BIRDMAN or (The Unexpected Virture of Ignorance) - **** (119 minutes)

Tuesday October 28, 2014
One often hears about actors declining certain roles for fear of being pigeonholed into a specific character or genre for the rest of their careers.  Usually these are performers who have established themselves in successful (and sometimes not so successful) franchise films replete with sequel after sequel.  Those who chose to repeat themselves, either due to financial gain or popular pressures or comfort level, at some point will come to the realization that, to prove themselves worthy to themselves and the world, they must tackle roles and genres late in their lives long after their signature character has faded from the theater marquees. 
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) made his mark in the 80's playing Birdman.  Now in his 60's, his ego and career have blazingly crashed to earth - like the meteor depicted falling through the sky that opens the movie.  Shift to the rear view of Riggan as he hovers above the floor in lotus position meditating in his St. James Theater dressing room as he converses with his alto-ego Birdman voice discussing his current state of affairs.  We soon learn that he is attempting to jump start his profession by directing and starring in a Broadway adaptation of  a Raymond Carver short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love". 
It is the day before previews begin and during the dress rehearsal an unexpected accident leaves the production without one of its major players.   Enter the co-star's (Naomi Watts) boyfriend as a replacement:  loose cannon egomaniac Mike Shiner (Ed Norton) -  whose immediate infusion of energy and talent might just increase the possibility the play and Riggan become a critical and popular success.

However, Riggan must deal with more drama and neurotic characters swirling around him than the play itself which only serves to further enhance his insecurities.  There is his girlfriend and second co-star, Laura (Adrian Riseborough) who announces she's pregnant.  There is his estranged impish daughter Laura (Emma Stone) fresh out of rehab who is Riggan's reluctant personal assistant.  There is Riggan's best friend and producer, Jake (comic actor Zach Galifianakis in an excellent against type straight role) who is frantic on keeping the play on course when Riggan threatens to quit after that aforementioned accident.  There is Riggan's ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) hovering around the proceedings who still loves the star while clearly wearing her emotions on her sleeve.  There is the supercilious New York Times drama critic Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsey Duncan) who has the power to close a play overnight and who has utter disdain for the lead.   And then there is Shiner, whose method-acting and narcissism continuously threaten the production's success both on and off the stage.

Acclaimed Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu (Amores Perros, 21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful) is known for somber dark dramas virtually absent of any humor.  However, here he and his co-writers Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo, have created a biting meta satire on a par with Academy Award winner Paddy Chayefsky's brilliant script for Sidney Lumet's 1976's Network.  The theater, Hollywood, insecurity, the search for fame and celebrity, narcissism, social media:  these are just a few of the topics granted equal reference and ridicule.  Not to mention the myriad of inside jokes that repeated viewings are a must in order to savor them all.   

Iñárritu's selection of Keaton as Birdman is nothing short of brilliant.  His role here is a wink towards Keaton's Batman from 1989 and 1992 which began the onslaught of comic strip films that continue to this day.  And, although Keaton has appeared in numerous films since, his roles have been largely unremarkable - until now.  Keaton's incredible range struggling with reality and the fantasy of Birdman and his superpowers (which culminates in an eye-popping fantasy sequence in the third reel) puts him as a front-runner for an Oscar.

Each of the supporting players are excellent and I would not be surprised if Ed Norton appears on the Best Supporting list come January.  Also, Stone and Duncan both deliver memorable soliloquys that are distinctly Oscar caliber. 

One "character" gets a special mention:  the camera of cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki.  Six time AA nominated (including for The New World, Children of Men and The Tree of Life) and fresh off his Oscar for last years Gravity, Lubezki is in line to win his second.  His use of long uninterrupted tracking shots (along with seamless editing by Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione) gives the impression the movie was shot in one continuous take.  This is a technical marvel that will make you feel that you are part of the action as it swirls in and around the nooks and crannies of the St. James Theater without interruption for most of the film.  Add to this an incessant drumming soundtrack by the great jazz musician Antonio Sanchez whose cadences serve to connect the unfolding craziness on the screen.  

Birdman receives my four star rating after it passed my overnight four-star-test when I woke up the following morning and immediately started thinking about this film.  It is clearly the best movie I've seen this year.

UPCOMING:  The Stephen Hawking biopic "The Theory of Everything"
(l to r) Riggan (Michael Keaton) and Mike Shiner (Edward
Norton) prepare to duke it out backstage of the St. James Theater 

 Riggan and daughter Sam (Emma Stone) having a heart-to-heart conversation
Riggan, co-star Lesley (Naomi Watts) and producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) try and stop Riggan from quitting

ST. VINCENT - ** (103 minutes)

Tuesday October 2, 2014

Lord, we've seen this plot before:  curmudgeon (Bill Murray) meets sweet innocent little boy (Jaeden Lieberher) who attempts to transform curmudgeon into a likable human being.  Jack Nicholson is the staple of this franchise.  (At the premiere at the Toronto Film Festival, Bill Murray was asked how he got the role and replied it was because Jack was unavailable.) 

That being said, my expectations of seeing Murray perform his usually excellent acting chops was through the roof; but, alas, Murray and the talented cast couldn't overcome the lame predictable script by first time writer/director Theodore Melfi.

The film begins with Murray reciting an old joke (even that one is recycled) on a black screen that opens with him sloshing several cocktails at his local Brooklyn watering hole.   He proceeds to back his 1983 Chrysler Le Baron convertible (one of the most memorable characters in the film) into his picket fence followed by a kitchen mishap that results in a bashed-in face.  The next morning he "meets" his new next door neighbor Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her 12-year-old son, Oliver, when her moving van causes a tree branch to land on said convertible.  A relationship is made that eventually places the grumpy Murray as mentor and babysitter to Oliver while mom is working double shifts at a local hospital to earn enough money to fight a custody battle with her separated husband. 

The supporting talent tries their best to propel the script including McCarthy, who plays it straight and tones down her usually outrageous comedic persona exhibited in previous roles such as Bridesmaids, The Heat, and Tammy.  Chris O'Dowd has a competent minor role as Father Geraghty, a hip teacher at Oliver's Catholic school, while Terence Howard has a few brief scenes as a loan shark trying to collect a debt from the nearly penniless Murray.  However, Naomi Watts, sporting a Russian accent, seems miscast as a pregnant hooker with a heart who services Murray throughout the movie.

Melfi, who got his start directing commercials, fills his script with predictable set pieces and supporting characters that, by the time the inevitable syrupy climax rears its head, you'd wish you would have waited and paid for the rental instead of first-run money.

St. Vincent opens nationwide on October 24.

UPCOMING:  Michael Keaton's latest comedy "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" by acclaimed Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Vincent (Bill Murray) and Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) out on 
the town

(l to r) Maggie (Mellissa McCarthy), Oliver, and Daka (Naomi

THE SKELETON TWINS - *** (93 minutes)

 The Skeleton Twins

Sunday September 21, 2014
Nobody does dysfunction better than independent films-something I learned after attending Sundance for seven years where it seemed three of every four narratives I screened were dedicated to the subject  (Two of my favorites were 2003's Pieces of April and 2006's highly successful AA nominee Little Miss Sunshine.)  It was also not surprising that this indie won the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award for co-writers Mark Heyman and director Craig Johnson at this years festival which also boasts a talented cast.
Ex-Saturday Night Live alums Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader portray Maggie and Milo, two siblings who, after a ten-year hiatus, reunite in the oddest of ways:  each is attempting suicide at virtually the same instant.  How they reunite is one of the highlights of the film so I'll leave it at that.  When Milo comes to temporarily stay with Kristin and her nice-guy husband Lance (Luke Wilson in a distinguished supporting role), we get to learn how these two siblings got to the point where suicide was their choice for handling their present dilemmas and whether or not their reunion leads to personal redemption and understanding.  
Wiig gives another solid performance.  However it is Hader, who portrays her gay brother, who surprises.  For those familiar with his SNL character Stefon, his Milo is nowhere near that over-the-top representation.  Instead, his character is subtle and quieter and is certain to result in calls for future roles.  The actors exhibit tremendous chemistry on screen which,  I am certain, the two comedians  developed and honed from their seven-year working relationship on the long running TV show.  Also, notable is a small but memorable role by Joanna Gleason as Judy, Maggie's and Milo's earth mother who just could be a major source of their dysfunction.   
The film is not without problems, though.  Left unanswered is why the two decided to stop communicating for ten years.  And the ending seemed too abrupt, unbelievable, and tacked on-which left me wondering if the screenwriters were in a hurry to wrap things up to meet that 90 minute running time typical of indies.  However, that solid script and ensemble acting makes Johnson's second directorial outing worthy of  93 minutes of your time. 
The Skeleton Twins, which is more serious than comedic, had a limited opening (including DC) on September 12 and opens in Baltimore on September 26. 

UPCOMING:  Bill Murray's latest comedy "St. Vincent"
Maggie  (Kristis Wiig) and Milo (Bill Hader)
Lance (Luke Wilson)


2014 AFI Docs


The twelfth edition, of what prior to 2013 was known as SILVERDOCS, almost never was. In need of a presenting sponsor, at the last minute, AT and T came to the rescue. The result: in terms of content and quality, nearly all of the seventeen films screened by this reviewer were more consistently highly rated compared to any of the previous twelve documentary festivals. There were some changes such as the departure of long-time Festival Director Sky Sitney in February who was ably replaced in the interim by filmmaker Christine O'Malley (Word Play, If You Build It). And after some grumblings by long time Silver Spring residents and film goers, all three of the AFI Silver Springs screens were back in action to present, with few exceptions, at least one showing of the 84 features that were selected from over 2,000 submissions. Also, downtown DC venues were made more desirably accessible by replacing the Natural Museum of American History with the Naval Heritage Center, which allowed attendees to easily walk between screening locations in The District. However, traveling back and forth from Silver Spring using Metro, although better than transit via automobile, still made it more difficult for the dedicated festival attendee intent on seeing maximum screenings if it involved Silver Spring and DC theaters.
Finally, the Annual Guggenheim Award went to Alex Gibney, whose searing documentary indicting the Bush Administration, Taxi to the Dark Side, deservedly won an Academy Award in 2007. Director of equally superlative films such as 2002's The Trials of Henry Kissinger, 2005's Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (which was nominated for an AA), 2008's Gonzo: The Life and Work of Hunter S. Thompson, and 2010's Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer made his selection of the distinguished award richly earned. After a wonderful 25 minute video retrospective highlighting some of his most influential works, talented Washington Post critic Ann Hornaday was on tap once again to moderate. Her interview was so relaxed and informative, I felt as if I was eavesdropping on an intimate conservation between two friends. The attendees to the free event held at the National Portrait Gallery were treated to a wonderful symposium honoring one of film's superlative documentary directors.

(1)  Art and Craft 
(2)  Virunga
(3)  Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory
(4)  Keep On Keepin' On
(5)  Dinosaur 13

Below are the reviews in alphabetical order of the 17 films I screened.  (NOTE:  The Audience Award for Best Feature went to "An Honest Liar" by directors Justin Weinstein & Tyler Meaom (reviewed below), and the Audience Award for Best Short went to "Beyond Recognition: The Incredible Story of a Face Transplant” by director Sam Thonis) 

112 Weddings  (** ½ out of 4 - 92 minutes)
My least favorite film was interesting in conceit but failed to resonate in the final analysis. Director Doug Block made extra cash filming weddings. He wondered, after filming the number in the title over two decades, as to what had happened to those seemingly blissful couples down the marital road? After recontacting several of the couples who agreed to update us on how it all turned out, we receive the myriad of answers that will surprise no one - single, married, or divorced. Like one of the reality shows plastered daily on television, we get to be voyeurs as we witness each of the major factors that lead to 50% of all marriages ending in divorce court: infidelity, finances, dealing with child rearing - even mental illness. In other words, most of the lovely challenges married couples inevitably face after the fun and frivolity they experience on Day 1 and after the honeymoon ends. A Rabbi friend of the filmmaker sums it all up beautifully when he intones, “The wedding is the easiest day to make happy. You've just thrown a ton of money and liquor at it. Marriage is harder. When you throw money and liquor at it, it makes it worse.” The doc tells us nothing new about this peculiar human condition, except prompting us to question why humans continue to pursue marriage despite the low odds of it working. Other than being a must-see for all those preparing for this journey (and good luck with that!), I cannot recommend spending 92 minutes of your life watching these couples - unless you are a true fan of reality TV. The HBO-produced doc started airing on the cable channel June 30.
Alive Inside:  A Story of Music and Memory (**** out of 4 - 74 minutes)
My third favorite film won this year's Audience Award at Sundance and the Best Documentary Award at the Milan International Film Festival. At the conclusion of its expeditious 74 minutes, you will know why it was the favorite of the crowds at Robert Redford's annual independent film fest. You will smile, laugh and cry more than just a few times as you witness the amazing discovery social worker Dan Cohen shared with first-time filmmaker Michael Rossati-Bennett. When Dan asked Michael to accompany him for a day to witness what he discovered when he placed I-Pod headphones on dementia and Alzheimer patients, the director ended up spending three years to produce this amazing and important document. It seems music was the key that unlocked memories and emotions thought forever lost among such patients. Music it seems connects to a portion of the brain that is not affected by the ravages of these diseases - and the results are astounding. The solution is a simple one: just provide each of the over 16,000 nursing facilities with $40 I-Pods. Not that simple - despite the fact that our government is willing to spend thousands on sometimes ineffective anti-psychotic drugs. As Dr. Bill Thomas, a gerontologist and advocate for long-term care reform states in the film, “The health care system imagines the human being to be a very complicated machine. We have medicines that can adjust the dials, but we haven’t done anything medically speaking to touch the heart and soul of the patient.” The good news is that about 500 institutions currently have I-Pods added to their therapies. The bad news is that there is still a long way to go to provide awakenings for the remainder of dementia and Alzheimer residents in the remaining facilities. Although the doc is not as slickly produced as other films in the festival, its message and the joy these souls exhibit will stay with you long after you see the final credits. Alive Inside: A Story of Music and Memory begins a platform U.S. release beginning July 18.

An Honest Liar  (*** ½ out of 4 - 92 minutes)
Most folks won't recognize the name James Randi. That is, unless you place “The Amazing” in front of it. Following in the footsteps and using the techniques of Harry Houdini, the world-renowned magician and escape artist has been performing his craft for over half a century. However, he has also been dedicating his life investigating charlatans such as psychics, faith healers, and the like. Co-directors Justin Weinstein and Tyler Measom spend a good portion of the film early-on recanting the life of the Toronto-born magician who ran away from home at age 17 to join a carnival. However, when they start focusing on his incessant campaign against those people who lie and deceive, but do not admit it, the narrative really revs up the interest. In particular were Randi's focus on exposing psychic Uri Geller and faith healer Peter Popoff. Randi was a frequent guest on The Tonight Show in the early 70's and was consulted by Carson's staff to help expose the spoon-bending psychic who was gaining national fame. (Interestingly, despite Geller's trickery being clearly exposed to a national audience, he continues to thrive to this day and surprisingly makes an appearance for the film.) Popoff 's trickery and the manner in which he was uncovered are much more compelling since his shameless deception played on people's emotions as well as their pocketbooks. However, the film finally questions whether Randi was actually being deceived in his personal life, after meeting and falling in love with Jose Alvarez 25 years earlier. At the age of 81, the magician publicly announced his homosexuality but now had to deal with the possible deportation of the much younger Alvarez who was charged with identity fraud. The film flows and is tightly edited so that those 92 minutes fly by. I would have liked the directors to explain Geller's appearance and motivations in the documentary and also finally explain the relationship between Randi and Alvarez. However, in the final analysis, unanswered questions are the basic elements at the root of the film about a magician. An Honest Liar was the winner of this year’s AFI Docs Audience Award.

Art and Craft  (**** out of 4 - 89 minutes)
My favorite film at the festival is this thoroughly entertaining movie that involves deception of another kind: art forgery. And the captivating twist is that the art forger has absolutely no interest in financial gain - only notoriety. Mark Landis is a peculiar dude who has an equally unusual talent: he is so capable of recreating masterpieces by great artists such as Picasso, Matisse, etc. that, over 30 years, 46 notable museums across the U.S were willing to accept and display them without meticulously examining their authenticity. A Cincinnati registrar, Matt Leininger, whose self-proclaimed obsession (OCD?) to uncover the source of the forgeries ended up costing him his job at the museum, exposed Landis after seeing the same painting in different museums. Although Landis is clearly psychologically challenged, the film is chock full of humor. For example, Landis chuckles as he reads a laundry list of his diagnosed maladies - which one would think would drive a person to the nearest bridge. Also, the methods he employs to disguise himself, such as dressing as a priest, are hilarious. Or “aging” the backs of frames holding his forgeries by pouring instant coffee on them. Priceless. Except, of course, to the myriad of duped institutions. The final irony is revealed in the last reel when the Cincinnati museum where Leininger was employed actually presented Landis with his own exhibition of his forged works. His meeting with his nemesis at the exhibition is a fitting climax to one of the best films of the year. Co-directors Sam Cullman, Jennifer Grausman, and Mark Becker have created a lovingly touching and humorous tribute to Landis that is so heart-felt that, in the end, you will be rooting for this troubled gentleman to succeed while wondering what motivates his actions and why he doesn't create original work with his own signature. A wonderful score by Stephen Ulrich accompanies a great soundtrack that complements a film that will, assuredly, have you gasping, smiling, and laughing-out-loud throughout. My early pick for a Best Documentary nomination by The Academy. Oscilloscope is distributing the film and plans a platformed national release beginning September 19.

Back On Board  (*** out of 4 - 88 minutes)
Greg Louganis won four Olympic medals over two consecutive games and is considered the greatest Olympic diver of all time. Yet, despite his boyish good looks and his historic accomplishments, his face has never appeared on a Wheaties Box. In fact, he never received the financial windfalls from Corporate America - unlike many of his counterparts. Director Cheryl Furjanic has painted an intimate portrait of the athlete (which had its World Premiere at AFI Docs) which may offer an explanation as to why. It is not breaking news that Louganis is gay (which was revealed in his 1995 Best Seller, Breaking the Surface); however, what was not known at the time was that he had HIV when he slammed his head on a diving board and bled in the water during a preliminary dive during the 1988 games. The extreme angst Greg experienced is covered in the narrative. However, I would have liked a more detailed focus on the obvious moral issue of why he decided not to reveal this fact to the other athletes who may have been exposed to the virus in the water instead of merely glossing over the occurrence. Despite that, the film is nicely edited and interestingly follows Greg's life from being adopted, to his Olympic accomplishments, to dealing with almost continuous financial and medical hardships, to his being selected as a mentor to the U.S. diving team at the London 2012 Olympics.

Bronx Obama  (*** out of 4 - 91 minutes)
Louis Ortiz is a single father from the Bronx. In 2008, he found himself unemployed during a time when more than a few Americans were out of work. The timing couldn't have more perfect. Sporting an uncanny resemblance to a presidential candidate, Louis realized that if he shaved his goatee and removed his earring, he may have discovered a new career path. Director Ryan Murdock humorously covers Louis' difficult journey that clearly shows that looking like a president doesn't mean you sound like one as he embarks on learning how to speak and intone like Obama. Starting his “career” in Times Square, he obtains bit parts in music videos and television, travels to Japan and Australia for movie roles and appearance, and even appears onstage at a world peace concert with impersonators of Bono, Nelson Mandela, and the Dalai Lama. Louis eventually ends up on a bus tour during the 2012 campaign with a Mitt Romney and Bill Clinton lookalike debating the current issues. Murdock balances the humor and onstage antics with poignant scenes of Louis and his daughter-whom he sent to live with her grandparents in Florida while he pursues his new calling. The only question one is left with: Despite all the work Ortiz has put into his character, will the demand for his services still exist after that second term ends?

Dinosaur 13  (**** out of 4 - 95 minutes)
My fifth favorite film is the East Coast Premiere of Todd Miller's saga involving ownership of the thirteenth T-Rex discovered on the planet. The previous twelve were less than 40% intact. What made this one special was that this was not only the largest T-Rex ever found, it was over 80% complete. The skeleton was uncovered in 1990 by a scientific team from the for-profit South Dakota's Black Hills Institute of Geological Research. They nicknamed the skeleton “Sue” after Susan Hendrickson, the member of the team who discovered the vertebrae of the dinosaur protruding from a cliff after the rest of her party ventured to town to fix a flat tire and spare. Thinking that it was merely finders-keepers they forked over a measly 5K to the dude who owned the land. After spending two years carefully uncovering and boxing the bones for later display, they found themselves suddenly surprised by dozens of FBI and National Guardsmen. The prized discovery was seized only to languish for years in a university maintenance building while a prolong custody legal battle ensued. It seems the bones were “stolen” from Federal lands that involved regulations Uncle Sam made with Native American Tribes. To make matters incredibly worse, Federal charges were filed for not completing a customs form – for this particular instance when one is not normally completed. What follows from this court battle becomes even more infuriating as the film carefully recounts yet another government injustice involving what is considered by some to be “the greatest paleontological find in history.” Miller weaves the tale using a few minimal re-enactments, fabulous photography by d.p. Thomas Petersen, some terrific archival footage, and a memorable score by Matt Morton. Lionsgate purchased the film (based on the book Rex Appeal: The Amazing True Story of Sue, the Dinosaur That Changed Science, the Law, and My Life by Peter Larson, Kristin Donnan, Robert Bakkerand) and will begin its limited U.S. distribution on August 15.  

The Dog  (** ½ out of 4 - 101 minutes)
Sidney Lumet's 1975 acclaimed film Dog Day Afternoon, was based on a true event recounting one of the most bizarre bank robberies ever attempted. Al Pacino portrayed John Wojtowicz, a self-proclaimed pervert from Brooklyn New York, who needed extra cash to fund his lover's sex change operation and in the process caused a media and public circus when New York's finest caught him in the act. Directors Allison Berg and Frank Keraudren intimately explore the garish character that took his fifteen minutes of fame and made it a career choice, despite his notoriety. (An example: signing autographs in front of the Brooklyn bank he tried to rob after his release from prison.) The directors use multiple video images from 1970's New York gay life movement to help paint the lurid life of a guy whose only redeeming quality is that his robbery attempt in 1972 resulted in one helluva Hollywood movie. Ten years in the making, the documentary includes interviews with John before his death by cancer in 2006 and his mom Terry Basso who lovingly stood by her son to the end. (An eccentric character herself, oddly there are no interviews of them together.) However, John's seediness is front and foremost because the directors allow him to take control of the narrative almost throughout the running time. Like a car crash you cannot look away from, the film did hold my interest. However, I felt a shower was desperately needed after the lights came up. The film, which had its East Coast Premiere at the festival, was bought for distribution by Dafthouse Films and plans a platform release beginning August 8. 

Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey  (*** ½ out of 4 - 95 minutes)
The World Premiere, and Opening Night film, is director Scott Teems' loving portrait of two paragons of American artistry. For 60 years, Hal Holbrook has been performing his award-winning one-man show on television, movies and the theater as the venerable wordsmith and satirist, Mark Twain. His performances have spanned all 50 states and internationally (including behind the Iron Curtain) and is the longest running one-man show in theatrical history. Now 89, Holbrook is still continuing his amazing run to sold out audiences. Teems' decision to film in glorious black and white via cinematographer Rodney Taylor is a wise one as it causes one to focus more or the rich material expertly delivered by the talented actor. Holbrook's amazing career includes his journey from a young penniless actor who arrives in New York with wife and child in tow, a chance role performing as Twain, an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in the 60's, and finally film roles that he first landed at the age of 40. Interspersed are his incredible preparations for the role as well as marvelous snippets of his onstage presentations throughout his career. Hal's encyclopedic knowledge of Twain, and his methodical notes maintained from each performance, has allowed him to pick and choose a wealth of content so that each performance is unique.  Sean Penn, Martin Sheen, Emile Hirsch, Cherry Jones, Robert Patrick and Annie Potts offer comments regarding their inspiration received from Holbrook.  Teems does mentions blemishes in Hal's life, such as his three marriages and estrangement from his children, but it is the actor's life devotion to portraying one of America's most beloved literary treasures that earns high praise, respect, and acknowledgment.
The Internet's Own Boy  (*** ½ out of 4) - 105 minutes 
You might not know the name Aaron Swartz but you might know his work. Creator of the RSS web-based format and the social sharing service Reddit (the sale of which made him an instant millionaire at the age of 19), Swartz was more interested in providing worldwide information access to humanity than in obtaining personal financial gain. His crusade to liberate and provide unlimited Internet information ultimately led him to commit suicide at the age of 26 in January 2013. This is yet another example of government over-zealously hounding and harassing individuals (see Dinosaur 13 above) which, in this case, resulted in the loss of a brilliant mind, innovator, and social activist. Director Brian Knappenberger, whose film last year at the 2013 AFI Docs, We Are Legion: The Story of the Hacktivist about the group Anonymous, presents a much more sympathetic story here. Swartz's troubles began when he decided to download two million MIT files of scholarly journals that were only available for fees. When Aaron's activities were caught on security cameras, the Feds moved in. After he turned down a three month sentence (Swartz thought that a criminal record would hinder any possible future Presidential aspirations), the government decided to make him an example by doggedly pursing a possible 30+ year imprisonment prosecution as a result. Although Aaron's suicide is never explained (no suicide note was left) one can only imagine that the government's relentless pursuit was the primary cause. Although the doc is shamelessly one-sided, it is important to note that none of Swartz's protagonists, such as prosecutor Stephen Heymann, agreed to participate. The five year project is finely edited and so engrossing and its message so important that you will leave the theater furious that our justice system is allowed to run unchecked when common sense and freedoms should clearly be a part of the equation. The film had its East Coast Premiere at AFI Docs and began its limited theatrical release on June 27.

Keep on Keepin' On  (**** out of 4 - 86 minutes)
The winner of The Best Documentary and Best New Documentary Director awards at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival is first-time director Alan Hicks' marvelous story that melds age and talent. My forth favorite film at AFI Docs is this fabulous account of one of jazz's greatest legends, Clark Terry, at age 93, instructing a blind 23-year-old blind piano prodigy, Justin Kauflin, who had a propensity for stage fright. A mentor to Miles Davis and Quincy Jones, Terry's numerous accomplishments include being one of the few musicians to play with both Duke Ellington and Count Basie bands, as well as the first African-American to break the color barrier in the 1960's as a regular member of “The Tonight Show” band. Fabulous archival material is included to help illustrate the enormous talent of the fabled nonagenarian. However, those lengthy meetings between mentor and men-tee are what makes the doc a standout. (A running gag is Clark continuously asking Justin, “What time is it?” when clearly it is in the wee hours of the morning, as each is impervious to time spent when the love of teaching and learning their craft is involved.) The film boasts a terrific producer pedigree which includes Paula DuPre' Pesmen (2010 Academy Award winner The Cove and last year’s Oscar nominated Chasing Ice) as well as seven time Academy Award nominee Quincy Jones – who was initially asked to participate because of his relationship with Terry. When he recognized Kauflin's talent potential purely by chance after appearing at Clark's house during one of the mentoring sessions, Jones signed on as producer and eventually placed Kauflin on a European tour. A special mention also goes to the inventive score provided by Kauflin which just might make you a jazz convert by the time the credits start to roll. Radius-TWC is beginning its limited release on August 8.

Life Itself  (*** ½ out of 4 - 118 minutes)
The only thing film critic Roger Ebert loved more than movies was, well, life itself. Acclaimed director Steve James (1994's Hoop Dreams) gives us a moving unflinching bio-doc covering the life of the famed Pulitzer Prize winning critic of the Chicago Sun-Times who finally succumbed to papillary thyroid cancer in April of 2013. Based on Ebert's 2011 autobiography of the same name, the film is chaptered and narrated by Ebert like the book and presents the famed critic - warts and all. Two thirds of the film include the usual bio material recounting his early beginnings growing up in working class Illinois then moving on to his years at the University of Illinois editing the college newspaper. When asked to write movie reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times (a job that wasn't an aspiration) a career was born which led to a local PBS show reviewing films opposite Gene Siskel from the Chicago Tribune where those thumbs became an industry trademark. It is those clips and outtakes James presents from their long-running show, as well as their frequent appearance on Carson's Tonight Show, that bring the most pleasure. Despite many attempts by others to duplicate their series, none were close to being as successful or as memorable. His early carousing and later struggles with alcohol are not ignored (he met his wife Chaz Hammelsmith at an AA meeting in 1992), as is his somewhat failed attempt as a screenwriter when he penned the script for Russ Meyer's 1970 campy Beyond the Valley of the Dolls. However, nearly one-third of the movie is spent with Ebert after his lower jaw was removed and observing him in physical therapy and in the hospital while his days were numbered. One scene is nearly unwatchable as you watch him struggling with a suctioning procedure. I question James' decision to include it and other heart-breaking scenes of Ebert struggling to survive. Also, curiously, no mention is made of his co-hosts after Gene died in 1999 of brain cancer. However, that being said, the film celebrates the life of one of our most cherished writers and personalities who continued to communicate through social media while exuding extreme grace and dignity to the very end. The AFI Docs closing night film, Life Itself began its limited theatrical run by Magnolia on July 4.

Misconception  (** ½ out of 4 - 93 minutes)
The multi-award winning writer/director Jessica Yu, whose Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O'Brien won the 1997 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject (her 2004 film In the Realms of the Unreal is one of my all-time favorite docs) turns her attention here to world population. Alas, this effort is nowhere near as satisfying as Yu disjointedly attempts to explain away the “misconception” for the reasons the world population growth has exploded over the past 50 years. Focusing on three individuals from diversely different areas on the planet, the question is raised as to what are the real answers behind the population growth (the current world population number of 7 billion is expected to rise to 9 billion by 2050) and the validity of those theories. The best of the three segments is the first which concentrates on the exhaustive efforts of a 29-year-old Beijing man to find a mate in a society where men clearly outnumber women. Utilizing the cinematographic skills of documentarian Lixin Fan (2009's Last Train Home), a separate feature could easily be made as Yu concentrates on the crisis faced by Chinese males and the pressures to marry based on traditional mores. The second follows the efforts of a Canadian conservative activist and her crusade to globally spread the anti-abortion gospel. The least successful of the three segments depicts the saintly effort of a Ugandan journalist to locate the parents of abandoned children in a country that has 35 million people and the third highest global birth rate. Interspersed are commentary by global health professor and statistician Hans Rosling who attempts to connect the dots and raise the contradictions. In the final analysis, although the facts he presents are interesting and thought-provoking, they only help to muddle the conclusions. The film is slickly produced and edited with an appropriate score provided by Nick Urata. However, overall, Misconception is a disappointment from a talented filmmaker.

The Search For General Tso  (*** ½ out of 4 - 73 minutes)
Did you ever wonder why the Chinese-American food staple General Tso chicken is named after a General? And who was General Tso anyway?? Director Ian Cheney attempts to whimsically answer these queries that, like its cuisine, might have you hungry for more an hour after it ends. Cheney surrounds these questions with a delightful history of Chinese food and its popularity in the U.S. that includes a broader look at Chinese immigration and the growth of the cuisine in American culture. The latter is given an immeasurable boost by the changes in immigration policies in the 1960's and even Nixon's historic visit to China in 1972. Talking heads include food experts, scholars, historians, restaurateurs, customers, and Harley Stiller, a New Yorker with peculiar penchant for collecting thousands of Chinese menus-eventually bought by a Canadian University. However, it is Cheney's visit to China in search of the origin of the spicy deep-fried chicken where things really get interesting. It seems the general was an officer from Hunan during the 19th century Qing Dynasty. Interestingly, very few of the billion-plus Chinese have ever heard of the dish (“It looks like frog”, intones a Chinese man-on-the-street) as well as other Chinese-American creations such as chop suey, egg rolls, and fortune cookies. The director includes humorous animated sequences to add to the fun while taking the viewer around the globe in search of the answers to questions posed by the title. Expert editing contributes to the overall lightness, which, at the conclusion, could have you high-tailing it to the nearest Asian restaurant.

SlingShot  (*** ½ out of 4 - 93 minutes)
Inventor extraordinaire Dean Kaman has devoted his life to bettering mankind to such a degree that he decided to forgo any thoughts of raising a family - realizing that time is so precious and fleeting that his complete dedication and attention to his craft is paramount to reaching his goals. Some of his past successes include the home dialysis machine, an insulin pump, and an all-terrain wheelchair. Ironically, what he is best known for is the two-wheel balancing vehicle, The Segway, which he himself considers an overall failure – at least for the moment. However, if his latest project for bringing clean water to the world holds merit, he will not only be canonized but his place in history will be forever secured. The scarcity of pure water, especially in so many underdeveloped countries, is not science fiction and it is a real threat to mankind in general. His portable machine, the SlingShot, is the prototype that might literally save the planet. Director Paul Lazarus spends the first third of the film focusing on Dean's life growing up as the son of EC comics artist Jack Kamen and his corroborations with his surgeon sibling, Bart. Also, time is spent with his FIRST organization which promotes and encourages young people to think outside of the box. However, it is the remaining focus on the extremely personable and communicative Dean and his quest to solve one of mankind's most serious threats that make this more than an infomercial. A movie that was seven years in the making, this is one of the most important intriguing and uplifting character profiles I have seen in recent years. Kaman points out that Americans tend to place athletes, movie stars and musicians on pedestals while those brilliant minds who better the world languish in relative obscurity. Hopefully, enough folks will view this important film and realize that Kaman and his ilk deserve tons more recognition and hero worship.

Virunga  (**** out of 4 - 96 minutes)
My #2 favorite film at AFI Docs is this remarkable film by London-based director, and former snowboarder, Orlando von Einsiedel that is part environmental conservatism and part investigative journalism. At the Q and A the director mentioned that his initial intention was to make a positive film about Virunga, a UNESO World Heritage site that is Africa's oldest national park in eastern Congo. It also happens to be the only natural home on earth to the last few hundred surviving mountain gorillas. What he ended up with was a film that was entirely different. After a brief history of the country's bloody colonial past, we are told that, despite an uneasy civil war truce beginning in 2003, fighting between the government and rebel groups has continued in the region resulting in the pillaging of precious park resources. In addition, poachers are still wreaking havoc on the gorilla population. Now, with the discovery of oil beneath Virunda's Lake Edward, the corrupt government has allowed a shady British company (SOCCO) to begin drilling – an act forbidden by International law. However, in the midst of all of this chaos and intrigue are dedicated park rangers and guardsmen intent on preserving this important natural resource. Orlando has populated his tautly constructed narrative with enough good vs. evil personalities and plot lines that would make most Hollywood fiction writers foam at the mouth. The fact that it is all true makes it that more amazing. Between gorgeous scenes of the strikingly beautifully landscape (kudos to the cinematography by the director and Franklin Dow) are exciting battle action shots and hidden camera footage – activities which clearly put the filmmaker and others in mortal danger. Then there are the breathtaking images of those human-like gorillas reacting to the mayhem and carnage around them. The score by Patrick Jonsson is exceptional and a perfect adjunct to the action, as is the editing by Masahiro Hirakubo (Trainspotting) and Peta Ridley. The film, which is worthy of an Academy Award nomination, is opening in 44 countries, including the U.S. in September.
Whitey: United States of America v. James J. Bulger  (** ½ out of 4 - 107 minutes)
Director Joe Berlinger (who, along with Bruce Sinofsky was honored with the 2012 SIVERDOCS Guggenheim Award) details the history, arrest, and controversial 2013 trial of one of this nation's most notorious gangsters, South Boston's James “Whitey” Bulger. (Jack Nicholson portrayed him in Scorsese's The Departed and next year Johnny Depp does the same in Black Mass based on the book ­ Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI and a Devil’s Deal.) The leader of the Winter Hill crime gang, Bulger, now in his 80's, terrorized Boston for over 30 years and was on the lam for the last 16 years when he was finally captured in Florida. What appears a clean cut case is anything but. There is no question Bulger, who at one time was #2 on the FBI's most wanted list behind Osama Bin Laden, was a ruthless racketeer and murderer. What is in doubt is the role the FBI had in the whole sordid affair. Was Bulger tipped off by the Feds as a result of him being an informant against the Italian-American mafia, as contended by the prosecution? Or, as his defense maintained, was the reason for his successful years on the run a result of his dealings with corrupt FBI officials who gained outside favors and imparted inside information to Bulger? These are pertinent questions that are explored but never fully resolved by the film which includes interviews with victims, their families, former FBI officials, and DOJ attorneys. Curiously, no one from the current FBI agreed to be interviewed which only emphasizes the mystery. It was disappointing that the only voice we hear from Bulger is over his attorney's telephone. In the end Whitey seemed more concerned about being perceived as a rat than the appropriate prison sentence he received which guarantees that he will die in jail. Ultimately, Berlinger's focus on all of these issues seems scattered and rushed. Although you will practically need a scorecard to sort out all the characters and accusations the director throws at you, your interest will never wane over the course of the nearly two hours running time. Warner Bros. began its platform U.S. release on June 27.


LOCKE - *** (85 minutes)

Sunday April 27, 2014

Stephen Knight is best known as a screenwriter, having written scripts for two outstanding films, Dirty Pretty Things (2003) and Eastern Promises (2007).  Here he also grabs the director reins for this minimally constructed movie that carries a powerful emotional punch throughout its taut 85 minutes. 

It is nighttime and Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is leaving his job as a construction overseer.  He gets into his car and immediately approaches an intersection where he momentarily ponders whether or not to turn left or right.  We soon learn why he had immense difficulty in making that decision.  Once that turn is made, the film travels his 90 minute route to London, practically in real time, during which a series of conversations and choices will be made that will have incredible implications for every aspect of his life from that point forward. 

It is imperative that, for us to be involved, this actor must have the talent to keep us invested.  In this regard the ruggedly handsome Englishman delivers the goods in spades.  His riveting multilayered performance as a man totally in control of his life only to see it collapse piece by piece, is the glue that keeps this one-man show together.  Hardy shows a remarkable subtle range of emotions that makes it all believable and will have you empathize with his choices and predicament.  And cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos creates a hypnotic swirl of lights and camera angles that helps to create the claustrophobic milieu of a man dealing with extreme drama inside his BMW.

Locke is a kind of gimmicky film that works and that will certainly establish Tom Hardy amongst the acting elite.

<b>TOUR DE FORCE:</b>  <i>Locke</i> follows the title character (Tom Hardy) on one fateful drive.
  Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) alone with his thoughts and cell phone

OCULUS - *** (105 minutes)

April 9, 2014
Bowie Maryland-based writer/director Mike Flanagan effectively expands on his 2006 multi-award winning short about a centuries-old mirror, supposedly housing demons, which wreaks havoc on its owners.  Although this theme has many past cinematic representatives, Flanagan successfully imbues enough originality, and less clichés one would expect in this well-worn genre, to keep one's interest throughout.
The film hits the ground running when two young siblings (Garrett Ryan and Annalise Basso) are in the midst of a chaotic domestic episode in which their father (Rory Cochran) is killed by his 10-year-old son Tim (Garrett Ryan).  The scene shifts forward eleven years when the adult Tim (Benton Thwaites) is "cured" and released from a mental institution when he reunites with his sister Kaylie (earnestly played by Kare Gillan of Dr. Who fame). 

Although Tim feels he was responsible for his father's death, Kaylie thinks otherwise.  To emphasize her belief, she reminds him of a pact they made when they were younger-which we quickly discovers involves that mirror and her elaborate plan to destroy it. 
Flanagan weaves his tale through continuous flashbacks and flash-forwards that slowly depicts the effect the mirror has had on the lives of this family as well as references to past owners that Kaylie has discovered through her research.  Using minimal gore and fright gimmicks (that can be rampantly found in grade-B horror flicks), the director instead resorts to maximum creepiness to ramp up the suspense in order to keep the audience involved. 

Although the film somewhat loses steam in the final fifteen minutes, his second effort in the horror realm (he directed a small well-received 2012 film Absentia) shows high promise-making Mike Flanagan a name to watch in the future.

UP NEXT:  Tom Hardy's solo effort in Locke 

Young Tim (Garret Ryan) and Kaylie (Annalise Basso)
and that evil mirror 

11 years later, Tim (Benton Thwaites) and
Kaylie (Karen Gillan) plan their next action 

BAD WORDS - *** (89 minutes)

Tuesday March 11, 2014
Guy Trilby is 40 years-old and harboring a deep seated grudge-with a plan for revenge that will stomp on the spelling bee dreams of kids and their parents like a herd of rampaging elephants .  We are first introduced to Guy as he is about to join a bevy of contestants vying to win a regional spelling bee contest.  Although blessed with a photographic memory, his failure to pass the eighth grade is the loophole that allows him to compete. 
Along for the ride is a reporter (played hilariously by Kathryn Hahn) who is determined to get to the bottom of Guy's motives-even falling into a sexual relationship when everyday chit-chat fails to get him to reveal his rationale for her story.  (Their intimate encounters are among the movie's most amusing moments.)
Although this revelation isn't revealed until the somewhat sappy final reel, the majority of this dark biting comedy is Guy's modus operandi as someone who has total disdain for children and his utter lack of respect for adults and institutions.  Everything politically incorrect is fair game for the foul-mouthed Guy as he proceeds to flatten his competition on his journey to the PBS-televised national Golden Quill competition. 
First-time director Jason Bateman shows admirable skill behind the camera while adeptly portraying the lead character with great comic timing and effective understated delivery.  His supporting cast is superb-including the aforementioned Kathryn Kahn, Allison Janey who is in charge of the Golden Quill competition, the wonderful Philip Baker Hall who plays the founding father of the competition, and Rohan Chand as an Indian 10-year-old (whom Guy calls Slumdog) who is the only character that softens the vulgar protagonist.  And first-time screenwriter Andrew Dodge shows solid future promise penning a script that has many more hits than misses. 
Although that final reel falls short of what preceded it, the 89 minutes will entertainingly fly by.  However, if you are easily offended and/or disgusted by foul mouthed children, an adult introducing liquor and sex to a pre-teen, or anything remotely inappropriate then by all means look for the nearest Disney flick.  Otherwise, meet Guy Trilby, a dude who makes Billy Bob Thornton's character in Bad Santa seem like Mr. Rogers.

UP NEXT:  Bowie MD director Mike Flanagan's horror film Oculus
 Guy Trilby (Jason Bateman) sneers at his competition
Bad Words
  Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn) tries to get to the bottom
of Guy's story



Ellen Academy Awards
Monday March 10, 2014 
THE SHOW (***)
Clocking in at 214 minutes, this years 86th version, in this reviewer's mind, was a half star better  than last year-and not because it was a scant one minute shorter.  Overall, host Ellen DeGeneres fared tons better than Seth MacFarlane's lame effort last year.  The comedienne talk show host provided more joke hits than misses while adding some new audience participation winkles that kept the proceedings lighter and looser compared to previous years (more on that below).  Also, most of the acceptance speeches seemed to be shorter and more to the point without being prodded to end by the house orchestra.  Oh, there were the usual screw-ups and missteps that usually occur-which are reasons for devoting  a portion of one's life to watching moviedom's annual pat-on-the-back.  However, overall the telecast was deserving of its viewership of 43.7 million (up 8% from 2013), which is the best since the Billie Crystal hosted show of 2000 which had 46.53 million viewers.
With apologies to Sergio Leone, this breakdown will pretty much sum up the event through this reviewer's eyes:
-In general, DeGeneres provided the usual roasting-style patter without pandering to the celebrity audience and kept things moving as much as possible over the 3 1/2 hours.  Her occasional forays into the audience was typical of a talk-show host's antics and was a distinct departure from the usual stiff telecasts of the past.  While her pizza-delivery bit might have gone on a tad too long, she brilliantly incorporated the current social media craze by overloading Twitter with her celebrity selfie photo snapped during the show.
-Generally shorter acceptance speeches that only produced one shout-out to the almighty (by McConaughey) who has inched one thank-you closer to Meryl Streep (who received none).
-No overblown production numbers this year.
-Fabulous impression of Bruce Dern by Jim Carrey. 
-Bette Midler's touching, expressive, and beautifully rendered "Wind Beneath My Wings" at the conclusion of the In-Memorium segment was made especially poignant with the too recent demise of Hollywood standouts Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Harold Ramis.  Midler received a well-deserved standing O and was a fitting solemn tribute to the list of talent that preceded it.
 -Bill Murray's extra acknowledgment off-prompter to Harold Ramis for his work for Caddyshack, Ghostbusters and Groundhog Day, after Murray handed out the cinematography award .
-Pharrell Williams' rousing performance of "Happy" (Despicable 2) which included a jump into the audience and prompting some fine dance moves from Amy Adams, Lupita Nyong'o, and Meryl Streep.
-Singer Pink's beautiful rendition of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" in a tribute to the 75th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz. 
-Backup singer Darlene Love proved why she was a backup when she broke off-key into song after the acceptance speech for the documentary 20 Feet From Stardom.
-The usual montages.  There was one that was themed about heroes but I have no idea why it was included and seemed to lack cohesion.  The other one about animation was more successful-but barely.
-John Travolta's total mangling of Broadway veteran singer Idina Menzel's (who sang the nominated song "Let It Go") name as "Adele Nazeem". 
-Presenter Jamie Foxx who is not good at ad-libbing-or whatever he was doing standing next to co-presenter Jennifer Biel.
-Mathew McConaughey's glaring omission of mentioning HIV in his acceptance speech-the central theme of The Dallas Buyers Club. 
-The work of Liza Minnelli's and Kim Novak's plastic surgeons.
-John Travolta refusing to age gracefully.
-Not getting this broadcast at least under three hours.
-Ellen DeGeneres in a dress (which she appeared in as Gilda from The Wizard of Oz after Pink's performance).
-The pizza party bit.  At first humorous,  someone needed to extend a hook offstage to finally end it.
American Hustle
American Hustle (with 10 nominations).
Ellen DeGeneres calling Liza Minnelli a drag queen and then calling her "sir".
Ellen DeGeneres calling Liza Minnelli a drag queen and then calling her "sir".
Jennifer Lawrence's klutziness-helped immeasurably when earlier that evening she tripped over a traffic cone on the Red Carpet while exiting a limo.
Jennifer Lawrence 
Lupita Nyong'o accepting for Best Supporting Actress for 12 Years A Slave.  She concluded by saying, "When I look down at this golden statue, may it remind me and every child, no matter where you're from, your dreams are valid." 
Lupita Nyong'o.
Jared Leto accepting for Best Supporting Actress for The Dallas Buyers Club.  A highlight:  Praising his mom for "teaching me how to dream".
Original song winners  Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez for "Let It Go" (Frozen) delivering their rhyming acceptance speech.  (The pair joined eleven others who have won an EGOT- all four major annual American entertainment awards: the Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony.)  
Ellen's pizza party.
Charlize Theron who looked like she wished she was anywhere else on the planet.
Lupita Nyong'o's brother who also photo-bombed the celebrity selfie.
Gravity (which had only one major-Best Director-among its seven winners)
12 Years A Slave
Inside Llwelyn Davis
(For the record:  the nine nominated films I rated from best to least:
(1)  12 Years A Slave
(2)  Her
(3)  American Hustle
(4)  Philomena
(5)  Nebraska
(6)  The Wolf of Wall Street
(7)  The Dallas Buyers Club
(8)  Captain Phillips
(9)  Gravity
I would have put Inside Llwelyn Davis second on this list and removed Gravity.)
Ellen DeGeneres
UP NEXT:   Jason Bateman's subversive comedy Bad Words
    The Oscar audience selfie

2014 AA Rambling Thoughts/Predictions

Friday February 28, 2014

-It is nearly March and, as usual, the first of the year has once again emphasized the dirth of excellent cinematic fare released just after the annual Oscar nominations are published in January.  All nine 2013 Best Picture nominees were first available to the public after October 1.  The fall is typically the time when the studios present their most precious candidates so that they will be freshest in the minds of the Academy voters.  Oh, there are a couple of historical exceptions-the most recent that comes to mind is Kathryn Bigelow's brilliant The Hurt Locker which won BP for 2008.  Released in June of that year, her film chronicling a loose cannon bomb squad sergeant during the Iraq War, was correctly awarded the top prize despite its early release.  Unfortunately, movie lovers today are forced to choose between current lame offerings such as Ride Along, 3 Days to Kill, Pompeii and the awful The Monuments Men.

-After last years disastrous hosting by Seth McFarland, the Academy goes back to the tried and true.  Although I am fan of the offbeat talents of the comedian, McFarland was definitely a proverbial fish out of water.  After a seven year hiatus, Ellen Degeneres returns for her second stint.  Her popularity has grown enormously since her first appearance, fueled by her highly successful syndicated talk show.  So expect a sweeter, albeit tamer, host as she comments on the Hollywood "royalty" she will front for the three and half hour or so extravaganza.

-Meryl Streep adds another year (her 18th) to her record acting nominations (six ahead of her closet competitor).  Interestingly, a survey conducted by Slate Magazine concluded that over the past dozen years, Streep has been thanked by the most Oscar recipients-beating out God (who came in second), Sidney Poitier and Oprah (tied for third).  But winning that fourth statuette, I predict, will be extremely tough this year (see below). 

-However, Meryl has nothing on John Williams who has been nominated for the 49th time for scoring The Book Thief.  That is the most for living nominees and he is still ten behind Walt Disney.

-The great cinematographer Roger Deakins received his 11th nom-the most ever for a non-winner in this category.

-This is the first time since 1994 that presents no first-time Best Actress Nominees.  Only Amy Adams (American Hustle) is the lone non-winner.

-American Hustle (as did 2012's Silver Linings Playbook) is the fifteenth film to receive all four acting nominations.

-Egypt gets its first ever nominee with the documentary The Square.  However, because of censorship issues, the film has yet to be shown in Film Festivals or theaters in that country.  (It is currently available on Netflix.)

-Finally, although usually festive, there will undoubtedly exist a distinct pall over the proceedings with the recent shocking deaths of four of Hollywood's finest.   Peter O'Toole and Joan Fontaine passed in December-that is sad enough.  Yet it will be the too recent and utterly untimely demise earlier this month of one of the finest actors on the planet-Philip Seymour Hoffman, and this week's loss of Harold Ramis, that could curb the overall frivolity and giddiness the ceremony usually brings.  Expect an extended tribute besides the usual annual 2-3 minute In-Memoriam segment.

The envelope, please . . . 

What will win12 Years a Slave
What should win: 12 Years a Slave
Upset possibility:  American Hustle
The early leader in the clubhouse was Steve McQueen's unforgettable true story about the harrowing unfortunate kidnapping of a learned free African-American in 1841 who was sold into slavery.  However, the movie gaining enormous steam lately is Alfonso Cuaron's technically brilliant Gravity.  Technical achievement aside, the lame script and scientific inaccuracies puts this film nearly last on my list of nine.  However, Hollywood loves a winner (translated:  money) as it is closing in on a $1 billion box office take.  And one of the best barometers of this category is The Producers Guild of America Award who for the first time bestowed the honor to both films.  If these two split the vote and cancel each other out, American Hustle might slip in to snatch the award.  And, although Scorcese's Wolf of Wall Street is entertaining, its prodigious use of the F-word (a record 569 times!) will probably turn off most older members of the Academy.   I'm hoping that the Academy awards the BP to 12 Years A Slave after bestowing honors to Gravity with the . . .

Who will win:  Alfonso Cuaron (Gravity)
Who should win:  Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave)
Upset possibility:  David O. Russell (American Hustle)

Any of you who are familiar with my previous takes on AA knows that I feel it is sacrilegious to not award this to the director of the BP winner-which has happened only 23 out of 85 times.  However, if it means allowing 12 Years A Slave to slip in for Best Picture, then I accept this scenario wholeheartedly.  A canceling vote between these two films could lead to Russell winning for the hugely popular American Hustle.  If McQueen wins, the London-born director will be the first black filmmaker to win this category and only the third black director to be nominated-joining John Singleton in 1992 for Boyz n the Hood and Lee Daniels in 2009 for the Indie Precious.

Who will win:  Mathew McConaughey (The Dallas Buyers Club)
Who should win:  Christian Bale (American Hustle)
Upset possibility:  Leonardo DiCaprio (Wolf of Wall Street)
McConaughey has been inching closer and closer to this award with each passing year.  His acting in The Dallas Buyers Club is a standout on the current list of five.  And Hollywood loves when an actor leaves ones ego at the door-which he did by loosing nearly 50 pounds to portray the true story of a cowboy determined to fight his AIDS diagnosis.  He was the early favorite to win but the contenders are closing.  So, in a tight race, I'll go with MM.  However, for me, Bale's range of acting hits a new high playing a sleazy New Jersey con man in the 70's in American Hustle.  Leonardo DiCaprio is a dark horse considering this is his forth nomination without a win.  But, although rendering an excellent performance, I put Leonardo fourth on the list behind Bale, McConaughey, and Chiwetel Ejiofor  (12 Years A Slave).

Who will win: Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine)
Who should win: Cate Blanchett
Upset possibility:  Sandra Bullock (Gravity)
If it wasn't for the ever present Meryl Streep, this would be a slam dunk category.  Blanchett, who won for Best Supporting Actress in 2004 for The Aviator, gives a performance for the ages in Woody Allen's latest, Blue Jasmine.  Streep is also truly amazing as the matriarch of one of the most dysfunctional family I have ever spent time with in a darken theater.  And, as it pains me to say this, prognosticators are recently voicing Sandra Bullock's name as a dark horse possibility.  As admirable as her physical feats are in Gravity, Bullock's performance is not even in the same league as Blanchett's.  If Bullock wins, Blanchett should cry foul and demand a Federal investigation-as should Streep.
Who will win:  Jared Leto (The Dallas Buyers Club)
Who should win:  Jared Leto
Upset possibility:  Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street)
Another sure bet is Leto's unforgettable portrayal as Rayon, Mathew McConaughey's transgender sidekick in The Dallas Buyer's Club.  It was only a matter of time before Leto, the front man for the pop group Thirty Seconds from Mars, would be accepting an acting award and Sunday night should be that night.  Undeservedly snubbed for a nomination in his role as a Brooklyn junkie in Darren Aronofsky’s 2000 Requiem for a Dream, he later would gain over 60 pounds to play Mark David Chapman in 2007's Indie Chapter 27.  (Trying to lose the weight too quickly afterward, he was diagnosed with gout.)  Here he loses even more weight to portray Rayon and gives a performance as riveting and charismatic as any that I have ever witnessed.  Jonah Hill has been mentioned as a possible winner.  For me, Michael Fassbender as an evil sadistic slave-owner, is a distant second to Leto in this category.  

Who will win:  Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years A Slave)
Who should win: Lupita Nyong'o
Upset possibility:  Jennifer Lawrence (American Hustle)
This is the toughest category to predict.  Lawrence's scene-stealing Jersey housewife proves that she is sure to fill multiple best acting lists for many years to come.  This and the fact she just won BA last year for Silver Linings Playbook (the second youngest actress to do so) opens the door for Nyong'o who played Fassbender's sex slave and who gave a solid Oscar-worthy performance.  Raised in Kenya and a Yale Drama School graduate, Lupita's main competition, besides Lawrence (my personal second choice) will be the talented 84-year-old June Squibb who has performed on stage, screen and TV for over 60 years.  Academy members love to honor longevity and her biting characterization as Bruce Dern's long-suffering spouse in Nebraska could result in her accepting the award on Sunday.  Then there is Julia Roberts, long an Academy fav, and the wonderful Sally Hawkins who should have at least garnered an AA nom for her incredible role as the optimistic teacher in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky in 2008-despite winning several critic awards.  It would be a nice make-up nod if she won.  However, my money is on newcomer Lupita Nyong'o-just one more unforgettable aspect of the incredibly haunting 12 Years A Slave.

Who will win:  Frozen
Who should win: Frozen
Upset possibility:  (None)
Co-winner of my lock-of-the-night goes to (at the moment) the third grossing animated film of all time and will also have the distinction of being the first Oscar by Disney in this category.  Enough said.

Who will win:  Spike Jonze (Her)
Who should win: Spike Jonze
Upset possibility:  (None)
The other LOTN goes to director Spike Jonze for his mini-masterpiece script.  Her was correctly nominated for BP but should have had Joaquin Phoeniz on the short list for Best Actor-at the very least over Leonardo.  Winner of several pre-AA awards already, there is no denying the ingenuity, intelligence and heart of Jonze's script about a futuristic lonely guy who finds love and comfort in the voice inhabiting his computer's operating system.

What will winJohn Ridley (12 Years A Slave)
What should winJohn Ridley
Upset possibility:  Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope (Philomena)
The powerful screenplay adapted by John Ridley from Solomon Northup's memoir is literate and believable to a fault and is one major factor for the film probably winning Best Picture.  A distant second will be Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope whose adaptation based on Martin Sixsmith's biography made Philomena one of my favorite films of 2013. 

What will win20 Feet From Stardom
What should winThe Act of Killing
Upset possibility:  Cutie and the Boxer
The Act of Killing was one of the most bizarre and disturbing documentaries I have ever seen.  And covering every AFI Documentary Film Festival since its inception in 2003, I've seen plenty.  Documenting a present day Anwar Congo retelling his past mass murdering rampage when the government of Indonesia was overthrown by the military in 1965, is disturbing on so many levels.  Yet this ground-breaking doc might be too tough for most Academy members to honor.  Much easier for them to select the crowd-pleasing 20 Feet about the languishing obscurity of backup singers to pop stars.  I cannot see any other choice except Cutie and the Boxer, which beautifully chronicles an unusual 40 year marriage between an elderly boxer turned artist and his spouse in 1970's New York.  However, shock will prevail in my living room if it wins over these two powerhouse documentaries.

Stop back for my post-AA report next week.