Movie Review: Maps to the Stars (2014)

March 1, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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David Cronenberg is like a box of chocolates — you never know what you’re going to get.

Of his last five films, the only one I’ve yet to see is A Dangerous Method (2011). A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007) were fabulous, but I found Cosmopolis (2012) to be dull and pretentious. His latest effort, Maps to the Stars, is actually similar stylistically to Cosmopolis, though this time — perhaps due to the subject matter and the performances — I found the satire funny, biting and creepy, and the overall experience positively uncomfortable.

Maps to the Stars is a really strange film that defies categorisation. It’s a drama and black comedy, but also has elements of a psychological thriller and supernatural horror.  What it definitely is, however, is a scathing take on Hollywood, an acidic satire on all the excess, the pretentiousness, the opportunity-seeking, the backstabbing, the heartlessness, and above all the destructive lifestyles of America’s rich and famous. Far from the glamour we typically associate with stardom and wealth, Maps to the Stars not just brings celebrities down to our level — it pushes them below acceptable levels of decency and humanity. 

Without giving too much away, the plot revolves around two women — Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska), a scarred young woman (literally, she has burn scars on her face and neck) who just made her way to Hollywood, and Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), an aging actress hoping to land a major role as her legendary late mother. Key characters in their world include Jerome (Robert Pattinson), an aspiring actor making a living as a limo driver for the stars; rising teen actor Benjie (Evan Bird), his manager mother (Olivia Williams) and his New Age guru father (John Cusack). They are all linked in one way or another, though part of the allure of the film comes from finding out what the connections are.

The script by Bruce Wagner explores the depravity and debauchery head on, tackling taboo themes, gross-out subjects and uncomfortable scenes that will either make you squirm or prompt nervous laughter.

Like Cosmopolis, there is a surreal feel to the film. The exposition is kept to a minimum so you have to really pay attention to the dialogue or you won’t know what’s going on. Even then I still had no idea where it was heading, though it didn’t matter because I couldn’t turn away. It was at times hilarious, sometimes frightening and occasionally sickening — but always fascinating.

The performances are another reason why the film is more enjoyable than it probably should have been. Julianne Moore may have just won an Oscar for Still Alice, but I actually think she is even better here. While Havana might not be a likeable character, she definitely is authentic and comes across as painfully real, and it accentuates what a remarkable actress Moore is when you contrast this role — which reminds of what Lindsay Lohan will probably be like in 20-30 years — with her character in Still Alice.

Mia Wasikowska is also brilliant as the quirky Agatha, and Robert Pattinson does a solid job of helping us forget that he was ever Edward Cullen. The other standout for me has to be Evan Bird, who despite his weird look and body (it’s hard to tell how old he is) manages a convincing portrayal of a bratty, disrespectful, almost Bieber-like teen star. He’s hilarious.

On the whole, Maps to the Stars is a wild ride full of gasp-worthy moments. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but I hope people who appreciate this type of dark humour and satire will get a kick out of it like I did.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

March 1, 2015 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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I knew it was not going to be good. Having put myself through the novel, my motivation for seeing Fifty Shades of Grey stemmed largely from my curiosity over how much a quality Hollywood production headed by director Sam Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass’s real-life wife) could salvage an adaptation of the third worst book I’ve ever read.

The answer? A decent amount, but nowhere near enough. You can’t deep fry a turd coated in 11 secret herbs and spices and expect it to suddenly be finger-licking good.

Fifty Shades of Grey is probably the first adaptation of a best-selling novel where the dominant expectation is that it will suck because of the source material. Originating as a piece of Twilght fan fiction, the novel has sold more than 100 million copies worldwide despite universal scathing reviews. All the blessings in the world to author EL James for her remarkable success, but how this poorly written amateur effort — which was initially released by an independent Aussie virtual publisher — became a global phenomenon will surely go down in history as one of the greatest literary mysteries of all time.

By now you should know that the “erotic romantic drama” is about young, beautiful, virginal Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson — the offspring of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson), who meets and falls for the rich, mysterious and “impossibly handsome” Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). She likes biting her lower lip and he’s a sex maniac who enjoys flogging women and contractual negotiations.

The problems with the story and the characters have been, like Anastasia’s ass, flogged to death. People who have read the book would have anticipated this, but audiences fresh to this tale will be introduced to a whole new world of painfully awkward conversations, unrealistic human reactions and WTF moments of the purest kind. It’s one unintentionally hilarious moment after another, each gradually propelling the film towards “so bad it’s good” territory, but without actually getting there. I can honestly say that my wife, who never read the books, laughed louder and harder in this movie than any comedy we’ve seen in the last few years.

The film’s other drawcard, the eroticism, was surprisingly flaccid. I knew they had to pare things back to squeeze the film into an R-rating under America’s classification system, but I didn’t believe they could make the sex scenes even duller than what they were in the book. We’re talking soft-soft core; 9 1/2 Weeks and Wild Orchid it definitely is not. And I say this with an unblemished record of staunch heterosexuality (not that there’s anything wrong with that): there was not enough man-junk for a movie whose target market is young to middle-aged women. In fact, while Johnson showed off everything, Dornan’s johnson doesn’t even make a fleeting, or even accidental appearance. By the way, the S&M scenes were just horrible. Maybe you need to be into that sort of stuff to appreciate it.

So when you take out the moronic characters, a paper-thin plot and tame eroticism, all that’s left is a dull experience littered with trite dialogue, cringeworthy set pieces and tacky efforts at developing “romance” between the two leads, which is evidently difficult when the guy can only think about torturing the girl and the girl can only think about…nothing at all.

Still, you can tell they tried. The biggest issue with the movie is that the filmmakers were restricted in what they could change without angering the faithful fans of the novel — and the woman who wrote it. Apparently, James clashed constantly with Taylor-Johnson during the creative process and in the editing room. The author wanted the film to remain loyal to the source material, while the director wanted the film to be less shit. I’ve also read that screenwriter Kelly Marcel initially rehauled the embarrassing dialogue, but James vetoed her and a second writer was brought in to rewrite the original shit back in. The mess has been described as a “falling out.”

I think it’s safe to say neither Taylor-Johnson nor Marcel will be back in future entries, though they must still be credited for doing all they can to repair the damage. Taylor-Johnson does a solid job of infusing the film with a blue-grey colour scheme that’s pretty to look at, while also moulding an atmosphere that suits the tone of the narrative. Marcel’s biggest contribution is ensuring that the story is not narrated by Ana, so there’s none of that “inner goddess” garbage or her annoying soliloquies. Some of the more ridiculous facts about her from the book — such as that she’s never kissed anyone or had a boyfriend — are thankfully trimmed out. They even tried to scrape back the amount of pointless emailing and texting between Ana and Christian and all the excruciating back and forth about the contract details.

As for the performances, Johnson is actually pretty good as the mentally challenged naive Ana, the beautiful girl who has no idea men are even remotely attracted to her. Though she’s close to Ana’s age in real life — Johnson’s 25, Ana’s supposed to be 21 — I found Johnson a little old-looking for the part, but kudos to her anyway as she at least channels the book version of the character well.

Jamie Dornan is by all accounts a great actor who will go one to bigger and better things after this, but you can tell from his performance that he couldn’t believe he was in this shit, playing a piece of shit. To borrow from Arrested Development’s Bluth family, Dornan’s singular expression throughout the film said it all.

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The rest of the cast sleepwalk through their way for their paychecks. Eloise Mumford, whom I’ve never seen before, plays Ana’s best friend and roommate Kate, while veterans Jennifer Ehle and Marcia Gay Harden play Ana and Christian’s mothers, respectively. True Blood‘s Luke Grimes plays Christian’s brother Elliot and British singer Rita Ora plays their sister Mia, with the familiar face of Max Martini stepping in as Taylor, Christian’s answer to Bruce Wayne’s Alfred. Everyone involved seems to acknowledge that they’re just in it for the money and the CV-boosting publicity.

Having said all this, Fifty Shades of Grey is not one of the worst films I’ve seen by a long shot. It’s better than the book, which doesn’t say much but must count for something. By all means, watch it to satisfy your curiosity or so you can crack jokes at it with your friends.

The film leaves audiences hanging like the novel, and judging from its box office success — smashing several opening weekend and R-rated film records — it appears at least two sequels (they’ll probably split the last book into two films) are headed our way. That’s not good, because the only two books I’ve read worse than Fifty Shades of Grey are — you guessed it — Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed.

1.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Unbroken (2014)

February 26, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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Angelina Jolie has been tipped as a filmmaker to watch for the future, so I was naturally drawn to her third and latest directorial effort, Unbroken, a biopic about the remarkable life of US Olympian and WWII prisoner of war Louis Zamperini.

To be frank, I was a little disappointed with Unbroken given its subject and celebrated director and screenwriting team (that includes one of my faves, the Coen Brothers). It’s solid, there is no denying that, though I don’t think the film did very much in elevating Zamperini’s inspirational life significantly above what one would have expected simply from reading a basic bio of his experiences. While it depicts Zamperini as an amazing individual, Unbroken fails to distinguish itself from all of the other POW stories.

Jolie begins with a typical in media res approach that introduced Zamperini as a member of a US bomber squad on a mission against the Japanese-occupied Island of Nauru in 1943. As expected, the film reverts to flashback mode shortly after, showing Zamperini’s childhood in California as a troubled kid. From there, Jolie adopts a surprisingly linear, conventional narrative, focusing on Zamperini’s Olympic career before moving onto his role in WWII.

Zamperini is indeed worthy of respect for his astounding resiliency and will to survive, but the film focuses too much on this one aspect of his personality. The narrative is pretty much just him overcoming one hardship after another. He’s like a human version of that annoying Chumbawamba song — he gets knocked down but he gets up again, and again and again and again. Jolie doesn’t do much to mix things up other than emphasise the sadistic nature of his Japanese captors (in particular a one-dimensional corporal known as “Bird” played by Japanese recording artist Miyavi) and play up Zamperini’s glorious moments of triumph.

The problem, I think, is that Jolie was too in awe of her subject, whom she has met and was still alive during filming. As a result, the film became essentially a work of hero worship that never really managed to explore his character like it should have. It’s strange, but even though it is a biopic I still don’t feel like I really got to know Zamperini as a person other than that he he managed to live through a lot of terrible things. I can only imagine how much edgier and how much more depth the film would have had had Jolie been able to maintain a bit of distance from her protagonist.

Failing to meet expectations aside, Unbroken is a well-intentioned effort and a very watchable film. Jolie’s direction is not flashy, though she infuses her images — some handsome, others bleak — with passion and control. Shades of Clint Eastwood, perhaps? And the story is undoubtedly inspirational because its true; the performance of Jack O’Connell as Zamperini is quite good, and the supporting cast featuring the likes of Domhnall Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund and Jai Courtney all fill out their respective roles impressively. The film has moments I really liked and found emotionally rewarding, but also others (including the final climax) that were heavy-handed and too obviously geared towards sentimentality. On the whole, I still think it’s a film worth watching because Zamperini’s story is such an extraordinary one, though it’s a shame Jolie could not have wielded her Malificent magic to turn it into something special.

3.5 stars out of 5

Shaffer’s Kitchen (Taipei)

February 25, 2015 in Food, Reviews, Taiwan, Travel by pacejmiller

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Taipei locals have been raving about Shaffer’s Kitchen for a couple of years. Opened by a Taiwanese woman looking for something to do after moving back from the United States with her American husband, the restaurant is known for her home-style cooking with a gourmet touch. Think of kind of stuff the contestants of My Kitchen Rules like to make. (For a more detailed history, check out this post from Taiwan Xifu)

Reservations are highly recommended. We went for lunch just before Valentine’s Day, and the place appears to be particularly popular with local workers because of their affordable business lunch set. Intent on something more special, we asked for the regular menu instead. And here it is.

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Since it was (almost) Valentine’s Day, they were also nice enough to give us this home-made, hand-made cookie.

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We ordered way too much stuff for ordinary humans to consume. We started off with some marvellous home-made bread. The long slices are infused with olive oil and herbs, while the round buns are hot and fluffy on the inside. A great way to kick off the meal ahead.

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The soup of the day was carrot (I know it looks like pumpkin), and it had both a nice flavour and consistency.

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We ordered one of the special starters (on the blackboard in the back), roasted eggplant with pine nuts on toast. This one had a lot of Balsamic on it, which was a little too much for me, though there’s no denying that it’s a fine conceptual creation.

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The other starter we got was from the menu, the goose liver pate. This was very fragrant and would have been a good order had I not already devoured so much bread.

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Yes, we got another starter, the salmon crepe roll, which came stuffed with salmon and creme cheese, with fish roe on top. This was my favourite starter. Small but delicate and delicious.

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After the glut of starters, we had barely any room to fit the two mains, the first of which was the duck breast with red wine berry reduction.

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I loved this duck breast and the sauce that came with it. The duck was seared to perfection, with a crispy skin on the edge and soft flesh beneath. The sauce was tangy and sweet, and thankfully there was plenty of it.

The other main was the famed balsamic roast chicken. Just look at it.

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As I said before, I’m not the biggest fan of balsamic, but in the right doses it can be sublime. They got it right with this chicken, with the sweet and sour flavours penetrating deep into the skin without being too pungent or overpowering.

We really wanted to get some dessert was well (there is a wine-pear dessert that’s supposed to be awesome) but we were too stuffed to dare.

So on the whole, Shaffer’s Kitchen lives up to the hype. Good food, friendly atmosphere and hospital service at reasonable prices. It’s not Michelin-star cuisine, but as far as classy, home-style Western cooking goes, this is about as good as it gets.

8/10

Details

Shaffer’s Kitchen (雪飛詩歐廚)

Address: No. 9, Lane 42, Yixian Road, Xinyi District, Taipei City

Phone: (o2) 8789 4088

Website: http://shafferskitchen.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ShaffersKitchen

Opening Hours: Tue – Fri 11:30pm – 9:30pm; Sat – Sun 11:00am – 9:30pm (Closed Mondays)

What’s awesome and what sucked at Oscars 2015

February 24, 2015 in Best Of, Entertainment, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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Another year, another Oscars.

As with the last two years, I had a blast consulting for Taiwan’s TV broadcast team, who continue to awe me with their superhuman skills and awesomeness. Last year was a breeze with Ellen hosting, but we knew things would be tougher this year with Neil Patrick Harris doing his extravagant song and dance numbers. As it turned out, it wasn’t too bad, with the majority of the event going according to script.

Anyway, here’s what I thought was awesome about this year’s Oscars and what I thought sucked about it.

Awesome: My predictions

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I correctly predicted the winners of 15 categories:

-Best Picture (Birdman)
-Best Actress (Julianne Moore)
-Best Director (Alejandro González Iñárritu)
-Best Supporting Actor (JK Simmons)
-Best Supporting Actress (Patricia Arquette)
-Original Screenplay (Birdman)
-Animated Feature (Big Hero 6)
-Original Score (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
-Original Song (Selma)
-Documentary Feature (CitizenFour)
-Production Design (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
-Visual Effects (Interstellar)
-Sound Editing (American Sniper)
-Sound Mixing (Whiplash)
-Makeup and Hair (The Grand Budapest Hotel)

Even more awesome than getting these right is that in two categories the film I thought should win rather will win actually took home the gong:

-Best Actor (Eddie Redmayne) — I thought Michael Keaton had it in the bag, and judging from Batman’s reaction (and aggressive gum-chewing) it appeared he thought he had it in the bag too
– Adapted Screenplay (The Imitation Game) — I thought they’d give it to Whiplash, to be honest

My misses turned out to be:
-Editing (Whiplash)
-Cinematography (Birdman)
-Costume Design (The Grand Budapest Hotel)
-Animated Short (Feast)
-Documentary Short (Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1)
-Foreign Language Film (Ida).

In hindsight I should have gotten at least a couple of the first three right (the others were just wild guesses) but stupidly thought the Academy was going to give us some surprises.

Sucked: Boyhood not winning Best Picture or Best Director

I picked Birdman for both, but it doesn’t mean I’m not salty that Boyhood missed out on Best Picture and Best Director for Richard Linklater. Technically, Birdman is a brilliant film, but if we’re talking about the most revolutionary film, the most emotionally resonant film, the most memorable film, then Boyhood wins hands down. It’s not even close.

Damn, even that song they played every time they discussed the movie during the ceremony still gave me the chills every time.

The snub is worse than Forrest Gump beating Shawshank in 1995, or Crash’s highway robbery of Brokeback Mountain in 2006. This kind of moronic shit seems to happen every decade or so, where the Best Picture winner might be a very good film in its own right but doesn’t hold a candle to the film that should have won when you look back years later.

As for Best Director, I can see why Iñárritu won. Birdman is exceptionally directed, and in any other year I wouldn’t complain. But man, Linklater spent 12 years on this movie, and managed to turn 12 years of footage into one coherent, well-paced, and moving drama. The ambition, the foresight, the planning and the skill required to pull something like this off is unparalleled in the history of cinema, and yet Linklater somehow managed it. For me, that deserves the win.

Can’t decide if awesome or sucked: NPH as host

I can’t lie. I thought NPH was going to be the best Oscars host EVER, or at least the best since Billy Crystal. The track record was too good to ignore and his Tony’s performance was jaw-dropping.

But for whatever reason, whenever anyone hosts the Oscars they seem hamstrung by the occasion and end up producing something less than what they’re capable of. Last year Ellen was too safe. The year before, Seth McFarlane was too crass. And do I even dare mention the disaster that was Anne Hathaway (not her fault) and James Franco (all his fault)?

NPH’s opening number was solid — good supporting acts with Anna Kendrick and Jack Black plus some impressive special effects. But it felt like he was holding back.

NPH’s jokes were largely deadpan, with a few eliciting chuckles but others falling flat. I think he’s the type of charming performer who does best in planned situations, because let’s face it, his improvisation could have been a lot better. The Birdman underwear stunt was a good idea, I suppose, but it generated more shocks than humour. On the whole, however, he was perfectly adequate.

I’d give NPH a solid B- on the Oscars host scale, where Billy Crystal at his best is an A+ and James Franco is an F.

Sucked: NPH’s prediction box

NPH getting Octavia Spencer to look after a glass box containing a brief case with supposed predictions he wrote several days in advance probably seemed like a good idea on paper. A bit of magic. An elaborate set up. However, the great reveal at the end — which was supposed to be NPH’s final hurrah — turned out to be a shithouse dud. Maybe he had to rush because they were running over time. Or maybe the writers couldn’t come up with anything witty backstage. But man, what a downer to end the night. He probably should have closed with another musical number if time had allowed it.

Sucked even more: reactions to NPH’s performance

Look, say NPH was unfunny and crap if you want to, but all this stuff about him being racist, insensitive and offensive is just plain dumb.  People either think too much or not enough; they jump to conclusions and make connections that aren’t really there. The complained about him “picking on” the black celebrities in the audience, such as getting David Oyelowo to read out a bad joke about the Annie remake in his exquisite British accent. They called him racist for getting Octavia Spender from the movie The Help, to “help” him look after his glass box. They said he made fun for fat people for telling her she can’t go off to get snacks.

Seriously, people! Get a hold of yourselves! They were jokes! Bad jokes, perhaps, but jokes nonetheless. Did it occur to you that he was just trying to diversify the ceremony given its highly publicized excess of white nominees? Maybe he didn’t even get a choice and was told to do so by organisers, the same people who ensured that there was an abundance of black presenters throughout the evening.

I’m telling you, the offense is misplaced. If you’re going to be offended, be offended because you expected better jokes from NPH, not because he was being insensitive.

Can’t decide if awesome or sucked: Spreading the wealth

For the first time I can remember, every single Best Picture nominee took home at least one award. And this is in an era when there are eight nominees as opposed to the old five. Maybe it’s a reflection of a world where everyone’s a winner these days.

Birdman was of course the biggest winner with four — Best Picture, Director, Original Screenplay and Cinematography. The Grand Budapest Hotel was the second biggest winner as it took home a total of four gongs: three technical awards — Makeup and Hair, Costume Design, Production Design — and Original Score. Whiplash was next with three — Best Supporting Actor for JK Simmons, Editing and Sound Mixing.

The others had one each. American Sniper had Sound Editing. Eddie Redmayne took home Best Actor, the only award for The Theory of Everything. The Imitation Game got Best Adapted Screenplay. Selma got Best Original Song for Glory. And Boyhood had the deserved Best Supporting Actress for Patricia Arquette.

Everyone goes home perhaps not happy, but at least not empty handed. Even getting one of those Lego Oscar statuettes wouldn’t have been too bad.

Awesome: Everything is Awesome!

The most exciting part of the entire evening, and certainly the most scintillating performance in recent Oscars memory, has to be Everything is Awesome from The Lego Movie, as performed by Tegan and Sara and The Lonely Island. I knew the song wasn’t going to win, and they probably did as well, which is why they put in all their efforts in making the performance such an enjoyable one. And let’s face it, the movie should have not only been nominated for Best Animated Feature — it probably should have won it.

Awesome: Lady Gaga being normal and singing The Sound of Music medley

What’s going on with Lady Gaga? First she gets engaged, then she performs with Tony Bennett at the Grammy’s. And now she’s singing a Sound of Music medley at the Oscars? Has she become…conventional? Normal?

Whatever it is, she’s awesome. And her performance was awesome. She sounded like someone who could be singing in leading roles in Disney cartoons.

Sucked: John Travolta

I had a feeling they were going to do something to rectify John Travolta’s flub of Idina Menzel’s name (who has since become Adele Dazeem) at the Oscars last year. But that effort totally back fired with Travolta coming across like a total sleaze and mental case by touching Menzel’s face about four thousand times, or four thousand times too many.

Things got worse when people started pointing out what a douche he also was on the red carpet, when he grabbed Scarlett Johansson’s waist from behind and planted a big wet smooch for no apparent reason. The look she gave to the camera afterward said it all.

Awesome: Glory

Interesting that the musical performances, usually the most boring part of the Oscars, turned out to be the highlights of this year’s ceremony. Common and John Legend’s performance of Glory from Selma was a tour de force, bringing audiences to tears. David Oyelowo was captured with tears streaming all over his face. Oprah of course was crying. And for some reason even Chris Pine had a salty discharge running down his cheek. As my wife said, you never know with these great actors whether it’s genuine!

To top it off, Common and John Legend backed up the performance with one of, if not the best, speech of the night when they captured the award for Best Original Song shortly after. It was clearly prepared in advance, but it sent one of the two strongest messages of the night — the other being Patricia Arquette’s plea for gender equality.

Sucked: Nothing for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

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Take a good look at this photo. It is an ape. Riding a horse. With a gun in his hand. You can’t tell me this is not the best thing ever.

And yet not a single award. It even lost out on its only nomination for Best Visual Effects to Interstellar. Disgrace.

I’m hoping the Academy is doing what it did with the Lord of the Rings trilogy, when they waited for the final film, The Return of the King, to rain down the accolades it deserves. July 2016 is when the third film in the Apes series will be released, so I guess Oscars 2017 will be the year! Bwahahahaha!

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