Parasite

Release: Friday, November 8, 2019

→Theater

Written by: Bong Joon Ho; Jin Won Han

Directed by: Bong Joon Ho

I don’t know why, or how, I have never seen a Bong Joon Ho movie before now. The South Korean filmmaker is one of those major voices of world cinema that’s hard to ignore. Yet here I am, crawling out from underneath a (scholar’s) rock. And I wonder if all his movies are quite as metaphorical as Parasite? Or as good. Even if they aren’t he already has a fan in me; you all know how much I love metaphors. Even if they aren’t exactly subtle.

Parasite is a brilliant allegory for class warfare that to’s and fro’s between homes, between worlds and between seemingly disparate genres. The story, collaborated on by Ho and screenwriter Jin Won Han, focuses on the relationship between two families existing on opposite ends of the wealth spectrum. As you might suspect from the title, we are supposed to feel a certain way about that relationship, maybe even take sides. Ascertaining who the real bad and good guys are — or, if you like to play the metaphor game like I do, as we are perhaps intended here, who the real “parasites” and “hosts” are — is kind of the whole point of the exercise. Judging who is actually being victimized proves thrillingly challenging when every character is shaded with a moral grayness, when there is more going on beneath the surface than what first appears.

Ki-taek (Song Kang-ho) is the sloven patriarch of the Kim clan. He’s fallen on hard times with his restaurant business having collapsed. He has absolutely no prospects of securing regular income, but he does have the love of his family. His wife Chung-sook (Chang Hyae Jin), disaffected twentysomething daughter Ki-jeong (Park So Dam) and college-aged son Ki-woo (Choi Woo Sik) help him fold pizza boxes as a way to make some pennies. They steal wifi from upstairs (you just have to find the right corner in the right room) and allow themselves to be swallowed whole by the debris storms blown in from outside as street cleaners effectively double as fumigation for their semi-basement-level apartment.

Ki-taek can only see it as a blessing when a family friend, Min-hyuk (Park Seo-joon), one day comes by and gifts Ki-woo a “scholar’s rock,” which he says will bring material wealth to those in possession of it. Ki-woo views it as more metaphorical (then again, he says that about everything). That same friend later offers Ki-woo a job opportunity — he’s leaving the country to study abroad and needs someone to replace him as a tutor for the daughter of the wealthy Parks, who are apparently “nice but gullible.” For Ki-woo, who’s tired of combatting the homeless who like to urinate near their kitchen window, this is a no-brainer; he just needs some important documents to be forged and to make a good impression during the interview.

After gaining the Parks’ trust Ki-woo puts into motion an ambitious plan to get other members of his family involved. One by one they will each take on a different role serving this well-to-do household. Chauffeurs, live-in nannies, art therapists — opportunity abounds here. If all goes according to plan, something Papa Kim does not like to do as he thinks plans always fail, they will pull this off without ever being suspected of being related. What results goes beyond the most ingenious home invasion scheme you’ve ever seen; this is more like a life invasion — a long con of increasing boldness as the Kims set about vicariously living that sweet life, feeling very little remorse over the things they have done to ingratiate themselves into a world in which they seemingly do not belong.

Parasite made history at Cannes last year, becoming the first Korean film to take home the coveted Palme d’Or, the swanky film festival’s top prize.* I’m really not trying to invoke Ron Burgundy here but it’s kind of a big deal. Some fans have even renamed the honor the ‘Bong d’Or.’ So that’s been fun, and Parasite has been a fun movie to follow. It’s become a buzz word, a fashionable Google search ever since it first premiered, with Ho at the center of a lot of Oscartalk. Can he vie for one of those, too? Or is that just asking too much?

I tell you what would be asking too much: wanting more than what he delivers in his seventh feature film. The intrigue factor is ratcheted up constantly by a smart concept, a camera that moves voyeuristically through the intricacies of gorgeous, purpose-built sets, and Ho’s confident, playful direction. How he keeps Parasite from tipping completely into serendipity is no small feat, even though there are one or two elements here that threaten to cross the line (basement-operated light-switches, anyone? What architect thought that was a good idea?). Performances are uniformly excellent, and on multiple levels.

What’s most impressive is how Parasite fashions incredible entertainment out of a sobering reality. Ho is clearly sympathetic to the struggles of the working class and he’s put together a movie that’s both cultural and universal. This is the product of a director who has spent some 50 years watching his home transform from one of the poorest to among the most advanced industrial economies in the world. While Parasite certainly speaks to the direness of the Korean class divide its greatest strength is how it feels accessible as a human drama about dignity and decency.

* it also became THE FIRST KOREAN Film TO HAVE WON A GOLDEN GLOBE AWARD.

“….did I leave the house unlocked again?”

Recommendation: For this Bong Joon Ho newbie, Parasite is among the best movies of 2019. It’s a scathing indictment of the capitalist system that also happens to be blisteringly entertaining. Its message is creatively and powerfully delivered without being obnoxious. If you enjoy movies with sophisticated plots and that do not fit neatly into any one particular genre, Parasite should burrow deep into your skin. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 132 mins.

Quoted: “They’re rich but they’re still nice . . .”

“They’re nice because they’re rich!”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: IMDb 

Month in Review: July ’19

Well unfortunately I never did manage to come up with some kind of “celebration” post for my blog’s eighth birthday — that opportunity came and went without so much as a kazoo being tooted. Actually — that can still happen. In fact, here’s literally an entire kazoo band to make up for that:

Now, without further kazoodling, here’s what went down on Thomas J during the month of July.


New Posts

Theatrical Releases: Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Streaming: Point Blank; Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile

Alternative Content: The Marvelous Brie Larson #4


Good Movie, Bad Movie

Apollo 11 · March 1, 2019 · Directed by Todd Douglas Miller · A truly mesmerizing experience that’s more visual poetry than pure documentary, Apollo 11‘s “direct cinema” approach gives viewers a unique behind-the-scenes look at how the Americans successfully put men on the Moon half a century ago. Relying entirely on its breathtaking, digitally restored archived footage — some of which has never been released to the public until now — and audio recordings to deliver both information and emotion, Apollo 11 isn’t just a celebration of one of man’s greatest achievements, it’s an unbelievably effective time capsule that rockets us back to the 60s as much as it propels us into the star-strewn night sky. This is hands down one of the most insightful, hair-raising looks at any Apollo mission that I have come across. And it only goes to reaffirm Damien Chazelle’s First Man as perhaps one of the most accurate renderings we will ever get in a dramatization. (5/5) 

The Red Sea Diving Resort · July 31, 2019 · Gideon Raff · Inspired by the real-life rescue mission, code-name Operation Brothers, in which a group of Mossad agents helped smuggle tens of thousands of Ethiopian-Jewish refugees out of Sudan and back to Israel in the 1980s, using a dilapidated tourist outpost as a cover. The story it tells is absolutely inspiring, but unfortunately the execution and the performances make it all seem like a vacation. A game cast turns up but is monumentally wasted, none more than Michael Kenneth Williams who disappears for nearly half the movie. Gideon Raff plays it fast and loose with the tone, creating a Baywatch-meets-Blood Diamond-meets-Ocean’s Eleven that makes for an oft unseemly watch. Even worse, it’s pretty boring. (1.5/5)


Beer of the Month

A dangerously drinkable, unfiltered IPA from Stone. Their Fourth of July release is, I think, only the second time I’ve managed to secure one of their limited-release ‘Enjoy By’ drinks. Better late than never, because this one, at 9.4% ABV, is a Stone cold classic!


If you could only see one, which would it be — The Irishman or Ad Astra

Wind River

Release: Friday, August 18, 2017

→Theater

Written by: Taylor Sheridan

Directed by: Taylor Sheridan

Wind River is a haunting little crime thriller that creeps into your soul and nestles there. It’s brought to you by the writer of Sicario and last year’s Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water, which may tell you everything you need to know about this movie, based on true events about a tracker working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services who teams up with a rookie FBI agent to investigate the strange circumstances surrounding the death of a young Native American woman.

The journeyman actor-turned-screenwriter trades the scorching temperatures of the southern U.S. for the bitter chill of wintry Wyoming. Tumbleweeds for evergreens; cowboy hats for furry down jackets. The harsh terrain changes but Sheridan, who has proven his worth in a very limited amount of time, fortunately does not. He remains committed to the same gritty, humanistic perspective that has helped identify him as among the most powerful emergent voices in Hollywood.

As we have come to be spoiled by the writer-director, certain things are givens: impeccable acting, complex morality, sympathetic tonality. Wind River operates most apparently as a straightforward police procedural but that’s just the part of the iceberg that’s visible. What the screenplay hides beneath the surface is where the film is at its most affecting, not just as a deeply nuanced exploration of personal grief but as damning evidence of the marginalization of Native Americans.

Wind River tells a story about fictional people; however, as a title card at the end of the film suggests, this could be the story of any one of the thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of women who have disappeared from Indian reservations across the country. As of today, it is not known how many Native American women go missing or what even becomes of them, as they remain the only demographic for which the U.S. Department of Justice does not compile that data.

While Kelsey Asbille as the victim — a teenaged resident named Natalie — provides a face to these unknowns, Jeremy Renner proves once again to be a major comfort. He injects warmth into an environment characterized by precisely the opposite. His Cory Lambert has earned the trust and respect of many of the residents of Wind River, a plot of land in central-western Wyoming home to members of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes. Cory’s dedicated years to protecting them and their livestock from the predatory animals that roam this yawning expanse of pillowy hills and knife-edge ridges. Of course, he has done this at the expense of his own family, a familiar but still effective flaw of character that grafts perfectly with the film’s thematic explorations.

Cory’s commitment to the community deepens when FBI Special Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) shows up on the scene, determined to take control of what appears to her to be a sexual assault case. Her woeful unpreparedness for the conditions, though initially played off as broadly humorous, ultimately proves to be the first of many obstacles that will truly test her resolve. Gender dynamics come into play as Banner has something to prove as an outsider in this world. Olsen plays her hand perfectly, her sizable ego soon humbled by taking bullets in subzero temperatures and by listening to the stories of the people who call this frozen hell home.

Renner is reliable and Olsen makes for interesting company, but you cannot overlook Gil Birmingham, who re-teams with Sheridan after playing the butt of every Jeff Bridges joke in Hell or High Water. That’s in stark contrast to his brief but dramatically hefty role here, in which he portrays the victim’s father as a man consumed by grief. An early scene in which Banner is cringingly unaware of her aggressive style confesses to the delicate nature of her assignment. It’s a traumatic moment, with Birmingham’s not-so-quiet sobbing memorably given privacy by remaining just out of shot.

The locals call Wind River the “land of you’re on your own.” That’s a harsh lesson for Banner to have to take back with her to Las Vegas, but for everyone else it’s just a fact of life. As a boy who grew up on a ranch before his family lost it to the economic downturn of the 1990s, Sheridan has a pretty firm grasp on man’s relationship with mother nature and how tenuous a relationship it is. That manifests powerfully here as well, but Wind River evolves into something much more personal and even profound than a tale of survival. That old Darwinian theory is a byproduct of the story, but it’s not the story.

Wind River is about being found, being recognized. Being heard. And the heavy sigh in which the film ends echoes back decades of silence. The kind of silence that kills, by madness or by wolf, by pulmonary edema or just plain-old ignorance.

Recommendation: Taylor Sheridan rewards viewers once again with an absorbing, emotionally stirring and deeply disturbing crime drama based on real events. Both a tribute to the untold number of victims as well as a culture that has had indignity upon indignity heaped upon it since the appearance of Anglo-American settlers, Wind River feels especially timely if you take into consideration recent headlines, such as those involving the Standing Rock Sioux tribe and their continued battle against the Dakota Access Pipeline

Rated: R

Running Time: 107 mins.

Quoted: “I’d like to tell you it gets easier, but it doesn’t. If there’s a comfort, you get used to the pain if you let yourself. I went to a grief seminar in Casper. Don’t know why, just . . it hurt so much, I was searching for anything that could make it go away. That’s what I wanted this seminar to do, make it go away. The instructor comes up to me after the seminar was over, sat beside me and said, ‘I got good news and bad news. Bad news is you’ll never be the same. You’ll never be whole. Ever. What was taken from you can’t be replaced. Your daughter’s gone. Now the good news: as soon as you accept that, as soon as you let yourself suffer, allow yourself to grieve, you’ll be able to visit her in your mind, and remember all the joy she gave you. All the love she knew. Right now, you don’t even have that, do you?’ He said, ‘that’s what not accepting this will rob from you.’ If you shy from the pain of it, then you rob yourself of every memory of her, my friend. Every one. From her first step to her last smile. You’ll kill ’em all. Take the pain. Take the pain, Martin. It’s the only way to keep her with you.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Logan Lucky

Release: Friday, August 18, 2017

→Theater

Written by: Rebecca Blunt

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh

Logan Lucky represents the first film from Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh in four years, since he left audiences divided with a convoluted pharma-thriller whose lingering side effects included, but were not limited to, headaches, confusion and pangs of disappointment. As if trying to course correct, he returns to more familiar territory with an Ocean’s Eleven set in the deep south, where instead of casinos we’re heisting our way out from literally underneath a NASCAR race track.

This may not be a story about Bonnie and Clyde but it is a story about Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and Clyde (Adam Driver). Even with their collective experience these feel like notable roles for actors constantly searching for ways to reinvent themselves. (We’ve seen Tatum do good-ole-boy before, but Kylo Ren with a southern drawl takes some getting used to.) The Logan brothers aren’t wealthy in material possessions and they’ve suffered their share of personal setbacks. Some even say they’re cursed, what with Jimmy’s dreams of playing pro football crushed by a leg injury and his younger brother losing an arm in Iraq.

Yet by the time we’re catching up with them, they seem well-adjusted. Jimmy works a construction job and greatly looks forward to spending time with his precocious daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) who is preparing for an upcoming beauty pageant. Clyde holds down the local bar at night where he’s mostly bored but occasionally gets to impress the odd out-of-towner — in this case a pretentious British douchebag effortlessly played by Seth Macfarlane — with his bartending “skills.” Tatum and Driver are clearly in no way related but their characters are undeniably cut from the same tattered cloth. They’re kindhearted, simple people who generally don’t go looking for trouble.

That is until the day Jimmy loses even this unsure footing, when he gets fired from his job working on the Charlotte Motor Speedway because of a “preexisting physical condition” that finally gets discovered. Later he is informed by ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes) that it’s going to be more difficult to see Sadie as they’re moving across state lines thanks to her new hubby (David Denman) landing a cushier job.

Pushed to the brink, Jimmy hatches a scheme with the hope of restoring some of his dignity. Money may not buy you happiness but can it at least buy you that? He intends to find out by Robin Hood-ing his way in and out of his old construction site, in the process siphoning off a few dollar bills from the elaborate network of pipes that shuttle money between the site’s vendors and the vault. He’ll be taking from the public and giving back to the very private sector. But he won’t be able to do it alone, so he enlists the one-armed Clyde and their renegade sister Mellie (Riley Keough) as sidekicks.

The framework is familiar and the action routine, certainly by Soderbergh’s own standards, but it’s with whom the director has surrounded himself that really makes the difference. With supporting parts also going to the likes of Hilary Swank and Macon Blair as detectives on the trail, Sebastian Stan as a NASCAR driver representing the aforementioned British bag-with-which-one-douches, and Katherine Waterston as a potential love interest, Logan Lucky boasts one of his most impressive casts to date. Six real stock car drivers appear in cameos — the recently retired Jeff Gordon most recognizable among them. But he’s not as funny as Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards who play state troopers of all things.

That’s not even mentioning the film’s crowning jewel.

In order to physically access the money, the brothers will require the services of a safecracker who goes by the name of Joe Bang (Daniel Craig). Seeing as though Bang’s behind bars, that part is going to be a little tricky. Luckily Soderbergh can make even the most contrived development enjoyable, here inserting country music icon Dwight Yoakam as a feckless prison warden to facilitate a critical plot point. The singer/songwriter/actor is clearly relishing the role he plays in this farce, but it’s 007 himself that really digs in. Ditching the Omega and the Armani suit for striped pajamas and bleached hair, his presence alone is worth the price of admission. It’s the kind of role that tells me that James Bond may well need Craig more than Craig needs James Bond.

The characters define Logan Lucky, perhaps in a way that no other cast Soderbergh has been gifted has before. His early-2000s adaptations of the Rat Pack classic weren’t exactly high concept, but by comparison Danny Ocean made you really work for your entertainment. This is a familiar heist thriller executed with a level of enthusiasm that’s just as familiar, but unfortunately an adherence to a certain formula leads Logan Lucky into a snag not even the well-prepared Jimmy could anticipate and/or avoid. A subplot at the end needlessly rehashes details of the heist as the detectives attempt to identity the culprits — a sloppy construction that causes an unwanted momentum shift and a pair of talented actors to come across rather amateurish.

In fairness, the Tatum-Driver-Craig combo is one tough act to follow. They’re the gift that keeps on giving, keeping this rural farce on the wrong side of the law but just the right side of ridiculous.

Recommendation: With colorful and unforgettable characters, the lackadaisical plotting of Logan Lucky is more easily forgiven. Even as the buzz wears off significantly towards the end, this is one of the more purely enjoyable flicks of the late season — a cold and refreshing <insert the name of an American pilsner here> on a hot race day. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 119 mins.

Quoted: “Did you just suck off his arm?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

War for the Planet of the Apes

Release: Friday, July 14, 2017

→Theater

Written by: Mark Bomback; Matt Reeves

Directed by: Matt Reeves

Maurice: “Ooo! Oo!!!!”

Me: “Yeah buddy, I hate war too.”

We all know how Caesar feels about it. Poor Caesar. If he had his way, we wouldn’t even be here. War for the Planet of the Apes basically details everything the alpha male, the very first ape to experience increased intelligence, has been wanting to avoid. And how.

Of course Caesar doesn’t get his way even when he really should, after all he’s endured. After all those demonstrations of mercy and stoicism. Alas, here we are, locked into a brutal and bitter conflict that will, almost assuredly, see the fall of one species and the survival of the other, the odds of reconciliation at an all-time low. With the imminent threat posed by a ruthless Colonel (Woody Harrelson, scary good) who is hell-bent on wiping out the apes once and for all, Caesar (Andy Serkis) and a few loyal ape-padres must launch a final attack that will determine the fate of the entire planet.

War for the Planet of the Apes finds director Matt Reeves (who took over from Rupert Wyatt in 2014 with his ominous Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) pushing the pathos of the franchise to even greater depths. He’s saved the most visceral depiction of an epic ideological struggle for last. Admittedly, it’s a fairly misleading title, as ‘war’ isn’t so much an indicator of scale, but rather a reference to a certain mentality. The film opens with a harrowing battle sequence, concludes in explosive fashion and tosses a few other moments of intense confrontation into the mix but the overall tone asserts the psychological unraveling and the perversion of logic associated with war.

To that end, we must witness the continued suffering of Caesar when he takes it upon himself to track down the vengeful, rogue colonel, who turns out to be every bit his intellectual equal and, further to Caesar’s dismay, has a devastating backstory of his very own. He’s the ideal dramatic foil. He has reasons to be angry. Harrelson actually goes for livid, chillingly reminding you how good he is at playing nasty, but he never overplays his hand.

Though he is adamant he must go the journey alone, Caesar is nonetheless joined by a trio of his most trusted allies. The Bornean orangutang Maurice (Karin Konoval) insists he will need his moral support. For muscle, he’s flanked by the gloriously large lowland gorilla Luca (Michael Adamthwaite) and his adoptive brother Rocket (Terry Notary) — a common chimp, yes, but also a tenacious fighter. But Maurice is valuable in another way besides being team cheerleader. He’s a voice of reason, proving his shrewd judge of character can come in handy at some fairly critical moments.

Others join. Steve Zahn’s Bad Ape is a welcomed though fairly obvious nod to Serkis’ groundbreaking mo-cap as the troubled tag-a-long and ultimately ill-fated Sméagol/Gollum. Fortunately Bad Ape is more than simple fan service. He’s a sorrowful simian who’s been on his own for “long time. Very long time.” On top of adding a splash of humor to proceedings, his perspective proves invaluable and offers clarity to the intellectual evolution of Caesar himself, who sits before him, quietly impressed by a member of his own species having learned to speak English. It’s a profound moment that perfectly encapsulates how far we have come since 2011.

It might surprise some to find it all coming down to an act of retribution. But if you recall, a simple misunderstanding by zoo security is what set this whole saga off in the first place. Instead of bogging itself down in philosophizing and extrapolation, Reeves’ direction comes across as more quietly observational — the cameras remain objective and unflinching as people die and apes are savagely tortured. The writing has consistently shied away from overcomplicating things. And Harrelson’s painful revelation confirms the ironic nature of this whole confusing cycle. We “created” the intelligent ape, now they are minimizing us. It’s kind of tragic. Well, depending on how you’ve come to view these movies.

Recommendation: Powerful, provocative and emotionally resonant. The third and final iteration in the rebooted Apes franchise sends audiences off on a thrilling high, and brings long-time fans back full-circle. Combined with ever-improving special effects and the committed work of motion-capture performer Andy Serkis, War for the Planet of the Apes is absolutely the most mature and most well-made film in the post-Charlton Heston era. Sure it’s a little predictable, but it’s predictable in a very surprising way. And that totally does make sense when you see the movie. 

Rated: hard PG-13

Running Time: 140 mins.

Quoted: “My God, you are impressive. Smart as hell. You’re stronger than we are. But you’re taking this all much too personally. So emotional!”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Wonder Woman

Release: Friday, June 2, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Allan Heinberg

Directed by: Patty Jenkins

Not even the comfort of Marvel Studios’ most luxurious pampering package can compare to the thrill of experiencing the struggling DC “extended universe” dropping an instant classic. Wonder Woman may be an event film but it’s also one of the most exciting new releases of the year and quite possibly the most compelling and emotionally resonant superhero film we’ve been delivered since The Dark Knight.

In the fifteen installments that the MCU has cranked out over the better part of a decade, not once has a standalone superheroine story made its way into the fold. Scarlett Johansson is one of the most recognizable names on the planet and yet the Black Widow project page on IMDb remains at the time of this writing a blank canvas. Perhaps it would be a stretch to give a full-length treatment to the likes of Scarlet Witch, but then no one expected Ant-Man to work. Besides, that time has come and gone anyway. And remaking Elektra is such an afterthought it seems not to exist.

Patty Jenkins, notable for directing a radically transformed Charlize Theron in 2003’s Monster — a film about a prostitute turned serial killer — becomes the first woman to be handed the reigns of a studio-produced superhero film, only the second ever to handle a budget of $100 million. In the process she’s become something of a savior for DC, delivering an immensely entertaining package that succeeds in its aspirations to become something more than spectacle. The real beauty of Wonder Woman is that Jenkins has as much of an interest in female empowerment as she does in providing an earnest exploration of our fallibilities as human beings, regardless of gender.

Wonder Woman is a surprisingly moving and heady origins story that tells of a beautiful and fiercely powerful Amazon warrior named Diana and of her loss of innocence. The Israeli beauty Gal Gadot fulfills the iconic role made famous in 1975 by Lynda Carter, sculpting not out of clay but rather an obvious and deep belief in the character’s sense of morality a performance that stands tall amongst the genre’s finest. Her saga is constructed in a flashback, triggered when Diana, working in the present day as a curator for the Louvre’s Department of Antiquities, receives a photographic plate from Wayne Enterprises which causes her to reflect upon her past.

The trip down memory lane takes us all the way back to the secluded isle of Themyscira, a paradise deliberately obscured from our world and home to the Amazons, a tribe of female warriors created by the gods of Mount Olympus and sworn to protect humanity against the wrath of Ares, god of war. The opening sequence pulls us into a heaven on earth resembling an ancient Greco-Roman utopia, one populated entirely by women. It is here where we first meet a young and wide-eyed Diana (Lilly Aspel) who is hungry to start her training to become among the elite fighters of her tribe. But her mother, the intensely protective Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), won’t allow her daughter to throw herself headlong into a world which she can’t possibly understand, much less control.

Naturally, Diana begins training in secret with her Aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) — widely regarded as the fiercest amongst all the Amazons. Refreshingly, the consequences of Diana’s disobedience don’t render her a prisoner in her own bedroom or with a silly slap on the wrist. They’re far more devastating. As a mother trying to do what’s best for her child Nielsen’s understated performance slowly slips into a pained resignation to what’s inevitable, eschewing the histrionics typically associated with parents reading their children the riot act. She’s well aware that experience is the best teacher; that perhaps the only way to learn that idealism is not a weapon is through trial by fire.

Diana’s journey of self-discovery takes us down the gauntlet of human cruelty and suffering as the environment flips from the ethereal to the brutally real. After American pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crash-lands on the beach of Themyscira, bringing with him a fleet of pursuing German soldiers, Diana learns of a Great War engulfing the planet and that man’s suffering has reached a crescendo. Her altruism won’t allow her to sit idly by while innocent lives are lost, and so she decides to accompany the first and only male she has ever met to the “hideous” shores of England.

Along the way, Diana’s fish-out-of-water presence on the streets of London inspires a litany of keen yet broadly comical observations about human relationships, social norms and gender dynamics. Whereas the umpteenth male-centric origins story might flounder in its down moments, Wonder Woman is buoyed by an unusual perspective that keeps even its more pedestrian scenes interesting. Try, for example, taking an Amazon princess clothes shopping on Oxford Street. Or taking her out for ice cream. Or explaining to her why human beings are compelled to partner up. Meanwhile Gadot plays off her character’s immunity to such trivialities with deft precision. She emotes intensely when the scene calls for it, but what defines her performance more is a haunting sense of detachment and a loneliness that suggests immortality might be overrated.

The larger dramatic rhythms of Wonder Woman remain beholden to the Marvel blueprint, particularly with the gradual build-up of each battle sequence, but that’s not to say there aren’t surprises in store along the way. As per tradition, the central hero becomes surrounded with others who become personally invested in the good fight. The film commits to giving these fringe players both purpose and personality. There are bad guys as pawns, cluttering the path to legitimate evil that must be stopped at all costs. While the legitimate evil is still not something we can fear entirely naturally — believe it or not it’s harder to identify with the ideology of a raging god than, say, that of a German chemist — those pawns offer up some of the film’s most barbaric acts. Danny Huston’s insane General Ludendorff and Elena Anaya’s Dr. Maru (a.k.a. Doctor Poison) slightly overcook their parts, but they’re more compelling than the average, disposable baddie DC has offered so far.

The specifics of how it all plays out is where a review must end and the movie must take over, but suffice it to say the embattled heroine at the center of it all is more than enough to make up for any narrative shortcomings or predictability. Gal Gadot puts her best foot forward, rendering a performance that should go down in the history books as bold, brave, righteous. Wonder Woman is an epic tale fueled by female strength on both sides of the camera, two tidal forces both complementing and inspiring one another. It is, in short, a marvel to experience.

Recommendation: Sensational action sequences (the rising from the trenches in No Man’s Land is, quite frankly, a scene that no movie this year is going to be able to match) combine with heartfelt and inspired performances from the leading cast, with Chris Pine giving great support to his on-screen, equally “average-looking” co-star. Wonder Woman is not simply a DC film done right, it’s a superhero film executed to near perfection. Easily one of the best and most surprising movies of 2017. Guardians of the Galaxy, eat your freaking heart out! 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 141 mins.

Quoted: “You have been my greatest love. Today you are my greatest sorrow. Be careful, Diana. They do not deserve you.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

March Blindspot: Trainspotting (1996)

Release: Friday, August 9, 1996

[YouTube]

Written by: John Hodge

Directed by: Danny Boyle

One of the things I had presumed about Danny Boyle’s iconic drug drama Trainspotting was that it was really bleak, and it was that way from start to finish. Don’t get me wrong — this film is not happy, but I wasn’t expecting so much compassion. I wasn’t anticipating something that has such a reputation for being repulsive and controversial to actually be both those things while proving to be something far more substantial.

Of course Trainspotting has been embraced more by some cultures than it has by others. The film, released three years after Scottish novelist Irvine Welsh’s book was published, has become a cultural touchstone in the UK, which makes sense given its unapologetically brash attitude and self-deprecatory humor, dialogue that pierces through to the soul and yet still somehow comes across charming, even poetic. Really really darkly poetic. And utterly unpretentious at that. Despite the film mostly being shot in Glasgow, Welsh set the story in his native Edinburgh, circa the 1980s.

A densely compacted crop of historic and gorgeous stone edifice gouged into rugged green hillsides that contrast dramatically against the cerulean flats of the Water of Leith to the north, the Scottish capital is actually second only to London in terms of attracting European travelers. Yet underneath this façade of wealth and diversity and leisure lie both literal and metaphorically crumbling infrastructures, themes that take root in both Welsh’s novel and Boyle’s adaptation.

Trainspotting tells the story of a group of youths who struggle to overcome terrible drug addictions and who struggle even more with the stagnation that has creeped into their lives. The characters have become British icons: Mark “Rent-Boy” Renton (Ewan McGregor), “Sick Boy” (Jonny Lee Miller), “Spud” (Ewen Bremner), Tommy (Kevin McKidd) and Begbie (Robert Carlyle, a.k.a. “Crazy Asshole”) are pottering around in the ghettos that have become of the urban development projects that were rife in the 1970s. After infrastructural standards dropped many of the buildings began to deteriorate and become neglected. This crumbling backdrop fills the frame with a sense of pessimism that’s hard to escape.

Around this time as well the proliferation of synthesized heroin was on the rise and drug abuse was starting to become an issue. The introduction of heroin wasn’t so much random as it was evidence of a worsening epidemic as opiates had long been ingrained in the culture, having been brought over to the Scottish shores as early as the late 1600s. Opium use had been fairly widespread, so perhaps it was only inevitable that other, more powerful opiates would become available. When we begin our journey in the film we’re at what feels like a threshold. We’re visiting a community hanging on by a thread as the popularity of heroin and the death toll created by its usage continue to increase.

McGregor’s particularly needle-happy “Rent-Boy,” wanting to make more of his life than thieving from the sick and the helpless so he can get high, acts as the driving force of emotion in a film that’s mostly (and intentionally) numb to such dumb things. (Who needs emotion when you have heroin?) His stream-of-consciousness-like voiceover clues us in to the particulars of being not just being a heroin user, but a heroin lover. Meanwhile his so-called mates around him provide the color commentary — especially Begbie. Begbie, he who “doesn’t do drugs” but “does people.” It’s all a vicious cycle, and the script by John Hodge proves remarkably adept at revealing that harsh reality.

The thing about Trainspotting is how effortlessly it comes across as authentic. It’s authentic, but the writing is so poignant and pained with certain truths about the inequity of the world that you might assume there’d be some level of affectedness that becomes apparent. Not once did I sense the kind of artsy/social conscientiousness that often makes indie darlings, even of similar subjects, targets of derision. There isn’t a false note in any of the performances. The caustic, stinging barbs that is the language in which they speak, while noxious, actually confesses to the humanity that is just begging to emerge from underneath yet another stupor.

If there’s one thing I’ve truly underestimated about this film, it’s that it would ever advocate for characters that are as wayward as these. But it really does want them . . . well, most of them, to succeed. It’s far more of a sympathetic film than I thought it would be. And all of this just makes Trainspotting that much better.

Curious about what’s next? Check out my Blindspot List here.

Recommendation: A movie that moved the needle like this needs no recommendation from me. But to fill page space, it’s good. Addictive, really. I canNOT wait to see the sequel. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 94 mins.

Quoted: “1,000 years from now there will be no guys and no girls, just wankers. Sounds great to me.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.alternativemovieposters.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Manchester By the Sea

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Release: Friday, November 18, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Kenneth Lonergan

Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan

A good movie offers escapism. A better movie makes us think. But some of the best movies don’t necessarily allow us the luxury of escape. They challenge us to face the world that actually includes us, holding a mirror up to our own realities and daring us to keep looking closer. Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea is one such movie, a stunningly perceptive drama that’s not only technically impressive but emotionally heavy-hitting as well. Despite almost unrelenting bleakness, it just well may be the year’s most relatable movie.

The titular town is not much more than a small port, a few fishing boats and about as many red lights; a crusty blue-collar town clinging to the Massachusetts coast hardened by more than just brutal winters. It doesn’t announce itself as a happening place, but for one man who once called this harbor home, everything that ever mattered to him happened here. In this most unexpected of places we will, through a series of devastating revelations, be reminded of a few brutal truths about the human experience.

The film pairs its creaky, rundown setting with subtle (but powerful) performances to effect an intentionally mundane aesthetic. It tells of a man named Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) who reluctantly becomes his nephew’s guardian when the boy’s father (Lee’s brother Joe who is, confusingly enough, portrayed by Kyle Chandler) passes away suddenly. The premise may seem simple at first but it is pregnant with complexity and nuance. Lee leads a spectacularly unspectacular life in Boston, making minimum wage as a custodian for an apartment block. It’s perhaps not the most ideal line of work for someone trying to avoid people at all costs, but it’s pretty darn close. Aloof in the extreme and prone to violent outbursts, Lee is not a protagonist we immediately embrace. He’s actually kind of a jackass: spurning women’s advances and getting into bar fights because someone gives him the wrong look.

But there’s a method to the madness. Working from a screenplay he originally intended to be his sole contribution to the production, Lonergan steadily reveals layers to a character in a protracted emotional crisis. Flashbacks play a crucial role in the process. Lee is first evaluated as a worker, as a pee-on to the average white-collar Bostonian. A series of interactions Lee tries not to have with his clients — tenants whose lights have broken, whose toilets have clogged, whose bathtubs need sealant and whose goodwill is eroded by the man’s social awkwardness — gives us the impression Lee kinda just hates his job. But the bitterness runs a bit deeper than that. He seems to have a genuine disdain for the human race.

Manchester By the Sea uses flashbacks both as a gateway to the past and as our exclusive access into the mind of a thoroughly depressed individual. The cutaways occur incredibly naturally, manifesting as a sort of internal response to external stress. A visit with the lawyer to get his brother’s affairs in order proves to be a particularly sensitive trigger. What to do with the family boat, the house and other possessions, funeral arrangements — the whole headache rekindles feelings he would rather not have. This moment sends us on a trip down memory lane and into the drama’s darkest moments. What Lee has apparently been coping with for years — what ultimately drove a wedge between him and his wife Randi (Michelle Williams) — proves bitterly poignant.

On the other side of this flashback we view Lee as a different person. Not that our empathy is garnered in one fell swoop, but looking back, if we were to point to a specific moment when our perception started to evolve, it undoubtedly is this epiphany. It is here where we start to view his world through a much darker, cloudier lens. Back in his hometown and daunted by new, unexpected responsibilities — most notably looking after his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) — Lee is also left with little choice but to confront his demons and try to stake a new path forward. But is he really up to the task? How would we deal with all of this?

Manchester By the Sea evokes its strongest emotional and psychological responses from its characters. The narrative certainly stimulates the mind, but the people are what appeal to the heart. Affleck plays a man who seems tailor-made for the actor’s unusual real-life persona. His controversial behavior in his private life (at least as of late) makes the transition into playing an emotionally unstable anti-hero a less surprising one. Gossip is pretty useless really, but is it not ironic Affleck has allowed a few of his own character defects to become things for public consumption in the run-up to the release of a film featuring a severely flawed character? Gossip is also useless because I am only assuming he’s fired his publicist. He’s probably done that in spite of claims that he “doesn’t care about fame.”

And this is stupid because all of this is just padding my word count. As is this.

Before my ADHD gets the better of me, other names are certainly deserving of what remains of this page space. Hedges and Williams in particular make strong cases for Oscars consideration. The former introduces a compelling new dynamic and the perfect foil for Lee’s anti-socialite. Popular in school, on the hockey team, a member of a garage band and currently juggling two girlfriends, Patrick is the antithesis of his uncle. He makes an effort to connect with others. Aspects of his personality and his attitude are going to feel familiar, but this is far from the archetypal teenage annoyance. Williams, in a limited but unforgettable supporting role as the estranged ex-wife, mines emotional depths equal to her co-star who is given ten times the amount of screen time. That’s not to detract from what Affleck has accomplished. Quite simply the actress achieves something here that’s difficult to put into words.

Manchester By the Sea uses one man and his struggle to speak to the melancholy pervading the lives of millions. The language of the film is pain, so even if the specifics don’t speak to your experience the rollercoaster of emotions, the undulating waves of uncertainty and despair surely will. And yet, for all the sadness in which it trades, Lonergan’s magnum opus finds room for genuinely affecting humor. Hedges often supplies welcomed doses of sarcasm to offset Affleck’s perpetually sullen demeanor. And it is surely welcomed, for if it weren’t for the laughs perhaps it all would have been too much. The best films know when enough is enough.

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5-0Recommendation: Powerfully performed and confidently directed, Manchester By the Sea may on the surface seem like a certain kind of crowd-pleaser — perhaps more the critic-circle variety — but I’d like to think the film’s technical merits and the minutiae of the performances are what has drawn a 97% critic rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The story’s ability to make you empathize is worth recommending to anyone who appreciates a good story about “normal people.” This is a potent, vital film about the human experience and a testament to the indiscriminate yet seemingly random cruelties that life presents. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 137 mins.

Quoted: “I can’t beat it. I can’t beat it.” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Loving

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Release: Friday, November 4, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Jeff Nichols

Directed by: Jeff Nichols

One of the most common red marks on my college papers was the criticism ‘Show, don’t tell.’ These notations littered my 300-level Opinion Writing assignments. I recall one particular article in which we had to discuss how a recent environmental disaster in Kingston, Tennessee had been handled by the company and how the media covered it. I did nothing but go around in circles, relying far too heavily on abstraction and flowery language that ultimately offered nothing concrete.

Jeff Nichols doesn’t seem to have my problem. I left Loving with little doubt as to whether Richard and Mildred Loving could be anything other than together. He has made a series of conscious decisions to show rather than tell audiences what the love was like between an interracial couple living in 1950s Virginia. The portrait is so simplistic and earnest it becomes cathartic. Its quiet but undeniable power left me in awe. While the story of the Loving family is set against a backdrop of racial tension and bigotry, this isn’t a political film. It’s purely an ode to a married couple who deeply cared for one another and who would do anything to ensure they could pursue a life of happiness together.

Historical drama details the events that led up to the Supreme Court case of Loving v. Virginia. The majority of the film centers squarely on the couple as they endure the harsh prejudices of society but the climax, subtle as it may be, shows how their trials — both literal and figurative — set a legal precedent in a nation on the cusp of the Civil Rights Movement. The ruling struck down nationwide laws that prevented whites and people of color from being legally married. In Loving, the couple make the trek from their quiet country home in Caroline County, Virginia to Washington D.C. to get married.  They return with a marriage license which Richard promptly hangs on their bedroom wall.

One night they are rudely awakened by a pair of officers who have somehow received word about their nuptials. The couple are jailed, but because Richard is white he is bailed out first. Meanwhile his wife must stay the weekend in a holding cell. In court the couple plead guilty to breaking the state’s anti-miscgenation law and now face a one-year sentence. However, the judge offers to suspend the sentence under the condition that they do not return to Virginia for at least 25 years. The Lovings move in with a friend in D.C., but then later return to the countryside for the birthing of their first child. They are arrested again shortly thereafter but are spared further punishment as their lawyer successfully lobbies for leniency, claiming he had misled his clients.

As time passes and after the couple bear two more children, their circumstances begin weighing heavily on Mildred. She eventually seeks help from a Bernie Cohen (Nick Kroll), a lawyer representing the American Civil Liberties Union. Bernie’s investment in the couple’s plight is not merely a mark of maturity in the actor; the performance confesses the sort of attitude and open-mindedness that restores hope for humanity. He seeks the advice of Constitutional law expert Phil Hirschkop (Jon Bass) to help bring the case to the attention of the Supreme Court.

In Nichols’ latest, beauty runs deep. In Loving there is an element of physical attractiveness but that dynamic is subdued in favor of the way souls attract. In fact, skin color is only ever addressed by the outsider — those not directly involved in the affair. Throughout we see how Richard not only maintains a friendly rapport with his extended family, who happen to be black, but how he is truly accepted by them. But even the level-headed aren’t totally devoid of judgment. The couple’s actions have clearly made many of their neighbors uncomfortable and it is this reality that Richard often finds himself battling — not so much because he is white but because of his defiance. Mildred’s sister in particular becomes embittered by Richard’s decisions.

What’s most impressive is how Nichols’ screenplay never resorts to reductive or manipulative techniques. There are no great sacrifices — at least, no one freezes to death in the north Atlantic so their other half could survive the night on a floating door — nor are there any explosive arguments that threaten to rip apart the fabric of love itself. Instead Loving uses a pair of heartfelt performances to demonstrate what love actually is: trusting, patient, unflinching in the face of adversity. Love is an arm gently resting upon your partner’s shoulder or wrapped around their waist; it’s about sharing a moment of silence in the kitchen and being distracted from the discomfiting temporariness of such peace.

Joel Edgerton, who plays Richard in a potentially career-best performance, and the Ethiopian-born Ruth Negga, who is Mildred, are so good together it almost hurts the heart seeing the two in much more casual stances in photos for the accompanying press tour. The last time I had this much trouble reconciling reality with fantasy was when it was revealed that John Krasinski and Jenna Fischer were, in fact, not an item. Why, oh why, can’t these two people really be together? Such is the net effect of this profoundly moving film.

joel-edgerton-and-ruth-negga-in-loving

4-5Recommendation: Such a touching, precious film about real relationships has this reviewer raving! Performances are virtually the whole deal, and yet another strong directorial effort from one of my favorite up-and-coming directors (hell, he’s already here) in Jeff Nichols puts Loving in a position to make at least one of my end-of-year lists. The film paces itself leisurely and at times I found myself getting fidgety but other than that, this is a pretty close to perfect little film. Romantics at heart certainly need to buy a ticket, but Loving will also appeal to those seeking an uplifting, fact-based story that doesn’t resort to melodrama. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 123 mins.

Quoted: “Tell the judge I love my wife.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Moonlight

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Release: Friday, October 21, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Barry Jenkins

Directed by: Barry Jenkins

There’s a moment late in Barry Jenkins’ new film featuring a blown-out Naomie Harris desperate for a cigarette, in the way a recovering crack-addict is desperate for a cigarette. Her violently trembling hands fail her, prompting the assistance of her son, for whom she has spent a lifetime erecting an emotional and psychological prison due to her abusive, drug-induced behavior. He lights the tip, mom takes the first blissful drag. The moment seems pretty innocuous in the grand scheme of things but this I promise you: I will never forget this scene. Never.

Quite frankly, it’s one of many such scenes buried in Moonlight, a by turns brutal and beautiful drama inspired by a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue. I will never forget that title.

Nor will I ever forget what it has inspired. This is the story of Chiron, by all accounts a normal kid born into some less-than-ideal circumstances in the rough suburbs of Miami. I couldn’t help but weep for him, even when he ultimately becomes something that probably doesn’t want or need my pity. As he endures psychological cruelty at the hands of his mother Paula (Harris, in one of the year’s most stunning supporting turns), and physical torment from his peers who interpret his quiet demeanor as weakness, he also finds himself grappling with his own identity vis-à-vis his sexuality.

The narrative is presented in an inventive three-act structure that details significant events in his life. Chiron is portrayed by different actors in each segment, ranging in age from 8-ish to twenty-something. Each chapter is given a different label (you should bookmark that term) that corresponds to the way the character is referred to in these eras. Nicknames like ‘Little’ and ‘Black’ not only function as reference points in terms of where we are in the narrative but such descriptors reinforce Jenkins’ theory that people are far too complex to be summed up by a simple word or name. These segments also bear their own unique cinematic style, most notably in the way color plays a role in advancing the film’s themes. Blue accents subtly shift while the camera remains fixated squarely upon the flesh and blood of its subject.

Epic saga has the feel of Richard Linklater’s 12-year experimental project Boyhood but whereas that film relied on the literal, actual growth of its main character, Jenkins hires actors who ingeniously play out different phases of life all the while working toward building a congruous portrait of a gay African-American male. Throughout the journey we are challenged to redefine the labels we have, in some way or another, established for ourselves and for others. Moonlight implores us to embrace not only all that makes a person a person, but that which makes a man a man.

While each actor is absolutely committed to the same cause, all three bring a different side of the character to the forefront. From young Chiron’s hesitation to engage with others — most notably a drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali) — as demonstrated by newcomer Alex R. Hibbert (who plays Chiron in the first segment, ‘Little’), to the seething anger that has accumulated in the teen form (Ashton Sanders), to the post-juvie gangster Chiron “becomes” (now played by Trevante Rhodes) we are afforded a unique perspective on multiple cause-and-effect relationships, be they of parental or environmental influence. The trio of performances complement the moody tableau in such a way that the entire experience manifests as visual poetry.

But unlike poetry, much of the film’s significance is derived from what is literal. Jenkins’ screenplay is more often than not deceptively simple. The genius lies in how he rarely, if ever, resorts to techniques that provide instant gratification. There are no big showy moments that tell us how we should feel. We just feel. More perceptive viewers will be able to sense where all of this is heading before the first chapter even concludes, but it won’t be long before others come to understand that, as is often the case in reality, this person has been conditioned to become something he deep down inside really is not. Rhodes is perhaps the most notable performer not named Naomie Harris, as he is charged with presenting the cumulative effect these external influences have had on his life, and thus the most complex version of the character. Much of Rhodes’ performance is informed by façade — in this case that of a thug.

Beyond well-balanced performances and the sublime yet subtly artistic manner in which the story is presented, Moonlight strikes a tone that is remarkably compassionate. Were it not for the abuse he endures, this would be something of a romantic affair. Perhaps it still is, in some heartbreaking way. Large chunks of the film play out in almost complete silence, the absence of speech substituted by a cerebral score that often tells us more about what’s going on inside Chiron’s head than anything he says or does.

Other factors contribute to Jenkins’ unique vision — a leisurely but consistent pace, motifs like visits to the beach and Juan’s drug-dealing, the running commentary on the relationship between socioeconomics and race, homosexuality as a prominent theme — but the one thing I’ll always return to is the mother-son dynamic. ‘Little’ deftly sums it up as he begins to open up to Juan: “I hate her.” ‘Parent’ is not a label that currently applies to this reviewer, but the sentiment still nearly broke me. But more than anything it moved me — not so much as a lover of cinema, but rather as a human being. What a movie.

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5-0Recommendation: Heartbreaking drama will doubtless appeal to lovers of cinema as well as those searching for something that’s “a little different.” If your experience with Naomie Harris has been limited to her Moneypenny in the Daniel Craig-era Bond films, wow. Have you got a surprise in store for you. Breathtaking work from the Londoner. Breathtaking work from a director I had never heard of before this. The wait was well worth it. It would have been worth the three-hour round-trip drive I almost embarked on in a desperate attempt to see the picture weeks ago. Then my local AMC picked it up. Thank goodness it did. (And guess what else it just got? Loving! Yay!) 

Rated: R

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “You’re the only man who ever touched me.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com