Friday, January 31, 2014

Short Takes: Oscar Contenders Wrap-Up 2013

Nebraska (dir. Alexander Payne, 2013)

It should come as no surprise that Alexander Payne would eventually return, after a two-film, eleven-year detour, to his home state with a film called Nebraska. The film follows David Grant (Will Forte) as he tries to help his senile father, Woody (Bruce Dern), claim the money he believes he won in a sweepstakes, which means the estranged pair has to take a road trip from Montana to Omaha, Nebraska. The resulting film, shot entirely in black and white, has the feel of a lost work from the 1970s, when filmmakers like Wim Wenders set off for the American Plains to find stories about lost souls. Dern - himself a relic of that era - delivers one of the finest performances of his career, revealing so much about Woody with very little dialogue. Forte, too, demonstrates his dramatic skills, which are quite impressive here. In supporting roles, Oscar-nominated June Squibb is amusing as Woody's feisty wife Kate, and Stacy Keach is terrific as the film's de-facto villain, a former friend of Woody's looking to get a cut of the cash. If the film's narrative feels a little well-worn and cliched, it's enlivened by its rich characters and great performances. B+

Saving Mr. Banks (dir. John Lee Hancock, 2013)

Given that Saving Mr. Banks is Disney's retelling of the process of buying the rights to make Mary Poppins in the early 1960s, it's not really surprising that the film chooses to make this version Disney-friendly and a little white-washed (author P.L. Travers was reluctant to sell Disney the rights, and hated the final movie so much that she refused any further adaptations of her works). To the film's credit, though, it wisely keeps the focus on Travers (Emma Thompson) herself, delving into her past growing up in the Australian Outback with her alcoholic father (a superb Colin Farrell) to make sense of her fierce protectiveness of her writings. Thompson is excellent as usual, as is Tom Hanks as Walt Disney himself. Ultimately, though, what carries the film past a merely-decent script and Hancock's lazy direction are the great performances and the beautiful integration of songs from Mary Poppins. If nothing else, it inspires a great desire to revisit Disney's 1964 classic. B+

August: Osage County (dir. John Wells, 2013)

Full disclosure: I have never seen August: Osage County, Tracy Lett's Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning 2007 play, performed on stage; I've only read the play. So going into the film adaptation, I didn't really have a point of reference for performance of this masterwork of American theatre. Meryl Streep stars as Violet Weston, the pill-popping matriarch of the family that has reunited for patriarch Bev's (Sam Shepard) funeral for a few scorching Oklahoma days. As the minutes go by, the dysfunctional family erupts more and more into vicious takedowns of each other, as secrets are revealed and things fall apart. Of the cast, Streep's verbal sparring with Julia Roberts, who plays the eldest daughter Barbara, is the biggest treat, with Margo Martindale (as Violet's sister Mattie Fae) and Julianne Nicholson (as middle daughter Ivy) doing terrific supporting work. The film's biggest problem, though, is how Wells tries way too hard to make the film seem cinematic, "opening it up" with numerous establishing shots, location changes, and quick editing. Ironically, the film's at its best when it feels the most stage-bound, letting the actors chew on Lett's acrid, cutting dialogue and allowing the performances room to breathe. It's unfortunate that Wells couldn't see what a special thing he had going. C+

Thursday, January 30, 2014

24 @ 24: Postmortem

I'm sorry to say that 24 @ 24, my attempt to watch and write about all eight seasons of 24, is no more. Of course, you're forgiven if you had forgotten that I was even doing the series. I forgot about it, and it's been over a month since I last watched an episode.

So why quit? For one, I just don't think I'm going to have time to get it done in a timely manner. But moreover, I think I just have to admit that the series defeated me. The whole reason I began watching the show was because of its status as one of the important series of the '00s, and I wanted to see how it changed a part of the television landscape. The truth is that it was never a show that really appealed to me to begin with, at least as far as the basic premise goes. Jack Bauer doesn't engage me, and even though there were palpable stakes, they never felt like they really mattered all that much in the episodes that I saw. Outside of the zeitgeist moment it held in the decade, coming as a (fortuitous) direct response to the national conversation and fear of terrorism, I just don't see the series itself as particularly great.

Maybe one day I'll try again, but I doubt it. It just isn't my cup of tea.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Disqualified: "Alone Yet Not Alone" is, Well, Not Alone

If you keep track of Oscar news like I do, then you've probably already heard the news that "Alone Yet Not Alone," a Best Original Song nominee (discussed here) from the film Alone Yet Not Alone, has been disqualified by the AMPAS Board of Governors. It has been revealed that the song's composer, Bruce Broughton, has used his influence as a former member of the Board of Governors to email the music branch to remind them of his submission, which the Board considers a violation of campaign ethics. As Brad Brevet of Rope of Silicone notes, it's interesting that this was considered the violation, and not the fact that the film's Oscar-qualifying run did not have appropriate advertising, which is also a violation of eligibility rules. The song's nomination spot will not replaced, meaning that the remaining four nominees ("Happy," from Despicable Me 2; "Let It Go," from Frozen; "The Moon Song," from Her; "Ordinary Love," from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom) will be the only nominees in the category.

This isn't the first time that a nomination has been rescinded; in fact, it has happened several times in the Academy's history. The most recent example came in 2012, when it was revealed that Tuba Atlantic, a 2011 nominee for Best Live-Action Short, had been shown on Norwegian television in 2010, placing it out of the eligibility period for 2011. Other notable disqualifications include:

- 1992: Uruguay earned a Best Foreign Language Film nomination for A Place in the World, but before voting began it was revealed that the film was actually an Argentinian production, and was judged to not have had sufficient Uruguayan artistic control. It was removed from the final ballot and not replaced; France's Indochine won the Oscar.

- 1972: Nino Rota's score for The Godfather was initially nominated, but was disqualified upon the discovery that portions of the score - including the main theme - were re-used portions of Rota's score for the 1958 film Fortunella. The nomination was replaced by John Addison's score for Sleuth; Limelight won the Oscar, with a score by Charlie Chaplin, Raymond Rasch, and Larry Russell.

Only once has a film ever won an Oscar, only to have it rescinded:

- 1968: Young Americans was announced the winner of Best Documentary feature in April 1969. A few months later, it was revealed that the film had played in 1967, which immediately disqualified it from contention for the 1968 awards. Young Americans was struck from the official list of nominees and winners, and the Oscar was given to the film that received the second-most votes, Journey Into Self. 1968 was also the year that Barbara Streisand (Funny Girl) and Katharine Hepburn (The Lion in Winter) tied for the Best Actress Oscar, so overall it was a pretty dramatic ceremony.

It's disappointing that the nomination for "Alone Yet Not Alone" isn't going to be replaced; it would have been great to see a song from The Great Gatsby take its place. What would you replace it with?

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Top of the Lake (2013)

*Minor spoilers ahead*

I don't know enough about foreign television series to know exactly when it started, but I have noticed that short series about the investigation of a single crime have been prominent in Europe for at least the past decade, and have also slowly been making their way Stateside in recent years. These have probably existed for some time abroad (perhaps someone can let me know in the comments?), but with American remakes such as AMC's The Killing (of the Danish series Forbrydelsen) and FX's The Bridge (of the Danish series Bron) - as well as remakes of British series like NBC's Prime Suspect and FOX's announced Broadchurch - they now seem more popular than ever. It's an interesting format: what would be condensed into a single episode of Law & Order is given room to breathe, and that allows for more character development and more twists and turns. If the show plays its cards right, the result is a gripping, compelling mystery that transcends the crime genre and becomes something more. But it can also easily tip over into an overly-knotty narrative that tries to hard to sell twists that don't necessarily make sense with the characters.

Top of the Lake, a New Zealand-set miniseries that aired on Sundance Channel in the U.S. last year and was co-created by the Jane Campion (The Piano) and Gerard Lee, is a little bit of both of those scenarios. The series begins with Tui (Jacqueline Joe), a 12-year-old girl who attempts to drown herself in the lake that gives the town of Lake Top. Robin (Elisabeth Moss), a detective from Sydney, is called in to assist with the investigation surrounding Tui's pregnancy. From there, Robin explores the darker corners of Lake Top and her own past, including her involvement with Tui's father Matt (Peter Mullan) and her own romantic involvement with his son, Johnno (Thomas M. Wright).

More after the jump.

Sherlock: "The Sign of Three"

*This wasn't really planned, but since the show's seasons (series, whatever) are so short, I'm just going to go ahead and review all three episodes of Sherlock this year. It'll be fun.*

At a certain point, Sherlock was going to have to shake things up. I noted in my review of "The Empty Hearse" that the show was trying new things this year, as that episode placed more emphasis on the Sherlock-John relationship than it had in the past, with the plot-driving mystery sort-of taking a backseat. It was an important step for the show to make: after spending nine hours with Sherlock prior to "The Empty Hearse," the audience needed reason to believe that the self-described "high-functioning sociopath" wasn't just a brilliant asshole, but capable of having some form of human connection, even if it is basic and juvenile.

"The Sign of Three" was an extension of that focus on Sherlock's relationship with John, with the episode unfolding over the course of John's wedding to Mary. Sherlock has been named best man, and much of the episode consists of Sherlock's speech at the reception, in which he manages to insult John and the majority of the other people in the room, turn around and have his most human moment to date in explaining how much John means to him, regales the audience with two seemingly-unrelated stories of mysteries the two have recently worked on, then realizes that a murder will occur before the end of the day. That's a lot of things happening for an episode where all that much isn't really happening.

Once again, those mysteries take a backseat to the episode's emotional core and humorous tone. It's worth noting that, in the show's previous two seasons, the middle episode has often been the weakest of the three. However, the show seems to have figured out how to resolve that problem, and the structural experimentation is a major reason for this episode's success. For one, it finds a way to take the basic structure of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tale it is adapting, The Sign of the Four, and implement it in an interesting and exciting way. By taking two separate cases and connecting them through Sherlock's retelling of the events, the show finds a new angle for presenting the mystery that sets it apart from the preceding episodes. That's not to say that there was something inherently wrong with the way a standard Sherlock episode is structured; procedurals, by nature and name, do follow a certain procedure in their storytelling, and Sherlock is a gussied-up procedural at heart. But off-format episodes do help engage the audience in a new way, which makes for a more enthralling 90 minutes of television.

But once again, the mystery isn't really the heart of this episode, though it was much better integrated into the main plot than "The Empty Hearse"'s terrorist attack. Instead, we get a much better glimpse into how Sherlock is reacting to the change that John's marriage will bring to their relationship, and his deep-seated anxiety about that. I noted at the beginning of this piece (and in last week's review) that any humanizing of Sherlock is welcome, even if it does seem childish at times. Doyle's Sherlock is, in many ways, a proto-anti-hero (stay with me). He was brilliant, yes, but he was also an anti-social, abrasive addict who had trouble connecting with others and harbored an obsession with his nemesis Moriarty that eventually ended in his death. Though Sherlock was ultimately on the "right" side of the moral spectrum, he was a separate type from the majority of literary heroes.

The show, then, has successfully shepherded the character into the modern era, specifically the age of the television anti-hero. However, what makes an anti-hero effective as a character is that no matter how bad they behave, how hazy their morality is, they are still recognizably human and capable of feeling the consequences of their actions. This was a hallmark of Tony Soprano, as he wrestled with his guilt in his dreams and therapist's office, and, more relevantly, of Dr. Gregory House, who balanced his brilliant medical diagnoses with his Vicodin addiction and irascible attitude (House was loosely based on Sherlock Holmes), at least in the first couple of seasons of House. Through the first six episodes of Sherlock, however, the show hadn't offered much in the way of humanity in Sherlock, making him a fun character to spend an hour and a half with, but as the time accumulated and his dickish behavior became more hurtful to those around him, it became harder to really root for the guy. And given the way "The Reichenbach Fall" ended, and Sherlock's subsequent return in "The Empty Hearse," for him to continue being terrible to everyone would have been disastrous to the audience reception of the character.

It's to the show's credit that they've found a way to make this influx of humanity organic to the relationship of the characters, rooting Sherlock's surprisingly gushy speech in the history between the characters that the audience has been privy to. That, ultimately, is what makes "The Sign of Three" such an unusual and excellent episode of Sherlock. The mystery is there, yes, but this is the first episode to truly spend the bulk of its running time celebrating the characters, let them bounce off each other, and ultimately give the audience greater insight into who they are and what they're capable of.

P.S. All of this and I didn't even mention that there's a whole segment of this episode where Sherlock and John are very drunk and try to solve a case where a woman believes she went on a date with a ghost. It's the most sitcom-y thing this show has done yet, but it was really fun.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Short Thoughts on the 56th Annual Grammy Awards

Full disclosure: I didn't watch the Grammys this year, so I don't have anything to say about the performances or the ceremony itself. This is, instead, solely going to be some brief thoughts about the winners of the General Field awards. For a full list of winners, click here. And if there are any performances that I should have seen, let me know in the comments.

"Get Lucky," Daft Punk featuring Pharrell Williams

In retrospect, this one seemed like an obvious win: "Royals" was the debut single from a young artist and those hardly win here, "Blurred Lines" was too controversial, and "Radioactive" probably wasn't "real rock" enough (whatever that means) for certain blocs of voters. As for "Locked Out of Heaven," I imagine there are still a number of people waiting for Bruno Mars to really prove himself, even though Unorthodox Jukebox was a legitimately great album and a confident step forward in his development as an artist, and "Locked Out of Heaven" is one of the best Police songs that Sting probably wished he came up with. But "Get Lucky" was the undeniable hit of the summer, even if it never made it to #1: pretty much everyone with any sort of music career covered it, and I doubt there's a soul on this planet that doesn't want to get down and boogie when that opening bass lick comes in. Similar to "Rolling in the Deep" two years ago, it just seems unfathomable that anything else could have won.

Random Access Memories, Daft Punk

This one seemed wide open until the start of the show, when I predicted it to win this category a few days ago I did so on the assumption that its past-meets-future hybridization of disco and electronica would be more appealing than the "safe" pop of Sara Bareilles or the Taylor Swift Law of Adoration, which requires everyone to fete her wherever she goes (they broke that law this year, as she was completely shut-out, and her wrath is probably forthcoming). And despite the "year of hip-hop" narrative that was completely made-up by those of us trying to find the logic in Grammy Logic, there was never a real chance that Macklemore & Ryan Lewis or Kendrick Lamar would take the night's top prize. It's tough to call Daft Punk's win an embrace of electronic dance music (EDM) by the Grammys, since the album is so different from the majority of EDM currently out there. But who would have thought that Daft Punk would ever be pop darlings?

"Royals," Lorde (Ella Yelich-O'Connor and Joel Little, songwriters)

This was Lorde's best shot at a win, since a new, young talent with an obviously bright future would be catnip to voters (she also won Best Solo Pop Performance for the song). Of course, "Same Love" was a serious possibility, but instead another year has come and gone without a rap song winning this particular category, which has never happened in the history of the award. Speaking of hip-hop…

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis

Look, I make a point to not get too political on this blog. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis - particularly, Macklemore - have already inspired a legion of thinkpieces about race, sexuality, and appropriation in hip hop, and I understand a lot of the arguments on both sides of the debate (I don't agree with all of them, but I understand the reasoning behind them). I like the guy. I don't think he's one of the best rappers ever or anything, but he's reasonably good and frequently enjoyable to listen to. And like I said, I understand why he's considered problematic, and I agree with that assessment. But what bothers me recently about the debate is sudden influx of hatred thrown his way for winning every rap category he was nominated in this year, including Best Rap Album (where he was up against Drake, Jay Z, Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West*). All of these center on how Macklemore's victories are inherent of his white privilege, and evidence that he doesn't deserve them.

The problem is that these arguments put the blame on Macklemore for winning, as if he gave himself the Grammys based on his own voting. But that's not the case; these arguments are pointing blame at the wrong person. Instead, the focus of these arguments should be on The Recording Academy and their long, problematic history with rewarding hip-hop at the Grammys, which, in turn, is a symptom of the music industry's own general attitudes toward hip-hop as a form of creative and commercial music. It's the same problem with the arguments made year after year that the Oscars don't reward enough people of color; that's not necessarily just the fault of AMPAS but rather endemic of a much-larger representation problem in the film industry. Yeah, it's easier to just put on the blame on a single person/institution, because scapegoating has always been the easiest way to "solve" these issues. But doing so oversimplifies a complex problem, one that stretches much farther than one guy from Seattle who won a few arbitrary awards.

By the way, the only other instances of a hip-hop artist winning Best New Artist are Arrested Development (1993) and Lauryn Hill (1999). So the fact that Grammys even picked a hip-hop act over, say, Kacey Musgraves or Ed Sheeran should be considered a minor victory for the genre anyway (no disrespect for either Musgraves or Sheeran intended).

*Many people have cited Yeezus as the deserving winner of Best Rap Album. I obviously think the album is a terrific achievement, and that Kanye made an album that is very much unlike anything that mainstream hip-hop has ever produced (like Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music, it's intentionally abrasive and confrontational in a sonically displeasing way). But let's take a moment to look at the harsh truth: there's no way an album like that would have ever won a Grammy, even if Adele had made it. It simply does not appeal to everyone, and with Grammy voters broad appeal matters (not to mention many were probably turned off by the concept). Really, we should all be thanking our lucky stars that Yeezus was even nominated, instead of a more accessible, lesser work.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: Seven Samurai (1954)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 Poll Rank: #17 (tied with Persona)

Despite the conventional wisdom that gargantuan running times are an audience repellant, epics have been a cornerstone to the development of cinema as both a commercial enterprise and a creative exercise. Some of the most popular films of all time, such as Gone with the Wind, Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, and Titanic all clocked in at over three hours, and critically-acclaimed films such as The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly and Giant also pushed the limits of audiences' bladders. Of course, not every film should be so long, but history shows that audiences are willing to see epics, and the films themselves have often been cinematic achievements worthy of discussion.

At 207 minutes (three hours and twenty-seven minutes), Seven Samurai is legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's longest film, as well as his most ambitious. The film follows the plight of a 16th-century village that will be raided by bandits for their food and more. To defend themselves, three of the villagers seek the help of masterless samurai (ronin), since they will be the most willing to help. The seven, led by Kambei (Takashi Shimura) and hotheaded Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), train the villagers in combat, and soon the showdown against the bandits finally arrives.

Seven Samurai has been cited as one of the most influential epics of all time, and for good reason. It features one of the most prominent examples of the hero being introduced through a separate act of daring, as Kambei corners a thief who has taken a child hostage and then rescues the child before the three villagers approach him. This is an approach that has been followed by any number of later action films, perhaps most notably the James Bond films. Both Steven Spielberg and George Lucas have described Kurosawa as an inspiration and influence, with Lucas's Star Wars even being a loose adaptation of Kurosawa's 1958 film The Hidden Fortress. And Seven Samurai itself was adapted into the Hollywood Western The Magnificent Seven, which in turn spawned a number of other "gathering of heroes for an epic battle" films.

Kurosawa's greatest achievement with this film is how despite its epic length and scope, it maintains a sense of intimacy. The film takes the time to introduce each character, and gives each of the seven samurai enough shading that the audience forms an attachment to them. Depth is given to the villagers, too, as the audience is fully invested in the final showdown. As these things go, there's an awareness that not everyone is going to get out alive. And when they do fall, the audience feels their loss.

This is perhaps best exemplified in the following shot:

The camera frames the three survivors in the vertical spaces between the graves of the fallen samurai, with the graves of the villagers between them on the horizontal plane. It's a simple image, but it immediately evokes the ambitious scope of the film by including so much within the frame while still highlighting its emotional focus in the way the survivors solemnly look upon the graves. The shot feels at once grandiose and small, epic and intimate. That Kurosawa stretches this duality over the course of the entire film is a testament to his considerable talents, and the film's deserved place in the cinematic canon.

On the next Sight & Sound Sunday: La Jetée (1962)

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The 56th Annual Grammy Awards: Predicting the Winners

Tomorrow night is Grammy night, the music industry's biggest honor where hundreds of artists gather to perform an enormous concert on CBS, and also maybe hand out a few awards or something. Yes, the Grammys are the easiest award show to pick on. They try way too hard to prove their relevancy in an industry that is expansive in ways no other facet of showbiz is, and musical taste is so much more varied from person-to-person than just about anything else. So every year pretty much dumps on the Grammys for what they nominate, what they reward, and mostly who they failed to acknowledge, proclaiming that it's a broken ceremony that's completely out-of-touch with what America/Twitter/the people want. Yet year after year, we keep crawling back.

I will say this for the Grammys: even if your favorites aren't among the nominees, you owe it to yourself to check out who was. If nothing else, these nominations are a great tool for exploring new music, and can be seen less as "these are the best songs/albums from this year" and more as "hey, check out this thing you might have missed." That's what I do, at least, and through that I've been introduced to some great stuff that I wouldn't have listened to otherwise.

So here are my predictions for who should win the Grammy in a handful of top categories, and who I think will end up taking home the prizes. Of course, predicting the Grammys is like trying to predict who will be President of the United States in 2052, so take these with a gram of salt. Sound off on what you think in the comments.

Predictions begin after the break.

Friday, January 24, 2014

"'Norbit' Noms": How "Bad" Movies Get Oscar Nominations

*I use quotations around "bad" in the title because, of course, there are people who enjoy several of the titles discussed in this post. Not me, but people.*

Over at The Film Experience, Andrew recently wrote about the reactions to nominations for critically-reviled films, especially when other films that were beloved missed out. It's an excellent dissection of the situation, and he makes the vital point that we should celebrate the fact that the Academy will look outside the Best Picture box when rewarding certain craft achievements. Yes, it's easy to make the comparison that The Lone Ranger earned two nominations this year when Blue is the Warmest Color was completely shut out, or that Three 6 Mafia has won more Oscars than Alfred Hitchcock. But that doesn't mean that they weren't worthy of consideration in those categories.

Here's a great example: the 2007 Best Visual Effects category. The nominees were:

The Golden Compass

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End


Now, I wouldn't go to bat for any of these as particularly great movies. Transformers had some terrific "robots-go-smash!" pleasures, but was marred by complicated, nonsensical mythology. That latter problem plagued At World's End as well, and the PotC franchise was feeling tired by that point. The less said about The Golden Compass, the better. And critics generally agreed on these points: the Metacritic scores for The Golden Compass, At World's End, and Transformers were (out of 100) 51, 50, and 61, respectively. Decent, but not what would be associated with the phrase "Academy Award nominated."

Yet it's important to remember that Best Visual Effects is not an endorsement for the entire film; it's not like the Academy was really calling Transformers one of the very best films of 2007. This is going to sound silly and super-obvious, but the nomination is solely recognizing the achievement in visual effects. Whatever one thinks of Transformers as a whole, you have to admit that the effects were certainly among the best of that year. The same goes for At World's End: the effects were exciting and impressive, and definitely worthy of the nomination. (Of course, The Golden Compass ended up winning, for reasons that I simply cannot explain)

It's generally in the technical categories that these films score their Oscar nominations. More specifically, Best Original Song, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Make-Up and Hairstyling, and Best Visual Effects are where you see "bad" films show up the most often. But the qualities that are nominated are sometimes the best parts of those films. Sure, Adam Sandler's 2006 comedy Click was terrible, but the old-age makeup that landed it its sole Oscar nomination was worthy of the recognition (I won't say the same for Norbit, which earned one the next year). 2008's Wanted - the Angelina Jolie-starring movie about hit men - won't be on many people's best-of lists for that year, but the nomination it picked up for Best Sound Editing highlighted the film's excellent use of sound effects.

So ultimately, I agree with Andrew's piece: it's not fair to judge any particular Oscar nomination as an endorsement for the quality of the entire film (accept for the ones that actually are, such as Best Picture or Best Animated Feature). I personally would rather see stellar work from an otherwise awful movie be recognized over non-noteworthy work from a Best Picture nominee just because the latter film is considered better overall.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The 2013 Documentary Feature Oscar Nominees

It's not very often that I have the opportunity to see all of the nominees in a particular Oscar category before that year's ceremony. While I do actively seek out all of the nominees in the categories that I regularly cover (Picture, Director, acting, and screenplays), I usually have to catch up later on other categories such as Foreign Language Film or Animated Feature. However, this year I was able to see all five nominees for Best Documentary Feature, and I wanted to celebrate that fact by diving into the nominees and investigating what made them the Academy's choice for a year that was remarkably strong for documentaries. How strong? Fantastic documentaries like Stories We Tell (previously discussed), Blackfish, The Crash Reel, God Loves Uganda and The Armstrong Lie were all left out.

Here are the five films that did make the cut:

Cutie and the Boxer (dir. Zachary Heinzerling)

Take it from someone who knows, two creative-types in a relationship together can push the limits of their art and the limits of their patience for each other. Cutie and the Boxer focuses on Ushio Shinohara and Noriko Shinohara, artists who have been married for over 40 years. Whereas Ushio was an avant-garde rising star in the New York art world of the late 1960s and Noriko was an art student, he now finds himself struggling to salvage his legacy while her autobiographical drawings of "Cutie and Bullie" are becoming a breakout sensation. Though there's plenty of footage of the artists at work, the film is more about how these two have maintained their relationship and pushed themselves both creatively and personally. It's a remarkably poignant glimpse of how two people can bring out the best in one another, even when they're at their worst. (Streaming on Netflix Instant Watch and Amazon Instant Video)

The Act of Killing (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer, Christie Cynn, and Anonymous)

One of the most talked-about films of 2013, The Act of Killing finds the filmmakers approaching Indonesian gangsters Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, who were among the top agents in the genocide of Indonesian "communists" in the 1960s (more about that here), and allowing them to enthusiastically retell - and cinematically recreate - some of their "greatest" murders. What's remarkable about this deeply disturbing film is the way that it ultimately asks the audience to question the very reliability of documentary filmmaking and cinema in general, as these men revel in the opportunity to share what they've done and explain the influence of pop culture on how they carried out some of their atrocities. Yet the film never condemns nor celebrates these men and their actions, which sparked a lot of controversy over the film's intentions. This much is certain: it's the most difficult film in this crop to watch, but it's also the most rewarding. (Streaming on Netflix Instant Watch and Amazon Instant Video)

Dirty Wars (dir. Rick Rowley)

In terms of it's subject matter, Dirty Wars is an absolutely essential documentary: journalist Jeremy Scahill investigates the troubling uncover dealings of the U.S. military in Asia, particularly the cover-ups around the deaths of civilians in Afghanistan by U.S. soldiers, the deaths of tribesmen in Yemen by U.S. missile strike, and the assassination of American citizen Anwar al-Awaki. The ties that bind these events are the secretive Joint Special Operations Command, an organization that both President Bush and President Obama has utilized in the War on Terror. And there's a lot of important and jaw-dropping information presented here, and when it focuses on this the film is a strong critique of how the War on Terror is both a failure and a moral quagmire. The problem is that Scahill's presence on-camera often robs the film of its power, as he pulls the focus away from the information itself and more onto his quest to find it. (Streaming on Netflix Instant Watch and Amazon Instant Video)

The Square (dir. Jehane Noujaim)

Egypt became the center of the world's attention in early 2011 when a populist uprising - centered in Cairo's Tahrir Square - managed to force President Hosni Mubarak out of office and stage the first free popular election for president in Egypt's history. As The Square demonstrates, though, that result didn't come easily, and what happened afterward was a struggle that many of the protestors could not have anticipated. Filmed during the revolution and featuring incredible on-the-ground footage, as well as interviews with a number of government/military officials and activists, the film offers a fascinating and powerful glimpse at the mechanics of popular demonstration. What's unexpectedly brilliant, though, is how it seems to comment on the effectiveness of such unorganized protest: when there's no unifying agenda or plan for the future, it's easy for such movements to be divided and exploited by other forces. It's at once inspiring and sobering. (Streaming on Netflix Instant Watch)

20 Feet from Stardom (dir. Morgan Neville)

Their voices are on some of the greatest rock records of all time, but very few people know their names. 20 Feet from Stardom, though, puts a number of background singers in the spotlight, highlighting their contributions to the work of some of rock's biggest stars. Darlene Love, the seminal voice of a large number of Phil Spector records (most of which she never got credit for), dominates a large chunk of the film, but her story is equal parts inspiring and heartbreaking, and she was recently inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. But that doesn't diminish the segments with the other singers, and to watch them sing and perform and tell their stories is uplifting. If the film has any weak points, it's that it doesn't spend enough time exploring the racial implications of the subjects (many of the background singers are black, while the artists they're supporting are often white). That said, it's a crowd-pleasing, wonderful film that will make you want to listen to the classics in a whole new way. (Streaming on Amazon Instant Video)

If I were voting in the Academy, my ballot would look like this:

1. The Square
2. 20 Feet from Stardom
3. The Act of Killing
4. Cutie and the Boxer
5. Dirty Wars

"Just tell us who's going to win the Oscar, Jason, god." Well, the Academy went with a music-related doc last year (Searching for Sugar Man), so if they're still in that mode then 20 Feet from Stardom is possible. In fact, I would even go so far to say that it's the most likely to win, since overtly-political docs don't often win here and the most critically-acclaimed of these, The Act of Killing, may be too difficult for a lot of voters to sit through (I don't mean that as a slight; I had trouble watching it myself). However, I wouldn't be surprised if The Square snuck up and pulled the upset as well.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

"Bob's Burgers": The Oddball of FOX's Animation Block

My girlfriend and I have been mainlining the entire series of Bob's Burgers lately, with the exception of season three (seriously, get on that, Netflix, god). The show made a quiet debut in 2011, taking on a spot in FOX's Sunday night animation block that had, in recent years, played host to such (un-)notable shows as Sit Down, Shut Up and Napoleon Dynamite. It was a spot that FOX had had a lot of difficulty programming, namely in how whatever occupied that timeslot would be the network's only animated show that was not created by Seth McFarlane (Family Guy, American Dad, the now-departed The Cleveland Show) or Matt Groening (The Simpsons). Though it debuted to strong ratings, those numbers slipped over the course of the season, and it wasn't until the show's critical acclaim made it one of the best-reviewed shows on television that FOX began having more confidence in it. The show is now in its fourth season, and a fifth has already been ordered.

So what makes Bob's Burgers so different? For one, it feels like the true heir to The Simpsons' legacy. It's true that the shows have different sensibilities: Bob's Burgers doesn't attempt the kind of high-wire satire that The Simpsons often do, and in terms of the humor itself, it's not as laugh-out-loud funny as classic-era Simpsons (though in fairness, nothing really could be). But the show does, like The Simpsons, center around the family - burger cook Bob (voice of H. Jon Benjamin, whom I can't really explain why but I could listen to his voice all day, and practically do between this and Archer), his wife Linda (John Roberts), and his kids Tina (Dan Mintz), Gene (Eugene Mirman), and Louise (Kristen Schaal) - and mixes its humor with a sweetness that doesn't tip over into treacle. Unlike the families of McFarlane's shows, which are built around a marriage that, at least in Family Guy's case, likely qualifies as an abusive relationship, the Belcher family of Bob's Burgers is a family that genuinely likes each other, much like early Simpsons (though The Simpsons is still fine, it has pretty much run out of ideas at this point in its historically long run).

Of course, it helps that the voice cast is so immensely talented at bringing these characters to life. As Sonia Saraiya wrote at The A.V. Club last year, the show is essentially all about Tina, and so much of this comes from Mintz's indispensable voice work as the oldest child facing the horror of adolescence. Similarly, Mirman is an absolute blast, and just about every one of his lines is pure gold. The same goes for Linda, whose lines Roberts can make hilarious just from the inflection (like the "little babies" in this clip). And, of course, Schaal and Benjamin - both well-known before the show - are great as the youngest, chaotic child and Bob, respectively. Then there are the guest voices: Kevin Kline, Aziz Ansari, Megan Mullaly, and Sarah Silverman have all appeared in multiple episodes, among many others.

I apologize for not having too much to say about it at this point. But I do highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys more grown-up animation that doesn't rely on stoner humor (the majority of Adult Swim) or racist/sexist/homophobic humor (any Seth McFarlane venture).

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

"Hustle"-d, or: An Appreciation of Bradley Cooper

This post is coming in response not only to Bradley Cooper's recent Oscar nomination - his second - in Best Supporting Actor for his role in American Hustle, but also to the news today that he would be starring in the latest Broadway revival of The Elephant Man this fall. The role of John Merrick is one that he is apparently very passionate about, having performed it at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in 2012 as well as for a 30-minute senior thesis. Unlike David Lynch's 1980 film adaptation, in which John Hurt had heavy makeup applied to him, Cooper will be suggesting Merrick's deformities through the way he moves his body. It also won't be Cooper's first appearance on Broadway, as he previously starred in Three Days of Rain with Julia Roberts and Paul Rudd in 2006.

Here's the thing: even three years ago, if you had told me I would be writing a blog post about great Bradley Cooper performances, I probably definitely would have laughed in your face. And it actually was suggested to me; as Limitless was making its debut in March 2011, a friend recommended the film to me on Facebook (shameless plug: like TEJ here!). I still haven't see it yet (sorry), but I can say that I was floored by the intensity he brought to Silver Linings Playbook in 2012. I still think he was the MVP of that film, and his performance was much more astonishing than that of his co-star, Best Actress Oscar winner Jennifer Lawrence, if only because I was already aware of what Lawrence could do. It surprised me that not only was he Oscar-nominated for the role, but that I was happy to see him nominated.

One year later, he's nominated again, this time for American Hustle. He's actually even better here, as the tightly-wound FBI agent Richie DiMaso, a man who - like SLP's Pat - is constantly on the verge of a psychotic break. This, so far, has seemed to be the type of character Cooper is best at, and he completely owns these roles in both films. I would even go so far as to say that he's the MVP of American Hustle as well, providing a jolt of tension anytime he's on screen (for what it's worth, I'm still flip-flopping between him and Christian Bale for the film's best performance).

The common denominator in those two films, of course, is director David O. Russell, and it may be that he's the one who gets the best work out of Cooper. I doubt that's the case: he had a great part in The Place Beyond the Pines earlier this year, even though it wasn't exceptionally well-developed. However, I'm genuinely impressed with his recent performances, and with his return to the stage, hopefully he'll avoid the stupid frat comedies that made him a star (The Hangover) and push himself with more diverse and challenging roles.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Sherlock Returns: "The Empty Hearse"

*Minor spoilers for the series ahead*

In 2010, enjoying considerable success in both Great Britain and the United States after taking over showrunning duties on Doctor Who, Stephen Moffat teamed up with actor/writer Mark Gatiss to resurrect another famous figure in British pop culture: Sherlock Holmes, the famous detective of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's stories. Sherlock, which aired its first three installments in 2010 on BBC in Britain and as part of PBS' "Masterpiece Mystery" in the US, brought Holmes into the 21st century, seeing him serve as a consultant with the London Metropolitan Police Service to help them solve the crimes that seem unsolvable. It's not that Sherlock-type characters had been missing from the television landscape: there were no shortage of detective shows that drew influence from Doyle's tales (CBS' CSI immediately comes to mind), and FOX's House was a spin on the sleuth as a doctor rather than detective. But simply put, there hadn't been a proper retelling of these stories in some time.

More after the jump.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

In a perverse way, Leonardo DiCaprio was born to play the role of Jordan Belfort, the real-life "wolf of Wall Street" who used a number of illegal methods to take his financial firm, Stratton Oakmont, to the top in the 1980s and 1990s. DiCaprio's face still maintains its youthful look; for a man who's nearing 40, he still looks like he's just beginning to age. That youthfulness plays a big role here, because it gives him a "would I lie to you?" look of snake-oil sleaze, and as a result you - like the thousands of employees and everyday people he conned - can't help but believe him. Or, more accurately, you almost can't help buying the bullshit that he's selling. As The Wolf of Wall Street shows, Belfort has plenty of bullshit to spare.

The film follows Belfort from his arrival on Wall Street to his "downfall," his imprisonment for a few short years that was then followed by a successful career as a motivational speaker. In between, we see how Belfort and his associates - namely Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), his right-hand man - as they conduct their business. A business, of course, that mostly amounts to scamming people into buying stocks that are essentially worthless, exploiting as many legal loopholes as they can find, hiring prostitutes and then going home to their wives, and taking more drugs - particularly cocaine and quaaludes - than the human body should be able to handle. Even when the FBI - led by Agent Denham (Kyle Chandler) - comes knocking at his door, Belfort refuses to give in, believing that there's no possible way that he and the company could be taken down.

It's easy to see why director Martin Scorsese would be drawn to a character like Belfort. The man has made a terrific filmography about morally-inhibited men doing what they have to to get by. But Belfort is something else altogether, a monster who has no interest in "getting by;" he wants to have it all. Scorsese is fully willing to dive into this heart of darkness, and the film begins with Belfort having already lost his soul, then flashing back not to the moment where he sells it to the devil so much as ties it to a cinder block at forces it out the 70th floor window. For a film that stretches nearly three hours, Scorsese does a remarkable job at making the sickening bacchanalia bearable, and this is thanks to a few choices moments when the film, unfolding mostly from Belfort's point-of-view, removes itself from him and takes the perspective of the audience. The Wolf of Wall Street is very much a satire, but it's these moments when the film steps back and shows us what a pitiful, disgusting bastard Belfort is that it makes its point: we in the audience should be appalled not only that this was the culture of Wall Street, but that it still is to this day.

Of course, there are quite a number of actors whose reputations make the satire work that much better. Besides the aforementioned DiCaprio, who truly gives the best performance of his career here, Hill is a marvel as Donnie. There's an off-the-cuff feel to his portrayal, and much of his performance does feel like it was born from his improv more than anything else, but the way he plays Donnie as an asshole looking for a career to justify his behavior makes him the ideal candidate for Belfort's sidekick. Similarly, Matthew McConaughey absolutely owns his one scene as Belfort's mentor, playing a character who is essentially Dallas from Magic Mike if he had chosen business school over stripping. Margot Robbie is terrific as Belfort's second wife Naomi, a woman who's in love with the lifestyle he provides but can barely stand the monster that he is. Of all the characters in the film, only Chandler's Agent Denham has any redeeming qualities, and he's a delight in his pursuit to take Belfort down.

The Wolf of Wall Street is a film that has stirred up quite a controversy since its release, namely around whether the film glorifies or condemns the activities onscreen. But Scorsese's film, it seems, falls on the latter side without actually doing so. The truth is this: Belfort got off easy. He suffered very little - if any, really - consequences for his actions, and never once gave any thought to the victims of his illicit doings. In fact, more than anything, the real Belfort actually gained from his punishment. Scorsese's film wants you to be mad as hell about that. I know I was. A-

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Her (2013)

Before even knowing the premise of the film, Her announces itself as something completely different with the descriptor "a Spike Jonze love story." Jonze, the acclaimed director of Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Where the Wild Things Are, has made a career out of using his light science-fiction and fantasy stories to examine human nature, from the creative process to childhood longing. So it should come as no surprise that Her takes on a rather outré premise, but the result is his most intimate film to date, a funny and inventive examination on human connection in a world that's becoming increasingly more removed.

Her concerns Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), a writer of "hand-written letters" (he speaks, a programs writes for him in the handwriting of the customer) who has recently gone through a divorce. He's depressed and anti-social, the latter coming easy in a near-future Los Angeles where everyone is always plugged into their devices, which are essentially more evolved versions of smartphones consisting of an earpiece and wallet-like interface. When he downloads a new OS that can develop its own personality, that OS becomes Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johansson), whom Theodore has an immediate rapport with. Soon enough, they're in love.

A premise that outlandish - a number of people have dubbed the film "the one where a man falls in love with Siri" - requires a hefty dose of suspension of disbelief. Luckily, just about every aspect of Her completely sells the world of the film. Jonze's vision of the future isn't too far from the present we live in: devices that organize everything for us, with all of our information in one place, and most people huddled into them, hardly having to interact with other human beings. There's a subtlety to the decoration of Theodore's apartment and the costuming choices - finding inspiration in the past rather than "futuristic" duds - that make this future that much more believable. Hoyte Van Hoytema's soft cinematography give the film an almost photographic feel, as if we are looking back at a fond memory.

It's the actors, along with Jonze's rich and intelligent script, that really make the film soar. Phoenix has built a career out of playing volatile, unstable characters, the most recent example being his Freddie Quell in last year's The Master. Here, however, he shows a new vulnerability that he hasn't really been able to express in the past. In his hands, Theodore is a meek, wounded man, unable to come out of his shell - or rather his own head - and it's a remarkably tender performance. Amy Adams, as his best friend Amy, also turns in one of her strongest performances, a beautiful foil for Theodore and providing the film with the necessary connection for Jonze to make his thesis. Johansson, though, is perhaps the most stunning. For a film about a man in love with an operating system to work, the voice of that system has to be affecting and human despite not being, you know, human. And Johansson, a remarkably talented actress who has always been underrated, proves that she is more than capable of the task, inflecting Samantha's voice with rich emotion that helps her and Phoenix completely sell the characters' very real relationship.

Which, ultimately, is what Her strives to examine. This is a film about relationships, how love begins, how it ends, and how we carry on when those ends eventually arrive. And it does so with intimate consideration and hopeful optimism, a genuine belief in our ability to love and recover and find the relationships - romantic or otherwise - that truly matter. For a film that is about a man who, as Theodore's ex-wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) notes, is in love with his computer, Her is achingly, beautifully human. A+

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Nuttiness of Best Original Song

If you keep up with the Academy Awards frequently, then you'll know that the Best Original Song category isn't quite what it used to be. Sure, it's always been a little bit insane, a place where movies that otherwise would not be considered Oscar contenders - Ghostbusters, The Omen, and Armageddon are a few examples - can become nominees, even winners. But in recent years - let's say the past 15 - the category has become more and more of an odd dumping ground, in some years barely even justifying its existence (case in point: 2011, when there were two - two! - nominees).

Bret McKenzie, 2011 winner for "Man or Muppet" from The Muppets

There's a reason for this, of course. Nowadays, more films utilize pre-existing songs - namely pop hits - for key musical moments, most likely because it's cheaper and easier to buy the rights to a song than it is to pay someone to write brand-new material. There are still movies that do use mostly newly-written songs, with Disney leading the way on that front. But the truth is there just aren't that many movies that bother to use original material.

However, that's not to say that the category is useless. The problem with the category itself isn't that it doesn't have enough options - indeed, there were 75 eligible songs this year - but rather that the songs that earn nominations are usually a bizarre hodgepodge of things that no one expected. This branch usually plays it safe, yes, meaning that original songs from musicals often do well here, as do mid-tempo songs by well-known artists. But there are times when it doesn't: in the past 15 years, there have been two rap songs that were winners ("Lose Yourself" from 8 Mile and "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp" from Hustle & Flow), as well as two foreign language songs ("Al Otro Lado Del Rio" from The Motorcycle Diaries and "Jai Ho" from Slumdog Millionaire). Then there are the out-of-left-field choices, like the nomination for "Loin de Paname" from Paris 36 in 2009 or "I Need to Wake Up" from An Inconvenient Truth winning in 2006.

When you look back at the history of this category, especially in recent years, one thing becomes certain: perhaps more than any other branch of the Academy, the voters in the music categories operate by their own set of logic. They'll pick some great songs ("Falling Slowly" from Once winning in 2007), but then ignoring others ("The Wrestler," Bruce Springsteen's song from The Wrestler, failed to be nominated in 2008). And, in a way, this year is a perfect example of Original Song Logic.

First off, there's "Alone Yet Not Alone," from the film Alone Yet Not Alone. This is an example of the way-out-of-left-field nomination, as the film itself - from a small, Christian-based company - only received a one-week qualifying run back in October. The most likely explanation for its inclusion is that the song's composer, Bruce Broughton, is a former member of the Academy's Board of Governors, which probably appealed to a significant portion of the music branch. On top of that, it's a very maudlin, dull song - right in the safe zone.

Other "safe" choices are "Let It Go" from Frozen and "Ordinary Love" from Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom. Disney is no stranger to this category - since 1989 Disney films have been nominated, by my count, 27 times - and "Let It Go" is such a showstopping number that there was never any doubt that it would be nominated (and most likely win). U2, meanwhile, has been previously nominated as well, for "The Hands That Built America" from 2002's Gangs of New York. Neither of these songs are particularly challenging, and both fit well within the context of their respective films.

"Happy," from Despicable Me 2, is a bit of an odd choice in just how much of a pop song it is. That sounds a little disingenuous, since the history of this category is filled with pop songs that would go on to major radio success. However, that hasn't necessarily the direction that the music branch has gone in in recent years. That being said, it does seem appropriate for Pharrell Williams' year of domination that he become an Oscar nominee as well.

Finally, there's "The Moon Song," from Her. I was genuinely surprised (in a good way) at the number of nominations the film was able to procure, especially this gentle, loose song by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Spike Jonze, the film's writer/director. There's really a lot that I personally love about this song, both by itself and how perfectly it fits in context in the film. Yet it's an odd choice because of how counter-intuitive it seems; it just doesn't seem like the kind of song that gets nominated for an Academy Award.

Which, when you think about it, may just make it the perfect example of an Academy-Award-nominated song.

What do you think of this year's nominees and the category itself?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

2013 Oscar Nominations

Merry Christmas, Oscar lovers!

Yes, it's our Christmas morning, where we wrap our heads around the terrific, baffling, and always-intriguing presents that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bestows upon us. There are quite a handful of surprises this year, but also a lot of expected selections. You can find the full list of nominees here at my Academy Awards page.

Excuse the messiness of these thoughts; I jotted them down as they came to me so they're very discombobulated.

  • Last year, David O. Russell's Silver Linings Playbook became the first film since Reds (1981) to score a nomination in each acting category. American Hustle accomplished the same feat this year.
  • Overall, Gravity and American Hustle lead all films with 10 nominations each, followed by 12 Years a Slave with 9.
  • Impressively, The Grandmaster - Hong Kong's finalist for Best Foreign Language Film - scored two nominations but didn't make it into the aforementioned category. Wong Kar-wai's biopic of Ip Man was nominated for Best Costume Design and Best Cinematography.
  • Proof that the Academy loves old-age makeup: Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa is officially an Oscar nominee, for Best Makeup and Hairstyling. Other "wha?" films: The Lone Ranger and Lone Survivor.
More thoughts after the jump.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

2013 Razzie Nominations

The Golden Raspberry Awards - which "honor" the worst cinema had to offer in the past year - announced their annual nominees today, as is there tradition of going just before the Oscars (the ceremony will also be the day before the Oscars). And, as is expected, the face of the Razzies this year is once again Adam Sandler, whom I personally have a terrible allergy towards. I'm sure he's a decent guy in real life, but his films - I mean, I'm pretty sure he doesn't even try anymore, and yet he notches millions of dollars every time anyway. That just…when there are true talents that struggle to get their projects off the ground…I know it's a business and the general public doesn't necessarily embrace challenging, passionate filmmaking, but still.

(I will concede that Sandler isn't completely terrible - Punch Drunk Love was a smart utilization of his talents, and I rather liked him in Funny People as well. Though I realize I'm one of the few people, apparently, who liked Funny People at all.)

Anyway, most of these are relatively easy targets, such as box-office flops The Lone Ranger and After Earth, as well as intentionally-dumb comedies like Scary Movie 5 and Movie 43 and the requisite Tyler Perry films, in this case, Tyler Perry's A Madea Christmas and Tyler Perry's Temptation: Confessions of a Marriage Counselor. Similarly, the acting categories are littered with previous Razzie punching bags, including Sandler, who could win a third consecutive Worst Actor prize. Though we have to ask what's worse: being recognized by the Razzies for being a terrible movie, or being really bad but not bad enough to be recognized by a group who's sole purpose is to "honor" bad movies (looking your way, R.I.P.D.)?

I also get that these are supposed to be humorous, but it's still kind of disappointing that they went mostly for the low-hanging fruit.

A full list of nominees can be found after the jump.

Nominations for the 2013 Oscars Announced Tomorrow

Jennifer Lawrence needn't look so surprised; she's very likely on her way to her third Oscar nomination in the past four years. She's even a possibility to win - the narrative right now is that Best Supporting Actress is her vs. Lupita Nyong'o - and if she does, she'll break Luise Rainer's decades-old record as the youngest actor to win multiple Academy Awards (Rainer - who just turned 104 years young - won back-to-back Best Actress Oscars in 1936 and 1937, the latter coming when she was 28).

In any case, the nominations announcement will be streaming live on the Academy's website at 8:30 A.M. EST, and will be presented by Chris Hemsworth and Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs. At some point later in the day, I'll have the full list of nominees up in the Academy Awards section of this blog, complete with the commentary that I know you all come for.

We'll see you tomorrow!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Final 2013 Oscar Predictions

You've probably already seen my earlier post that included a full slate of nominations, and if you didn't, you can find it right here. But I did finally update my Academy Awards page to reflect my final predictions, and you can either click the tab under the banner or just click here to see them. Below are a few of my notes/thoughts about my selections.

  • I feel surprisingly confident about these final predictions, and that absolutely terrifies me that I'm completely wrong about almost everything.
  • Specifically, the ones I'm worried about in the acting categories are going with Meryl Streep (August: Osage County) over Amy Adams (American Hustle) in Best Actress and Robert Redford (All is Lost) in Best Actor. Apart from the reasons I list in the commentary, doesn't it just seem odd that Adams - and this is not a slight against her - would pick up five nominations over a ten-year period? Very few other actors can claim that they've had similar fortune. Redford strikes me as a shaky choice because it's an incredibly touch competition slate this year, and Leonardo DiCaprio (The Wolf of Wall Street) has a ton of heat working for him (and his film) right now. Yet I can't shake the feeling that the Academy just doesn't like DiCaprio and will probably ignore him. But could Christian Bale (American Hustle) or Forest Whitaker (Lee Daniels' The Butler) really pull out an upset as well? Remember, in 2011, Gary Oldman (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) and Demian Bichir (A Better Life) were not exactly frontrunners to be nominated in Best Actor, either.
  • In terms of the technical categories, the screenplays are tough for me to figure out: adapted because I don't think there is enough competition and original because there's so much competition. Seriously, there's just not much going on in Adapted Screenplay this year, and I think I might be underestimating Before Midnight in that category (after all, Before Sunset earned a nod in 2004). And I feel weird not predicting Woody Allen to be nominated for his Blue Jasmine script, but so much of the focus has been on Cate Blanchett's performance, and what would you cut from the predicted five? Dallas Buyers Club seems like the most obvious choice, but it's becoming clear that various branches of the Academy really love that movie, so it still seems like a safe bet even though it's probably the most vulnerable.
  • It's kind of surprising how Supporting Actor, once the most wide-open of all categories, now seems fairly hemmed-in, doesn't it? With the exceptions of Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street) and the late James Gandolfini (Enough Said) sneaking in, doesn't that line-up - the same as the one from the Globes - really seem like the most likely shortlist?
  • Though it would admittedly screw up my predictions, I do kind of hope that J.C. Chandor (All is Lost) manages to pull a Benh Zeitlin and get a nomination that no one was expecting. And I'd love for some surprises in Best Actor and Best Actress too, such as Joaquin Phoenix (Her) or Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) or Greta Gerwig (Frances Ha) or Julie Delpy (Before Midnight).
What are your predictions? The Academy Awards page will be updated one final time to reflect the nominees after Thursday's announcement.

Monday, January 13, 2014

71st Annual Golden Globes Wrap-Up

The Golden Globes have come and gone once again, and this year, there were relatively few surprises. Heck, the big headline going into the ceremony was how a pipe burst under the red carpet. Below, my thoughts on the ceremony:

  • Tina Fey and Amy Poehler certainly did not disappoint as hosts again this year. Though a lot of their act wasn't exactly riotous, it wasn't painful, and several of their jokes were pretty great (especially that subtle jab at Taylor Swift after Poehler won for Actress in a TV Comedy).
  • The Hilton ballroom seemed really cramped, didn't it?
  • Overall, I did a lot better at predicting the winners in the film categories (8 of 14 correct) than I did in the television categories (3 of 11).
  • I was really hoping that Emma Thompson would win Best Actress, Drama, since it was clear by her presentation of whichever award she did that she was pretty drunk. Her speech would have been AMAZING.
  • Wins that I was really happy about: Alex Ebert winning Best Original Score for his terrific work on All is Lost, Spike Jonze taking home Best Screenplay for Her, Elisabeth Moss finally winning a major award, claiming the Actress in a Miniseries/TV Movie prize for Top of the Lake.
  • Wins that were kind of "blah": Andy Samberg winning Best Actor in a TV Comedy for Brooklyn Nine-Nine (I like the show a lot, but his performance is my least-favorite aspect of it), Jennifer Lawrence's win for Best Supporting Actress for American Hustle (I wasn't as thrilled by this performance as seemingly everyone else is).
  • Wins that were "WTF": Brooklyn Nine-Nine taking Best Comedy Series (again, I like the show a lot, but I wouldn't have called it the best comedy on television), Jon Voight winning Best Supporting Actor in Television (a part of this is probably what I've heard about Ray Donovan, and a part of this is surely that I just recently watched Bratz and holy hell I don't even know how to describe that film or what Voight was doing in it).
  • Overall, American Hustle was the night's big winner on the film side of things, taking home three prizes, while Dallas Buyers Club took home two as the only other multi-Globe winner. In television, Breaking Bad, Behind the Candelabra, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine each claimed two Globes each (and, in all three cases, won their major production prize and lead actor prize).
A full list of winners after the break.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Sight & Sound Sunday: L'Atalante (1934)

*In 2012, Sight & Sound published its decennial list of the greatest films of all time, from critics and directors. "Sight & Sound Sunday" is a biweekly feature that investigates the top 50 films from this list, exploring how they came to be regarded as classics.*

2012 Poll Rank: #12

Over the short course of this series so far, there have been films that were examples of the trends of their time (like Au Hasard Balthazar) and films that paid homage to prior works (The Searchers). However, this week's film, L'Atalante, is an example of a film that was ahead of its time, forgotten for decades only to be rediscovered and hailed a classic. Specifically, director Jean Vigo's film - the only full-length feature he made before his death in 1934 at the age of 29 - became an influential work in the French New Wave, with Francois Truffaut (The 400 Blows) and Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless) citing it as an inspiration.

So how did a film so unpopular and derided upon its release, about a "barge dweller" and the woman he marries, become one of the foundational films of a movement that wouldn't exist for another 20+ years? There are some touches of the New Wave in the plot of the film, in which barge skipper Jean (Jean Daste) marries Juliette (Dita Parlo) and brings her aboard his vessel, which they share with Pere Jules (Michel Simon) and a cabin boy (Louis Lefebvre). Most New Wave narratives shun traditional three-act storytelling in favor of a more impressionistic style, stitching together related scenes without a particular linear progression. Vigo utilizes this throughout the film, stitching together various scenes that don't necessarily progress the "story," as it were (however, though Vigo's original cut followed this schema, it is worth noting that the restoration of the film adds a fair number of previously-cut scenes).

However, the film's true New Wave influences lie in the way Vigo chose to make the film. Though Parlo and Simon were both established stars in France at the time - the studio that produced the film, Gaumont, hired them with Vigo's approval - Daste was not, having only appeared in two of Vigo's previous shorts. Many other minor roles went to non-professional actors as well. One of the most significant features of New Wave cinema (and Italian Neorealism) was the use of amateur actors in major roles, as this would be more "real" than using classically-trained actors. Editing also plays a crucial factor here: L'Atalante moves to a rhythm of it's own, with some scenes frequently intercut while some extend beautifully to their natural end. This would later be reflected in the New Wave, as cuts would not just vary in length but be juxtaposed in interesting and unexpected ways.

It's not exactly surprising that New Wave filmmakers would find inspiration in the brief filmography of Vigo. Vigo's father was a known anarchist, and Vigo himself spent much of his childhood on the run with his family. That influence shows up in several of his earlier shorts, especially thematically. In L'Atalante, however, it appears more in the style of the film than the substance. Despite being a full-length film from a major studio, with established stars and popular appeal ("barge-dwellers" were big in French pop culture in the 1930s), Vigo made the film in a way that was markedly different from the popular films of the time, unknowingly laying the groundwork for a fundamental movement in cinematic history.

The history of film is littered with cast-offs that would become major influences in later years. L'Atalante, however, holds the distinction of being ahead of its time as a cornerstone of the French New Wave, which in turn would help shift the concept of filmmaking into an art.

On the next Sight & Sound Sunday: Seven Samurai (1954)

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Short Takes: 2013 Wrap-Up

American Hustle (dir. David O. Russell, 2013)

American Hustle seems like the logical endpoint to David O. Russell's output since 2010: a lavish 1970s period piece bringing together a collection of actors he's previously worked with (and a few he hadn't) for a story loosely based on ABSCAM, an FBI sting operation that took down several high-ranking government officials. Christian Bale delivers a remarkable performance as Irving, a con artist brought in by FBI agent Richie (a terrific Bradley Cooper, whose rage is bound tighter than the curls on his head) to work on the operation, with Camden, New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) as the initial target. Amy Adams, too, turns in a great, hilarious performance as Sydney, who falls for Irving and becomes his accomplish, pretending (very badly) to be a wealthy British banker. There's a lot of rich humor here, and like Russell's best films, the best moments are when everything seems to be teetering on the verge of chaos. Though the film never completely comes together, it's certainly a stronger and more focused effort than last year's Silver Linings Playbook. It looks like Russell is finally back to his old self. A-

The Wolverine (dir. James Mangold, 2013)

In all honesty, the latest solo adventure for Hugh Jackman's bitter, hairy mutant just needed to be better than X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and that's not exactly a tall task. At the same time, though, there's the fact that Black Swan director Darren Aronofsky was attached to this film once, and though James Mangold (Walk the Line) does a fine job filling in, it's hard not to think of what this could have been. The film follows Wolverine to Japan, where he comes to say goodbye to a man he saved in WWII only to uncover a sinister conspiracy and the possibility of mortality. Though it's nice to see some more shading to a character who's appeared in multiple films already, it doesn't really tell us anything new about him. Luckily, the film's action sequences are fun, if not necessarily inventive (with the exception of one terrific sequence set atop a bullet train). It's a lot better than its predecessor, but still not the solo Wolverine movie that the character deserves. B

Elysium (dir. Neill Blomkamp, 2013)

In 2009, South African director Neill Blomkamp came out of nowhere with District 9, the unexpected (and unexpectedly incredible) hit about aliens living in Johannesburg. Elysium is his long-awaited follow-up, starring Matt Damon as a factory worker in decrepit future Los Angeles who, after suffering a lethal accident, must get to the space station Elysium - where the one-percenters live - to heal himself. There's a very obvious message here about the growing global income gap and the necessity for universal health care, but way too often that message is distracting and hammered home without any subtlety. That's a shame, because despite that and Jodie Foster's bizarre performance as Elysium's defense commander, the film is a pretty thrilling and engaging action movie. It's a shame that Blomkamp the social commentator couldn't get out of the way of Blomkamp the action director. B-

The World's End (dir. Edgar Wright, 2013)

Edgar Wright's delightful Cornetto Trilogy - which includes Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz - comes to a conclusion with The World's End, which follows five old friends who are reunited by deadbeat Gary King (Simon Pegg) to complete a pub crawl in their hometown, only to discover that the population has been replaced by robots (the proper term for the replacements is actually a running joke). Co-written by Wright and Pegg, the film - like those previous two - roots much of its humor in understanding the characters, and it delivers some unexpected pathos in the idea of returning "home" and finding it different from how you remember. Of course, the real gem is in the casting: in a reversal from the previous two films, Pegg now lets loose with the hijinks, while Nick Frost - in what is certainly the film's best performance - plays the straight-man with beautiful depth and hilarious repression. Martin Freeman, Eddie Marsan, and Paddy Considine round out the quintet, while Rosamund Pike and Pierce Brosnan make terrific cameos. The World's End was a fitting way to end a terrific trio of films. A-

The Way Way Back (dirs. Nat Faxon & Jim Rash, 2013)

Coming-of-age tales - especially ones about teenage boys - are a dime a dozen, especially in independent film. And no, The Way Way Back, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash's directoral debut and follow-up to their Oscar-winning screenplay for The Descendants, doesn't really bring anything new to the table. But the film, which follows Duncan (Liam James) over a summer at the beach house of his mom's (Toni Collette) jerk boyfriend (Steve Carell, somehow cast against type yet perfectly in-type), and works at a nearby water park with goofy Owen (Sam Rockwell). Lessons are learned, friendships are made, romance is discovered; basically, the film goes through the motions. What livens this up, though, are the performances from AnnaSophia Robb as Duncan's love interest/neighbor Susanna, Allison Janney as Susanna's odd mom, and Rockwell's surprisingly heartfelt Owen. All of these elevate an uneven and otherwise rote film. B-

Man of Steel (dir. Zack Snyder, 2013)

Superman, by his nature, is a tough character to center a movie around because he is inherently good, and that doesn't exactly create major internal conflict. Man of Steel, the latest reboot of everyone's favorite Kryptonian, attempts to give Supes a bit of a darker edge. Clark Kent (Henry Cavill) knows he's different, and his adoptive Earth parents (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane) try to protect him from the judgment of humanity. However, when he discovers a Kryptonian ship buried in ice, he not only discovers more about his origins, but brings the wrath of General Zod (Michael Shannon), a Kryptonian bent on resurrecting his destroyed home planet, to Earth. Director Zack Snyder and writer David S. Goyer (who worked on producer Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy) add some rougher elements to Superman, but it never comes together in any interesting way. Instead, there's just a bunch of mindless CGI destruction, which Amy Adams and Laurence Fishburne spend the majority of their screen time running away from, and dramatic inertia. The film's redeeming quality is Shannon's performance, as he really digs into the nationalist zealotry that drives Zod. Superman, as a character, can be a little more consumed by angst. But the result shouldn't be this dull. C