Monday, March 2, 2015

The 2015 Best Picture Nominees, From Worst to Best

Now that the Oscars were a week ago, it's obviously time for me to chime in with my thoughts!

I went to the AMC Best Picture Marathon in Chicago with my sister Elizabeth -- the giant one where they watched all eight movies in a row. I'd already seen The Grand Budapest Hotel, which was the last one of the night, so we left before it began so we could get home at 5 in the morning instead of 7. So I managed to watch all the Best Picture nominees and have an opinion on them by the morning of the Oscars. Here's my final opinions on them, all ranked from least favorite to favorite.

8. The Imitation Game

I'm apparently in the minority on this one, but I just didn't think it was that good. I think Benedict himself did a tremendous job, really creating a fascinating and sympathetic character, but the other actors were not at all interesting, and the script was a muddled, cheesy mess... though either I or the Academy are extremely confused, as this won Best Adapted Screenplay. It's worth seeing for Benedict, but he's really carrying the whole movie.

7. American Sniper

A good movie that completely falls apart in the last 15 minutes, when it abandons the character arc it had worked so hard to establish and pretends all the problems the first hour and a half set up just never actually existed. It gets ranked above The Imitation Game because it was almost something really amazing, but it was a huge disappointment to me.

6. Selma

A good story that comes across more as a documentary than a biopic. Aside from one or two scenes that really have an emotional impact, the movie as a whole is more informative than powerful. Information is a good thing to have, but I don't think that's what the movie was going for.

5. The Theory of Everything

A sweet and interesting story that doesn't really offer anything new or surprising to the genre, but it's effective and well-told. Eddie Redmayne deserved his Oscar for his transformation in this movie -- he's fascinating.

...I didn't even realize until now that all the biopics are grouped together at the bottom of my chart. (It's also interesting to note that each one of these biopics often centers around"The story of a brilliant man and the longsuffering woman who supported him." The women in each of these movies are so similar that I frequently get them mixed up. Two of them got Oscar nominations, but I have to think hard to remember which ones because there's not really a lot of difference between the four.)

4. The Grand Budapest Hotel

I watched this one back in October of 2014, and it's interesting to note that at the time I noted that Anderson films have a way of slipping away from me, and I wondered if this would have more staying power. It mostly didn't, in that I can't tell you what this is about except that Ralph Fiennes is in it, but I do remember enjoying it a lot. So, like The Theory of Everything, it didn't stand out to me but I enjoyed watching it.

3. Boyhood

And here we're getting into the ones that I really, really truly liked. Boyhood is a slow, but deliberate story about growth and change and figuring out who you are, and this makes the 12-year-filming gimmick not just a gimmick but something that fits the story perfectly. Patricia Arquette is especially good in this (another well-deserved Oscar win there). I understand the people who find it slow or dull -- it's more about scattered episodes than consistent story progression -- but much like Linklater's Before trilogy, I found it extremely watchable because the characters were likable and interesting.

2. Birdman

For most of the night, I thought this would be my favorite. It's a delightful, visually beautiful, fascinating look at fame and growing old and self-worth. It reminded me a lot of Black Swan, my favorite Best Picture nominee from the 2011 Oscars, though Birdman has fewer lesbian sex scenes. So... if you liked Black Swan, I'd suggest checking this one out, since I have the same reaction to it.

Entertainingly, the people around me did NOT like this movie. One of them loudly yelled, "BOOOOOOOO!" at the screen for a full minute after it ended and then proceeded to complain to all of her friends for the next several movie breaks about how much she hated it. I was curious as to why, so I kept listening in, but, uh, turns out she was just upset about the fantasy/reality blend because it was confusing. We would probably not be good movie buddies.

1. Whiplash

The reviews for this movie all use words like "electrifying" and "thrilling" and "intense," and Whiplash is all of these things. American Sniper had more action, Selma had higher stakes, The Imitation Game had more intrigue, but this was the movie that had me on the edge of my seat, especially in the final 15 minutes. Out of all the movies I saw, this was the one that stuck with me, the one I still remember moments from a week after seeing it, the one that I want to rent on DVD and watch again.

Did you watch any of these this year? What did you think of them? Which snubbed movies did you want to see get a Best Picture nomination?

Friday, February 27, 2015

The Quest for Forgiveness: The Tiny Phrase That Makes Me Crazy

(Quick note -- hey, gang! I know I haven't had a new blog up for a week. Between an unexpected bout of depression and a slightly-expected-but-still-kinda-last-minute visit with my family, life got a little crazy for me this past week. But now I am hopefully back on track and can update! We'll kick things off with some more Brianna. Oh goody.)

Last time, Brianna FINALLY went to the Motion Picture Awards and became an instant success. We fast forwarded four years into her future, which is where we pick up today.

After she gets famous, life suddenly gets way worse for Brianna. She's sad and guilty all the time, won't go to church, and eventually she "hit(s) rock-bottom." I mean, I'd have thought rock-bottom was when she was living on the streets selling sexual favors, but apparently this is going to be worse than that.
The photographers had cleverly discovered that they didn’t have to look for Brianna— they had to look for her bodyguards who were easy to spot.
I like that the paparazzi photographers have JUST figured this out, because of course Brianna is the first person in the history of the world to deal with paparazzi. But the bodyguards are just the smartest ever because they disguise themselves with "hats and glasses," because I'm SURE their recognizable eyes and haircuts were what were giving them away.

So Brianna and her gang go to Niagara Falls. Brianna cries, and everyone freaks out and tries to get her to tell them what's wrong.
Conrad confronted her with a barrage of questions. “Brianna, what’s going on? You haven’t been yourself for a while. What are those nightmares about? What is happening with you?”
Why, yes, that is DEFINITELY the best way to deal with someone who is crying. Way to be sensitive.

Brianna finally fiiiiinallllyyyy shares why she said Ethan abused her. A friend of hers in foster care said she reported her foster parents for child abuse all the time whenever she wanted to leave, so Brianna thought that'd be a great idea too.

As she tells the story, though, we come across the infamous phrase that I have used ever since I first read this book as an example of how bad the writing is, and I'm pretty sure I'm just going to have to spend the rest of this blog discussing it.

Brianna is describing how she got away with it all:
“I went into the girl’s restroom and slammed the door on my hips and legs, basically anywhere I could cause bruises. I was still sexually pure so I could not, would not, claim anything like that— besides, the thought of that was disgusting to me.”
Let's look at that phrase "I was still sexually pure."

The phrase "sexually pure" is very, very definitely religious lingo. Typically evangelical Christian, as they tend to put the biggest emphasis on sexual purity.

Brianna spent ages four through twelve in an evangelical Christian home. So it's certainly not unlikely that she heard the term. But they stopped going to church when she was ten, so it is unlikely that she heard a lot of purity sermons -- certainly not as many as most Christian youth group teens hear. Unless their church preached a lot about sexual purity in general, chances are that lingo wouldn't have been ingrained in Brianna's head if she left church as a child.

So she had eight years of childhood in which she apparently heard the term "sexually pure" enough that it became the word she used to describe that, instead of saying what the rest of the world would say: "I was a virgin."

Ten years later, it's still the term "sexually pure" that she sticks with, despite the fact that, according to the way she tells her story, it's really unlikely she's heard that term at all since then. Despite the fact that she's not really any religion right now and has no reason to particularly value sexual purity.

Granted, Brianna's never had any non-manipulative sexual experiences, since they all seem to revolve around that time in her teenage years when she sold her body, so maybe she's assumed that the impurity of the sex was what was wrong here rather than the degrading nature of the sex. Maybe she can only interpret the negative-ness of it through her evangelical lingo. Maybe even though she's no longer religious, she still associates impurity must be bad because when she did it she felt bad. There's some fascinating possible subtext that could be found here, and I'd love to believe it's on purpose. But I just can't.

Brianna doesn't talk like someone who spent all her teenage years either in abusive foster homes or on the run selling sex to get somewhere. She doesn't even really talk like someone who went to a public high school. She talks like someone who has only ever had, or only chooses to use, church words for sex. The former is certainly not true, and the latter is bizarre given how far she's tried to run from her past.

If I grew up homeschooled and active in church and strongly believing in sexual purity my entire life, and I feel like "I was sexually pure" sounds stilted, is it likely that Brianna thinks it sounds natural?

This is one of the most frustrating problems in this series. Even if the stories were more coherent and the characters less obnoxious, it'd still be a terrible series every character in all of these books talks the same. I suspect they all talk like Rothdiener. And that makes every single character ring false. Sometimes you can get away with something like that, but then your reader gets to tiny phrases like these, and everything comes to a screeching halt.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Talking About Theater

I had another post lined up for today, but I think I probably need to sit on it instead. Depression appears to have come back full force this week, and I'm not sure that what I wrote was constructive or useful in any way. So instead, I'll be answering one of the last few remaining questions from my last round of blog requests at!

This question is actually a whole series of questions about acting in plays, so let's dive on in and answer!

What was your favorite play you've ever acted in?

Well, let me say this first -- I definitely prefer directing to acting. I can act all right, but it's sometimes more stress and effort than it is rewarding. It's a very vulnerable task, and that can be difficult. So, honestly, I really enjoy being in the ensemble. It lets me be part of the cast and spread the joy without having as much pressure put on me directly. Plus, then if there are dancing numbers they can quietly put me in the back and my crappy dancing won't be so obvious. :-)

So I really loved being part of a busy ensemble in Beauty and the Beast and the Christmas revues we did at Huntington. Individual roles I liked playing were generally in smaller shows -- an overly melodramatic actress in the one-act play The Actor's Nightmare, an elderly man in the one-act play The Bear, a soap opera parody in one of my favorite NLDC skits.

First play you acted in?

The first one I remember that wasn't just made up by me and my siblings (I acted in those all the time) was a Christmas play at our church. One of those shows where every kid had a line. I don't remember my line, but I do remember that I also did some sort of square dance.

I played an angel at the very end of the show, when everyone was in some sort of nativity costume, but apparently I got bored singing all the Christmas carols I already knew. If you watch the video we have of the play, there's one part where I am making up my own hand motions and gestures to go along with the lyrics. The girl next to me turns to see what I'm doing and I immediately stop and just sing normally.

Play or role you wish you could act in some day?

Gosh. There are a lot of roles I'd love to play, but very few of those are parts I'd ever realistically get. But what the heck, I'll dream big. As far as musicals, I'd love to play Veronica in Heathers, Cathy in The Last Five Years, the wicked fairy in Sleeping Beauty Wakes, and Tracy in Hairspray. For straight plays, I'd choose Laura in The Glass Menagerie, Vivian in Wit, one of the aunts in Arsenic and Old Lace, and Agnes from Bug.

Would you ever act in a movie? 

If the opportunity came up, sure. I think acting in movies is way less scary than acting on stage (although also less interesting). I'd like being able to do it multiple times in the moment until I got it right. I'd probably never watch my own movie, though. Watching myself act is weird and uncomfortable.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Tune In Tuesday: Cinderella

Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella is easily my favorite show they did together. This song from today is the prince's mournful ballad "Loneliness of Evening," a song originally written for the R&H show South Pacific. The song was added to the 1965 TV version of the show and was also incorporated into the 2013 Broadway cast in a completely different part of the show. It's a very pretty little song, sung here by Stuart Damon of the 1965 cast.

(I'm also blogging today over at about the 2015 movie adaptation of The Last Five Years. Check it out here -- please comment or pass it on or both!)

Monday, February 16, 2015

Top 5, Bottom 5: Caper Movies

It's been a little while since we did a Top 5, Bottom 5 feature, and I just recently hit 21 movies watched on the "caper" filter on Flickchart. You can see the order of all 21 movies here, but in the meantime, here are my favorites and least favorites from the genre.

Top 5:
1. A Fish Called Wanda (1988, #98 on my chart). This movie grows on me every time I watch it. It's got such a marvelous cast, and they're all hilarious.
2. Inception (2010, #108). One of Christoper Nolan's most inventive movies, and my second favorite of his after Memento. It's a solid heist movie, but it's just fascinating to watch, period.
3. Muppets Most Wanted (2014, #353). Well, this heist is very silly, but I liked this Muppets movie a lot more than other people did, I think. Didn't hurt that it had a lot of great songs.
4. Ocean's Eleven (2001, #459). A good cool caper/heist movie that is really enjoyable to watch. George Clooney and Brad Pitt are excellent together.
5. Sneakers (1992, #473). A lighthearted caper with a good ensemble cast. I admittedly haven't seen it in a long time, but I remember having a good time with it.

Bottom 5:
5. Inside Man (2006, #2124 out of 2319). I don't remember a single thing about this movie other than that I found it boring.
4. Three Kings (1999, #2064). This is one I want to give a second chance to someday, as I was pretty young when I watched it and maybe just didn't get it yet.
3. The Italian Job (2003, #1842). Another entry that just didn't stick with me, and the few memories I have associated with it are not great.
2. Flawless (2007, #1826). This is probably ranked a little too low because I never though it was actively bad, just... nothing special.
1. Snatch. (2000, #1654). I tried so hard to appreciate this movie when I was assigned it for last year's movie challenge, but it just never caught my attention.

Top 5 Unseen:
1. Rififi (1955, #222 on the global charts)
2. The Red Circle (1970, #403)
3. Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998, #409)
4. The Asphalt Jungle (1950, #450)
5. Thief (1981, #623)

What are your favorites and least favorites? Which of my top 5 unseen should I see first?

Friday, February 13, 2015

The Quest for Forgiveness: The Motion Picture Awards

Last time, Brianna and Sonya and Conrad had creepy bonding time at Sonya's house the night before the Motion Picture Awards.

As everyone gets up and ready, Conrad muses that Brianna can't hold her feelings inside forever. He's only known her for like two days but of course he already knows what's best for her better than she does herself. It's OK, though, it's not because he's a man. It's because he's a Christian. That's why Sonya also automatically knows what Brianna needs to do and not do, even though she's only known her for a week or two. It's a superpower we have.

Conrad realizes he's already become "emotional involved" with Brianna (and that's Rothdiener's typo, not mine). But apparently despite all his flirting with her, he still thinks maybe he thinks of her as just a sister or a close fried.

Sonya notices this and brings it up to him, though she helpfully points out that they're all surprisingly drawn to Brianna. He asks why.
“I’m not certain if it’s her physical appearance, her mysterious life, bubbling personality, or what. I just know that she captured me on the first day.”
I'm not sure I'd call Brianna's personality "bubbling." She's pretty guarded and reserved. She's hardly Skye. (Which is a good thing.)

However, I can tell you right now, Sonya: it's Brianna's physical appearance. Everyone gushes about it constantly as soon as they meet her. She has not yet had an encounter where someone introduced themselves to her with, "Wow, when they said you had a bubbling personality, they weren't kidding!"

So, yeah. There's your answer.

Conrad asks Sonya to tell him the secrets she's learned about Brianna's past. Sonya hems and haws for like a second, but caves almost immediately. She starts off by telling him that her real name is Janna Anderson. Conrad's response:
“I suspected that Brianna Bays was a made-up name.”
"What kind of dumb name is that anyway? It's not like it's something sensible like Skye Leontiou."

Sonya then cheerfully tells Conrad that Brianna's adoptive father is in jail for abusing her, but that she thinks Brianna's lying about it and feels guilty. Conrad makes some vague statements about knowing what she's been through because of foster care, but their bonding is cut short by Bruno showing up.

Then there are several paragraphs about Brianna getting ready for the awards ceremony. She spends hours on her own hair (which must be full but flowy enough that it can blow in the wind or something) but gets a make-up artist for her makeup, so I guess they couldn't afford a hair stylist.

When they get to the awards ceremony, people go bonkers and try to rip off Brianna's scarf, but her bodyguards beat them all up and they get inside. Conrad tells her to get ready, but she's already done all her hair and makeup and apparently has no plans of doing anything other than sitting in her dressing room for six hours, so I don't know what "getting ready" entails.

Conrad also hugs Brianna trying to comfort her, which makes Sonya think this:
It was unlike Conrad to act on emotion. No doubt, Brianna’s magic, her passion, had captured his attention.
No doubt indeed, since HE TOLD HER THAT THAT MORNING. Dumb Sonya and her five-second attention span...

Time goes by. We learn that apparently Brianna wanted to do her dance choreography with her guitar, which is... an unusual choice. Finally she compromised by agreeing to put down her guitar when she danced but she'll pick it back up when she's done dancing.

Now it's five minutes until Brianna goes onstage. Sonya tries to encourage her.
“You look gorgeous.” 
“Beauty is not what’s going to win this crowd.” 
“You’re right.” 

Brianna shows Sonya that she's ready to go onstage by singing the scale, and Sonya deems her ready. She leaves her dressing room, tells Bruno his German accent is sexy (this comment comes out of nowhere), and heads backstage.
The emcee made a tacky one-liner about the noise backstage. One insensitive attempt at humor was about a nobody taking the place of one of America’s hottest talents. “Well, ladies and gentlemen, I can tell by the commotion in the back that we are about to get a show. I’m not sure what to expect. I hear that the young girl, Brianna Bays... you may have heard about her on the news...” He paused until the laughter died down. “Apparently, she looks like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz—the cartoon that is.”
Is that dialogue showcasing his tacky one-liner and his insensitive attempt at humor? Because I don't get what's so offensive about that, unless it's just that he's daring to not worship at the feet of someone he doesn't know. Also... what is this Wizard of Oz cartoon? Do they mean the TV one that ran for like a year in 1990? In that case, the joke is that Brianna looks like this:

Which is not particularly mean-spirited. That girl looks normal. In fact, she looks pretty Judy Garland-esque. So I have no idea what this joke even means or why people are being offended by it or what makes it insensitive. Is it offensive to say people look like cartoon characters now and I just didn't know?

They announce the song Brianna's going to sing, mentioning that Judd Stevens originally recorded it. The crowd cheers for Judd and boos for Brianna (have people ever booed at the Oscars? Because that's what this event is clearly supposed to be, despite its slightly different name).

Anyway, Brianna takes a stage... and now, to tell you how it went, I present the follow words or phrases describing her performance and the audience's reaction:

  • voice of an angel
  • strong
  • clear
  • precision
  • hitting low notes and high notes "in one breath"
  • splendor
  • spellbound
  • spectacular
  • melodic
  • meaningful
  • heart wrenching
  • flawless
  • astounding
To Rothdiener's credit, he does focus on Brianna's performance more than on her looks, although that is all shattered as soon as she's done singing:

“Wow! You are a knockout!” The host put his arm around her shoulders. “You think she looks good from down there; you should see her up close.”
The host then goes on to rave about how she can sing and dance at the same time, which pop stars apparently cannot do. Someone should take him to a Beyonce concert. Or to a dance-heavy Broadway show. He will be blown away.

Brianna applauds her dancers, and the host is amazed that she's not bragging about herself. Which... again, indicates that he hasn't paid much attention to the world of performing arts. Most up-and-coming artists don't respond to a compliment like that with, "Yup, I'm a pretty awesome dancer" -- at least not in public. That doesn't typically happen until you reach Kanye levels of fame and narcissism.

A man and a woman who will be revealing the winner come to the stage, and the man makes a creepy joke about how he wanted to make Brianna give him a hug and the only thing stopping him was her bodyguards. They announce that Brianna won, and she gives a tiny thank-you speech, in which she only thanks Sonya.

Brianna looks at the audience and for some reason they all go completely silent, despite the fact that her speech appears to be over. She gives a cryptic speech about thanking Ethan and tells him she's sorry, and then she starts crying.
Wiping her tears, Sonya realized that the mysterious girl was one step closer to revealing her past.
Her star/friend/client is crying on live TV, and all Sonya can think about is, "YESSSSS, I almost know all her secrets!"

Then Brianna goes and cries in Conrad's arms.

We then zoom WAY ahead in time:
Over the next four years, Brianna Bays would consistently be on the top of the charts— the number one entertainer in the world.
She's also in movies, performs for the troops, performs at the White House, does a Super Bowl half-time show, and wins more awards. But she is still sad inside. And that is where this chapter ends. We made it through A WHOLE CHAPTER! I haven't done that in awhile.

55% of the way through the book, with 140 pages left to go.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Tune In Thursday: Seussical

Sometimes Seussical is thought of as just a kids' musical, but it's one of my favorites. It's got entertaining songs and a heartwarming story, tying together various Dr. Seuss stories perfectly. This song, "Biggest Blame Fool," is sung by the various creatures of the jungle after they discover Horton believes there are tiny people living on a speck of dust he found. It's a big soulful power number, and it's awfully fun to sing along with.