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.

HER - **** (126 minutes)

 January 7, 2014
Most years there is at least one major Academy Award nominee that is a sure bet to win.  This year, one of my predictions is writer/director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Where The Wild Things Are) for Best Original Screenplay.  I will be shocked if he is not accepting this Oscar on March 2.
However, there is more to this perfect film than its excellent humorous, but troubling, innovative screenplay.  Namely, it all falls apart if the lead character cannot successfully carry the ideas Jonze have incorporated.  Luckily, he has selected the extremely talented Joaquin Phoenix who paints a subdued spot-on totally believable portrait of a lonely dude searching for the perfect mate sometime in the near future. 
The movie immediately introduces us to Theodore Twombly, a former magazine writer whose day job with BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com consists of writing Hallmark-like love letters for other folks.  Right off the bat, Jonze is laying the story's central foundation of an increasingly non-communicative world by depicting Theodore creating surrogate letters using computer script. 

Lonely and separated from his spouse, he installs a newly created Artificial Intelligent computer Operating System and its resident voice Samantha (sexually supplied by Scarlett Johannson).  Think iPhone's Siri with a breathless alluring persona. 

Slowly, despite the obvious lack of physicality, Samantha's intelligence and sensitivity for Theodore results in his realization of just how perfect this new companion is by supplying what has been missing in his life. 

Amy Adams and Rooney Mara play brief roles as Theodore's platonic friend and separated wife, respectively.  And effective cinematography by Hoyte Van Hoytema (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) as well as an outstanding production design by K. K. Barrett, costume design by Casey Storm and score by pop group Arcade Fire are each particularly worth noting.

My favorite all-time film remains Stanley Kubrick's 2001:  A Space Odyssey whose central character was a computer that was created to assist future astronauts-replete with human emotions and feelings.  It has taken over 45 years since this cinematic landmark for Jonze to refine that concept by presenting a comment on the current human condition that subtly emphasizes the uneasy direction our interpersonal relationships are becoming.

We are all aware how the exponential proliferation of the Internet, texting, Twitter, Facebook, etc. have resulted in our human connections becoming ever more impersonal, distant and unfeeling.  The question is:  Where is all this heading?

Jonze answers this will an entertaining yet troubling look not too far down the road as computers become more and more human than mindless pieces of metal.  Instead of the script and acting falling into a screwball comedy genre, Her instead makes us deeply think and contemplate what the future may hold as humans become increasingly dependent on technology instead of each other.

Upcoming this Friday:  Pre-AA Rambling Thoughts/Predictions 
Amy (Amy Adams) and Theodore (Joaquim Phoenix)
 discuss his growing fascination with the voice of  his
 computer's new operating system


AMERICAN HUSTLE - *** 1/2 (129 minutes)

Wednesday December 18, 2013 
Writer/director David O. Russell is becoming one of those talents who does not know how to make a poor movie.  Beginning with his debut 1994 film "Spanking the Monkey" through 2012's multi-Oscar nominated "Silver Linings Playbook", the American director keeps churning out critical hit after hit. 

Once again, using several of the ensemble cast members from SLP as well as his previous work, and a distinctive 70s retro look (particularly the outrageous 70s styles and fashions), Russell combines humor and drama to produce one of this year's best film.  The 70's is considered by most critics as the golden Age of Hollywood-a period in which this film is clearly enamored.

The film is loosely based on The Abscam Affair (I loved the opening title that pointed out that "some of this actually happened").  The convoluted tale takes place in 1978 New Jersey and involves a con to ensnarl corrupt politicians trying to profit from the newly established casino industry in Atlantic City.  Without revealing too many plot points, it is best to just sit back and watch master acting by some of moviedom's finest talent as they lead you through the intricate story and fun.

Christian Bale is nearly unrecognizable in the title role as dry cleaning owner/con artist, Irving Rosenfeld.  Gaining 45 pounds, a hideous comb over and a Brooklyn accent, the handsome English actor leaves his Batman persona in the dust and proves, once again, that he is one of the best actors on the planet.  A vampy Amy Adams is outstanding playing Bales partner in crime and love interest.  Bradley Cooper portrays an over-the-top FBI agent (seeing him in pink curlers is nothing short of hilarious) hell bent on making a name for himself.  While Jennifer Lawrence, as Bales estranged spouse, continues her impressive acting resume with a white trashy Jersey Housewife impersonation that could garner her back-to-back Oscars.  Lawrence steals every scene in which she appears.  And in a smaller role, Jeremy Renner is miles away from his gritty role in The Hurt Locker playing a corrupt (or is he?) mayor.

My only complaint is that I would have wished for a slightly shorter running time as Russell's script seemed to run out of steam around the 100 minute mark.  However, overall, American Hustle provided one of the most satisfying times this critic has experienced in 2013.

Upcoming:  Her 

From left, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Christian Bale and Jennifer Lawrence in “American Hustle”
 (l to r) Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), Richie DiMaso
(Bradley Cooper), Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner), Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) and Rosalyn Rosenfeld (Jennifer Lawrence) partying at the Mayor's fundraiser