Top That! My Ten Favorite Films of 2019

It’s Oscar weekend, so I figured now is as good a time as any to announce my ten favorite movies of 2019. There’s not a whole lot of science that goes into my process; it’s mostly gut feeling that determines what goes into this list and how I’m arranging it. The emotional response is the most reliable metric I have — how well have these movies resonated with me, how long have they lingered in my mind? How did they make me feel when I first saw them? To a lesser degree, how much replay value do these movies have? Do I want to watch them again? Would I pay to watch them again? Not that the money makes that much of a difference, but these things can still be useful in making final decisions. 

With that said, these are the ten titles that made it. I suppose one of the benefits of missing a lot of movies last year (and I mean A LOT) is that I’m not feeling that bad for leaving some big ones off of this list. So I suppose you could call this Top That fairly off the beaten path. What do we have in common? What do we have different? 


Aw hell, there goes the neighborhood. Well, sort of. Quentin Tarantino’s tribute to the place that made him super-famous (and super-rich) turns out to be far more “mellow” than expected. Sparing one or two outbursts, considering the era in which it is set — of Charles Manson, Sharon Tate and a whole host of hippie-culty killings — this is not exactly the orgy of violence some of us (okay, me) feared it might be. Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood is, tonally, a different and maybe more compassionate QT but this fairly meandering drama also bears the marks of the revisionist historian he has shown himself to be in things like Inglourious Basterds. He gets a little loosey goosey with facts and certain relationships but that comes second to the recreation of a specific time period, one which TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt-double, BFF and gopher Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) are not so much strolling but struggling through. It’s the end of the ’60s and their careers are on the decline as the times they are a’changin’ in the land of Broken Dreams. Once Upon a Time does not skimp on capital-C characters and is quite possibly his most purely enjoyable entry to date.

My review of Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood 

It’s not often you see Mark Duplass in a bonafide tear-jerker, so if nothing else Paddleton proves his versatility as an actor. Don’t worry though, this movie is still very quirky. He plays Michael, a man in his early 40s dying of cancer and who chooses to forego chemo in order to spend his remaining days doing the same things he’s always done with his upstairs neighbor and best friend in the whole wide world, Andy, played by a heartbreaking Ray Romano. Over the span of a very well spent but not always easy 90 minutes we wrestle with the philosophical ramifications of someone choosing to end their life on their own terms, contemplate the possibility of the afterlife and, of course, watch kung fu, eat pizza and learn the rules of this pretty cool game called Paddleton — think squash/racquetball played off the side of a building. Beyond the controversial subject matter, Paddleton offers one of the more tender and honest portrayals of male friendship I saw all year. And that ending . . . wow.

My review of Paddleton

Thanks to a random visit to my local Walmart Redbox I got to catch up with this ingenious little chamber piece from Swedish filmmaker Gustav Möller. It opened in America in October 2018 but I didn’t see it until March 2019. I was so impressed with the set-up and eventual payoff I just could not leave it off this list. The Guilty (Den Skyldige) is about a recently demoted cop working the phones at a crisis hotline center near Stockholm. He clearly doesn’t want to be there. His day livens up when he fields a call from a woman in distress. As the situation deteriorates we learn a great deal about the man and the officer, who finds himself calling upon all his resources and his experience to resolve the crisis before his shift is over. The only other main characters in this fascinating drama are inanimate objects. It’s the kind of minimalist yet deeply human storytelling that makes many Hollywood dramas seem over-engineered by comparison.

My review of The Guilty 

Without a doubt one of the feel-good movies of 2019, The Peanut Butter Falcon is to some degree a modern reinvention of classic Mark Twain that finds Shia LeBeouf at a career-best as Tyler, a miscreant with a good heart living in the Outer Banks and trying to make ends meet . . . by stealing other fishermen’s stuff. When Tyler encounters Zak, a young man with Down syndrome who has found his way aboard his johnboat after having eluded his caretaker Eleanor (Dakota Johnson) and the nursing home in which he’s been placed by the state, the two embark on a journey of discovery that — yeah, you know where this is going. TPBF may be predictable but this is the very definition of the destination not mattering anywhere near as much as the journey itself. That destination, though, is pretty great. Especially when you come to the realization that it’s none other than Thomas Haden Church who is the vaunted “Saltwater Redneck.” I haven’t even mentioned Zack Gottsagen as the break-out star of this movie. He’s nothing short of fantastic, and one of the main reasons why I’m such a fan of this little indie gem.

My review of The Peanut Butter Falcon

Two words: Space Pirates.

And I’m talking about legitimately lawless assholes running amok on the dark side of the moon — more the “I’m the Captain now” type and less Captain Hook. The escape sequence across no-man’s land is like something out of Mad Max and even better it’s one of the most obvious (yet compelling) manifestations of Ad Astra‘s cynicism toward mankind. Of course we’re going to colonize the Moon. And there’ll be Wendy’s and Mickey D’s in whatever Crater you live closest to.

But this (granted, rare) action scene is merely one of many unforgettable passages in James Gray’s hauntingly beautiful and melancholic space sojourn about an emotionally reserved astronaut (Brad Pitt) in search of his long-lost father (Tommy Lee Jones), an American hero thought to have disappeared but now is suspected to be the cause of a major disturbance in deep space. My favorite thing about Ad Astra is the somber tone in which it speaks. This is not your typical uplifting drama about human accomplishment. Despite Hoyte van Hoytema’s breathtaking cinematography Ad Astra does not romanticize the cosmos and what they may hold in store for us. I loved the audacity of this film, the near-nihilism. I understand how that didn’t sit well with others though. It’s not the most huggable movie out there.

My review of Ad Astra 

James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari almost feels like a response to the vocal many bashing Hollywood for not making movies “like they used to.” The ghost of Steve McQueen hovers over this classic-feeling presentation of a true-life story. Ford v Ferrari describes how the Americans went toe-to-toe with the superior Italians at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a brutal endurance race that takes place annually in the namesake French town and tests the very limits of mechanical integrity and driver performance. It’s truly remarkable how the director and his team juggle so many moving parts to make a movie about a fairly esoteric subject not only cohesive but endlessly entertaining. That’s of course in no small part due to the performances of Christian Bale and Matt Damon in the leading roles, and a strong supporting cast who are a lot of fun in their various capacities as corporate executives, passionate motor heads and supportive family members. The movie this most reminds me of is Ron Howard’s Rush, which was about Formula 1 racing. As great as that one was, Ford v Ferrari just might have topped it. Not only are the racing sequences thrillingly realized, the real-life sting at the end adds an emotional depth to it that I was not expecting.

I’m going to be blunt here: The Academy screwed the pooch by not inviting Todd Douglas Miller to the party this year. Forgive me for not really caring what the other documentaries achieved this year, I’m too upset over this one right now. Assembled entirely out of rare, digitally remastered footage of the successful Moon landing in July 1969 — the audio track culled from some 11,000 hours of tape! — and lacking any sort of distractions in the form of voice-over narration or modern-day interviews, this “direct cinema” approach puts you right in the space shuttle with the intrepid explorers Neil Armstrong (whose biopic First Man, which came out the year prior, makes for a killer double-feature and also what I suspect is to blame for Apollo 11‘s embarrassing snub), as well as Buzz Aldrin and the often forgotten Michael Collins (he orbited the Moon while the kids went out to play). Just like those precious first steps from the Eagle lander, Apollo 11, this time capsule of a documentary is a breathtaking accomplishment.

Waves is the third film from Texan-born indie director Trey Edward Shults and in it he has something pretty extraordinary. Set in the Sunshine State, Waves achieves a level of emotional realism that feels pretty rare. It’s a heartbreaking account of an African-American family of four torn apart in the aftermath of a loss. The cause-and-effect narrative bifurcates into two movements, one focused on the athletically gifted Tyler (a phenomenal Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and how he struggles to cope with an injury that may well derail his life plans; the other on his neglected sister Emily (an equally moving but much more subdued Taylor Russell) and how she deals with her own guilt. Beyond its excruciatingly personal story Waves also has a stylistic quality that is impossible to ignore. As a movie about what’s happening on the inside, very active camerawork and the moody, evocative score — provided by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — work in concert to place you in the headspace of the main characters. It all adds up to an experience that’s felt more than just passively taken in, and by the end of it you’ll feel both rewarded and exhausted.

This was a brutal thing to do, putting Parasite at #2. It’s sooo good. It’s actually my very first experience with a Bong Joon Ho movie and I feel like I have caught him in peak season. True, the application of metaphor isn’t very subtle in this genre-bending, history-making thriller (its nomination for an Oscar Best Pic is a first for Korean cinema) but then not much is subtle about the rapidly industrializing nation’s chronic class divide. The story is as brilliantly conceived as the characters are morally ambiguous, with a few twists stunning you as just when you think you’ve nailed where this is all going, the movie turns down a different and darker alley. Sam Mendes’ 1917 is going to win Best Pic this year, but you won’t hear me complaining if some-crazy-how Parasite ends up stealing the hardware.

My review of Parasite

Nothing else 2019 had to offer immersed me more than the sophomore effort by Robert Eggers, the stunningly talented director behind 2016’s equally disturbing The Witch. The Lighthouse is seven different kinds of weird, a unique tale about two lightkeeps stranded on a remote New England island and running on dwindling supplies of booze and sanity while trying not to die by storm or via paranoid delusions. It’s got two firecracker performances from Willem Dafoe (whose career to date has arguably been just a warm-up for Thomas Wake) and Robert Pattinson, who are expert in selling the desperation here. Beyond that, the story put together by the brothers Eggers is bursting with metaphorical meaning and indelible imagery. Best of all it becomes really hard to tell what’s real and what’s fantasy. Man, I tell ya — this movie cast a spell on me that still hasn’t worn off.

My review of The Lighthouse


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#OscarsQuiteUnpredictable

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Steve Harvey reaching out to Warren Beatty after he was involved in what has got to be the most embarrassing SNAFU in Oscars history — and possibly of the actor’s career — strikes me as humorous for some reason. I know it isn’t funny, but what if there really is some support group for this sort of thing? Victims of Award Ceremony Gaffes Anonymous, does that exist?

Look, I’m not here to point fingers and perpetuate the blame game because, well, I feel as though a sufficient pall has been cast over Barry Jenkins’ legitimate victory and Jimmy Kimmel’s first Oscars hosting gig. Poor guy. It’s not like he was the greatest host ever — the highlight of his night is without a doubt his manipulating the pit orchestra in order to rush Matt Damon off stage as he was presenting, which was amusing but not good enough to make me stop missing Billy Crystal.

But Kimmel’s night was going really well and for it to end in such a bizarre and awkward way, it’s hard not to feel bad for the guy. Or just assume that M. Night Shyamalan had played a part. And we all know that while it was probably the decent thing to do to try and divert the awkwardness away from the presenters (does anyone know what country Faye Dunaway is now living in by the way?) and towards himself, we also know this was not his fault. A scheme like this would be too complex for Jimmy Kimmel to mastermind, anyway. Besides, I don’t feel bad for the talk show host in the way I feel bad for La La Land.

ryan-gosling-snubbedI suppose the good that came out of this “custody battle” — besides the fact that one of the most deserving films in recent memory actually took home top honors — was that we got to know a little bit more about La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz. It’s almost unreasonable how composed he was. How gracious in defeat he was. How sincerely his congratulations were offered to his competitors. I think there’s something we can all learn from the way he (and others) handled their situation.

I rated the two films differently but truth be told, and given everything that happened on Sunday, I think I would have been alright if the honor were shared between both films. That’s where the Academy really screwed things up. (Okay, I guess I am going to have to do a little scapegoating here.) Sure, PwC has taken the heat and rightfully so, but even if there were not enough trophies to go around on stage, I don’t know how you can allow for something like this to happen.

And it’s not like ties haven’t happened before, because they have. Six times actually. Six times a producer or director or cast member was spared the humiliation of being cut-off mid-acceptance speech because they hadn’t, in fact, any right to be making it. Of course, the way the 89th Academy Awards ended feels like a first. This wasn’t an example of indecision or voter fraud. This was an unprecedented production fiasco that unfolded in real time. To further troll the Academy and PwC, I’m really not sure if there could have been any protocol for this. And I really doubt there will be a ‘next time,’ so there probably never will be.

With the elephant in the room having been addressed, allow me to breakdown the categories that I featured in my preview post:

Best Picture (Winner: Moonlight) 

What I predicted: La La Land

If I had it my way: Moonlight

Well, the cast and crew of La La Land certainly went skipping up on stage because for a fleeting moment, as I had predicted, life for them was but a dream. But oh man, how fleeting that feeling was . . .

On the bright side, Moonlight becomes just the second LGBTQ-related film ever, behind Midnight Cowboy in 1970, to win Best Picture. And it is the first time in Oscars history a film with an all-black cast has won the award. Just let that sink in for a second.

Directing (Winner: Damien Chazelle, La La Land)

What I predicted: Damien Chazelle

If I had it my way: Jeff Nichols, Midnight Special

No real surprise here. The art that lives within the 32-year-old director is undoubtedly unique and profound. For him to go from directing a film like Whiplash to La La Land in the span of three years is, well, the guys at Consequence of Sound said it best: it’s just baffling.

Actor in a Leading Role (Winner: Casey Affleck, Manchester By the Sea)

What I predicted: Casey Affleck

If I had it my way: Casey Affleck

Amazing. To go from being the architect of your own potential destruction to Oscar-winner in the span of a few months is about as crazy as #EnvelopeGate. When a sexual harassment scandal reared its ugly head once again in the lead-up the Oscars, it seemed Ben Affleck’s younger, smaller and generally awkward brother had the odds stacked against him. Not to trivialize the troubling story that has been following the actor for some time, but his work in Manchester By the Sea deserved the win. It is almost enough to make us forget that hey, Oscar winners ain’t saints. I said ‘almost.’

Actress in a Leading Role (Winner: Emma Stone, La La Land)

What I predicted: Emma Stone

If I had it my way: Amy Adams, Arrival

Emma Stone, you need not worry if I’m doubting the legitimacy of your win. Your work in the movie speaks for itself. Your ‘Audition’ scene took my breath away, and I never quite got it back. I’m so glad Leo didn’t have any trouble with his presentation, because the Oscar absolutely went to the right person this year. Emma Stone has further cemented herself as one of the most meteoric stars of her generation. Jennifer Lawrence, watch your back.

Actor in a Supporting Role (Winner: Mahershala Ali, Moonlight)

What I predicted: Mahershala Ali

If I had it my way: Daniel Radcliffe, Swiss Army Man

I love that in an era where Muslims are feeling more and more persecuted and marginalized in this country, one has just taken home Oscar gold. It feels something close to poetic justice, even if other artists this year have indeed suffered the effects of an unprecedented travel ban. I was introduced to Mahershalalhashbaz Ali as Remy Danton in Netflix’s brilliant political drama House of Cards. I was impressed right away. In Moonlight, his turn as an empathetic drug dealer who exerts major influence on the young Chiron early in the narrative, is enough to break your heart. But in ways you might not expect. It’s a stunning supporting turn, and a big part of the reason I thought Moonlight was able to reach some other psychic level that La La Land just couldn’t.

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Actress in a Supporting Role (Winner: Viola Davis, Fences)

What I predicted: Viola Davis

If I had it my way: Viola Davis

Viola Davis was one of the only true locks for the evening, the other being the winner of Best Documentary Feature (congratulations to Ezra Edelman and O.J.: Made in America for a well-deserved but, yes, very inevitable win). So while I didn’t exactly jump for joy when Davis won, I was nonetheless psyched for the woman. The Oscar win identifies her as the first black actress to complete the Triple Crown of Acting. She has officially taken home an Oscar, an Emmy and a Tony Award for her scintillating work as beleaguered housewife Rose Maxson.

Animated Feature (Winner: Zootopia

What I predicted: Zootopia

If I had it my way: Moana

Blah. Zootopia was good I guess, but this is becoming one of those movies where, the more I hear about it, the more I’m feeling disdain for it. Studio animations have this unprecedented burden of becoming message movies these days, so I guess that’s what the Academy was looking for this year. How many heavy, controversial issues can you jam into one colorful little narrative? That’s the competition. Me, personally? I would have taken anything over the contrived kumbaya of this Disney “classic.” Even The Red Turtle, whatever the hell that is.

Cinematography (Winner: Linus Sandgren, La La Land)

What I predicted: Linus Sandgren

If I had it my way: Emmanuel Lubezki, Knight of Cups

So you could look at the Best Picture fiasco two different ways. You could feel terrible that La La Land lost in the manner that they did, or you could look at them as being a production that simply missed out on lucky #7. Yeah, they were involved in one of the most egregious mix-ups in an event of this magnitude but they also walked away with SIX OTHER TROPHIES. Inarguably one of the categories they absolutely had in the bag was this one. Linus Sandgren’s ability to capture Los Angeles in a classically romantic, old-fashioned way while reminding the viewer that they are experiencing events in the present tense is truly astonishing. La La Land is a technicolor dream sequence executed to perfection. The iconic Griffith Observatory has rarely looked so good before.

Costume Design (Winner: Colleen Atwood, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them)

What I predicted: Colleen Atwood

If I had it my way: Timothy Everest and Sammy Sheldon Differ, Assassin’s Creed

For a film that I actually never bothered to see I was really pleased with the final result. Though I really didn’t see any of the other nominees challenging the fantastic (sorry) and ornate wardrobe drummed up by the costume designer of such classics as The Silence of the Lambs and Edward Scissorhands.

Production Design (Winner: David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco, La La Land)

What I predicted: David Wasco and Sandy Reynolds-Wasco

If I had it my way: Patrice Vermette and Paul Hotte, Arrival

I conclude my wrap-up with another fairly predictable result and La La Land‘s first Oscar win of the night. I could make the case for Arrival‘s ability to craft iconic imagery out of simpler elements being more impressive than what the Wascos (a husband-and-wife duo who worked on such films as Inglourious Basterds and Pulp Fiction) were able to achieve. After all, the latter were afforded the unique and historic architecture and landscape of metropolitan L.A., while Arrival‘s production design team were tasked with making the rural pastures of Montana seem eerie. But, call it what it is: La La Land is a gorgeously rendered production whose heart and soul is owed to more than just the infectious lead performances and a few jazz numbers.


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#OscarsSoPredictable

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On Sunday, February 26, the spectacularly cavernous enclave that is the Dolby Theatre plays host to yet another parade of pretty people in expensive garb and jewelry, boasting all sorts of hair-do’s (and don’ts), sharing a laugh over that one time they embarrassed themselves in front of their director — generally doing things to humanize themselves, to ease the tension that invariably arises on this day when famous people, who are about to become more famous, try not to act so famous.

I am left with but a few familiar questions as to how it all goes down this year.

What will the controversy be this time around? What wardrobe malfunction shall befall which hapless celeb?

How awkward will the evening get when Jimmy Kimmel runs out of funny?

Do we really have to wait until February 26 to watch La La Land collect all the gold, or will I need to go back and give this entire post a new title? How predictable will the Oscars be this year?

Will there be enough of the world left this time next year for another one to be held?

Without placing too much emphasis on the term ‘deserving,’ of the names that have been deemed worthy of inclusion, here are those that I feel have the greatest odds of actually taking home a statuette that night in ten categories I consider the most interesting of the night.

Best Picture

The cast and crew of La La Land will skip merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily up on stage because life is but a dream. Never mind the fact it is directed by Best Director lock Damien Chazelle, chances are if you make a musical in today’s day and age and it doesn’t suck, you will probably get an Oscar.

My preference (of those selected): Moonlight

My preference (of those not selected): Swiss Army Man

Directing

This is one of many for jazz lover Damien Chazelle (La La Land). 2017 is his year. I can’t say it’s entirely undeserved. He has crafted a passionate, joyous ode to a cinematic trend that has seemed for awhile to be done and dusted, and makes the entire enterprise look effortless — which probably only he can confirm was anything but.

My preference (of those selected): Barry Jenkins, Moonlight

My preference (of those not selected): Jeff Nichols, Loving

Actor in a Leading Role 

It has to be Casey Affleck for his bruising portrait of a man in a deep, unshakable funk in Manchester By the Sea. I’m raising hell if Ryan Gosling gets the call. (And I love Ryan Gosling.)

My preference (of those selected): Casey Affleck, Manchester By the Sea

My preference (of those not selected): Tom Hanks, Sully

Actress in a Leading Role

We might have the biggest controversy on our hands with this category. The unconscionable exclusion of Amy Adams for her work in the impossibly human drama Arrival (about aliens) has managed to annoy everyone. But if there’s anyone here who could help us possibly get over that farce, it’s Ruth Negga as Mildred Loving. What a wonderful performance. I couldn’t get enough of it.

My preference (of those selected): Ruth Negga, Loving

My preference (of those not selected): Amy Adams, Arrival 

Actor in a Supporting Role

First of all, what is Dev(elopment)* Patel doing in this category? If he’s not a leading role in Lion, who is? Are you telling me his child counterpart is the lead? That there are no leads in this film? What’s going on here . . . But in all reality, it’s irrelevant because he’s not winning this anyway. That honor is going to Mahershala Ali for his sturdy but immensely flawed supporting character Juan in Moonlight. Ali seems to be on the rise, and quickly, ever since I saw him on House of Cards. It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you free yourself from the shackles of an Underwood-run White House.

My preference (of those selected): Mahershala Ali, Moonlight

My preference (of those not selected): Daniel Radcliffe, Swiss Army Man

How many have noticed this guy missing on the ballot? How many of you are surprised?

How many have noticed this guy missing on the ballot? How many of you are surprised?

Actress in a Supporting Role

This is too hard to call with any degree of accuracy. But my gut instinct — first of all, it’s going to come down to a head-to-head between Viola Davis (Fences) and Naomie Harris (Moonlight) — my gut instinct tells me the odds are in Harris’, no, wait — Davis’ . . . no, Harris’ favor. Ah, screw it. Can we split the award this year? I cannot choose. But because I must, Naomie Harris as one nasty mama in Moonlight. Damn, was she fierce.

My preference (of those selected): Naomie Harris, Moonlight 

My preference (of those not selected): Lupita Nyong’o, Queen of Katwe

Animated Feature

Zootopia seems to be the frontrunner in this category, and that plays right in to my theme here. How very expected, especially during the times in which we are currently living.

My preference (of those selected): Moana

My preference (of those not selected): The Little Prince

Cinematography

One of my favorite “non-major” categories is that which recognizes outstanding achievement in cinematography. I’m a person who responds strongly to the visual appeal of things. (I’m also a visual learner.) There are a lot of great selections this year, so this one is another that’s going to be tough to predict but my gut is telling me Linus Sandgren’s ability to capture La La Land in ways we have rarely seen before is going to score big.

My preference (of those selected): Rodrigo Prieto, Silence

My preference (of those not selected): Emmanuel Lubezki, Knight of Cups

Costume Design

Here’s a category I actually do not pay much mind to, but the results are always interesting at the ceremony. The obvious choice to me is Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Ornate and fun, Colleen Atwood’s wardrobe for this Harry Potter spin-off film is sure to receive confirmation that at least her efforts were worthwhile.

My preference (of those selected): Consolata Boyle, Florence Foster Jenkins

My preference (of those not selected): Timothy Everest and Sammy Sheldon Differ, Assassin’s Creed 

Production Design

Production design and set design are major elements to consider as well, and yet I rarely address them in my reviews (probably an oversight). It’s another of those categories that seems to only become relevant when design elements seem to be the only thing going for a particular movie (like the slightly disappointing Coen brothers’ tribute to the Golden Age of Hollywood, Hail, Caesar!) Their farcical celebration of a bygone era is my dubious pick for the Oscar this year.

My preference (of those selected): Jess Gonchor (production design) and Nancy Haigh (set decoration), Hail, Caesar!

My preference (of those not selected): Craig Lathrop (production design) and Mary Kirkland (set decoration), The Witch

* This is an inside joke I share with an longtime follower of my blog, the result of what I would consider one of the best typos of all time.

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The 88th Academy Awards: What did we learn, anything?

oscar-2016-07Like an M. Night Shyamalan plot twist Chris Rock did in fact show up to host the 88th Academy Awards, and the event did go off without a hitch — no crazed protestor drove their car into the Dolby Theater anyway. This night wasn’t at all Billy Crystal-y; this was definitely more Degeneres-ish with Rock shouting loudly from the stage, shouting his way through the cues that were going to make him the evening’s secondary centerpiece hopeful (the main attraction obviously being the sight of Leo with the Oscar in his hands finally). And there was a lot of talk about the lack of racial diversity amongst this crop of nominees, stuff that once sounded like rumors were now things Chris Rock was spurting out loudly on stage — calling out Jada Pinkett Smith and by extent William over there, and other actors who were protesting the Oscars for the lack of inclusion of black nominees. He got some kind of a mild reaction from the audience.

Rock was good though, even after a somewhat Rock-y start (cha-ching!). He hesitated not one second to delve right into the controversy of the perceived white-washing of the nominations — not even Comedy Central’s comparatively conservative usage of the ‘bleep’ button would’ve allowed him to say what he wanted to say here. Rock does address the issue and he even (considerately) redirects the focus away from the nature of this year’s nominees and towards an industry that continues to struggle including more roles (not necessarily high-profile ones) for a variety of ethnicities.

Interesting how this ceremony didn’t for one second address the even smaller chunk of the Role Playing pie, those representative of the LGBT communities. Successes like Tangerine are just going to have to sit tight for now. Those minorities will be addressed at the next telecast. Rock’s an odd choice though for this event, as his performance recalls his meta performance in his recent comedy/drama Top Five. With that, naturally, come the expectations of profanity and vulgarity and in these ways he’s certainly restricted but he makes some pretty good stabs with some visual gags and a trio of Asian kids who essentially become props to one of his jokes.

In the brightest spotlight imaginable Rock largely succeeds as a host, he doesn’t tiptoe around as if there’s broken glass everywhere. Rock’s never been one to care if a feeling or two gets maimed in the process. So while this definitely wasn’t, and was never going to be the Obscenity-Laced Oscars this was about as memorable as any other and there is already speculation as to who will be the host next year. There were surprises while some really good guys were finally rewarded for their efforts (and patience). Fury Road won like, everything. Someone sang. There were too many commercials. Too many names mentioned during the In Memoriam segment that I did not recognize. And there definitely weren’t enough Girl Scout Cookies.

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WINNERS — WHAT ARE THE ODDS?!

(Winner / What I picked)

Original Screenplay: Spotlight / Spotlight

Adapted Screenplay: The Big ShortThe Big Short

Supporting Actress: Alicia Vikander Alicia Vikander

Costume Design: Mad Max: Fury Road Mad Max: Fury Road

Production Design: Mad Max: Fury Road / The Martian

Hairstyle/Makeup: Mad Max: Fury Road Mad Max: Fury Road

Cinematography: Emmanuel Lubezki Emmanuel Lubezki

Film editing: Mad Max: Fury Road The Big Short

Sound Editing: Mad Max: Fury Road Mad Max: Fury Road

Sound Mixing: Mad Max: Fury Road Mad Max: Fury Road

Visual Effects: Ex Machina Mad Max: Fury Road

Animated Short Film: Bear Story World of Tomorrow

Animated Feature: Inside Out Inside Out

Supporting Actor: Mark Rylance Mark Rylance

Documentary Short Film: A Girl in the River . . . . . . um . . . .yes

Documentary Feature: Amy Amy

Live Action Short Film: Stutterer . . . um . . .sure

Foreign Language Feature: Son of Saul Son of Saul

Original Score: Ennio Morricone (The Hateful Eight) John Williams (Star Wars: The Force Awakens)

Original Song: Writing’s on the Wall (Sam Smith) ‘Til it Happens to You (Lady Gaga)

Best Actress: Brie Larson Brie Larson

Best Actor: Leonardo DiCaprio LeoSchmardo DiSiprico

Best Director: Alejandro G. Iñárritu Alejandro G. Iñárritu

Best Picture: Spotlight Spotlight

(16/24) 


 OBSERVATIONS FROM THE NIGHT (like a Twitter feed but way less redundant)

 

Chris Rock seems uncomfortable. Wow he’s jumping into the race thing head-on, eh?

Jacob Tremblay is standing up in his seat to get a better look at C-3P0 and R2-D2 when they come on stage. Heh. That was funny-bone-tickle worthy.

Chris Rock is currently shamelessly selling his daughters’ Girl Scouts Cookies to random members in the audience, meanwhile Olivia Munn is hoarding them by the box.

Chris Rock seems uncomfortable again.

Why is Mad Max winning everything?

Pete Docter seems to be the only one (so far) who has really grasped the concept of the Academy tweaking the acceptance speech formats (scrolling across the screen a list of the names the winners would like to thank and thus saving all of us from listening to that trollop). Good for you, Pete. I hope others follow because really so far nothing has changed.

Ennio Morricone seems genuine. That was a highlight moment, especially because I totally didn’t peg his work as the winner this year. Cool.

Hooray for Emmanuel Lubezki and Alejandro G. Iñárritu on their back-to-back wins. That’s three in a row for the incredible cameraman and dós for Iñárritu for his expertise in the director’s chair. Birdman and The Revenant couldn’t be two more different films; this is an incredible filmmaker who has seriously earned himself a new fan. (He did last year, actually.)

Who’s the most deserving of their awards? I’ll list my Top 5: 1) Leo (Best Actor); 2) Brie Larson (Best Actress); 3) Spotlight (Best Picture); 4) Jenny Beavan, Mad Max: Fury Road (Best Costume Design); 5) Inside Out (Best Animated Feature)

Leo got the Oscar you guys. His acceptance speech was about as quality as his name being called was predictable, but predictable sounds really negative. His words were from the heart and certainly important and powerful. Good for him for, as per usual, using the stage to talk about something much bigger than himself and his chosen profession.

dbfa8_0a4b8_Oscars-Theater-600x310

What were your thoughts of the winners and the overall show this year? 


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Spotlight

Spotlight movie poster

Release: Friday, November 6, 2015 (limited) 

[Theater]

Written by: Thomas McCarthy; Josh Singer

Directed by: Thomas McCarthy

Every so often a film drops with little or no warning and leaves a lasting impression. 12 Years a Slave did it three years ago via punishing violence and bravura performances; a year later Gravity achieved unparalleled visual grandeur films two years on are still trying to match. Spotlight almost undisputedly fits the bill as this year’s crowning cinematic jewel, though its impact is far less visceral.

Thomas McCarthy has chosen to revisit The Boston Globe’s 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into the systemic and enduring sexual abuse of children at the hands of Boston-area Catholic priests and the subsequent cover-up by the Archdiocese under Cardinal Bernard Francis Law. What began as an inquisition into the number of isolated incidents quickly evolved into a more encompassing exposé in which it was discovered priests, rather than being dismissed from the church outright, were simply reassigned elsewhere in the country and were being protected by Cardinal Law. The publishing of the first article led to his resignation as Archbishop of Boston in 2002.

‘Spotlight’ refers to The Globe’s investigative journalism team, presently the oldest such unit still in operation in the nation. McCarthy’s methodically-paced and consistently compelling approach brilliantly and subtly pays homage to the work of Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) while exposing the underbelly of an institution that traditionally (or ideally) exercises superlative judgment of character and protection of cultural, spiritual and societal values.

Spotlight is information-rich and faced with the prospect of weaving together multiple, fairly complex relationships. McCarthy spares precious little time in getting to work. At the request of editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) the foursome are encouraged to suspend their current assignment in light of Baron’s concern over The Globe’s failure to dig deeper into a past case involving child molestation that was put on the back burner as far back as the 1980s. In the wake of the 2002 revelation over 600 follow-up articles would be published by the same paper, though the film elects to depict the researching and ultimate crafting of the very first story, one that, as Schreiber’s pragmatic Baron predicted, would have “an immediate and significant impact upon [the paper’s] readers.”

Drama presents investigative journalism as one of the last bastions of truth-seeking, as well as social and cultural enriching, and its vitality seems particularly quaint set against this day and age in which increasing numbers turn to social media for their ‘news’ — a concept that, in and of itself, could do with some spotlighting as it’s becoming harder and harder to separate the wheat from the chaff. A cherry-picked cast of certifiable A-listers, one that includes John Slattery as projects editor Ben Bradlee Jr. and Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup as Boston lawyers who specialize in sexual abuse cases, collaborate on an inevitably award-winning screenplay, penned by McCarthy along with Josh Singer.

There’s a collective energy amongst the group that affords Spotlight much of its profundity and their natural portrayals effortlessly absorb, a notable lack of melodramatic tension between key players resulting in a kind of harmonious interaction between spectator and creator that’s rarely been seen this or any other year. It’s impossible to single out a role without mentioning another; though if I were compelled to nitpick I’d nominate Keaton and Ruffalo as the performers with ever-so-slightly more screen time. Still though, Spotlight is an example of a true team effort and if the film finds itself in the running for Best Actor in a Leading Role the sextet of performers, in an ideal world, should find themselves on stage accepting the golden statuette.

What nudges McCarthy’s undertaking into the realm of bonafide classic is the delicacy with which he approaches the grim subject matter. We’re talking about — and periodically confronted with the survivors of — child molestation. I doubt I need to repeat the term to send chills down your spine. Yet, if you fear for the worst: depictions of the acts themselves, graphic or otherwise, or even a considerable amount of time dedicated to traipsing through the vileness of the Catholic Church’s most shameful hour, fear not. Spotlight isn’t interested in dwelling on the past. It is interested in and, more importantly, reliant upon history however, and getting hands dirty is a requisite if we are to get to the bottom of an issue that has consequently spread like a cancer across the globe. One that, sickeningly enough, has just as much relevance more than a decade on.

Indeed, what’s most crucial in recreating this wholly unsettling discovery, in acknowledging the effects it had on not only the Catholic faithful but on those asking the tough questions, is the mirroring of several pillars of fundamentally sound journalism. The film, though it may not be quite as timely as it could have been, is as concise as is feasible for a story with this many implications; accurate (despite a few outcries over the depiction of a select few characters) and brutally honest. Dialogue-driven narrative plays out with the tenacity of an Aaron Sorkin screenplay, though it’s far less poetic and lends itself more to conversation. Never mind the fact it continues to build in intensity as the statistics and evidence continue piling up to a level few, if any, seasoned reporters at The Globe could have been prepared to embrace.

Rare are the films that understand the importance of shaping events and characters in such a way that they appear the genuine article. Rarer still are those that transcend the form so as to actually become reality. Spotlight qualifies as one such film, blurring the line between dramatic feature and documentary presentation if only in how it confirms that the best films truly manifest as art imitating life. If McCarthy’s restrained focus on the life and times of these writers and this paper and the relationship between the church and the people of Boston has any one, significant impact it’s that reality can be (and indeed is) uglier than anything movies fabricate, convincingly or otherwise, in an effort to entertain or disturb.

decisions, decisions, decisions

Recommendation: Spotlight is a remarkable production. It manifests as a powerful advocate of journalism as a mechanism for change (an admittedly ever-weakening one at that in today’s gossip-geared papers and online posts) and a noble profession. It simultaneously unearths a disgusting, alarming reality that continues to trouble the Church to this day and it provides audiences spanning multiple age brackets some sense of what it was like to become involved in this story. Mind you, this isn’t a film that means to entertain. It’s 100% informative and revelatory. In my mind, it’s one of the most impressive works I have ever seen for these reasons and more.

Rated: R

Running Time: 128 mins.

Quoted: “It’s time, Robby! It’s time. They knew and they let it happen to kids, okay? It could have been you, it could have been me, it could have been any of us. We gotta nail these scumbags, we gotta show people that nobody can get away with this, not a priest or a cardinal or a freaking pope.”

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TBT: Unforgiven (1992)

Thursdays come around pretty quickly, do they not? It seems only yesterday I was babbling on excessively about Chinatown and now, here we are, forging new frontiers yet again in October. This month is shaping up to be one of the most eclectic groups of films I’ve yet had on this blog, which is kind of cool (or I hope it is, maybe it’s really not. People are probably disappointed that I’ve gone the non-horror route this month. . .). Life is full of grim realities, as is evidenced in 

Today’s food for thought: Unforgiven.

Enforcing that pesky ‘no-guns’ ordinance since: Friday, August 7, 1992

[Netflix]

So I blindly stumbled into 1992’s Best Picture winner, not realizing it had picked up any awards, let alone taken home top honors and garnered several others including Best Director, Best Supporting Actor and Best Editing. I’m glad I watched it without this knowledge. I didn’t have my viewing experience tainted by the lofty expectations brought on by Best Picture winners. I did, however, have a sneaking suspicion it was a sure-fire winner for Best Cinematography, for the film’s romanticism for the old west is impossible to ignore. Alas, that was only one of its nine nominations.

Clint Eastwood produced, directed and starred in this harsh, uncompromising vision of life on the frontier, specifically 1880s Wyoming. His last Western, Unforgiven tells the bleak story about a farmer with a dark history who gets roped into collecting one more bounty after a group of prostitutes in the town of Big Whiskey are shaken up by some thugs who get off lightly thanks to the local sheriff. Rather than making the cowboys pay with their own blood for disfiguring one of the girls, Sheriff Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman, earning his second Oscar) decides they will find a suitable number of horses to give to the brothel owner, a total of seven horses fit for hard labor. Infuriated by the injustice, Strawberry Alice (Frances Fisher) announces a cash reward for whomever can find and kill the men responsible.

Decrepit old pig farmer Will Munny (Eastwood) was once one of the most feared men in the midwest, known for ruthlessly killing men, women and children alike. When he met his wife he vowed to change his ways, although she passed away before the film opens, leaving him vulnerable once more to the loneliness and despair of bachelorhood on the prairie. Word about the bounty travels fast and Will finds he could really use the money (I can only imagine how long you could make $1,000 last back in the 1800s . . . ). After telling his children he’ll be back “in a couple weeks” he rides south, headed for an old accomplice and friend’s homestead, one Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman).

On their ride the pair encounter an excitable young cowboy nicknamed ‘The Schofield Kid’ (Jaimz Woolvett) who doesn’t exactly view killing the same way the older and jaded Ned and Will do. Whereas he can’t wait to kill the sumbitches responsible, the other two, haunted by violent pasts, anticipate and to some extent dread what they will soon have to do. Meanwhile in Big Whiskey, a town that strictly prohibits visitors to carry guns on their person, Daggett has to contend with the contemptible English Bob (Richard Harris), who’s come to town in hopes that he’ll get to claim the cash reward. His out-of-town status is made amply clear on the virtue that he believes the superiority of the British royalty is based upon how easy it is for an American president to get shot and killed (the assassination of President Garfield has just made the papers).

Indeed, English Bob is a bit of an annoyance, but he’s all bluster compared to the aggressive sheriff, who takes pleasure in kicking Bob all around the town after he refuses to hand over his firearms to the proper authorities, and subsequently kicking him out of town. In a single scene a couple of things become clear: 1) Big Whiskey is a well-defended and hostile little community; and 2) Gene Hackman deserved that Oscar. His law enforcer is a real bad seed, Hackman’s penchant for intimidating characters culminating in the dastardly Daggett.

Unforgiven is a departure from many western films and violent films in general in that rather than glorifying and exaggerating the violent nature of survival in supposedly simpler times, it emphasizes the personal toll it takes on someone who has killed, be it for survival or in self-defense. Killing just for the sake of killing isn’t the issue here. The difference between the Schofield Kid’s lust for blood (in a fireside scene he boasts about killing five men already despite his age) and the older men’s reluctance to keep pulling the trigger comes under scrutiny as they inch ever closer to their destiny. Eastwood, the director, emphasizes subtlety and ruminates on the extreme nature of killing. “It’s a hell of a thing, to kill a man. Take away everything he’s got, everything he will ever have,” Will says to the deeply disturbed Schofield Kid in the aftermath of a shoot-out.

The delicate treatment of life and death is handled brilliantly in said scene, where the trio come across their targets in a shallow canyon and stalk them out. In a western, it’s all too natural to expect the scene to erupt into a battle of bullets and bloodshed, but Eastwood keeps it contained. As one of the cowboys slowly bleeds out, from around a protective hill Will asks one of his fellow riders to give him some water, an act of compassion that, rather than softening the film, bolsters Unforgiven‘s comity.

As a result, the action that pops up sporadically — this film is also restrained in terms of how often it breaks into fits of chaos and one-upmanship, as these things often do — hits much harder. Because we learn to respect the violence when it happens, it’s that much more difficult to watch Daggett lash out (literally) against those who defy him. This isn’t to say Unforgiving is a bloodless picture, of course, but Eastwood deserves credit for recognizing the difference between effective depictions of violence and simple mind-numbing excess. In a time when civilization was more obviously defined by responses to matters of life-and-death, it’s refreshing to journey back to that time where seemingly more trivial concepts like decency, courtesy and respect have more of a role.

Eastwood’s final journey out on to the frontier manifests as a thoroughly enjoyable, occasionally jarring and often somber adventure that has far more intelligence than the typical shoot-’em-up. And the final showdown between Will and Daggett confirms once again that there is no one more badass than Clint Eastwood.

Recommendation: A restrained picture in terms of how it depicts violence and stages action set pieces, Unforgiven is a unique western that reminds one far more of a psychological drama than anything John Wayne or Paul Newman might have starred in. Well-acted and beautifully shot, this is a trip well worth taking if you haven’t seen it before and are curious about one of the last truly great westerns. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 131 mins.

TBTrivia: Only the third western to ever win the Best Picture Oscar. The other two being Dances with Wolves (1990) and Cimarron (1931).

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TBT: American Beauty (1999)

Unlike last week’s discovery, sometimes putting off a movie you’ve been aware of for many years is a strategy that pays dividends. Of course today we’re going to be looking at a movie that is so radically different that comparisons need not be made. I suppose the point of all this incessant rambling is for me to declare August 2015 as the month in which I finally decided to do something about those movies sitting on a shelf in my parents’ house, collecting dust. Unlike the CD it’s clear to me that good, old-fashioned DVDs will remain relevant even as we journey into a future filled with Netflix originals and online distributions and other, more modern forms of accessing cinematic entertainment. Some movies belong on the DVD shelf, and I mean that in the best way possible.

Today’s food for thought: American Beauty.

Stuck in a cinematic mid-life crisis since: October 1, 1999

[DVD]

It doesn’t matter that I’m only 16 years late to the party. It doesn’t matter that I’ve likely missed the most fervent discussions about one of the most striking suburban dramas American cinema has ever produced (and it doesn’t matter that the film wasn’t made by an American director, either — curiously he, Sam Mendes, of British stage and film background, would go on to make the film that reaffirmed Daniel Craig as the James Bond of a new generation). It doesn’t matter at all, because now I’ve seen American Beauty.

That is a big check mark on a list of films I have been meaning to see for some time. You’ll have to forgive me for a TBT post that is going to rehash what millions have already said (and said better), but at this point I think it’s all but impossible to stage a novel argument in defense of Mendes’ directorial debut, one that went on to win five Academy Awards, including Best Picture.

American Beauty is a kaleidoscope of themes and stories, all wrapped up in a mesmerizing cinematic package that would later rename Kevin Spacey as Best Actor of 1999 (though his co-star Annette Bening didn’t receive the same level of recognition her sensational turn as materialistic wife Carolyn Burnham all but demanded); Sam Mendes as the director of the moment; and would identify the Alan Ball-written screenplay superlative amongst all other original screenplays that year. Given its numerous interpretations since, American Beauty could almost be taken as an anthology. However, its rumination on beauty, youth, aging, sexuality and, perhaps most interestingly, how we define domestic bliss are all in service to Spacey’s Lester Burnham, whose trajectory from bummed out and frustrated to amped up and care-free can only be described as a mid-life crisis brought on by his chance encounter with a friend of his teenaged daughter.

The title itself seems almost too obvious, but when becoming familiar with the power dynamics that drive the Burnham household — it’s a family of three, with the moody and misunderstood Jane (Thora Birch) stuck in the middle of her parents’ drama more often than not — American Beauty becomes ever increasingly more ironic, encompassing both the physical and psychological manifestations of beauty. And despite the focus on Spacey’s character in particular, the numerous thematic explorations involve the film’s sprawling cast, most of whom turn in award-worthy performances as well.

The Burnhams have new neighbors moving in on their right, disciplinary father Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper, who has no trouble rising to the challenge of matching the intensity of his co-stars’ performances) and his obedient son Ricky (Wes Bentley), who is obsessed with documenting the world around him with his videocamera, including the girl next door. That relationship rivals the Burnham’s marriage in terms of tumultuousness and distrust. A heartbreaking performance from Allison Janney as Mrs. Fitts gives the impression that this family unit is in fact more damaged. While these people exist a little more on the fringe they nonetheless contribute significantly to the eye-opening drama. Then of course there’s the dialogue between Jane and that flirty friend of hers, Angela (Mena Suvari), who, as is the case with many teens, are constantly talking about which person at their school they should date next. Their obsession with looks and social status say much about the rest of the film’s focus on adults trying to come to terms with their position in life.

Mendes’ direction is perfectly polished, barely trumping the perceptiveness of Ball’s story. (Incredibly, the man has only gone on to write one other film since.) Maybe it’s just me, but there’s something very discomforting about watching a grown man up and quit a secure job at a magazine publisher only to take up a day job serving fast food. Equally distressing is seeing him change around his daily routine to include working out and taking long jogs so he can taylor his physique to Angela’s liking. He trades in his crappy old Camry for a shiny new sports car, a rash decision that, by most people’s definition, represents a mid-life crisis in and of itself. This breakdown (more like rediscovery given the amusing change in tone) doesn’t spring out of nowhere, mind; in Lester’s own words: “[Carolyn] prefers I go through life as a (swear word) prisoner while she keeps my (man-parts) in a mason jar under the sink. I’m so sick and tired of being treated like I don’t exist in this family . . .”

As a credit to Ball, American Beauty is a film that perpetually skirts around cliché, but even more than that, it creates situations and emotions that feel unique and original, rather than merely offering surprises on the virtue of its subversive tendencies. It’s uplifting watching this man’s transformation when really it ought to be troublesome. Well, actually it is troublesome but it’s never downright depressing. The scene at the drive-thru window is a particular highlight, when in reality it is a low point in this marriage. A burgeoning romance between Jane and Ricky catches us somewhat off guard. Not to mention, the mood in which this film begins — home video footage revealing a clandestine plan to solve Jane’s problems of being ignored, despite the fact that she’s the only daughter in this broken family — is brilliantly given context later on. (Okay, so really what I’ve just described relates more to direction than the writing but without the sharp dialogue and the delivery thereof, the manipulation of timelines wouldn’t be as effective.)

Looking back on this film is as thought-provoking as it is disturbing. American Beauty is so 1990s, and yet times haven’t changed so drastically that its most pressing questions are now foreign to a modern audience. How exactly do we define domestic bliss, and how long does it last? How do we define physical beauty? Is that healthy? How long has the model of the perfect family unit — the house, white picket fence, three kids and a dog — been out of date? I’m quite sure I know none of the answers, but it doesn’t matter because American Beauty doesn’t really either. It may satirize a number of cultural flaws but it doesn’t pretend to have a solution to them. That’s what makes this a classic.

Recommendation: To anyone who hasn’t yet seen American Beauty (I don’t know how many people I’m speaking to here), I urge you to devote two hours out of your day to this extraordinary work. It satisfies on so many levels it’s all but  impossible to name them all. What stood out the most to me were the performances, the writing (specifically the narrative’s ability to maintain a serious dramatic undertone while being incredibly funny simultaneously), and a bold, dramatic conclusion that is brilliantly understated. The perfect end to a near-perfect movie.

Rated: R

Running Time: 122 mins.

TBTrivia: The title of the film refers to a breed of roses that while pretty and appealing in appearance, is often prone to rot underneath at the roots and branches of the plant. Thus, the tagline “. . . look closer” tells the viewer that when they look beyond the “perfect suburban life” they will find something rancid at the root.

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