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Return of the bad-ass ladies of summer

It’s become an annual tradition on this blog to celebrate the bad-ass ladies of summer — those women blazing trails of awesomeness into the male dominated territory of Hollywood action movies.

The summer movie season is winding down and, looking back on it, it wasn’t exactly bad-ass, what with flops like “Warcraft,” “The BFG” and “The Legend of Tarzan” casting a depressing shadow over the box office, which was dominated by uninspired remakes.

Despite this, there were female-centric performances to admire as many actors followed in the pioneering footsteps of Charlize Theron’s Furiosa and Daisy Ridley’s Rey to give us the strong, nuanced, wildly entertaining, butt-kicking performances we should be seeing more of. We do, after all, live in the 21st century.

Without further ado, here are the bad-ass ladies who led the way this summer. They deserve a 21 proton gun salute.

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The Cast of ‘Ghostbusters’

Who knew rebooting the beloved 1984 action-comedy classic with Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Leslie Jones and Kate McKinnon taking on roles loosely based on those originally played by Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson would be such a subversive act?

When director Paul Feig announced his plan, he broke the Internet as wounded, mostly male fans took to Twitter to decry a “Ghostbusters” populated by women and declare it was ruining their childhood. This despite the approval of producer and original director Ivan Reitman.

Things only got weirder and uglier after the film’s release as online tirades directed at the cast continued and Jones became the target of a nasty trolling campaign that smacked of racism and misogyny. The incident prompted Jones to briefly shut down her account and Twitter to tighten up its regulations, but all ended well with Jones returning to Tweet another day and living happily ever after as a sidesplitting Olympic commentator.

Whatever your opinion of “Ghostbusters” — and it definitely has its flaws — the significance of its arrival on the cinematic horizon cannot be overstated. This is an action-comedy headlined not by one women, but by four, and none of them are sexualized or condescended to by the filmmakers or their male co-stars.

Whatever the movie’s failures, whether weak story or a lack of originality, the cast has nothing to do with them. “Ghostbusters” is a lovingly crafted showcase for a quartet of consummate comedians who are squarely on their game, hilarious, and in total control. (Kudos to Chris Hemsworth for good-naturedly going along with the film’s funniest gender reversal.)

This is empowerment of a kind that is extremely rare in Hollywood and done with a tone so light and playful, it’s easy to dismiss how important the film is. Because of “Ghostbusters,” women took to social media to ponder what their childhoods might have been like if this film had existed when they were growing up. And little girls donned the team’s trademark beige jumpsuits and proton packs with gusto.

We can only hope more filmmakers will join in the spirit of “Ghostbusters” and its delightful feminist subversion. Is it too soon for a female James Bond?

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Sofia Boutella as Jaylah in “Star Trek: Beyond”

The rebooted “Star Trek” franchise has always featured a strong heroine in the form of Zoe Saldana’s intelligent, fiercely loyal Lt. Uhura.

At the same time, it’s hard to shake the feeling that J.J. Abrams and company never know quite what to do with the miniskirt-wearing communications officer. Uhura tends to linger on the sidelines while Chris Pine’s Kirk, Zachary Quinto’s Spock and even Simon Pegg’s Scotty get all the action. That’s why the introduction of Jaylah in “Beyond” is so refreshing.

Boutella previously made an impression as Samuel L. Jackson’s blade-legged righthand henchwoman in “Kingsman: The Secret Service.” As Jaylah, the strikingly marked alien who becomes an unlikely ally to the crew of the Enterprise, she more than holds her own beside Pine and Pegg.

Jaylah is a loner, survivor, formidable fighter and technical genius who savvily makes her home inside a crashed Federation starship and protects it with a dazzling array of sophisticated booby traps. She also has excellent taste in vintage rap.

“I like the beats and shouting,” she declares.

Boutella graces this tenacious extraterrestrial heroine with stubbornness, humor and heart and, in the process, elevates “Beyond.”

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Comic Book Movie Heroes

Although Hollywood’s comic book franchises have lagged in embracing compelling, three-dimensional female characters to match their heroic male counterparts, this summer saw some encouraging strides in the right direction.

Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow has long been the woman of substance in Marvel’s often feeble female lineup. While she’s enjoyed her fair share of butt-kicking action, “Captain America: Civil War” gives her an unprecedented opportunity to flex her fighting muscles, throwing punches as aggressively as The Cap, thanks to directors Anthony and Joe Russo.

The “X-Men” franchise has treated its superheroines admirably, providing them with meaty emotional arcs and equal opportunity action moments. This summer’s “X-Men: Apocalypse” is no exception. The crux of the plot turns on the evolution of Sophie Turner’s young Jean Grey, whose climactic wielding of power is something to behold.

The season’s most entertaining comic book movie performance, however, belongs to Margot Robbie as one of the few rays of light in DC’s messy “Suicide Squad,” starring as infamous villain and the Joker’s wannabe girlfriend, Harley Quinn.

With her inordinate, self-destructive love for the Joker, Harley Quinn has always been a problematic character. She’s insanely likable, but also a bit of a feminist nightmare.

Although I wish director David Ayer didn’t spend so much time allowing the camera to leer at Harley’s short shorts, Robbie succeeds effortlessly in creating one of the film’s only fully realized characters.

Her Harley practically leaps off the comic book page — completely unhinged, an unabashed romantic, scary but sweetly vulnerable, and 100% capable of taking care of herself. It’s kind of a miracle, actually, that Robbie is able to pull off this crazy balancing act. Give her a spin-off already, DC.

It’s been a long time coming, but it appears the makers of comic book movies are finally at least attempting to give female caped crusaders their day in the sun.

Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman was the most tantalizing element of “Batman v Superman,” however brief her appearance. Her stand-alone film, due next year, looks amazing from what we’ve seen so far. And Marvel has a “Captain Marvel” movie in the works, starring the astonishingly talented Brie Larson.

In short, things are looking up for bad-ass ladies everywhere. Here’s hoping next summer is even more epic for them.

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Photos: http://www.youtube.com, ghostbusters.com, yahoo.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Looking Forward to ‘Civil War’? Support Your Local Comic Book Shop

There would be no “Captain America: Civil War” if, in 2006, comic book writer Mark Millar and artist Steve McNiven hadn’t cooked up the original superhero feud to end all feuds, between The Cap and Iron Man.

Thanks to this iconic Marvel moment, everyone and their mother will be rushing out this weekend to see the latest big-screen adventure of the Avengers. (That’s right. It also happens to be Mother’s Day weekend. Be sure to take Mom with you.)

It’s fitting that 24 hours after the official debut of “Civil War,” shops around the country will observe Free Comic Book Day, a celebration of the genre that gave us Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow, Hawkeye, Black Panther, Scarlet Witch, and Spider-Man.

Launched in 2002 by Diamond Comic Distributors and a panel of industry retailers, publishers and suppliers, Free Comic Book Day is held annually the first Saturday in May.

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The goal of the event is to introduce readers unfamiliar with comic books to this unique literary format and their local independent comic book shop.

“Each (shop) is unique in its community, with a style and personality all its own,” according to www.freecomicbookday.com.

I’ve never been much of a comic book reader. I remember thumbing through my older brothers’ issues of Archie and Superman, but I never got hooked on the genre. Still, with my love of fantasy, reading and stories, I’ve always felt a kinship with comic book enthusiasts. The comic book store is one of my favorite places to hang out.

As an entertainment reporter, I frequented one Lancaster shop — Bases Cards and Comics — for more than a decade. I first visited the store in 2000. It was the year of “X-Men,” when comic book movies became more than just kids stuff, and I was looking for quotes from fans already familiar with the mutant heroes.

The readers browsing at the shop that Wednesday morning were eager to talk about why they loved the X-Men. They were warm, engaging and articulate about the history and social relevance of the Marvel series.

Bases became my go-to spot for dozens of stories, an invaluable resource for research and gathering quotes and opinions about Hollywood’s comic book movie du jour. Winding my way among the brightly colored racks, I’d pounce on unsuspecting browsers in hopes of scoring an interview.

The shop also happened to be — and still is — a great place to spend time in, full of interesting, friendly and eccentric personalities. Owners Rob and Janice and manager James Preston are three of the most fun, welcoming people I’ve met. I have fond memories of chatting with them and their intelligent, opinionated customers about everything from Spider-Man, to the Man of Steel, to The Dark Knight, to San Diego Comic-Con, to Star Wars vs. Star Trek.

If you’ve never visited your local comic book shop, I urge you to give it a try on Saturday. At best, you’ll discover a thrilling new series or rekindle your passion for a childhood favorite. Maybe you’ll meet some potential new friends with common interests.

At worst, you’ll leave with a handful of free comics.

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Aside from Bases, Lancaster is home to two comic book shops. Battlegrounds carries a small selection of volumes, but specializes largely in tabletop gaming. My friends tell me that Horizon Comics offers great prices and selection.

Each shop will have its own policy to determine how many comics you’ll receive on Free Comic Book Day, but you’re guaranteed at least one, as long as supplies last.

Among the titles to be handed out are Archie, Bob’s Burgers, Marvel’s Civil War II, Serenity, Doctor Who, Suicide Squad, Pokemon, Assassin’s Creed, Attack on Titan, The Legend of Korra, and DC Super Hero Girls.

Photos: http://www.freecomicbookday.com, http://www.comicbookmovie.com, marvel.com.

‘Batman v Superman’ and The Six Things I Never Want to See Again in a Comic Book Movie

After months of anticipation by fans eager to see their ultimate comic-book fantasies come to life, “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” debuted to a record-breaking domestic haul of $166 million.

Last weekend, the movie set another very different kind of record. In a phenomenon referred to as a “second week slump,” its box office dropped by 68%. That’s the eighth biggest drop-off in history when it comes to similar sorts of films.

As a recent Los Angeles Times story points out, this is no real sweat off the backs of the makers of “Batman v Superman,” considering how much money the movie has already raked into their coffers.

But this development did spark an interesting debate about whether the so-called slump was due to poor word of mouth or because everyone who was planning to see the superhero showdown simply turned out to see it that first weekend.

Widely panned by critics and received less than enthusiastically by many moviegoers, according to exit polls, “Batman v Superman” isn’t the tedious failure reviewers have proclaimed it to be. Still, there’s no question the film could be better, especially with a few more polishings of its capriciously nonsensical screenplay.

The face-off between the Man of Steel and Gotham’s Dark Knight — with a little Wonder Woman as the filling in this superhero sandwich — is a labor of love by director Zack Snyder.

Snyder has a gift for faithfully duplicating sacred comic book moments hardcore fans are dying to see, while leaving the rest of us in the dark.

On a visual level, he trades in striking, if cliched, imagery that is undeniably entertaining. When it comes to narrative and dialogue, things get bumpier. Snyder movies are a lot of flash, little substance.

Strangely enough, it isn’t these trademark qualities that most annoyed me about “Batman v Superman.”

Rather, it’s the fact that the movie leans so heavily on lazy, exhausted and, frankly, exhausting comic-book tropes seen too frequently in franchises of this genre, whether the films are produced by Marvel, DC, or someone else entirely.

If Hollywood expects us to continue to accept a new world order in which every other film it produces features spandex, capes and godlike beings who stoop to save puny earthlings, then filmmakers must stop serving up more of the same and offer more of what we haven’t seen before.

In that spirit, here are six things I never want to see again in a comic book movie.

(Warning: Mild spoilers ahead for those who haven’t seen “Batman v Superman.”)

1. Wanton Destruction of Major Cities 

In 2013’s “Man of Steel,” a good third of the film is devoted to the cataclysmic clobbering of comic book capital Metropolis as Henry Cavill’s Superman attempts to thwart would-be Kryptonian overlord General Zod from conquering the planet.

This goes on for so long and with so much casual carnage, it becomes disturbing and, ultimately, tedious.

In “Batman v Superman,” we discover there is a method to the madness of this urban annihilation — it sparks the conflict the sequel centers on — but unfortunately this only gives Snyder the opportunity to rehash the Metropolis massacre.

I totally get that the impending end of the world, as embodied by havoc wrecked on recognizable urban landmarks, is a staple of comic book climaxes, but we’ve seen this so many times  now, it doesn’t even register anymore.

Whether the Avengers are defending Manhattan from Loki and his computer-generated Chitauri army or the Guardians of the Galaxy are stepping in to save the day after the entire Nova Corp fleet is blown to oblivion, there’s no urgency left in this most overused of urgent plot devices.

And while we’re on the subject, is anyone else bothered by the way these movies — Snyder’s especially — trot out 9-11 imagery for cheap emotional impact?

I know it’s been awhile since that dark day in American history, but I still can’t stand seeing skyscrapers on the point of collapse while workers utter desperate prayers and copy paper and dust clog the streets, accompanied by ear-ringing sound effects. It’s heartbreaking, not to mention tasteless.

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2. Origin Stories (Unless We Haven’t Seen Them Before)

When it comes to comic book origin stories, none have received more cinematic play than the young Bruce Wayne’s dramatic, traumatic loss of his beloved parents.

The horrific scene, complete with a dark alley, theater marquee, wild-eyed gunman, slow motion, and shattered pearl necklace, has been dramatized several times on film, including 1989’s “Batman” and 2008’s “The Dark Knight.”

Though “Batman v Superman” doesn’t delve too deeply into the backstory of Ben Affleck’s aging, world-weary Bruce Wayne, Snyder feels the need to revisit this formative, horrific moment yet again. He has his reasons, of course, which we realize toward the film’s end, but they’re not very good ones.

I don’t know why directors feel the need to keep returning to our favorite superheroes’ roots. Heaven knows, we’ve sat through Spider-Man’s origin story about 50 bajillion times now, not to mention Wolverine’s, which has been examined from just about every possible angle.

So how about we institute a new rule? No more origin stories, unless it’s one we haven’t seen before or, at least, most of us aren’t familiar with.

I’d argue that’s half the reason the Iron Man trilogy was so successful — many of us were unfamiliar with the character — and a big part of why the recent Deadpool was a hit as well.

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3. Damsels in Distress

Considering that comic book movies sprouted from an industry that historically has not valued strong female characters, it’s no surprise Hollywood lags behind in this area as well.

Still, the studios have been making some encouraging progress lately, introducing more strong women with superhuman abilities in substantial roles, even if there are still only a handful of them.

Among these promising female role models are Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, Jennifer Lawrence’s Raven, and Zoe Saldana’s Gamora. And Hollywood has more female-centric comic book flicks in the pipeline, including a “Wonder Woman” movie and “Captain Marvel,” featuring a woman in the lead.

Snyder at least introduces Wonder Woman (played by Gal Gadot) in “Batman v Superman,” even if she only gets to really strut her lasso-wielding stuff in one scene. But troublingly, the rest of the film is populated by damsels in distress whose only function is to serve as bait for the gallant Superman.

In an egregious waste of the talents of Amy Adams, intrepid reporter Lois Lane spends the entire movie being rescued by Superman or doing inexplicably dumb things to motivate him, like tossing a Kryptonite spear into the water, only to clumsily attempt to retrieve it two scenes later.

Meanwhile, Supes’ beloved Ma Kent (again, a waste of Diane Lane) is held hostage in harsh fashion simply as a vehicle for the resolution of the male heroes’ conflict.

Fanboys may argue that the damsel in distress is a tried-and-true staple of comic book lore, but this is the 21st century and there is no excuse for any film’s female characters to languish without a reason to exist apart from their male co-stars.

And if all producers have in mind is lowest common denominator box office, it can’t hurt to present positive depictions of women that appeal to both genders.

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4. Easter Eggs for Movies I’d Rather Be Watching

This doesn’t happen all that often, but it did while I was watching “Batman vs Superman.”

There’s a scene in the movie in which Affleck’s Batman retrieves an old photograph of Wonder Woman. In the picture, she’s all set for adventure, wearing her classic character get-up and posing with three fascinating looking guys.

At that moment, I had an epiphany: This photo is the movie I wish I was watching right now!

I’ve experienced similar feelings at various points in the Avengers franchise or while watching the most recent Spider-Man reboots and I think this is going to happen more and more as we’re subjected to a continued onslaught of vaguely familiar sequels, reboots and spin-offs.

Part of the fun of comic book movie franchises is that directors lace the latest chapters with in-jokes just for the fans and references to favorite plot points or story threads. They also tease us with sneak peeks at future heroes, villains or developments, a la Marvel’s now famous end credit scenes.

The danger in this comes when a film’s purpose is merely to set up yet another film. If that’s the case, who can blame the audience for wanting to skip ahead and get to the good part?

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5. Boring Villains From Outerspace

Ok, so we all know extraterrestrial baddies are a big thing in comic books.

On the big screen though, this trend hasn’t proven to be very compelling, thanks to an abundance of brightly colored body makeup, cheesy CG effects, hammy acting, and a lack of motivation we humans can relate to.

In “Batman vs Superman,” for instance, Snyder introduces not one, but two extremely popular extraterrestrial megaliths the Man of Steel famously faces off against on the comic page.

To be fair, one of these big baddies is only hinted at, not shown, but even the prospect of this creature’s impending arrival fails to stir anything more than obligatory excitement. (And if you’re not a comic-book reader, you probably don’t even know what’s going on here.)

It can’t be just me who doesn’t give a fig what lumpy, purple computer-generated overlord Thanos is up to, floating around on that space rock, or why blue-hued Ronan (despite poor Lee Pace’s best efforts) is so hot and bothered about … er … I can’t even remember.

In the upcoming “X-Men: Apocalypse,” the fabulous Oscar Isaac dons the weird makeup of the epic villain the film’s title refers to, but the prospect only fills me with dread because these evil dudes from outer space and regions beyond are rarely worth remembering.

Give me a recognizably human baddie any day, like Heath Ledger’s Joker, with his chillingly uncertain motives and passion for chaos, or David Tenant’s Kilgrave — if I may reference the Marvel television series “Jessica Jones” — who channels his power to sickeningly selfish ends rather than aiming to conquer the world.

The human propensity to evil is always more terrifying than any otherworldly threat.

6. Joylessness Masked as Grit

One of the reasons critics have been quick to pile on “Batman v Superman” is because the film isn’t always fun to watch.

An over-the-top clash between two of comicdom’s biggest heroes should be full of giddy energy, to say the least, but too often the movie bogs down in a gloom thicker than the dust that lingers over a devastated Metropolis.

There’s a lot of glowering, and grumping, and daddy issues, and gravely cynical pronouncements about the nature of power, and muddy, muddled action sequences that don’t send our hearts racing or keep us teetering on the edge of our seats.

That’s not to say comic book movies shouldn’t be dark, or edgy, or disturbing, or that they should all be kid-friendly laugh-fests, like the Marvel movies tend to be.

“The Dark Knight” trilogy is lauded for its grit, but it’s many other things as well — elegant, stylish, thought-provoking and complex with kick-ass action and nonstop thrills.

“Deadpool” is shockingly jaded, but it’s also a hoot. Or consider Snyder’s own “Watchmen,” a film that, like its source material, is seriously twisted, but also very playful.

“Guardians of the Galaxy” was a massive hit because director James Gunn infused it with pure, infectious joy. Contrast that with the recent failure of the unbearably glum “Fantastic Four” reboot and you’ll see what I’m getting at.

Even the grittiest of comic book movies should speak to our sense of wonder.

Photos: http://www.youtube.com, marvel.wikia.com, marvelcinematicuniverse.wikia.com, blogs.indiewire.com, Marvel.

 

 

It’s Not Just #OscarSoWhite. It’s Hollywood

Every few years or so, the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences like to congratulate themselves on achieving a milestone that demonstrates their tolerance, open-mindedness, and progressive thinking.

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When Halle Berry became the first African-American performer to take home the best actress prize in 2002, for instance.

Or when Kathryn Bigelow was given the best director trophy in a small but unprecedented step forward for women filmmakers.

These moments, however, tend to be few and far between, as evidenced by tomorrow’s Oscar ceremony, the second in a row to egregiously exclude black and minority nominees. Thus, the resurrection of last year’s popular Twitter hashtag, #OscarSoWhite.

The lack of diversity in the 88th Academy Awards is even more glaring when you consider the talent Academy voters overlooked this year.

A biopic of seminal rap group N.W.A., “Straight Outta Compton” was critically well received and a box office hit, yet managed to snag only one nomination — for best original screenplay — when many expected it to garner a best picture nod.

The “Rocky” spin-off “Creed” was also critically acclaimed but was shut out, save for a best supporting actor nomination for the film’s sole white star, Sylvester Stallone.

This despite the talents of director Ryan Coogler and star Michael B. Jordan, who previously failed to earn much deserved nominations for their work together in the devastating “Fruitvale Station.” Jordan’s leading lady, Tessa Thompson, also turned heads with her performance.

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Michael B. Jordan in “Creed.”

Other seeming shoo-ins who were not nominated include Idris Elba,for his villainous turn in “Beasts of No Nation,” Elba’s astonishing young co-star, Abraham Attah, and Benicio Del Toro, recognized by several other groups for his supporting turn in “Sicario.”

Chagrin over the Academy’s blatant lack of inclusion has resulted in threats of boycotts — at least on the part of Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett-Smith — and the following statement of remorse issued by (black) Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs:

“I am both heartbroken and frustrated by the lack of inclusion. This is a difficult but important conversation, and it’s time for big changes. The Academy is taking dramatic steps to alter the makeup of our membership.

“… As many of you know, we have implemented changes to diversify our membership in the last four years. But the change is not coming as fast as we would like.”

Indeed, Academy demographics remain alarmingly exclusive. According to the Los Angeles Times, voters are 91% white and 76% male.

The newspaper reported that in 2012, the voting population was 94% white and 77% male, a makeup very similar to what we see today.

Though the Academy has made an effort to recruit more women and minority — not to mention younger — voters to their ranks, progress is slow in an organization in which members are appointed for life.

All things considered, it’s easy to see why a film like “Straight Outta Compton,” which was just as crowd-pleasing, stylishly directed and thrilling as best picture nominees “Brooklyn” or “The Martian,” could be passed over.

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Corey Hawkins in “Straight Outta Compton.”

An aging, white audience is probably more likely to relate to the tale of a young Irish immigrant adapting to life in 1950s (aka the good, old days) New York or a saga that glorifies NASA (although it must be said that “The Martian” cast is surprisingly diverse) than a group of rebellious hip-hop artists who regularly ran afoul of the law while rising to the status of rap legends.

Despite losing its momentum to a certain degree in its third act, it’s hard to deny that “Straight Outta Compton” is best picture material. The scene in which Ice Cube, Eazy-E and Dr. Dre defy a police order to perform their infamous anti-cop anthem in a packed Detroit concert hall is as electric a cinematic moment as ever there was.

But let’s face it, if Cube and company were to take the stage to claim Oscar’s top prize, it would be as surreal a moment as when, in 2006, Three 6 Mafia won for their ditty “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” from “Hustle & Flow.”

(This remains, hands down, one of the most amazing Oscar moments of all time.)

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The members of Three 6 Mafia show off their Oscars.

The Academy claims it wants to change.

Last month, the organization resolved by 2020 to double the number of women and minorities included in its voting body and instituted new rules allowing the revoking of voting privileges from inactive members.

These measures are a show of good faith, but the fact remains that the Academy isn’t going to change its ways until Hollywood does.

According to the L.A. Times, the group’s demographics reflect the realities of an industry that weaves a cocoon of opportunity, wealth and privilege around a tight band of almost exclusively white insiders.

“The executive branch (of the Academy), which finances the movies and determines what films warrant an awards campaign, is 98% white,” the newspaper said.

“The public relations branch, which strategizes those awards campaigns, is 95% white.

“Other branches reflect the entrenched nature of certain hiring patterns in Hollywood crafts, such as visual effects, which is 98% male, and cinematography, which is 95% male.”

Meanwhile, a recent study reports that only 29% of Hollywood speaking roles are filled by women.

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It’s certain that tomorrow night’s Oscar host, Chris Rock, will have a few things to say on this subject.

The comedian recently detailed the absurdities of Hollywood’s racial bias in a blunt, funny, evenhanded essay about the city he works in.

“It’s a white industry,” Rock writes.

“Just as the NBA is a black industry. I’m not even saying it’s a bad thing. It just is.”

Rock points out that, if you happen to be in the minority, Hollywood is a tough place to break into even at the most basic, unskilled job levels.

He writes that there is no such thing as color blind casting in Hollywood (“It was never like, ‘Is it going to be Ryan Gosling or Chiwetel Ejiofor for ‘Fifty Shades of Grey.'”) and that black women may be the most neglected of all performers in the film industry (“You can go to whole movies and not see one black woman.”)

Rock ends his essay on a hopeful note, saying that “change just takes time.”

Let’s hope it doesn’t take 20 more years of #OscarSoWhite for one of America’s greatest industries to correct a wrong it can no longer pass off as just one group’s problem.

Photos: http://www.bet.com, http://www.youtube.com, oscars.go.com.

 

 

 

 

Leo Out-Survives Matt: A Look at Oscar’s Best Picture Nominees (Part 2)

The Oscars may be so white — as the hashtag declares — but that doesn’t mean the Academy isn’t capable of change.

Hollywood’s most beloved awards institution may have a long way to go where race is concerned, but judging by this year’s best picture nominees, they’re taking some strides, or at least baby steps, whether in embracing a groundbreaking action flick with a bold feminist perspective or hinting they may finally be ready to give Leo that damn Oscar he’s been waiting for since 1994.

All joking aside — I plan to discuss the controversy over race in a separate post this week — the 88th Academy Awards promise to be unpredictable, if not exactly radical or revolutionary. (The ceremony and its accompanying coverage are set to begin at 4 p.m. Sunday on ABC.)

Below, I discuss the remaining four nominees for the best picture Oscar. May the best flick win.

For a look at the other four nominees, check out my previous post

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The Martian

If the Oscars were voted by the people, there’s no doubt sci-fi dramedy “The Martian” would capture the best picture prize.

As crowd-pleasers go, the film is a doozy, grossing nearly $620 million worldwide after multiple No. 1 stints at the box office. Everybody wanted to see it. Everybody was talking about it.

At the Golden Globes, “The Martian” landed trophies for best pic in the comedy or musical category — in a bit of clever but odd positioning — and best actor for Matt Damon, also in the comedy category.

Those achievements aside, the movie seems destined to lose on Oscar night to a flick with more gravitas, say “The Revenant,” which is a little ironic for a film about the triumph of the human spirit against the most impossible odds.

Perhaps “The Martian” is easy to dismiss because of its lightness of tone, the way snubbed director Ridley Scott deftly blends humor, intensity and intelligence to portray the ordeal of an astronaut stranded millions of miles from Earth.

Not only does “The Martian” boast impressive visual effects — it’s nominated in that category as well as six others — it makes science look sexy in a way that few movies do. NASA and JPL have never appeared more hip or more glamorous, especially when staffed by the likes of Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, Sean Bean and Chiwetel Ejiofor.

Best actor nominee Matt Damon does nerds everywhere a valuable service by making botanist and all-around genius Mark Watney the most hilarious and lovable brainiac we’ve met, effortlessly tossing off witty quips to the camera.

If we’re being honest, “Ex Machina” was the more original, stylish and haunting science-fiction offering of 2015. That said, while several of this year’s best picture nominees work hard to subject their audiences to vicarious tribulation, “The Martian” strives to do nothing more than uplift and entertain.

In a world where cynicism often reigns, that’s no small accomplishment.

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The Revenant

Here is why “The Revenant” is almost certainly going to beat “The Martian” and every other film competing for best picture in this year’s Oscar race.

As the only man on Mars, Matt Damon’s stranded astronaut subsists on nothing but potatoes grown from his own manure and figures out some complicated math equations with nothing but terrible disco music and a video log to entertain him.

Tough? Yes.

But compare his hardships to the travails of Leonardo DiCaprio’s strapping fur trapper, Hugh Glass.

In “The Revenant,” Hugh is attacked by vengeful Native Americans, mauled by a raging mama bear, left for dead by his own men, buried alive, forced to cauterize his own wound with gun powder, swims through freezing rapids wearing a massive fur coat, jumps over a cliff on horseback, and then crawls into the animal’s oozing carcass for warmth. (And because said horse carcass was filmed by director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu and master cinematographer Emmanual Lubezki, this scene looks like a painting you’d find hanging on the wall of a national gallery.)

On top of all this, Inarritu and his crew endured their own severe trials while filming “The Revenant,” shooting in freezing temperatures with natural light in the wilds of Canada. People almost died! The Academy can’t resist a story like that.

So that is why “The Revenant” is nominated for 12 Oscars, including best director, cinematography, editing, costume design and visual effects, not to mention best actor for DiCaprio and best supporting actor for Tom Hardy, who co-stars as Glass’ scalped and scheming nemesis.

And that is why “The Revenant” won best picture in the drama category at the Golden Globes while Inarritu picked up a trophy for best director. (The film also seized the top prize in other major contests, including the Directors Guild Awards and the BAFTAs.)

That is also why it will finally be Leo’s year after four slights by the Academy in the past. It’s fitting because DiCaprio’s performance in “The Revenant” is like nothing he’s done before, largely silent, deeply physical, with a great, grizzly beard to cover up all that boyish charm.

Yep, it’s the beard that finally did it.

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Spotlight

As a journalist, I can’t help but feel an overwhelming affection for “Spotlight.”

The movie is a slow-burning but suspenseful look at how the Boston Globe’s special investigative team uncovered the scope of the Catholic church’s sexual abuse scandal in the early 2000s, eventually winning a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting.

Directed by writer and character actor Tom McCarthy, “Spotlight” is a disciplined, elegant, old fashioned morality tale in the vein of the iconic “All the President’s Men.” It’s a film that inspires outrage, sorrow, and ultimately hope, but it also happens to perfectly capture a fleeting, not-so-distant era in print journalism.

The events of “Spotlight” begin in 2001, only a few years after I began my career at a local newspaper. The movie sent me flashing back to those glory days of print, shortly before the entire industry imploded. From the demeanor of the reporters, to the clothes they wear, to the look of the newsroom, this film is just like being there.

Those days may be long gone, but I love how “Spotlight” champions thorough, thoughtful, brave reporting, the kind of careful, indispensable journalism that has mostly vanished since the rise of the speedy, sensational, soundbite-ready era of social media. At the same time, the movie is honest enough to acknowledge the limitations of the press.

“Spotlight” features a remarkable ensemble of actors working as a team, just as their characters do in the film, to reveal and clarify a scandal so shocking, sprawling and shrouded in secrecy it was almost impossible to fully grasp at the time of its unfolding.

Liev Schreiber as the new editor — not to mention a Jewish one in a predominantly Catholic town — who pushes his staff to pursue truth at all costs. Michael Keaton as the tenacious but cautious leader of the Spotlight team. Any one of the actors in “Spotlight” could have easily scored nominations.

Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo are the ones the Academy chose to vie for Oscar votes in the best supporting actress and actor categories. Their performances are remarkable, at the very least because they reminded me of some of the fine, dedicated newspaper reporters I used to work with.

“Spotlight” isn’t just a showcase for some truly commendable acting. It’s also a sober recognition of the victims who came forward to expose the church’s abuse, an absorbing procedural detailing the ins and outs of the investigative process, and a gripping reminder of the limitless potential for corruption when power goes unchecked.

Mad Max: Fury Road

“Mad Max: Fury Road” is everything an action buff could ever want in an action movie. But it is also much more than that.

This sequel/reboot/whatever-the-heck-it-is to 1979 post-apocalyptic classic “Mad Max” is groundbreaking in every way, from its technical innovations, to its surreal but immersive fantasy world, to its unprecedented feminist point of view.

No other movie in 2015 thrilled me, captured my imagination and stayed with me like “Fury Road” did. It was hands-down my favorite cinematic experience of the year.

Here’s what I said about it when I included it in my Top 5 list:

“At 70 years old, director George Miller thoroughly overhauled the action movie with this insanely inventive follow-up to his original “Mad Max” trilogy.

“Part environmental fable, part feminist fever dream and 150% high-octane action extravaganza, this irresistible rush of a flick pairs Tom Hardy’s taciturn Max with one of the most bad-ass heroines of all time — Furiosa, a bald, one-armed truck driver played by Charlize Theron in a blend of toughness and true emotion.

“With its tribal-punk-rock-scrapyard-demolition-derby aesthetic, ‘Fury Road’ is a movie of primitive, streamlined power. It’s ferociously bleak and violent but also — dare I say it? — quite lovely.”

The fact that “Fury Road” was nominated for best picture, not to mention nine other trophies, is groundbreaking in itself and virtually unprecedented. For whatever reason, the Academy has been quick to snub action films, especially those with fantasy or science-fiction elements.

We fans of the genre know better though, that action movies can be just as thought-provoking, artful and compelling as weighty dramas, lavish period pieces or nimble comedies.

Because of Oscar’s long-held bias, “Fury Road” isn’t likely to claim the night’s top prize, but its very presence in the ceremony could herald a welcome, overdue shift in the Academy’s thinking.

Photos: http://www.foxmovies.com, http://www.youtube.com. 

From the Trauma of ‘Room’ to the Sweetness of ‘Brooklyn,’ A Look at Oscar’s Best Picture Nominees (Part 1)

As Hollywood’s big night approaches, I’m feeling oddly drained.

Maybe it’s because I haven’t worked as a (paid) entertainment journalist for more than two years now.

Maybe it’s because the more I write about the Oscars, the more I realize what a shallow, absurd exercise in vanity they can be. (They can also be exciting, emotional, cathartic, and weirdly amusing, I’ll admit.)

Perhaps it’s because I’m still unpacking the few boxes remaining from a big move and I’ve just been too distracted to care too much.

Don’t get me wrong though. I will never quit the Academy Awards. Like a pair of star-crossed lovers, our tortured romance will continue and our hearts will go on.

So while I won’t be writing a traditional Oscar prediction story this year, I still wanna talk about that strangely alluring, little, naked, sword-wielding gold guy.

Below are my thoughts on four of the contenders for the coveted best picture prize at the 88th Academy Awards. (They’re set to air at 4 p.m. Sunday on ABC.)

I’ll ruminate on the remaining four best picture nominees in another post to come this week.

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Brooklyn

Adapted from the novel by Colm Toibin, “Brooklyn” is as sweet as a yummy, yummy birthday cake and it makes you feel just as fine and full and syrupy as if you’d stuffed your face with a thick slice of said frosted confection.

I knew the minute I laid eyes on it that the mostly elderly, white members of the Academy wouldn’t be able to resist its charms, perhaps because they still remember the days when they were fresh off the boat. (I’m kidding.)

If it sounds as if I’m looking down my nose at this perfectly delightful tale of a young Irish immigrant’s introduction to life and love in an idyllic version of 1950s New York, it’s only because the film doesn’t contain a single surprise, unless you count leading lady Saoirse Ronan’s deeply affecting performance.

It took just one scene to clinch Ronan’s nomination for best actress, along with nods for best picture and best adapted screenplay (the spry, sprightly script was penned by none other than Nick Hornby).

As the dutiful, introspective Eilis looks around the hall at her last dance in the sleepy Irish village she is about to escape for a more adventurous future in America, Ronan’s wistful gaze tells us everything we need to know about our heroine’s longing and trepidation. It’s a beautiful moment of acting.

“Brooklyn” has been praised for its positive depiction of immigration in a time when the very word tends to trigger quarrelsome division, but it has a lot more to offer, including period costumes that look good enough to eat, a swoony romance with an irresistible Italian plumber (Emory Cohen), a tumultuous love triangle, a clear-eyed examination of homesickness, and hilarious comic relief, courtesy of Julie Walters’ feisty landlady.

The movie may lack the edge it needs to win best picture, but it’s already won plenty of hearts.

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Bridge of Spies

For a film by Steven Spielberg, “Bridge of Spies” was strangely overlooked in 2015. Some critics have dismissed it as too old-fashioned to be worthy of Oscar gold.

Reactions to the Cold War thriller have been so underwhelming that Spielberg — a seven-time nominee for best director — wasn’t even recognized and “Spies” seems to have little chance of clinching a best picture win, despite six nominations, including best screenplay, music, and production design.

The lack of enthusiasm surrounding “Spies” is shocking to me. I admire it so much, in fact, it made my list of the top films of 2015. Here’s what I had to say about it then:

“‘Bridge of Spies’ is the kind of classic, classy, elegant cinema the director of ‘E.T.’ and ‘Schindler’s List’ is celebrated for. You won’t find any flash or gimmicks in this Cold War saga centered on true events surrounding the capture of a Soviet spy.

“What you will find is graceful, gripping storytelling; a superb script, by Matt Charman and, of all people, Joel and Ethan Coen; and some of the best acting of the year.

“Tom Hanks is at his finest, all Atticus Finchy in his moral decency. The film’s most startling performance, however, belongs to British actor Mark Rylance in a beautifully understated turn as the enigmatic secret agent at the heart of all the drama.

“This is one of those rare movies that makes you think about what it means to be an American, no small feat considering the current state of our murky national identity.”

Rylance is nominated in the best supporting actor category, and it seems certain he’ll lose to aging favorite Sylvester Stallone. If I could have just one wish on Oscar night, it would be that Rylance would wrest the gold from the former “Rocky” for his exquisitely restrained portrayal of a traitor with unexpected integrity.

Room

I’m not exaggerating when I say that “Room” was one of the most haunting, beautiful, earth-shattering movies I experienced with every aching, visceral fiber of my body in 2015.

Still, I haven’t talked about the movie much and that’s because it’s difficult to know what to say when people ask what you thought about it. I’d like to recommend “Room” to everyone without reservation but “Room” is not a film for everyone. Unless you enjoy being shaken to your very core, you may not be up to the emotional ordeal that awaits you. The drama is its own special brand of trauma.

“Room” presents us with a scenario so horrifying it would be surreal if it wasn’t for the fact that this sort of situation pops up with alarming frequency on the evening news.

A mother (Brie Larson) and her young son (Jacob Tremblay) live out their daily lives in a space no bigger than a shipping container. The boy’s only impression of the outside world comes from an old television set. His “Ma” is sometimes so depressed, she can’t get out of bed. An unseen man pays regular visits, during which the boy is cloistered inside a wardrobe.

We can gather what is going on here, but the full implications of the story take awhile to dawn on us. Though this is the potentially sensational stuff of Lifetime television specials, this is no movie of the week. Director Larry Abrahamson crafts a gut-wrenching tale of the power of maternal love from subject matter that should be impossible to handle with this much brutal honesty and keen sensitivity.

The tiny, confined dwelling place that gives the film its name becomes a brilliant showcase for the stunning talents of best actress nominee Brie Larson, who conveys with awesome clarity everything Ma is thinking in moments of silence that seem to stretch on for days. Larson shares a fierce bond with 9-year-old Tremblay, who is such a natural, charming presence, he should have been nominated as well.

Abrahamson’s nod for best director and Emma Donoghue’s nomination for best adapted screenplay bring the movie’s potential Oscar tally to four trophies.

“Room” is probably too raw and painful to win big — although Larson is a lock, or at least she should be — but this challenging drama deserves a wider audience.

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The Big Short

I was so preoccupied with the recent move that I somehow let “The Big Short” get away from me. Now I’m kicking myself because it’s not playing in a single theater in my vicinity and won’t be released for home viewing until March 15.

It’s a shame because the sharp-witted political comedy has gained unexpected momentum over the last few weeks as buzz builds regarding its prospects as a potential best picture winner. The film has demonstrated box office strength as the Oscars approach, after nabbing major trophies from the producers and writers guilds.

Despite my failure to see the film, I didn’t want to leave it out of this discussion, so I asked my friend and fellow Oscar buff, Kristy Rivas, to tell me why she thinks it’s a formidable contender for best picture gold.

Nominated for five Oscars, including adapted screenplay, best director for Adam McKay, and best supporting actor for Christian Bale, “The Big Short” follows a quartet of high-finance players as they foresee the credit and housing bubble of the mid-2000s. Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt star alongside Bale, and all of them are made up to look exceptionally nerdy.

Kristy says the film boasts an innovative structure that reminds her of last year’s best picture winner, “Birdman,” in its irreverence and experimentation. She praises the movie’s balance of drama and comedy and McKay’s clever use of voiceover, which, as we all know, can be “hard to do.”

“I loved how they would stop to explain terms (having to do with the housing crash) with random celebrities explaining them in layman’s terms,” she said.

“It takes something that was a very serious, very scary situation in recent history (and) Adam McKay was able to use comedy to balance out the story to where you didn’t feel completely downtrodden … but you understand we’re headed in that direction again.

“The story was told well. It wasn’t like other dramas that completely drain you … like ‘The Revanant’ where you just feel gross after.”

So there you have it, folks.

“The Big Short” does not leave you feeling as if you just crawled out of an eviscerated horse carcass.

High praise, indeed.

Photos: brooklyn-themovie.com, teaser-trailer.com, http://www.dvdtalk.com, youtube.com.

Eight That Were Great: Underrated Gems of 2015

The lull between Hollywood’s big Christmas releases and the whirlwind start of Oscar season is a great time to catch up on flicks you may have missed in 2015.

Or maybe you’re just sick of watching “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens” for the 20th time. (Who am I kidding? Go see it for the 21st time already.)

If you’re wondering what you should add to your Netflix queue, here are some underrated films from last year that definitely deserve your viewing time.

(And it wouldn’t be a year-end list from me if it didn’t include at least one vampire movie. This list has two. And zombies.)

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1. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night: I guarantee you have never seen a movie like this before. It’s a highly stylized German Expressionist/Western romance, directed by an Iranian woman (Ana Lily Amirpour), set in a fictionalized Persian town dubbed “Bad City,” starring a burka-wearing vampire (Sheila Vand) who is both adorable and creepy, and it was filmed in Bakersfield. If your mind isn’t already blown, it will be.

2. Maggie: On the surface, this thoughtful horror flick sounds like a bad direct-to-DVD thriller. Arnold Schwarzenegger stars as a concerned father whose teenage daughter (Abigail Breslin) comes down with a zombifying illness in a plague-ridden U.S.A. This is actually one of Schwarzenegger’s best performances of late. It’s like “The Walking Dead,” if America managed to contain the outbreak before it consumed the nation.

3. Slow West: For its violent, punch-to-the-gut of a twist ending alone, this revisionist Western is worth a look. As leisurely paced as its name would suggest, it stars Michael Fassbender as a morally ambiguous wilderness guide facing one increasingly absurd dilemma after another in a striking deconstruction of the romance of the American frontier.

4. The Walk: You really should have seen Robert Zemeckis’ playful high-wire act when it was showing in 3-D. It was hands down, the best use of the format all year. The comedy-drama is still relevant, thanks to its mischievous, experimental vibe. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s terrible French accent aside, it tells the gripping true story of Philippe Petit’s epic stroll on a cable stretched across New York’s now absent Twin Towers. The 2008 documentary “Man on Wire” is still better, but this comes close to replicating its ebullient spirit.

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5. What We Do in the Shadows: The utter unlikeliness of the setting is the primary source of humor in this vampire comedy, made by and starring New Zealanders in the capital city of Wellington — not exactly a recipe for the sexy, darkly thrilling horror offerings audiences are accustomed to. The akwardly hilarious film was written and directed by Jemaine Clement, the goofier looking half of comedy duo Flight of the Conchords and it’s actually one of the most original vampire movies in recent years.

6. Mr. Holmes: Director Bill Condon’s exquisitely acted drama manages the seemingly impossible — contributing something new to the ubiquitous legacy of Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary British detective. And of course, the film stars Ian McKellen, at the height of his powers, reinterpreting the great Holmes as something we would never expect — an aging, embittered, beekeeping recluse haunted by past tragedies.

7. Z for Zachariah: Post-apocalyptic thrillers are all the rage right now, from “The Hunger Games” to “Insurgent,” but this drama explores the decline of civilization and humanity’s propensity to destroy itself from a much more adult, intriguing and quiet perspective. Margot Robbie demonstrates surprising versatility as the lone survivor of a wordwide nuclear disaster caught in an unlikely triangle between Chiwetel Ejiofor’s rational scientist and Chris Pine’s mysterious stranger. It’s like “The Last Man on Earth,” but all serious and stuff.

8. Crimson Peak: The films of Guillermo del Toro are an acquired taste and “Crimson Peak” is no different. Though it was lavished with publicity, it still managed to flop, but that’s probably because it’s not the type of horror movie mainstream audiences prefer. However, if you’re of a literary persuasion and prefer macabre tales steeped more in mood and mystery than cheap gimmicks, this sumptuously grotesque thriller will be just your bitter cup of tea. Or if you happen to love Hiddles … er, I mean, Tom Hiddleston.

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