland, the writer behind such “re-inventive” sci-fi/suspense films as 28 Days Later and Sunshine, is a compellingly entertaining film featuring a handful of characters stuck together inside a big house in the woods. But it’s also a little more than that.

In a wordless prologue, we watch Gleeson’s character, Caleb, from behind a computer screen, celebrating after he wins some major prize via email. There’s sharing via text, social media and almost instantaneous responses of “congratulations!” and “take me!!” Meanwhile, people gather around his cubicle, as the news of his win spreads. The delay of the “real world” over the virtual world makes for a funny dig at the relevance of one above the other. But it is also an important set-up in establishing an encounter with the virtual as substitute for the real thing, for this film is all about a man’s idea of harnessing feminine sexuality in an ideal, constructed surrogate for the real thing … and paying the price for it.

Ex-Machina-Gallery-06

It turns out Caleb has been invited by his boss (Isaac) to his mansion in the woods for a week-long stay where he will meet Nathan’s latest high-tech invention: a sexy-looking robot called Ava. Caleb is a skinny, awkward nebbish, simply geeking over the fact that he gets to meet the reclusive founder/inventor of a computer system called Bluebook for which Caleb works as an office drone. After a two hour-plus helicopter ride over his boss’ property, he is dropped off in a clearing and told to follow a river, which will lead him to the house. It’s a nice surreal and ominous touch with echoes of no escape. After letting himself in with an automatic ID card maker, Caleb finds Nathan hitting a punching bag shirtless. Nathan explains he is detoxing a hangover. Nathan’s all smiles and “bros” over Caleb, trying to bring him down to earth from his celebrity fixation over their meeting. It’s as if an Apple “genius” had a chance to live with Steve Jobs for a week.

Of course, no meeting like this ever leads to anything idyllic. Nathan is soon revealed as a mad scientist frustrated by his work in perfecting the ideal robot who happens to have the body of a young woman. Nathan takes to drink every night and reveals a cynical sense of humor that covers up a misanthropic personality on the verge on giving up on himself. Caleb is almost the opposite. Not only can’t he understand Nathan’s sense of humor, but he’s too excited by the honor of the invitation to notice Nathan’s unstable character. Nathan — and soon even Ava — manipulate this poor milquetoast throughout the movie. Though Caleb thinks he is rather smart about AI, mistakenly believing he’s figured out his role as a collaborator with Nathan to apply the Turing Test to Ava, he’s actually always one step behind. After all, Nathan hand-selected Caleb based on his profile culled from his Internet searches, including his online “porn profile” to interact with Ava — another revelation Caleb comes to a bit too late.

Ex-Machina-Gallery-01

There’s a desperation to both of these men, who are both human and therefore terribly flawed, blinded by an arrogance that never allows them to know just how deep in shit they are getting into. Caleb is a geeky, lonely male who tries to keep his cool by spewing his highfalutin knowledge of theory. At Nathan’s prodding for how he “feels” about Ava, he drops the fancy talk to tell him, “I feel that she’s fucking amazing.”

Nathan is a bit more interesting, corrupted by wealth, his God complex and his libido. Sexually, his creation becomes his downfall, as he mistakenly thinks he has ownership of its being. There’s a terrific reveal that alludes to one of the greatest misogynists in literature: Bluebeard. Yet, Nathan still garners the viewer’s sympathy, which is a feat for a film villain, and Isaac walks that line supremely. Though he has a dryly humorous dance scene with one his robots, there is also pathos in it. He’s a sad drunk who echoes Oppenheimer quoting from the Bhagavad Gita: “The good deeds a man has done before defend him.”

Ex-Machina-Gallery-02

It’s his fate that is the most interesting at the end. Too bad, Garland cannot handle the climactic finale as well as it deserves. Some may confuse it for humor or even justice. Resolution has always been a problem for Garland’s scripts, and Ex Machina does not fix this. But the concept of Ex Machina remains interesting. The notion of AI follows the clichés we know from similar films. Ava does arrive at that existential conundrum of computers that have become self-aware: “Don’t dismantle me!” But that’s not what this film is about (for truly mystical concerns of AI, check out Computer Chess [Film Review: Computer Chess reveals the mystical in the cyber]). Ex Machina is about man projecting ideals in the worst kind of way. Ava has curves but nothing organic below the surface save for obscure gears and glowing wires. She’s a pretty face with a stilted control of English. There’s an element of clear dehumanization that requires someone like Caleb and Nathan to project an ideal on. When she does act out, as teased in the trailer below, there is no sense of empathy. The notion of sexuality is but a tool for Ava to harness in order to gain an upper-hand over the men. To anthropomorphize this thing would be a mistake. Ex Machina is ultimately the most weirdly feminist film by a man, focusing on the shortcoming of man’s perception of women, and for that, Garland deserves kudos.

Hans Morgenstern

Ex Machina runs 110 minutes and is rated R (Violence, cussing and naked lady parts). It opens this Friday in most every theater in the U.S. A24 hosted a preview screening last week for the purpose of this review.

(Copyright 2015 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

inside-llewyn-davis-posterWith their new film Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coen Brothers show a profound understanding of the existential quandary of musicians. As a longtime chronicler of the local Miami music scene, I have met many talented musicians who have fallen on one side of the fine line of recognition versus the other. In between there are many levels of accomplishments that defy such black and white notions as success versus failure. Whoever thinks becoming a recognizable musician defines success will miss out on the divine subtlety of Inside Llewyn Davis.

One could think of musicians as inter-dimensional travelers. They can move between two distinct worlds: the world of music and the conventional world non-musicians known. With their latest film, the Coens take the viewer Inside Llewyn Davis with only one special effect: the music. Actor/musician and Miami native Oscar Isaac does a stunning job of playing the titular character, a folk singer on the famed Greenwich Village circuit of the early 1960s whose blossoming talent seems doomed to ruin at every turn.

The film opens with a close up view of the bearded Llewyn, softly singing “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me,” a traditional folk song that has never been attributed to a writer. The camera closes real tight, as he strums an acoustic guitar and sings the entire, dreary song to a darkened, crowded, yet silent cafe. Something almost religious is happening as Llewyn sings and strums. The lyrics speak of a life rich in experience but destined to be cut short by an executioner.

They put the rope around my neck, they hung me very high.
The very last words I heard them say, “It won’t be long ’til you die, poor boy.”
I’ve been all around this world.

Oscar Isaac performing in Joel and Ethan Coens INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

The Coens have admitted to modeling Davis’ character on Dave Van Ronk, an obscure folk artist essential to the Greenwich Village folk scene (just look at this album cover). Van Ronk was known for a purist’s interest in the oral history of folk songs such as “Hang Me.” It’s an example of music that has so overshadowed its composer, no definitive record of its songwriter exists, an ironic touch that’s no accident in the detailed world of the Coens.

The Coen brothers’ interest in a musician who sings such a song foretells what sort of man, outside the music, Llewyn is destined to become. What follows is a journey both pathetic and sublime. It’s sublime in those moments the filmmakers allow for the songs, affectionately produced by T-Bone Burnett, to unfold, always in their entirety, as Llewyn dives into the realm of music and seems to exist in another almost divine world that has a different language and sense of time. Then there are the moments outside the music that reveals a rather sad and sometimes angry life of the homeless folk singer, who must spend much of his energy in search of a friendly couch to sleep on during the snowy winter of the Northeast while also peddling his musical talents.

Llewyn has an incompetent manager who seems far from invested in Llewyn’s music and an irascible sister (Jeanine Serralles) annoyed with his pursuit of art instead of a more practical career. Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake in Joel and Ethan Coens INSIDE LLEWYN DAVISThen there’s Jean (Carey Mulligan), one half of the married sunny singing duo Jim & Jean. She has two-timed Jim (Justin Timberlake) with Llewyn, and she’s angry with Llewyn for maybe getting her pregnant. She flings “fucking asshole” at him like it’s his first name, and Llewyn takes it with hangdog pathos.

Meanwhile, Llewyn tries to eke out a living from his art, which includes a sincere, almost virtuous repertoire of folk songs, including one song that dates back to the 18th century (“Fare Thee Well”). He’s a Luddite musician who hates the idea of selling out yet aspires for some level of success. He’s so haunted by his desire to make an honest, authentic mark, even vandalism in a toilet stall has resonance. “What are you doing?” the universe seems to ask him, adding another heavy ounce of pressure to the matter.

It’s not accidental that Llewyn’s name sounds like Lou and Davis, something belligerent, misanthropic jazz musician and heroin addict Roland Turner (John Goodman doing a harrowing impression of Doc Pomus) so casually notes. Llewyn is a man missing his other half, as is revealed literally early in the film, when he looks at a corny record cover featuring him and another musician, who has met a rather sad, untimely demise. Beyond a literal sense of Llewyn existing as one half of a duo, he is also figuratively half a man when not performing, incomplete without the music. He’s the ideal noble warrior for the purest reason of artistic expression.

Oscar Isaac winter in Joel and Ethan Coens INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS

Between naps in the backseat of a car, Roland pokes at Llewyn, shaving down his esteem with insults that Llewyn shakes off with annoyed, quiet resentment. He puts up with the troll of a man, as he is providing the ride to Chicago where he hopes to audition for an important manager named Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham). Once again, the Coens offer a shadow of greatness as this manager shares a name and an implied history of the impresario who became Bob Dylan’s manager, Albert Grossman. When Llewyn makes an opportunity to audition for Grossman, it’s a reference to how close he has come to achieving the success he so yearns for. So often the line between success and failure depends on being at the right place at the right time, and no other film captures this with so much melancholy and depth.

Besides a subtle and distinctive sense of humor and pathos to the narrative, the Coens again prove they know how to create an absorbing cinematic atmosphere. Art director Deborah Jensen and costume designer Mary Zophres have worked together to achieve this sepia-toned world of a lost time (and lost opportunity) that is both vintage chic and ghostly somber. Then there’s the cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel. The image often looks soft and the gray area in which this man exists never blended so well between the black and white. It’s the perfect complement to the muted vision of a world that revolutionized popular music at the time. It befits the unlucky Llewyn, who merely seems a passenger on this ride to near glory. After all, we all know there’s someone else besides him waiting in the shadows to transcend this scene.

Hans Morgenstern

Inside Llewyn Davis runs 105 min. and is rated R (for cussing and sexual references). The only art house that has it in South Florida is the Coral Gables Art Cinema, where it opens this Friday, Dec. 20. As for the multiplexes in South Florida showing the film, they include:

AMC Sunset Place
Regal South Beach
AMC Aventura
Cinemark Paradise
Cinemark Palace
Cinemark Boynton Beach
Paragon Jupiter 18

But the best seat to see to see the film in South Florida, as ever, is the Coral Gables Art Cinema. CBS Films invited me to a preview screening for the purpose of awards consideration. Those living in other parts of the U.S. can insert their zip code here for nearby theaters hosting this film.

(Copyright 2013 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)