Oscar Primer 2016: Fight the A.I. Red Scare

During the lead up to this year’s Oscars on February 28th I will be covering a lot of the nominees for the upcoming Academy Awards. This will not be your usual Oscar primer, but in fact more of a “catching up to speed” series. Once a week I will be dissecting a few films in each installment. I will be going over what the nominees are, and what chances it stands to win. I am very excited to be doing this series for the third year in a row now. Along with the weekly articles, I will also be posting a mini episode of Contra Zoom going over the Best Picture nominees two at a time; in the last episode I discussed The Big Short and Mad Max: Fury Road. In the last post I talked about Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Straight Outta Compton and Shaun the Sheep Movie. This post I will be discussing Ex Machina, Trumbo and Creed.

Ex Machina was directed by Alex Garland and released on April 24th. The film has two nominations.

– Best Original Screenplay- Alex Garland

– Best Visual Effects- Andrew Whitehurst, Paul Norris, Mark Williams Ardington, Sara Bennett

Just about everyone was super excited about the quiet little sci-fi thriller that came last spring and for good reason. Oscar Isaac, the IT male actor at the time came through with another winning performance. The film has helped launch the career years for both Alicia Vikander (The Man From U.N.C.L.E., The Danish Girl and Burnt) and Domhnall Gleeson (Brooklyn, Star Wars: The Force Awakens and The Revenant). Most impressive was the story written by the director that pulled from elements of multiple genres and managed to have audience members at the edge of their seat. The film almost plays out like a full-length version of a Black Mirror episode with a simple concept. Would it be unbelievable if a reclusive billionaire happened to make a perfect AI robot? The rich playboy Nathan (Isaac) invites nerdy programmer Caleb (Gleeson) up to his hidden getaway to administer the Turing Test to Ava (Vikander) his latest tech creation. As the movie unfolds the motives by Nathan get murkier and murkier, while the knowledge that Ava seemingly has, gets scarier with each reveal, all the while you can no longer tell who is playing whom for a fool. Just when the tension becomes so unbearable, there is a moment that is quite possibly the scene of the year, as Nathan breaks out into a choreographed dance routine with his housekeeper who had just attempted to seduce Caleb. The script is witty and terrifying all at the same time and just when you think things can’t get any crazier the final moments of the film will leave you questioning everything you just saw. It is a damn shame this film didn’t pick up more nominations (Vikander was better in this than in The Danish Girl) and even worse that it is in a category with the presumed Best Picture frontrunner Spotlight, which will also take this award. 

The special effects are minimal in the film but the moments that are needed, like for Ava’s body, the less is better. The filmmakers use Vikander’s face and not much else as her body is almost entirely robotic, using a sleek silver exoskeleton type of body to show off her female form and a small selection of her operating parts. When Ava is wearing clothing, her robotics are almost completely hidden, but there is always a touch to remind you she isn’t actually human. Near the end of the film ‘skin’ is applied on Ava’s form to make her look human and the act of applying these silicon strips of human meat are done seamlessly. Much like the Best Original Screenplay category, Ex Machina has the unfortunate case of going up against Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, two juggernauts of visual effects. The work is so low key; the film is considered neither a dark horse nor underdog, it is just happy to be at the table. 

Trumbo was directed by Jay Roach and was released on November 25th. The film has one nomination. 

– Best Actor- Bryan Cranston

Since wrapping Breaking Bad three years ago Cranston has been struggling to find roles that will allow him to leave his Walter White shadow, just like how the AMC show allowed him to leave his Malcolm in the Middle shadow. He had some misses with the Godzilla remake that over hyped the size of his role and reprised his part as the obnoxious architect on How I Met Your Mother as the show was winding down, but Trumbo was supposed to be his coming out party. Playing blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo the figurehead of the ridiculousness that was the House Un-American Activities during the Red Scare by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1940’s and 50’s. The script is far too over the top and mellow dramatic to be considered anything as good as Trumbo would have actually wrote back in the day, but Cranston manages to perform the proselytizing monologues with great intentions. Sure his arguments with Louis C.K.’s fellow Commie writer are corny and grating to get through, but the tender moments between Trumbo and his wife (Diane Lane) more than make up for the hammy moments. Cranston’s best scenes aren’t when he is giving his rabble rousing speeches, but more so when showing what it looks like when geniuses are at work. It is a bit surprising he got nominated and should just be happy to attend the ceremony as he probably will place 5th out of the five spots. 

Creed was directed by Ryan Coogler and was released on November 25th. The film has one nomination.

– Best Supporting Actor- Sylvester Stallone

I was not looking forward to watching this film. That’s a bit of a lie. I really like Michael B. Jordan and Ryan Coogler who had previously worked together on the under seen Fruitvale Station, and I was curious about them teaming up again. Jordan and Coogler couldn’t have been all bad, especially since the latter also co-wrote the film. I just wasn’t looking forward to seeing Stallone or another Rocky film since I hated the original one so much (Andreas and I keep teasing our epic takedown of this bloated Best Picture Winner which will occur in a future episode of Contra Zoom). Turns out, not only was the film really, really good but Stallone was deserving of his nomination and gave a career turning performance. Gone was the machoism and jingoism found in the original and subsequent sequels, and instead was a heartbreaking performance about how even the strongest people in the world are not immune to the ravaging effects time has on our bodies. Seeing the tough guy forced to view the world of boxing in a new light was refreshing and bold, all culminating in a return to the famous Philadelphia Museum of Art steps that is more gratifying than the original training montage that made them famous. Every scene in this film is a wink to the original, except instead of it being playful and Meta it becomes heartbreaking to watch. While I was in disbelief when the nominations originally came out I was surprised to see that Stallone made the cut, then after awards predictions came out I was shocked that he was one of the front runners along with Mark Ruffalo, after finally seeing the film I can see where the Academy is coming from and while I think Ruffalo was better and deserves to win, I won’t be upset if Stallone came away with the golden statuette. I am frankly quite disappointed the screenplay, director Coogler, star Jordan and the picture itself were not all nominated as well. You could even argue that Tessa Thompson could have snuck into the Best Supporting Actress race herself. If I were a voter I would have bumped Cranston for Jordan at minimum. 

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